It is initially difficult to compare actual and virtual friendship unless we have a more concrete definition of what it is that constitutes a genuine friendship. Do virtual worlds offer us easier access to friends, hence improving our well-being, or do they only offer us inferior forms of friendship that replace genuine ones, hence reducing our well-being? As mentioned above, the principle of formal equality requires us to be precise about what it is that constitutes genuine friendship, and then discuss whether these requirements are satisfied by both actual and virtual friends. In what follows, I will discuss a number of features regarded as essential to friendship and their realizability in virtual worlds, starting with Dean Cocking and Steve Matthews’ (2000) aforementioned paper on the unreality (or illusion) of close friendships in virtual worlds (or, text-based communication in general).
Cocking and Matthews roughly follow the principle of formal equality by first outlining the theoretical differences between actual and virtual friendships, and then discuss how this difference is relevant to their difference in value. In a nutshell, Cocking and Matthews claim that virtual friendships currently do not allow for non-voluntary self-disclosure (theoretically significant difference) and that genuine friendships can only be established on the basis of non-voluntary self-disclosure (hence relevant). Furthermore, “the range of technologically based structural constraints inherent in Net communication… increase my capacity to present to others, through the presentation of my thoughts and feelings, a carefully constructed self, one that is able, for example, to concoct much more careful and thought-out responses to questions than I am able to in the non-virtual case” (Cocking and Matthews 2000, p. 228).The problem with virtual friendship, in other words, is that they are based on our ability to carefully control how we appear to the other, leading to a “friendship” that is based on an idealized version of myself rather than who I really am. Genuine friendships are created and strengthened by the numerous involuntary cues we give off about aspects of ourselves that we would typically not disclose voluntarily—aspects of ourselves that we voluntarily choose to hide or distort in online communication. According to this account, the only way to genuinely know someone is to spend considerable amounts of time in their physical presence, because physical proximity allows your friend to see who you really are, to a much higher degree than in virtual worlds. This approach to investigating the value of virtual friendships, and CMC is often referred to as the “cues filtered-out” approach (cf. Joinson 2003, pp. 25–37). When applied to virtual friendship, this raises three particularly important questions. First, to what degree can virtual worlds allow for non-voluntary self-disclosure? Second, how important is non-voluntary self-disclosure to friendship? Third, are there features of virtual worlds that can compensate for a lack (in degree) of non-voluntary self-disclosure? I will discuss these in order.
Cocking and Matthews point out that they are primarily referring to “text-based communication common to email and chat room style forums” (Cocking and Matthews 2000, p. 223 [n1]). However, their main objection to such communication is that it does not provide behavioural cues of the sort we observe in the actual world, thus it could be argued that the problems they point out apply to any kind of disembodied communication. There are, however, reasons to doubt the applicability to virtual worlds. First, virtual worlds do not allow for complete control over how we appear to others. As anyone who has communicated through virtual worlds will attest to, there is a lot of reading between the lines and interpretation going on. Users also infer information about their communication partner from cues such as delayed response, (changes in) frequency or time of day someone visits the virtual world, as well as verbal mannerismsFootnote 8 and spontaneous outbursts. In a study by Patricia Wallace, it was also found that there is a large number of clues that we (consciously or not) pick up from textual communication, in particular with regard to truthfulness. Even without “the benefit of visual or auditory cues [there] was a tendency for truthful subjects to use words… somewhat more likely to be complete, direct, relevant, clear, and personalized” (Wallace 1999, pp. 52–53)—and we tend to pick up on such cues even without being explicitly aware of them.
Still, Cocking and Matthews are probably right that this is not sufficient for the level of self-disclosure they regard as constitutive of genuine friendship, but there are reasons to believe that this might change in the future. There are already technologies that allow for mediation of facial expressions and other behavioural cues in virtual worlds, such as mapping facial gestures and body movements detected by the webcam and map them onto the face of the avatar. Indeed, this is one of the core activities in the open source effort to use the Microsoft Kinect technology in new and innovative ways.Footnote 9 Thus, even if the criticism applies to current virtual worlds, there is reason to expect that near future virtual worlds will filter out fewer cues, hence possibly allow for some degree of non-voluntary self-disclosure as well. It should be noted, however, that there will still be a significant gap between a person’s actual gestures and those projected onto the avatar, a gap that might still lead to uncertainties about how genuine the mediated facial expressions and body gestures are.
More to the philosophical argument, it is important to note that Cocking and Matthews see self-disclosure as the grounds for genuine friendship, and they regard non-voluntary self-disclosure as revealing more of our true nature. Even if we agree with the former, as most accounts of friendship would, there are reasons to disagree with the latter. Could virtual worlds afford other means of self-disclosure that may be as revealing as non-voluntary self-disclosure in physical proximity? Adam Briggle argues that the lack of non-voluntary cues in virtual worlds may actually be an advantage when it comes to self-disclosure. This is not a critique of the criterion as a condition for friendship, but rather an observation to the effect that we may be less likely to disclose ourselves in the actual world. In a sense, Cocking and Matthews may be right that we have more non-voluntary disclosure in the actual world, but one of the reasons we need to resort to such cues is that we often “wear masks, play roles, and fit molds” (Briggle 2008, p. 75). This point is also in line with Erving Goffman’s influential sociological analysis of the performances we put on in order to guide and control how we are perceived by others (Goffman 1959). Briggle also points back to a rich tradition of philosophers who lament physical presence as an obstacle to real friendship. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “to my friend I write a letter and from him I receive a letter… In these warm lines the heart will trust itself, as it will not to the tongue” (Emerson 1991, p. 230).
That we actually do disclose more of ourselves online is also in line with empirical research. For instance, in Nick Yee’s (2006) comprehensive survey of 30,000 virtual world users, approximately 30 % reported having told personal issues or secrets to their virtual friends that they have never told their real-life friends. A study by Bargh et al. also found “that people randomly assigned to interact over the Internet (vs. face to face) were better able to express their true-self qualities to their partners” (Bargh et al. 2002, p. 33).Footnote 10 Thus, lack of non-voluntary self-disclosure can partly be compensated by a lower threshold for voluntary self-disclosure. This is complicated further if we ask whether voluntary and non-voluntary self-disclosure, even if equally disclosive, may lead to radically different types of knowledge about one’s friend. This also shows that the aforementioned principle of formal equality, strictly speaking, only sets necessary conditions. If there is a theoretically significant difference between the actual and virtual world, and this difference is relevant to a difference in value, then there may still be other factors that compensate for the difference. From a purely philosophical standpoint, then, it is difficult to conclude conclusively that virtual friendships are inferior, since there are two theoretically significant differences—one positive and one negative. But there are also a number of other positive and negative theoretical differences that add to this complexity.
If we break the somewhat abstract notion of friendship into constitutive elements, one clear indication of the value of friendships comes from the value of having someone to share with. This is related to self-disclosure, but rather than being a condition for friendship, research indicates that one of the most significant determinants of well-being lies in the ability to share one’s positive and negative experiences with others (Gable et al. 2004). Sharing positive experiences has been shown to increase positive emotions, and sharing negative experiences decreases negative emotions. Whether this is an inherent or instrumental value of friendship depends on whether we define friendships as necessarily consisting of sharing. Regardless, such sharing does not seem to require non-voluntary self-disclosure; we can share positive and negative experiences both voluntarily and non-voluntarily. If it is the case that we have a lower threshold for sharing through computer-mediation communication, as discussed above, then virtual friendships might indeed be seen as superior when it comes to their prudential value: their ability to increase subjective well-being. At the very least, this is another valuable aspect of friendship where there does not seem to be any basis for judging virtual friendships as inferior to actual ones.Footnote 11
Another aspect of friendship that is likely to contribute to well-being lies in increased opportunities for pleasurable experiences (again, this can be seen as instrumental or intrinsic to friendship). As Cocking and Matthews also point out, we will often “be moved to share the kind of experience with a friend we otherwise would (probably) never ourselves have chosen without invitation, not because we feel obligated, or in some way pulled against a natural urge to avoid doing it, but because this is something the friend has chosen to do” (Cocking and Matthews 2000, p. 226). Having a social network plausibly makes it easier to engage in—and discover—pleasurable experiences of various sorts. I have argued elsewhere (Sørake 2010b, pp. 216–237) that one of the problems with virtual worlds is that they give rise to fewer potentially valuable experiences. This might sound counter-intuitive given the impression of virtual worlds as the kinds of places where only imagination sets the limits for what you can do. However, it is a simple consequence of having all those experiences restricted to at most two senses—sight and sound. The numerous valuable experiences that are grounded in smell, taste and touch—as well as composite experiences requiring one or more of these—cannot presently be recreated in virtual worlds. As long as this is the case, virtual friendships will bring about a smaller range of pleasurable experiences than having actual friends. In light of these considerations, actual friendships can be seen as superior to virtual ones because an essential aspect of friendship is that they bring with them a number of other prudentially valuable experiences—and fewer of them in virtual worlds. This is also illustrated by love relationships, where the love itself is not necessarily less conducive to well-being, but actual love brings with it physical intimacy and many more shared activities, which is clearly something many people regard as essential to a good life.
There are also other differences that could affect the value of virtual friendships. Briggle (2008) points to the observation that modern living is carried out at such a frantic pace that there is less and less time for the kinds of deliberation and self-disclosure (voluntary or not) that requires time and patience. Although this is probably a more general problem with our culture at large, Briggle finds that it is clearly at work when we are “squeezing in e-mail or instant message exchanges while multi-tasking on one’s PC” (Briggle 2008, p. 78). Briggle’s complaint seems plausible enough, and there is every reason to doubt that genuine friendships could emerge in such a manner. However, this further illustrates why virtual worlds are radically different from many other types of virtuality, including discussion forums, chat rooms and social networking sites. Virtual worlds are typically not a multi-tasking phenomenon. Since virtual worlds demand significant amounts of processing power and bandwidth, there is little reason to be idle in a virtual world while multitasking. Indeed, leaving your avatar idle is an invitation to be robbed or killed in many virtual worlds.Footnote 12 The ‘single-tasking’ nature of most virtual worlds is also evidenced by usage statistics, which clearly show that virtual world users typically spend a significant time being active in the virtual world once they are logged in. For instance, in Second Life, users spend an average of 100 min in-world per visit—significantly more than social networking sites.Footnote 13 All of this indicates that virtual worlds are less vulnerable to Briggle’s criticism and much more conducive to the creation of friendship than other instances of CMC.
Trust is another issue that is closely related to the value of friendship, whether we see it as something intrinsically valuable or as something necessary for genuine friendship. Trust in virtual worlds is usually more hard earned than trust in actual life. In actual life, we tend to trust people by default—at least when finding ourselves in relatively familiar and/or peaceful surroundings (cf. Løgstrup 1997; Weckert 2005). In virtual worlds, on the other hand, we usually default to distrust—or, at least, to caution. That is, most users do not trust others unless having spent considerable amounts of time with them. We can describe this as not trusting anonymous people in virtual worlds, but as we spend significant amounts of time together, as emphasized by Parks and Floyd (1996), they become pseudonymous instead. This is important because we do not simply trust (full stop); we trust someone or something. Even if we may not know their actual identity, through our interactions we start seeing consistent personality traits and behaviour, which gives us a more or less stable point of reference to which trust (or mistrust) can be attached. This relates to the lack of embodiment, since we have become accustomed to regard trustworthiness as a property of particular, embodied beings—and we adjust our degree of trust based on their bodily behaviour and on their bodily appearance (regrettably, in many cases). An avatar is, when first encountered, a less stable ‘point of reference’, because it initially reveals very little about the person behind. Consequently, “we have more difficulty (sometimes to the point of futility) of reasonably assessing the potential harm and good will of others” (Friedman et al. 2000, p. 40). Thus, in order to trust someone in virtual worlds, we need to spend comparably more time with them than in the actual world.Footnote 14 This is certainly a relevant difference between actual and virtual friendship, but it is a difference that can be overcome through time—both in terms of the time we spend with other individuals and the time we spend in virtual worlds in general.
Even if virtual worlds do not necessarily preclude the possibility of trusting others, they do tend to have a reduced “climate of trust” (cf. Baier 1986, pp. 245–246). On this basis, it seems safe to conclude that virtual worlds are inferior when it comes to trust. For example, purely virtual friendships will often be less confident simply because everything you know about the person comes through CMC. In actual life, people can acquire a level of trust, or confidence, in which they have no doubt whatsoever whether the love is real or not. In a purely virtual friendship (i.e. one where there has been no physical meeting), it is hard to imagine a similar level of trust-based confidence. All of this may change if virtual worlds become a more natural part of our life where the novelty of it all no longer engenders a climate of mistrust, but this will probably require a paradigm shift of the sort that can only happen as the older generation dies out (cf. Kuhn 1996, p. 90) and gives place to what Floridi refers to as ‘inforgs’: “As digital immigrants like us are replaced by digital natives like our children, the latter will come to appreciate that there is no ontological difference between infosphere and Umwelt” (Floridi 2007, p. 63).
Finally, there is one important and neglected aspect of the relation between well-being and friendship that has not (to my knowledge) been discussed in the context of CMC. In a comprehensive, 20-year longitudinal study of happiness in a large social network, Fowler and Christakis (2008) came to the conclusion that people who are surrounded by many happy people, in particular those who are central in the network, had a significantly higher degree of well-being. The most surprising aspect of this research, at least for our purpose, was that the most reliable indicator of spread of happiness was physical proximity. On the basis of their own research, and that of others, the authors even go so far as to state that “close physical proximity or coresidence is indeed necessary for emotional states to spread” (Fowler and Christakis 2008). This conclusion also has support from evolutionary psychology, according to which contagious expressions of happiness tend to enhance social bonds—which in turn is an evolutionary advantage.Footnote 15
If this research is correct, then this may be a very important and hitherto overlooked inferiority of virtual worlds. Because of the lack of physical proximity and physical cues that signal happiness, virtual worlds are less apt to foster dynamic spread of happiness. That said, if we get a better understanding of the neurological and perceptual mechanisms that allow for spread of happiness and other emotional states, it may be possible to instantiate these in virtual worlds as well—and use virtual worlds as a vehicle for the spread of happiness.