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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of  Academic Computing and User Services

Growing up Virtual

BBC News recently heralded that "virtual pals soar in importance." The BBC article quotes a report by the Center for the Digital Future at the Annenberg School of the University of Southern California. That 2007 Digital Future Report is based on observation of a "representative sample" of Internet users and non-users over a six year period. The BBC article quotes the report as saying that "43 percent of Internet users who are members of online communities say that they 'feel as strongly' about their virtual community as they do about their real-world communities." However, that "soaring" figure may be tempered by the report summary's later statement that "42.8 percent of Internet users agree that going online has increased the number of people they regularly stay in contact with -- marginally less than the 46.6 percent who voiced the same response four years ago."

There's no doubt that more people are going online as Internet access becomes increasingly available. However, not all that is virtual is necessarily new. Virtual communities grew up around mailing lists and news groups in the early days of the Internet, and although we don't have the statistics to prove it, it's likely based on anecdotal observation that a number of strong relationships have developed out of those virtual communities. That includes a number of marriages that resulted from Internet-initiated relationships. Of course, not all virtually-based relationships are friendly. A British man was jailed resulting from what was characterized as "Web rage" after he physically attacked another man with whom he'd exchanged insults in an online chat room.

Another item in the Digital Future Report is that "a slightly lower percentage of respondents age 16 or older say that the Internet has become important to political campaigns; 59.5 percent agree or strongly agree that the Internet has become important for political campaigns -- down from 64 percent in 2005." As the 2008 presidential election approaches, its seems that the candidates are not discounting the importance of the virtual world.

In early February, a campaign office for John Edwards was opened within Second Life, the online game that lets you inhabit a virtual world. It didn't take long for the virtual world to imitate the real. Recently, it was reported that the virtual headquarters was subject to virtual vandalism attributed to Republican gamers (the spirit of Dick Nixon apparently lives on online.)

Not to be outdone, Barack Obama has reportedly established his own accounts on Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube.  It's obvious that some candidates are better at using the technology than others. If you search for Barack Obama on YouTube, you see videos like, Barack Obama, My Plans for 2008 and Meet Barack Obama. If you search for John Edwards, you find Tomorrow Begins Today, but also a parody video entitled John Edwards Feeling Pretty (getting his hair fixed), and a video of the now infamous Ann Coulter comment. If you search for John McCain on YouTube, you find titles like John McCain Vs. John McCain and Sleepy Senator John McCain (during the State of the Union address). Clearly the McCain is less effective in getting their message heard in the virtual world of YouTube.

An interesting pattern in the 2007 Digital Future Report is that, in many categories, the importance of the Internet is rated slightly lower than in the past, even though more people in the sample have home Internet access. This seems to indicate that the Internet is becoming integrated into every day life and is not as frequently seen as some kind of savior technology. It's not. The same teachers in your school are the teachers on the Internet. Politicians are still politicians even if they are on the Internet. A friend is still a friend, even on the Internet. The difference is that your scope of potential friends has greatly increased, and there are fewer places to avoid the politicians.


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