The Easy Imbalance of Too Much Virtual Living

This is one of those posts that is born from a bit of an epiphany which, in turn, is born from some honest self-reflection and self-recrimination. I have seen something which needs to be addressed, a growing imbalance in the world that we need to talk about, and I see that I am part of it. Thus, I confess my part and hope to add to a discussion, that we all might do a little bit better, live our lives a little bit more productively. I begin with myself, or, at least, I try to.

When I get off work in the afternoon, I go home, take care of my dogs, see to my nephew, get dinner at some point, and usually spend my evenings online, until I go to sleep. That’s a number of hours every day, not counting weekends or whenever I get online while on break at work. You won’t find me agreeing with anyone that talks about how we spend too much time online. No, not too much time. But it seems to me that I and others are spending a little too much living online. As in, too much time, money, attention, and passion devoted to a virtual reality instead of actual reality, such that is not balanced with real-world living.

I came to this conclusion when I suddenly realized that most of my evenings were being spent on YouTube, and most of that was being spent watching reactions. Meaning, instead of doing things myself, I was watching other people react to trailers, movies, TV shows, anime and cartoons, music videos, playing games, and more.

Now, I want to quickly emphasize that there is nothing wrong with reactions! Not in and of themselves, at least! Indeed, I would say there is nothing wrong with most things in general, on their own. And there is nothing wrong with being online. Nothing wrong with the internet itself.

It is merely a question of moderation, of balance, and I fear that the world is becoming more and more unbalanced, and that I am doing the same, in regards to our virtual reality.

Who wouldn’t be drawn in by a pretty face?

I can’t recall the first reaction I ever saw, but, as with everything that becomes far too consuming, it started with just one. It was this attractive, young girl watching something I enjoyed, and I enjoyed her reaction to it. She smiled, she laughed, she cried, she squealed, she commented. I liked it.

It’s probably no psychological surprise that it made me feel good to see a a pretty girl smiling and laughing as she watched something I already knew and liked. There’s an inherent validation in that, in someone agreeing with our view, in enjoying what we enjoy. That’s what friendships are all about, enjoying the same things together, and it’s all the more impactful, most likely, when they’re a highly-desirable member of the opposite sex. Someone more familiar with brain chemistry would probably be able to explain something about endorphins and dopamine or whatever. For myself, it’s enough to realize that this is simply part of human nature and a human need which was being met, but not in real life.

I recently heard another young lady on YouTube answering a question from a fan about if they could hope for a date with them. Her answer was to talk about “parasocial relationships.” These are the relationships that fans have with the object of their fandom, like celebrities, stars, and fictitious characters, that sort of thing. We see them, in their best, most idealized forms, on the screen in front of us, and we love what we see. But who they are in the spotlight is not all of who they are. They’re real people, not dolls, not limited to what is shown to a camera. One does not generally date one’s idols because there is a distance which needs to be maintained, or the illusion crumbles.

A parasocial relationship, then, is one that is defined by not being real. Not truly. But, it can feel like it is, and it does so without the risks of being ruined by real-world interaction. And that is how we come to devote far too much of our passion to it, and to put far too much stock in the behavior and perspective of someone who we don’t really know, and who does not know us either.

Her answer was, no, she would not date a fan, because that would be reality, not virtual reality.

It can look appealing, but it’s not real.

In brutal self-examination, I notice that my virtual life bloated significantly in close proximity to a significant decline in my real-world social interactions. Not to say that the two are inseparable, but, well, if I’ve nothing to do real life, then what else is there for me to do but be online? If I have, well, very few friends in real life with which to share the things I like, then of course I would be drawn to the virtual simulation of such. Thus did my YouTube subscriptions to channels that showed reactions increase from one, two, and then three… to over two dozen.

I have a problem. I seriously, seriously have a problem. I mean, I would recommend each of the reactors I follow for a good, enjoyable, vicarious experience in place of actual socialization, but I really must admit that I really do have a problem somewhere in all of this.

And I’m not sure what is more unsettling: to know that I have this problem, or to know how mild this problem is for me in comparison to others.

To explain that, well, remember, for many of these reactors – and there is a veritable army of them across the wide world of the internet – this is a significant source of income. For others, it is flat-out their job. They have subscribers on YouTube, patrons on Patreon, followers on various other social media and crowdfunding sites, and some of the girls – I know because they mention it at the beginning of every video – are also on OnlyFans. (Did I mention how “pretty girl” seems to be an important factor?)

Reactors spend a lot of hours viewing, experiencing, editing, and uploading content, unless they have an editor to take care of most of that. Many of them stream online, letting their audience watch them play a video game for hours on end, and people come and watch them. They have full, uncut reactions to entire movies and shows on Patreon. They comment in dedicated chat rooms, too, a community of voyeurs watching other people having fun, and donating to them.

And there are enough people spending enough hours and enough money on this to keep all of these reactors afloat.

Twitch’s most successful streamer.

One doesn’t even need to be reacting to things to get followers and an income. As the tale of Amouranth demonstrates, as she became a multimillionaire with her Twitch streams, girls and others are able to stream themselves doing pretty much anything, and enough people come to watch and chat with them that they make a living off it. Twitch, TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, the list goes on! They just put themselves out there, and people gobble it up.

So when I say this is relatively mild for me, I mean that I do not go and spend hours and hours on end every day watching people react to one thing or play games or whatnot. I do not pay them for the privilege, either. I just catch highlight reels, so to speak, on YouTube. I know that’s not much of a distinction. I just mean that where I know I have some issues to deal with, I can also see clearly that others have put a shocking amount of time and money into experiencing this virtual reality instead of doing (fill-in-the-blank) in real life. It has their attention. It has their passion. It has their lives. At least as much as it has mine.

And now virtual reality has been pushing back into the arena of real life. Young women – and men, too, but mostly girls, for the audience appeal – have been producing all sorts of content streamed online, including reactions, gaming, painting, talking with each other and with their followers, musical performances, and more… but not as themselves.

They do this – the same things, and more, as these other reactors and social media streamers – with a completely virtual persona, sometimes even including lore in the crafting of their character, complete with an avatar brought to animated life in real time.

They’re called VTubers, short for Virtual YouTubers, and they’re all the rage online right now.

Someone produced a program that could create a virtual avatar for a real person, one that makes expressions in real time and gives an illusion of three-dimensional depth. It’s not quite lifelike, of course, but dang if it isn’t quite the artistic imitation! The popularity of Vtubing, much like reactions and socia media streaming, absolutely exploded in the last few years. I’m sure that was only enhanced by the entire fracas of COVID and government lockdowns – hey, as I said, where else can we go when we’re not going anywhere? – but either way, it has been astonishing.

The international cast of Hololive.

There is an entire community, a sub-culture, of VTubers online, just as there is among musicians and artists and tradesmen of any kind. There is a community among their fans, too, much like everyone who avidly follows sports. But unquestionably the epitome of it all, right now, has to be a group known as Hololive Productions.

It’s an international organization that brings together several girls from across the entire world to work both together and independently as VTubers. They do their own thing on their own channels, they collaborate often, they have events entirely dedicated to them, and they form friendships, all under the veil of their respective avatars. They sing, dance, chat, produce albums, or anything else they like, and even have concerts! Most of the girls are multilingual to some degree, and there are branches in Japan, South Korea, North America, Indonesia, and their used to be one in China. One of their most popular groups draws from Australia, Germany, Canada, and everywhere in between.

It is… staggering… to think of that! An international business based solely on having real people parade around behind virtual avatars! Organizing those concerts and events, creating and selling related merchandise, sponsoring all of their activities, and that is how they make their living.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve found them to be adorable, engaging, and hilarious – which is why I am subscribed to nearly a dozen of them – but, still, I find myself stunned by everything that has gone into this.

A particular note about their concerts: the technology has apparently progressed to the point of 3D holograms. Not necessarily of anything especially realistic, for the most part, but enough for artistic three-dimensional representations of fictitious characters. Hololive used it to bring the avatars of these girls onto the stage to perform for their fans, and they’re not the only ones. It’s also been used by Riot Games to show characters from League of Legends on-stage, singing and dancing alongside the real vocalists in the opening ceremonies of tournaments. Consider that for a moment. Not only are entirely fictitious people and the avatars of girls being brought to the stage instead of the girls themselves, but entire halls and stadiums of people are there to cheer it on.

That is a huge number of people investing a great deal of their living in something which ultimately isn’t real, even as what isn’t real is brought one step closer into the real world. Is that not a powerful blurring of the line between the real and the virtual?

We’ve been making fake things look real for a long time, haven’t we?

How much of what happens online, in a space that isn’t anywhere within the real world, influences reality?

Want to buy something? Amazon.

What to research something? Wikipedia.

Want to find something? Google.

Want to watch something? Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, and a million other streaming sites.

Want to sent someone a note? Texting and email.

Want to do all the social interactions without actually doing them? Facebook.

Want to have some fun? Video games, of every kind.

Want a more immersive, realistic gaming experience? Virtual reality games, complete with headsets.

Want to keep up on sports? ESPN.

Want to be part of a sport? Fantasy leagues.

Want to find someone to date? Online dating sites.

Can’t get a date but have an itch to scratch? …ok, not touching that one!

The list goes on. And on. And on.

He was right about one thing.

How can we call ourselves or our lives balanced when we do this much living online, enjoying and paying for a virtual simulation of life instead of the real thing? How long can we do it before something gives?

I recently read about a man in Japan who married a girl that doesn’t exist. She’s a fictional character, completely made up, not even the avatar of a VTuber. The internet allowed him to come into contact with a company that provides interactive programs for various such characters, catering to people who want to bring their favorite fictitious people into their real lives. The company has ended service for the specific character that this man is “married” to, but he still considers himself married and intends to be faithful to her, and hopes that, somehow, someway, someday, he might see her again. Especially if robotics and AI should happen to develop enough to recreate her.

There’s a term for it now: fictosexual, to be attracted to entirely fictitious characters.

I can see a certain appeal, especially in terms of what little I know of Japanese culture. Not only is this, in someone’s mind, a “perfect” person, but one that will forever be so. This girl that never existed will never be corrupted by the real world. She will always be pure, including sexually. She will never say mean things, never say no, never tell hard truths, never be unfaithful, never break up with those who set their hearts on her. It is the ultimate virtual simulation of an important relationship, with none of the pitfalls of real life and real women.

There is… so much about that which is disturbing to contemplate.

To stay on track and keep to my point, I mention only one: whatever his life and his circumstances, this man who married a character has clearly spent far too much living – too much time, money, attention, and passion – in a virtual reality, and he is paying a price for the assertion of the virtual into his reality. If he stays true to his intention, he will never marry a real woman, never have children, and he may never know the joy of having his own family.

…which is not so dissimilar to myself, a lifelong bachelor nearing four decades of time on this Earth, with very few friends or other connections in real life anymore, who also spends far too much of my life enjoying simulated experiences in instead of the real thing.

What was it Dumbledore said? It does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live.

My life is not balanced.

I need to change that. I’m going to try to change it.

“Don’t be fooled by the internet. It’s cool to get on the computer, but don’t let the computer get on you. It’s cool to use the computer. Don’t let the computer use you. Y’all saw the Matrix. There’s a war going on. The battlefield is in the mind, and the prize is the soul.”

– Prince, musician

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4 Responses to The Easy Imbalance of Too Much Virtual Living

  1. ramon3ljamon says:

    Breaking habits is hard, but sometimes necessary. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. AK says:

    You bring up some fascinating points here, ones I’ve thought of quite a lot myself. I have a similar issue to yours — I work way too much and spend most of my “social” or free time indulging in one of these hobbies, one of which is watching VTubers. It doesn’t come out to much time in total, but it does take away from time I might spend actually socializing.

    I still don’t know how much I actually care, though. On one hand, I completely agree with your reasoning and see your points, because they make sense. On the other, at some point I stopped caring much about what others thought of me beyond what i absolutely had to care about for professional reasons. That was nice because I dropped a lot of that old social anxiety, but then I also lost any hope that I’d ever be “normal” in that sense. As for life passing me by, sometimes i wonder if that’s even a problem — as if I’ve seen what real life out there has to offer me, and I’m not impressed by it.

    So if we had accessible, realistic full-dive VR today I’m sure I’d get hooked on it immediately as a method of escapism. As you point out, all this fixation on fictional characters (and real people playing characters to some extent with VTubers) can cause serious problems, but then sometimes I think missing out on society with all its hypocrisy and double-dealing isn’t really a bad thing, especially with the potential future ability to replace it with something better.

    Maybe better, but not real. I guess that’s the point. I wish you great luck out there if you haven’t found it yet. If I could, I really would lock myself in forever, but I just can’t for practical reasons, and even then I know it’s the wrong thing to do even if it’s what I want. Sorry for such a long comment, but this is something I feel strongly about too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Merlin says:

      Oh, no worries about long comments! I appreciate them, and the thought and care that goes into them. 🙂

      You raise some interesting points as well. The one that stands out to me is the potential for replacing the hypocrisy and double-dealing we find in real life with something better. I can root for that, but I have a feeling that the only way it gets replaced is if we go out into the real world and do the replacing ourselves, one day at a time.

      Liked by 1 person

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