Monday, July 6, 2009

There's No Confusion Like SL Confusion: Identity, Alts, & Other Aspects of Self

L1's virtual head is spinning. She has often been confused in SL, as it can often be a confounding and quick-changing environment, but this experience beat all. First, I was talking to a SL friend inworld, then logged off. Then I got a friendship request in my e-mail from an avatar with the same first name as my friend, popped back inworld, accepted it, and said hello. I thought it was my friend, in a new account. I helpfully offered skins and shapes to the "noob"--what an insult, really, but of course only meant as a quick start! Because of the nature of SL conversation, perhaps, or various coincidences between my friend and this person, someone I know in the actual world, it took a while to unravel the misunderstanding, and we had a good laugh, and were glad to connect inworld.

But it made me think. Anyone could be anyone in SL, something I have not really understood fully before. No wonder some businesses are wary of SL, although I had previously thought about it primarily because of the general weirdness of the virtual world, the strong sexual content and the unpredictability of what can happen at one's shop or event. I have had a lot of confidence in my virtual intuition or something, and now I think that is a lot of bunk. Unless we choose otherwise, identity is shrouded in SL.

I had been thinking of this anyway, and the other night took a picture of some willing but wanting to remain anonymous avatars at a fun club I like to go to inworld, Flashmans, (slurl) a place with an excellent 20s and 30s music stream, fun dances, and a surrealist bent in the decor. The clever club owner put a smooching poseball in front of The Lovers, a 1928 Magritte painting that sometimes scares the crap out of me when I see it, prompting thoughts of hostages, torture, and claustrophobia, sometimes seems right on about the illusions of romance, and at other times seems too cynical. Kissing aside, the Magritte image speaks eloquently to an aspect of SL social interaction, one that on one hand allows for greater intimacy because of anonymity, and on the other, puts up barriers, or operates as a barrier that is already there because it is a virtual interaction. And then of course there is the whole element of computer-mediated-communication I have discussed here and on the Toggle page, which leads people to put idealized selves out there, interpret the sparse typed words how they wish, and create feedback loops that reinforce positives over negatives (until, perhaps, they become caught up in a negative feedback loop, when that would take over, and amplify the negatives). Like the figures in the Magritte image, we are all stuck in our own heads, mired in our own subjectivities, and maybe the filter through which we see is more opaque than we ever care to acknowledge.

This also brings me to another topic I have been thinking about: alts. Alt is, I believe, short for alternate account, another avatar with which a person logs into SL. There are a lot of reasons to have alts, and one of my friends and I made a list once. Basically, there are personal and professional reasons. Artists and business people use alts to test things, to make sure permissions work on avatars that aren't theirs, or to see if something works with two or more avatars, etc. Machinimatographers use alts as camera people, as cameras, really, or as actors. I have a whole cast who were in a science fiction piece I made last year when I was learning about machinima that was so bad I never bothered to cut it together. Avatars who are well known, inworld or in both realities, might want some of the anonymity that most people have in SL, and will use an alt for that, either to be able to be incognito, or check out the business competition. Professional people just might want a social alt, and all their friends know who that is, so little deception involved, except maybe to acquaintances, who could of course become friends, and that could be murky territory. And then of course there are probably as many personal reasons to have alts as there are people who have them: to play with different identities, to start fresh, to have more experiences, to have peace and quiet to work or explore, to compartmentalize identity, to be malicious, to have affairs, to hide in various ways inworld. People can experiment with an alt, and might have an alt of the other gender, or one for a completely different purpose, like role play or gaming, or to participate in one of the many subcultures, maybe to have a third or even fourth life.

My camera alt, Kino, started off as a camera holder. I shrunk the avatar and hid it in flower pots and things for shooting. Then, as my scripting teacher was working on my camera follower eye object for me, and I couldn't get it to stop following me, which was hilarious, I realized I could log in as Kino and send him a message from that account: "This is the eye. I am on the loose and L1 cannot control me." Hahaha. Pretty funny stuff. Hilarity ensues. Machinima is made about the eye. Then I start to get some ideas for a screwball comedy, but I don't think I want these humiliations to happen to L1. Aha! These things can happen to Kino! She needs some good hair, an outfit or two, etc., became more of a character. I filled out her profile, because in the screwball comedy, which takes place in SL, the characters look at each other's profiles. I also realized I could join some more groups, having filled up my allotted 25 as L1. At one point, I considered trying a role play game, and almost enrolled as Kino in Star Fleet Academy, picked up the application and everything, but they are very serious over there. I contemplated trying to get kicked out of Starfleet, but I wouldn't want to disrupt their game. I do not think I talk or act any different as Kino as I do as L1. If Kino is around, I will tell people to ignore her because she is my alt, or say funny things as her once they know. Sometimes, if I am in as Kino, I will tell people I am an alt, and leave it at that, not sure why, maybe because her profile is kind of crazy.

To be sure, alts are deceptive. I went to a philosophical discussion at Thothica--as Kino--about alts. I was going to say I was an alt, but I thought the moment to do so passed and it seemed too dramatic. I did send IMs to the people there who knew me. It is just murky territory, I think, with absolutely no parallel in the actual world. How could you be right in front of someone, interacting with them, having a whole relationship with them, and have them not know they had met you before but you had a different name, and face? That you were being two people with them? Or used to be someone else and now were this person and they didn't know that? Even if the reason is innocuous, or justified, or none of their business, even if the alt-perpetrator was not trying to put anything over on anyone, but alting for some other reason known only to him or her, it is a rotten thing to do to someone if it makes them feel bad, or if it would make them feel bad if they knew it, or if you thought it would make them feel bad if they knew it, but maybe they wouldn't care less. Does the golden rule apply? Or does that just tighten the burlap around our heads?

Except of course that it is in SL, in a context in which the social contract is often based maybe not on lies but not on truths either. It does not automatically include revealing actual identity in the way that a face-to-face interaction might. Alts may be deceptive, but so is SL, or it can be, even if no one is trying to make it that way on purpose. Isn't the avatar an alt for the actual person behind the computer, the typist? What difference does it make who else an avatar is, if we are interacting with an avatar on the level of SL?

I am sure there are all kinds of deliberate and malicious uses of alts, but my interest doesn't tend there, and it all makes me think of some of the scenes in the screwball comedies of the 30s, like The Lady Eve or The Awful Truth, or even the jail scene in Bringing Up Baby. The Lady Eve has an edge to it, in part because it is Barbara Stanwyck, so maybe not the best example here, although it is a sort of alt revenge now that I think about it. (And maybe there is a good machinima noir of an alt story, a femme fatale who is genuinely unknowable, maybe even to herself, lost between accounts!) I saw a production of the play The Importance of Being Earnest in Second Life, and thought that was a particularly resonant and funny play in the SL context. Shakespearean comedies, too, would have excellent significances, with the cross-dressing impersonations, mistaken identities, and overall investigation of self, appearance, and social customs.

And, yes, all this makes me more interested in what I call the mixed-reality works in progress of friendships, ones that bridge the boundaries of the virtual and actual worlds, and have been enjoying playing with some new gadget/applications that facilitate those border crossings. There is an app for my new lovely iPhone called Sparkle, that logs me into SL and I can IM or have local chat with the folks inworld with it. There are the new avalines, phone numbers for avatars, and yesterday I called Sage Duncan and talked with her with me on my home telephone and her on SL voice chat. Earth calling Sage, Superhero/Fox!! These are the kinds of technologies that make toggling between the actual and the virtual possible.

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