26 February, 2011

Identity in Second Life

There are many things in life that we are sure of; things that pulse in recognizable patterns, reliable processes etc. Things like the stock market: we know how this works, and we know what influences fluctuations - some people can even predict outcomes based solely on patterns. However not everything is predictable or pattern based; take for example the human brain. No amount of studying, research, interviews, or patterns can allow us to see what influences the mind. Nothing can be predicted, no action can be accurately analyzed, and it can be said that we might never know why someone does something; this is what makes the study of performed identity so fascinating. Also, with the internet as a new means of socialization and the overwhelming presence of millions of people online, it is easy for ones own identity to get lost in the undertow and never really stand out. Thus the creation of online personas that encapsulate the identity of what the culture industry deems attractive begins. In the article Deception in the Virtual World: A Semiotic Analysis of Identity by author Jonathan Matusitz, he states that:

“Semiotics has been applied to the notion of virtual community as the global network, the unlimited, self-organizing nature of cyberspace, and a phenomenon of ‘wired identity’. In communication, to know the identity of those with whom we communicate is a key to the understanding and the evaluation of an interaction. However, […] web users are oftentimes performers, deliberately altering their identity. Indeed, one of the characteristics of the Internet is that it has been associated with freedom of self-invention, […].”

This quotation embodies the tone of my paper, to look at the traditional view of communication as face to face and knowing what the other person looks like has dramatically changed into a new sort of web frontier, allowing us to chat with dozens of people at the same time while not knowing what any of them look like. Linking performers to avatars – virtual representations of someone’s identity - is interesting, linking the similarities like altering identity and creating self-invention.

This research paper will look at the attraction to create online identities in Second Life and how though cultural hegemony and the Social Learning Theory people feel like they need to adhere to a media standard. The main theory that will be the backbone of this research will be the Marxist Social Learning Theory, stating that people act in a way that is socially acceptable and consume traits and values that are part of a hegemonic society and culture industry, like views on beauty or personality through culture. This is cross listed with Antonio Gramsci’s ideas of cultural hegemony, and how individuals are herded into one way of thinking because they fall short of society’s standard bar. These ideas are important to talk about due to the tremendous pressures on individuals by today’s media coupled with the freedom available online to encompass any desired identity; to ultimately act out whoever you ever wanted to be. This is certainly exciting to look at and to find out why anyone would want to be another version of themselves completely, and why one might feel like they needed to live up to the hegemonic norms set out by society.

I will be looking at 4 research papers in a mini literature review, in order to give context to my own paper and to map out the main points in the creation of online identity in virtual communities. The first author discussed is T.L. Taylor and her article Life in Virtual Worlds: Plural Existence, Multimodalities, and Other Online Research Challenges. This article is very interesting because she focuses on online embodiment and the “kinds of bodies created and adopted in virtual worlds and the ways digital bodies are intricately tied to life online” (Taylor, 2). What is most important to note is that Taylor suggests as soon as a user logs into a virtual world they immediately have two bodies giving them a plural existence (4) and “while some users maintain a consistency within a single avatar or character, many do not” (4). Throughout the duration of the article Taylor givers her experiences chatting with many avatars who explain that the real world in many ways has rejected them and for them to create an alternate persona online is a way to express suppressed emotions or feelings (5). This makes a good article due to the connection it has with my own research and the number of answers it has already found that can be linked to my own thesis.

The second article Moving Beyond the Game: Social Virtual Worlds by author Betsy Book looks at the differences between online games and online social communities and their relation with the real life contributors as online avatars. She finds some noteworthy facts, like how the majority of users make an avatar which is much different physically than their real world self, and how a computer code used to represent oneself is in all actuality, it’s own identity with its own physical appearance and temperament (Skwang). However she also says that a large number of avatars on social communities prefer to keep somewhat true to their real form since it is easier to create friendships and relationships (8). Books brings up this constant struggle between conforming to society’s standard of attractiveness and the idea of setting oneself apart to be unlike everyone else. I feel these are perfect themes and they relate well to my thesis on online identity.

The third article Digital Literacies of the Cybergirl by Angela Thomas says that our online personalities are constructed through several factors, like ethnicity, gender and age, and these factors helped shape our identity online. Interestingly, she mentions the assembly of our physical self is made by the kind of clothing we wear, the makeup or hairstyle we have, any features like piercings of tattoos also make up who we are (358). She says this lets other people “read” us accurately and then they can begin to conceive who we are as people. This article was included because this is a very relevant point in my own research; if people judge our appearance to gain perspective of who we are, and then we can alter our appearance online to let other people view us the way we prefer to be viewed.

The last article looked at is by Geoff Cox, Joasia Krysa & Anya Lewin, entitled Introduction to ‘The (Digital) Culture Industry’. The authors state that mass culture is created by avatars that consume products available in the real world, and how desires can be brought to light online that might not ordinarily be expressed. These are important ideas to relate to consumption by online personas in order to appear to and abide by hegemonic culture views.

The culture industry has been looked at and studied numerous times, and just recently it has come into light as being present in the most unusual of places; online social communities. These communities like Second Life – a virtual world – are built upon the idea that all avatars can do whatever they want to with no restrictions or boundaries created by physical laws or even the media. While Second Life is used by some people to escape the routine of their everyday life, the appeal lies in the absence of traditional construct. However, it seems that while popularity grows Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony becomes present, where big corporations with an attendance in Second Life are contributing by creating products that avatars can consume. The bigger the company the more dominant the need for consumption is, since it is dictating what is important to have and consume even in a virtual space. The media’s influence is certainly present on Second Life, having brand name items and products that cost money to obtain, thus only available to the upper class with the financial freedom to obtain these things that create a status.

Everything is related to status on Second Life; default body parts and cheap accessories scream low class and even in Second Life where people go to escape real world consumerism, it is present even from start up just like in the real world. There is no way to outrun the class connotations, and everywhere you look there are items to be bought or sold that contribute to the huge in world economy. Social Learning Theory states that people follow social norms to feel accepted, and to feel like they belong. Having a real life based on the horrors of consumerism is exhausting, so people retreat to a virtual community to feel like they can be accepted no matter what brand they wear or what they look like. The media and culture industry has created this identity monster, where every person is held against a nearly impossible standard of beauty and success, and wherever people go, virtual worlds included, they cannot escape the media and the culture industry’s pressure to consume in exchange for a status.

An obvious link between the culture industry and the media and our own identity is present, with virtual communities being a viable way to finally be able to achieve those hegemonic ideals of beauty and status. In real life it is impossible to adhere by media’s standards, where online you can create your avatar to be the essence of who you always wanted to be, complete with the items and products you always wanted in real life. Communities like Second Life are a way for avatars to escape unfeasible real world standards and easy transfer into that obtainable body or identity because it’s so easy to get. Such is the example from researcher T.L. Taylor and her conversation with an Avatar named Michael, who admitted he goes by a different persona online as an escapes from the real world because “the small community he lives in has in many respects rejected him” (Taylor, 5). Cultural Hegemony is certainly present in these ways, and by way of a community devoid of governing rules, yet chalk full of hegemonic norms set upon itself by its ruling class, the culture industry.

Now we will shift more into the aspect of identity and the creation for online worlds. The main focus of this paper will be on identity, and how it is formed on Second Life through the culture industry by looking at the Social Learning Theory, and cultural hegemony. I will be doing a mini case study on the experience I have created with my own avatar, its identity formation, and what draws people into these worlds to edit their online identity. Second Life leads avatars to contribute to the culture industry’s hegemonic identity by allowing them creativity, physical appeal, and freedom, although it can be argued it’s a controlled freedom by the media.

Firstly, avatars are drawn into Second Life by the creative independence. This means that someone can be their own cultural producer by creating products to be sold in the Second Life community. Not only does this tempt users to join in hopes of monetary gain, but it allows for them to be the makers of their own products and materials – their own culture – which they most likely cannot produce in real life. A teacher can suddenly utilize virtual materials to build an online home, a handicapped person that otherwise might not be able to make clothing can suddenly do so with a few clicks of a mouse, and a doctor can learn visually in online spaces nowhere near a hospital. The creative potential is enormous and allows people an unlimited amount of options pertaining to what they can do on Second Life. Creating products is just one method, how about creating a whole business? The entrepreneurial potential is there, and it’s certainly more cost effective. Artists of all kinds are drawn to Second life not only to showcase their talent, but to draw upon a whole new fan base. Holding virtual concerts, galleries, and viewings of individuals work can open up so many possibilities for real life opportunities. In my own experiences with Second Life, I have always been drawn to creativity and was excited to see if I could program something. However, the actual time it took to make objects was far more time than I initially thought, leaving my creativity somewhat crushed.

The next way users are drawn into Second Life is the ability to physically construct yourself in a way that you would want other people to see you. This is the most blatantly obvious example of cultural hegemony, where the media depicts what is acceptable and what is attractive in terms of appearance. In a sea of other people inhabiting Second Life and virtual communities everywhere it’s important to set yourself apart by creating a customized appearance because “the avatar we choose to be becomes part of our online identity” (Cohen).

There are three ways in which players can showcase their identity through appearance on Second Life: 1) to follow your own personal appearance as closely as possible 2) to deviate extraordinarily from any real world physical ties 3) to create a hybrid of these two to portray the user as a little of each. For example with my own avatar it made a slight transition from start to now, where I started out trying to make my avatar look exactly like myself. I found that a lot of the customization was a little tricky to master and it was hard to distinguish the face enough from the default settings so I had a hard time trying to recreate my own features. I then picked up several body parts and objects along my travels and my avatar got a little more customized but still did not look like me. I decided to settle on the tall long blonde hair as a consolation, and accessorised with things I would actual wear. I feel like my avatar is a glamorized version of myself; where my physical traits in real life show up on my avatar yet the actual facial construction was not the same. I stuck to trendy ripped skinny jeans, large heeled wooden platform shoes, and a bohemian inspired long sleeved printed belly short topped off with star shaped sunglasses for fun. Where I would wear these in real life, I don’t, and the meaning of that is up in the air. Generally, I stayed mostly true to my own identity, and didn’t dress or represent myself in a dramatically different way.

Librariandreamer’s blog tells us that “to edit the presentation of the ‘self’ is part of human interaction” and I felt that I had to create and edit my appearance because it was a way for people to take my identity seriously, and to become involved with other people who are also searching for a new identity. I feel like that for some people, Second Life is just that; a second life where one could escape from their reality to become something that they aren’t because it is new and exciting and is a way to be someone who you always wanted to be. The appeal to embody an identity that is far beyond your own is certainly attractive, and the ability to physically portray yourself in the most attractive way and to finally be able to live up to media’s standards is something that would draw most people in at least to experience it.

The last area that would draw people into Second Life as culture creators would be the freedom it emits for all the avatars. Second Life is known for not having any real life laws or government involved which is the basic premise behind most people interacting in this world for entertainment purposes. In a world where anything is possible, you can be anything or anyone you ever wanted to be or look like and where you can actually fly, there is something intoxicating about having no rules or authority governing your actions. The next aspect of freedom that anyone can appreciate is of course money. Financial gain is a major feature in the attraction to Second Life, where avatars can collect Linden dollars in exchange for real world currency. Using Second Life’s entrepreneurial creative aspects, users can create products and items and then sell them to other users for these Linden dollars, then trade them all in for an American cheque.

Another aspect I find so fascinating is how some users escape into Second Life to pursue career options or interests they have in real life; this includes having a business, owning an island, and even changing gender altogether, which people might not be able to experience otherwise. Matusitz says that “web users are oftentimes performers, deliberately altering their identity. Indeed, one of the characteristics of the Internet is that it has been associated with freedom of self-invention, such as intentional gender swapping”, this quotation shows that the freedom available in virtual communities can be seen as a catalyst for identity switching, giving people the choice to create whichever identity they want to embody as a way to express themselves and their individuality. To tie into this I will be referencing Robin Ashford, who created a male avatar and a female avatar as a social experiment, wanting to see if either avatar was treated differently by other players. Interestingly enough, her findings showed that as a male avatar she was taken more seriously and felt she could finally portray her true self without being judged on her “ladylike-ness.” The best part about this experiment wasn’t her findings per se, but that at the end of her post she apologizes for tricking people into believing she was a male in real life since she portrayed one on Second Life (Ashford). This definitely relates to the online identity as a performance, and how gender swapping is a form of freedom experienced by many users. The idea that a man feels like he is supposed to be stereotypically “manly”, physically attractive and rough, is a hegemonic idealization created by the media. Therefore, when someone who is a woman portrays a male avatar, I find it interesting that she is apologizing for doing so, when there are no rules saying you have to play as your own gender or even race. Media has told us how to behave and any variation from that learned norm is to go against the Social Learning Theory and the media as an “outcast” or “trickster” which is fascinating.

Second Life is a social networking site, a support group, a chat room, a business conference, and a political sphere all rolled into one. The multifaceted nature of this type of online community allows for so many people to find a personal use for it at all ages. One of the best aspects for avatars of this virtually rendered space is the “ability to visualize their social world” (Boyd, 122) and to be able to see the physical embodiment of another avatar’s ideal identity. People are also using Second Life as a means to be their own cultural producers, Cox et al call this being a Prosumer (13) and it allows avatars to create these products and sell them back in the community, starting a circle of mass consumption and production which adds to the idea that cultural hegemony is apparent in Second Life.

Identity is something that is constantly created and shown in a variety of ways. What if you could escape to an online world where you could be a multimillionaire, an astronaut, own an island, fly or even switch genders without violating society’s norms via the Social Learning Theory? It has been shown that identity can be created for a number of reasons online, and how we construct our own is how evidently we would like other people to view us. Whether we are using Second Life as a means of escape, entertainment, creativity, or freedom it is evident that each person has their own reasons to become involved blurring the lines between virtual worlds and real worlds (Siemens). These are just some of the attractions to create online or alternate identities, and shows us how our wants and need for social acceptance through appearance or success - online or off - has been instilled into us by the media, and the desire to fit into hegemonic norms. Thus, the Social Learning Theory is present in Second Life, letting users participate in cultural hegemony by creating and consuming goods to adhere to a preconceived social standard set forth by the media.

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