Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Virtually Real

While virtually chatting with a friend today, he pronounced that he's eating an incredible Vietnamese lunch. I answered that I can share the meal with him virtually. Then BOOM, it dawned on my puny brain what the hell the meaning of virtual really is. Virtual means, almost but not quite real. The essence of the experience exists but the real time face-to-face does not. Why then would a scholar, like myself, that write extensively about virtual communities, not make the simple connection to the origin of the word virtual (predating the Internet).

The answer is that I don't think virtual is almost as good as real. I think virtual in some ways is better than real. Virtual spaces has allowed for connections where none existed before, and really would have taken a very long time, if ever, to materialize. I'm talking about how a newslist in the mid 1990s, Vietnam Women's Forum, for example, brought together Vietnamese women scattered throughout the globe to connect virtually and discuss their experiences, hopes, dreams, aspirations,...On the other side of the screen were women very similar to them, and that were willing and able to listen, share, and assist.

In another example, Vietnam Forum, also a newslist from the 1990s, brought together like minded people globally. Most members were overseas Vietnamese interested in the development of Viet Nam. This was quite provocative considering this took place in a time when certain Vietnamese Americans with strong anti-communist points of view, not only forbid connections to Viet Nam, they attacked those that did. This included assassinating Vietnamese American dissident journalists and committing arsen in establishments that were selling cultural products from Viet Nam. The virtual community of Vietnam Forum not only avoided the gaze of anti-communist groups and a repressive Vietnamese state, they successfully organized to make positive change in Viet Nam.

So, about my friend's lunch, I had to say, BS, I could not virtually taste anything. I'm not even close to sharing the meal in real life. His photos of the meal didn't help the matter either; in fact it heightened my desire to rush to a Vietnamese restaurant. So, that part of it blows. What doesn't blow is the fact that this friend and I have been able to collaborate on important projects all summer. We do it via video chat, sometimes even video conferencing with others. Organizing in-person meetings with each other and the rest of the folks would have meant much fewer meetings and less opportunity to share our ideas. Virtual is good and will never play second fiddle to the real.

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