Use of Avatars and Personal Identity
There is currently a few people in this world who seem to feel that they need to establish rules of conducts and norms on the rest of us to the exclusion of the social trends that are going on around them. While I can’t speak to individual cases, it would seem to me that in the general case, these types of reactionary outbursts are more associated with a fear of the unknown than any real desire to stop progress. Of course then it depends on who’s definition of progress you are using doesn’t it.
Case in point. Residents of a virtual world environment called Second Life enjoy a certain amount of anonymity when it comes to revealing who they are. You sign-up for a free profile, select a name, and away you go. This is nothing new or subversive in any way. People have been using alternative identities to tell their stories for hundreds of years. Consider the game dungeons and dragons (the old school one – not the electron versions). People are often known by the characters they choose to represent and assign names of historical or personal importance as part of the role playing experience.
Gamers do this all the time. From XBOX to Playstation to World of Warcraft to Second Life. It is a means of developing confidence in oneself by insulating yourself from looking foolish during the learning and development process. This is a very common psychological phenomena that people are often more at ease with risk taking when they don’t have to put all of themselves on the line.
Then there is the aspect of personal privacy and security. Some people just want to be able to interact with others without having to worry that some nutcase is going to wind up on their front door step. Only once they are comfortable with someone are they willing to go that next step to provide more information. Sound familiar? It should because its something that everyone who has gone to a bar or college has done or experienced at some point in their lives.
The idea of a virtual personae will often times extend beyond the limited circumstances of the role play scenario and cross over into everyday life. Those people who go to work dressed up as Captain Kirk for example. For the most part its harmless. More importantly however it allows us to tell our stories, those narratives that are important to us as individuals, in a ways that are imaginative, unique, and memorable. Everyone has a fish story, but we remember the ones by “Old Man McKinley down the road yonder” because the personae is larger than the individual and in so doing provides a contextual means of connecting with others that just doesn’t happen under ordinary circumstances.
So – back to my case in point. There has been a series of recent terms of service violation reports by some anonymous person (who I’m not about to justify by stating his/her name or website – check Google if you are really that interested) who is searching almost every Facebook profile seeking out Second Life residents for the expressed purpose of having those accounts banned. To be fair the Facebook TOS does have a provision that says people are expected to use their real names in establishing a profile. However this is not the way the service is being used and I would hazard a guess that at least 50% of the profiles on Facebook are bogus if you were to compare birth records.
You don’t need to look at Second Life residents to see this principle in action on Facebook. Look at any number of the applications and groups related to things such as World of Warcraft, Triumph, Plane Crazy, etc. A good percentage of the profiles used are clearly alternates to a main profile or just simply in no way representative of who the person is in real life. This is probably one of the most broken TOS aspects of Facebook imaginable. Nor does Facebook have a mechanism by which people can verify their identity. To say that Second Life residents with profiles on Facebook are corrupting the moral fabric of the online community is akin to suggesting that children watch Saturday morning cartoons are going to grow up to be violent offenders. Is there an influence, sure. Is it corrupting the moral fabric of society, absolutely not because at the end of the day most rational people understand the difference between constructive social interaction regardless of whether you are dealing with Kevin Feenan or Phelan Corrimal.
I would in fact take this one step further. Linden Lab, the developers of Second Life, actually have very strong identity proving processes included as part of their environment. Something Facebook doesn’t have. The likelihood that a hard core Second Life resident has been both age verified and confirmed their identity through an independent 3rd agency is greater than 1 in 3. Beyond this, all educators have to provide proof of having gone through a police background check if they have any intention of working with those under 18 years of age on the teen grid. If there was a true argument to be made that any particular group needed to be the front edge of the wedge for deconstructing the “avatarism of the nation”, Second Life is not it.
So what is driving this move? Fear maybe. Paranoia of what a world might look like where you could be defined not only by your legal name but by the personae you choose to wear in telling your story the way you want to. In point of fact however we are already there. Virtual world environments are simply providing a much more visible look into what lies beneath social norms and values in our society at large whether you are talking about bars, gaming, virtual worlds, social networking platforms, or personal ads. There has always been this undercurrent of people wanting to risk while at the same time not wanting to be hurt in the process.
I would think that anyone who fears what the future holds should really take a very strong look in their own backyard first before using a measuring stick that changes scale based on context. If you are fighting for a fundamental concept of human-social interaction then you can’t eradicate a single symptom and assume you’ve found a cure. You need to understand what it is you are fighting for and then need to realize that fundamental paradigm shifts in social paradigms are not fought on a single battlefield.
Clearly this person doesn’t understand what it is they are fighting for and that is unfortunate because even if they are somehow right, they have already lost the war despite the havoc they are wreaking on the battlefield. They have also lost any potential to open up true dialogue on what their issue is really about. And that I feel diminishes us all regardless of which side of the argument you are on.