It’s a fairly normal Sunday morning – the younger children have gone to rugby training, the washing machine is on, clothes are already hanging on the line, piles of folded washing are slowly assembling on the dining room table, and I’ll be getting the iron out in a while to start ironing clothes straight into a suitcase for the flight to Germany tomorrow.
This is going to sound slightly bizarre – I’m purposely packing clothes that have no wording on them. No nerdy t-shirts with clever messages. While in Germany I want to remain largely anonymous – and wearing a national team rugby shirt, or a nerdy t-shirt with writing all over it is a great way to signal to the world where you’re from, and let people form preconceived impressions about you. Of course this also means people will presume I’m German, and witness my clueless gaze as they launch into conversation with me. I really should learn a few more words than “good morning”, “good evening”, “yes”, “no”, and “dry” (useful to buy wine).
A few years ago I worked on a project where one of the organisations involved flew a number of German staff over for the better part of a year. They took English lessons while they were here as part of their working day. I got to know a few of them during my time on the project, and it tore up a number of the preconceptions I had. While talking about travelling the world with a friend one evening, he said something that has stayed with me – people are just “folk”, wherever they are – we all worry about the same things – we all laugh at the same things.
Change of subject.
I’ve been continuing to dip into and out of a virtual world on the internet called IMVU all week. I never seem to find enough time to make any friends within the system, but my sporadic visits did open my eyes to a few things – like some people essentially living within the system. Perhaps the best example happened when I walked into a virtual bar, where a number of avatars were dancing to a country song. I bought a pretend cowboy hat, and strode onto the floor like the worst version of Woody from Toy Story imaginable.
A girl dancing at the front had said hello to me! This was progress, because most of the conversations I had seen were teens repeatedly saying “hey” to one another, without actually starting any sort of conversation.
“Hi!”, I replied – realising I was falling into the recursive teen “hey” conversation.
We actually had a real conversation though – I explained I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, and was randomly visiting “rooms” within the virtual world, finding it difficult to make head or tail of anything. Eventually the conversation turned around to the real world.
“So what do you do?”, she asked, dancing alongside my expert dance moves (which were identical to hers, given that everybody gets the same animation – THANK GOD – imagine if my real “skills” had been on display).
“I’m a software and web developer”.
“Oh. Cool.” (you could almost see her avatar’s face glaze over)
“What do you do?”
“What do you mean? This?”
“This. This is what I do. IMVU”.
I was kind of lost for words, and the conversation didn’t go much further – mostly because another girl arrived on the dancefloor that knew her, and their conversation turned around to virtual boyfriend troubles. Yes, you read that right – you see this a LOT, and while I find it endlessly amusing (and I really shouldn’t), it made me realise how seriously some people take the whole “virtual world” thing.
One lunchtime at work I logged in, picked a busy looking place, and ran onto the dance floor to join everybody else.
“DON’T TOUCH MY SISTER MISTER!”
Ok. A girl dressed as a stripper had just shouted at me. Apparently I was not allowed to touch some other pretend person in the room – I didn’t know who, and wondered how people that don’t exist can “touch” each other. I started giggling at my desk, and a co-worker asked what I was laughing about.
“Oh nothing – you wouldn’t believe me anyway”.
I will admit more than once this week, I’ve wondered if the real people behind some of the avatars – particularly the more spectacularly handsome or beautiful ones – are actually 200lb truck drivers called “Billy” with bits of food stuck in their beard.
The strangest thing has happened through the week. I’ve kept logging in each day – almost dogmatically – to see if I might find anybody interesting – and I have. Last night, somebody appeared out of nowhere and started talking to me (it’s one of the things you can do in this particular world – a bit like the Google “I’m feeling lucky” button). I tried this particular feature when I first joined, but quickly gave up. You are landed in a coffee shop, sitting opposite a random stranger, who invariably looks at your profile, and then exits before you even get a chance to say “hello”.
I found myself sitting opposite a girl avatar dressed as some kind of Manga character. I appeared wearing the stupid cowboy hat, so quickly removed it, and hoped she hadn’t seen it.
Over the next ten minutes we exchanged pleasantries – sharing that we had both joined around the same time, and both had the same experiences – the “hey” teenagers, witnessing the boyfriend/girlfriend drama, and so on. After a while we realised we were the first “normal” people we had encountered all week – and you know what? It gave us hope. Almost enough hope to stick around, and to keep sitting in that pretend coffee shop when we get a chance, sitting opposite strangers, in the hope of finding a few new friends around the world. Of course we’ll probably just message each other and not find another friend, but you never know.
Perhaps I should start greeting people with “Hey” instead of “Hi”, then everybody will think I’m a teenager. Of course as soon as I then write anything of consequence my cover will be blown.