Another Friday Sherry Turkle Ticker: Second Life and Taking People at “Interface Value”

Second Life is an online community, a social network of sorts, revolving around created avatars, […]

Ethan Richardson / 12.7.12

Second Life is an online community, a social network of sorts, revolving around created avatars, called “Residents,” who interact with one another–they live with, get jobs with, get married to other created “residents” on the program. The possibilities are endless and the identity markers are completely unhinged: a man can be a woman, a woman can be a child, a banker can be a dinosaur, a stay-at-home mom can be a powerful executive, or a fire chief. Fat can be skinny, old can be young, tired lives can be respun into a world of new and exciting ingenuity.

Of course, social scientists have positioned a program like Second Life into a kind of virtual Rorschach experiment, meaning who we “become” when using the program sheds light on who we actually are: by seeing the self that we long to be, we become aware of the holes we are trying fill in our own lives.  In other words, Second Life players play a very serious game of identity: they “curate” a self to either escape or fix or answer to the way things are going “in real.” Of course this can be a kind of exaggerated caricature of any social networking front: all of the same things can be said about any other online community program in some way or another–the posturing of self to self-justify. And of course, as Sherry Turkle observes in Alone Together, this serious game has typical, predictable outcomes: our unfavorable traits disappear, and the ones we’ve always wanted to promote get time to shine.

Sherry Turkle asserts this avatar-curating provides some interesting questions about the nature of our identity, our own self-comprehension, and what really happens in the phenomenon of “real” personal relationships. She talks about a man named Joel, a computer program designer whose avatar is “Rashi” on Second Life, an elephant who is also a respected artist and programmer. Rashi isn’t buff or sexy, Rashi is respected and sought-after. As Turkle describes it, “In the virtual, he cultivates skills he wants to use in the real.” It sounds like a practical and more identity-faithful use of Second Life, but it doesn’t change the fact that things get complicated:

The week before Joel and I meet, Rashi attendended a Second Life wedding. Two avatars got married, and Rashi was asked to be ring bearer. Joel accepted with pleasure and designed an elaborate elephant tuxedo for the occasion. Since dress code listed on the wedding invitation was “creative formal,” Joel rendered the tuxedo in an iridescent multicolor fabric. He shows me the screenshots he created after the event, the one that Rashi sent as a gift to the bride and groom. Rashi’s generosity draws people to him, as does his emotional composure. In real life, Joel is a contented man, and this state of mind projects into the game. Perhaps it is this calm that attracted Noelle, a Second Life avatar who presents as a depressed Frenchwoman. Noelle has most recently been talking to Rashi about suicide, that is, suicide in the real. Joel and I sit at his computer on a day after he, as Rashi, has spent many hours “talking her down.”

…Who is she really? Is he talking with a depressed woman who has taken on the avatar Noelle, also depressed? Or is the person behind Noelle someone very different who is simply “playing” a depressed person online? Joel says that he would be “okay” if Noelle turns out not to be French. That would not seem a betrayal. But to have spent hours offering counsel to a woman who says she is contemplating suicide, only to find out it was “just a game”–that would feel wrong. Although delivered from Rashi to Noelle, the advice he gives, as Joel sees it, is from him as a human being to the purportedly depressed woman is Noelle’s puppeteer.

On the game, Joel makes it a rule to take people “at interface value.” That is, he relates to what an avatar presents in the online world. And this is how he wants to be taken by other people. He wants to be treated as a whimsical elephant who is a good friend and a virtuoso programmer. Yet, Joel has been talking to Noelle about the possible death of the real person behind the avatar. And even though he doesn’t think Noelle is exactly as she presents–for one thing her name is surely not Noelle, any more than his is Rashi–he counts on her being enough like her avatar that their relationship is worth the time he puts into it. He certainly is “for real” in his hours of counseling her. He believes that their relationship means something, is worth something, but not if she is “performing” depression…Joel is aware of how delicate a line he walks in his virtual relationship with Noelle.

A question arises: Who is the real person in this scenario? It can be argued that an avatar actually frees a person from being seen by their weaknesses. Turkle talks about a woman with a prosthetic leg who finds solace–and love–online. The quieted selfhoods are allowed to be voiced by an avatar, because the community isn’t distracted by your warts and woes. On the other hand, how much of our warts and woes are us? And how much of their impact can actually be eschewed by a virtual self? Whether it is a fake, Noelle-depression, or Noelle is the voice for the person beneath–the woe stands as an identifier and an actual semblance of real relationship between Noelle and Rashi. The delicacy of such interface relationships, then, is the result.

The existential conundrum still looms large for the avatar-maker. If we are not ourselves “in real,” we are also not just the selves we can create and customize. The insufficiency of who we envision ourselves being is just as frantic and flimsy as the self before the mirror, and perhaps more: users can and often do create an avatar and ditch it for another. Turkle talks about the hyperspeed of the Second Life world, how quickly relationships are picked up and let go, and how that’s wired the way we view not just our virtual “residents” but our very selves.

Here, the self is reassuringly protean. You can experiment with different kinds of people, but you don’t assume the risks of real relationships. Should you get bored or into trouble, you can, as Nora puts it, “move on.” Or you can “retire” your avatar and start again. Does loving your Second Life resign you to your disappointments in the real? These days, if you can’t find a good job, you can reimagine yourself as successful in the virtual. You can escape a depressing apartment to entertain guests in a simulated mansion. But while for some the virtual may subdue discontents, for others it seems just a way to escape the doldrums.

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