This piece of artistic work was drawn in 1964 by David Oleson. It is called I At The Centre. I think it provides a useful visual metaphor of the ‘Ubuntu Web’, my term for the network of relationships that arises as a consequence of online social interactions. More importantly, it serves to show how the self of a digital person is as much a collaboratively constructed phenomenon as the environment of SL itself.


If you study the centre of the drawing, the reason for its name should become obvious. There is an object that looks very much like a capital ‘I’ right in the middle. Notice also that the shape of this object forms as a consequence of the surrounding shapes. If those did not exist, neither would the ‘I’.

Similarly, we can say that an online world only really exists when other people use it. Since the fundamental purpose of an online world is communication through shared experience, an absence of other people would make an online world rather pointless. In the illustration ‘I’ needs the surrounding patterns in order to exist. In online worlds I need other people to make the experience worth having.

Now look at the shapes that surround the central ‘I’. Notice how they are ‘I’s as well. However, they are not identical to the central ‘I’. The ones nearest to it are very similar, but as you move out toward the edge of the drawing the shapes become increasingly dissimilar.

On one level, this could be a visual metaphor of other people in SL, some of whom may be similar to yourself in appearance, temperament, political outlook etc etc, while other people are quite different (and all subtle shades in between). But, more importantly, I At The Centre is a visual representation of how your self exists in more than one mind.


In 1996, Neuroscience made a remarkable discovery while studying the patterns of brain activity associated with the hand movements of rhesus monkeys. As the monkeys reached for peanuts, the corresponding brain activity was recorded. The researchers then made the serendipitous discovery that very similar brain activity was triggered when the monkeys simply observed an action. It was as if the brain was mentally performing an act carried out by a third party. This ability became known as ‘mirror neurons’.

Since then, experiments on human volunteers have found mirror neuron activity that allows us to experience what another person is experiencing (for instance, watching a video of someone being tickled triggers activity in the somasensory cortex, where the feeling of being tickled is registered and processed), and feel what another person is feeling. Neuroscientist Marco Iacaboni remarked, ‘on a fundamentally psychological level…our nervous systems are directly connected’.

If the mind can mirror the intentions, experiences and feelings of somebody else, then it is not too hard to imagine it being able to model another person’s ‘I’. But, where online worlds are concerned, the question must be asked: ‘Whose ‘I’ is it that is being modelled? The RL person? Or the avatar? I think it depends largely on A) how much seperation one sees between their online/offline personae and B) how much information you provide to others regarding your offline/online personaes. Obviously, if someone creates a digital person and provides little to no information about the person behind that character, the other participants of the online world will run only internal models of the character’s ‘I’.

More importantly, though, people use their mental model of someone’s ‘I’ to infer their behaviour and adjust their responses, reactions etc to that person. And how others react reflects back and influences how the self develops. As I explained in a reply to Ron T Blechner:

‘You have decided that ‘Hiro Pendragon’ and ‘Ron Blechner’ are the same person, and so probably your behaviour in online contexts reflects this attitude, and is amplified back at you in how people react to the way you act. But if you were to perceive Hiro as a person in his own right, and especially if you kept info about ‘Ron’ to an absolute minimum (such as acknowledging ‘someone’ is behind Hiro but giving no details about name, age, sex, etc etc), that would amplify people’s perception of Hiro as his own person, and their reactions would reflect back at you (that is, Ron), enforcing your belief that Hiro is somewhat seperate from your own self’.

Notice how, in either case, other people play a vital role in shaping one’s own online ‘self’. You can think of the central ‘I’ in Oleson’s illustration as representing the ‘primary’ (aka the RL person behind an avatar). The other shapes (other people) that surround the central ‘I’ represent closest friends. They represent the people who you spend most time with, who you trust with your innermost feelings. In my case, people like Jamie Marlin (my best friend and sister), and Serendipity Seraph (my partner). Loved ones with whom you have shared many thoughts and feelings over a period of time would undoubtedly have a mental model of an ‘I’ that is very similar to the one present in the mind of the primary. Also, these people are the ones who have the greatest influence in shaping the kind of person your online self will turn out to be.

As we move out to the periphery of the drawing, the shapes represent regular acquaintances, occasional acquaintances, and finally strangers whom one hardly interacts with at all. Whereas the mental model of your ‘I’ is pretty high-resolution in the case of loved ones (represented by ‘I’s very similar to the central ‘I’ belonging to Primary) people who have not spent so much time interacting with you, and to whom you have not imparted much personal information have low resolution copies (represented by ‘I’s whose shape differs from the central ‘I’).

Now, here is the crucial point: In I At The Centre, all of the shapes have some influence on the central ‘I’. All the shapes are connected. It is a network of lines that form many ‘I’s of different shapes, each one a consequence of the surrounding shapes. And, in Second Life and other online social contexts, all the people one interacts with has an influence on the development of your personal journey. If a digital person can be likened to a character in a story, it is one in which the plot is open-ended and co-authored by many people. The primary can certainly influence the kind of person the digital person will become, by accepting this friend request and rejecting that; attending this kind of social event while staying away from that and so on. But the primary cannot dictate what kind of person the digital person will be, because that depends on how other people- mostly loved-ones and friends but also to some extent casual acquaintances and passing strangers- act and react and how that behaviour reflects back to the primary.


If digital people can be said to exist at all, they exist as patterns that form in the abstract space that exists between online worlds, online social networks and the minds of other people connected to them. My ‘I’, your ‘I’, the ‘I’ of everybody who shares an online world or an online social network riff and reflect off each other, and the result is the collaboratively constructed self. My primary may be central to my existence, but my network of friends, acquaintances and fellow SL residents also play a crucial role in my personal development. David Oleson’s I At The Centre illustrates this premise.

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5 Responses to I AT THE CENTRE.

  1. Interesting post. Although I have a sense that my social network holds some particular conception of who I am, there’s only the mostly disconnected patchwork of the mental model each individual has about me.

    It’s probable that a good percentage of the few thousand people in my Twitter/Facebook/Plurk/Flickr/etc. circles have only the vaguest idea of who I am, mostly from my avatar image and memorable name. There are probably at least a few hundred who notice enough of my posts to form a more substantive idea of what I’m interested and how I interact with others. I reckon there are at most a hundred people I have interacted with directly more than a few times. Maybe a few dozen who have had enough contact to consider more than acquaintances.

    So it’s likely that any sense of identity I have that at first thought seems to be driven by my environment, is almost entirely the result of my own mental projection of what others are thinking rather than what is actually going on in other people’s minds.

    That said, I think it’s possible that Rupert Sheldrake’s theory of Morphic Resonance and Morphic Fields might mean that there’s more going on with environmental influences than projection.

    • Looking at my chatlogs, I have 4 IM logs of more than 100kb. Suprise, surprise, these happen to be correspondences with my closest friends. The vast majority of chatlogs- 90-95% I would say, are around 1-3kb. So, just regarding people on my friends list, the vast majority have hardly interacted with me at all. It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that most of the people on my friends list are only vaguely acquainted with who I am. David Oleson’s picture reflects this, in that there are more dissimilar ‘I’s than similar ones.

      But another aspect of the Ubuntu web that is not represented in I At The Centre is the varying strength of connections between people. A better representation of my Ubuntu web would show my close friends surrounding my ‘I’, plus very thick and multiple threads connecting us, illustrating how much interaction we have and the many communication modes we use (Gtalk, Facebook, my private email….). The ‘I’s out on the periphery would have only single dotted lines to represent the weaker connections and limited communication/interaction.

  2. The nice thing about that image is that it requires someone to actually explain that there is an “I” at the centre for you to realise it 🙂 It’s just a pretty geometric picture seen from the outside…

    I think the same thing happens with what we consider to be our “self”. It takes someone (usually, yourself 🙂 ) to point out that it exists for it to actually exist…

  3. botgirlq says:

    I wonder what external factors trigger one’s awareness of “self”. Some psychological models see the infant’s initial state of consciousness as not differentiating between self and world, and then at some developmental stage escaping the narcissistic view and realizing that there are other sentient beings out there.

    • I wrote about some of the theories of when ‘self’ develops in part 2 of ‘Alt! Who Goes There?’. You might find these extracts interesting…

      “[Jacques] Lacan believed that the transition from infant to adult occurred in three stages, which he called ‘Real’, ‘Imaginary’ and ‘Symbolic’. According to Lacan, when a baby is born, it has no sense of self or of a unified body. The infant cannot distinguish itself from its mother, or any other object. As far as the infant’s subjective state is concerned, all that exists are needs, such as need for nourishment and need for comfort, which are, ideally, met. Lacan marked the transition from this ‘real’ phase to ‘imaginary’ via a conceptual leap made by the infant when confronted with its own reflection in a mirror. As it looks back and forth between the image in the mirror and a real person (usually its mother), the infant acquires the idea that it is a whole person. It identifies the mirror image as ‘me’.
      Lacan argued that this is a mistaken assumption. The mirror image cannot be ‘me’ because it is an external object. But, far from correcting its mistake, other people reinforce the belief that the reflection is ‘me’ by pointing to it and saying things like ‘look, that is you’. Thus, the ego, according to ‘mirror theory’, is a fantasy based on an identification with an external image.
      Other theories place an emphasis on the other person (more specifically, other people) as the ultimate source of ‘I’. In ‘Mind, Self and Society’, George Herbert Mead wrote, “the self…is not there at birth, but arises from the social experience and activity”. In his theory, which is called ‘symbolic interactionism’, it is the attitudes others hold towards us; how they react in our presence, that provides the looking glass in which we see our self. Mead considered language, play, and games (which all rely on shared symbols, roles and rituals) to be crucial in the development of personal identity. The roleplaying child must internalize her own role, along with that of everyone else. At a later stage in development, the various others in varying situations become subjectively integrated into what Mead called ‘the generalized other’. That is: the dominating view of the society or culture to which that individual belongs. According to symbolic interactionism, self-consciousness emerges only when an individual acquires the ability to view oneself from the standpoint of the ‘generalized other’”.

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