The internet, since it moved into the mainstream, has never ceased to amaze. From navel fluff collections to a website dedicated to half-naked, four-legged men, the internet has not only made life simpler for people with access to it, but it has also provided us with many different ways to escape from our real lives and “live online”, as it were. Perdeby investigates the ways in which the internet has looked at John Donne’s saying “no man is an island” and replies with a cocky “challenge accepted”.
For those who seek romance in their lives but cannot manage to get past the stage of mumbling hello and walking shyly away from their crush, there is the virtual girlfriend. In February 2005, The New York Times ran an article about Vivienne, the virtual girlfriend created by Eberhard Schöneburg (the CEO of the software company Artificial Life Inc.). Schöneburg states that he hopes that “[people] think of her as a companion and will see her as a practice round before the real one.” The Vivienne programme is able to go to the movies and bars with her “boyfriend”. One can even buy presents for her paid for with real money (which goes to Artificial Life Inc.). If someone feels that the relationship with Vivienne has reached the next level, it is even possible to propose to her and marry her. Of course, this marriage comes at a price. A virtual mother-in-law with all the perks (or not) of a real one is included. Artificial Life Inc. is looking at extending the programme to also accommodate the needs of female heterosexuals, and both male and female homosexuals.
For women who are looking for a sensitive, good-looking man who is not tied down by vices such as alcoholism, drug use or reality, SergioBoyfriend.com provides just that. “From philosophical conversations to heartfelt chit-chats, from logic and inference to some serious love and intimacy, Sergio can do it.” This quote from the website sums up the Sergio experience, which is available to anyone for a sign-up fee of $24.
The move which people make from the real to the virtual universe becomes easier with the integration of certain programmes into social networks. An example of this is a feature in the computer game, The Sims 3, which allows users to post their Sims’s “memories” on Facebook. Many different websites now have “Like” or “Share” buttons which allow people to share their online experiences with friends and followers on social networks.
The existence of virtual girlfriends, virtual boyfriends and even entire virtual worlds, such as Second Life, is a by-product of the internet age and is inescapable. Is the ubiquity of these services, however, a sign of a more serious problem in our society? Human interaction has largely moved online, with social networks which grow larger by the minute (Twitter alone grew by an average of 10 million users per month last year). This contributes to the phenomenon of people creating online personas, many of which are fake and sometimes serve only to “troll” forums or bully other internet users. This cyber bullying can lead to trauma in young people especially, like the case of Megan Taylor Meier. Meier committed suicide in 2006 due to cyber bullying on MySpace.
Services such as being able to buy clothes, DVDs, books and food online, make it easier for people to be connected with the rest of the world via only an internet connection. However, it is not only people’s personal lives that can be lived on the internet. In 2005, Columbia College and Stephens University in the USA introduced online classes for biology students. Students were able to perform lab work in the comfort of their own homes, using an online environment. Since the introduction of the programme in 2005, the universities have experienced a combined growth of 50% in the enrolment for these classes. Gary Massey, Dean for Adult Higher Education at Columbia College, said in an interview in 2009 that the online learning environment was “growing in leaps and bounds.”
It seems that society is moving rapidly towards a lifestyle in which life online takes just as much precedence and priority as life beyond the computer screen. With technology constantly developing at an exponential rate, this evolution may be unavoidable. It is up to the individual to decide on the balance between real and virtual in his/her own life.