The Philosophy Of Friendship

I was leaving the office today and I got stuck into a conversation with a couple of colleagues about MMORPGs and virtual worlds and the like. We were mainly chatting about the blend between online and offline worlds and where reality starts and ends when one of them chipped in with a really interesting point – how can you say that online friendships aren’t “real” as they’re just a relationship that occurs within a different medium.

Interesting stuff. The example he gave was that interacting with someone face-to-face is just a single type of interaction and just as valid as communicating with someone over the phone, via online chat or through a computer game or virtual world. It’s all quite philosophical really but it’s the type of thing that I find absolute fascinating about online realities. It’s all changing the way we interact, socialise and work and I think it’s very exciting.

Second Life is a perfect example of how people essentially live through a virtual world – they can use it as a full time job, full time socialising and full time entertainment. Is this any less of a valid way to live your life? It would be pretty cliché to call these people geeks and encourage them to get a first life instead but, if you looked at it from a different perspective, one could argue that living a virtual life and having virtual friends is no less valid than having them in ‘real’ world as what we see and feel is just an illusion anyway (uh oh, I feel a Matrix moment coming on).

Personally, I believe that nothing can ultimately replace real life interaction as it’s just too easy to project a persona through a computer and not truly represent yourself. I don’t mean lying about who you are or what you look like, it’s more about the way you talk and interact. If you’re typing with someone, for instance, it’s very hard to convey emotion and, if you’re chatting to them over a mic, it’s impossible to see their body language. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m totally into having online friends and I’ve got loads that I consider to be close ones. What I mean though is that I’m not going to declare my undying love for someone I’ve never met in person.

Still, writing this, it does make me wonder a lot about the philosophy of friendship. I’ve got some good friends I met playing Everquest 2, who I grouped with every night and chatted to almost every day for years. Just because I haven’t met them in real life does that make that relationship any less valid or tangible? Does it make it any less meaningful than a friendship I have with a person in ‘real life’?

My head hurts.

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20 Comments

  1. Jeremy S. says:

    I just got done commenting and saw this post appear, and have to comment :)

    I, like you and many others, love philosophizing about the human condition and how it relates to what I love- MMORPGs.

    I kind of agree, but like my post about that book: “Plato and the Internet” discuss, reality is changing not just for our eyes, but the way we think(if you like posts like the one you made here, you really should find that book:) ).

    I watched a show about how young teens and tweens have already a complex and deeply ingrained separate communication system they use.

    Two separate “realities” have developed. One in which kids are using phones and computers to twitter, facebook, chat, text, and communicate that stays totally separate from their daily face to face communications. This other “life” they have has taken on a form of altar ego or split personality that many scientists feel is very real.

    Interesting stuff. Thanks for the great post!

  2. Beej says:

    While I do think it is unhealthy to have a life that exists entirely online, I don’t think there is anything wrong with considering those one socializes with online to be friends. There is truth to the saying “everything in moderation,” and as long as the online relationships one has cultivated do not begin to detract from real life to the point where it becomes hurtful, there is nothing wrong with it.

  3. Gordon says:

    @Jeremy S. Awesome comment. I remember reading your post about the book – it look’s very cool. I’m gonna try and order it from Amazon now.

    @Beej I agree with the principle of everything in moderation… but what I find fascinating is blowing that principle into pieces and trying to push the boundaries by utterly immersing ones self into a virtual world… and see what happens :)

  4. Tesh says:

    We talked about this sort of thing just yesterday as we studied a church leader’s presentation to a recent graduating class. There are very real dangers in split personalities and virtual worlds, but at the same time, there are very real people on the other end. Whether or not they are who they present themselves to be is a big consideration, of course.

    Still, there is no substitute for face to face interaction. Online communication can be useful, certainly, but it’s far too easy to slip and learn the wrong things online, which can make “real” interaction suffer.

  5. Espen says:

    Right I simply have to comment on this Gordon – too much of a brainteaser to let go! Tesh, I think we all understand your point about considering whether people really are who they present themselves to be – but does it really matter? Bear with me here…

    Lets look at a situation where I, a 20-something male designer from Edinburgh, present myself as a 43 year old female hairdresser from poland (I can even fake the accent) and hook up with a 28 year old male construction worker in Second Life. In real life, of course, he is a 17 year old high school philosophy student from Tennessee – but that is besides the point.

    Over a long period of time, lets say 3 years, we continue to develop our constructed relationship, blissfully unaware that the other person is a completely made-up individual*. Now, I know that I am in effect presenting a lie, and the same goes for my counterpart – but the relationship that occurs between our two persona cannot be a lie.

    Although it is impossible to point out “where” this relationship exists, it is an indisputable fact that it does exists in some non-physical shape or form. So as long as something exists, its real right? And if something is real, surely its part of the real world? Consider this: interaction between made-up personas by logic is no less real than that of two actors on a stage; although they are not portraying themselves, the result – or chemistry – is evidently effecting the crying audience, and thus it must be part of the real world.

    Ah, that felt good. Hat off to you gordon :)

    *as an introduction to my next philosophy discussion, consider this: Is a made up person not simply a chosen reflection of the person ‘making him/her up’ – and as such, once created, is just as real as anything else?

  6. Jeremy S. says:

    This program(I need to find it online for you) Tested some interesting theories about mass split personalities and how they could become commonplace.

    When talking with many kids of one school through different mediums, they found each kid to show a different personality as if they were another person entirely. When asked about things they had said one kid responded “I’d never say that” then when shown they did say it in text the response was “That’s different, it’s texting”.

    Yet everyone at the different ends of all these different ways of cummunicating are still the same people.

  7. Beej says:

    I agree, Tesh. As someone who has experienced a failed “online” relationship that eventually moved into face-to-face, there is no doubt that personal, physical interaction wins as being more comfortable as well as more meaningful.

    I would say there’s also the fear of only seeing what the other person wants you to see, but wearing a false persona is just as legitimate a fear in typical relationships and situations as it is online.

  8. Beej says:

    “17 year old high school philosophy student from Tennessee”

    Being from Tennessee, let me be the first to tell you they unfortunately do not begin teaching philosophy in high school here. At least not in the one I attended. :(

  9. This conversation has been going around and around since virtual worlds were publicized so few years ago. Always in any discussion of it someone circles back to the admonitions – “Well, as long as you don’t take it too seriously,” or “Just keep a grip on real face-to-face interaction because it’s always better/superior.” I even heard an educator (and I was appalled and lost all respect for him at that moment) say right out loud to a large group of teachers, “These people who think they ARE their avatar or that anything in-world is “real” are, in my opinion, very very sick individuals.”

    One’s digital persona is not irrelevant, insubstantial, lacking in credibility. The avatar is an electronic puppet that is the personified (or dragonfied, or furryfied, or whatever fied you choose) extension of a human’s thought processes into an electronic space. The avatar speaks, creates, explores, and interacts within that space solely at the direction of a human being. It exists only to represent whatever that human being is seeking or wishing to accomplish, and it is, therefore, inseparable from that human being. It *is* that person. “They” are one and the same. When I say “I” I mean I, Caliburn, and I the biological me. We are inseparable and we both exist. You can interact with either of me independently, but always you are interacting with both (or however many versions of me there are digitally, since the biological me can only puppeteer one avatar at a time). The outward appearance is different but the brain and motivations are the same!

    And just as importantly — and I do believe this is the main motivation for any “digital person” scenario activism — until actions and results prove otherwise, there is NO good reason not to accept the persona at face value. There is no reason not to do business with, communicate with, or have an emotional relationship with a human being via his or her digital entity. In fact, to presume that using an avatar is somehow dishonest or evasive is both insulting and unacceptable (until that person actually DOES something dishonest or immoral). There are many people who know me in person and some who know I have an online avatar. There are many who know me as an avatar, but only a tiny percentage of them know me in person. Nevertheless, I expect equal respect and consideration from all of them, regardless of entity, personal or digital — and also regardless of crossover or lack of it. My avatar *is* me, because I own it, I direct it, and it speaks with my thoughts and acts on my beliefs.

    Lastly, as far as body language and expression are concerned, that is only a matter of (a very short, I’m sure) time. Meanwhile, the aversion many people have to dealing with, or relating to, a digital person is something they need to get over or they will be left behind. Phillip Linden said at a seminar once, “You’re going to have to get an avatar eventually, whether you like it or not.” I don’t always agree with him, but in this case I think he’s right on.

    Technology is moving at breakneck speed. Keep up, ladies and gentlemen!

  10. JC says:

    In the case presented above with 2 made-up personas talking to each other…. IMO the relationship the personas have is real, but since the personas aren’t real, there’s nothing more — the relationship itself is “virtual.”

    If, however, the people present themselves as they truly are, then any relationship is a real one, even if the only interaction is actually online.

    FWIW, playing online with my IRL friends is a way of increasing the IRL relationship as well — it allows us to “hang out” more often but without needing to hire babysitters, travel time is eliminated, cost of dinner/drinks/movie/admission is eliminated thus enabling the “more often” part as well. Beyond whatever other commanalities we have that make us friends in the 1st place, we also have the shared experience(s) in the online world as well.

    Win-win, methinks.

  11. Gordon says:

    @Caliburn Susanto

    You put forth a very compelling and fascinating point of view. I don’t necessarily disagree with it but I would like to counter something you said.

    “…there is NO good reason not to accept the persona at face value…”

    Actually, there is a rather compelling reason not to accept someone’s persona at face value – lack of consequences. There are very few, if any, consequences in the virtual world for breaking the ‘law’. For example, if someone in WoW or Second Life or whatever took payment for something but didn’t deliver, what would happen? You could certainly complain to the developers (who would do nothing) or launch a smear campaign against the individual but ultimately nothing of actual consequence is going to occur. However, in the real world, that person could end up in jail… a huge deterrent. Thus, you can – with a reasonable degree of certainty – trust people in the real world more than the virtual one.

  12. Ah, only a matter of time before that was brought up. But you are talking about after the fact, I am talking about before. My premise is that automatically distrusting someone or assuming they are up to no good because they choose pseudo-anonymity online is insulting. And it’s counter to the online (or avatarian, if you will) culture which is BASED on pseudo-anonymity.

    And PSEUDO-anonymity is the point. If someone in WoW or SL cheated me out of few dollars well, fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. But if I chose to trust them and they cheated me out of enough to warrent jailtime or a lawsuit I would find them easily. Or rather my lawyer would.

    People go into virtual worlds for amusement and entertainment as well as for larceny, this is true. But in-person knowledge is never a deterrent to a criminal, only to a basically honest person who has a moment of temptation to be dishonest. What your argument implies is that being pseudo-anonymous will increase an honest person’s temptation to be dishonest. I can’t quote statistics, so I can’t refute you; but I don’t believe it.

    My orginal point is that people online as avatars are still themselves, honest or not, but assuming that the lack of “goods” (which is what that teacher said, “get the goods on them first – either openly or secretively”) makes someone automatically suspect is erroneous.

    And, to stay on topic, makes them no less of a valued friend or companion.

  13. Very good topic I must say. I think that where the friendship forms is irrelevant. While it is simpler to hide your identity on the internet, often times people express themselves much more freely. Many people with social disorders can meet and talk to people on their own terms when it comes to the internet. This allows these people with a physiological disadvantage to form true friendships they otherwise wouldn’t.

    Additionally comparing peoples persona in the real world and in a game can both equally be decieving. Yes the person you are talking to online may not be who they say they are… but you may very well run into the same situation at a bar, or church, or even the workplace. Most people in social situations wear masks and as a result forming friendships in real life and in a game or online community takes time.

    You go to a store and say hello to the clerk and they smile back. Ask how eachother is doing and typically respond with fine or good (regardless if that isn’t the case). Say have a good day, smile and leave. Did you form a friendship? Is that any more or less real then joining some random person to kill a quest mob then disbanding the group after?

    I would say most friendships you form online aren’t 100% true, but then I would say the same thing for real life.

    Living a lie isn’t a good way to live. You can live a lie in a game just as easily as you can in RL. Hopefully everyone out there has someone they can turn to in a time of need… whether that person is offline or online.

  14. [...] post about the philosophy of friendship yesterday received lots of fantastic comments and responses (thanks all!) and whilst replying to [...]

  15. Espen says:

    Many apologies to Beej from tennessee (what are the odds??) – though I think it would be a great idea to teach philosophy in high school, I appreciate this was too much of a stretch of the imagination. Thanks for setting me straight :)

  16. IRGRL says:

    “Personally, I believe that nothing can ultimately replace real life interaction as it’s just too easy to project a persona through a computer and not truly represent yourself. I don’t mean lying about who you are or what you look like, it’s more about the way you talk and interact. If you’re typing with someone, for instance, it’s very hard to convey emotion and, if you’re chatting to them over a mic, it’s impossible to see their body language. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m totally into having online friends and I’ve got loads that I consider to be close ones. What I mean though is that I’m not going to declare my undying love for someone I’ve never met in person.”

    I work online, go to school online, game online, do most of my shopping online, as my real life consists of (now) 5 children, and my everyday is filled with baseball camps, games, playoffs, lessons etc etc.

    I have had 2 relationships online, one failed miserably, we met in a game, had a lot in common, he was about 9hours from me, came to meet, and when we did, i went

    EGADS, he is WAY too short for me, no we had never discussed it, as I never thought it would be an issue.
    Seems superficial, but he found things with me that he found less attractive ( I wasn’t my online gaming character)
    I had another one that was very good, no it didn’t work out, but we are very good friends, and talk daily still to this day.
    I have a group of girlfriends that we all met in a game in Yahoo, we have all gone to weddings together, we exchange x mas gifts and b- day gifts. I consider them closer friends to my ones in RL, granted they are few, as 5 kids does tend to put a damper on the social life :P
    But I don’t disregard any of my friendships online as anything less then my ones not virtual.
    I have even entrusted one of my virtual friends with an overseas bank account for me, for a rainy day.

  17. Gordon says:

    @IRGRL Intimate relationships are an very interesting subject matter when it comes to virtual worlds and MMORPGs. I’ve know several people who have had ‘virtual’ relationships and really thought it was true love but then met the person face-to-face and everything evaporated. It’s a very strange thing. I don’t know if that’s because it’s an appearance thing, a sexual thing, or it’s just that people are downright different from the personas they project in online worlds.

  18. [...] over at We Fly Spitfires wrote an interesting article about The Philosophy of Friendship. He takes a look at what friendship in the online world means. The comments are equally insightful, [...]

  19. Toldain says:

    Let’s be careful to not just see what we are looking for.

    None of the problems mentioned are unique to online relationships. It may be easier to assume a persona in the online world, but it can and is done offline as well.

    I have several good friends via online gaming. I first got to know my then-future wife via a bulletin board, though we didn’t start dating until we met in real life.

    I know of several other couples with a similar story. Some who met in an MMO, in fact. The key to their success is, I think, integrity, and an early exchange of photographs. They didn’t pretend to be someone else. And there was a recognition that one needed to know what somebody really looked like before a lot was invested in the relationship.

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