Are Virtual Worlds Enhancing or Destroying Our Sense of Self?

Secondlife_main_485 It's rare that I stumble on a piece of writing that makes me immediately hit the "Share This Story!" button, but a research piece sent in by one of our readers has me excited.

Bob Lloyd, a multi-degreed former techie with a knack for the pen, recently wrote a piece for BlogCritic where he asked whether online worlds were replacing our sense of self with an amorphous nothingness.

Pixels and Policy breaks down Lloyd's research and asks: Are virtual worlds making us into little more than an ever-changing combination of groups and avatar masks?

Metaverse Personality Disorder

From Lloyd's article:

Certainly, all of our interactions influence us in some form, but the
level of control we have over our virtual interactions effectively
insulates us as individuals, and in a real sense we can now choose how
to react without the pressure of real time.

That makes us both more reflective about the consequences of virtual
interactions, and able to take more virtual social risk. We get the
entertainment value without the social consequences of alienating our
real-life friends, whom we generally value more. But it could also
influence us negatively.

Are we more willing to take risks when consequences exist solely in the Metaverse? It appears so. Operating in Second Life or any other virtual world makes it much easier to express personal beliefs that may be disruptive to one's personal and professional life.

This is because anonymity is the norm in virtual worlds – unless an avatar makes it clear who he or she is, it is as if the avatar is being operated by a shadow. What Lloyd asks is whether we're becoming so accustomed to operating extensions of ourselves from behind a veil of shadow that we're beginning to expect that same shadow in non-avatar interactions.

Living in Reality by Virtual World Rules

Lloyd cites Twitter as one of these cross-world services. We throw caution to the wind in our updates, and some prominent Twitter users express shock when their online behavior catches headlines for immodesty or other character-breaking acts.

A scantily-clad avatar hardly merits consideration, but were the avatar's creator to dress in the same way, it could be construed as breaking real-world social norms on dress in public. What does this mean for our conduct in the real world?

Will we begin to operate more in the world that allows us more freedom to express ourselves, or will real-world social norms adapt over a generation due to the growing percentage of people who conduct both virtual and real lives?

The real world is already encroaching into the stubborn independence of the virtual world, as companies with virtual wings seek to enforce a dress code on company avatars. Can an individual who exists in both virtual and real worlds continue to function on two conflicting sets of social expectations and norms?

6 thoughts on “Are Virtual Worlds Enhancing or Destroying Our Sense of Self?”

  1. This is an interesting theoretical assertion, but I don’t think there is any statistical studies to back it up. I don’t have statistics either, but I’ve been a Second Life resident for three years now. The longer my avatar existed, the more he shared my real life values. Essentially, I am still me when I’m an avatar. But there are differences. My avatar is more successful in business and land ownership than me. Rather than substituting for, or undermining my real life, I believe it has been a confidence boost and helps me move ahead in my real life. Sometimes experimenting with personal traits, trying different personas help us define who we really are. It’s much safer for that to happen in a virtual world.
    And, I advise not to compare virtual world/real world business crossover to Second Life as recreation or entertainment. Virtual worlds are a space, second life is a specific place, as is say, an IBM site that is constructed solely as an extension of the real life business platform.

  2. I agree on some points with this. Because of the anonimity in virtual environments one can be whomever one wants. To some, this can be an extension of self. But in an unmoderated place, such as SL was in some ways early on, there will always be individuals who will act out in ways they never would in real society. There is a huge difference in virtual interaction and real interaction. We depend on subtle visual and physical signals from the person we are talking to that cannot be transmitted (yet) through a keyboard or mic. Most of can remember atleast one in life where a phonecall or letter/email conversation suddenly went south on us for no apparent reason other than mis-interpretation on the other end.
    Just my 2 cents.

  3. Quoting from Lloyd’s last paragraph:
    “Perhaps well-balanced individuals can simply extend their personalities and get the benefit of a deeper understanding of their own reactions and feelings. […] Perhaps we all need to be anonymous at times as a means of maintaining a balanced real-world personality.”

  4. Will humanity triumph, or destroy itself? Will MacGuyver save the day, or die horribly?
    Who says this has to be such a dichotomy?
    Some basis for most of this – but it’s a bit of a stretch at this early stage. Previous discussions have centered on environments in which player representations are actually ‘killed’ and otherwise abused.
    Also, it is an entirely different situation in open-ended worlds like Second Life – a fact obvious to residents, but not one that not many have given much focus to yet.

  5. The National Portrait Gallery of Australia currently has an interesting exhibition running on this issue of identity. the Exhibition is running concurrently in Second Life and at the real National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

  6. I would like to comment on the notion of
    “Can an individual (who exists in both virtual and real worlds) continue to function on two conflicting sets of social expectations and norms?”
    Isn’t this the de facto situation in so called real world? In companies and organizations we are expected to follow certain, many times more conservative, norms and codes, which we feel are too agonizing in real life (in contrary to the artificial world of company/organization world).
    So, should we talk about three, not necessary conflicting, sets of social expectations and norms?

Comments are closed.