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Virtual Fluidity

News & Features | October 20, 2014

The transparent nature of Facebook is about to change. Last week, two unnamed Facebook representatives released the company’s plans to distribute a mobile application that will allow users to operate under pseudonyms. The application, expected to be released in the next few weeks, has been dubbed “the app for anonymity.” Since its 2004 birth, Facebook has had a rigid identification policy: “the name you use should be your authentic identity; as your friends call you in real life and as our acceptable identification forms would show.” These forms of identification include government-issued ID, bank certificates, school reports, and membership cards.

This September, dozens of Facebook accounts belonging to transgender, transsexual, and cross-dressing users were shut down due to the company’s “real name” policy. An unnamed Facebook user reported a number of drag kings and queens—who used their stage names to interact—to the site’s authorities. Some of these users, along with LGBT rights groups and human rights advocates, joined forces to express their dissatisfaction with the rights to their online profiles. Chris Cox, Facebook’s Chief Product Officer, posted an official apology on behalf of the company: “The stories of mass impersonation, trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it’s both terrifying and sad…All that said, we see through this event that there’s lots of room for improvement.”

According to Cox, the real name policy was “part of what made Facebook special in the first place, by differentiating the service from the rest of the Internet where pseudonymity, anonymity, or often random names were the social norm.” The policy will remain the same, but its implementation—along with Facebook’s anonymous application—will transform the transparent usage we’re accustomed to as users. Thus, Facebook will soon operate like most public forums on the web, no longer a space reserved for people who can publicly align their online and physical identities. The public’s reaction to Facebook’s alterations and additions has been mixed: some are grateful for the long overdue option of anonymity while some are skeptical about trusting the amended site’s credibility.

As Cox affirmed in his post, anonymity and shielded identity online have allowed users to freely abuse and mistreat their peers. Of course, users operate differently within communities in which participants cannot recognize and hold responsible those who have transgressed. But virtual anonymity and the ability to stray from one’s physical identity create a diverse spectrum of opportunities, far exceeding veiled abuse. According to Tufts Sociology Professor Sarah Sobieraj—who specializes in mass media—without these spaces for anonymous exchanges, “we lose one of the great gifts of the online era, the opportunity to find commonality and community—the chance to participate.”

For some, “participating” and representing oneself means interacting with others on social media platforms like Facebook. For others, it’s exploring virtual realities in online worlds such as Second Life, perhaps the most popular site of its kind. Using self-chosen avatars, Second Life users can socialize with other residents, participate in activities, earn a living (through the virtual currency Linden dollars), and experience day-to-day life through the 3-D world. Within virtual worlds like Second Life, users can join various groups—such as virtual sports and arts communities—based on interest and skill. They can also choose from a range of avatar forms: human, animal, vegetable, mineral, or combinations of multiple. Avatars may communicate with each other through instant messaging and group chat, both of which are visible to the nearby virtual community. Within Second Life, the choices are endless, based on desire rather than forced by anything concrete from the physical world. Like Facebook’s new app, self-created identity rather than “real” identity becomes relevant in these virtual worlds.

Philosophy Professor at University of Massachusetts Boston Gary Zabel serves as the founder of the Caerleon sims, a colony of virtual artists in Second Life, and the director of the Virtual Art Initiative, a non-profit organization that generates new forms of artistic content. An expert on virtual presence, Zabel commented on his observations of avatar selection: “One of the things that struck me was how many men use female avatars; these are not gay men or transsexuals; they’re straight men, but they elect to use female avatars.” He depicted Bryn Oh, a well-known female avatar who appears in virtual pieces that have been featured at various exhibits including the Shanghai World Exposition in 2010. The artist, however, is Brynley Longman, a male oil painter whose girlfriend helped him to create his female avatar. “He remarked once that he acts in exactly the same way in Second Life through the female avatar that he acts in real life through his male body,” said Zabel, “and yet, because of the female avatar, people categorize him as female and see him as female.” Thus, Longman’s avatar is an augmentation of his identity rather than a separate persona through which to communicate and interact.

But if such online identities aren’t necessarily founded in material characteristics, personality traits, or physical dispositions, how do they serve as representations of the people who create them? Conceptualizing the connection between physical and virtual selves—however different they might seem—requires our understanding of the latter as an extension and exploration of identity. Zabel makes an important distinction between the respective functions of physical and virtual identity: “The body is an essential element of identity. In other words, the continuity of bodily presence is really what establishes identity on its most basic level. …What’s unique about the virtual medium is that people get to choose the bodies that they use to interact with others through. And so this is a way of experimenting with who they are.”

This experimentation extends beyond demographic choices of virtual identity—form, gender, race, etc.—and comprises the physical implications of increasing virtual presence. In other words, the multi-dimensional fluidity of our virtual identities allows us to feel physical connections as well as emotional ones. Matthias Scheutz, a Computer Science and Cognitive Science Professor at Tufts, specializes in artificial intelligence as the Director of the Human Robot Interaction Lab. He characterizes telepresence—the ability to interact through screens, robots, and similar platforms when you cannot physically be present—as a technology that is growing rapidly and assuming larger roles in modern society. “A colleague of mine has a robot copy of himself,” said Scheutz.
“When he has lab meetings, he’s got censors mounted to his arms, full body motion capture, and when he moves his arm an hour and a half away, the robot moves its arm exactly the same way. The eyes blink, the mouth opens, and you feel like there’s a person present.” In other words, it’s not all that different for us to interact with a person than to interact with his or her telerobot.

But it goes both ways; as people interact with someone’s telerobot, its owner can feel and reciprocate the physical interaction. “The same way that when you drive, you have a connection to your car,” explained Scheutz, “when you’re connected with this remote robot, you get a feel for that space out there. It’s not our body, but because we’re connected to it in this feedback loop, we start to develop a sensation.” Just as we do with phantom limbs, we can actually feel the extension of our physical bodies through our virtual selves. Thus, the flexibility and changeability of the virtual world creates opportunities for bodily action as well as psychological expression.

Of course, as virtual presence becomes more fluid and more prominent, the controversy surrounding it gains similar momentum. As online profiles evolve to better fit the virtual standard of identity, as video game avatars immerse their creators in virtual worlds, as people begin to integrate telepresence into everyday life, many remain concerned about the future of technology’s reign. Recent films like Spike Jonze’s Her depict futuristic worlds in which people rely almost exclusively on technological instruments. The implications are clear: as members of a modern society, we lose ourselves and overwhelm our real identities with our electronic ones.

But in a world that’s integrating the physical world and the virtual world so fluidly, can we still make that distinction? “You will often hear people make a distinction between things done online and ‘real life,’ but it makes no sense to suggest that we do online is somehow separate from our real lives,” said Sobieraj. Zabel verifies this interpretation of the two realms from a philosophical standpoint: “The relevant distinction is not between the virtual and the real, it’s between the virtual and the actual. And they’re both dimensions of reality; the virtual is equally real. Your memories are real; they’re a dimension of reality. What you did five minutes ago is as real as what you’re doing now, even though it’s not actually present.” In other words, what we’re doing on our laptops or within our video games isn’t all that different than what we’re doing in our minds; the fact that these interactions aren’t physically “real” shouldn’t perpetuate the damaging stigma that technological mechanisms create.

Even so, it seems that most experts would agree that there must be a balance between these various realms; overuse of technology and the dominance of computerized content is something we all continue to fear. “What’s happened, of course, is that virtuality has become computer mediated, so we now have computers generating a particular form of virtual reality,” said Zabel. “But I think you have to see that as continuous with the other forms of virtual reality, without which our experience would be inconceivable.”

Thus, we must have an open mind to the advantages as well as the shortcomings of the growing presence of virtual life. However we characterize them, the opportunities that virtual realms have created for us are extensive and diverse. We are now able to interact with people in various environments—through multiple forms—and use skill sets that are unique to the virtual world. As Facebook has recently confirmed, our identities are constantly being reinvented and extended. “Is it good or is it bad?” asked Zabel. “It depends on how it’s used; it depends on the value systems of the society that create it… But, if it were actually used in a way to liberate people’s capacities and develop their talents, then it would augment our reality rather than diminishing it.”