You Wear Your Mask Well

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Approaching Boellstorff’s chapter “Personhood” with absolutely no previous knowledge concerning Second Life and the community surrounding it, I was shocked to discover the extent to which people have immersed themselves in this virtual environment. Though quite foreign to my sensibilities, I found myself intrigued by the possibility of exploring the self through interaction with a community of people far removed from my ordinary, habitual social circle. In particular, the various accounts of people who found that their experiences in second life began to translate to the real world especially fascinated me. However, for the same reason that it first piqued my interest — the ability to carry out social exchanges and even full relationships with a separate, mysterious community other than I’m used to — that appeal soon decayed into a strong disliking of such a prospect. 

Where initially the idea of being thrust into a reality where one would be surrounded by complete strangers comes across as exciting, when those same anonymous strangers remain anonymous, despite having potentially spent countless hours interacting with them, that strikes me as being crushingly lonely. Multiple times throughout his narrative Boellstorff mentions that avatars provide participants with different ‘masks,’ various shells from within which participants may experiment with any manner of persona they desire. While this possibility is an exciting one in the case of most video games, where a player may experiment with being someone or doing something they ordinarily would not, doing so in this arena, one that revolves around building social relationships with others, just seems like a lie. Perhaps I come from a background that places an especially high value on the importance of a name and the nature of the individual that occupies it, but I cannot imagine establishing a relationship of any more depth than a casual acquaintance with anyone that insists upon using an alias and conceals even their most basic attributes from view. Yet it would seem that secrecy is one of the most important aspects of Second Life. In the case of many online video games, this anonymity is perfectly understandable, as players are there for purely entertainment purposes, and any interaction with other players is usually constrained to the action or other game play surrounding them. However, with the premise of Second Life oriented almost exclusively around these social instances, with the aim being to build real bonds with other participants, it doesn’t seem as if this method of faceless communication should still suffice. 

Boellstorff brings up in this chapter that some residents of Second Life feel that here they are somehow more “their true self” than they are in the real world, something surely made possible by the anonymity that is available. Maybe that is so. I wouldn’t pretend to know better than they, as my knowledge of it remains that of an outsider looking in. Yet still I remain skeptical: how well can you ever really know someone if you are denied even looking them in the eye and speaking their name?

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2 Responses to You Wear Your Mask Well

  1. ewiggins2013 says:

    I think it’s interesting that so much of your post was centered around how strange (and potentially disconcerting) the anonymity of second life is. I had the exact same initial reaction upon reading Boellstorff’s chapter. However, after reading Coleman’s article on avatars my perspective shifted a bit, leaving me to wonder whether or not Second Life was actually that different of a social sphere than Facebook, texting or even real life (in some ways).

    As Boellstorff discusses in his chapter, there are many Second Life users/ gamers that feel more comfortable or socially active within the Second Life world. This idea of someone needing a platform like Second Life to effectively represent their true identity first struck me as kind of sad, but are these individuals actually that different than avid Facebook users? We probably all know people who seem to be much more comfortable communicating with others and expressing themselves via Facebook than they are in real life, posting multiple statuses each day and frequently commenting/ liking posts that weren’t directed towards them. The same holds true for texting to a degree. As Coleman argues in her article, all individuals have preferences as to which social spheres they want to actively participate within. For someone like Turkle, the mere concept of Second Life is probably quite alarming, but she’s firmly stuck within the social sphere of personal interactions. For those of us who do currently embrace multiple social spheres (occupying Coleman’s reality x), who is to say that celebrating a virtual birthday in the Second Life world is any less valuable of an interaction than writing on a Facebook friend’s timeline to wish them a happy birthday.

    As you argue, the distinguishing factor that sets Second Life apart from other social spheres is the anonymity. Despite the appearance of the avatar, you could be talking to anybody. There is also the concept of Second Life users creating and “playing” (or living) as multiple alts, which certainly complicates the anonymity issue. However, much of the anonymity of Second Life users comes from our lack of knowledge regarding basic information: a persons name, where they’re from, and other demographic information (race, gender, age, etc.). In the social sphere of real life, so much of this information is inherent from the moment we see somebody. It helps us to categorize people and determine how we will act around them (which actually mirrors the concept of alts in a way. I certainly wouldn’t act or dress the same way in an interview as I would at a party). Maybe this anonymity of Second Life should be viewed in a positive manner. It’s more than your typical social sphere in that it allows its users to control the information (largely appearance) that others use to judge them prior to any sort of interaction. Second Life users simply must have faith that others won’t use their internet anonymity for questionable purposes, like the “French model” from that State Farm commercial.

  2. cstabile says:

    As Boellstorff also points out — and this is in response to both Kyle and Ed’s smart posts — anonymity is often a springboard for getting to know other people. I was at a conference last year, where there was a whole group of people who lived all around the world — their interactions with one another were so easy and so familiar that I thought they had been close, ftf friends for years. So it was interesting to find out that they were close friends and had been since around 2005, but they had spent most of their time with one another in Second Life. I think, Kyle, you’re still thinking about virtual worlds in terms of “first” and “second” lives, rather than in the more complex way that Coleman wants us to apply.

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