H is for “Hello stranger”

Second Life.  Remember that?  It was all the rage a few years back, when it pioneered the idea of a virtual reality platform for online community and economy, and if I recall correctly there was a lot of hype around at the time.  Of course, I’m no sheep, so I steered clear of it at the time.  After all, I wasn’t a loner with no ‘real’ friends, so I had no need for an additional life to maintain.

So why is it that I downloaded the software last week?  Why have I been wandering around the Second Life worlds, exploring interesting locations, listening to music, chatting to people, dancing…?  I guess part of the cause is how cut off I’m feeling at the moment, having moved away from my circle of friends.  Sure, we’re living in a land of bliss, surrounded by beautiful countryside, the smell of cow dung floating on the breeze, and glorious hills to gaze at.  But we don’t know anyone.  Well, not many, and not as well as our ‘old’ friends.  I miss AM and Sarah, and the Phil(l)s, and my youth group at church, and my badminton partner, and all those other ex-uni folks who dropped in all the time.

Which leads me to an interesting muse.  What makes a friend?  And why is it important?

Facebook, like so many other online technologies, has its downfalls as well as its bonuses.  I has worked really well at bringing people together, reuniting friends, and allowing people to share with others what’s going on in their life at the moment.  Twitter has taken inspiration from that, with its focus on the “what I’m doing right now” aspect, but that’s slightly less interesting to me.  What I find fascinating is how I get really excited about finding old friends on Facebook, and then never actually talk to them.  Most of my uni friends are on FB, a lot of my family are too, plus people from church (x3), my secondary school, even my first primary school (in particular the first friend I ever made).  I have well over 100 ‘friends’ on FB, which is a reassuring and ego-satisfying list to read through.  But here’s the rub – I hardly ever actually talk to these people.

How is it that I can supposedly call these people friends, and yet have little or no communication with them at all?  How can I legitimately call myself a friend if I never speak to them?  Part of this comes down to a shortcoming in FB, where the only relationship possible is a ‘friend’.  According to FB, there is no distinction between my best and closest friends and some random girl I was in a class with at school a long time ago.  As fun as it is to have Becky on my friends list, I have absolutely no interest in what she’s doing, because she’s a very different person to me, and she’s very different to when we were at school together, and to be honest we were never really friends at school anyway (if you’re reading this, Becky, please don’t take it personally, I’m just using you as an example).

At the other end of the scale, I met a guy called Dave at church on Sunday, and came away thinking “there’s a potential friend there”.  We had spent so little time together, we know so little about each other, but his is a personality I think I could get along with quite easily.  I’ve known him a matter of hours, and he’s already more of a friend than a lot of people I’ve got on Facebook.

I know exactly why I signed up and downloaded Second Life.  It wasn’t to try out the technology or join in the community spirit.  It was to find new friends.  I’ve reached a point in my life where I need more people.  Unfortunately, Second Life proved to be the wrong place to look for friends.  To all intents and purposes, it’s dead.  I’ve spent hours wandering around SL, and found many beautiful locations, but very few people.  And none that seemed particularly interested in talking to me.  The only place I found that had people there were the ‘welcome’ worlds, where there were avatars constantly sat around (probably part of a team, on a rota) waiting to welcome new users to SL and answer any questions they had.  A fantastic resource, sure, but not exactly the best way to actually make friends.

To my disappointment, there is nothing for me on Second Life.  Facebook seems to be the best way for me to keep in touch with old friends, but it’s not going to find me new friends.  I’m hoping to be able to force myself into making better use of Facebook (ignoring all the annoying apps), and will try to contact people through it more often, but that’s more of a maintenance task than actually enjoying a friendship.  I guess what it comes down to is that, despite the wonders of the internet, I need to see people face to face to really call them a true friend.

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