I think a lot of our communication is tied up in joking around and our sense of humour - so when we can see each other, we pull funny faces and laugh and make visual jokes and then once that's done and we've established this sort of casual, jokey air, we can talk about serious things, sister things and culture things.
This differs dramatically from how I typically like to communicate. I want to say like sixty percent+ of my daily communication, although I would like to actually chart these numbers, is in text form. Emails, text messages, blog posts, LJ posts, MySpace messages, and, above all, Mu* Content.
Does anyone know what a Mu* is anymore? Ah, Wikipedia has a good entry for MUSHs which gives a pretty clear picture. It's a text based online chat/RPG environment. I've been chat/RPing on them since 1996 or so, when I joined the Redwall MUCK as a chipper hare archer named Fireblossom who liked cream cakes and spoke like a fake military colonialist - spot of tea wot, wot? Yeah, yeah, cliché's I know.
Many people have moved on to MMORPGs or virtual words like Second Life -- I have an avatar on Second Life, and I would use it more often, but I don't have access to the things which make me most interested - i.e. making clothing & skins - because I don't have the funds, etc, etc. On top of that, I don't feel the same sort of community on Second Life as I do on Mu*s, although I have been Mu*ing for ten+ years, so of course I know it would take time for that sense to grow.
It's also about privacy, I think - not privacy like 'OMG they're reading my emails!' - it's more like, when I am on Second Life there is a vast amount of people scuttling around, even when I move away to a build area. Because the social etiquette is still relatively new for SL, people seem to have no problem having naked or offensive avatars just walking around willynilly, even in PG areas. That's cool, I'm not afraid of naked pixels - they don't even really offend me - but the attitude of 'haha I'm in a virtual world, I can do whatever I want, assholes!!!' does.
There is a really, really fantastic article on social etiquette in virtual words, originally published in the village voice in '93, which I found linked to on one of the MANY MANY blog posts after the whole K.S. Fiasco '07 - I wish I had the blog that posted to it (I'd have to search technorati for a while and I am lazy, but if you know of it, comment!), and the article is A Rape in Cyberspace. (WARNING: it's way fucking graphic in description, I know a few of you will not enjoy reading it, so don't.)
It describes a player character who used a piece of code on LambdaMOO to control the actions of another PC's text avatar, and then did all sorts of gross lustmort gore porn descriptions of the said PC, against the PC Players will.
Yes, that is likely a very poor introduction to those who don't Mu*, the life of Mu*ing -- but I'm listing it here because it's a prime example of the way that social structures are formed in new environments, and environments where you express extensions of identity, which may not be your identity.
Like me, I play a mad scientist somewhere or another who has a rich, complicated history and personality which is utterly fictional, and at times questionably unethical. I have spent hours perfecting the method of playing - i.e. textual expression - this character accurately, because I am a nerd, and the character has been known to be maniacal and disturbed - as well as humane and reflective. But they aren't me, and no matter how vicious or hurt or rude or nice or occasional evil or loving the character may be, they never reflect on how I am as a person - save for maybe the method of the writing they're expressed with.
And nobody ever messes my PCs actions/thoughts/opinions up with mine -- because we have an extremely well defined line between IC/in character and OOC/out of character. Identity is tagged, organised and marked - your character does something rude, you laugh about it with the others on OOC chan - but if you do something rude on OOC chan, you, the player, are held responsible.
Even on social Mu*s - i.e. ones without strict RPG guidelines - I've been on, there is a line between your Avatar, and you -- some people choose to express themselves personified as a dancing pony or animated ball of slime or normal looking humanoids with semi-ficiotious personalities, others are dudes in jeans and t-shirts or a super elf princess with wings which express the views of their players and those views alone. But one can mostly tell the difference between RL/OL persona - because it's typically explained, or one can figure it out swiftly through interaction. How many dancing polar bears that like Kant and Klondike bars are there?
But Second Life... She doesn't have those social guidelines set up - not in the big open spaces, which so often remind me of Dead Man and what it must feel like to go somewhere alien all by yourself. Naked dudes can come up to you and start screaming about their virtual hat covering their virtual wang, and there is little to stop them - at least, it seems that way for a noob like me.
And where I know there are locations in Second Life where there is civility already installed, and I am interested to start hanging out there to meet some new humanoids (or non-humanoids), the problem of explaining to the masses the science of Virtual Etiquette is incredibly fucking hard - as illustrated in Penny Arcade's mathamatical equation.
I guess it boils down to the way that people want to express themselves to the world; or virtual world as it were. I do this because I like stories, I like games, and I like communicating with people in RL on locations far, far away. I've had friends in Australia, all over America, Sweden, Canada, Germany, Austria, Scotland - every English speaking country and beyond - because of virtual worlds. When I connect to a Mu*, I'm not just connecting to a game, I'm connecting to people.
Without the stigma of race, age, sex, beauty, style, or poise.
But only their intellect and ability to communicate via text.
And I think it's... Wonderfully freeing.
Because for as much as I like seeing my kid sisters face on iChat, it was only when I read a manifesto and poem on Boston that she wrote in her LiveJournal that I realised she was a thinking, reflecting, pondering, creative human being -- and started to treat her like one.