When Second Life anonymity bumps into reality

I signed up for Second Life in June last year and, thanks to a pair of poorly performing computers, didn’t take it far because I was too irritated by the process.

I cranked up the performance of both machines and really got stuck in over the Christmas period, first of all meandering around as someone who looked like a fitter version of me. Then I wanted to be less threatening (big, bearded, old) etc, so I changed sex and made myself look like a modest young woman.

This was all fine, apart from when I was being propositioned, until I started chatting with someone while I was lounging in an armchair on the stage at Cisco’s amphitheatre. He walked up to the stage and we exchanged pleasantries. Then it turned out we were both into social computing, both providing services to Cisco and he mentioned that his web address was in his profile. I clicked and it turned out we had met in real life.

What if the conversation had taken a different tack?

What if he’d propositioned me?

How would that have made me feel?

Worse, how would it have made him feel?

Obviously I can head that sort of behaviour off at the pass, but it does trouble me deeply that I – someone who is normally open and honest – had actually created a situation through my deceptive appearance where people could be lured into behaviours they would certainly not adopt had they known who was behind the avatar.

Yet, my non-threatening appearance encourages friendly conversation and leads to insights that I might not arrive at were I to say, up front, "Hi, I’m really a male journalist". Until the meeting with someone I knew, I was fairly relaxed about my pose. And, it has to be said, having fun. After that meeting, the deceptive aspect bothered me a lot.

I am researching Second Life to discover whether it has a practical business value. Maybe, after this stage of my participation, I’ll revert to the real me.

But you can be sure that other people in Second Life are setting out to deceive quite deliberately.

Anyone want to share their thoughts on the issue?

9 thoughts on “When Second Life anonymity bumps into reality

  1. I’ve said similar things and had discussions with Neville Hobson about it. I can’t consider Second Life a legitimate business forum when it is fundamentally based on deception and not being open and honest. It goes against everything I’ve ever done in PR or social media. The practical problems such as user numners, power of PC etc will work themselves out, but the fake names is an absolute no for me.
    Although I have had one discussion with someone about a sensible business use where being anonymous is both practical and ethical. Won’t blog about what it is as they haven’t had chance to do anything with the idea yet.

  2. Thanks for your comments Stuart.
    As you probably know, it is possible to buy your own name and, of course, it is possible then to create total transparency for yourself. And, I guess, you could make it a condition for your communities of interest.

  3. Hi David,
    Nice article. I think many people experience a similar “enlightenment” as you discovered. When you first hear about Second Life, your imagination runs wild. You register an account and your initial reaction is to think, “Hey, this is a fantasy world. I should create some goofy character and go wild.” Then, after you have one or two “real” experiences, it dawns on you, “Hey, this is not a place where I should be whacky and belligerent. This is an extension of myself. I’m not whacky and belligerent, so why should my avatar be?”
    My experience was also similar in the sense that my PC wasn’t (and still isn’t) up to the minimum specs to have a decent SL experience. I think I was getting something like .2 frame per second due to an outdated graphics card. That means I would move somewhere and have to wait 5 seconds to find out where I ended up.
    I thought about attended a virtual course on “Second Life 101” or something, so I found a virtual classroom and inched my way to the back of the room. I was standing at the back looking in on a classroom full of people sitting at desks with a teacher lecturing at the front of the room. Exactly the feeling you would have walking late into a new class for the very first time. I got up the courage to enter the class and join them. I saw a seat toward the front but off to the side so I could sit down without too much disruption. I pointed my avatar toward the seat and pressed forward. With the .2 fps, 5 seconds later I discovered that I had barrelled right to the front of the class and smashed into the teacher. Everyone laughed. It was embarrassing. The feeling of “presence” is indescribable. You have to experience it to understand.
    It’s not all about escapism, but augmentation. It is certainly possible to be anonymous in SL, but there are quite a few people who openly disclose and embrace their RL person within SL. It is totally up to the individual.
    Best regards and apologies for barging in on your discussion. I came across it via Google blog search.
    Eric (Ph.D. if it matters)

  4. Well, some people are open and honest within SecondLife. And like all business, SL Business is based on trust. I run around as a penguin sometimes; this does not mean that I am a penguin in real life.
    That you have virtual breasts shouldn’t affect business transactions, unless those business transactions include your virtual breasts. That would be bad.
    A few people I know do map themselves over to their RL counterparts, as I do myself, for just that reason.

  5. There is no easy answer to this, because it depends almost entirely on what you believe Second Life is for. If you believe Second Life is simply an extension of Real Life, then obviously you’re going to care about things like what your avatar looks like.
    But the first question that you should ask yourself is why do we consider someone changing gender a deception, while someone having different colour hair is not? Why is it more acceptable for a RL male to look like a giant blob of jelly than a woman?
    The avatar that I usually have in Second Life is female (most of the time – sometimes, I’m also a small yappy terrier of indeterminate gender 🙂 ). I have a male avatar that I use when the situation requires, and I regard it generally the same as putting on a suit for clients: I’m modifying my appearance towards the expectations set by the scenario. In a very real sense, I’m “less me” when I use that avatar. Broadly, I keep the names of both avatars private, for the same reason I don’t give out my home address to strangers: I like to keep my privacy, and SL is “home” at the moment, and not “work”.
    (Although incidentally, if anyone who knows me wants to know who my avatars are, they can: just email me. If you have my email address, I don’t mind you having my avatar name 🙂 )
    Eric mentions this: “It’s not all about escapism, but augmentation”. There’s actually an ongoing battle in and over Second Life between what you might term “augmentationists” and “immersionists”. For augmentationists, your avatar is simply an augmentation of yourself, in the same way that the picture you use when on an instant messaging client is. For immersionists, the opposite is true: you immerse yourself in the world of Second Life, and be what you want. The immersionist slogan is “what happens in Second Life, stays in Second Life”.
    I’d actually argue that in a virtual world that allows you to be anything you desire, there is far less deception going on than in the real world where you can’t. But that’s MY book idea, and no one else is stealing it 🙂
    And finally, Nobody mentions: “That you have virtual breasts shouldn’t affect business transactions, unless those business transactions include your virtual breasts. That would be bad.”
    It’s worth noting what Anshe Chung started out as in SL. Hint: It wasn’t a land baron 🙂

  6. At risk of prolonging an exhausted subject, I actually quite like my avatar. She’s sweet and kind and terribly polite. And most people bend over backwards to help her.
    Others are appallingly rude and suggestive but she pretends that’s not happening. It’s easier to do that in Second Life than down a dark alley in Soho.
    To my core concern: “what if someone says or does stuff that would embarrass them if it turned out we knew each other”, I have decided to not give people that opportunity.
    I won’t provoke or lure. And I’ll be open about my motives – I frequently say “I’m a journalist doing research.” Some suddenly find they need to be elsewhere, others are happy to share their thoughts.
    If these go to places they might regret, I’d either run off without seeking their real i.d. or quickly suggest we find out more about each other before taking the conversation further.
    If I stay in Second Life, I’ll probably return to being me.

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