The Presentation of Self in Virtual Life

While the title of Tom Boellstorff’s book draws analogies with Margaret Mead, I think the book would have been better titled The Presentation of Self in Virtual Life. Having expressed some of my concerns with the book in a previous post, I’d like to take a moment to talk more about what I liked most about the book: the way in which he presents the kinds of discourse and self-presentation strategies Goffman so famously analyzed in “everyday life.” By thinking about the differences/similarities between the two we can learn something important about what it means to function as a virtual human.

Take gender, for instance. As Boellstorff points out, the Second Life software doesn’t allow gender to be left undefined, although that could be a possibility if the developers chose to change it. As such it seems to recreate the sex/gender dichotomy which exists in real life. Even allowing for virtual gender play where male avatars dress in woman’s clothing. And while the gender of the real world player is unknown, Boellstorff points to one survey showing that only 10-15 percent of residents switch gender on a regular basis. Yet even this small amount is enough to cause problems for attempts to create an all-female space, since it would only be possible to limit the space to female avatars, the real-world gender of users being undetermined. Judith Butler tells us that sex is as culturally determined as gender, but in Second Life this seems to be true in a more fundamental way.

Another example is that of “alts” which are alternative avatars which express another side of the user’s personality, or serve to create anonymity. It is possible to wear a disguise in real life, but much easier to do so in a world where “nobody knows you are a dog.” The ease with which people might switch alts, and the choices they make about who to reveal these alts to gives them a degree of freedom over personhood not possible in real life.

But the part I found most interesting was the discussion of how people handle gaps caused by events which challenged the fiction of Second Life. These could be due to faults in the software (bugs or performance issues), or by real world interruptions (someone goes to the door while still logged in in second life). In the real world we have interruptions and distractions we have to deal with as well, such as when we answer a cell phone or need to pick our nose. But what is interesting about virtual reality is that we lack many of the cues and strategies we rely upon in the real world.

Decades of experience have developed some new strategies. For instance one could type “brb” to mean “be right back”, but if caused by a computer lag or a sudden interruption we may not have the time to do so. The result is an avatar who is “afk” or “away from keyboard” – still there, but not responding to what is happening in Second Life. It seems SL residents are not above playing the same kinds of practical jokes college students might play on a roommate who is passed out on the couch, such as drawing on the zombie avatar. Pranks aside, however, it seems that the strength of Boellstorff’s approach is his ability to describe such situations in a way that makes us better understand the nature of online personhood.

That virtual worlds allow us to experience life at a second remove from the habitus of our real world selves is also the joke in this clever Onion news story:

3 thoughts on “The Presentation of Self in Virtual Life

  1. An interesting post. I would argue, however, that because these environments rely on a graphical, anthropomorphic interface, we have to take seriously the possibility that they may in fact reproduce or even intensify existing (or dormant) sexual dichotomies.

    In an IRC or MUD environment where people are basing their interactions purely on _what you say_, sex-based assumptions can be suspended (although perhaps not indefinitely). The main focus is on the words, and the description of actions. With the advent of virtual environments, there is no need for description, as these words and actions are mediated by the manipulation of an avatar. And while Tom Boellstorff might argue that sex remains undefined, and people can manipulate assumptions about appearances, behaviours, etc, I would say that there is always a temptation towards creating avatars that reproduce stereotypes about what men and women should look like. Very few people will create avatars of fat women or malnourished men.

    Compare this with the interface of IRC, or something like a MUD, where people were just text on the screen – that, I would say, had a far more radical potential to change how people presented themselves, how people interacted, how people SAW eachother.

    (Disclosure: I have very limited experience of these kinds of “virtual life”, although I did used to use a chatroom as part of a particular learning community. I was doing some google searching to actually get a feel of what these things look like, and I found an interesting article on architecture in second life: In some ways what I am saying about sex, that article says about architecture: “When it comes down to it, from an architectural perspective, Second Life just sort of replicates suburbia.”)

  2. P.S. Rereading my post, I seem to have got a little confused; when I say “And while Tom Boellstorff might argue that sex remains undefined” the only reason I think that Tom Boellstorff argues that is sleep deprivation, given that I haven’t read the book and you explicitly say in your post “Boellstorff points out, the Second Life software doesn’t allow gender to be left undefined”.

    I would therefore remove the “however” from the first sentence, because really I’m not going against anything anybody’s said, I’m just really adding my own opinion. The rest of the post stands!

  3. I argue that though the gender selection may be based on dorment desires, it often times is chosen as a direct result of opportunity. In my experience studying this game for a research topic, males often choose female avatars with the desire to be treated differently. Often time, it leads to slight advantages on the players part.

    However, this option does come from the other direction as well. Females, in game, while gaining a slight advantage on occasion are often hassled, resulting in females making male avatars in order to be treated fairly.

    It really is an interesting topic on its own.

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