“Virtual” is among the perfectly good English words appropriated into the digital dialogue, and thereby no longer at our unambiguous service.
For example, a “virtual moron” could be the most intelligent person in any room, but because she evades interaction with the dominant technology of the day, may be styled a “moron” relative to her digital acumen.
Ignorant to this disability, someone could quite innocently suggest she go “google” herself and, unfamiliar with the nascent verb, she would almost certainly be deeply offended.
Should she add something profound to a conversation, a listener might suggest she “tweet” that out. This would bewilder the digitally-unaltered genius, who’d wonder why she should modulate her timbre to resemble that of a sparrow.
Granted this is an obscure example. Given the dominant role information technology has appropriated in the lives of virtually everyone – unambiguous usage – has at least some digital literacy.
The adjective “virtual” is in transition, so the qualified noun generally provides a hint, and sometimes certainty, as to the connotation.
If the noun is “moron,” the adjective “virtual” is likely intended in the tradition sense. This comes from experience, as a recipient of the epithet – following columns much like this one – I completely understand.
Nevertheless, due to its ambiguity there is at least some risk of misinterpretation. In such cases, I forego the use of “virtual.” The regular reader will be forgiven if he’s perplexed as to why that same standard is not applied more generally.
The above rumination stems from self-diagnosis as a “virtual recluse.”
A virtual recluse could be a person who eschews social media communities. Or, he may have removed himself, in large measure, from the flesh-and-blood world. If both, does this person become a virtual recluse-squared? Certainly, a virtual, virtual recluse doesn’t work.
My more limited “in-person” contact with humans is, at least in part, a function of what my colleague Dan Leger has recently and correctly identified as the lonely life of the writer. My reclusion from the social media virtual community is a matter of choice.
A popular web platform has determined that a vast number of acquaintances are closer than I had realized. Indeed, they are “friends,” right alongside lifelong soulmates and more recently acquired confidants and intimates.
The day I learned the breakfast menu of one of these acquaintance-friends, I became a virtual Facebook recluse. The meaning there is evident regardless of the connotation placed on the adjective.
I check in on Facebook intermittently but almost never contribute.
My Twitter presence is similarly limited. I have assumed the otherwise disreputable character of a stalker, in that I follow but never engage. The immediacy of the platform invites unconsidered contributions – see @realDonaldTrump. I can get in trouble for long-considered opinions. My ill-considered comments tend to the aberrant.
Linked In, as you no doubt know, is a quasi-professional virtual community, or is it a virtual community for quasi-professionals? My membership and absence there seems recognized and returned in kind.
The etiquette of the virtual world escapes me. Some would argue that merely mirrors a lifelong relationship with the non-virtual world.
However, while I would not hesitate to engage a stranger in an elevator in unsolicited and quite possibly unwanted conversation, people I know and even like may conclude their virtual friendship is no longer welcome. If that impression is contained to the virtual community, it’s manageable. But does a perceived virtual snub bleed into that other world – once known as “real?”
Polite company discussion of virtual behaviour seems to fit into the dangerous discussion category once reserved for religion, sex and politics. Having asked about the matter at traditional social gatherings, responses have been muted, even mumbled. Something to the effect of, “your online presence is your personal business.”
It’s as if the question solicited favourite porn sites, rather than whether it’s considered rude not to comply with the barrage of happy birthday greetings Facebook believes I should send.
This is a generational, and possibly a personal quandary. Please, no suggestions I take it up with my shrink. She’s got enough on her plate already.
Jim Vibert grew up in Truro and is a Nova Scotian journalist, writer and former political and communications consultant to governments of all stripes.