Theory in a Digital Age: A Project of English 483 Students, Coastal Carolina University

The Realness of the Virtual World

Opponents who criticize virtual world for its lack of realness and authenticity likely lack first-hand knowledge of the dynamics of a virtual community. It is easy for someone who believes themselves to be an outsider to a virtual community to claim that that which they are not a part of is in some ways invalid, untrue, or inauthentic because of a lack of materiality and tangibility. However, many people who are immersed in virtual communities have found this to be quite untrue. Those who engage in the virtual world are able to find genuine relationships, community, and engagement from a world that is immaterial. To those who doubt the validity and sincerity of experience in the virtual world, Julian Dibbell can likely offer some illumination on the matter.

Julian Dibbell wrote an essay entitled  A Rape in Cyberspace in which he explores the violation of virtual bodies and the very real emotional implications of that virtual rape. To summarize his findings, one user- Mr. Bungle hacked into a virtual world and made two users’ avatars have sex with each other, have sex with his avatar, and do morbid things to their bodies. Mr. Bungle did this by using what’s referred to as a “voodoo doll” to exploit and forcibly manipulate the avatars of other users into servicing the avatar of Mr. Bungle sexually. The result for the two victims was traumatizing in the real world, the scope of their suffering was not limited to the virtual world in which the violations were committed°. The two victims were forced to watch as their avatars did vile and violent things to themselves and others creating a sense of helplessness and violation that pervaded very intimately into the real world experience of the users.  One victim confided to Dibbell that as she had “real posttraumatic tears flowing down her face” when recalling the incident, showing that what happens to our avatars in the virtual world has serious implications for the people behind their computer monitor°. So if a woman can suffer trauma from a virtual rape, what is to stop a transgendered person from finding genuine relief from body dysmorphia through virtual means? If gender can evolve from its restrictive dichotomy in the real world into a spectrum in the virtual world, how can we discount the realness of that evolution? To discount user experiences in the virtual world is to deny a very real aspect of society today and plead ignorance to the immersion and intermingling of the virtual and real in everyday life.  
    To some the concept of virtual rape filtering into the real world is a struggle to both fathom and conceptualize, however, there are other far more mundane experiences that can exemplify this very concept. Something everyone is familiar with in some capacity or another is cyber bullying. Cyberbullying is defined as bullying that takes place with the use of technology, using things like text messaging, email, and social media sites. People are often very quick to dismiss cyberbullying under the pretext that if a child feels they are victim to this, there is a simple solution- to close the computer or turn off the phone. However, anyone who has personal experienced or witnessed cyberbullying knows that it is not nearly that simple. Whether a child or teenager decides to engage with the cyber bullies or not, the effects of such bullying can be widespread. For example, common tactics of cyber bullies are things like posting anonymously or sending unkind messages. What needs to be recognized is that despite the fact that it happens in the virtual world it can happen 24 hours a day and seven days a week and has the potential to be seen by a huge audience°.

The real world repercussions of such harassment are things like an unwillingness to attend school, in person bullying, low self-esteem, and other mental health problems. To deny the realness of the experience because it is virtual is naive and dangerous. Whether it is a rape in cyberspace or the incessant bullying of a youth, the things people do in the virtual sphere and the online manifestations of community have real, potentially life-altering implications for users°.

The negative ways the virtual can manifest itself in real life offers evidence that the virtual can manifest in positive ways as well. If youths can feel the ill effects of bullying and harassment online, then why is it invalid for a questioning individual to seek help and prototyping of a new gender online? How is it inauthentic to experiment with gender in this way? The emotional and psychological experience is genuine and authentic and should not be discredited.

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