Online dishonesty

While spending the last couple of days dealing with various things in my real life, or in meatspace as the vernacular would have it, I’ve been thinking about a couple of related but separate issues that relate to interaction in cyberspace, namely dishonesty and perceived intimacy.

I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn that there is a lot of the former around; the last paper I read said that around 70% of net users report they’ve been lied to online at some point, while about 30% admit lying to others. Of course people aren’t always completely truthful when they talk to researchers either, so those figures should probably read 100% and 99%. What kind of mendacity is out there? The same as in real life; lies about age, occupation, marital status, but also about gender, which is harder to pull off in the flesh. Males and females were equally dishonest (or maybe all the women surveyed were really men). Why do people resort to deception? Parallels with meatspace again; to elevate their their status and attractiveness, and to guard their privacy. The biggest motivator however, was the desire to try out a new identity – this was particularly true for those who switched gender.

So far, so unsurprising. What good would a second life be if it was just the same as your first one? And is it really dishonest to try to be a different person in SL? Isn’t that person just the real you, your true self unencumbered by all the things (and people) that frustrate you in the real world?

It does raise the question though of how far it is possible to reinvent yourself online. People try to change their lives all the time, by moving city, or getting a new job, or a fresh relationship, or a new haircut. Some manage to pull it off, but most are disappointed, because the most important factor is what hasn’t changed, that is themselves. Conventional wisdom would say that to really transform yourself you need psychotherapy, (conventional wisdom among therapists that is, who can hardly be expected to say otherwise), but can an alternative reality like SL give people the opportunity to be someone else, even if it is only temporarily, or can it only ever be acting?

This raises some core issues about identity. Is it possible to act exactly like someone else when you are in SL, and thus actually become them, for all practical purposes? Or is there some part of your personality that will always show through the character you construct for yourself online?

Well, that’s what I’m hoping to find out, if I ever get it together enough to get in to SL. I plan to try to interview people when they are in character, then hope they will answer a few questions about their real life. Eventually I’d like to construct some sort of personality inventory to use online, one that would measure how well people can shift identity, and see if that correlates with any other personality traits.

It’s late at night, I’ll have to come back to the subject of perceived intimacy.

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