Alone in a crowd & Lonely all around

Part 1: Web

I started my internet years downloading games for my Nintendo DS flashcard. One of my favorite websites that is now shut down was called MundoEmu. It was your standard ROM repository with plenty of games to choose from, and also a chat box smack dab in the middle of the homepage.

It didn't need to be there – hell, most people didn't even talk about the actual games hosted on the site. But it was, and it was awesome! The number of people online peaked during holidays where you're supposed to be celebrating outside, funny enough. I can't say I've made any friends from there, unfortunately, but I'm sure many people did.

Many more sites from that time had these kinds of open chat boxes, and it's something I miss. It makes your experience on the internet feel more alive, like you're truly able to communicate with anyone at any time from all over the world. Moderating those was no doubt a nightmare of a task – one that would be even worse today due to the sheer increase of people using the web nowadays – but I believe this sort of open communication channel should still have a place in today's internet.

Unfortunately, open chat boxes, forums and joy were phased out starting in the early 2010's, replaced by something that would give corporations even more money somehow: stealing all of your private information!

And instant messaging exclusive to people you're already friends with. And so, with no friends, I had to look somewhere else for conversations with another human being.

I decided to join Tumblr after coming across a video about different fandoms and spotting Disgaea among them, which was among one of my interests back then. Looking at it now, nowhere does it say these fandoms are specifically on Tumblr, but my very limited understanding of the platform was that it was where the Homestuck people were, and so the rest of these fandoms must be there as well.

Tumblr is quite the unique website even to this day, being a mix of traditional social media and blogging. It's one of the rare instances in modern times where you can fully customize your profile (in this case, your blog's theme) with HTML and CSS. No character limit, no algorithm shoving posts in your face (back then at least) and almost no celebrity presence made it a very earnest kind of community. The site didn't even have an instant messaging system until 2015, relying on asks and the now defunct fan mail system.

Twitter is in my opinion the closest platform to Tumblr, because on both of them you write your opinions down into and hope another soul comes across it like a message in a bottle. Though Twitter encourages you to write something that will piss the biggest amount of people off at the same time, and has a robust algorithm to ensure they will in fact see it, like mentioned before Tumblr didn't have any of it until very recently (and even then it's kind of tucked away). You can only find people by going into a tag and browsing for posts either by popularity or chronological order.

With little understanding of how a fandom even worked and a lack of real life friends, I started my journey on the website. I did not understand how it worked. 

I knew how to make and reblog posts, how to follow creators. I knew that having certain characters in your asks would sometimes make them get lost. But I didn't know how to join these bustling communities that had been advertised to me like the coziest places on earth. No matter what I reblogged or posted, the little icon that indicates your askbox would not show a number near it.

Tumblr's old askbox icon, a gray envelope with a red speech bubble displaying the number of asks you have.

I didn't get to see this very often...

I quickly moved from regular Tumblr to roleplaying Tumblr, and that's when things got… worse! They got worse.

You needed two things to make it big in the roleplaying scene back in the day: enough artistic skills to draw your own roleplaying icons, or enough formatting ability to make your threads look fancy and reflect the amount of effort you put into the actual writing. I had neither, and so I was mostly ignored throughout the 20+ blogs I would make throughout the years.

Fast forward to the late 2010's and we had a shiny new platform to work with: Discord. It's not a social media, nor was there (at the time) a way to find public servers in-app, but it soon became one of the big places to socialize with strangers anyways. I was made aware of it while looking for people to play competitive Smash Ultimate with. I played against one person, and then proceeded to uninstall the app after getting ignored by the rest of the server.

I found it again some years later through Tumblr posts, and decided to give it a try. This time, though, I didn't have a server to join right off the bat, so I just added a couple people I talked to through Tumblr instant messenger at the time. But I still had that feeling, that I needed to fit into a greater whole, and so the search for a community to call home began anew!

It didn't go very well.

I got frequently ignored on every server I joined. Hell, that's if I had anything to say at all, since my social skills were (and still are) severely lacking. Some people had pre-established friend groups, and some impressed others through their drawing skills. Once again, I had neither. I've always been more of a writing person myself, and even the most interesting books need a cover to make people pick them.

Even in writing focused servers, I was always talked over by people who already had others hooked into their writing. And it was good writing, don't get me wrong, they deserve all the attention they got! But I wish they could have waited at least five minutes before they interrupted other people. 

Not all people who talked over others had high status, some of them just had no qualms with ignoring something they weren't interested in even if that thing was actually a person behind the screen. It's a phenomena worth observing, how these spaces that were supposed to be fostering a community became a competition for attention. I'll talk more about this in part 3.

Discord's public server explorer button, a light gray outer circle with a green compass icon inside.

I have never and will never touch this devilish thing. You can't make me.

Part 2: MMOs

While all of that was happening, I got into another hobby that was theoretically supposed to land me lots of virtual friends: MMOs! 

There was a famous company that localized a ton of Asian MMOs and at one point in time I had played pretty much their entire catalog. Maplestory, Grand Chase, Perfect World, Lunia, Ragnarok, and many more whose names now escape me.

Long story short, I didn't make friends on either, and my memory of that time is but a blur. The one moment I came close to forming any sort of connection was when I joined a Maplestory guild, but got kicked out a couple weeks later because I pissed off the leader's boyfriend. So sorry if you're reading this and you got compared to the annoying orange by some kid in the early 2010's. I was like, 9.

So instead, I'm going to talk about my experience with MMOs in recent times! Starting with…

MapleStory is an MMORPG that underwent one of the most drastic changes in regards to socializing. The game in its early state was already quite reliant on solo grinding, but not to the extent that it is today. Since every job now has wide reach attacks much earlier, you pretty much need the whole map for yourself if you want to maximize experience gain. Some activities that required a party, like Monster Park, are now solo only. It's common to see someone request you to "cc" or change channel (the game's server instances) if you kill enemies in the same map as them for too long.

A screenshot of Maplestory gameplay.

It's almost impossible to find empty channels for some of the maps.

This is a new issue, as old MMORPGs were completely built on the novelty of interacting with as many people at once as possible. World of Warcraft had its events and raids that required an immense amount of coordination from the game's guilds, for example. I can't tell if that's still a thing in the current state of the game, as I try to engage as little as possible with Activision-Blizzard properties due to their unethical treatment of their employees, but I've heard that the Classic version of the game still has large scale social events.

I've been playing Guild Wars 2 a little recently, and I would place it somewhere in the middle. You can go the whole game only getting levels through exploration and solo instances, but there's a big incentive in participating in dungeons and map-wide events with other players. Curiously, despite being in the name of the game, joining a guild is done kind of late in the game and is not advertised much.

Paradoxically, the MMORPG in which I had the most social experiences in recent times was Final Fantasy XIV, where most of the gameplay is single player and story focused. There are already whole essays out there about why the community is the way it is, so I won't get too deep into it, but in my opinion I think the duty finder is a big part of it.

In a lot of other MMORPGs, like the aforementioned GW2, you have to make use of a party finder to join a pre-existing party, which can be very intimidating especially if you're a beginner at the game and haven't had the time to study the dungeon beforehand. FFXIV also makes use of something similar for high-end content, but for quick dungeoning you can use a matchmaking system called the Duty Finder that automatically creates and places you in a party according to your role, level and equipment.

It's still encouraged that you read up on a dungeon before queuing up, but since you don't know who you'll be paired with there's no great fear of being the only one out of the loop. Even if you've already done that particular content before, communication is still helpful especially if you play a tank or healer class, as the amount of enemies the party can safely engage with depends on those players' particular playstyle and how good their current gear set is.

It's not a perfect system by any means. If you want to play as a class focused on dealing damage, the queues can take twenty minutes or even longer. Some people make a big deal out of optimizing your skill usage even in the most casual of content. I've had to quit mid dungeon plenty of times because of someone being excessively rude, or not listening to tips the rest of the party gave them. The community is very welcoming most of the time, but it's far from perfect.

A screenshot of Final Fantasy XIV gameplay.

Enough social interaction. I got fish to catch.

There's some more non-gameplay reasons as to why I think FFXIV naturally encourages player interaction, but I don't want to make it the focus of this article. Square Enix as a publisher has been caught in some very sketchy business practices recently as well, so I feel uncomfortable praising something with their name on it too much – though the developer team still deserves many praises.

For those who have been paying really close attention, you might have noticed that I've specifically used the word MMORPG in the handful of paragraphs above. That 's because... There's not really a lot of non-RPG MMOs around anymore. The one exception I can think of is VRChat – a notable one but an exception nonetheless.

VRChat to me is an interesting case. There's not really a "gameplay" by default, the main bulk of the game is social interaction. So, in theory, it should be the least lonely one out there, right? Yes, but also no. There's a couple issues (that have affected me personally but might not be present for everyone else) I want to bring up.

In a way, the fact that the social interaction is the gameplay can be troubling for people that have trouble in social situations. Starting conversations in, say, MMORPGs, can be much simpler due to the fact that there's always a topic to talk about. 

In GW2, I've been making an effort to make small talk as much as I can with the people I find wandering the same maps as me. Be it to compliment someone's mount, or ask what's going on when there's a group of four or more people standing idle in a spot on the map. These don't really lead to anything, I don't expect them to – but it could if you wanted to try and have a chat with someone that's not busy with gameplay.

VRChat is like real life in which you have to come up with a conversation starter on the spot. Sure, oftentimes there are things in the game itself to talk about, like an interesting bit of environment or simply complimenting someone's avatar, but there's nothing you can guaranteedly fall back on when you want to strike up a chat. Furthermore, VRChat only supports voice chat with no text option, which makes it even harder for those who are socially awkward or not comfortable using their voice in a strange space. I've watched some videos that claim people are generally respectful when it comes to how your voice sounds, but that's if you have a masculine-sounding one. People with feminine voices still get torn to shreds like in any online space.

But most importantly, people straight up block new users or default avatars. That is literally a setting built into the game. Granted, it's there for security reasons – there is always the possibility that a new user is someone trying to dodge a ban from a previous account, but it's still very demoralizing to know you'll need to roam alone in the game for hour before some people even consider you worthy to show up on their screen.

There's a weird sort of elitism with custom avatars. You can find free to use ones laying around in worlds specifically designed to host them, but most veteran big name players have a custom avatar made specifically for them. If you don't have one, you're automatically not worth some people's time once again.

While I was watching an unrelated video about beginner tips, the person presenting them recommended having a backup avatar to display instead of the default one in case of compatibility issues, because, quote, "at least you'll have a personality". Bleak!

There's also the issue of having to buy a VR headset. Sure, you really don't need to, but playing without it feels like an incomplete experience. VR technology has come a long way ever since the game was first released but it's still very expensive for a lot of people, and there's not a lot of fully fledged VR games out there for those that would like to use their headsets for more than just VRChat.

A comic about feeling lonely in VRChat. In the first panel, a character says "Yeah, time to hop on VRChat and have fun with friends and meet cool new people!". The second panel shows the character sitting alone by a counter, with people around them talking amongst themselves. In the third panel, the character says "I feel lonely...".

Comic included with permission of the author. You can find her work on her Twitter or her website.

Part 3: What have I learned? 

I've decided to categorize the loneliness I've felt on the internet into two kinds: intentional and environmental.

Environmental loneliness is being alone in a crowd. It's an empty town in an abandoned MMO, an old webpage without a timestamp. A busy Discord channel you can't seem to find an opportunity to type into. It's the step before intentional loneliness, but it can also come during and after it. There's always so much going on around you, but you don't know how to join everyone in the fun. 

Intentional loneliness is typing something in a group chat only to be completely ignored. Having the topic you proposed be immediately talked over. Your message being the one to completely quiet down a channel for hours or days at a time. With the internet being a constant stream of information, it's accounted for that some of it is going to go unnoticed by people. But it still hurts when that information is you, your thoughts and your feelings.

There are always pre established friend groups that never seem to have space for you in particular. This is not an issue exclusive to any era – hell, not even to the internet – but it's accentuated online due to the format conversations take. Getting ignored by someone doesn't make that person bad. We all have to curate our online experiences, and sometimes it involves prematurely cutting off people you don't think you'll vibe with very much. But it sure as hell doesn't feel good to be on the other side of it either.

Like I talked about in part 1, these spaces that are supposed to be collaborative often become a competition for attention. You must be one of the louder voices in whatever conversation is going on at all times, even if that means drowning out some of the quieter, more shy participants. And for what? There's no prize. There's no wider reputation to be gained either, since these are closed off communities by design. So what is it that drives this need?

In a way, conversations with strangers on the modern internet have become almost like a product pitch, instead of a way to share information with other people. You are the product, and you need to use every communication channel available to prove your worth as one. Not as a person, but a thing with a value. Other people's attention is a currency, and you need to make sure you're the only thing they're spending it on by trampling everyone around you.

This article was created by Mei