Sunday, June 1, 2008

Your cheating alt: Botgirl's Guide to Living With Lies

A discussion popped up on Twitter last week about the deceptive use of alts in the soap opera known as Second Life. Many readers here have heard (or experienced) horrific stories of betrayal, lust, revenge and greed. I must admit that a few have sent shivers up even my pixelated spine. I'll spare you the gory details now (sorry) and share a bit of Botgirl's Guide to Living with Lies.

Botgirl's Guide to Living With Lies

Humans lie. Online humans in anonymous settings lie even more, especially those who spend a lot of time here. Nevertheless, I think the fear of duplicity is a much more pervasive source of harm than any actual screwing-over taking place. The specter of deception hangs over virtual interactions and relationships like a hungry ghost. Okay, I hear you, my imaginary human friend:
"Don't be naive Botgirl. My boyfriend cheated behind my back using four alts of two genders and three species."
I'm not saying that there aren't plenty of devious, duplicitous, manipulative, calculated lying-through-the-virtual-teeth goings on in Second Life. I'm just suggesting that while some of us are harmed by malicious deception, all of us are negatively impacted by the way the fear of deception plays out in our interactions and relationships.

There has been a lot of good thinking related to the ethics and management of disclosure in anonymous environments, including an insightful post by Dusan Writer, an academic paper by Hyung-Yi Lu and a great body of work by Nick Yee. So instead of trying to add my two cents to the why and how, I'm going to throw out a few little ideas about how humans in avatar form might open their hearts without exposing their jugulars:
  • Enjoy the present without expectations. This one is hard, but well-worth the effort. As I've written previously, there is no telling who is directing the avatar in front (or on top) of you. And you know what? If you are enjoying the company it doesn't have to matter. A lot of the hurt I've heard expressed related to relationships in Second Life seems to be more from shattered expectations (believing one's own lies) than overt deception by someone else. Which leads me to...
  • Assume nothing and ask questions. If you DO care about something beyond what someone discloses, then ask and do not move forward in the relationship until you're satisfied with the answer. Now they are not obliged to tell you. And they can lie. But at least if you are wounded, it won't be self-inflicted. That's some consolation, right?
  • Know what you don't know. Personal interactions in virtual worlds can certainly be authentic when avatars don't know each others' human identities. But our conceptions of even our closest loved ones are mostly fabrications of our own thoughts. As Bryon Katie said, "In the history of the world no two people have ever met." I think that goes double or triple for those we "meet" in the virtual world. Of course, there is a connection between your perception of someone and the qualities they possess. The mistake is to reify them into some solid entity with stable and knowable characteristics.
  • Focus more on what you have to give, than on what you want to get. I'm not talking co-dependency here, but genuine no-strings-attached loving kindness; what Buddhists call metta. W.C. Fields said "You can't cheat an honest man" because there's usually an element of greed involved in a swindle. I think it's just as fair to say that you can't betray someone who is genuinely in relationship from a metta point of view.
My final suggestion dear humans is to lighten the hell up! Out of the seven or so billion people on Earth, you are among the luckiest. If you're reading this, you probably have the resources to spend dozens of hours a week in a virtual world where you can do pretty much whatever you want, whenever you want. You're not worrying where your next meal is coming from or how to keep your child from dying of malnutrition. So if your new online loves stabs you in the back, try to keep things in perspective.

With tough love,



Jezabelle Charron said...

"My final suggestion dear humans is to lighten the hell up!"

Best advice ever!

Dale Innis said...

Luminously wonderful advice! And once again I'm struck by what good advice it is for life in any universe at all, not just SL, not just the "virtual" or "online" ones...

Chestnut Rau said...

I nodded in agreement with your observations Botgirl until I got to "lighten the hell up" which seems all at once judgemental and decidedly not befitting the concept of and practice of "Metta".

Human emotion can be very powerful and not easily controlled. The concept of "caring for another independent of self interest" suggests that if someone is suffering we should offer comfort and support even if the problem is not "where will my next meal come from" but "my SLove broke my heart."

Unknown said...

It is extremely rare that a SL relationship will lead to a happy RL one. And I've known some RL relationships that have gone south once they venture into separate SL relationships.

I practice "Enjoy the present without expectations" and generally avoid relationships except for a few persistent avatars (you know who you are). It's been my experience that it's best to avoid intimate relationships as much as possible and fly my plane.

*peers out the canopy*

"Oh who's that striking avatar over there?"

Botgirl Questi said...

jezabell and dale: Thanks. Saying is easy. Doing is hard. Still working on that one.

chestnut: I agree that "lighten the hell up" is not a useful direction for someone who is in the depths of grieving. I don't agree that comfort and support for their grieving thoughts is necessarily the best skillful means either. When someone is suffering in a nightmare, it is not kindness to support their dream. It is better to help them wake up.

zoe: You seem to be one of the wise ones around here. Happy flying!

Anonymous said...

Harper asked me what I do in SL since I don't have an SL relationship. I told her that I explore and work on my tower (build). Which is absolutely the truth. I'm in SL to explore, see what other things people have built (whether beautiful or atrocious), and possibly meet people, but I just don't see myself being happy with a relationship in SL, and am content to make just friends (because I want my partner to be with me physically, and I've never fallen into a long distance thing either).

It sounds more severe than that, but I'm just in SL for fun. I think trying to find a relationship would add a stress level that I just don't need.

Botgirl Questi said...

gahum: I imagine that one could spend all of their waking hours exploring Second Life's creative aspects and never run out of something interesting to build or explore.

I think that regardless of one's intention to steer clear of SL relationships, romantic attraction is a potent force. I've met many who said they couldn't imagine themselves falling for a "cartoon character" until it happened. It is a great mystery.

Joonie said...

Botgirl...great post. I thank you for it. It comes at precisely the right moment for me.

The longer I am in SL, the more I realize I have no answers. Right when I think I know the "score" something or someone happens along and upsets that theory.

I agree with Zoe...intimate relationships in SL are not conducive to my well-being. But everyone gets a little sick every once in a while. ;)

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Sorry, I left something out and since you can't edit here, I deleted the original comment. Anyway...

Botgirl: well, I guess I should say that I don't totally strike the idea off of my list, but I'm not putting it up there as a highly likely thing to occur. But, at this point in time, I don't think it would. I don't totally dismiss that it could happen, but for me, I just don't see it happening.

I think what also contributes to it is that I tend to be "lone wolf" in SL, rarely socializing with people or going to things like clubs. I don't avoid being social all together (and I enjoy hanging out at your place in Extropia), but I'm not some social butterfly there.

C said...

Great post, very insightful and good advice, not just for romantic relationships, but friendships as well as they can be equally intimate and hurt just as bad when they end.

Currently I'm pondering the question of whether or not alts are in and of themselves deception, even if there is no "cheating" going on. I didn't think so, but it seems there are those who do.

E_Rothschild said...

Botgirl - very thoughtful, and very nice to see someone usefully applying metta and upaya :)

It's of more than passing interest to ponder whether love in virtual spaces is a dream or not. Certainly it's perceived that way. I've had my share of love and loss and of being deceived. Briefly put, I think the structure of sl makes it an ideal playground for the emotional manipulators, and a minefield for the trusting and gullible. (I fall in the latter category.) As an older person who encountered virtual life three years ago at the age of 50, encountering people who are roleplaying entirely constructed personae, complete with "backstory", and who aren't telling anyone that they're doing so has produced no small degree of disorientation and moral queasiness. Powerful mojo - very dangerous. The word should go out.

Botgirl Questi said...

Joonie: thanks for sharing. You stuck in there and deserve a good break.

Ghahum: sounds like all is well then for the momement. Yes?

cen: the use of alts seem to be still an open question. I don't have a good answer outside of my doubt that there is a simple absolute answer from an ethical perspective

e: thanks for the phrase "Powerful Mojo," that's the most concise and evocative depiction of online attraction I've encountered.