Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Online Communities: Too Real?

Computers are taking over the world. Unless you can operate a computer, you are almost unemployable. For a select few, the computer is their world after work as well. There are several virtual worlds that can be accessed on the internet that allow the players to conduct a virtual life totally separate from the life they live day to day.

One of these online communities is Second Life (a three-dimensional virtual world with millions of users) where players adopt personas in the form of avatars, mingle with other players and have the ability to teleport themselves to a series of artificial worlds.

Amy Taylor of southwest England is filing for divorce in real life because she has discovered her husband having a virtual affair in Second Life.

"I caught him cuddling a woman on a sofa in the game," Taylor told the South West News Service press agency. "It looked really affectionate. He confessed he'd been talking to this woman player in America for one or two weeks; and, said our marriage was over and he didn't love me any more."

Ellen Helper, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, studies the impact of the Web on relationships. She says, “the online drama shows how emotionally invested some people have become in their virtual identities.”

"For a while there was this impression that as long as it's online, it doesn't matter. But research has shown it's not a separate world," she said, adding that infidelity was "just as painful, whether it's electronic or physical."

Amy, 28, moved in with her husband Dave Pollard, 40, after they met in a chat room in 2003. They first wed in a virtual ceremony in the standard exotic tropical setting; then, married in real life at a registry office.

Everything was going well until Amy fell asleep one night last year and woke up to find her husband’s avatar having cyber sex with a virtual prostitute. She gave him a second chance; but, caught him cuddling on the couch with another virtual partner in April. It remains unclear how she found out about the couch episode.

There is beginning to be an increasingly tenuous line between virtual relationships and the real people behind them. People are becoming more and more invested in the personas they portray to others in these online communities. I believe some of them lose touch becoming so involved, they end up believing these relationships are real.

In Delaware, USA, a woman was charged with plotting the real-life abduction of a boyfriend she met through Second Life. Some of these relationships can even become quite spooky. If someone is computer savvy enough and diligent enough, you can be traced.

Japan has a very popular website called Maple Story – an online adventure game. One user was so infuriated by her sudden virtual divorce from her online husband that she logged on with his password and killed his digital persona. Very creative; not to mention strange; but, illegal nonetheless.

She was jailed on suspicion of illegally accessing a computer and manipulating electronic data.

I’m sure you will all be happy to know that Amy Taylor and Dave Pollard are still on the web looking for love.

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