Forging meaning in a virtual plane
It's two AM, and I'm here in a virtual bar, listening to "Pickle Rick". Classical music loops in the background as my pickle shaped acquaintance prattles on about the ethics of enslaving cat-girls. From my left speaker, I pick up multiple chuckles. My online friends – all wearing ridiculous cartoon avatars – seem to be amused by Rick's nonsensical drivel. Yet, their unflinching expressions betray no hint of their elation; Rather, they can't. The technological constraints of our virtual avatars limit us from expressing our real emotions. We can only convey our amusement through words and simple actions, ineffective as they may be. Even so, we make the most of what we have. To my right, one of my online friends covers his mouth with his hand, indicative of his suppressed laughter. My other friends follow suit with their own gestures. Rick's ramble has clearly captivated our attention.
We don't call for Rick to stop his senseless rant, nor do we find it off-putting. To us, pointless actions like Rick's spiel simply form the vernacular of online communication. This is just another Friday in the world of Virtual Reality.
To the uninitiated, Rick's absurd rant may appear to be a meaningless action driven without purpose, much like how a drunkard babbles nonsense under the influence of alcohol. This impression is swiftly rendered false after some time on the internet. The key purposes that absurd rants like Rick's serve thus become clear.
Chiefly, they serve as readily accessible methods to break the ice. Thanks to the proliferation of memes – slang for common inside jokes on the internet that are often whimsical in nature – it is expected, and even encouraged for people to make similar absurd jokes on platforms like Virtual Reality. Like how one might ask about a classmate's former school to establish relations with him, Rick's absurd rant too, serves the same function as an icebreaker. Both actions are expected and easy to perform. In truth, Rick's rant was extracted from a recognizable meme on the internet, though the inherent absurdity of the joke remains. With minimal effort on the user's part, one might be able to create a positive impression on others just by referencing a popular meme. Such is the case for Rick.
Furthermore, absurd rants allow a person to socially 'vet' their online friends beforehand. If a user responds positively to your chosen joke, you can be assured that they share a similar sense of humour. If not, then you can move on, and find try your luck next time. Just as Rick finishes his ramble, I interject with a meme of my own.
"Boy, if only Elon Musk would create Cat-girls on Mars", I say, referencing the sequel to Rick's meme.
My online friends take the opportunity to chime in with references of their own as well. Predictably, the conversation quickly devolves into a chaotic blob of random noises bereft of obvious logic. But after a while, it stabilizes, and soon, Rick is integrated within the group. Before long, Rick starts to share his life experiences. By reciprocating Rick's senseless joke with our senseless jokes, we are implicitly accepting him as a friend, giving him the greenlight to introduce himself beyond his original meme.
This behaviour is only possible because of the virtual space we inhabit. Unlike the real world, one can easily dip in and out of conversations whenever they please. If Rick had failed to impress my group, he could have just logged off and left without fear of us recognizing him in the future. After all, there is a degree of anonymity we can lay stake to in the virtual world. And it is solely because of this anonymity that we can spout absurd memes confidently. Consequently, there are some actions that we can only exhibit in a virtual space.
Two hours pass as Rick continues to share his life experiences. We learn of his favourite metal band and the derelict pizza place he used to frequent. Rick even chooses to confide his traumatic childhood experiences with us. We listen in kind, sharing our personal experiences whenever appropriate. Out of context, this whole scenario does seem a little silly; a pickle man divulging his childhood trauma to a bunch of internet strangers.
However, such scenarios are commonplace in virtual landscapes, where they are treated as normal. Our true beliefs bleed through the virtual personas we are forced to adopt by virtue of Virtual Reality not resembling real life. But logically speaking, shouldn't the reverse hold true?
In distancing ourselves away from our real selves – by picking fantastical avatars that are so far removed from what we look like – we build up this imaginary façade that we can present to others. The more absurd the avatar, the more we can distinguish our virtual personas apart from our real-life personas. Hence, we would behave to a manner dissimilar to our actual selves. Pickle Rick should act like Pickle Rick the character and not his real-life counterpart. Yet, the opposite is true. Why is this so?
Perhaps our facades allow us to be vulnerable, to compensate for the limitations in Virtual spaces. Paradoxically, this means that the more absurd our avatars are, the more authentic we become. Rick's absurd costume might have influenced his decision to share his childhood trauma. He admits it himself.
"Maybe I just wanted to speak about it without the pressure of feeling like myself."
It is 5.00 AM by the time Rick leaves us. He promises to contact us the next time he logs in but promises in the virtual world are fickle. Still, I'm satisfied. Even in the interstices between the virtual world and reality, the pulse of the human connection continues to beat. As long as this pulse remains, we will continue to seek it, be it through "meaningless" actions or otherwise. I ponder about this matter for a while more before my friends urge me to follow them. Shrugging my shoulders, I follow them into another virtual unknown.
An essay I wrote for my social science module. The prompt revolved around deriving meaning from social actions. (i.e. Gertz's work) I got 94/100 for this essay, so memes can be dreams after all. It's a shame how I wasn't able to squeeze more content in due to the one thousand word count. Oh well.