Can you guess what these pics are? These are some Facebookprofile pics I took last year and the year before. Before thebeard. Notice anything about them? Well of course I amstunningly handsome in both of them. But besides that I havealtered them, one with the Toonpaint iPhone app and one onsome website I can’t recall. And the reason I wanted to usethose apps, was simple. Not only did I think they could makeme look better, but I felt that with these artistic flourishes, Icould share something about my own identity that a regularpicture could not. Namely that I have a sensitive artistic side.
Now let’s look at this attractive individual. That’s me. I mean, the one on the left of course. This is my avatar inLinden Lab’s Second Life, which, if you weren’t aware, is an online virtual world environment that’s been aroundfor about 10 years now. If you’re wondering what I do there, I’m studying a free English language learningcommunity called Cypris Chat, and I will be happy to bore you with my enthusiasm for education in virtual worldsat any time you find convenient. But let’s get back to my avatar, DukeVan Acker here. I’ve had Duke for more than4 years now.
At first, he looked something like this…I designed the shape myself, trying to make it look vaguely like my real appearance. The clothes and skin wereAll either free or nearly free. I’m not very proud of him, but then again I did not really have a reason to make him look any better.
.This is Duke now. So I’ve had several years to consider how I want to present myself. Can you guess why Duke looks as he does now? Well, in mycase, it had a lot to do with both my personality and what I do in SL, teach English. Compared to other avatars he’s shorter. Looks old. I still basedhis face on me, but his hair is gray and he has a moustache – very rare in SL. Even though he is wearing casual clothes, they are obviously highquality mesh, so it shows I’m no noob. And he’s got a little cybernetic monocle, which hints at my enjoyment of sci-fi and fantasy. As a teacher, Iwanted an avatar that projected a casual professionalism – I am not here to socialize or look for a virtual girlfriend – commanded a little respect –the gray hair to me represented the authority that comes with age in some cultures- conveyed a bit about my interests and looked a little bit like me.The environment gave me complete freedom to represent myself as I wanted.
My key point is, as illustrated by my friend on Tumblr here is thatvirtual identity starts with your avatar. Now, as a volunteer Englishteacher for the last few years in Second Life, I’ve been witness todemographic changes in the kinds of learners that come to ourgroup. A few years, back, for example, we seemed to have a streamof Chinese and Korean learners. Now, we seem tobe having moreand more learners from SE Asia and the middle-east, specificallyMuslim women.
Now, as I’m sure you know, many Islamic scholars interpret theQur’an’s injunction against exposing private parts publicly to meanthat women should not expose any part of their bodies otherthan their hands, feet and faces, and according to some, one mustcover the face as well, save for the eyes. Now despite argumentsthat the hijab – the Muslim headscarf - actually representsreligious freedom and liberation from sexual commodification, andthe fact that the hijab is actually optional in many Muslim cultures,there is, I think, a common western notion that it representsreligious oppression and male domination. Now, I am not here todiscuss the pros and cons of the hijab, but I would like to exploreone question.
Why do some Muslim women wear the hijab or burka in SL and others do not? Now I had some educated guessesbased on what I knew about Muslim cultures, and you might have assumptions as well. You might assume thatwomen wearing hijab in Second Lifewere either shamed into wearing it by Muslim men, or they were simply beingwhat I’d call “unreasonably” devout. And you might assume that those who chose not to have their avatars in hijabwere throwing off the shackles of a male-dominated society, and this was indicative of how they would want torepresent themselves had they more freedom.
But when I talked started talking to real life hijabi in Second Life about their feelingsregarding virtual hijabs, I realized that there many different personal factors involved.Let me introduce three of these women to illustrate. We’ll call them Ms. N, Ms. D andMs. J. Let me point out that wearing the hijab is optional in the home countries of allthese women.
This is Ms. N. She’s from Malaysia. In real life she’s a lawyer and business owner. In Second Life, she hasdabbled in virtual fashion and machinima – making short films in virtual worlds. She actually makes andsells virtual hijabs, as well. When she is doing business in SL, role-playing or letting her daughter “drive”her avatar, she does not wear the hijab, but she says when she is relaxing or doing things for herself in SL,she wears it. She says that though her avatar may not represent her physically, her behavior and attitudeare 100% representative of her identity. She has actually been teased by an Arab man in Second Life, whowas curious as to why she felt it necessary to wear hijab in Second Life. But she loves wearinghijab in both RL and SL, and says that even if it were banned, she would wear something on herhead, like a shawl.
One’s avatar is less representative of one’s identity than seen as a simple cartoon orgame. She also reminds me that many Muslim women are just as fashion consciousas their non-Muslim counterparts, and at all-female get-togethers the fancy dressesand fake eyelashes come out, just as they do in Second Life fashion.In her mind, and in the mind of other Second Life Muslims, particularly the Saudi womenshe knows, what happens in SL essentially takes place in the home, a place where Muslimwomen can let their hair down both literally and figuratively.This is Ms. D. She’s from the United States, but ofJapanese and Palestinian descent. When I first mether I never saw her in hijab, and then suddenly itseemed she was wearing one almost exclusively. Iassumed something might have happened to triggerthis transformation, but when I talked to her recently,she said there was nothing in particular behind it.She still often wears the hijab in SL, but can just asoften be found wearing jeans or a ballroom gown,depending on the situation.
This is Ms. J. She’s a freelance illustrator in Egypt, and she’s representative of probably the majority of Muslim womenwho do not wear hijab in Second Life. She spends most of her time with friends from English speaking countries andsomeday hopes to move to Iceland or northern Europe to work. Though she does not wear a hijab in SL, she staysfar from the norms of sexy Second Life fashion, choosing instead to wear a variety of “very ugly yet artistic avatars”.She does admit that she does – or did – use her avatar to express herself, but now she is losing interest in SLaltogether, and concentrating on her art work, which you can see here.
Now in just looking at these three stories that are lot of implications about the different ways people choose todisplay their online identity in avatars and how closely they associate themselves with these avatars. And itdismantled a lot of assumptions I had about why the hijab is worn in virtual worlds. But in 15 minutes, let’s justboil it down to three observations.
First, and virtual worlds scholars like Tom Boelsstorf and Ken Hillis are coming to similar conclusions, it’s probably notthat productive to discuss people’s avatars in terms of virtual self vs. real self. In the case of Ms. N, there was verylittle distinction. In the case of Ms. D. and Ms. J, they did not actually see their avatars as virtual selves, but as playfulcartoon characters with which they could to be as sexy or as absurd as they liked. Avatars – most essentially – providea focus for your attention, and in this way, they’re simply another online communication tool like Skype or email.Nobody would ask you whether there is a difference between your real self and your email self…
That said, avatars MAY provide insight into one’s identity. Though anonymity can free you to representyour avatar in any way you wish, your choices reflect aspects of your personality and interests,sometimes in big ways. Second Life creator Philip Rosedale calls this phenomenon “the opposite ofanonymous”, where the ease in which we can customize our avatar means are avatar can say moreabout us than our physical bodies.
On the other hand don’t assume that someone’s online identity is shaped solely by large-scale social forces. One pointthat I hope I’ve gotten across in this little talk on virtual hijabi, is that making assumptions based on stereotyping andpop psychology is counterproductive. My initial assumptions about these women’s attitudes were off base. It wasonly through hearing their stories, learning abouttheir personalities, personal history and local culture that I was ableto get a clearer picture of how their identities were reflected in their avatars. You actually can learn a lot by judging abook by its cover in this case, but to know how the cover accurately reflects the contents, you’re actually going to haveto read the story.
So the next time you see a curious avatar, whether we are talking about 3D virtual worldsor Facebook profile pictures, don’t jump to conclusions. What the person is showing youabout their identity may not be what you think it is, and the only real way to make sure, isto make friends with them and find out their stories for yourself.