Joshua Brewer<br />Mr Tiedemann<br />WRIT 1133<br />25 April 2010<br />Self-Reflection Through Virtual Communities<br />When virtual communities were born men and women gathered together to discuss and debate any number of issues through on-line forums. Rheingold, in his book The Virtual Community, discusses the incredible chance people from around the world have to find each other in one easy location. In doing so, they are not subject to revealing any information about themselves that would make them or others uncomfortable. The virtual community is a stress-free environment for people to find anyone with common interests. With just the click of a button anything that an internet-user wants to say can be made accessible to thousands, maybe even millions, of people. And all of it can be done anonymously. Since then virtual communities like Second Life have made a much larger impact on the real world. They quick, efficient, anonymous, and easy. But kinds of information are people posting on the internet? Are individuals with avatars (the digital, 3-D representation of an individual’s account) on Second Life showing their real selves? Or are they using Second Life to create new identities? It is my opinion that individuals with Second Life accounts are creating avatars that have similar personalities and appearances to themselves because that is what is most familiar to them. <br />In Rheingold’s book The Virtual Community many of the observations he made concern individuals around the world discussing a shared interesting. They are finding an on-line community to talk about subjects already familiar to them. That being said, it only makes sense that people would create their Second Life avatars that are like their real selves. That way, they don’t have to spend the time it would take to create completely new lives in a world that is already strange to them. That way, they would only have to build on top of foundations that have already been established in their personal lives. So, it would make sense that avatars are similar, if not perfect, reflections of their real selves from the real world.<br />To test the hypothesis that real-life individuals and their avatars were similar, I had to create my own Second-Life account under the meaningless name Jewpiter Kamigawa. Using my own avatar I would seek out other avatars that were willing to volunteer to answer a short list of questions that I had previously prepared. They were completely free to answer the questions in a way that suits them. Unfortunately, the results were not full-proof because any of the avatars could have lied about themselves. On the other hand, this unpredictable factor added a new dimension to the experiment. The test could no longer be as simple as how similar the avatars were to their real selves. The test became a comparison between the avatars, their real selves, and how they perceived their real selves to relate to the avatars. This slight variance in the experiment hardly altered the hypothesis. However, it did force me to change the questions. To purposes of maintaining this experiment’s anonymity, avatars that were interviewed will remain nameless. Here is the final list of questions:<br />
Without revealing anything that would make you uncomfortable, how would you describe your real-life personality/appearance?
Without revealing anything that would make you uncomfortable, how would you describe your Second Life avatar’s personality/appearance?
How do you view your real-life self in comparison with your Second Life avatar?
How do you view your Second Life avatar in comparison with your real-life self?
Are there aspects of your real-life self that you wish you could incorporate more into your Second Life avatar?
Are there aspects of your Second Life avatar that you wish you could incorporate more into your real-life self?
The questions were designed to encourage the interviewee to emphasize as much as possible the differences and/or similarities between his/her avatar and his/her real-life self.<br />The results were astonishing. I was under the impression that many avatars at the very least would resemble their actual selves on a physical level, but with the amount of abnormal skin colors, wings, ridiculous clothing choices, etc. I was clearly wrong. In fact, one of the answers by an anonymous avatar to questions #1 and #2 was, “In Second Life, I get to do whatever I want. I don’t have to look professional for work. I’m not subjected to the demeaning gazes of my peers. I get to be anything really…” This reaction started me thinking: perhaps virtual communities are not limited to just expanding upon the familiar. Perhaps there is something uplifting and exhilarating in living in a world where social standards do not apply and, in the case of Second Life, the laws of physics (avatars in Second Life have the ability to fly, with or without the assistance of wings) don’t apply. Perhaps the strains of society have established themselves so demandingly in the real world that people are forced to release their creative outlets in newer environments, such as virtual communities. Or maybe it’s more than simply releasing their creative outlets. Perhaps it comes from a desire to experience as much as possible. There’s nothing to say that a new lifestyle would not be included in that desire.<br />So I continued to survey random avatars. Another issue that came up often enough was money and sustainability. One avatar told me, “I don’t have to worry about spending money. I don’t have to worry about food and such…” All of a sudden the strains of society were no longer just peer expectations and professionalism. Avatars in Second Life do not even have to worry about the most basic requirements to keep themselves alive, like food, water, rest, etc. The appeal of Second Life to many people started to become more real to me. No matter what bogs down one’s day, no matter who humiliated you, Second Life helps them abandon those misfortunes to escape to a secret world. What would it be like if it didn’t matter what you did? That seems to be an underlying mood in a lot of the avatars that I interviewed. Second Life provides those people with that alternate universe where the normal rules of life no longer apply.<br />Naturally, some of the avatars I met along the way were reluctant to join Second Life at first. They were merely pressured into it by friends or family members. Many of those avatars have grown to love it. Many of these avatars, however, discovered that their real-life dreams could be realized in Second Life. One of the avatars commented, “I can’t do some of the things that I’d like to in the real world.” Second Life has made a great many of those things possible, whether they are the styles of an avatar, the dialects of an avatar, or the occupation of an avatar. You can do practically anything in the Second Life universe.<br />There were a few avatars who were in favor of my hypothesis. One avatar said, “My avatar is as close to me as I could make him.” These avatars use Second Life as a means of making friends in a virtual community with similar identities and personalities. They are the individuals who try to make their avatars resemble their own personalities and appearance as closely as possible. Ironically, they often are the individuals who feel as if Second Life is restricting, that it does not have the necessary amount of hairstyles or clothing options. Second Life, to them, is not expansive enough to grasp their personalities. They still find enjoyment from meeting new people interacting with the environment around them.<br />One of the more peculiar observations that I made from this experiment was the development of my own Second Life avatar. I discovered, to my own surprise, that my avatar was beginning to follow the trend of most of the avatars that I interviewed. For instance, I am Korean, but my avatar was African. I also gave my avatar dreadlocks, something I would like to have some day that my chosen profession prevents. As far as the clothes that I selected, they were much more suave and sophisticated than I would normally dress. The lack of real money in the Second Life universe made this possible. It would appear as if, even though I hypothesized that Second Life avatars would closely resemble their real-life personalities, even I proved myself wrong.<br />There is a certain satisfaction and enjoyment that comes from creating a new life in a virtual community. Nothing can control what you create, who you are, where you’re headed. There is no peer pressure to be someone you’re not. There are no occupational expectations that society places on your shoulders and expects you to uphold. There are no resources that restrict you, like money and supplies, except for one’s own creativity. In a world where there are no boundaries, the masses will come to occupy it and fulfill their impossible dreams. That is what a virtual community like Second Life creates.<br />I mentioned briefly that rather than being merely a creative outlet for the participants in Second Life, Second Life is also a means of opening one’s eyes to new experiences. Through Second Life individuals can take advantage of the ability to live a new life so they can experience what it would be like to live that life, without giving up their current life. It opens their eyes up to new worlds previously unavailable to them, worlds filled with new people and new opportunity.<br />Second Life brings together not just one type of person, but everyone who is willing into a single environment and it allows the participants to either create their new lives or expand their own lives. My research assumes that most people cling to the idea of creating a new personality and a new appearance, which is interesting since, theoretically, their completely new avatars would be strangely foreign to them. The concept of a foreign personality seems like it would be hard to manage, but based off the results of these surveys, people take pride in their avatars. Each day they long for the chance to live out another life in another world. Whether they come to the Second Life environment willingly or reluctantly, many of the residents of Second Life grow to love their “second lives.” Some people place themselves in a new world. Most, myself included, create entirely new people in the Second Life environment. Should they become active participants in the Second Life community, they have entered their own persona into a virtual community that is as much a community as any real community. Whether their avatars resemble their real selves perfectly doesn’t take away from the community aspect of humanity that is so important to everyone. Sure, they may be the only one sitting in front of their computer. By no means, however, are they alone in the virtual community.<br />