Friday, August 21, 2009

That ain't no woman! It's a man, baby! Reflections on Botgirl's Identity Reveal

Botgirl Questi, AI, had teased that the actual world identity reveal was coming, and I was really looking forward to it. I don't know her very well, but I admire her, appreciate her work and tweets, and enjoy it when we do talk. Who was she? Did I already know her? How cool was she going to be in her human form?? I can wax pretty enthusiastic about my virtual friends, and think pretty highly of Botgirl (still do). When we started chatting on gmail chat and met inworld, talking about a collaboration, I was excited. She tweeted and blogged a couple of my blog posts, and I was thrilled. I am very interested in the virtual band, plan on following it, and think my Berklee students will be interested in it, too. And when we chatted, and talked about our kids, well, we were two techno-savvy, comic-lovin', avatar-inhabiting, mothers connecting.

Oh, right, except that Botgirl is really a man! Read the post here. Yes, as my friend said to me last night when I was telling him about this, there is a lot of that going around, but nevertheless I was really surprised. This is actually the second time a cool woman avatar friend, hip to technology, great to talk with, someone I had been hanging out with, has turned out to be not woman at all. It is a strange feeling, to find out that the assumptions one naturally has made, that one has been encouraged to make, are false, at least on one level. Yeah, yeah, in the virtual world, what difference does gender make? All avatars are really substitutes or alts for the actual person, or the typist, if you will, masks, exaggerating some characteristics, hiding others. Blah blah blah. The revelation still stung.

In the post revealing his identity, David wrote:

The short answer is that the pseudonymity that initially facilitated free expression is now a box that constrains creative growth and the development of more fully realized personal relationships. For the first year or so, social interactions were strictly from Botgirl’s perspective and consciousness. She adamantly refused to admit to having any human aspect. But over time, as a number of acquaintances moved towards friendships, it began to feel like withholding all reference to my human identity was inauthentic. So I started to intentionally inject more of my human self into the conversations. No identifying information, but personal anecdotes that were relevant to a conversation. The problem this created was that although both Botgirl and I feel “real” as unique individuals, we are pretty much a sham as a morph.

Those moments of personal anecdotes were the ones that leaped to mind immediately, because I thought they were from another woman. See, I am hung up on the gender. I really, really am, no matter what I would have thought I would have said, how I thought I would have responded. Not that it actually makes a difference, when I do think about it--two parents talking about their kids, not two mothers, so what?--but I am examining my initial emotional response. I tweeted glibly that she is still Botgirl to me, but that was wishful thinking. Maybe it is no coincidence that my laptop logic board failed right after I found out about Botgirl/David! Something short-circuited for a moment! Do I lose that woman friend, then, the one I thought I had? Or who was never really there anyway. Another piece of the frakking virtual world illusion that I am willing to believe in and then it is gone, baby, gone, and I am just an avatar jerk standing there, looking where there once was something that is never going to be there again. Oh! (Insert David Byrne, "Once in a Lifetime"-type smack on the forehead!) It was never really there to begin with! Yes, yes, the actual world is like that too. Blah blah blah on that one, as well. (Once I have my laptop back, I will be back to my usual optimistic self. Perhaps.)

OK, I am all for people experimenting with gender and other aspects of identity in SL. I think that Azdel Slade's project Becoming Dragon about gender and other transformations is fantastic; link here and slurl for SL inworld installation until Aug 30th here. I am happy to call you "she" if you have a female avatar, and be your girlfriend, participate in making that real for you, even if sometimes I look at you and see you reflect back to me what I see as an idealized, essentialized version of my existence. But, you know, the thing about gender, about SEX, about having a female body that you guys running around in your big-boobed, wasp-waisted "girl" avs don't and will never understand, is that having a female body is not only a social experience. It is not only about how people treat you, but it is also about what it is like to live in that body, physically, biologically, phenomenologically, without stepping in and out of it at will. It is not all about "empowerment" and "sexiness" because of boots and clothes. It is not only manipulating the construct of femininity, the performance of gender. It is also what it means to be afraid that you are not safe simply because you are in a female body, that your sexuality is not always defined by yourself, or that your worth as a human is judged by your appearance and value as, basically, a sexual or breeding object. It is to notice how you are responded to when you are one size, and how that changes if you are another. The whole issue of idealized feminine appearance is one big trap, and so easy to fall into in the virtual world. L1 is up to her shiny eyeballs in it; she may have to become a centaur or something to get out of it. But to be female in a virtual world is not the same as being female in the actual world, and being female in the actual world is very different depending on where, when, and who you are.

This actually brings me to an extraordinary sculpture I saw yesterday, Grand Odalisque, by 3D Soup, at the Rezzable sim The Black Swan, which is departing Second Life for their own OpenSim very soon. Our loss. I didn't intend on including these pics here, but I guess they fit remarkably well with the ideas I am trying to express. And I love her face.

It is unprecedented to see an image like this in Second Life, not just because of the hyper-realism (a topic that came up tangentially in the panel discussion I was on with Rezzable's Paviq Lok and Stacey Fox last week, see previous post), which I see as one of the ways virtual worlds will develop, not because of the skill it must have taken to make the sculpties for this piece. We don't see this kind of non-idealized image, especially of the female body, because most people are not interested, and in fact as I stood in front of Grand Odalisque with a few of my friends, the crowd shifted dramatically, from a quietly appreciative one (mostly in Instant Message, I think), to a rowdy bunch making fat jokes and using local voice chat. Yes, the virtual world is impermanent, ephemeral--that is its nature. But the way it is superficial and false is a choice, the consensual hallucination we create, that makes something like Grand Odalisque so unusual to our eyes, so out of place.

Back to Botgirl: I was prepared for Botgirl to really be Grand Odalisque. We are all more like Grand Odalisque than the idealized avatar, and seeing both in the same virtual space reminds us of that, maybe brings us up short (literally, given the gap in size between us and her! Interestingly, it is with a similar disproportion in size that David chose to illustrate his reveal, BIG David face, smaller Botgirl. I, in contrast, tend to show L1 and myself as the same relative size in the pieces I have done.)

I just wasn't prepared for Botgirl to be Botguy. In the long run, it doesn't make a difference. There have always been good authors who have written good characters of the opposite gender, and I interacted with one. Initially, I felt a little duped I guess, and it makes me wonder about authenticity, integrity, in virtual worlds when so much can be obscured. I am not one to throw stones, and I am getting over it. I could toggle, knowing that behind Botgirl is David, interesting in his own right, and think that through. Mostly, I don't want there to be no more Botgirl, the one in my head (and if I ever needed confirmation about what computer mediated communication can do, this is it.) And this is where I wonder if I am willing to stand here as the virtual jerk with nothing really before her but illusion. Not sure. My sabbatical is over. I would like to give the virtual world a little kick while I stand here. Anyone got a good animation for that?


Athena Neox said...

There are those that understand very clearly what biological women face, because by being transgendered we face the same X100 in terms of safety, or acceptance, and more because my god, why would a man ever want to step down on the ladder of life and be a woman.

Living a female life through an avatar allows us to be ourselves just a little without facing some of the negative things.

Sure, some may use a female avatar for fun, but many use it to express their real selves.

Look beyond what you see behind the avatar. See Botgirl as the person she is.

Gender is a society created concept.

fourworlds said...

Thanks for sharing your struggle to come to terms with the ambiguity of pseudonymous relationships. Although the form of a very attractive female is a striking aspect of Botgirl's persona, I (David) NEVER felt that I was experiencing what it felt like to be a real woman, and was somewhat uncomfortable in situations (me, not Botgirl) when others would respond to her in that way. If I noticed that was happening, Botgirl would remind them, that she claimed to be no particular gender in RL.

She wrote: "Personally, even in the presence of the most attractive avatar, I can't rid myself of the nagging possibility that she is connected to a 500 pound, unwashed middle-aged man living in his mother's basement. I think that unless you verify someone's identity by live video conference or other dependable means, it is prudent to assume there's a vast discrepancy between an avatar persona and the underlying physical human being."

As for our conversations, the issue of gender never occurred to me (as far as I can remember) except reflexively using the word "spouse" when referring to the person you now know is my wife.

The purpose of my "thought experiment" was to imagine the experience of an Artificial Intelligence who woke up in Second Life with no personal memory. Although issues such as sexism, racism, etc. are ones that I care about, they are not a focus (as least so far) of the Botgirl journey.

Going back through Botgirl's blog last night, one of the most recurring themes was advice on navigating the emotionally treacherous waters of pseudonymous virtual space:

March 09 "Seeing through the illusory nature of our experience of pseudonymous virtual relationships is much more difficult. It feels like we have some sort of innate ability to see the "real person" behind the avatar. We don't. What actually happens is that our very limited experience of a person's words and deeds are transformed into a mental image that's completely fabricated by our own mental projections."

Finally, here's her advice on approaching virtual relationships:

"* Enjoy the present without expectations. This one is hard, but well-worth the effort. As I've written previously, there is no telling who is directing the avatar in front (or on top) of you. And you know what? If you are enjoying the company it doesn't have to matter. A lot of the hurt I've heard expressed related to relationships in Second Life seems to be more from shattered expectations (believing one's own lies) than overt deception by someone else. Which leads me to...

* Assume nothing and ask questions. If you DO care about something beyond what someone discloses, then ask and do not move forward in the relationship until you're satisfied with the answer. Now they are not obliged to tell you. And they can lie. But at least if you are wounded, it won't be self-inflicted. That's some consolation, right?

* Know what you don't know. Personal interactions in virtual worlds can certainly be authentic when avatars don't know each others' human identities. But our conceptions of even our closest loved ones are mostly fabrications of our own thoughts. As Bryon Katie said, "In the history of the world no two people have ever met." I think that goes double or triple for those we "meet" in the virtual world. Of course, there is a connection between your perception of someone and the qualities they possess. The mistake is to reify them into some solid entity with stable and knowable characteristics.

* Focus more on what you have to give, than on what you want to get. I'm not talking co-dependency here, but genuine no-strings-attached loving kindness; what Buddhists call metta."

So the journey continues! I look forward to talking with you soon.

Anonymous said...

To me, gender would have to be one of the least important parts of a person's qualities. It's one of the things (like skin color, means, choice of political party, and religion) that simply aren't a factor in my social relations.

Shava said...

Well, I had similar assumptions about Botgirl, but I see it as good art.

I'm a woman IRL -- and in Second Life...mostly... I created a male alt to help with negotiation at one point with a Korean client, and he surfaces every so often.

But my first experience with gender shamming was when I was on a chat system in 1979 (!) on the UMass/Amherst mainframe. I was *advised* to pick a male sounding handle, so as not to get hit on.

My chat persona, Reuben, tended to get on after midnight, as I took advantage of lower cycle costs for my 45min FORTRAN compiles.

One day a young guy named John chatted me up. He asked if I was a student, and I told him I was a student spouse, working as a programmer at the public radio station on campus.

"Must be nice..." he nearly sighed over the wire. "I don't know even how to start a conversation with a woman."

I empathized. It was the late 70's, and I was a grrl geek way before that was cool. "I don't really talk to women much. Most of them aren't interested in the same things I am -- science fiction, computers, cogsci, philosophy, fishing. Most of my friends are guys. Sometimes you can find a woman who is a good friend, but it's harder for me."

All true. STILL true, thirty years later (except, I don't go fishing much).

I am personally attracted to women who don't fit the mold, and who typically don't buy into the tendency to Japanese-novel whispering backstabbing subtlety drama that women tend to craft more than men in this culture.

I understand viva la difference -- we all grow up with different chemicals warping our behaviors, and I believe that hormones are the most amazing psychoactives.

At the same time, we are beings of mind, and our behavior and reputation are hardly dictated by biology.

When I find a friend, I will know them, and the bits downstairs are not as important as the bits upstairs.

Professor Loire said...

Thanks for these thoughtful, thought-provoking comments.

Athena, I particularly appreciate your response, and hope it was clear that I was not talking about transgender people using virtual worlds to explore gender, or as an extension of their actual experiences, which of course can be an authentic experience, but more about what I have noticed and intrepret as an un-self-aware parody of being a woman. I think of myself as an ally, and regret it if I came across as otherwise in mentioning sex as well as gender.

To fourworlds/David, Tateru, and Shava: I am pretty much over the reveal, and writing the post about my reaction, which was not what I would have expected it to be, was cathartic. It was that the woman I imagined, the one I made up in my head, did not exist, that was the shock. I guess it does matter to me still that there be cool women--like Shava!!!!--who are so slick with technology, break new ground, and can be role models. Who create characters or personae and rock the virtual and all other worlds. When it is no longer a man's world, when gender really doesn't matter, not in an ideal way, but in a real way, then maybe it won't. I guess I will try to grow up and become the Botgirl I imagined was out there myself.