„Q: to what extent is it possible to separate the virtual identity from the one in the sensual world?
Only to a very small extent, I guess. I have been heavy into Role Playing Games back in the Nineties and do thus have some experience in assuming roles which are not so different from the roles you take on in Second Life or WoW.
My experience is that these roles are facets of yourself. You take on a specific role. This might or might not correspond to your personality. If, for example, you play a barbarian, I do not think that this necessarily reflects your own inner barbarianism. You might just as well play something which is totally different from your real self. I, though, always somehow ended up playing a bard; even if I started out with a ranger, over the time he became more and more bard-like in behavior and in skills. And I guess that does reflect something of my own personality. So it might be hard to lie in RPGs.
But be that as it may, what you play in RPGs or MMORPGs is a role and as that it never encompasses your whole self, but only facets of it. So the role is a separation from your own being, even if yourself shows through to a big extent. And that is also true for the people you are online. But, for starters, on a physical level your online-self is lacking all the substantialities of your bodyliness, and that makes you something other than your whole self.
You can still take on roles in Facebook and Xing. On Xing for example - which is a business-network - you take on the role of your professional self and more or less suppress aspects which you think are not appropriate for your professional appearance. At least, I guess, this is true for a vast majority of people on Xing or LinkedIn. And though you are more your private self on FB, you play a role there also, albeit that this role might reflect more of your real self than in business. It is even advisable to act strategically on FB since the Net never forgets and in the future you might regret the one behavior or the other if you act purely on impulses.
This leaves us with an un-whole appearance as soon as you enter the online-worlds. You can, of course, appear un-whole in RL, i.e. the sensual world, but in cyberspace you are incomplete if you wish to or not. Even if you would succeed in being your true psychological self online, you would still miss the body and its expressions. Thus you are not whole.
The human psyche, that is at least my belief, is not equipped to really cope with this not being your whole self. You can play your roles on this basis, but you cannot be your true self. Being yourself is on the other hand a necessity for a wholesome community. At least for a special type of community - the sociality in all its richness. This special community needs to allow their participants to be their true selfs. They do not need to show their self, but they need to have the possibility to express it if need be. And to achieve this possibility you need the sensual experiences in all their richness because man is a sensual being which needs to hear, see, listen, smell and touch. Human psyche has need of this sensory part.
Online does not allow for this. So online cannot provide wholesome social community, and that is the sort of community I was referring to in my article. Back then, I spoke of hearth fires. You only experience the value of a hearth fire if you are able to huddle together before it. Second Life, WoW, FB, Xing might constitute rich additions to your life, but a healthy basis in the sensual world is necessary for a complete life. And part of this necessity is real-life-community because man is a social animal. And so I would always advise to never neglect this point. People, especially people born after 1990, which rose up using online-realities all the time, are in danger to forget their physical basis if they overemphasize the value of their online-lives.
Try this online ...
Q: And if it is "separatable" enough, does the same criteria for forming a relationship, be it personal or be it creating a community, applies to the virtual self as it does for the self of the sensual world? The virtual self lives pretty much its own life (especially if we take such forms of CMC as SecondLife), why can't we assign it an option to be a part of a community?
That´s kind of schizoid, isn´t it? If the online-self lives in its own world in the sense that it lives in another world than the physical basis, that sounds very unhealthy in my ears. But yes, we can assign it to be part of a community in which we than invest only a part of our own being. But again, that´s not our whole self, and wholeness is what man strives for. The other things are play. It´s okay to play, but we should stay aware of our whole self.
Q: I have myself experienced cases when the trust to the virtual identity of a person far exceeds the trust to the "real" identity
That is a subjective experience of yours which I do not doubt. But I have not experienced something alike. Liking someone - yes. Trusting, feeling friendship to someone I do only know online - no. At most I sometimes have the feeling after conversing with someone online that this someone would be a person I would like to make friends with. But I cannot before having at least shaken hands.
Maybe, I have to reconsider my point on this aspect, but I guess, I can´t as long as I do not experience something alike for myself. Well, taken this way, it comes down to quantities and one would have to count opinions: "How do you think about this?"
Q: What criterias or rules (besides those you already mentioned - trust and friendship) should a group of virtually closely related, never-met-in-sensual-world people challenge to say eventually: we are a community?
Shared experiences might be a way. I guess that for example the peoples in Iran which stood up against President Ahmadinedschad, and which were often organizing over different cities and vast landscapes by online means, and which in vast numbers might never have met, that these people might feel a trusting community. But I guess that these people also would have at top point of their wish-list the point "Meet the others!"
Shared experiences do form very reliable bonds and so they might be a substitute for lacking physical experiences. One should make this topic of a survey ...
Gestern erreichte mich dann die Mail einer lettischen Forscherin, die danach fragte, ob ich die Hypothese, dass es keine echten Gemeinschaften, die nur über das Netz organisiert sind, gibt, immer noch aufrecht erhalten würde, und ob ich weitere Argumente dafür oder dagegen gefunden hätte.
Ich denke, meine These stimmt immer noch, und glaube, dass meine Gründe dafür auch Sie interessieren könnten. Deshalb veröffentliche ich hiermit die Antwort auf diese Mail. Schade nur, dass das Kommentarsystem immer noch nicht funktioniert, Ihre Meinung hätte mich sehr interessiert. Mailen Sie sie mir doch.
Selbst etwas bizarre Freunde treffen sich besser in real life ...
thank you very much for your mail and the interest in my old article. I will gladly give you an answer to your question.
But first let me point out that I dropped out of active research in things online by the turn of the century. Nowadays I work mostly in ethics and in literary sciences. So don´t expect a good knowledge of recent research literature.
But I am very much living with and in social networks as Facebook, Xing and so on, so I do have a good practical knowledge. And from this viewpoint, I think that my thesis from 13 years ago still holds true in essence. There are no virtual communities which do have the same quality with regard to parameters like trust, friendship and tolerance with those in real life.
Back then I certainly underestimated the role the Internet would play in every people´s life by the end of the first decennial of the new millennium. But as for my thesis this very important role of the Net is quite interesting, since nowadays there are millions of people which have connections via net in two ways. First there are the connections with people with which they are acquainted, even befriended in real life, and second there are the people you only know by wire. The latter may be blokes with which you are playing online games or customers and employees which with you commute. And I still guess that a close relationship is almost always - mind, there might be exceptions, but I guess they are seldom - possible only with people you have got to know in RL.
The Net is very well adapted to keep your personal network close together. Especially those seemingly meaningless textbits which you post on Twitter and Facebook often are very meaningful to people which know you. So you keep everyone important in your life informed about your general status. (Though there are people saying that most postings are strategically and do not tell what really is going on in the psyche of the poster - but that does not conform with my observations.) But my guess is, that the meaning of your tidbits of information are meaningful only to people you know from RL, and also that these tidbits do interest only the people you know from RL, but not the occasional gaming-partner or customer.
There lies a whole world of meaning behind a Tweet like - let me pick one randomly from my current Tweetdeck-screen - this: "mmmmm Hubby's going to surprise us with cinnamon rolls (even a sugar-free one for me, lol) He spoils us :-P". What do you make of it without knowing this guy? And wouldn´t you smile to your self and have a good feeling about your friend if you knew her, and see that she obviously expects a good afternoon? There is very much meaning in this white noise of the Net, but only if you care, and you cannot really care for the 501 anonymous members of your gang in Mafia Wars or the totally virtual neighbours in Farmville.
I basically did not come up with additional arguments, but with additional observation, though only on a strictly subjective and personal scale. If anyone would want to test my old hypotheses, now would be the time and I would advise to inquire into the two different groups of online-acquaintances as a measure for testing and observation.
Hope that helped, good luck with your work.
All the best,