What is Real? What is Virtual?

My FaceBook profile page

It was a tough task to know exactly how many friends we had. The difference between real life and virtual was clear. Event invitations were delivered in the post. Signatures used to be some funny-looking scratch that we could do over and over again. The words video and download had nothing to do with each other. Knowing exactly how your friend feels (especially if she’s a lady) was a tough task. Newcomers to any community needed at least a few weeks to make many friends. You could never poke someone who was beyond arms’ length. You didn’t have to sign in before brushing your teeth. Your last words every night were spoken to real people, not typed — with a smiley. If anyone wrote on a wall, it was graffiti. Actually, people didn’t have walls, buildings did — and there was nothing like “I disvirgined your wall”. Okay, that was then — back in the days. With the advent of online social networking, most of the things we used to know started sounding like lies — if they are not laughed off!

All thanks to FaceBook, I know that — as at 1926 GMT on December 19, 2007 — I have exactly 392 friends! Ask yourself: what is real these days, and are they very different from what is virtual? Virtual used to be a dictionary word that had to do with imaginary — and dictionaries were consulted by going through the pages of huge books, not at Dictionary.com. Not anymore. These days, I hold more virtual meetings than face to face meetings — and I get a bit worried when someone calls to ask for a physical meeting with me! Have you met the guy called Writer in Second Life? Well, he’s me and I’m him. Tell me, which one is your signature (the one that readily comes to mind): the one you scribble when you write a cheque or that fancy way you describe yourself after every eMail message? And please don’t tell my FaceBook friends that I deleted all the recent pokes because I was scared that my ribs would cave in if I allowed the pokes to continue.

Today, I read about a man who was accused of impersonating himself! Not just your next door teenage neighbour but a 42-year-old member of Parliament from the United Kingdom. I’m not sure I will tell the story well if I don’t quote directly from ZDNet (a website whose news was brought to me — not by the vendor, but — by my Google Desktop News gadget):

A British Parliament member had his Facebook account suspended this week after the social-networking site decided he wasn’t real. Steve Webb, of the Liberal Democrats, tried to log on Monday but received a message saying his account had been disabled following complaints he didn’t exist…. “I sent them an e-mail asking what the problem was and got a response a day later saying they had concluded that my profile was a fake, that I wasn’t really Steve Webb,” Webb told Reuters. “I was essentially accused of impersonating a member of Parliament.” Within a few hours friends set up a Facebook group called “Steve Webb is real!” which attracted more than 200 members, and he and others contacted people who worked at the site. A few hours later he received an apology and his profile was reactivated…. Still, the time spent in the Internet’s no man’s land left Webb questioning his existence. “You realize the power these organizations really have,” he said. “If they’d been really determined, they could have deactivated me completely and then you kind of don’t know where you stand. “It’s actually hard for a genuine person to prove they exist.” Webb, who has been on Facebook for nearly a year, has around 2,500 friends…

Concerned about the amount of information increasingly available about individuals on the web, I toyed with the idea of cutting down on my web presence a few days ago but I was quickly reminded of the good side of being visible online. It was through a young person from another continent who wished to discuss career issues with me, and was telling me about how excited (s)he was to meet me. Pause! We have never met, and (s)he probably needs at least two flights to get to Lagos — but (s)he met me, online. (S)he was boasting about how much (s)he knew about me, and how my personal story inspires… Then, (s)he freaked me out when (s)he spoke about my family as if (s)he’d been to Akure. All thanks to my website — or should that be no thanks? Let’s face it, the gulf between virtual and real has disappeared. I am even more drawn to the phrase, virtual reality. Which is taken more seriously — your eMail or your physical presence? I know a man who walked into a meeting where everyone was discussing how brilliant he was — only that they knew him by his eMail address. After his presentation, the audience saw (some of them, for the first time) the connection between his name, eMail and face on the last slide of his presentation.

“I didn’t know you were me@gbengasesan.com,” said the note. I wished I could argue with her that I wasn’t just an eMail address but… anyway, what is real and what is virtual? If real is so close to virtual, then can we safely say that those who will stay ahead in the days to come are those who understand, and are able to manage, the powers that virtual (at least through the Internet) brings to reality?

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