One of the things that intrigues me most about the rise of the internet is the ways in which it fundamentally alters social structures. Virtual and physical reality afford different forms of interaction, differences people are only beginning to acknowledge. These affordances don't make one aspect of reality "better" than the other, just different. That difference is unavoidable, but my real interest lies in the ways these aspects of reality co-define one another. Events like GamerGate expose how violence can fulminate in virtual spaces until it spills over into physical spaces. But I believe that an understanding of how virtuality and physicality reinforce each other can also be used to construct a safer and more just world.
Over the past week I had a number of conversations with folks about these differences between physicality and virtuality. On tuesday I talked with Rob for a few hours about how economies of information and economies of material are incommensurable (tangled up with a discussion of the systems- and game-theoretic roots of why capitalism is fundamentally flawed)— an interesting topic, but one for another post. But I also talked with S, and later briefly with Lindsey, about an anthropological concern I've been meaning to write about for some while.
There is an unavoidably accidental nature to physical reality. Physicality has an immediacy that cannot be ignored, and the inability to freely reroute through other pathways means we are constantly bumping into one another. Asking a stranger for directions or if this seat is taken; overhearing conversations on the bus; running into that little-known would-be-friend on the street; and yes also the ill-met accidents. In contrast, virtuality is —for now— inescapably intentional. You can't just stumble upon new friendships, but must go looking for them. You can't foster relationships through the familiarity of a quiet presence, but must speak out to maintain them.
To reiterate, neither intentionality nor accidentiality is inherently superior— especially for those of us on the margins. Most of my relationships have started out accidentally. To pick a few: I met K when I happened to audit a class she was in, and she recognized me from the comic store she works at; I met S when she caught me checking her out in a busy hallway; I met L when her boyfriend at the time was ignoring her at a mutual friend's birthday party. None of these interactions are the sort that avail themselves online. We may recognize handles seen elsewhere, but that seldom leads to a "where do I know you from? let's have dinner" moment. While we can flirt online, it's much harder to feel out the other party for whether they're receptive. And we cannot readily see those sitting silent in dejected corners. But despite whatever accidental beginnings, my deepest relationships have always been grown online. Relationships are always forged in a shared vulnerability, but the experiences of us on the margins are often too vulnerable to speak aloud. Exposing the details of a life of violence and minoritization requires the emotional safety of intentional spaces. The abilities to edit, to wait, to breathe, to digest, to scroll through history; for those of us who have never had safety in the physical world, these abilities provide a structure that permits us to to be vulnerable without risking our health.
But while intentionality can be used to construct spaces in which to open ourselves, it also constructs spaces which trap us into ourselves. To find safety in online spaces it is necessary to be able to block out those who would cause us harm; but the intentionality of this blocking out makes it easy to block out too much, and so to lock us into our ways of being. A key example here is the possibility for reconciliation. In any relationship there is always the threat of breakage. When a relationship breaks we block the other out, but in physical spaces these blocks seldom last forever. At first we may avoid places the other frequents, but in time this fades from memory. When living in physical proximity there is always the possibility for an accidental encounter, and in that accident the possibility for reconciliation. Walking down the street we can bump into ex-friends and ex-lovers, and depending on the circumstances of the break, these bumps can provide a means for renewal— to wit: a chance for growth and change. However, in virtual spaces we have no mechanism for such accidents. Once we block or mute others, there is never an incentive to revisit these choices. Ironically, the less we recall the slight —and so the greater the chance for reconciliation—, the less likely we are to revisit the choice, since doing so requires an explicit intention to reconnect, and that intention risks renewing the rupture since it's explicitness calls to mind the reason for the separation.
I think the possibility of reconciliation is necessary for healthy communities. (E.g., the inability to reconcile is, imo, part of why politics in the US have grown ever more polarized.) But it is unclear how to develop a virtual society which affords reconciliation. Simply having blocks expire in some timely fashion is unacceptable; most blocks stem not from broken relationships, but rather from the need to defend oneself from violence. The locality of physical space provides a strong defense against certain forms of violence: you can (at least in principle) move away from bigots and abusers. Whereas the non-locality of virtual space precludes this defense: there is no "elsewhere" to go. Of course, this non-locality is also one of the greatest strengths of virtual spaces, as it enables marginalized peoples to connect over long physical distances.
I don't yet have a conclusion. It's just something I've been thinking about off and on for a few years. And was reminded since bumping into an ex-friend; though, alas, we didn't get the chance to try and reconnect.