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Avatar Under (Social) Construction

February 16, 2009 • Uncategorised

With reference to and inspired by Dustan Writer’s article ‘I AM NOT REALLY ME, AND I PROBABLY NEVER WILL BE: AVATARS AND ACTUAL IDENTITY’

Social Construction

Anyone who has studied Social Psychology will be familiar with the extensive work of Kenneth Gergen about the constructed identity and its variants in different social groups and situations. Also group work done by Zimbardo and others underpins these significant findings.

This is a phenomena that has been well researched and well proven for many years now. Its findings and conclusions are well established, even in situations that are fabricated and not considered ‘normal’ interaction.

Constructed Identity

Our identity consists of parts. All are part of the whole, yet the sum of the parts is greater than the parts themselves.

Identity varies in differing situations and each person who knows us sees us with a different identity according to their own filter of experience and understanding. Just as we all have our ‘telephone voice’, we have a personality for every individual we come into contact with, depending on our previous stereotyping of people we judge as being ‘like them’ – in real life this judgement is often made by the colour of someone’s skin, their gender, hair colour, age and dress. These categorisations are strikingly arrived at within 7 seconds, before a person even has a chance to open his or her mouth.

Pinker (2002, p. 202) writes that “some categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist”.

Avatar Identity

Avatars are a convenient way to decide on what stereotype you wish to be given, outside of those organically embedded into you. You already have an idea of what makes up that category. In Second Life, we are also defining new categories, such as Steam Punk and Furries. What we have is created a socially agreed norm for what constitutes that category.

Avatar names are also constructed like real names. Akin to nicknames, they are ones we chose for ourselves rather than having names like ‘four eyes’ thrust upon us. We construct our own chosen identities within the pressures of our real environment, it is much the same within virtual worlds.

Identities Linked

I personally agree that real names and photographs should identify us and link us to the real world, however there too, we are in a continual process of constructing and deconstructing our identities, dependent on our own and others’ expectations. No one has a consistent identity that they carry around with them intact, we vary al the time. When you row with your significant other or scream at your kids, are you the same person who greets the boss? I hope not because you’ll soon be out of a job.

The same applies to virtual worlds, we fit in with societal expectations of us. Linden Labs has the intelligence to treat each cultural entity as distinct. They don’t expect conformity as Twinity does (which is not surprising given its Germanic home – were we to stereotype this would be neat, tidy, organised and controlled). We are all bound by our own cultural expectations.

What is Transparency?

When Dustan talks about trust, again the word transparency rises its ugly head. Authenticity, integrity, validity and other such words enter the arena too. He mentions ‘RECOURSE’, this is simply a culturally bound principle in the US and other western nations. Nations who do not have a blame/sue culture are not even aware of this. I have a lot of contact with Portuguese people, in both realms and people from this culture are eager to exchange personal information in Second Life. There is no ‘blame culture’ in that country. Perhaps the Western ‘sue’ culture is the reason for fear, not transparency itself.

I myself was at the sharp end of that phenomenon in hiring a builder who we shall call ‘Dolly’ here. Dolly was from the US, California to be precise. Dolly wasn’t interested in the pittance I paid her to build in Second Life, she had a sick relative who needed money for medical care. Dolly had limited building skills and I took pity on her believing I could train her. Needless to say Dolly’s work was never any good and was never completed. However, after she disappeared I was contacted by her lawyer who informed me that I had to pay $12,000 US because she had incurred stress during her work in Second Life. All this was set up well before I took Dolly on and needless to say, she had already tried the same stunt several times before this. If this is your culture, then indeed it is wise to hide your true identity.

Where there is money, the lawyers, accountants and tax men will always be there to take their cut.

However this is nothing to do with ‘who you are’ and everything to do with preventing exploitation. As Dustan says, relationships are another construction, built over time and dependent on past performance. This is why social networks have become paramount during these information rich times.

Body of Evidence

I have to disagree with Prokofy Neva, not because I personally disagree, but because there is a huge body of empirical research that reinforces these facts about the human psyche. I see the power of Prokofy’s argument and know that might can sometimes be right, but not in this case – where masses of leading research over the past 100 years points in the opposite direction. Alberik did not write tripe, he wrote something that has been well substantiated. I am sure that those interested in this subject would find much of the work done by ‘Social Constructionists’ useful.

The Value of Anonymity

As Infocyde points out, Oscar Wilde was a wise man. Seldom are we given the opportunity for anonymity in life. However, the opposite is also possible, as people are shown to construct lies more liberally when given anonymity in courts. As even language is a fundamental construct, we can make ourselves and others believe anything we want to through language and image.

The true value of anonymity is freedom of choice, the choice to tell the truth or to lie without the threat of punishment.

Why hide behind an Avatar?

So why separate part of our personalities and split them off – as you would do if you kept your true identity hidden behind an avatar?

– To separate an aspect of your personality and contain it in an environment that is not threatening. People threatened in this way would find help in the study of PTSD, fragmented personalities and warfare to understand this more deeply.

As Kwame AKA (Julius Sowu) says, fleeing from ourselves has caused more grief that integrating and understanding our various identities, or ‘faces’. Personally I would encourage anyone resisting this move forward to look at themselves and identify what they are frightened of instead of resisting change.

Times are Changing

Change is inevitable, even change of the ‘self’. We grow older, we change jobs, we cannot resist it. Change can be positive, once we are across the barrier that is fear. We are more than one identity, we are many – changing, evolving and growing. I thank everyone who has given me the material and inspiration to join this discussion to help me change and grow.

To show the world all that you are and share it with others is the most powerful expression of ‘self’ possible. To deny this to yourself and others is tragic.

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