When you meet someone in a video game or virtual world and start to form a friendship, what level of real world information do you expect? The classic age/sex/location? Career or school level? Photos? Link to a credible online profile? Voice chat? Conversely, what level of real world information do you offer?
I’m deeply curious about our online presentations and performances of identity. As the Internet became mainstream, I was surprised to see that people were far more interested in proof of identity than I was, and that disconnect continues. That isn’t to say I haven’t made friendships and had romantic relationship that bridged from digital to physical. I have. But if there is no expectation to meet offline, what details really matter?
For me, that question is very potent. I can wonder about the story behind an avatar and ponder what her offline life might be. She might be a man. She might be 15 years old or celebrating her 73rd birthday. She might live next door or halfway around the planet. However, it’s quite rare that those things matter to how we interact online. In fact, those details might color my perception unnecessarily, when I could instead just take her at face value as she presents herself. To put it in 2014 cinematic terms, did we care less about the Guardian of the Galaxy who had no tragic back story reveal, or were his actions so compelling that “I am Groot” was enough?
A quote from Lars Gustafsson’s The Death of a Beekeeper has stayed with me for decades. Sometimes I believe it, sometimes I don’t, but I think about it often. “What is the maximum distance from which you can love a human being? Answer: less than a millimeter. And without a name.” We love the images we are presented and the images we create. In a virtual environment, we might convince ourselves that by knowing more details we are getting closer to some truth, but perhaps we’re just focusing the image we’ve made. Sometimes we project our desired image very clearly, so that the person we’re discovering has motivation to tell us what we want to hear. Especially in the early stages of getting to know each other, that image might be very far away from any reality. This doesn’t just happen in virtual worlds; think of how different a first date impression can be from what you know months later.
Online, this interaction of presentation and image can be a problem if real life veracity is important to us. Nev Schulman, who turned catfish into an Internet term, has a new book out, “In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age.” I won’t be reading it because I find him personally abhorrent, but this expansive review on Nerve is quite good. There are so many degrees of and reasons for online deception; the Nerve reviewer begins by talking about how she and her friend used to tease guys online by pretending to be a hot woman, then making silly jokes. Of course, deception can be used for nefarious purposes, but my biased opinion is that there’s rarely evil intent. A desire for attention isn’t evil; it’s human. Some people feel that need more deeply and create personas to get what they need. I think there are ethical ways to do that in anonymous online spaces, but my ethics aren’t universal and they aren’t the ones I’ve always practiced.
At this time, I’m pretty straightforward about who I am in every world. Take me or leave me, this is who I am. That wasn’t always the case. A few years ago I created a very detailed and layered alternate identity in a video game, initially as a way to fit in and keep my virtual life separate from my real life. Privacy and assimilation were my goals, not deception. I created an offline identity for her to satisfy those who demanded more details. That identity took on a life of its own as I formed friendships and got involved in game politics. It spread beyond the game into Teamspeak and Skype and Second Life. Though I did no harm and in fact, I was able to offer support to some because of the access that identity gave me, I did not behave in accordance with my own ethics. I got swept up in it.
While I was using that identity, I was diagnosed with cancer. I found myself in a lousy position: other than my husband, the people that I felt closest to didn’t really know who I was. They wanted to offer their support and I needed it, but deep in my heart I knew that they didn’t care about me, they cared about her. Oh, that hurt, especially because I was achingly aware that it was all my fault. A few weeks after having surgery to remove the cancerous bits and more, I outed myself to the two people I was closest to online. One of them instantly accepted the real me and our relationship transitioned well into the physical world. The other accepted it in theory, but mourned the loss of the person he thought he knew. He never got over it and our friendship died out. That’s when I decided to put that identity away. As far as most people who had known her were aware, she simply stopped playing that game and faded away; it happens all the time.
I don’t judge people who create a different identity for themselves online. I’ve seen it be a productive and therapeutic technique, though the people who use it might not be aware of that until they look back with hindsight. It can be a way to explore gender identity or sexual interests, to escape from pain of many forms, or to try to see through the eyes of another. I feel sympathy for people who feel they were deceived by others who never meant them any harm.
What happens in a virtual space if we don’t demand or offer offline information directly, but simply accept each other as what we seem to be? For some, this is standard operating procedure, but it terrifies others. I’m always surprised when I see verified identities listed as a priority in online development, so I think I must be in the minority. I’ll leave this here as an introspection challenge: the next time you’re about to ask a new acquaintance online an RL question, ask yourself why that fact matters to you. What will it change to know the answer? Will you treat the person differently if his answer is X, Y, or Z? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t talk about the offline world — heck, befriend me in SL and ask an RL question, and I’ll answer you without hesitation — but wondering if we can broaden ourselves by being less connected to those details.