Ethics In The World

While I had no illusions that I would be in any way different from the other members of the community, this was directly at odds with the view of the ethics committee. It was their view that as an academic I was in some kind of position of superiority in relation to the other members of the community. When I enquired about this they replied that it was because I would be publishing information about the communities, revealing their souls as it were. The truth turned out to be quite different. I was restrained by the requirements of the ethics committee in ways other community members were not. Although I was bound by the constraints of the ethics committee, most particularly that I allow any participants to withdraw from the study at any time and not include them in any published work, other avatars were free to, and indeed routinely did, publish incredibly intimate and detailed information on websites, forums and social media without any consent, and in fact in breech of the Terms of Service of Second Life. Indeed one person did withdraw their consent very late in the course of my research. For this reason this thesis covers only one of the two communities I studied as the person who withdrew consent in the second community was such a key member of that community that I found it impossible to write about it at all while having to exclude that person from my writing.

At first the ethics committee sought to have me obtain gatekeeper consent from Linden Lab for my research. This is like asking an internet service provider to consent to one’s research into the activities of someone whose website they host. At the time I began my research Linden Lab explicitly stated they they were not in any position to give such consent, and would not do so. The ethics committee then asked that I obtain gatekeeper approval from the owner of the sims, which I did. The issue of identity presented a difficulty here. The committee had requested that I obtain consent for each person in their “real name” and that I verify their identity. Then the question arises of what their real name constitutes? I am only, specifically and deliberately, studying the avatar in the world of Second Life, not the meatspace person in meatspace. In this case the “real name” is the avatar’s name. I advised the ethics committee that it was against the Terms of Service of Second Life to disclose an avatar’s meatspace identity without their consent, and that many avatars did not want their meatspace self to be known to be connected with their avatar self, but that they were more than willing to participate in the research under their avatar’s name. Accordingly it was decided that I obtain consent inworld in the name of the avatar. This was done by providing each avatar with an information sheet and a consent form in the form of a notecard (a file that contains text and can be stored in one’s inworld inventory and displayed on the screen) and then having a direct conversation with the avatar and logging it to record their consent.

The ethics committee asked that I anonymise the names of the communities and of all the members of them. I found this was against the wishes of the residents of the community. Every one of them wanted their actual avatar’s name to be used, and demanded to know how it was that the ethics committee could impose restrictions on them that they did not wish imposed. They resented the fact that the ethics committee was making decisions for them, felt it as an imposition. As I remain bound by the conditions of the ethics committee I have anonymised the community name and all avatar names.

The ethics committee initially insisted that a fundamental feature of the world be removed because of its privacy implications. The feature in question being the ability to move one’s view independent of one’s avatar. This means that one can, for example, look inside buildings from a remote position. This ability caused considerable consternation for the ethics committee when they were reviewing my project. The committee, being completely innocent of any knowledge of what a virtual world was, asked for a demonstration. I took them into the world and demonstrated many features of it for them. When they discovered that one may look anywhere in the world, and that thus there is no actual privacy, they stridently demanded that this feature must be removed or it would be impossible for them to grant approval. They also wanted me to have a sign permanently over my head alerting everyone that my avatar was doing research. I pointed out to them that the movable camera was an unchangeable feature of the world, and that wearing a sign over my head was in breach of the sim rules, and they reluctantly relented. I had to revise my proposal ten times before they came to terms with the realities of the world however.

For me the reality was that I was just another member of the community. Unless I was to be this I could not undertake effective research. As Jeanne Favret-Saada has argued in her study of witchcraft in rural France, to come into a community and not take it seriously is to begin with an academic conceit of superiority1. She feels, as I do, that unless one participates equally in a world and allows the world to become real for one, one remains unable to understand it, “For those that haven’t been caught (bewitched) spells don’t exist”2. It is the same in the world of Second Life. If one hasn’t had the experience of making a connection with one’s avatar, of realising it as a part of oneself, it isn’t real. Favret-Saada argues that the price of this is that you “cannot verify any assertion” because there are no impartial witnesses3. I argue, with her4, that (outside of omniscience) there is no such thing as objective veracity and that it is not possible to remain outside a thing sufficiently to maintain objectivity and still be able to say anything useful about it. There is no objective reality knowable in human experience. To make an objective assessment of anything one would need both to be omniscient, and to be able to be sure that one was so. As Favret-Saada says, it is “absurd to continue to posit a neutral position”5. One must become the thing, for there “is no other solution but to practice it oneself, to become one’s own informant, to penetrate one’s own amnesia, and to try to make explicit what one finds unstatable in oneself.”6. Favret-Saada recalls that her education as an ethnographer had tried to teach her that one must above all avoid two things, “that of agreeing to ‘participate’ in the native discourse, and that of succumbing to the temptations of subjectivism. Not only could I not possibly avoid them; it was by means of them that I was able to work out most of my ethnographic work.”7. I could not agree more with her. I enthusiastically participated in the native discourse of Second Life, but in this case the native and the researcher are one and the same. If, as Malinowski says we must “grasp the native’s point of view”8 then what I here set out to do is to reveal to you my point of view as a resident of Second Life. Moreover I shall argue that subjective experience is a collection of one’s perceptions and that, similarly to Humphrey’s argument that perception is the basis of consciousness9 I shall argue that perception is reality.

  1. Favret-Saada, J., (1980), Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 11-12. ↩︎
  2. Favret-Saada, J., (1980), Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 15. ↩︎
  3. Favret-Saada, J., (1980), Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 20. ↩︎
  4. Favret-Saada, J., (1980), Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 21. ↩︎
  5. Favret-Saada, J., (1980), Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 12. ↩︎
  6. Favret-Saada, J., (1980), Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 22. ↩︎
  7. Favret-Saada, J., (1980), Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 23. ↩︎
  8. Malinowski, B., (1922), Argonauts of the Western Pacific, E. P. Dutton & Co, New York, p. 25. ↩︎
  9. Humphrey, N., (1992), A History of the Mind: Evolution and the Birth of Consciousness, Simon & Schuster, New York. ↩︎

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