The Limitations of Social Interaction

There was a recent conversation on Twitter between various prominent MMO bloggers, including BelghastBraxwolf, and Roger at CMP that spawned a few blog posts on the subject of online persona, the curation of your own identity on the internet, and Dunbar’s number. Usually I find these discussions interesting – particularly when people like Belghast start putting words down on a virtual sheet of paper to express their opinions – but shy away from participating in them. However, this particular discussion just so happened to presage a short but salient discussion during the pre-show chatter of the latest Cap Stable CSM Analysis show (episode 5). In short, I made a joke about something that was so dry as to make the Sahara desert look like a rainforest. Due to the limitations of the Skype call I was in, though, I could tell instantly that nobody understood the joke – they couldn’t see my facial expressions, my arched eyebrows, my rolling eyes, etc.

There is a really interesting discussion to be had about the internet and how it affects our social relationships. More and more people are waking up to the realization that this vast, limitless thing we call the internet – a thing that can and does regularly break down cultural, national, and societal boundaries between people of vastly different walks of life – is inherently limited. While some friendships can be born on the internet, in my experience these do not ever come close to ‘true’ friendship until a real life meetup occurs, be it at an EVE Meet, a convention, or by chance. There is something intrinsically necessary to true friendship that requires face to face interaction.

We’re getting closer to this no longer being necessary, of course. Video conferencing options are no longer the reserve of military command and control systems or business telepresence meetings. I, pretty regularly, find myself face to face with people around the globe in my capacity as Executive Editor of TheMittani.com. However, if anything, I have significantly fewer true friends these days than I did before I found myself neck deep in the internet day in and day out.

Instead, I find myself absolutely awash with social connections. Twitter friends, TMC friends, EVE friends and more are all social relationships I value – sometimes deeply – but they just aren’t the same. With a slight change in the wind, I might fall out of contact with one of these friends for months, or years. Those social connections degrade from friends of some flavor to acquaintances, ‘that dude I know from England’, and so on.

Part of this has to do with Dunbar’s number – a theoretical maximum number of regular social connections that one can maintain before overwhelming your brain’s capacity to do so anymore. Dunbar, the man who put his name on the concept, theorized that this number was 150, but for me I feel it is much, much smaller: maybe a dozen, maybe less. However, the other part of the constant churn of people I consider friends vs. acquaintances also undoubtedly has to do with the context of those relationships. If I’ve never met a person in the flesh, then literally all I have connected myself to them is a thin piece of fiber optic cable at some point down the line. Should that cable go dark, so too does the relationship.

Last year I went to EVE Vegas and actually met quite a few people. I had a blast – by far the best time I’ve had in quite a long time – and I think it really had a lot to do with the social interactions I had with people, more so than the booze or the gambling. I snuck off from the pub crawl with Jarryn, the tech director for TMC, and had beers for a good few hours. I stayed up far too late one evening talking with Sion, Kazanir, Blawrf, and The Mittani in my hotel room – all the way up until the point when wee little Blawrf passed out in a chair. I met and chatted with dozens of individuals that I now keep in regular contact with.

As Belghast puts it, every persona you encounter on the internet is, in fact, a person. It is important to remember that when you’re dealing with the people around you on the internet, certainly. However, for me, everybody seems a little less relevant, a little less real, until I meet them. Maybe that makes me a terrible person, but I kinda already knew that.