Last night I was at the Second Life building site of two friends and one wanted to show me a subterranean cave he just built.  I stayed where i was and just used the camera key on my 3D Connexion joy stick to check it out without moving.  I  could have done this using ALT plus my mouse or arrow keys too. He was shocked that I could do this and was a bit offended by it.  This led to a great conversation about online identity and specifically identity in virtual worlds. Part of the appeal of virtual worlds is that you can create any representative of yourself that you wish.  Arguably, you can in RL too — but it’s much faster and cheaper in SL to significantly alter your height, weight, gender and identity. My friend’s main beef was that he is experimenting with different identities, wants to role play and have a bit of fun — and do it away from prying eyes. We joked with each other that it isn’t the prying eyes of strangers that can pose problems to exploring virtual worlds and identities  but those of our friends, family and colleagues/employers present and future that pose the most risk should we want to shake things up. I have two main avatars in Second Life – but as I use SL professionally, I am very aware that people in my professional life know my avatar’s name.  Unfortunately, enough know my secondary avatar as well. Neither I nor my friends necessarily want to lead a dodgy second (or third or fourth life) — but to really experiment with a new identity, it has to stand on its own with no associations with the past. Second Life does allow for multiple identities – so people who want to use it for work might consider having one avatar for professional use and one for private use. I have two blogs — but both are professional and I identify myself.  I do know of some guerilla bloggers who remain anonymous for a variety of reasons.  For some — I wonder if it’s their alternate self being let loose, the flip side of the coin seeing the light of day.  Is the funny, loud-mouthed cynic a sweet, mild mannered artist by day?  Hmmm.  I do know some quiet, thoughtful types who claim to be WoW addicts — so it’s not exactly an earthshattering pensivity I’m experiencing here, is it? So are we going to have to hide behind alternate identities if we ever really want to be our true selves online? And can we ever be? Or are our online lives like some reality show that could be stitched together with tags and fed through a feed stitcher?


  1. Identity is such a complex issue for so many people out there. I have recently had my professional and personal lives cross paths and I found that employers and society generally are not that accepting yet. Hence why alternates sometimes offer people a valve or release in their work life. I would love more than ever to be unashamedly myself online all the time but I sometimes choose to hide because of professionalism.

    That all being said I have recently started a blog under another name and although people who know me cold stitch the two together others couldnt and it gives me the freedom to vent etc.

    It all is about perspective I was out last night and a fellow tweet thought he had offended me with a joke he DM’s to me because later on he saw I went home distressed. The two things were not related in the slightest but it is easy to take things out of context.

    In regards to identities I have been in a condundum lately about twitter where I have two very distinct groups of followers. One group of education professional people and another group of melbourne tweets both have very different reasons for following me. I did think about being two people but then went stuff that and if I lost followers because I am me then well I do !

  2. I remember hearing Alan Jukes talking about our students working online, how they select different facets of themselves to reveal depending upon the audience.

    I believe that we as adults do the same thing. As our comfort level, trust and familiarity grow we choose or allow additional facets of ourselves to be revealed.

    The important thing there for me is that we are looking at elements or facets of the genuine person. Just like in a real life face to face relationship, the real person is revealed at some stage. Who I am online is who I am in real life. The visual elements may not run in parallel, but the character, behaviours, speech, beliefs, knowledge and reactions are mine.

    I believe the development of identity online mimics real life, and the use of additional avatars is just a mechanism in that process.

  3. I think this whole identity issue is a fascinating one and would be in the top three themes of my own blog. I have chosen to take a professional stance to my online identity ie I disclose who I am in all areas. But that gives me little room to be some one completely different. In other words, I cannot be truly outrageous because it might affect my professional image as midwife & educator. I haven’t got the time or energy to develop an alter ego, although I do think it would be fun.

  4. Wonderful post. One of the things that fascinates me is the idea that we don’t notice how much technology mediates our identities – I mean, there’s the obvious stuff, but it has subtle impacts on our behavior as well – for that, I can think of no better source than Tom Beollstorff and his book “Coming of Age in Second Life”.

    In any case, rather than get into a lengthy reply, I’ve previously written on alts and virtual worlds and hope you don’t mind if I direct you there.

    (The side bar includes links to key posts that cover related topics).

  5. Oh – but I do need to chime in on Angela’s comment and disagree. I suppose you can get into a philosophical debate about how identity is formed – but I’m going to go with the idea that our identities are partly formed by the environments and artefacts with which we interact. If that’s true, then certainly we bring our past experiences to virtual worlds, but it doesn’t mean that our identities in those places aren’t informed by what and who we find there. Now, this leads to the odd problem of what Tom called “techne in techne” – being always once removed, I mean it’s virtual after all (as compared to what he calls actual, to make the distinction that it’s not unreal, it’s just that you’re never “quite there”). So, being virtual, it causes the problem of whether it can inform the actual – sort of like the line “what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas”.

    Hamlet Au calls the benefits we gain from our virtual lives on our actual ones “mirrored flourishing”. But I propose that it’s not so simple.

    I’ve written at length about what I call the “strange loop” – this is the idea that you either arrive in virtual worlds with no intention of porting your actual identity and assume a new “personality” or you arrive with your identity and then find that because you’re participating in a new sociality it becomes deconstructed.

    The argument has been made that this is no different than other sites of sociality in the actual world – who I “am” in one social setting can be quite different from another. Likewise virtual worlds. But I think there’s a growing body of evidence to also suggest that virtual worlds provide new tools for identity explorations, tools that because they exist within techne are not always transferable, which creates odd moments of tension.

    Read enough SL blogs and you see this experience repeated over and over again.

    Now – having said all that, I also believe that the strange loop always returns you to yourself.

    Subtle points maybe? I’m not so sure – especially as our avatars also take on the aspects of being agents, these are, in my opinion, some of the most profound questions of our times: there is peril and promise in the idea that our identities will be mediated by technologies. It’s too simple to say that “I am me wherever I go” because the range of our wanderings keeps increasing.