One well-known children’s story that passed me by in youth is The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. On the surface, it is the story of a plush toy – not unlike my Donovan B. Bear, who sits nursing his coffee on my profile photo – who, after years of being played with, slept with, and loved to death, has developed a personality, a joie de vivre, and a burning desire to be Real. At first, his Reality is imposed by his Boy/Owner – no doubt the same sort of projection of facets of the Boy’s own personality upon the toy that each of us has imposed upon well-loved toys of our own. As the Velveteen Rabbit ages, his adventures with the Boy dirty his sateen ears, undo his seams, and rub off the pile of his velvet, giving a bit more “personality” to his outward appearance as well.
Times may have changed, and we may be somewhat older than the Boy, but our need for play never dies; it just mutates. Today, we play in the nearly-infinite nursery called The Internet, creating both new scenarios for our old toys, and new toys for our old scenarios. Some of the most popular toys in this nursery are the “social networks” in which we create relationships, play, and interact. I don’t believe it’s a stretch to say we are privileged to play in a large toybox called “Ning”, in a playhouse called “TuDiabetes”.
“A toybox?!” you may scoff. “A playhouse?” Social interaction may be defined as the play of words and actions, wants, needs, and exuberances on a community stage. Each Web site, each social network, each little Internet subuniverse we create is no more than an empty room with a bit of furniture until we make it Real. Just like that old plush sofa is just a plush sofa until you hide behind it and make it a fort, and just like a stage is just a room with a curtain instead of a wall until you open it up with dialog and action, a social network needs people being, well, social to make it Real.
And so, the Velveteen Rabbit test.
In its technical description, TuDiabetes exists only as instructions in the brain of one, or several, computers housing the Ning networks. Each time one of us requests that one of those computers “serve” us a page, TuDiabetes is created afresh on our computer screens – perhaps to stay until we reboot a fluky Windows operating system – but what we see is the Velveteen Rabbit in the nursery cupboard. It is not until we read the fora, post messages and blogs, post pictures, and make friends that we begin to see a personality behind the pages. With our posts, we leave something of ourselves in the community – that indelible mark which, over time, serves to make that sterile room Real in our minds. We know that even when we close the browser, TuDiabetes will continue on another computer, or even in the nursery cupboard that is Ning’s server farm, and that it will have evolved again when next we summon it forth. TuDiabetes has its own adventures when we are away, and tells us of all the wonderful, scary, and touching things its members have done.
While the Velveteen Rabbit’s story ends – or perhaps begins? – with the “nursery magic fairy” turning the image of adventure-worn velveteen and sawdust into a flesh-and-blood rabbit, TuDiabetes becomes Real every time a member makes real friend of an online acquaintance, every time someone turns to us saying, “Help me!” or “Celebrate with me!” It becomes Real every time a member says, “TuDiabetes is a place where…” Not “TuDiabetes is a site” – but “TuDiabetes is a place.” We have made this Cyberplace Real. And when we get together In Real Life, the “cybernursery magic fairy” waves her virtual wand, and we are a Place. We are a People. We are a Community. We are Real.
In the eyes of our members, we have passed the “Velveteen Rabbit” test.