In part, this patterns seems to me related to the newness of it all, both technically and socially. The idea of such vibrant, active relationships and interactions online was not a new one to me (having spent considerable time years ago in the far more socially oriented Sims Online), but WoW’s sociality is different.
I’ve waxed on about this before, so I’m not going to re-hash, but I think a key aspect of these relationships (I’m still thinking a lot about motivations these days) is why we play. The Sims was really about two things: 1. building a house; 2. talking to people. With an emphasis on the latter. WoW is far more about getting STUFF.
Implications? Well, if you’re there to get stuff, the social becomes either means to that end (get along well with the guild, be invited to raid, find a good Arena team, etc., etc.), or a tasty side dish to the main, pragmatic course. Meaningful social connections in WoW, then, become somehow more special: they aren’t as required, they aren’t as expected, they aren’t as common.
So those whispered conversations with a new acquaintance strike me in a different way: ‘Wow!’ I think to myself. ‘How nice that we just had a private chat!’ In the Sims, that happened all the time, every day. Didn’t really mean all that much per se – the meaning depended more on how much we shared, what we talked about, how personal it was, etc. In WoW, the mere fact of the exchange is meaningful. (Although, of course, sharing more personal information adds to that meaning in very important ways.)
So, the contexts and the norms of what conversation means is fundamentally different in WoW. The game goals, reward structure, interface, and general social rules contribute to this sense that (especially purely social, private) conversations are a bit out of the norm. Hence, they feel more special. By which I suppose I mean that they take on a greater social and interpersonal significance, with more relational meaning.