Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How Do You Value an Online Friendship?

Part Three:

The rules and customs of these worlds are dictated not just through the sets of features available to the user, but through unintended consequences as well. For instance, in the online gaming world “Silk Road”, individuals build their identities through activities and earned experience in the game. It is a free market economy that Barry Schwartz of “The Costs of Living” would find numerous examples of how the pursuit of gain “erodes the best things in life”, even if that life consists of hunting down monsters for gold and gaining rank and stature through the process.

If you wish to change sex, grow your hair, buy clothing or possess special skills you can go on adventures and face creatures in the detailed landscapes of the land that the maker of the online game has created. Each task you complete, mostly slaying monsters, earns you gold or special items. You can spend the gold or sell the items in a marketplace. The longer you play, the more you earn and the greater your status in the community. You do not have to do this alone, as you can meet people and form hunting parties in order to achieve greater success. In any world, the key is to beware of game players who take advantage of you and believe the laws are there to be skirted for advantage.

At least that is what the makers of the game hoped would be the ethics and rules of that society. In a “tragedy of the commons”, free riding gamers figured out a way to automate their online activities and created software programs to take on the tasks and collect the gold, bypassing the required time an individual might need to invest. Others, recognizing that these “bots” were not real people would follow along and pick up what pieces of gold or items of value that the bots did not recognize. This devalued the online currency.

In many ways this reflects the real world rules of commerce and the market, in that it is not uncommon to have individual spend time circumventing rules and law in order to obtain something that the rest of the community values. The more success the gamers have in circumventing the rules, the greater pressure from the society to adjust those rules. In the case of Silk Road, in true market economy form, they chose to lift the rule banning bots and started selling them to users.

Relationships can also begin to take on more complex status in online worlds. One popular online virtual world is Second Life, where “residents can explore, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade virtual property and services with one another, or travel throughout the world, which residents refer to as the grid”.

In Second Life people have met, fallen in love, gotten married and had children together, all without their real world spouses knowing. This concept has evolved to a point where there are self help articles in large number for the express purpose of helping you build and maintain a healthy online relationship such as is available at WikiHow, a socially constructed how to manual.

Given the different values attributed to the concept of marriage in different cultures, it is not a stretch to view the virtual world as a step into another culture with its own distinct moral codes. As the traveler might find themselves confused by the culture of a country foreign to him, and need to step outside of his own world view to understand the people better, we might also find ourselves having to adjust our views to the worlds that are being built within the digital space.
Here are two real examples of how our concepts of marriages and lifelong relationships are being tested.

An Associated Press article from 2008 describes an incident where, in Japan, a 43 year old woman was arresting in the killing of her husband when he asked for a divorce. At least that is how the headlines read in the newspaper articles reporting on the crime. However the marriage only existed online in a world called Maple Story. Two workers in separate divisions of a company that existed in different parts of the country met online and started dating. They fell in love and their avatars, representing their online personas married each other in an online ceremony. After years of being married online, the male coworker told his female counterpart that he wanted an online divorce. The female coworker was so angry that she used his password, which he had previously given her, to enter into his account and deleted all files associated with his avatar. In effect, she killed him, destroying years of work building relationships, buying things, learning skills and earning a place in that society.

So how do you value the loss and categorize the crime. You can add up the hours spent that would never be returned. You can attempt to quantify it, but there is not only no basis by which to judge the value of a lost virtual life, there were no rules that applied online, as the crime actually occurred in the real world. The result was a charge of destruction of property and the value assigned was high enough that the woman was arrested and taken to a police station where she was charged booked, released and given a court date.

In the second example, a man and woman were married in real life with a small ceremony. As reported in a November 14th 2008 CNN Europe, this British couple had a much larger than life end to their relationship. Given their shared affinity for the online world of Second Life, they also held a much larger ceremony online with a very large number of guests who attended the event as their online counter parts. This was treated as news and several real world newspapers reported on the event.

The relationship worked online and in real life for a while but ended up in divorce. The split occurred when the wife discovered that her husband was cheating with her online. The divorce was carried out in the real world. The woman that the wife caught her husband cheating with was an online character that was driven solely by an expert system. In order words, he was frequenting a virtual prostitute, who was actually a software program.

The decision to add a friend online is a simple and absolute one. Yes or no. The investment in an online relationship takes time and is not driven by economics but by the want and human desire to connect with another person. It is not something that can be separated out as a single incident, but is part of an emerging online community and culture that is being built every day.

The value of those relationships is not absolute, nor do they take place in an atomistic setting. They are relative and communitarian, functioning at different degrees and on different levels. They are part of a continually expanding socially constructed reality that has sets of rules and cultural definitions with influence in multiple communities.


Thanks for indulging me for this very long three part post. For the full text as a paper see here.

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