Joshua Brewer<br />Mr Tiedemann<br />WRIT 1133<br />25 April 2010<br />Self-Reflection Through Virtual Communities<br />With the birth of virtual communities came a new age of men and women gathering together and discussing and debating new and relevant issues on on-line forums. Rheingold, in his book The Virtual Community, discusses the ease people from around the world can conglomerate into one collective pool of knowledge without having to reveal even the slightest bit of information about themselves, and oh how quick and efficient it was to just be able to post an anonymous blog to an infinite number of people. Virtual communities have since risen to a new caliber of what it once was and communities such as Second Life and Facebook are leaders in this new movement. They have provided environments to the masses that not only allow for fast, anonymous conversation, but also allow for a superfluous amount of information to be accessible to a vast number of participants in these virtual communities. But what kind of information are individuals making available on the internet? Are individuals with avatars (the digital, 3-D representation of an individual’s account) on Second Life revealing truths about their actual personalities or are they taking the opportunities available to them to create entirely new personalities on Second Life? It is my opinion that individuals with Second Life accounts are creating avatars that have similar personalities and appearances as to themselves because that is what is most familiar to them. In Rheingold’s book The Virtual Community many of the observations he made are centered around individuals around the world discussing a shared interesting, coming to the internet to relate information that is already familiar to them. That being said, it only makes sense that people would create their Second Life avatars with the familiar in mind because, rather than try to invent new ideas, completely separate from themselves, they only have to expand on that which they already know. That is why it only makes sense that their Second Life avatars be reflections of their actual personalities and appearances. <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 who were willing to volunteer to answer a short list of questions that I had previously prepared. They were not restricted in any way in the way they answered their questions. Unfortunately, there was no way to identify truth sayers apart from liars. On the other hand this one uncontrollable, impossible-to-measure characteristic added a peculiar dimension to the experiment: the test could no longer be as simple as whether or not Second Life avatars resembled their creators in any way, shape, or form; the test became a comparison of how individuals view their real-life personalities versus their own interpretation of their Second Life avatars. This slight variance in the experiment hardly altered the hypothesis. However, it did force change upon the list of questions that the avatars were asked. To purposes of maintaining this experiments anonymity, avatars who were interviewed will remain nameless. Here is the final list of open-ended 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 being a realm of 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). 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.<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, because no matter what bogged down one’s day and no matter who or what told someone that that person couldn’t do something, they will always have something to escape to without the stresses of everyday life. 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 by friends or family members, though many of those avatars have grown to love it for a lot of the same reasons as the anonymous avatars that were previously mentioned. Admittedly, I will not be resuming my adventures on Second Life. Many of these avatars, however, discovered that their real-life unfulfilled 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. They were also less likely to have wings on their characters.<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, though these observations were strictly exclusive to the physical aspect of my avatar. For instance, I descend from a Korean bloodline. My character represented an avatar of African lineage (something impossible for me). I gave Jewpiter Kamigawa dreadlocks, which I have always aspired to grow (an unfulfilled dream). As far as the clothes that I selected, they were much more suave and sophisticated than I would normally dress. I know that one of the reasons for that is that I do not have enough money to spend on enough professional suits to be able to dress up to that standard on a daily basis. 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. I never did give Jewpiter wings, though.<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 limited 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 />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.<br />