Enhanced Intimacy in Virtual Worlds

One of the things that I had forgotten about Second Life is how quickly things tend to develop in the virtual as compared to the physical world. Similar to how one year for a human is the supposed equivalent of seven years for a dog, for each 24 hour day in the physical world six days pass in the virtual (there are 3 hours of day and 1 hour of night in a Second Life “day”). Things and people tend to come and go in the virtual quicker than they do in the physical and not simply because rezzing a virtual building is quicker than the actual construction of a real one.

Relationships between people in virtual worlds also can quickly become intimate. By intimate I am not referring solely to virtual sexual activity, although that is certainly a frequent element found in online relationships. Instead, I am speaking of intimate in the sense of the close and familiar, how within a short time some of your Second Life friends know you so much better than any of your “real life” friends will ever do. What is it about Second Life that prompts such a connection between people?

I inadvertently ran across an answer to this question while doing some research the other day. Back in 2002–a year before Second Life was officially launched–the Journal of Social Issues published Can You See the Real Me? Activation and Expression of the “True Self” on the Internet, summarizing the findings of researchers at the Department of Psychology at New York University (Bargh, McKenna and Fitzsimons (Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 58, No. 1, 2002, pp. 33-48). The article described three experiments undertaken to try and discern how and why relationships that start over the Internet are disproportionately more intimate than those which started in a face-to-face physical communication. While the research was focused upon Internet communications in chat rooms and forums, the findings are equally applicable to virtual worlds.

They found that there are two aspects of online (as compared to face-to-face) communications that cause a deep level of intimacy to form so quickly. The first is that when you are online with someone, you are better able to be your “true self” without the usual physical gating features present in face-to-face encounters. These gating features are the physical, cosmetic, or material barriers that typically arise between people when they interact in person. Physical appearance, clothing, race and class distinctions, all function as distractions (or worse, preventers) to expression of one’s true self. In the virtual, none of that exists. Theorists and researchers have long noted that when it comes to close relationships, the development of friendship is directly related to an increase in self-disclosure. Being able to disclose qualities and aspects of one’s inner or true self can create bonds of empathy and understanding between people, which in turn help to heighten the intimacy of an online relationship.

The ability to be anonymous in ones individual or group-level interactions is crucial to being able to express one’s true self by allowing behavior free of the expectations and constraints placed by others who know your real identity. When anonymous, the costs and risks of social sanctions for what is said or done is greatly reduced. In a face-to-face communication there is often a real cost to disclosing negative or taboo aspects of oneself, even (or perhaps especially) to close friends and family. These barriers are usually not present when one is anonymous online, as evidenced by most comments to blogs and news articles. While anonymity can bring out the “worst” in an individual, it can also allow for the expression of one’s true feelings without fear of repercussions.

So the ability to voice one’s inner thoughts and feelings while remaining anonymous is crucial to building intimacy. But Second Life allows for more than just a textual display of one’s true self, it has a graphical element that chat rooms, forums and Facebook do not. I believe that it is this aspect which greatly enhances the true-self disclosure process. In Second Life we have the ability to create, craft and customize our visible appearance by which we will be seen and interact with others via our avatars. Our avatars become our virtual personas, with their every aspect being under our creative control. We can change the shape, the skin, the eyes, hair and attire of our virtual selves on a whim or to convey our thoughts, feeling or image about how we wish to be seen by others. Moreover, our activities and behavior in-world allows us to interact with others in alignment with what our true selves desire. We can do things in Second Life with others, and their participation serves as an acknowledgement and acceptance of our true-self.

The second aspect of online communications which the researchers found created the deep level of intimacy of online relationships is the tendency we all have to project one’s ideal or hoped-for partner qualities onto those whom one initially meets and likes.  This is known as projection tendency, and in the words of the researchers, “is facilitated by the absence of traditional gating features that dominate initial liking and relationship formation….” When someone validates our true self importance, we tend to like them. In fact, as noted in the article, studies have shown that we are more likely to like someone for confirming our opinion about ourselves than someone who gives us a compliment. Once we “like” them for confirming our true self, we tend to amplify other aspects of the person that we like and overlook those that we don’t. A more common term for this is rose-colored glasses.

This projection tendency is heightened in online relationships because there is rarely any of the negative or off-putting characteristics that exist in the physical realm. People generally log into Second Life when they want to be in Second Life and can give their fellow residents their attention without distraction by matters of the physical world. As a result, they give the impression that they are exceedingly attentive, empathetic and involved in a relationship. If the person doesn’t want to be in Second Life or has other items calling for their attention, they simply don’t log in. Inasmuch as Second Life enables self-disclosure because of its relatively anonymous nature, it fosters idealization of the other in the absence of information to the contrary.

While this is true for other forms of online, synchronous forms of communication such as chat rooms, it is particularly true for virtual worlds. The projection tendency is heightened by the fact that we cannot only talk with the other person, but through the use of animations can interact to a degree likely unfathomable by people not familiar with virtual worlds. Other than those using a viewer with an enabled RLV (Restrained Life Viewer) relay, the animations involved generally require an affirmative act (e.g. a right-click “sit”) of both parties which functions as a consent to participate in the animated activity. In fact many, but not all, animation devices routinely ask for specific permission to animate one’s avatar. This agreement to allow one’s avatar to engage in a specified activity with another, tacitly approves the behavior and thus heightens the projection tendency by reinforcing the position that the other individual desires the same activity. This understandably greatly enhances the intimacy factor.

Based upon my experiences in Second Life, there is an additional factor that promotes the heightened intimacy of online relationships that was not identified by the researchers. That is time. One of the reasons that friendships form quickly and deeply in Second Life is because the people involved are generally spending a good quantity of quality time with one another. Even when avatars are interacting via animation (and, perhaps, especially then) there is discourse taking place. During that discourse people are sharing information, for all of the reasons set forth earlier. So, for example, if you are in Second Life for three hours one evening spending time with a friend, you have just engaged in three hours of essentially non-distracted one-on-one time with that person during which you communicated essentially the entire time. How likely is that to have occurred elsewhere during your day? Not very likely for most people, other than going for a long car ride or being trapped in a broken elevator. Most of us rarely have the opportunity (or, to be honest, the desire) to spend a large chunk of uninterrupted time with another person. And on those occasions when we do, we are either courting them or strengthening the bonds of a friendship.