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1/29/2007
02:39 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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What Happens In Second Life, Stays In SL

Role-playing is an essential part of Second Life. But some people take it more seriously than others. Some people act as if Second Life really is a second life -- as if the person who exists in that virtual world really is a different person from the one in the real world.

Role-playing is an essential part of Second Life. But some people take it more seriously than others. Some people act as if Second Life really is a second life -- as if the person who exists in that virtual world really is a different person from the one in the real world.

This came up to bite me in my writing about SL, as an old journalistic practice collides with the new custom of this virtual world.

The technology and customs of Second Life encourage thinking of the game as a second life. You have an avatar in-game, whose appearance you can alter. The avatar has a little talk-balloon floating above its head that spells out its name, rather than your real name. Linden Labs, the company that makes Second Life, talks about "residents," rather than "players" or "users."

In my previous posts about Second Life, I talked about the people I've met and interviewed in-world, and how, so far, all three of them chose to meet me as their avatars, using their avatar names, rather than their real names. Two of them (Dirjha Summers and Tateru Nino) wouldn't even tell me their real names, and were stingy about giving me RL personal information that might be traced back to them. In the third case, Anshe Chung -- who's made a real-world business out of selling virtual property -- I thought I probably knew who the person behind the avatar was, but the person I've been dealing with hasn't actually confirmed it.

At first, I didn't give the matter much thought. Journalists often encounter people who prefer anonymity. If I had given it thought, I would have said these people preferred anonymity because, in the real world, spending a lot of time in Second Life is kind of looked down on. People who do it are viewed as peculiar. Indeed, since I've been writing this series of blog posts, I've received a few e-mails about how Second Life is stupid. These e-mails tend to repeat the same jokes: "Second Life? Get a life!" and comments about people who live in their mothers' basements.

Note to Second Life critics: The phrases "second life" and "mother's basement" combined get 75 hits on Google. The phrases "second life" and "get a life" combined return 75,600 pages. Y'all need to get some new jokes.

People who engage in cybersex get laughed at even more. I can understand why many people might prefer to remain secret about their Second Life activities. Closeted.

But the motivation for keeping real-life identities secret seems to go beyond secretiveness. Some Second Lifers talk and act as if they really do become other people in the virtual world.

I collided with this attitude in my previous blog posts about SL. Several times, I noted that people I encountered in SL wouldn't give me their real names. Journalists routinely want to quote people using their real names -- or, at least, we're supposed to do that. It adds credibility. People are more careful to speak the truth when their real names are attached to what they say.

We often use anonymous sources, in cases where a person might suffer severe, real-world consequences -- violence, imprisonment, or job loss -- from attaching their names to what they say. But that's supposed to be rare, and we're supposed to, in those cases, take extra steps to ensure the accuracy of what we write.

However, that's not how it works in Second Life, according to Tateru Nino. I wrote about her last week, and noted she would not give me her name or even her gender (I'm calling Tateru "her" arbitrarily). Afterward, Tateru Nino took issue.

She notes that the media writes about "Elvis Costello," not his legal name, Declan McManus, and "Tony Curtis," rather than the name he was born by, Bernard Schwartz.

Some SL residents feel that when the media stops printing "stage names" without real names attached to each use, then it might be time to consider providing RL names. Until then, there doesn't seem to be any reason to support the media double standard on names.

It's not a double standard, though. We write about people by the names they mostly go by -- in real life. Bernard Schwartz is known to far more people in real life as Tony Curtis, so that's the name we use. If Tateru Nino is known to her real-life friends, neighbors, and employers by that name, we have something to discuss.

Moreover, Tony Curtis' real name is known. As with most celebrities who use stage names, that information is a standard part of any kind of biographical profile.

Tateru says many journalists have encouraged her to just make up a name to use in an article. That's just plain wrong.

She pointed me to a really interesting post on the blog the Second Life Herald that discusses the issue of journalists asking Second Life residents to give their real names. Unfortunately, the blog is down at the moment; I'll come back to it later. Here's the URL; maybe you'll have better luck with it.

The issue gets even more complicated when it comes to cybersex. I got a comment from one practitioner who asked me not to even use her in-game avatar's handle. She says that when she does cybersex, it's the avatars, not the people who are arousing each other. This strikes me as a very odd thing to say; I'm sure that, when cybersex happens, the real people -- the protoplasm creatures sitting at their computers and mousing and typing -- get aroused.

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