Relationships on the Embodied Internet
Every few months, some enterprising young journalist decides to write a piece about how weird it is to go on a date on the embodied internet. These dates are almost always awkward and lame, but generally for the same reason most dates people go on in real life are awkward and lame: men who don’t ask a single question, women who grill you about marriage timelines, and people of every gender identity who have nothing more interesting to talk about than what they’re watching on Netflix.
At this point, it’s all sort of fun for a chuckle, but as we move into the embodied internet, we should probably start thinking about what types of relationships we can build there. Although parasocial relationships existed before the internet, they’ve become a much bigger and more accepted part of our lives since the rise of the web and social media. Sometimes these are harmless — I feel pretty close to a college friend who posts constantly on Facebook, even though we only see each other in person a few times a year. Other times, it spins out of control, with people proclaiming loyalty to podcasters who release hours of content per week in lieu of actual friends. Web2 was supposed to democratize communication — instead, it just created millions of streams that almost never overlap.
Just as there are celebrities and passive consumers in real life and on the web, there will likely be those distinctions on the embodied internet as well. But being a fly on the wall there could be harder — lurking in web2 is very easy, but lurking as an avatar is trickier, especially in small communities. People will see that you are in the room and might want to engage with you, but giving people the opportunity to not be seen presents a whole host of issues that run counter to the promise of the embodied internet. A compromise solution can be found in allowing people to add some customization to their avatars to express their level of desire to participate, much like bracelets given out at conferences post Covid allowed people to express their level of comfort with physical touch.
Many of the other issues around relationships on the embodied internet have already been solved by the younger people who spend time on platforms like Roblox. They move seamlessly between avatars and real life, and several that I spoke with said it helped them get through the loneliness of lockdowns. Unlike on some web2 platforms, their IRL personalities and those of their Roblox avatars tended to be pretty similar, because their fundamental concept of the space tended to be integrated into the real world, not separate from it.
Just as people are catfished in real life and online, there will likely be problems surrounding that on the embodied internet, although the fact that it is driven by voice will help cut down on some of that. You might meet someone there who fibs about their age or build, but at least you can hear their voice and see the red flags if it doesn’t align with their story.
This is all new ground, and norms and behaviors will shift as it is built out. We’re long past the days of no one knowing you are a dog on the internet — if anything, everyone will know just who you are on the embodied internet.