I’ve blogged about transparents and opaques in Second Life before, and about how roleplaying can disguise the “true” identity of people in the virtual world. What I want to do today is talk about disclosure of identity, i.e. why some Second Life residents choose to tell others who they are in real life, and to what extent, and why others choose not to. And, also, which specific details of their real lives they are more prone to reveal, and why.
First of all, let’s recall that transparents are those Second Life (SL) residents who let you “see through” their SL façades and get some access to their real life (RL) personas; similarly, opaques are those who do not let you see through, acting as if there were no RL user behind them. Read this for more information on transparents and opaques if you wish.
We can go on. My experience in SL shows that transparents seldom create an identity separate from that of their RL selves, whereas opaques either do create one, or simply negate having one. What do I mean by “an identity”? Well, let’s get into this first.
From an intuitive point of view, our identity is “who we are”. Our name, our very self, that is our identity. But we need to go beyond this naive definition. There may be other people in the world whith the same name as me, and that doesn’t make he and I the same person; similarly, saying that my identity is “my very self” doesn’t say much. Barry Schwartz and Andrew Ward have written in “Doing Better but Feeling Worse: The Paradox of Choice” that
Each person comes into the world with baggage from his or her ancestral past – race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, social and economic class. All this baggage tells the world a lot about who we are.
Our race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, social and economic class, together perhaps with other factors such as gender, sexual, cultural and political preferences and first language shape up much of our identity. Of course, it is possible to find two people with exactly the same combination of all these attributes, and they are still two different people; these attributes do not make identity by themselves, but they outline who we are strongly. Within the context given by particular values of all these attributes, specific individuals vary to achieve true uniqueness.
Schwartz and Ward argue that this “baggage” with which we come into the world is becoming less and less of an imposition, and people are becoming more and more able to choose and move in the “identity space”, so to speak. I agree, but even if you don’t, what is important is that individual identity is composed of a social, external and partly “inherited” collection of attributes, plus a private, internal and mostly emergent source of uniqueness. This is my definition of identity, and I will assume that you agree with it. Please post a comment if you don’t.
So, I was saying that, in my experience, SL transparents rarely create an identity separate from that of their RL selves, whereas opaques usually create one or simply negate having one. I have found exceptions, which are remarkable enough. I will write about them in the future.
I want to focus today in the differences between those users who create a separate identity and those who do not, regardless of whether they are transparent or opaque. I will call the former bidents (bi-identity) and the latter unidents (uni-identity). From a modelling perspective, the avatar of a unident is a graphical representation of its RL persona, whereas the avatar of a bident is a representation of an identity that exists in the mind of the RL persona behind that avatar. Different thing.
At this point, I should mention that many people in SL would yell “liar” at the sight of a bident. The existence of a second identity, interposed between the RL identity of the user and the avatar that we can see on screen, is seen by many as lying, as a misrepresentation and therefore as something inherently wrong. I, of course, disagree. I secretly smile at the keyboard each time I need to placate blood-boiling bident-intolerants and explain, calmly and oh so patiently, that SL is precisely about identity creation and development, that SL is no chat room. Oh well. I digress.
Let’s go straight to the point. Most SL bidents are, in my experience, strongly opaque. This makes sense. I am an opaque bident myself. However, every so often, I feel the need to mention some detail of my RL to somebody. Can I? Should I? Would it interfere with artificially created, interposed identity? And, if I may reveal some RL details to others, which details? Anything?
I have come to find the answers to these questions after some time, and out of experience, introspection, chat with friends and good old conversation with Isabel. My finds are the following. First of all, occasional RL bouts are not a problem, even if they are quite frequent, as long as you keep them restricted to a few good friends on which you can rely. It is easier than expected to switch between identities. My second finding is more interesting, though. Over time I have found that I don’t have too much of a problem with revealing my RL age, for example, or my profession (such as “software engineer”). However, I would never reveal other details, apparently innocuous, such as my gender or nationality. For a long time I tried to come up with a common criterion that would group them all under a single shared label, to no avail. I listed all the details that I wouldn’t give away, all the “forbidden items”, and this is what my list looked like:
- first language
- social/economic status
Does it ring a bell? Well, it looks pretty similar to Schwartz and Ward’s list of identity-contributing attributes. As soon as I realised the similarity, I saw it clear: since I am a bident, I am refusing to disclose any information that would reveal my RL identity and therefore compromise the interposed identity that I have created. In other words, I am happy to disclose RL details that do not clash with the interposed identity, but I would never disclose details that would. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
I could verify this hypothesis by running a simple test on it. My RL and interposed identities differ in many attributes but coincide in some; for those in which they are equal, I should be willing to disclose the corresponding RL details, since, although they pertain to my RL identity, their disclosure would not clash with my interposed identity. Of course, I will spare you the details, but I can assure you that the test passed beautifully: I am willing to disclose those RL details for which both of my identities coincide.
In summary: in my experience, users who build an interposed identity in SL tend to hide some facts of their real lives from the rest, facts that describe their RL identities.
So don’t be surprised if somebody tells you how old he is in RL but refuses to tell you where he’s from.
P.S. I would like to thank all the SL friends who helped me put together my thoughts and find the questions to the answers, and to my friend Aitor Bediaga for pointing me to Schwartz and Ward’s paper. I owe all of you.