The Many Ways Virtual Communities Impact Our World Offline

Estimated reading time:
7 minutes

Thinkers and philosophizers

Top takeaways:
• Virtual worlds can reinforce positive behavior offline.
• Connectivity has drastically changed the way we interact — in good and bad ways.
• We should take care to develop our virtual communities in the same way we develop the communities we live in.

Technology has sufficiently crept into every nook and cranny of our lives. From the way we brush our teeth to the way we move about town to the way we interact with people, it’s a part of who we are.

I recently led a discussion along with Jen Lopez, community manager of SEOmoz and author Becky Carroll at the Emerging Media Conference in San Francisco. The three of us, along with the audience, talked about how social media and virtual communities impact our lives in ways we could not have imagined prior. It was an exciting and engaging conversation that allowed us to explore social media and virtual worlds outside the realm of marketing.

And, since the topic is fresh in my mind, I thought I’d share some of those concepts with you today. Let’s dive into some of  the research on the virtual world’s impact on the physical world, and explore how these virtual communities have impacted our relationships and what we should do with these discoveries.

The Virtual World’s Impact on the Physical World

We’ve reached a time where there’s certainly no shortage of people studying the impact that virtual worlds are having on us as individuals and as a society. According to research by professor Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University, half a billion people spend about 20 hours a week “wearing” avatars.

Avatars are the virtual representation of a person in a virtual world, and these virtual worlds include everything from massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life to Farmville. You could even go so far to say that people wear avatars in their various social communities as well – representations of their physical selves in the virtual world.

Now, the term “wearing” is an important nuance, because reports from the same professor show that people tend to essentially act different than their true selves depending on how different their avatars look from them. For example, if a person’s avatar is better looking than that person, the person’s avatar tends to be more outgoing in the virtual world than this person might be in the physical world.

To take it a step further, these behaviors online can actually impact a person’s behavior offline. Embedded below is a video that presents some of professor Bailenson research, but I’ll sum it up. Stanford University conducted tests where participants would have avatars created to resemble them. They would hook these participants up to special equipment and have them move about the room while the avatars mimicked their body movements in the virtual world that was projected before their eyes.

What the study revealed was this: positive behavior can be reinforced in the physical world if the participant could visualize and experience a particular scenario in the virtual world. Let me explain:

  • Scenario one: Participant mimics jogging and sees the avatar of him or herself jogging and losing weight at the rate of one pound for every four knees lifted.
  • Scenario two: Participant eats junk food and participant experiences the avatar’s body expanding.

The result? In the weeks following this experiment, participants ate healthier and exercised more in the physical world as a result of being able to visualize the consequences on themselves of that behavior. The same worked for retirement funds, where the participants would begin to save money for the future if they could make a connection with their future selves by seeing a computerized aging process on the avatars that resembled them.

This is one very inspirational example of how we could find new ways of using these types of virtual realities to impact personal growth in our everyday lives. The Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect are examples of companies who are creating games for this very purpose.

But, for every positive, there’s a potential downside. Spending loads of time in these virtual worlds and being more connected to people than ever before has some consequences.

I think perhaps one of the most powerful demonstrations of how accessibility and connectivity in this new era of social networks can affect us negatively is the following fictionalized story of a young woman (and several others) whose course in life was completely altered in less than three hours following a short video that was innocently posted to YouTube.* You have to see this presentation from Tom Scott at Ignite London:

*Editor’s Note: Each incident described by Tom Scott was based on an actual news event; however, the overall story was fictional, a “perfect storm” that he said was not unrealistic (per The Guardian, July 25, 2010).

So the question here is not if virtual worlds and communities impact our lives, but how can we capitalize on the positive and seek solutions to some of the most negative impacts? Just like many of us are deeply involved in making our communities a better place, we should take these lessons and try to figure out how can we make these virtual communities better, improve our lives and minimizing the harmful risks.

How Relationships Are Different Since the Advent of Online Social Communities

So we know that how people choose to spend their time in these virtual worlds and online communities can impact lives, but let’s take a look at the relationships forged in those online communities – are they any less real? There’s not a simple answer for that. These are real people, making real connections – but … and there is a “but” here: the depth of how far they go, I believe, is limited.

You can’t always make a genuine connection with someone online. In person, you see how a person behaves and interacts with you and others; you can look into each other’s eyes, share a smile, an emotion, an experience, camaraderie. Sure, you can feel connected to someone online, but how connected?And do these online relationships strengthen or weaken our relationships in the physical world?

How Virtual Communities Impact Offline Relationships

Being connected to these virtual worlds and communities impact our experiences in the present time. Look around you next time you’re at an event, at dinner or just taking a walk. People are buried in their phones, in their virtual worlds. Sure, we’ve learned how to become more social online, but at what cost? Are we socializing less when we are together as a group? Are we missing out on a the world around us?

Now, it would be a stretch for me to attribute the decline in social skills with the rising of technology, but I can tell you that when I see all those people sitting across from each other at dinner, with their heads buried in their phone updating their Facebook status or texting, it disappoints me. We lose out on the present when we let the virtual community win.

But, with the aid of these virtual communities, we’ve also been able to have richer experiences. Take this example: You’re in Vegas for weekend on vacation. You decide to check-in to a location-based service like Facebook Places or Foursquare to let everyone know where you’re at that. To your surprise, you see that a friend of yours is in the hotel next door because of his check-in. And you and your group and he and his are now able to connect and spend time together that night, which would not have happened without this technology.

These kind of stories happen all the time because of the luxuries our virtual communities afford us. And beyond just letting us find and connect with the people we know in the physical world, they give us added layers of relevance to our experiences. We can unlock best-kept secrets of the places we visit, score relevant deals and get to know other regulars of our local hangouts – all of which would not be possible without these virtual communities.

In the business world, virtual meetings have made it possible for companies to cut down costs on travel and save time; on mental health, many with depression or anxiety disorders have been positively affected by becoming a part of a larger narrative in the online multiplayer games; on the way we receive news and information, social media has made it possible to transmit it faster and further than ever been before, changing the way journalists do their jobs; and social media has totally changed the way politicians campaign, with our current president leading the charge in this area.

The Differences Between Virtual Communities and Offline Communities

It’s really fascinating to see how virtual communities force us to behave in ways we perhaps would have not prior; on the flipside, virtual communities tend to take on characteristics of the way we behave in the physical world as they progress. Take Facebook for example. You post an update, everyone sees it, no matter who is in your friends list – whether it’s Aunt Bee or the person you’re casually dating. And while Facebook continues to make tweaks to its network’s rules for a better experience, you still have to conform to the social norms of that virtual community — even if it’s not how you’re used to acting in the physical world.  This is an example of the virtual community impacting how we would normally behave.

But what’s interesting, is that data show the average number of friends on Facebook is 120 – this is just 30 less than Dunbar’s number, a theory by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, which states that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. So, this is an example of our social norms impacting virtual communities.

Then along comes Google+, which understands that we don’t communicate the same way with Aunt Bee as we communicate with the person we’re casually dating, and allows us to create virtual social circles that mimic how we interact in our daily lives. This is a great example of the virtual community can develop to comply with our social norms.

But no matter how you slice it, participating in virtual communities makes our interactions more public than ever before. Social media researcher Danah Boyd once said that our interactions in the physical world seem more private by default (although there’s a lot of factors involved on whether or not that’s actually true), but in the online world, that sense of privacy is immediately dissolved and makes anything said potentially very public and immortalized.

It’s taken time for many people to come to terms with that. So the way we behave in our virtual communities may never fully coincide with the way we behave in our everyday lives.

But what does seem to be happening is virtual communities as a whole first impose their rules on us, and as time goes on, we begin to impose our will on it, making the experience more fluid between our relationships in our virtual communities to our relationships in our physical communities.

So, Where to Next?

We know that more and more time is being spent in these virtual worlds. And we know that this time spent has the ability to either negatively impact or positively impact us in our daily lives. Communities are communities, whether online or offline. And virtual worlds are proving to be very real.

So, my question is, how can we better spend our time in those communities? How can we use social communities online an extension of our communities here in the physical world? How will we, as a society, use these virtual worlds to make a difference?

It’s all still very new and these worlds are still developing. But, as the creators of these virtual worlds, we have a choice in how we shape them. How will you make a difference?

Jessica Lee is the founder and chief creative for bizbuzzcontent Inc., a marketing boutique that focuses on digital content strategy and professional writing services for businesses.

See Jessica's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (2)
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2 Replies to “The Many Ways Virtual Communities Impact Our World Offline”

Hey Andy,

Isn’t that wild? Did you watch the other video, too? That one is equally as mind-blowing. I was happy to find that gem image right away when I was looking for something.

Take care!


That Stanford video’s pretty mind blowing. As is the design of the Scout Community Badge. Didn’t look like that when I was a scout!


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