NAVA: Don’t let online communities, virtual interactions invade reality

The digital age has become shockingly ambitious in mimicking the realities of everyday life. From aerial images of your own backyard to an update of your friend’s love life, the information available at your fingertips apparently has no limit.

The premise of the digital age is that technology can simulate with high fidelity many social interactions that usually occur in person. Business, education and medicine have seen some of the biggest gains with a range of innovations that minimize costs and maximize productivity.

This is surely welcome.

However, not all technological advances are entirely good. Any attempt of “virtual” reality that invades the important sphere of “actual” reality should cause alarm. My concern in particular is how online social networking has the capacity to degrade interpersonal values.

In some ways, online communities are bringing us closer together. After all, isn’t it tremendous that disparate interests such as one Facebook group, “Because I read ‘Twilight’ I have unrealistic expectation in men,” can assemble in cyberspace?

At Marquette, online social networks unify students of like interests in order to announce events and rally supporters for a common cause. Last semester’s “Jodi-gate” mess, for example, connected dissident students and alumni who had a major influence on the university’s public response.

But online networking can also put us further apart from each other.

Warm, non-digital interactions are disappearing or losing their value.

I recently befriended a classmate who quickly added me to her burgeoning group of online “friends,” which granted her access to my list of favorite books, movies and personal interests.

Later, during a study break, our conversation turned to our hobbies. As I started to share my interests, my new friend evidently became bored with some of my answers. At one point she even muttered, “Oh yeah, I read that on Facebook.”

The fault is mine for disclosing too much about myself online. But I felt that our friendship had lost that fun, “getting-to-know-you” quality. I wondered how many of my other relationships have been affected by what I presumed to know about people based on their online information or photographs.

Facebook and other online communities are tools of controlled creativity. We get the dangerous luxury of shaping how people see us through cherry-picked images and carefully worded self-disclosures.

But isn’t the thrill of meeting people based on the ability to discover them through real-life experiences?

No technological device or online greeting card can so faithfully simulate the warmth of a hug, the sincerity of a hand-written note or being in the presence of laughter or crying.

In its extremes, technology can even make us grow further apart from ourselves through avatars, or cyber identities, such as in the online virtual world, Second Life.

A report in The Wall Street Journal described one user of Second Life, Ric Hoogestraat, who is “a burly (53-year-old) man with a long gray ponytail, thick sideburns and a salt-and-pepper handlebar mustache. (Ric spends) six hours a night and often 14 hours at a stretch on weekends as Dutch Hoorenbeek, his 6-foot-9, muscular cyber-self. The character looks like a young, physically enhanced version of (Ric).”

As Ric’s real wife, Sue, watches television in the living room, Ric chats online with what appears on the computer screen to be a tall, slim redhead. Janet Spielman, a 38-year-old Canadian, controls the woman, and together the cyber couple’s relationship takes on strangely real dimensions.

In their online fantasy, they have two dogs, pay a mortgage together and spend countless hours in their virtual world at the mall and riding around on their motorcycles. So strong is their bond that Ric recently asked Janet to become his virtual wife.

This probably is not you, but in our efforts to portray ourselves online, we sometimes come too close to losing touch with what is real and meaningful in life. Without restraints, our lives in pixels and megabytes can inch their way from actual to virtual reality.