According to someecards.com, this ecard was the most shared card on Valentines day from their site:
This is indicative of a social phenomenon created by the proliferation of mobile devices such as cell phones and iPods in our modern society. What this hints at is actually a problem more sinister and troubling than simply an adoration for our mobile devices. Has our engagement with the virtual spaces made possible by these devices hurting our real-life relationships?
Nokia promised in this add that the mobile devices (the 4th screen) would bring us all closer by getting us out in public again and share real experiences with each other.
While it has gotten many of us out more physically I am not sure we are all "there" when we go. What these devices do for us is open our daily life, wherever we go, to virtual or artificial worlds. Twitter, SMS, Facebook, Foursquare, etc. all are virtual worlds upon themselves. Sure, these virtual worlds are not the 3D immersive kind such as Second Life, Active Worlds, or World of Warcraft, but they are virtual worlds in the sense that we meet other people and interact with them there.
We have moved a large portion of our lives to these spaces and have carved out an identity there that resembles that of ourselves. In many ways this new digital identity is more pure and it is hard to tell which is the real self, the digital one or the one made of flesh. Online networked spaces allow for a kind of mediated psudo-telepathy where we can connect through our thoughts without all the physical baggage that weigh us down in our face-to-face relationships. Online, if I choose, no one has to know what I look like, what race I am, what my age is, etc. All that matters is the quality and tone of our thoughts put to words. This is not to say that all digital identities are genuine, it is just as easy to falsify one's digital self. But then, it could be argued that even the falsified self is as real online. Does it even matter to those who only know your digital identity if it isn't true to your physical one?
This weekend three things I saw brought this issue home to me. First, there was this tweet by @budtheteacher:Then, later that night I watched Disney's Enchanted with my family.
It struck me that the novel act of these characters moving back and forth between two worlds (the artificial, animated one and the real life one) was not so novel anymore. Only three years since its release and this kind of thing is happening everyday everywhere you look. Sure, we are not moving back and forth between visually immersive worlds (unless we are playing MMORPGs or using Virtual Worlds) but our online spaces are artificial and they are places where our digital identities live.
Finally, the next day (Valentines Day) my wife and I took our kids to an indoor play center in Edina, MN called Edinborough Park.
The park was packed, full of young children and their parents. It was probably close to capacity. Then my wife noticed that nearly half of the parents were not playing with their kids or even watching them. Instead, they were fully engaged with their smartphones. Now, I know I have been guilty of this at home at times (my wife consistently reminds me of it) but for parents to do this in public? This is an epidemic. When you step into your digital identity, can you simultaneously devote sufficient attention to your children? Are these parents who arguably, for the time they are using their smartphones, are teleported to a different world absent?
This brings up more questions than answers. If you don't know someone's digital identity, can you really know them? Can young children even know their parents if they are too young to know their digital identities? Can a parent really know their child if they are not friends on Facebook? If you marry someone based on a face-to-face relationship you have with them and do not know their digital self, how well can you know your spouse? Now I am starting to understand why a couple in 2008 filed for divorce because the husband's Second Life avatar virtually married another woman's avatar.
Don't get me wrong, I love my online social spaces and am not advocating anyone give them up. They are powerful and important. But, I think we need to consider when it is appropriate to move between worlds and we need to take more seriously who we are online. As for me, I think I am going to devote at least one full day each week to living off line with my family. I am going to encourage my wife to get to know my online identity better. And, when my children are old enough I will friend them on Facebook (or whatever platform everyone is using in 10-15 years).