Maybe it’s the people i tend to mix with, or the type of places i go; it could be something to do with me, or perhaps a combination of those things, but it’s a rare occasion indeed that you’ll find me amongst a group of people in sl where the room isn’t buzzing with conversation.
Part of the appeal of meeting up with friends, and others, is to share in the friendly banter, witty repartee and rousing ribaldry that abounds in local chat, whether it’s just to listen in, or to contribute to the mayhem… it’s one of those things that i tend to take for granted. And yet, i know that the same is not necessarily true throughout sl.
If i cast my mind back to my early days in the virtual world – a time before i’d really established any proper roots and spent a fair amount of my time hanging around places where people would congregate, simply to get a feel for what this strange world was all about, the one thing that struck me more than any other was how uncommunicative most avatars were. There are places that spring to mind that would be so stuffed with avatars that the lag had almost developed consciousness; clubs full of grey people where the principal activity seemed to be standing silently in one spot for hours on end. No doubt, the lack of movement may well have been something to do with the aforementioned lag, but the silence was another thing altogether.
i used to imagine that those around me were so thoroughly entrenched in interesting and stimulating conversations in IM that they simply lacked any opportunity to speak out in the company of others, and that it was i – with no friends and nothing to say – who was missing out: excluded and ostracised by my utter noobishness and lack of anything interesting to say. With hindsight, i think it far more likely that everybody else was almost certainly feeling as left out and sheepish as myself, and desperately wishing that somebody – anybody – would open their damn mouths and break the silence!
Then i finally discovered some real gems of places where people actually had conversations in public – it was a revelation! At last i could join in, give my opinions and stop being a total wallflower, and i loved it! Open chat can be an incredibly liberating thing – particularly for someone like me who finds it horribly difficult to strike up a private conversation, even with close friends. Yes, you heard that right – mouthy git that i am in public, when it comes to one-to-one conversations, having one with me is somewhat akin to pulling teeth, and infinitely less satisfying. Left to my own devices, i would never initiate a conversation in sl and faced with the alternative – being on the receiving end – even now can be an exercise in toe-curling cringe-worthiness. Anyone who has ever attempted to engage me in an IM conversation will testify to that. The truth is, i am painfully shy and reserved and there are few things that terrify me more than having to socialise, apart from maybe wasps and spiders.
However, stick me in a room full of people in sl – (the same is not at all true in rl) – nattering away nineteen to the dozen, and all that reticence melts away. Even amongst complete strangers, if everyone is openly chatting, it becomes a breeze to throw in the odd one-liner, voice my own opinion and generally get to know people, without the grinding torture of self-consciously exposing myself to the critical scrutiny of a face-to-face conversation. In this way, i’ve made a lot of good virtual friends and acquaintances, but take me out of that comfort zone to a place where the crowd is less than vocal, and i really begin to struggle.
Which is exactly what happened recently… a rather late night at my usual haunt, accompanied by more than a sensible helping of the fruit of the vine on the physical side of the screen resulted in my acceptance of an invitation to accompany some friends to a club i’d not been to before. On arrival, memories of my early days exploring flooded back… the same packed venue, full of grey people, many of whom simply seemed to be standing around doing nothing. Despite the huge crowd, the eighties sounds being valiantly pumped out by the DJ were singularly uninterrupted by any word from the assembled crowd, and it felt weird.
Sometimes, it seems you have to make your own entertainment, and this was one of those occasions… you see, there is one advantage to having mad friends – when everyone else has nothing to say, who’s to stop you from making your own conversation? It was a case of, stuff everyone else and let’s talk about tractor factories, monotheism, shoes, tree surgery and “long evenings under a red sky, gently milking granny while she told me tales of the old order and sang about the 1951 spam crisis”… and, you know what, i reckon there were quite a few of that silent majority surrounding us who were wishing they could join in!
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence
Emilíana Torrini – The Sound Of Silence