So the other day I am hanging out at Berkman Island in Second Life, checking out the preparations for the "Beyond Broadcast" conference they are throwing later this week. I run into Ansible Berkman, the main organizer of the virtual component of Beyond Broadcast, shuffling around chairs in the main auditorium. Ansible’s avatar is a gleaming silver android, reminiscent of the robot from "Metropolis." Sweet.
I notice a lanky African man named Abdi Kembla in a white tee shirt and jeans hanging around. We exchange greetings and chat about the upcoming conference, which he says he is planning on attending. I tell him that I have been coming to the Tuesday lunch talks that Berkman organizes, which they simulcast in SL. He says that he’s been a few of those.
I wonder if I’ve met him before, but think that I would certainly remember a slender African man named Abdi.
Abdi starts dropping more and more details about me, like referencing my blog and things I worked on in the past. I slowly start to worry that I’ve met him and forgotten. There were hundreds of African activists and academics I met through the WSIS process. I scan through my address book searching for "Abdi." Nothing.
I finally ask him if he has a blog. "Sure," he says. "Andycarvin.com."
Doh! I’ve been punked by my friend Andy.
Apparently Abdi, a "Somali refugee," is Andy’s alter ego in Second Life. Why a white, bespectacled ICT activist from Boston would pose as a Somali refugee, I don’t know. I suppose it’s no stranger than someone posing as a silver robot. Except one does not have pre-concieved notions when running into someone who is clearly a fictitious character in the same way as you do when you run into someone who appears to be African or Arab or female or male.
There are avatars that are in wheelchairs, avatars who are really fat, avatars who look like children. How does one navigate these potentially sensitive social situations online? And what to make of someone "wearing" the skin of another race or another gender? There are no obvious cues to signal identify-experimentation versus mockery versus mind-fucking.
Sadly the anonymizing nature of virtual worlds like SL can lead to increases in sexist and racist and intolerant language. Hamlet blogged about this a couple of months ago in his entry "the skin you’re in." Or worse, someone wearing Klu Klux Klan robes and spewing hate speech in the "welcome" area of the world.
It’s clear that how we choose to represent ourselves says something about who we are. This is probably even more true in virtual worlds, where there are no real limits to how you appear. You can wear the most fashionable styles, appear as attractive as you wish, look like how you wish others to see you.
But it also potentially raises an additional barrier to real intimacy and personal knowledge of another person. It’s hard enough in the real world getting beyond the various guises we wear for work or play or family, toward something that we might think of as the "real you." In the virtual world, where seeing is not believing, it might be nigh impossible.