Everybody talks about the liberating power of online anonymity. It seems so intoxicating to know that you can pretend to be anybody you want, and nobody you interact with will be the wiser.
That’s the fantasy, but the not, in my opinion, the reality. In fact, my 20 years of online observation and participation strongly suggests that the real headiness for many people is the power to be even more authentic, more themselves, than they can be in real life.
That’s not to say there aren’t dirty old men posing as 13-year-old girls, or weaklings wearing cloaks of muscularity. But those deceptions can obscure the rest of what’s happening – and the rest matters.
Case in point – a talk I gave recently raised the ire of many Second Life denizens who felt I misrepresented their community. They responded swiftly, firmly and generously, inviting me further into their world so that I could get a sense of what was really happening.
I took up the offer of Honour McMillan (whose recent blog post on Second Life identity is especially worth a read) for a tour.
Everyone in Second Life, of course, came there from the real world, but Honour MacMillan is about as close as you could get to a Second Life native. In the hour we spent together (the first of many, I hope) the two of us teleported here and there across Second Life’s 8,000+ square kilometres, visiting sites filled with elaborately designed works of art and archetecture – steampunk, deco, quasi-gothic and styles whose classifications I wouldn’t dare to guess at.
Because my headset mike was broken, I could hear Honour talking, but could only respond via typed message. Despite this awkward, asymmetrical communication, and despite the fact that the only thing I ever saw of her was her avatar, I knew almost immediately that I trusted and respected Honour. She was articulate, good-natured, passionate, knowledgeable, and generous.
In real life, you often must wait longer – especially when you’re a stranger in a strange land – before you make up your mind about a new acquaintance. Something about the online world, though, helps to cut that process down to almost nothing.
This isn’t about anonymity – it’s about cutting straight to authenticity.
It’s counterintuitive, both because of the awkwardness of the technology, and because you would expect a more mediated experience to be less, not more intimate than meeting in real life. But there it is.
Honour and I went traveling.
As we moved from location to location, even more striking than the imagination and beauty of in-world creations was the immense time and energy that had to have gone into creating them.
The last place Honour took me was the Tiny Community of Raglan Shire. She called it “One of the most tightly knit communities in Second Life.”
The community’s tagline is, “Friendship, creativity, silliness.”
Tinies are a special kind of avatar. As the name suggests, they are very small – Tinies can’t be created through normal avatar channels, but must be made with special in-game coding. They are often animalian, lovingly and elaborately detailed, friendly, quirky and weirdly complex.
Honour knew many of the Raglan locals and introduced me around. I forget why it came up, but they invited me to check out the local bowling alley. (If you look in the postcard above, you can see that the alley is right next to the drive-in cinema. There are also fashion shows, regattas, poetry slams, a water park and much more.)
Meeting these Tinies, even for just a few minutes, I was again struck not just by how much imagination went into creating these beings, but how much work. I get exhausted just trying to navigate Second Life, let alone trying to create something in the game, let alone trying to create a miniscule walking, talking, dancing, bowling bunny rabbit with an intricately patterned dress and bonnet, and unique mannerisms and personality.
How do the Tinies fit my thesis that virtual worlds lead to more authenticity rather than more make-believe? After all, I didn’t really meet a six-inch tall schnauzer with purple shades and matching dress.
I did, however, get a very clear sense of the humour and hospitality of the people in this Tiny community – humour and hospitality that can be expressed in Raglan Shire in ways the real world simply does not allow.