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?