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?