The growth of the internet has had a massive impact on all aspects of life, and not least of this is the effect it’s had on the way we socialize. Online chat rooms and user groups appeared around the same time as communication via email, but the biggest change arrived not much more than a decade ago, with the advent of social media. Today the biggest social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, constitute a kind of shadow social world that for many people is just as important and complex as their real-world interactions.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic has seen our online social lives assume even greater importance, as our physical socializing has dwindled to nil for long periods. When you can no longer meet friends in person, chatting on Messenger, sharing posts and images via Facebook or Instagram, or having video link-ups via Skype or Zoom have all become essential lifelines to the world outside.
An important aspect of any social life is play. It is not something that we leave behind in childhood; it’s just that our games and leisure activities become more sophisticated. Playing games online is also a part of our social lives, as this is an easy, enjoyable and relaxing way of interacting with friends and like-minded strangers. The pressure to keep up a conversation is replaced by immersion in a mutually enjoyable activity, and often chat, jokes and banter flow naturally from this.
The social aspect of online gaming has grown in importance over recent years. Whether you connect using the best NJ gambling app or through an internet poker room, the prospect of winning money is often secondary to the feeling of interacting with other people in a gaming environment. The rise of dedicated chat rooms as an adjunct to many gaming websites is proof of how important this aspect is to many players.
Be who you want to be
To some degree, socializing online allows us to be whoever we want to be. There are many ways that we might choose to manage our identity, from the carefully curated LinkedIn profile, where we choose to show only those facets of our personality and experience that serve our career interests, to having a completely different persona in an online role-playing game like World of Warcraft. The social interactions we have when playing a part are no less real than those we have when playing ourselves, which raises interesting questions about what our true self might be after all.
Online social life has its own pitfalls and dangers. Many people feel that they can actually be more honest and open about their feelings on a social media site than they would be talking face-to-face. If this can be done safely then it is a positive thing, but social media users are left vulnerable to attacks by trolls, bullies or just thoughtless commentators. Many feel that these sites increase social pressure and encourage a psychological addiction to “likes” that can be harmful.
Over the last decade or so we have all learnt to navigate these pitfalls and to strike a balance between openness and protecting ourselves. Arguably the younger generation that have grown up online are better at managing their virtual social lives than their parents or older siblings are. It looks highly likely that our online social lives will become richer and more complex in the coming years, and more important as well.