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Is Facebook becoming a “virtual world”?

I have no answers here, only questions. Questions because we could be on the verge of a whole new internet conceptualization. Perhaps not a 3D internet, but a reconceptualization of what it means to have websites, email providers, search engines, and social networking sites. Questions that have to do with Facebook.

And it all begins with the question: in the taxonomy that includes digital games, virtual reality, and virtual worlds, where do online communities lie? What is the relationship between these entities? Because, in particular, where does a website like Facebook lie? Is it even fair to call it a “website”? It is not truly a platform — or is it becoming one? With the launch of RockMelt, we now have a new browser that is highly integrated with Facebook’s website, and the concept of social media in general. Facebook, for many, is becoming their entry point into/onto the internet.

As more and more people spend more and more time on Facebook, the site has become a true site of social interaction and virtual life for millions around the world. People find people, talk to people, spend money, spend time, get into relationships, play games, play with identity, get out of relationships, make money, make things happen. All things that happen in virtual worlds, only without the obvious avatar. Facebook increasingly seems poised on the brink of providing the impetus for yet another recreation of what the Internet is and means in our lives.

So, my main question without an answer: could Facebook be living up to the dreams of the Rheingolds and Castronovas of the world who claimed that we would increasingly give over our physical lives in favor of virtual lives?

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4 Responses

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  1. Kjetil Sandvik says

    The question which needs to be answered before any other can be answered is: how do we understand the concept of virtuality when we are talking about virtual worlds, realities and lives. Does it just mean human activities which take place online or does it mean something different than ‘the real’. If it is the latter, I will suggest that Facebook and other types of social network sites and online communities which are not all together made up of fictitious game-like worlds in which we interact and communicate through avatars can not be labeled virtual worlds in which we live virtual lives. In stead, what we see is an increasingly blurring of the difference between online and offline activities of which Facebook is quite symptomatic together with other sociale media services like Twitter. The old school idea that what is going on in mediated spaces such as social network sites and online worlds is not as real as f2f communication and relations in the physical (off-line) world is increasingly difficult to maintain since the mediatization of our lives and our relationships are changing the way we live – not virtually, but actually. So – more than repeating the questions of Rheingold and Castranova about the modern mediatized human being migrating from a physical to a virtual place – we should focus on how Facebook and other types of socal media is changing our sense of place all together: Today’s new media – and in particular smart phones equipped with mobile internet, GPS, camera and the like – are not just (re)shaping our sense of place but actually producing new types of places and new types of spatial experiences. Meyrowitz has pointed out, that we experience locally through our bodies, but what we experience may derive from a variety of different spaces brought to us through media:

    “Today, with hundreds of TV channels, cable networks, satellite systems, and millions of computer web sites, average citizens of all advanced industrialized societies (and many not so advanced societies) have images in their heads of other people, other cities and countries, other professions, and other lifestyles. These images help to shape the images elsewhere from which each person’s somewhere is conceived. In that sense, all our media – regardless of their manifest purpose and design – function as mental “global positioning systems”. […] although most intense interactions continue to take place in specific physical settings, they are now often perceived as occurring in a much larger social arena. The local and the global co-exist in the glocality.” (Meyrowitz 2005, p.24-25)

    In the age of digital mediatization and especially with the emergence of social media and with its strong emphases on online communities and online worlds it becomes increasingly difficult to see places only as unmediated locations in the physical (off-line and not-mediatized) world. When it comes to an online world like e.g. Second Life it becomes evident that we here have a computer-mediated online world which to its users is experienced as an actual place (for commercial, cultural, leisure activities), and which in various and complex ways is symbiotically connected to the off-line world in the same way as do social network sites like Facebook, micro-blogging services like Twitter and file-sharing services like Google Docs and Picasa which organizes and shapes our communication with friends, family members, colleagues and thus also our understanding of the world: When it comes to our perception even the most authentic of places are constructed; they are mediated and mediatized. On the level of reception a place is not just something in itself; it is due to our perception embedded with a surplus of meaning deriving from what we have read, heard and seen about the actual place, deriving from how we imagine this place. This perception process is increasingly connected to our use of media and especially new media (the Internet and mobile phones). We both draw upon online information and communicate our own experience through internet-applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Flikr, Google Earth together with mobile phone embedded technologies like text messaging, GPS, MP3-players and so on. Mobile – and networked – media enable us to communicate our experiences encountering actual places and exchange them online and in real-time with friends, family and the rest of the online world.

  2. CarrieLynn says

    I completely agree with the idea that, increasingly, modern life, especially for post-industrial societies, is highly mediated, and Facebook is just another of the mediations through which we conduct our everyday affairs; in that way, Facebook is similar to virtual worlds.

    Where I disagree is in the conceptualization of a virtual world as necessarily a game with role-playing — or that Facebook does not have any “play” aspect to it when it comes to performance of self. Structurally, yes, Facebook and virtual worlds are different: the interface, the avatars, the rules, the expectations for engagement. Typically, virtual worlds have some gaming aspect designed into them; but not always, such as Second Life and Twinity. Unless you consider the gaming aspect to be role-playing (if even such occurs), such as experimenting with performance of self, trying out new identities, etc.

    But there can be plenty of role-playing, performance of self, face-saving, etc. that occurs on Facebook. Indeed, this is just like in the physical world, because we perform self all the time in social situations. But then if this is the comparison point, there is similarity between Facebook and all virtual worlds.

    As Malpas discusses, how we conduct ourselves and make sense of virtual worlds cannot be inextricably separated from how we do either in the physical world. The connection, the bridge, is psychological — it’s interpretive, phenomenological, sense-making. When we approach the discussion from that perspective, we can see similarities amongst a group of structurally different media products.

  3. CarrieLynn says

    More of our discussion here at Digital Worlds:

  4. CarrieLynn says

    News coming out that a Second Life co-founder has joined Facebook:

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