Virtual communities and self-expression

Habbo screenshot
A populated room on Habbo. (Screenshot from Virtual Worlds For Teens)

Aside from providing a plethora of information, the Internet’s rise in popularity can also be credited to what it allowed users to do socially.

Communication with a far-away relative was made easy with e-mail, and meeting a new friend halfway across the world could be done from your own living room while browsing a forum. This advanced connectivity introduced a fascinating experience previously unavailable to the world and changed the way we interact. Beyond the typical e-mail and instant messaging programs, one thing that took online socialization to a new level was virtual world games.

With Web 2.0 introducing more social options for Internet users, virtual reality games fit right in. Games like IMVU, Second Life, and Habbo Hotel (now known as simply “Habbo”) allowed users to express their personal styles and interests with others. Older online social games such as Worlds and The Palace existed during Web 1.0 (some still standing today), but the concept found its place as something more popular in the next era of the Internet.

Today, people are more likely to communicate through regular messaging services for the sake of simplicity. Despite this, there is still a market for virtual reality games. As of the publishing time of this article, IMVU has around 2.5 million monthly users and Second Life has around 51.2 thousand monthly users. The average users for both services are aged 18-24, mostly male, and are mostly playing from countries outside of North America.

Static text in e-mails, chatrooms and forums limited how users could show personality in a conversation. The only help in these cases were the use of emoticons. With virtual reality chats, users could “see” one another (whether it was how they really looked or not), convey emotions, and express themselves through a number of other actions, depending on the game.

IMVU screenshot
Users interacting with one another on IMVU. (Screenshot from Softonic)

For someone who had hard time with social interaction and self-expression offline, a customizable virtual world was likely to have some sort of positive impact on said person when it came to socializing with others. Using an avatar provides enough visual expression while still allowing a sense of anonymity.

Of course, not all virtual games have to have some sort of meaningful impact on people’s lives; many just play them for fun. Habbo included various games and activities for users to participate in. For many users, it was “just something fun to do”. I may or may not speak for a number of pre-teens of the late 2000s when I say I enjoyed a Habbo addiction every day after school for a certain amount of time.

At its height, 3D character creation was not a newer concept, but an online aspect is what made it complete. As an example, your creation in the offline The Sims was to be kept to yourself, but your persona in IMVU could interact with everybody.

Outdated gimmick or useful platform?

In our current web, virtual chats aren’t as popular. With most people using major social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and more, people have become more comfortable with using their real identities, therefore not feeling as much of a need to socialize as an anonymous avatar. Despite this, virtual social networks do still serve a purpose today for those who do feel too much of their real self is online, and would just like to escape to an online fantasy world. Whether for social reasons or their fun factor, virtual worlds have made their mark as an exciting Internet activity for self-expression.

What’s your experience with virtual communities? Share your story in the comments.

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Author: The Netstorian

Internet culture enthusiast and creator of The Netstorian.

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