Monday, October 29, 2007

Evan Donahue's post, thoughts, and identity

The term "avatar" obviously alludes back to the concept of a divine figure that could manifest variously as one of any number of different representations. Gods had avatars that were commonly recognizable, such as Zeus' eagle or Demeter's deer, but divine figures were also capable of creating avatars that could not as easily be associated with them, as when Athena transforms into a bird to guide Odysseus unrecognized through his battle with the suitors. One of the issues addressed in Boyd's article "Why youth (heart) social networks" is the degree of closeness that an avatar shares with its user, and I found the implications of these varying degrees of closeness to be particularly interesting. It seems to me that there has been a shift from an older paradigm of anonymity online to a new sense of rupture between the virtual and the real. I would suggest that social networking is changing, and that change is something that must be taken into consideration.

While the issue of "profiles" and the drive to conflate personal and public identity do characterize facebook et al, one of the first placed I experienced social networking was through mmorpgs, or online multiplayer games. Games such as runescape or world of warcraft encourage players not to have any direct personal link to their characters aside from the spirit they imbue their fantastic warriors with. Even without the connection of the virtual body to the real, still the greatest attraction of these games is the other people. It seems to me that a good way to characterize this sort of networking is the creation of the virtual body by the investment of the real. In other words, since that doesn't actually mean anything, mmorpgs demand that users draw on elements of their real identity—their language, personality, intelligence, etc—to forge digital selves. The investment here is in the digital, since the game ties no accomplishments in the virtual world back to the self. This suggests to me that the mmorpg here creates a virtual identity and a virtual life that the player can live in separate from his own life.

Contrast that with the social networking as it is traditionally discussed; with Boyd's discussion of social networking sites as "based around profiles" (6), there exists in this space a clear link between the real self and the virtually constructed. It seems here that the "virtual body," as Boyd calls it is inferior to and an appendage of the real body. Social networking sites like this do not take elements out of the real world and host them in a fake, but rather build elements in a fake world and map them out onto the real. Boyd's discussion of the minority student who was almost denied college admission on account of the damning evidence of, "hip-hop
imagery, [and] urban ghetto slang" (17) demonstrates the way in which the image projected into the imaginary comes back to reinforce and reshape the real. I personally have a lot to say on this subject from personal experience. There was a time when I was a shy little computer-lab junkie, although I liked to think extremely personable friendly and funny to those who knew me. I didn't use myspace per se, but I had always found that the computer instant messenger medium allowed me to break the social barriers that I could not in person—I feel I was fairly interesting to talk to, but had never learned how to talk to new people very well in person. By starting up conversations with people I had just met through instant messenger, I was able to show off a much different side of my personality through this new medium. The normal requirements of engaging every social mode of transmission during normal communication—eye contact, bodily position, voice, tone, etc—was too much for me, but sitting sideways on my chair next to my bed reading emails and typing in im, I was able to focus solely on the textual level of exchange where I felt it was easier to express myself than with the other physical modes of communication. I still feel that people got to know and like me much better as a result of my communication with them through IM. Now of course after 4 years of public speaking training I've managed to get a hold on those pesky elements of physical presentation, but I still find additional ability in the digital world not accessible to me in the real body that I possess. However, this public tie between the virtual and the real carries serious implications, because a higher volume of traffic and communication brings both boon and bane to the end user.

It interested me to hear the term "myspace whore" as one who has too many friends. If I may draw an allusion back to snow crash, whores were the ones responsible for spreading the diseases and evils around a culture. Likewise, being connected to (via a friendship link) a myspace whore increases your online visibility through the means that Boyd discussed in her segment about parental supervision. This increased visibility means that all the nasty things floating around out there, from viruses, to commercial industries, to predators, can find you as a result of your intercourse with the myspace whore. Runescape, wow, and mmorpgs do seem so hearken back to an older paradigm of anonymity that is rapidly becoming replaced by a conflation of the user and the avatar. While there are many positive things that can come from this, there are also dangers. I can only conclude with a message similar to that of Boyd's; the (virtual) world is a dangerous place, but eventually kids will have to spread their wings. The only thing that protecting them does is keep them from the lessons they will need.

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