There was a lively debate amongst the commenters at Botgirl’s blog over the last week or so, concerning that perennial preoccupation of the SL intellectual elite, the question of identity in virtual environments.
I must have listened (and occasionally contributed) to this discussion dozens of times in the last three years, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything that was a significant advance on what Sherry Turkle was writing about fifteen years ago.
The particular facet of the issue that we (for of course I couldn’t resist chipping in with my two cents’ worth) focussed on this time around was the significance of choosing to represent oneself in Second Life with an avatar that differs substantially from one’s corporeal incarnation, especially with regard to gender.
How dishonest is this? Moral relativist that I am, my answer to that question is “it depends”; upon a lot of things, but mainly the expectations of the parties to the interaction. In the discussion parallels were drawn with other media, such as written fiction or cinema, with the point being made that no one feels deceived when they discover that, say, Robert De Niro isn’t really a taxi driver. This is true to a degree; for books, plays and movies there are commonly accepted cultural norms that define when it’s OK to make stuff up and when it’s not, and people do feel cheated when the rules are broken.
There is much less consensus regarding online interaction though, and, crucially, in a space like Second Life there is no easy way to communicate the extent to which one is using the platform as a vehicle for personal reinvention, as opposed to expressing one’s everyday self (which of course opens up the question of where one’s “true” identity really lies, or if such a thing even exists).
I’ve noted before that the research evidence suggests that it’s harder than one might think to create a new personality in a virtual world (certainly my avatar is boringly similar to my mortal form, in appearance and character), so in theory it should be possible to get to “know” someone just by interacting with their SL alter-ego. I suspect that there are not many people who could be bothered to put in the work required for this though, and there is always the (mostly unconscious) drive to project one’s internal object-relations on to the virtual relationships, which further muddies the waters.
With all this going on it’s hardly surprising that miscommunication and unhappiness can occur from time to time. I don’t think that there’s much to be done about it; it’s the price we pay for access to the creative possibilities of the medium, like Cézanne being poisoned by Emerald Green.
Like I said though, none of this is new, or particularly profound, except insofar as it sheds some light on that other topic that has launched a thousand SL blog posts; “Why blog about Second Life?” Why make the same points about the same issues over and over, when we could be turning our minds to something more productive? I can only answer for myself of course, but I think (as, unsurprisingly, I’ve said before) that SL blogging is essentially just another form of role-play, a chance to imagine oneself as a heavyweight intellectual commentator, without all the tiresome business of actually having to think too much about what one writes.
It keeps me amused anyhow. And I get to link to some cool music.