Monday, July 9, 2007

Second Lives & Potential Consequences for Clients

I would guess by now most people have heard of 'Second Life', the '3-D virtual world' where participants create, manage, and often live vicariously through their 'avatars'. Second Life has been around since 2003 and it's far from the first--or last--of its kind. Real dollars are exchanged daily, mostly between people interested in upgrading their avatar's status with those who have the time and/or the know-how to offer such goodies as better clothing, better homes, or access to online currency (The New York Times Magazine, June 17, 2007). There are even virtual worlds for teens and youth.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, virtual communities are not immune to conflict. Colin Rule, Director of Online Dispute Resolution for E-bay and a blogger has been hugely influential in bringing dispute resolution to the online community. This April, blogger Geoff Sharp highlighted another blogger, Alison's, experience of mediating in Second Life as part of an ADR class she was taking.

In my opinion, the online activity and chatter about such activity is, for the most part, wonderful. There's so much information online, lots of things to see and do, and a whole virtual life out there waiting to be explored; a way in which to experience new things, if indirectly, through one's avatar or other online presence. It's even better that committed ADR professionals are taking an interest in extending their services to the online community, given the inevitability of conflict.

The concept second life could easily describe more than just the online community of that name, however. What about the husband and father of 4 who logs onto his favorite pornographic website late at night, every night? Or the wife and mother who "innocently" chats online with a gentleman from across the country? Or the twenty-something who bets her rent money on a game of blackjack? Or quite simply, the man or woman who just loves surfing the net.

Like anything, online activity, when excessive, can complicate one's life. In the worst cases, it can even become life-threatening, literally or figuratively. What seems to be a common thread to all of this is that online interests often start with a desire to escape from one's "real" life. Online use becomes a problem when it comes to interfere with daily functioning or when someone becomes dependent on it to positively alter his or her mood. When does the person behind a virtual existence cease being alive?

The grass is always greener... It is far from a new concept. Yet there's a way in which the easy accessibility of the Internet, the connections it brings, and the vast selection of virtual worlds online, all contribute to a misconception that we can have it all. If used only to fulfill simple fantasies -- for example, someone physically uncoordinated in real life creates a skateboarding superstar online -- then great. Truth be told, however, people are using the Internet to try and fulfill much, much more. That other life is no longer something abstract, a question of which fork we took in the road when, and what might have been if we turned the other way. It is now possible to try out virtually anything through the options and anonymity the Internet provides. For many people, what starts as a curiosity, a question, perhaps even longing, can become an obsession. As more and more investment is made in one's virtual self, the abstract life becomes increasingly important. The result? Real-life problems, challenges, fears and pain are avoided, but only for so long. Relationships, real or virtual, need time, energy, and committed parties to flourish; otherwise, they will end.

I have not heard a lot of discussion within the mediation community regarding the impact of excessive Internet use on our clients. I'm talking specifically about cases where one person's online habits lead one or both parties to seek a divorce. It usually goes like this: half of the couple falls in love with someone they've met online through a chat room or virtual world. The new relationship, which started "innocently" in "virtual" space, gets acted upon in real life. Next step: divorce. There are the gambling and pornography addictions too, of course, because doing it online makes everything so easy and anonymous at first.

The couples and families who come to us in mediation with issues related to their "second lives" are often in a great deal of pain. There are currently 7,928,443 "residents" of Second Life (according to their website) and millions more in other online communities. We have a responsibility as Alternative Dispute Resolution professionals to understand the prevalence of the virtual world and the potential consequences that turn some real people living in pretend worlds into clients.

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