ALT! WHO GOES THERE? PART 5
Remember that moment in ‘Goldilocks and the Three bears’, when the bears are heading for home while Goldilocks is sleeping in baby bear’s bed? Small children find her behaviour rather strange, and an experiment involving a tube of sweets can help explain why. In this experiment, a child is offered a tube of sweets, only to find it actually contains something else. Plastic counters, perhaps. Next, the child is told that someone (who has not seen the tube before) is about to enter the room. The child is asked: What will the person expect to find in the tube of sweets? Small children say ‘plastic’, because they have not yet learned that other people’s knowledge of the world may be different to their own. This is also the reason why small children playing hide-and-seek sometimes stand in full view with their eyes closed. In their minds, they cannot see anything, so nobody else can see anything either! As for Goldilocks, the child knows that the three bears will soon enter the house, and they assume the little girl in the story must know this as well. So, why does she remain sound asleep, instead of running for her life?
GOLDILOCKS IS THE THREE BEARS.
In some ways, the child’s way of thinking is more accurate. This is because all characters in a story are usually the creation of one person (‘Goldilocks’ is actually an exception to this rule, because it was adapted from folktales and several authors added the elements that make up the story as we know it today). That being the case, each character in a story is an ’alt’ of the author. Each one must therefore only be pretending not to know what the other characters are thinking or doing.
But, what is truly disturbing is the character of Goldilocks herself, and I am not referring to her disregard for other people’s private property. No, it is the fact that she is a little girl. We can be certain, though, that the person who created her was an adult. When you read the parts of that story that involves Goldilocks, her actions and what she is thinking, bare in mind that an adult had to imagine being that little girl. How else could a character be brought to life? This, then, is evidence of age play. Fortunately, the person who created Goldilocks was female, so at least we do not have to worry about reading a story to our kids that was penned by someone taunting us by pretending to be the someone of the opposite sex.
Ok, I know this is a ridiculous position to take. Nobody ever raised an issue over an author creating a character whose age and gender differed from their own. But, isn’t it odd how such concerns can be voiced over roleplay in virtual worlds? So, what is it about the creative medium of literature that makes Goldilocks a perfectly innocent creation, but an avatar designed to look like a little girl and roleplayed as one raises questions regarding what is/ is not acceptable?
DRAW ME A MAGIC CIRCLE.
It seems that when we read a story, the world and its inhabitants take precedence over the creative act. What I mean is this: While reading any book, you could imagine the author writing or typing the very sentence you are reading right now. You could picture him or her sat in front of a computer, research material at their side, occasionally gazing off into space in search of inspiration, and slowly shaping their manuscript into a proper story. But I bet you never do such a thing. Instead, what you see in your mind’s eye is the fictional world and its characters. You see a little girl, trying each bowl of porridge and deciding one is too hot, one too cold, and one just right.
In online worlds, though, there is a tendency to emphasise the real at the expense of the fantasy. If it were revealed that the person behind the avatar known as ’Harry Potter’ was actually a woman called Joanne Rowling, a lot of people would insist on labelling ’Harry’ as ’he’. After all, ’his’ gender is really female. And while we treat Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger and all the other characters as individuals who have knowledge, motives or feelings that differ from each other, in online worlds we would consider these alts to be the same person, and each must be treated as One.
How can we explain this difference? One thing to consider is the boundary between the fictional world and real life- what Johan Hutzinga called the ’Magic Circle’. With a fictional story, we draw a definite boundary separating the world and its inhabitants via the suspension of disbelief. We accept that, within the magic circle the author invited us into, bears live in houses and know how to cook porridge. And when the book is closed, the time has come to stop believing in bears that talk.
In the case of an online world, the boundary separating it from reality is much more indistinct. If I close a book, and let my mind concentrate on other matters, the world I was so engrossed in no longer exists. But, if I log off from SL, it does still exist, thanks to the thousands of people who remain logged-in. You could argue that someone, somewhere is probably always reading ‘Goldilocks’, so its world must exist in someone’s imagination at any given moment. But that is more like many copies of a world in which the same actions and consequences are repeated again and again. SL, on the other hand, has an open-ended narrative collaboratively constructed by its many participants. An avatar’s social network may also extend beyond SL itself. You could argue that someone logged-out of SL but still chatting with their friends on Gtalk, or posting an upcoming event on Facebook or responding to a blog post about something that happened inworld, is still an active participant.
There is no consensus regarding the boundary between real life and 2nd life. Each individual must decide for themselves what aspects of their real life should cross over into Second Life, and vice versa. Since the choices made by one person are almost certain to differ with those made by other people, we aught to expect conflicts to emerge from time to time. As we have seen, online worlds provide plenty of scope for multiplicity. People can and do create alternate characters with varying degrees of commonality or separation between each alt. In a world of indistinct boundaries and constructed identities, what is considered an act of infidelity, and what is not?
YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART?
I thought I would seek opinions on this, so I described various scenarios and invited people to decide which ones were an act on infidelity, and which were not. I gave participants the choice of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but some of them chose a third option for some of the scenarios: ‘Maybe’.
Of the six scenarios, two were overwhelmingly considered as not involving cheating. One was:
‘A married woman spends a few hours per day writing a story, written in the first-person. It is about a woman, very much like herself, who is in love with a man very unlike her husband’.
No participant considered this to be an act of unfaithfulness, and Lem Skall’s reasoning, ‘there is no intimacy with another person, the act was made alone’, is almost certainly what everyone was thinking.
The other scenario was ‘a man in a long term relationship takes his girlfriend to the cinema, but finds himself becoming sexually attracted to the female character’. I really did not expect anyone to consider either of these scenarios as ‘cheating’. While this turned out to be the case in the ‘author’ scenario (although Dedric Maoria said the husband might become jealous if he read what is wife had written), the ‘cinema’ scenario did get one ‘yes’, from Scarp Godenot.
Now let us look at the two scenarios that were seen as an act of infidelity by a majority of participants. One was:
‘A married woman creates an idealized version of herself on a social networking site. An online friendship turns to romance, and she spends a few hours per day exchanging very intimate messages with her online lover’.
Of the 11 people who agreed to take part, 8 decided the woman in this scenario was being unfaithful to her husband, one thought she was not, and one (Lukemary Slade) was unsure, telling me ‘it depends. Is a yes if she gets involved, no if it is just a matter of emails and if she doesn’t choose to stay online chatting and writing emails instead of, for instance, going out for dinner with her family’. On the other hand, Gwyneth Llewelyn, who did regard this as cheating, argued ‘substitute “social networking site” for “face to face communication” and you understand why I gave this answer: For me, “air” and “Internet” are similar media for communication’.
The other scenario considered by a majority to involve cheating was:
“A man who is single in real life has a partner in SL. They have been together for years and are committed to a monogamous relationship. The man considers his avatar to be a roleplayed character whose thoughts, feelings and motivations may not necessarily reflect his own. He creates an alt, designed to be a separate character from his main account. This alt enjoys commitment-free sex, which she indulges in a lot’.
Qie Niango decided all the scenarios were ‘no except for 6, which is a ‘not sure’ for me. The others are clearly “faithful” within a specific context (RL or “fantasy” more or less). But number 6 is different in that it’s possibly unfaithful within a single (SL) context…We don’t know that the partner is unaware of the alt’s existence, nor that there’s a difference in the “roleplayed character” nature of the relationship’.
I had hypothesized that those two scenarios would be seen as cheating by a majority of people. In the case of the ‘alts’ scenario, I guessed most would regard this as cheating because people generally consider an alt to be a different aspect of oneself. In other words, this scenario does not involve two characters (three, if you include the RL man behind each avatar), it involves one person, so he must be cheating if he has many sexual partners with his alt account but is effectively married on his main account.
As for the ‘social network’ scenario, I reasoned that most people regard such things as communications technology like the telephone or letter writing, rather than a platform for roleplaying like a MUD. I also believed that I could change one or two details that, while describing essentially the same scenario, would not be considered cheating by as many people. Here is that scenario:
‘A married woman spends a few hours per day co-authoring a romantic novel. This is done over email with a person she has not met, The story takes the form of an exchange of intimate love letters. She (in character) writes and replies in the first-person, as does her co-author’.
Whereas a person creating an idealized self and corresponding via intimate messages exchanged on a social networking site with someone she never physically met was seen as cheating by 8 out of 11 people, the scenario in which co-authors imagine themselves to be characters and collaborate on a book using email exchanges was viewed as cheating by 6 people, not seen as cheating by 2, leaving 2 not sure either way.
When thinking about two people corresponding via an exchange of letters or instant messages, we tend to imagine they are speaking in their own voice, rather than projecting a fantasy character. On the other hand, the act of co-authoring a story or developing a character on a MUD is seen as roleplaying, and even though the first-person may still be used, ‘I’ is understood not to refer to the author or actor, but to the character.
In actual fact, neither of these assumptions is necessarily true. It is hard not to allow aspects of oneself to cross over the divide and become part of a roleplayed character, especially in an online world where there is no ‘narrative’ in the traditional sense to frame that character and affirm its distinction from the RL person behind it. It is tempting to add droplets of fiction to a portrayal of one’s ‘actual self’, because it is preferable that others should view you as you would ideally like to be seen, rather than as you really are. This intermingling of reality and fantasy leads to two questions that haunt every relationship one develops online, romantic engagements in particular.
WHERE IS THE LOVE?
I am partnered to Serendipity Seraph. She often says she loves me. But, when I see the message ‘I love you’, what is Samantha (her primary) FEELING? And, what is SAMANTHA feeling? Is the relationship real if the person behind Seren logs off and has no more attachment to me than you would have for a character in a movie- even one who might have had you laughing and crying with empathy during the film?
From my point of view, Serendipity kisses me goodbye, and when she returns she throws her arms around me in a display of affection. Maybe it is enough that, while logged-in, the person puppeteering Seren imagines that character is in a loving relationship with me? In fact, ‘the person‘ does not necessarily have to be Samantha. Anybody could access Seren‘s accounts and it would still seem authentic to me, just so long as they roleplay the character of Seren in ways that are consistent with my past experience of her. What matters in this relationship is how Serendipity Seraph behaves towards me. What Samantha might be feeling in real life, or what relationships she imagines her alts are having need not concern me (again, so long as this does not affect Seren‘s behaviour).
But, that is me as a digital person talking. I can well imagine an augmentationist thinking, ‘but this relationship is a sham if Samantha is only pretending to be in love. How can you talk of ‘pretend’ and ’authenticity’ as co-existing? One negates the other’. From this point of view, ’I love you’ means nothing unless the person behind Seren actually feels this way, and is not just acting out the part of a character who feels this way.
We also need to consider who this ’me’ is that Seren is referring to. It could mean ’I love Extropia DaSilva’. But some people might consider that a bit odd if we take it to mean an avatar. It would, after all, be declaring deep emotions for an image on a computer screen. True, any producer of erotic or pornographic material will tell you that psychological symbols matter far more than realism. So, as long as my avatar is capable of generating those psychological symbols, the brain Seren is currently borrowing to process her patterns of behaviour will respond. Of course, the avatar by itself is not capable of generating the psychological symbols of a loving relationship. So, it might actually be the case that Serendipity (or, perhaps we should say, Samantha) is looking ’through’ my avatar and directing her feelings towards the person behind it? To some, this would be the only behaviour that counts for a genuine loving relationship. To a digital person, it means ’I love you’ refers not to yourself, but to somebody else. As to who this somebody else might be, that seems obvious: My primary. But, I do not think it ACTUALLY refers to my primary, because neither Seren nor Samantha know much about that person. It would be like me saying I know what Nancy Cartwright is like, because I have spent so much time getting to know Bart Simpson.
It could, however, refer to the person she believes my primary to be. Taking these thoughts to the logical conclusion, you could say that Samantha directs her feelings to the person she imagines my primary to be, which results in Serendipity Seraph showing love and affection to Extropia DaSilva. That character, meanwhile, responds with equal love and affection, as a result of feelings my primary has developed for Samantha. Or, maybe not? Maybe ‘I love you, Serendipity’ means just that, and I do not have any such feelings for Samantha (and is that really Seren’s primary or another semi-fictional character I mistakenly assume is the ‘real-life’ Serendipity?).
I say ‘maybe’ not because I myself am unsure of my own feelings regarding the boundaries of this relationship, nor because Serendipity and I never sat down and agreed on the boundaries of this relationship. Rather, it is simply to highlight the fact that any boundary between online spaces and real life is rather like the borders that separate one country from another: They do not really exist, except by mutual agreement. Conflicts always arise over borders, which are subject to being drawn and redrawn as one group gains power over another, or as one set of ideas becomes more influential while another set loses popularity.
THE DARK SIDE OF PROJECTION.
I keep chat logs and I sometimes like to review old conversations, particularly chat history between people I love, like my sister Jamie or my partner Seren. When I do, I am struck by how much is missing from the text. Of course, SL is no text-based MUD, so perhaps it is not surprising that a chat log should preserve only a fraction of my past experiences. But, maybe that is not the only reason? I am reminded of an online love affair that Sherry Turkle wrote about in her classic study of MUDs, ‘Life On The Screen’.
‘Peter, a twenty eight year old lecturer in comparative literature, thought he was in love with a MUDding partner who played Beatrice to his Dante (their character’s names). Their relationship was intellectual, emotionally satisfying, supportive and erotic’.
When Peter decided to meet the person behind Beatrice, the relationship did not survive long. He discovered, upon reviewing logs of his every online encounter with Beatrice, ‘that he could not find their relationship in them. Where was the warmth? The sense of complicity and empathy?’.
What Peter was confronted with (as, perhaps, am I) is how much of an online relationship exists in one’s own imagination. In the previous essay, we saw how online socialising can lend itself to projection. This can have a positive effect on self-understanding, but when one’s hopes and fears are projected onto another’s online presence, that can lead to idealization and demonization. Many people have noticed that relationships develop faster online, with an acquaintance blossoming into a lifelong friend, all within the space of one week.
As well as projection and the exaggerated likes and dislikes it can manifest, we need to consider the influence of virtual reality. It tends to be forgotten just how pervasive virtual reality is, since the term is most often associated with online worlds and videogames. But, really, radio, TV, cinema, books and music systems can all be considered forms of virtual reality. And what they offer (among other things) is a way to fill the spaces in our lives and give a comforting illusion of companionship.
Compared to the far more limiting illusion of companionship provided by these one-to-many media, and also in comparison to the very limited forms of interaction videogames currently provide, the much richer and complex social interactions that take place in online worlds can feel ‘real’, rather than the denatured and artificial experiences they truly are.
There is no indication that virtual realities are going to retreat and disappear. Quite the contrary: More and more business and socializing is being done online. This lead one person to wonder ‘why grant such superior status to the self that has the body, when the selves that don’t have bodies are able to have different experiences?’. At the same time, physical reality is not going anywhere, either. Indeed, Howard Rheingold argued that the word “community” is only applicable to virtual worlds ‘if at least some of the people reach through that screen and affect each other’s lives’. Because it can affect other people, the actions we take in virtual worlds can have real consequences, but alts seem to promise an escape from the past.
IT WAS NOT ME, IT WAS MY ALT.
One of the earliest known examples of identity exploration is the following scene, which featured in a play Epicharmus wrote in the 5th century bc. A lender asks a debter to pay up. The debter asks the lender if he agrees that, when something changes, it is no longer the same. The lender agrees, at which point the debter says this proves he owes him nothing. How come? because people change over time, ‘so it follows that I’m not the same person as the one indebted to you’.
Epicharmus was playing around with the fact that personal responsibility depends very much on a continuation of self through time. If there was no such thing, it really would make no more sense to punish me for ‘past-Extropia’s’ actions than it would to punish me for something some other person did. In the physically-embodied world, we have little choice but to assume responsibility for our past actions. Part of the lure of online worlds, though, is that they promise that which is not possible in real life. This includes the possibility to present oneself as somebody other than the person you think you are in real life, or to break from your past by dividing experiences up via alts.
This brings us to the other major question: What kind of accountability do we have for our actions in online worlds? Imagine if the debter in Epicharmus’s play had the ability to literally vanish without a trace. Or, imagine if that person had the ability to become somebody else. The debter never suspects that one of those faces in a crowd has a peculiar history with someone who owes him money. This is the dilema that alts present to business in SL. Whenever somebody says they refuse to deal with someone who does not provide RL identification, the immersionist community often howls with indignation. How dare anyone imply we are intrinsically untrustworthy? I think this misses the point. It is not that augmentationists are any more or less trustworthy than immersionists, it is that, if the deal should not be honoured, one person has provided the means by which someone can be held to account, whereas the other could delete their account and disappear. Alts, meanwhile, allow us to disassociate actions from consequences. You could become a Jekyl and Hyde character, acting with perfect respectability with one account, while being a complete and utter griefing nuisance with another avatar. So long as nobody can prove the connection between the two, the actions of one personae has no baring on the reputation of another.
Of course, it would be the worst kind of stereotyping to suggest all ‘active’ alts are griefers and fraudsters. But, then again, if we assume the majority of alts set out to harm nobody, why is there this general mistrust of this kind of identity exploration? Maybe it is simply because an alt designed with treacherous intentions makes for much juicier gossip and headline grabbing news, a point that was echoed by Ordinal Malaprop:
‘Most alts which actually come to the attention of other people…are created purposefully for deception’.
But, what can be considered by ‘deception’? I expect most people would agree that faking an identity in order to steal someone’s money or double-cross them in some way is not a good thing. These are rather obvious examples of bad intentions, though. The more interesting question is whether running an active alt is always an act of deception, even with the best of intentions? The most common complaint I hear about alts, is the fear that you might unwittingly reveal something you never meant to divulge. We all need to let of steam and bitch about our friends from time to time. But what if the person you are letting of steam to should be the alt of that very person you are bitching about? If the primary is running two avatars that are intended to be individuals, your friend may show no indication of knowing any such conversation ever went on behind her back. But equally, it might not be the kind of alt that is so separate from the main avatar. You might then be confronted with a very upset friend.
Stories like ‘Pygmalion’ have an enduring popularity because the idea that we can recreate ourselves and not be tied down by our histories is such a powerful fantasy. Words like ‘fantasy’ imply something that cannot actually happen, but in an online world if you slip into a new avatar with a different name to your main one, and everyone treats you as though you are somebody else, then as far as that community is concerned you ARE somebody else. Should we encourage roleplay and identity exploration not tied down by RL constraints like past history (and accept the possibilities this opens up for lying, cheating, fraud and griefing), or should we push for a unified identity that is tied to a particular, accountable individual (and limit the freedom to experiment with alternate personas and different selves?).
THE POPULARITY QUESTION.
I will not offer a neat answer to these questions. I did try once, in the essay ‘Digital People and Anonymous Avatars’, but I would not be so bold as to say my solution was entirely satisfactory. Frankly, I do not think anybody will be presenting a compromise that suits everyone anytime soon. Instead, I will move onto another question, which is ‘how popular are active alts’?
Recall from part one that an ‘active’ is an alt that has a personality different to the one the primary presents with the main avatar. At the extreme end, the alt self is so different nobody even suspects it is an alt at all. In parts 2, 3 and 4 I tried to build the case that such roleplay is even possible. In part one we saw how there is a disjuncture between modern philosophies of self and personal identity, and lived experience (in that one insists the unitary self is an illusion, while for the latter it is the most basic reality). Part two looked to developmental psychology and neuroscience to explain why it can make sense to say a person can have many selves, despite the obvious fact that each person has only one body and brain. Part three showed how the widespread adoption of computers and the Web gave us something that we did not have before: Objects in the world with which to think about decentralization and multiplicity.
Computers, the Web, and how we as individuals and groups interact with and through them, provide metaphors for thinking about the postmodern view of constructed selves, or so many people think.
‘Did you ever see that cartoon by R. Crumb about “who is the real R. Crumb”?’, asked one contributer to a discussion about roleplaying on MUDs in the early 90s. ‘He goes through four pages of incarnations…then at the end he says, “which is the real one?…it all depends on what mood I’m in”. We’re all like that online’.
Wagner James Au has written about how text-based MUDs as a laboratory of self was an idea “ahead of its time. Creating a constant revolving theatre of role-play first requires a system expansive enough to be fluid, and believably so. It also requires an economy and a culture vibrant enough to make those shifts in identity meaningful and, at times, painful”.
Presumably, SL is just such a system, or at least closer to becoming one. According to some researchers, though, most of the roleplay going on in SL is not the psychological kind. When talking about the self, one can refer to the ‘social exterior’, which includes such things as a person’s height, weight, skin tone and behaviours. Or, one can be referring to the ‘psychological interior’, which pertains to things like thoughts, emotions and attitudes.
CHANGING BODIES, NOT SELVES.
In online worlds, the social exterior obviously applies almost entirely to how your avatar looks. In one survey, 68% of participants said their avatar differed significantly (in an idealized way) from their actual appearance. It was also noted that, generally speaking, the older the person was, the more their avatar leant towards an idealized, youthful body. As I have said before, the appeal of online worlds is the chance to have or do that which is not possible in real life. Escaping the physical aging of the body is currently one such impossibility. Avatar’s though, can be made forever young. It could also be asked if this tendency towards young and beautiful bodies in SL is really a personal choice, or more of a reflection of the ‘generalized other’, ie the dominating view of the society to which one belongs. Many commentators of online worlds have noted that people step into avatars very much like the perfect bodies we see every day on billboard posters and magazine covers. It is, in other words, a perpetuation of a predominately Westernized view of the idealized body.
When it comes to the social exterior, then, the general rule is ‘the more different (in an idealized way) my avatar is, the happier I am’. However, the same survey found the opposite is nearly always the case for the psychological interior. On average, it is the users with the smallest psychological difference between their online and offline selves who are most satisfied. That is not to say there are no differences at all. People tend to be more extroverted and less neurotic inworld compared to physical reality. But, these small differences aside, it seems few residents enjoy shifting personality too much. SL can be seen as a laboratory for role play, but it focuses almost exclusively on the social exterior, leaving the psychological interior pretty much unchanged.
Given that only 32% of residents set out to make an avatar that accurately models their RL appearance, but even fewer residents find it appealing to adopt anything other than a slightly idealized version of their psychological interior, one common stereotype has got to be wrong. Namely, that people who want to be ‘who I am in RL’ prefer avatars that look just like they do. No, nearly everyone strives for an appearance that transcends their RL appearance.
WHERE THE PSYCHOLOGICAL INTERIOR MATTERS.
But SL is only a part of the Web. Do we see more focus on the psychological interior once people log-off from online worlds but remain connected to the Web? A good reason to think this is so, is because teenagers are more likely to use IM (74% of teens, compared to 44% of adults) and chat rooms (55% teens, 26% adults). Why does that matter? Well, adolescence tends to be a period of time when the individual pays more attention to their psychological interior. This process of discovery cannot be completed alone- the individual requires ‘knowledgeable others’ who understand innermost feelings. Knowledgeable others are hard to come by in RL, where people tend to be wary of baring their soul. But on the Web, people are more willing to talk about their innermost feelings. The reason why is obvious: Anonymity. One is more relaxed about sharing intimate thoughts when one’s true identity is concealed. As one teenager said:
“Online we have the (mask) of the computer screen. We don’t have to worry about what we look like or what other people think of us”.
Worry over physical appearance goes away when you present yourselves to others purely through text. However, the individual is still obliged to provide some kind of self-description, without which that person would have no identity at all. In disembodied telecopresence, identity construction begins with the selection of a screen name. Other people make their first impression of you from your chosen handle. We also see self-description in the form of personal profiles, which the individual sometimes fills in so as to provide a more comprehensive and detailed self-portrait. This is obviously an autobiographical exercise, and as such it bares comparison to what John B Thompson called a ‘symbolic project’. In his own words:
“To recount to ourselves or others who we are is to retell the narratives- which are continually modified in the process of retelling- of how we got where we are and/ or where we’re going from here”.
BACK TO THE UNITARY SELF?
In the previous essay, we focused on the arguments for the computer and the Web as objects-to-think-with for postmodern concepts of self. Those who adopt this view of identity in cyberspace typically consider the self to be multiple. However, there is another way of looking at the Web (or, perhaps I should say, how people use it) that belies this assumption. This opposing view is sometimes called the ‘Balkanization of the Web’, because it highlights a form of confirmation bias leading ultimately to what Alecks Krotoski called ‘pockets of homogenous groups’. In other words, the communities that form in cyberspace tend to be ‘balkanized’, with like-minded individuals seeking each other out, confirming each other’s attitudes and behaviours and ensuring conformity, while also shutting out those perceived to be part of the larger ‘out-group’.
The Web does present an almost infinite diversity of beliefs, but that gigantic heap has to pass through the much more limited capacity of the human brain. One has no choice but to be very selective with regards to what information one will be exposed to, and what will be disregarded, because the amount of information uploaded to the Web exceeds any person’s ability to absorb all but a fraction of it.
So, an individual filters out that which they do not want to be exposed to, while actively seeking out whatever they are interested in. This self-selection process is not limited to clicking on some hyperlinks but not others, it also occurs whenever somebody builds up a friends-list of people they would like to associate with, or when one allows only authorized comments on a blog. As S. Zhao explained, “overflow of information, combined with individual freedom of choice, works to create a self-selected online environment that’s conducive to the formation of a digital self that’s unitary in nature”.
So, which view is correct? Is the digital self fluid and multiple, or is it unitary and homogenous? There is little doubt that people can and do compartmentalize different parts of their lives in cyberspace. Psychologists have interviewed plenty of participants of chat rooms or MMORPGs who freely admit to experimenting with multiple constructed selves. However, it seems to be the case that, over time, the individual tends towards a more unitary representation of self. While a small percentage of people continue to indulge in roleplay and identity exploration across one or more active alts, generally speaking, there is a correlation between time spent inworld and personality difference, with a person’s online and offline selves becoming less and less distinct as time goes by.
THE USHER OF THE POSTHUMAN ERA.
We are, of course, talking about humans here. But some thinkers see the avatar as being the bare beginnings of a new kind of person, one whose evolution owes more to the semi-directed nature of technological development than to the mindless processes of natural selection. In ‘I Avatar’, Mark Stephen Meadows wrote:
“Perhaps now, when our core emotional and social needs can be displaced into virtual environments and even the people next to us may not be real humans but scripted autonomous avatars…perhaps now when technology no longer becomes an extension of us, but we become an extension of it…the avatar is the usher of the post human era”.
In the final part of this series, we will play around with some ideas of what roleplay in the era of the post human might lead to…