Dec 9, 2021
Who would you be, if you could be anyone?
About 10 months ago, I attended a convention that took place entirely in the virtual reality world of Second Life due to the pandemic. It sucked me in, and I find as time goes on I’m spending more of my scant free time there as opposed to endlessly scrolling Facebook so I can begin and end each day angry.
If you're not aware, Second Life is a long-running virtual world co-created by its own inhabitants. It has its own monetary system, an endless variety of lands (known as sims) "owned" by the residents and designed according to their specifications, and its own culture and traditions. If you want to explore an ancient pyramid or fly a dragon over the forest or sit in a Parisian cafe or dance at a nightclub, you can do all of that. (You can also visit the spicier sections - what, it's the internet!)
The convention had re-created the hotel in which it usually takes place down to the recalcitrant front doors and the layout of the lobby, to the extent that I actually felt like I was there. It was a delightful time, even if I was having difficulty learning the interface. Look, the last computer game I dove into was Zork. I'm old and set in my ways, so outta my way, whippersnapper. But this isn't a computer game, and in fact longtime residents will be offended if you call it a game. It's a world, truly a second life.
In Second Life, you create an avatar that is endlessly customizable and walk, run, and even fly about the virtual worlds. You can change your hair in the time it takes to click, move your eyes a little closer together, bulk up your muscles... In Second Life, you can be a different gender, race, even species. You can be the walking dead, a winged fairy, a vampire, a werewolf, a stripper with a tail made of fire, a dancing candy cane.
In fact, there was a giant sentient shark sitting behind me last week at a live coffeehouse interview with famed editor Ellen Datlow, speaking about her career as a speculative fiction editor and anthologist. Ellen chose to appear on stage with the body of a supermodel and the head of a black sphinx-like cat.
It is the avatars that draw my attention the most, beyond the fascinating worlds that people create. To a certain extent, there is media theory behind this idea that we become closer to people that we meet through online avatars than we do in real life. It's the hyperpersonal model of the online disinhibition effect. Like most media theory, that's a pile of polysyllabic words to express something patently obvious to anyone who's been on the internet for more than 15 minutes.
In short, the theory explores how people present themselves differently online than in face-to-face situations. We all know the toxic form of disinhibition: racism, anger, threats, cruelty, snideness. It's the mob mentality, in which people hide behind the (relative) anonymity of the internet and act like fools. It didn't begin with the internet, either - it was explored in sociological theory as far back as 1956.
But there is also benign disinhibition, where the psychological separation of the internet leads people to feel more liberated to share themselves, reveal secret emotions and explore their identity. We feel more connected through the personas we create on the internet, especially with the minimization of status and authority that comes with the reduced cues in an online environment. (See, you knew that media theory was going to be good for something... *crickets*)
This theory flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that says that any purely online association must, by its very nature, be fraudulent. After all, you don’t know with whom you’re really talking, dancing or simulating all sorts of acts. I’m betting it’s not a sentient shark.
But the hyperpersonal model states that the opposite is true. Introverted people become extroverted when they have the protections of online layers to hide behind. In the absence of face-to-face cues, distractions and unintended messages, the intentionally communicated cues carry greater value. In many ways, it's more personal than in-person meetings. That very protection that creates toxic disinhibition on Facebook can create a benign disinhibition in a welcoming environment.
And don't discount the impressions of beauty.
See, in Second Life, everyone can be beautiful. In Second Life, I am a stunning young woman with raven hair and a perfect figure with no disabilities or illnesses. Clothes fit me. I can walk forever in heels. I can run, which has been beyond my capability for years. I can dance, which has always been a rare thing due to my extreme lack of grace and nearly impossible as my physical condition has deteriorated. I can fly, which of course was never a thing.
As my avatar, people notice me when I walk into the room.
It’s still fraudulent, isn’t it? After all, I don’t look anything like that young woman. In real life, I am middle-aged, overweight with gray in my hair and I need a cane to walk more than 15 minutes at a stretch. A woman who looks like me has to shout to be heard in the real world. When I hide behind my beautiful avatar, my voice carries.
Perhaps if I were using a magic spell to actually transform myself into this young woman, it might be fraudulent. I would be tricking people into thinking I'm something that I'm not. But in Second Life, everyone can be what they’ve always imagined themselves to be. When you look around the dance floor and you see people moving about, what you see is their representation of their true selves, stripped away from all the accidents of birth that they may or may not have embraced about themselves.
Does that not make it a truer connection than we would find in real life?
When we meet someone in real life, don’t we immediately make judgments about them based on our estimation of their age, background, race, gender, and all those other factors that we perceive from their appearance and manner? Whether you admit it or not, you do. I have seen for myself how people's reactions to me are different now as I am older and heavier - and waving my cane - than they were when I was 32 years old, voluptuous but not so heavy, and there was no gray in my hair. I would not presume to extrapolate from that the experiences that a person of color or a gay person must experience when people meet them for the first time, but we can guess.
I am an early adopter of social media – you forget, Gandalf, I was there, 3,000 years ago… (There exactly 16 people reading this who are nerdy enough to get that joke. I see you.) I go all the way back to the days of MySpace and GeoCities and MUDs, before media theory caught up with virtual environments, and the connections we made then were often dismissed as fraudulent because they were on the internet. The person we spoke with might be a liar. As if nobody lies in singles bars.
We insisted then, and I insist now, that the connections we make there are in fact more intimate because all of those trappings of the physical are stripped away. It is as close to mind-to-mind communication as we can possibly manage as humans, the separation of the internet as the great equalizer.
But there’s still the ugly side of that, in which social media has become far too entrenched. The ugliness of the mob mentality decides it is much more fun to verbally beat a woman into pieces because she made a dumbass comment about a burned pie.
I find each morning that I pop open my social media and start scrolling, and if I give in and speak, I will find myself news-splained because of course I don’t know anything about the news after 25 years. An endless cacophony of people being angry at each other, with cruelty that society inhibits (at least on the surface) in face-to-face meetings. Worse, I begin to hear the echoes of those nasty voices in my head throughout the day, imagining not what I think, but what the denizens of the newspaper comment section might think, and it sours my view of my community and my world.
And yet for me, social media is necessary, as all of the professional and personal connections I have are there. I run at least five groups that operate solely off of Facebook with no reasonable alternative that has sufficient membership to be worth switching. I personally find Twitter much less toxic with more thoughtful conversation, but I recognize that for many people it is exactly the opposite. It is a required evil, at least in my profession, and if I am brutally honest, I must recognize that without social media such as the not-quite-late lamented Livejournal, I would not have a writing career.
I find myself wishing we could all be on Second Life, that we could all re-create ourselves as the image we wish to be, and then we could meet each other mind to mind, soul to soul, Perhaps we could learn a little something about each other without the ugliness and performative cruelty to which we are far too accustomed. It's not telepathy, but maybe it's close.
Besides, there we can fly.