Being In The World

Some of the people in my study spent as much as seventy hours a week in the world. Many refuse to tell others how much time they spend in the world, or even that they spend any time there. But amongst ourselves we have a shared sense of identity as residents of a virtual world, what Becker1 would call a shared deviant identity. We are aware that we are part of a shared subcultural space and we gain support and a sense of strength from those others who share that space with us.

Residents see Second Life as a separate world to the meatspace one. The philosophical distinctions made by authors like Malpas do not resonate with residents. Residents want it to be separate because they are choosing it instead of meatspace. They are choosing to move into a world where perceived agency is increased, where fun is prioritized and physical violence is impossible. It is unsurprising then that it is a prevalent attitude that the fun will be destroyed if the connection to a meatspace identity is made. However, because of the high hardware requirements of the Second Life client software2 3, and on account of the instability of communication channels in the world many residents of Second Life use Facebook to communicate. During May 2011 Facebook began deleting, without warning, accounts in the names of Second Life avatars4 5 citing their policy that only ‘real names’ must be used for Facebook accounts. This resulted in a barrage of complaints to both Facebook and Linden Lab6. Linden Lab had, and continues to, promote Facebook as a way of obtaining information about Second Life7. Residents complained that they did not want to associate their Second Life avatar name with that of their meatspace identity; “Under no cuircumstances (sic) do I want to share my RL name with anyone who doesn’t already know me by that name in RL”8, “In this case, LL are suggesting that we provide a third party with both our RL information and our SL account data, which is completely unacceptable”9, “I am unwilling to acquiesce to their demand to link my SL identity to my RL identity for the whole world to see and for them to exploit monetarily”10.

The actions of Facebook in deleting avatar accounts was a precursor to Google’s Nymwars11, which began in July of 2011, in which Google began deleting Google+ accounts that they felt were not held in ‘real names’12 13. This sparked a huge online debate14 15 16 17 18 19 20, with Electronic Frontiers making the case for pseudonyms21 and with Google eventually relenting, perhaps realising the magnitude of its misjudgment of how people identify themselves online, and if and how they choose to make connections between online and meatspace identities, and allowing pseudonyms22 23. Sadly, they later unrelented and once again insisted on a ‘real name’, which they then used to facilitate their shared endorsements advertising program, once again meeting with much user resistance and also inadvertently mobilising users to share their workarounds to avoid participation in such advertising campaigns with each other24.

In a meta echo of their desire to protect their avatar names from being connected to their meatspace names residents also desire to maintain the integrity of the characters they create to role play with those avatars. When one enters a role play community one creates a character for the avatar to play, in my case a priest of Osiris. In these communities there is a series of presentations of selves going on, serial selves. The character the resident creates for the avatar to play is an intentional performance. One sets out to perform a particular self via one’s avatar. In this case, a particular Egyptian themed self. This self is informed by the self that is the everyday performance of the human actor in meatspace, which, from my own theological viewpoint, is informed by one’s non material higher spiritual self, which is the self that is that being that has many serial incarnations in the physical world. From this perspective, our physical manifestations are like the avatars of a virtual world, having been created by our higher self to allow it to play in the meatspace world. In turn, our physically manifest self, informed by the higher self, creates the character that we play in our lives here. These serial selves allow a wealth of opportunities to experience selves in a way not possible outside virtual worlds. They allow us to look at things we regard as part of ourselves at one remove. We see the avatar, or the avatar’s character, doing things in a way that is impossible for us to see our meatspace bodies doing things. It allows us to view ourselves as the other. As such, it is a wonderful opportunity to learn about all our selves.

The presentation our avatars give is informed by both our meatspace front stage and back stage selves, to use Goffman’s concept25. We develop an intimate connection with our avatars very quickly, especially if they are modeled on our ideal self26, we even develop a sense of personal space for our avatar27. This close attachment allows parts of our back stage self to be performed in the avatar. Then we have the avatar play a character in a role play community. The resulting performance, a mix of our character’s intended performance and our meatspace selves filtered into our avatar, is then performed back to us by means of the performance the avatar gives us as we watch it in the virtual world. In turn our meatspace self is likewise observed by our higher self. It is interesting to note that reports of a person’s astral self often place the viewpoint of that self as slightly above and behind the viewpoint of the meatspace self28. This is likewise the usual position from which we view our avatar in a virtual world.

But there is noise in the signal of these performances. The avatar, for a variety of reasons, both technical and psychological, does not perform back to us exactly what we intend it to. Avatars are to us as Roy Batty (the replicant in Blade Runner), is to the Blade Runner Deckard, when he tries to explain himself saying “If only you could have seen what I’ve seen with your eyes”29. Batty is a creation who doesn’t turn out as expected. He has become something more. In the world our avatars are the same. Technologically the noise is generated because the hardware and software presently in use allows us a very limited range of control over the avatar. Facial expressions are especially limited, the importance of which in primate society can not be underestimated. Also such things as network lag can cause the avatar to seem to, for example, walk on through the world even when we have lost control over it. Psychologically the noise derives from our incomplete awareness of our selves. We inject aspects of ourselves of which we are only subliminally aware into the avatar, and these are performed back to us by it. It is not uncommon in the world for residents to say the avatar has a life of its own. Sometimes when talking to an avatar it will begin a remark with “My typist says…”, meaning the human behind the avatar says the thing. I suggest that the things avatars do that we consider their own life are rather performances of unrecognised aspects of the meatspace self. The injection of noise and the unrecognised aspects of our meatspace selves become a part of the performance we experience back from the avatar. This final performance, the cumulative result of our higher self, our back stage and front stage meatspace selves, our avatar self, our intended character’s self, and an injection of noise, is assimilated back into our meatspace self, and, in turn, back into our higher self, the actor whose avatar we in the meatspace world are. Avatars are the other that is ourselves. They are incarnations that are concurrent with our physical one. Parallel rather than serial incarnations. As parallel connections allow greater bandwidth than serial ones avatars thus represent an increased opportunity to know our selves.

In role play communities one spends a great deal of time and effort in developing one’s character. One does not wish the bubble to be burst. This is one reason why in both of the communities I studied, despite the availability of voice communications, text was the medium of choice. In fact both communities had a rule that voice communications were not to be used. Passing one’s self off as an ancient Egyptian priest is a lot harder if one’s Australian or American or British accent is revealed. Likewise maintaining a character of a different sex to one’s meatspace self. All this adds up to the fact that role play communities are treated by their inhabitants as their own context. This is the main reason for my choice to study them as such.

Role play is not about victory, “…the ‘game’ revolves not around winning, but around the social relations and social interactions between the characters”30. his interplay, this remixing, is what creates the culture. It is the way in which the truths of the community are decided. Sometimes these truths are not what the community sets out to create or portray. Sometimes they arise, unbidden, from the spontaneous interactions of the characters. Once revealed in the role play, they cannot be taken back. Though sometimes people try.

While most role players and role play communities are not enacting activities that would be seriously immoral or illegal in meatspace, some are. Gorean communities, based on the culture of the Gor series of books by John Lange Norman, were some of the earliest role play communities in Second Life31. These communities graphically enact the misogynist, BDSM and slavery aspects of the Gor books, often extremely graphically. There is a thriving business in avatar skins designed to make one’s avatar look as if it has been beaten. Likewise Furry communities, where humans present as animal or human/animal hybrid avatars, and which also tend to BDSM activities, were also early and resilient role play communities. Both of these communities continued to be a strong presence in Second Life for the entire period of my research, and both types came under fire from those not a part of them, both for the BDSM elements of their cultures, and the Goreans for their non politically correct attitude towards women. The first community I studied was built by people who had previously inhabited a Gorean community, and this resulted in many popular activities and attitudes from Gor being present in that community, albeit having been formed into an ostensibly Egyptian mold. The second community I studied, being built from the ruins of the first, was populated mainly by those persons from the first community who rejected the Gor elements present there.

The creation of these sub cultural spaces is an exemplar of the power of highly connected societies to reshape themselves. The internet is the ultimate example of an enabler of a “…process by which people are emancipated from the controls of society and become responsible to those of a smaller group”32. It is not that residents of virtual worlds are all in some way special as transgressors of meatspace rules. In fact humans have never all lived by the rules. At this time in history our ability to collect and analyse massive amounts of data is making it possible for the powers that be to notice the extent of the non compliance. This is perhaps the reason countless millions sign up to online services with corporations that specify draconian terms of service, often contrary to law, because it is possible to feel one can get away with breaking the rules, a process that it turn weakens the rule of law33. The rules have become so numerous (how many people read every ‘terms of service agreement’ for every website they sign up to?) and so unlikely to be enforced34 that they are routinely ignored35.

If there are only half a dozen people on the planet who juggle geese for fun then, no matter how severe their geographical dispersion, the internet makes it easy for them to find each other. Once they do find each other a process of social cohesion occurs which normalizes, for them, their activities. In their solidarity they come to see conventional conceptions of their activity as the poorly informed conceptualizations of an other from which they choose to dissociate themselves36. This is happening today to an extent not previously seen in human societies. One’s anonymity, or perceived anonymity, on the internet has enabled an acceleration of this phenomenon. Becker states that, “To understand the behavior of someone who is a member of such a group it is necessary to understand that way of life”37 and so this study is presented in order that those who have not experienced this particular way of life may gain understanding of this phenomenon through the lens of a microcosmic example. The communities I participated in are a microcosm of a microcosm. For there is not one culture of Second Life. There are as many as there are sims. Of course there are elements of these cultures which all residents share, artifacts of using the same software client, the same kind of avatar, through the same type of technological facilities. But essentially I am here explicating a recursive set of cultures and selves, the sim’s culture drawing on the wider culture of Second Life, this, in turn, drawing on the various meatspace cultures of the residents, whose selves are likewise informed by the various manifest (meatspace) and non manifest (higher self and avatar and avatar’s character) selves that form the complete person.

  1. Becker, H. S., (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Free Press, New York, p. 38. ↩︎
  2. Sanchez, J., (2009), “Barriers to Student Learning in Second Life”, Library Technology Reports, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 29-34. ↩︎
  3. Lee, C. Y., Warren, M., (2007), “Security Issues within Virtual Worlds such as Second Life”, Proceedings of 5th Australian Information Security Management Conference, Edith Cowan University, Perth, p. 144,, Accessed 02/04/2014. ↩︎
  4. Second Life Forum, (2011), Deletion Of Hundreds Of Second Life Facebook Accounts Being Reported Today,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  5. Randall, K., (2011), Facebook Deletes Thousands Of Second Life Avatar Profiles Without Warning,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  6. Second Life Forum, (2011), Facebook deleting Secondlife Avatars ????,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  7. Linden, A., (2011), Improving our Lines of Communication with the Community,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  8. Second Life Forum, (2011), Deletion Of Hundreds Of Second Life Facebook Accounts Being Reported Today,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  9. Second Life Forum, (2011), Deletion Of Hundreds Of Second Life Facebook Accounts Being Reported Today,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  10. Au, W. J., (2011), Facebook Reportedly Deleting Many Second Life Avatar Profiles; Linden Recommends Facebook Pages Instead,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  11. Wikipedia, Nymwars,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  12. Pfanner, E., (2011), Naming Names on the Internet,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  13. Carmody, T., (2011), Google+ Identity Crisis: What’s at Stake With Real Names and Privacy,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  14. Galperin, E., (2011), 2011 in Review: Nymwars,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  15. Madrigal, A. C., (2011), Why Facebook and Google’s Concept of ‘Real Names’ Is Revolutionary,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  16. Marks, K., (2011), Google Plus must stop this Identity Theatre,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  17. Stilgherrian, (2011), Google’s real names a real disaster,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  18. Bayley, A. S., (2011), Google+ names policy, explained,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  19. Parr, B., (2011), Google Responds to Google+ Account Suspension Controversy,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  20. Zawinski, J., (2011), Nym Wars,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  21. York, J. C., (2011), A Case for Pseudonyms,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  22. Galperin, E., York, J. C., (2011), Victory! Google Surrenders in the Nymwars,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  23. Parr, B., (2011), Google+ to Support Pseudonyms,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  24. Chacos, B., (2011), How to keep your real name and face out of Google’s ads,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  25. Goffman, E., (1959), The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Anchor Books, New York. ↩︎
  26. Seung-A, A., J., (2012), “I Feel More Connected to the Physically Ideal Mini Me than the Mirror-Image Mini Me: Theoretical Implications of the Malleable Self for Speculations on the Effects of Avatar Creation on Avatar Self Connection in Wii”, Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, Vol. 13, No. 5, pp. 567-570. ↩︎
  27. Wolfendale, J., (2007), “My Avatar My Self: Virtual Harm and Attachment”, Ethics and Information Technology, Vol. 9, p. 114. ↩︎
  28. Muldoon, S., Carrington, H., (1981), The Projection of the Astral Body, Weiser, York Beach. ↩︎
  29. Wikipedia, List of Blade Runner characters,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  30. Schaap, F., (2002), The Words that Took Us There: Ethnography in a Virtual Reality, Aksant Academic Publishers, Amsterdam, p. 2. ↩︎
  31. Boellstorff, T., (2008), Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p. 163. ↩︎
  32. Becker, H. S., (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Free Press, New York, p. 60. ↩︎
  33. Michael, G. J., (2012), Anarchy and Property Rights in the Virtual World: How Disruptive Technologies Undermine the State and Ensure that the Virtual World Remains a “Wild West”,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  34. Michael, G. J., (2012), Anarchy and Property Rights in the Virtual World: How Disruptive Technologies Undermine the State and Ensure that the Virtual World Remains a “Wild West”, p. 2,, Accessed 31/01/2014. ↩︎
  35. Lemley, M., A., (2006), “Terms of Use”, Minnesota Law Review, Vol. 91, Issue 2. ↩︎
  36. Becker, H. S., (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Free Press, New York, p. 78. ↩︎
  37. Becker, H. S., (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Free Press, New York, p. 79. ↩︎

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