Communicating virtually

Orgad covers a lot of ground with respect to social science research with an online component, but Taylor, in the optional reading, goes a step further when it comes to navigating virtual communities.  Her primary focus in on identity - specifically, how identity is so fluid in online virtual worlds (think Second Life) as compared to "real life" identity.  Taylor warns about issues such as multiple identities and false identities online, while also questioning the supposed authenticity of real world identities.

All of this was interesting, but I felt that the discussion here was missing one crucial element - specifically, the limitations of online communication as compared to face-to-face interactions.  Taylor addresses this issue briefly at one point, dismissing concerns that virtual individuals are not able to express themselves with the same nuance as real people.  Well, okay, but there are also huge issues with respect to online communication.

Even when complex interactions are allowed in virtual worlds - for example, when individuals have the option of "expressing" specific emotions via their online avatars - everyone is still beholden to the larger, engineered system that governs the workings of the virtual world.  We can only express those emotions that are allowed by the system.  And even a seemingly simple activity such as chatting can operate in innumerable ways.  Perhaps a virtual world's chat session only allows a certain number of characters per thought.  Perhaps only group chats are allowed, or perhaps only one-on-one chats are allowed.  Perhaps chat transcripts are archived for future reference, or perhaps they are not.  All of these variables have a huge impact on how communication works.  And communication practices are ultimately imposed on users from above.

These is all McLuhan 101, so I don't think I have to elaborate any more than this.  My point is that, while Taylor certainly addresses a number of important issues, she should have left room to talk about the ways in which online communication can both support and distort identity.

- Matt

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