Sunday, 16 March 2008

The Naming of Names

If you refuse to wear a mask at a masked ball you'll spoil the fun, but if you insist on wearing a balaclava to walk down the street and you're not going to make many friends, either.

The question is whether the virtual world is a masquerade or a regular street. Of course its both.

Second Life begins for most people as a kind of masked ball. The anonymity is a big part of the magic. Maybe its a part of what makes us a bit more open.

Initially I entered SL thinking it was all a great laugh and everyone was playing a game... I was just myself, but I believed nothing and trusted no one. Then I met people who really became friends, and my viewpoint switched - I believed in these people. I'd like to think that I know my friends in SL as well as I know some of my RL ones - I've certainly spent enough time with them.

But is it enough to just known them as the characters they appear to be?

This is totally ok on one level: you log in, you have fun and that's it. And that's exactly how I lived my Second Life for a while...

But it gradually changed. Friendships deepened and RL details emerged, things you have in common... the ones that stand out now are the (very few) lasting friendships I have with totally blank RL details. Surely they are the ones missing out on the full connective power of the medium.

Some believe that an avatar can carry as much weight a an RL identity, and there are certainly avatars in Second Life who deserve to be respected for what they have achieved in-world and they way they conduct themselves in the virtual environment, regardless of who or what they are outside Second Life.

I'd like to believe that I could just accept people's avatars at face value. But I can't. This is a transient world that derives it's immersive power from the brain's need to believe what it perceives. Yet it is still a metaverse, that is an overlay on the real world. It's real people's brains. Here people can log in as different identities to express fragmented bits of their personality. Your sweet new friend might have another side expressed as a sadistic maniac, the lovely avatar who never hassles you might be controlled by the same RL person as the sneaky griefer who always follows you around.

Over the years of friendship even in a virtual world, those whose stick to the "ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies" line stand out as being the ones still wearing the masks when everyone goes for breakfast in the morning and it makes me nervous.