Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Authentic Avatars?

Portrait: Rotpaulette Carter the sweetest vampire in cyberspace

I heard an interesting radio programme last weekend (CBC at the Calgary Institute broadcasting highlights of the seminar ‘Second Life and First’). It was exploring what it described as the ‘confusions and contradictions of online identity’ and it pondered ‘how the virtual world may be altering our sense of community and ourselves’.

The panellists suggested that in RL we have a 'body truth' that cannot be changed, cannot lie. When we look at each other in RL our body truth gives information about our gender, race, age, weight, fitness etc. But how do we decide we ‘know’ each other in RL? For one thing we compile abstract lists of data. We can know another’s job, habits, favourite music and what makes them happy or sad etc. We gather lists of personal information, and filter out who is a friend and who is to be avoided based upon our internal database. We then claim we ‘know’ each other and fancy that the passage of time itself adds a further measure of knowledge.

Yet, body truth, knowledge lists and duration of friendship do not necessarily mean we do ‘know’ each other at all! How much do we really know about another’s inner life? Just how ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ are we to each other in Real Life? Is it even possible? How much of our idea of each other is manufactured according to skin deep body truths, data lists and the adding up of calendars?

The programme posed this question: 'What is the authentic self?' It asked if we can discover more of our authentic self by how we express ourselves in SL? After all, we are free (because of our anonymity) to express things we cannot express in RL due to social conventions or simple shyness! Does that mean we are closer to expressing our true selves in SL?

In RL we have a work self, a home self, a daughter self etc. An observation is that each ‘self’ is defined by our relationships with others. Now, the intriguing question: what self (or selves) do we chose in SL? What are we saying about ourselves with our avi? What relationships do we seek to have in SL? We can make our avatars look as weird and wonderful as we like. We can act out some crazy fantasies with each other if we have the inclination. Yet, however our avatar looks or behaves; which ever avi we use (I help skew Linden stats with 3 avatars. Sorry Sofian!) there is still the same individual operating the avi from their keyboard back in RL.

Perhaps SL is simply a ‘playground’ where our shy, authentic selves can come out to play with each other? We have moments of sensing the real person sitting at that distant keyboard operating our avatar friend. Perhaps this is why SL ‘hooks’ us in such a powerful fashion? It gives us a glimpse of each other’s true selves! Usually such a unique and intense experience comes just seconds before SL lag and crash ‘gets us’ and we are sucked back to being our RL avatar!

As distant as stars
are the avatars we meet,
yet we touch their fire.

Osaka Dante - SL poet

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