Real vs. Virtual: The Web's Role in Changing the Way We Live

March 28th, 2013 by Dexter Findley

We are living through a period in time in which the way humans live is rapidly changing. The internet and its mass of content, the World Wide Web, are turning conventional means of social interaction and communication on their head, creating incredible, exciting new frontiers of human social experience. Social groups have become transnational and a-local, ideas are communicable at lightspeed, information is being de-commoditised and open-sourcing is empowering group invention of everything from software to new technology outside of traditional economic structures. Ours is an age of information post-scarcity. Other aspects of human global society, from nation-states to the whole concept of an economy (be it neoliberal or socialist in its slant), look positively nineteenth-century in comparison. It's clear the rest of the world has a lot of catching up to do.

But the real beauty of the web doesn't lie in its information-banks. It lies in the new ways it lets humans socialise and create their social reality. As Boellstorff predicted in his early 2000s book Coming of Age in Second Life, we've seen a gradual blurring between the virtual and the real (two words that are problematic in themselves). To start with a rather dramatic example, 2005 saw an event called the 'Corrupted Blood Incident' in the World of Warcraft MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), where a code error enabled players to transport a virtual plague virus outside of is determined confines and into the wider game world. This caused something of an international catastrophe within the game, with not only players but non-player entities in the game environment becoming infected. This led to massive death counts: new players who had recently shelled out for WoW membership found their characters killed instantly, rendering the game unplayable. The most interesting part comes when we see how the players reacted. Most fled populated areas, shunned player interaction and stockpiled resources. Select groups of players became terrorist cells, hiding in far-out parts of the game world and conducting something of a guerilla war against the game's coders (who were trying to limit the in-game damage and their own real-world financial loss), by re-infecting purged areas and spreading the disease to uninfected areas. The Corrupted Blood incident was so pivotal that disaster strategists have used it to study the public's real-world behaviour in times of emergency, perhaps the first time that academics in unrelated fields have acknowledged that 'virtual' human behaviours are just as valid as their 'real' equivalents.

Certain individuals' primary social circles are online and virtual: the early 2000s stereotype of the introvert basement dweller whiling his life away on niche discussion boards foreshadowed our increasingly 'virtual' social life; with web romances, close friendships between people who've never met 'IRL' (in real life) and long distance relationships maintained by Skype increasingly becoming the norm.

The situation is compounded when you look at just how much actual stuff there is on the web. The rate of increase of material culture creation since the blossoming of the web is terrifying high, to the extent that our current creation rate outstrips that of pre-web societies by many orders of magnitude. More video is uploaded to YouTube in one month than has been churned out by the 3 major US networks since television began.

It seems certain that some form of shift is going to occur. After all, the last time patterns of social interaction shifted so dramatically was probably during the transition from egalitarian hunter- gatherer societies to farming communities with nascent economies. Just as farming's resource surplus led to the emergence of prime aspects of contemporary human society such as social stratification, wealth divides and powerful elites; cybersociality's alocalism, information abundance and extending of the 'real' will spur far-reaching social change that we can only conjecture about at this point in time.

Categories: Internet