Maintaining Illusion

InWorldz is having their first-ever conference this weekend; you could think of it like SLCC, except for the trust and admiration InWorldzers have for the Founders and Codemonkehs who have taken a fork of OpenSim code, still officially “in alpha”, cleaned it up and turned it into something far less “beta” than Second Life’s current Release version. The conference is in Las Vegas, of all places — a city I would not visit, for any reason, even if I could afford to.

[Compare that to SLCC itself, which has decided to restrict its annual venue to alternating between San Francisco and Boston, keeping it well out of reach of people who live in “flyover country”, to say nothing of the other continents Resi’s live on… While you’re at it, take note that the InWorldz conference was instigated by, and has the organization and support of, those same Founders, as opposed to the committee of volunteers who administer SLCC without any assistance from Teh Lab, and only piecemeal attendance by people who just happen to also be Lindens.]

Jim Tarber has been posting photos of the InWorldz meetup to Yfrog, and there probably are others; I just haven’t seen Tweets about them yet. Maybe there will be an aggregation somewhere on the Web soon, as there have been for photos and videos of past SLCCs. I replied, to one of Jim’s earliest group shots from Friday night, that it needed a caption naming who was in it…

Then, I remembered my reaction to some photos from SLCC 2010, and thought about it some more.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but bear with me: Back before the WWW, when most communication required either an analog telephone or a postage stamp and three days’ delivery, I used to attend science fiction conventions. All we fans had to go on for the appearance of the authors we went to meet were their dust-jacket photos, if  they had published in hard-cover.  For everyone else — artists, fellow fans from other cities, and such — we had nothing. Thus, we also had little in the way of preconception.

In the years since, I’ve learned that after subtracting the costume events, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between one fan convention and the next, whether it’s for SF, fantasy, comics, anime or furries. Just a bunch of regular folks of all shapes, sizes, ages, behaviors, styles of dress and modes of personal hygiene, out to have a good time and meet each other on the premise of a shared interest.

The difference, and the point of this post, is that meetups of virtual world avatars come freighted with preconceptions — illusions, if you will — regarding appearance, reinforced in most cases by the extension of avatarian identity into social networks, complete with profile photos to match. As an extreme example: I know that Botgirl is neither a bot nor a girl, but I interact with the avatar as if she were both. I know that Crap Mariner is not a chain-smoking robot with a female shape. I know that Zauber Paracelsus is not a dragon, nor are any of my furry friends any species other than human… but when I think about them, I see them as they choose to be seen in-world.

The illusion would be shattered upon meeting them face-to-organic-face… or by photographs with names assigned. It’s an illusion I’d rather keep. SLCC has located and priced themselves permanently out of my reach, but I don’t think you’ll ever find me at an InWorldz Conference, either — even if they site it somewhere I can drive to.



27 responses to “Maintaining Illusion

  1. I've found that even when I've matched a physical world face with a virtual world name, I still fall back into perceiving them psychologically through the avatar image I've known them by. So I wonder whether the fear you have is from having actually experiencing that scenario, or is it just what you're projecting your response would be.

  2. I cannot meet Mr. Prokofy Neva without thinking of Mrs. Cathy Whatsername being at the controls – that is a result of how often the person behind the avatar gets the spotlight. Same with Philip Rosedale Linden. There's also the Voice function which gives a glance into the person behind the avatar. Buxom young blondes with bored suburban American accents are in my mind's eye connected to Desperate Housewives rather than Baywatch.But on the other hand, I cannot for the life of me imagine that a real-world meeting with any of my SL friends would mean the end of my friendship. I guess if you can get along as avatars, you can get along as people. This relatively new aspect of social interaction deserves a closer look though. Interesting food for thought: how important are our looks to our social interaction?

  3. Even when we "know" someone in meatspace, we're constantly projecting an image/impression of them onto them. We draw masks, abstractions & distillations onto everyone we meet; it takes a long time (often, years) to really have a sense of someone's "soul shape." What virtual communication is doing is only highlighting a common psychological process.I've known many people in RL exclusively through their nicknames/chosen names. I've never comprehended the separation of representation electronically, unless someone is specifically "role-playing," and even then, with sustained and continued contact, the essential personality will gradually peek through. This is the fascinating part of personality-extension & exploration of what makes someone "them" and not "someone else." It doesn't bother me to call someone by their avatarian name any more than it bothers me to call an old friend "Peggy" and to hear others (depending on their relationship to her) call her Margie, Margo, Margaret or Maggie. How many people "shorthand" their impression of you based on family name, religious beliefs, style of music ("she's a rocker, not a mod"), worker-bee slot ("she's a librarian"), etc.?t's fine for me to know that Annie is model-beautiful (does catalog shoots) but has the personality (and dreams & talents) of a Master Carpenter & likes to race stock cars on weekends (complete with tearing hot, greasy motors apart). That is the reality of Annie, not her shape, not my projected slots of where I think that shape fits in and what I think that shape "should be doing." I watch people all the time react to Annie's shape and their perceived biases; it's inevitably fun to watch Annie nicely shred those assumptions.Slots & abstractions, presentations & costumery are expressions of a personality. Body shape/sex/gender/age are for the most part biological rolls of the dice over which you have no control, and I seldom base my impression of a person on these variables. What they chose to show/reveal/tell me is a lot more important as regards of their personhood than accidents of a roulette wheel. They are showing me themselves. I don't know what Annie would choose as an avatar on SL; maybe she'd go for a buff-guy avatar, which would suit her (and be more revealing) than a fashion-plate female avatar. I'd be inclined to think so (knowing Annie) and it wouldn't bother me in the least.

  4. I went to SLCC and I can confirm your observation. It was "just a bunch of regular folks of all shapes, sizes, ages, behaviors, styles of dress and modes of personal hygiene, out to have a good time and meet each other on the premise of a shared interest."

  5. Appearance was not an issue at SLCC. It's an incredible vibe to be in a room full of virtual world community that you know and love. Same thing with the Montreal Music Meet last summer. The vibe is wholesome and fun. Attitudes are different :) My experience at both get together opportunities was that … how do I put this. The ones that you THOUGHT would be the most trouble were the most shy little things face to face. So it's not appearance that gets modified so much as the inside stuff that can be misrepresented from my observations.And I rather liked hugging a few "meanies" at both events and understanding each other much better. :)I'm exactly the same. With a better body in SL… but there isn't that much of a difference between my avatar appearance and myself. I don't feel there needs to be one. One person with multiple ports of interface.Great post! :) Very thought provoking!~ Skylar

  6. Yeah, I was pleased and somewhat surprised (although other people had told me it would be that way) at SLCC, to find that the illusions weren't really harmed at all. Everyone looked just like themselves! Even if in SL they're a different gender or species or whatever. Sounds weird and impossible, I know :) but that's how it was for me.

  7. First of all: Thanks, everyone, for your comments! Can't remember the last time one of these sparked so much discussion.I wouldn't elevate my reaction to the level of "fear", or even "freak out" as Botgirl put it in Twitter. On the other hand, I am absolutely projecting previous response onto hypothetical future situation, and acknowledging which – for me – is the more preferable outcome. Others' mileage varies, as it should. :)And yes, there are a very few friends I first met virtually who I have subsequently met (or seen photos of) on the organic side… and I still hold the mental picture of their avatar, instead. Think of it in the same light as when a favorite book is made into a movie. Even if it's done with as much respect for canon as, say, The Lord of the Rings, the next time you read it, do you still see the characters you envisioned while reading, or have they been replaced by the cast of the film?

  8. I've been thinking more about this over the weekend from two points of view. The first is the one you mentioned . . . what it feels like to have someone else's human identity ruin the illusion for you. The other is what it feels like from the other side . . . when the veil of your own avatar identity is lifted. I hope to write a bit more about this in a blog post later this week. Until, I ask those of you who don't want to know other people's human identities what you think it would feel like if your own identity was disclosed.

  9. /me takes a deep breath.Ok, I don't know why I am throwing my two cents into this discussion actually because I find the topic a bit unsettling, but here goes. First, are we only discussing SL avatar identity? And are we only discussing our "main" avatar? As both Lalo and Vaneeesa know me not only as Moni but also my "significant other" Pennyroyal and in several virtual worlds besides SL. Plus, I have a few other avatars ( I hate the negative connotation of ALT ) and each have their own unique personality.If Moni or Penny were "outed" by someone, it would be tragic, not for me the driver so much but for them I think. They are characters, fictional yes, but honestly they are anthropomorphic in a sense. I sometimes imagine that when I'm not around they are living their lives and digging the freedom :) I guess I have other opinions about this subject and perhaps I'll post more at some point on my blog, but it sorta spoils my immersion in their lives to even talk about such things.Anyway I look forward to reading more comments and Botgirl's upcoming post too. *waves bye to my friends* take care!

  10. Lalo, have you ever found that matching an avatar's driver with his/her avi has enhanced your feelings about them? I have. But I will admit that I've had the opposite reaction as well; seen the driver and felt differently about the avi- and not in a good way. Monerda, you've touched on an interesting point. For me, it has more to do with the wishes of the avi's driver. If they wish to stay immersed, I'm happy to know them only as their avi is presented to me. If they wish to show off their driver, I'm happy to meet them too. It's their choice. Lalo, yours is an interesting viewpoint- that it's also your choice. Do people generally ask you before dropping their RL pic on you? Do you say "no, thank you" when they do? Pretty sure I didn't ask, before passing mine along to you. ;)But, Botgirl, if my RL identity were "outed" by someone besides myself, without my permission, I would be furious. I've chosen to keep my identity based on my avatar's name. My RL name is known to less than a handful of people online. I do this for reasons of safety and privacy, and I see it as my right to do so. I've never once used my kids' names online, I'm careful about the details I share. Their right to privacy is just as important, if not more so, than mine.

  11. Whiskey, you have stated it so much better than I was able to. From my rez day onwards that has been my approach, I accept the avatar that someone presents be it human or any of the other limitless forms virtual worlds provide for us. I often find myself in the minority though because lots of the avs I meet are very much more into the "social media" aspects of virtual life than I am. I guess I'm "old school" :P

  12. @Moni : That was worth a lot more than two cents! Your realization of, and relation to, Moni and Penny (and whoever else I haven't met yet *grin*) comes from a different direction than my integration of organic and virtual. Mine might be why (expect for rare occasions when I put the fur back on) I've settled into a shape, skin and hair that resembles the guy behind the keyboard.@Whiskey: To your first question: yes, a couple of times :) To your second: yes, they usually ask, and I haven't said no yet. I don't remember if you asked first; on the other hand, see question 1. But that's a personal interchange, with an indefinite but nonetheless extant code of conduct, and usually implies a level of trust already earned, one-to-one.And, to your last paragraph: You've spoken for me on that issue, too. Thanks :)

  13. Monerda: I agree that it's a lot harder to maintain the integrity of a distinct virtual identity without the firewall of pseudonymity. Although each of us may give birth to one or more avatar personas, identity over time is a social construction. So even if you can internally maintain a distinct sense of unique identity, if other people don't "play along" then your character is as good as dead within the social space. Whiskey: Thanks for bringing in the impact on wallet name identity when pseudonymity is unintentionally lost. I adamantly refused to disclose any human-related information such as age, gender, nationality, etc. until I i made the decision to publicly disclose my human identity. That said, I assumed from the start that my identity would eventually be disclosed one way or another, so I was careful not to say or do anything I'd regret if connected to RL identity. You're in a very different situation since you write so much about personal family life. In any case, may a pox fall on those who out anyone but themselves.

  14. Oh. One more thing. The other side of virtual friends knowing about one's human identity is whether your RL social circles and family know about your virtual identity. For instance, although I was publicly pseudonymous for the first year, it wasn't something I kept secret within my human household. I know that there are a lot of people with active avatar identities who keep their virtual lives from friends and family.

  15. I have been thinking about this a lot. And last night in the throws of insomnia I started to think about Captain Jack Sparrow and Johnny Depp. I would love to have the chance to interact with the crazy character that is Jack Sparrow. He is funny and odd and interesting. I am sure we would laugh and have an outrageous time. Of course I know he is not a biological person and the man behind the character is an actor who is tapping into his deep subconscious mind to play a role. Perhaps the role is his fantasy or perhaps the role is something he does to make money, but it hardly matters. When the actor puts on the costume and assumes the voice and the mannerisms he becomes Jack Sparrow and when I see him on my media I am immersed in that moment and I believe he is Jack Sparrow. Maybe that is enough.But what interests me is the actor. The man behind the Mad Hatter and Edward Scissorhands and Gilbert Grap and Raoul Duke. So I have watched Johnny Depp interviewed on various shows including The Actor's Studio to learn more about him. Does learning more about Johnny Depp make it harder for me to believe him when he shows up on my media stream as Sir James Matthew Barrie in Finding Neverland? Not in the least.What does this have to do with avatars and people? Well a little I think. When I meet an avatar with whom I have a connection there comes a time when I want to understand the person. It is rare, but it happens. I love and cherish those connections. It is critical that they are mutual and both parties want to "take off the mask" and when they do it can be a beautiful thing.I remember when pictures of me from SLCC first appeared on the web. I was horrified even though I have a RL picture on my SL profile and my face has appeared on NWN as well. I don't know why the SLCC photos bothered me, but they did.Frankly when I saw the pictures from the InWorldz conference flash across my twitter I was a little taken aback. I sure hope they had permission of every single person who's photo they posted.

  16. In my opinion, what you gain from meeting someone in the flesh far outweighs your own preconceptions of that person based on their virtual appearance. In Second Life, how you look is ultimately meaningless – it's how you behave and what you say to somebody which has the real impact upon them. Friendships aren't built on how good you are at making up a virtual doll – it's how strong a bond you develop with someone, regardless of the space in which you meet.Meeting them in the flesh is just the next step to developing that friendship further, but if that bond is clouded by how you see them in a virtual environment, I'd surmise that it's not that strong a friendship.I also add that people would treat each other better in SL, and online in general, if we accepted that we're not avatars or users, but actual real people. Creating this detachment or illusion leads people to do things to others they would never consider doing in a real world environment.

  17. I think Prad's on to something, as it comes close to the phrase I weigh SL/LL by: acta, non verba.A says they will do B.A does C.You ask A why they did C when they said they did B.A says they said they'd do C, not B.Blah blah blah blah, and so on.A can go f- themselves. I think I'll go pet a cat.Also, the currency of SL is not L$, but trust.The complicating factor ends up being Law Of Triangles, where A likes/trusts B, B likes/trusts C, but A hates the shit out of/distrusts C. (These are different A, B, and C than before. If it helps, imagine them with curly French mustaches.)It's a constantly changing dynamic, and your tolerance of the changes and the revelations and complications determines your… enjoyment? Success? Comfort level?Also, intent and perception factor in heavily. If you've got a high tolerance and long patience, perception will pass and you'll get to intent, which should be what really matters.-ls/cm, twirling a curly French Mustache

  18. I've met quite a number of SL users in person over the years, and there's one observation that keeps cropping up again and again. The person I meet physically is exactly the same as the person I already know through Second Life, in every way that matters.

  19. Let's look at this question from another angle, one people might be familiar with (with a nod to Chestnut):I've met many authors in my life. I've had a preconceived notion of them from their writings. In some cases, their physical presence was at great odds to that mental picture (ever heard Israel Regardie speak, with his pronounced lisp?) In one case, the physical person's presence & persona differed greatly from my preconceptions (William Burroughs). Perhaps he was on his "best public behavior" but the man I met showed very little of the gonzo persona of his best writings. It didn't ruin it for me to hear Sylvia Plath read her own work – it certainly was not the delivery & tone that I "hear" Plath when I read her work; in some cases her voice sounds entirely too cheery for the material. This just made it more interesting to me (expanded my awareness of Plath). This kind of discussion seems to lump all "virtual identity" together – role-players, casual users, Grannie & her Farmville account… it's unrealistic. I understand we are groping towards codification & definition, but the data set is skewed. Some people use the heck out of their smartphones – rooting them, hacking them, integrating their apps, tethering… their approach & reality is a long way from the casual user who gets a smartphone because "it's cool" or because their phone company sent them one. They don't dig into the device; they are happy with presets. Can we include both ends of that spectrum in a discussion of "the nature of telephony presence" and extropolate from that? For some people, their "virtual life" consists of tweeting, looking at eBay, posting on Facebook.& sending/receiving email. For many people, their SL/VW avatar is as important/compelling/immersive as their email address. Some are exploring "virtual identity" (which I equate to role-playing). Some are just using whatever vehicle is presented to them in order to play, communicate or be social. Many use their avatar as "the radio station I have to tune in to be able to listen to this song" and don't think much about it past that & playing virtual Barbies."Some came to sing, some came to praysome came to keep the dark away"

  20. @Miso: "…so raise your candles high…"@Chestnut: (re your last paragraph) That's another aspect of my original post — that photos taken, captioned and posted by a third party without at least asking the people in them for permission (never mind signed releases; that's over the top for another attendee with a smart phone) isn't exactly "cricket".@Prad: I, for one, have always kept "treat others as you wish to be treated" as much in mind in virtuality as in daily life — but then again, there's Ahern.@Miso again: This coin has a lot of sides… Wizzy might say that the polyhedron asymptotically approaches spherical ;)All and sundry: So… here's yet another: Ever unfollowed (Twitter, blog, whatever) someone you know in-world for TMI? I have. One person's TMI is another person's intimacy, I know this — it's as subjective as my preference for retaining the avatarian image; i.e., the OP in this thread ;) We all have our limits, though, even if they differ from everyone else's — anyone crossed yours?No names, please… in fact, a reply isn't needed at all. Just think about it, along with the rest of the above… and (since it seems we're all Midbies on this bus), about how your comfort zone in virtuality may have changed over the years, and how your RL comfort zone resonates with it.

  21. For a very long time I did not "unfollow" anyone. I figured I could just not read annoying or offensive content and let it slip by me. When I started to get upset by things people said or felt like I had seen way way way TMI I began to use the unfollow button liberally. I do not need or want to have thousands of people on my timeline. I can't realistically keep up and I don't need that much input. So, yes. I read as much as I can and leave behind content that does not interest me or add value to my day. Absolutely.

  22. Whiskey is right. You don't post enough.I wonder if your reticence in shattering the illusion of the Avatar has more to do with the amount of time that you've held that identity rather than any fear or freak out (which I really very much doubt). I could be way wrong with this, but as a newbie (two years gone this January) it seems to me like it has been only the last year or so that more folks are starting to lift the veil on their real lives (Chestnut, Carrie Lexington, Grace McDonough come to mind). As long as their true identity has not been outed by a third party, and they have made the choice to 'go public' then I don't have an issue with it. In fact if anything learning about the person behind "Grace" has enhanced what I think about that particular Avatar. Now from what I can remember (without looking) you've been in Second Life for about 4 to 5 years? If that is the case then I would ask a question. When you first started, how many people revealed or acknowledged a real life persona? Was the immersion into a Second Life stronger then than it is now?

  23. Excellent point, Alex. For the first 3 years I was in SL, I barely mentioned my real world details. I was rarely asked, aside from the annoying "verification" that some people wanted. :P But over the past couple of years, perhaps due to some pretty huge shifts in my RL situation, I've been much more open about my RL me.Come to think of it, it's been more since I've started blogging, tweeting and "knowing" avatars outside of SL that I've been more open about my RL. Social media made me more open and forthcoming, perhaps, because – well- what else can I talk about these days? So, I don't think it has as much to do with the amount of time I've spent inworld, so much as how my physical world has changed, that has made me more open about my RL in my 5th and 6th (!!!) years in virtual worlds.

  24. First, I just wanna say… I'm regretting the use of the word "shatter". Much too strong for what I had in mind, as well as a cliché when used with the word "illusion".@Alex: I entered SL as a furry, and was one exclusively for the first two years or so. That community was, at the time at least, more reticent than most about who was at the wheel, and it already had a strong foundation of text-based roleplay – a.k.a. immersion – before SL gave them all a chance to become CGI. So, my mileage may vary a lot from others of the Class of '07.Nevertheless — as Whiskey also said — I'm more relaxed about what I reveal about me-behind-keyboard than I was in those first years… and it also comes from blogging and Tweeting and sorting out the genuine friends, the ones you feel for, from the colleagues, acquaintances and the people whose avatar names you know but haven't even met in the pixels.It's that trust thing again :)

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