I currently have two avatars in SL, neither of which I’ll be using for this research project. Instead, two new online personalities will be born – one as my “researcher” avatar I’ll use for 1|1 interviews. The second will be my “covert” avatar for virtual ethographic participant observation. In other words, one will be talking to people and one will be watching people and recording specific data.
Who will these two avatars be? What should they look like? Media theory scholar Torill Mortensen and BBC commentator Paul Mason lend interesting insights into this question…
When it comes down to it, avatars – online characters – project your ideals and fantasies before you’ve had time to think of them. – Paul Mason
In conversations where the participants present themselves through a “handle” or an “avatar”, the potential for over- or under-representing certain aspects of the “self” is conspicuous. To edit the presentation of the “self” is part of human interaction, as Goffman (1959) describes, quoting from Robert Ezra Park: “It is probably no mere historical incident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role… It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves” (Goffman 1959:19).” – Torill Mortensen
Mortensen’s comments really struck me, although this article deals with textual analysis rather than a 3D virtual environment like SL. I had a chance to contemplate what parts of myself are so essential that I’m not willing to give them up – even in a virtual world where anything is possible. For example, my existing avatars (not to be used within this project), sport glasses. I’d feel virtually naked without them. I think this is because glasses, to me, represent my intellectual side, a critical piece of my identity.
It’s odd to think that I kept my glasses, race, eye color, face shape & gender. Yet I radically changed my hair, got tatoos and dressed punk — total departures from my real world look. This makes me reflect on the “ideals and fantasies” that Mason mentions.
When I construct my research project avatars, what parts of myself do I want to represent? What parts to erase? What parts to make up entirely? Should I strive for “authenticity” in terms of a real-world likeness? This research project is not about avatar identity, but I know that my avatar’s presentation will affect the relationships I develop in SL and will influence the kinds of information that my research subjects elect to share with me. The word “neutral” keeps coming to mind…a desire to construct a neutral avatar that won’t unduly influence my research results. At the same time, I know that the politics of any chosen identity, in real life or SL, are too complex for this. Notions of neutral identity are an illusion.
Once I make a decision and create my avatars, I’ll be sure to post a shot of my “researcher” on this blog along with my SL name. My “covert” avatar won’t ever be pictured or named here in keeping with my desire to have that avatar remain anonymous while doing ethnographic fieldwork within SL.