The paradox of non-disclosure

I have talked about disclosure of identity in Second Life here and here. You know, some people decide to keep details of their real life hidden from others when interacting inside Second Life. Some people, for example, choose not to tell where they are from, of what their gender is, or their age.

I respect those people who choose not to disclose. In fact, I hide many of my real life details from others. However, and after some time living with this, I have come to the conclusion that non-disclosure has a paradoxical consequence. It works like this.

First of all, let us assume that you withhold some basic details about your real life. By “basic details” I mean something that most people would observe and talk about in real life, such as your nationality, gender, age or place of residence. You refuse to disclose that information, and when asked about it, you don’t answer.

The primary consequence of such a behaviour is that people, in absence of information, will make assumptions. In other words, people will create an image of what they believe is the right answer to their unanswered question, possibly drawing from what they can observe in you. For example, if somebody refuses to disclose their age but speak like a teenager, most people will end up assuming that he/she is a teenager. Similarly, if somebody refuses to disclose their real life gender but presents a female avatar, most people will assume he/she is a female.

This, by the way, is not exclusive of Second Life, and happens equally in real life. Second Life, however, makes anonymity easy, and many people opt for hiding basic details thus encouraging others to make assumptions.

The problem with assumptions is that the non-disclosing individual is usually aware about them being made. For example, if I refuse to tell my age and somebody assumes I am a teenager, I am aware that they treat me like a teenager. Or, if I refuse to say where I am from and somebody assumes I am Italian, they will treat me as if I were Italian, living in the continental European time zone, and loving pizza and spagghetti. In summary, each of us is usually perfectly aware of the assumptions about us made by others.

These assumptions, of course, may be right or wrong. Let us imagine that I am a Canadian teenager. The person who assumed I was an Italian teenager is right with regard to my age, but wrong about my nationality. It is my fate to silently tolerate their wrong conviction that I am Italian, and their insightful guess that I am a teenager.

In either case I can’t pronounce myself. If they are correct about my age and I confirm their guess, I am disclosing a fact that I didn’t want to disclose in the first place. On the other hand, if they are guessing wrong and I say “hey, stop talking about pasta, I am not Italian”, I am giving them further information about a fact that, again, I didn’t want to disclose.

Since I should not say anything, I may choose to stay silent and just observe people’s assumptions. If people are correct in their beliefs, the worst that can happen is that people interpret my acquiescence as a confirmation, which goes against my desire to hide my basic details. However, if people are guessing incorrectly, my silence makes me an accomplice of their error. For example, if somebody says to me “I will call you tomorrow at 8 pm European time; I imagine that is a good time for you” and I just nod, they may think I am reinforcing their assumption that I am in Italy.

In summary: confronted with an incorrect assumption, there is no easy way out. If I talk and correct the error, I am disclosing what should be hidden; if I stay silent, I am becoming a liar to the eyes of many.

This is the paradox of non-disclosure. Choosing to hide information may force you to decide between disclosure or lies.

Unless, of course, you only interact with people who understand how non-disclosure works and are aware that any of their assumptions, even when not challenged, may be wrong. This is extremely hard to do. I am perfectly aware of this and, still, I keep realising that I am making assumption about people which may as well be wrong.

Should we choose full disclosure then?

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5 Responses to “The paradox of non-disclosure”


  1. 1 fernandito 2 October 2007 at 7:46

    Of course we should disclose, living in a permanent lie is too difficult and tiring.
    But anyway there’s always a possibility to hide some little things. For example, I’m not disclosing my real name in my Blog but yes my profession, age and the place where I’m living

  2. 2 cesargon 2 October 2007 at 12:56

    I don’t think that keeping details hidden is lying. If it were so simple, I wouldn’t be writing about this in the first place! My point is, precisely, that non-disclosure is legitimate. Many people need to keep details hidden in order to attain their purpose in virtual worlds, often described as “having an alter ego” or “experiencing life from a different perspective”. If you disclose everything, your virtual self becomes a clone of your real self, ruining the experience. Non-disclosure, however, puts you in a paradox.

  3. 3 Fernando 5 October 2007 at 10:13

    The “permanent lie” comment has been really inappropriate here, excuse me guys. The fact is that the paradox is unresolved anyway… how could you be hiding everything about you? It is virtually impossible to live two completely separate lives at the same time even if counting with a platform like “Second Life”.
    You always need to have something exposed about your real life or you won’t be able to survive the virtual self experience succesfully.
    Batman, Spiderman or Superman are fiction characters, I’m sure nobody could really do something similar in the real world.

  4. 4 cesargon 6 October 2007 at 12:34

    Maybe I didn’t explain the issue clearly. My original post says

    let us assume that you withhold some basic details about your real life. By ‘basic details’ I mean something that most people would observe and talk about in real life, such as your nationality, gender, age or place of residence.

    I am not talking here about hiding everything, but just a few facts. It is evident that your personality and overall worldview will definitely affect your virtual alter ego. You let the (virtual) world see most of you; just a few facts remain hidden.I must also say that I know cases of opaque residents in Second Life (i.e. residents who hide facts about their RLs) who have been able to successfully maintain such a situation for years. Yes, years. And they keep going. I guess they pay the price of becoming accomplices of other people’s wrong assumptions.
    The point that you make about Superman and other opaques in fantasy literature is very interesting. I wonder how close that kind of “double life” situation is to being an opaque resident in Second Life. In any case, let’s not forget that Superman has a big secret to hide, and a big responsibility that demands him to use his hidden powers without nobody linking them back to Clark Kent, whereas most Second Life residents have pretty conventional lives, small secrets and no big responsibilities whatsoever.

  5. 5 Nick 23 October 2007 at 14:33

    In second life your nationality, gender, age or place of residence should only have the consequence you yourself place on them. The lie does not occur when someone does not disclose information about their RL.
    Instead, the lie occurs when others conveniently make assumptions about us armed with this limiting RL information.


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