Thursday, May 14, 2009

Trust and Shame in Pseudonymous Personal Relationships

(Spoiler Alert: I'm going to break character here and speak from the human POV.)

Since her birth more than a year ago, Botgirl has proven to me that an avatar identity in the protective womb of pseudonymity can be a profoundly fertile environment for creative expression and growth. As muse, subject, canvass and collaborator, Botgirl has been a fulcrum that's shifted my creative planet forever. Botgirl has been the driving force behind a personally unprecedented volume and variety of creative work and her public persona has helped bring the work to the attention of thousands of people around the world.

I can unequivocally recommend using a public pseudonymous avatar identity to enhance creativity and act as a living interactive work of art. Sadly, I can not make the same enthusiastic testimonial for the role of pseudonymity in close personal relationships. In fact, I've come to suspect that a persistent insistence on pseudonymity in an otherwise very close online friendship is a likely indicator of:
  • A lack of trust in the other person. You are afraid they will disclose your identity to other people and ultimately sabotage your ability to maintain public pseudonimity.
  • Personal dishonesty. You've either stated or implied things about your human self that is not true.
  • A sense of shame about aspects of one's human self. You are afraid that if certain aspects of your human self were known, the other person would feel differently about you.
It seems to me that much of the debate about the validity of pseudonymous online relationships misses the boat by focusing on whether they are "real" rather than on whether they are "healthy." I understand that pseudonymous relationships can include deeply personal disclosure and intense emotional intimacy. In fact, the sense of vulnerability that is created by such sharing increases the psychological resistance to revealing one's human identity to one's closest online relationships. Although I see pseudonymity as a useful bridge to an authentically close relationship, I think that any walls we put between significant aspects of ourselves and our loved ones end up sabotaging the health and progression of the relationship.

So I've started to share my RL identity with a few of my best online friends, and will continue expanding my circle. I gently ask you to pick a good friend of yours and give it a try.


Anonymous said...

I've gone ahead and met people AFK. I am pleased to say that they were the same person in every essential detail as the one that I knew via SL.

I think that's a fair bit of opening up.

Raven Haalan said...

Yes, yes, yes. I've said elsewhere, but here again, that the anonymity is great to a certain point, and after that, it isn't.

There's a crossover point. It's likely different for everyone, and one of the "dancing points" of any virtual relationship.

"When do we 'get real'?"

Anonymous said...

I've never had anonymity in SL. Only pseudonymity -- which is quite different.

Rob / Mo said...

Very well written. It touches the metal wrangling that particularly ties up anyone enjoying Second Life as a creative medium (which is the best part, imho) over those who treat it as a 3d MySpace, or for that matter, LinkedIn.

It has been fascinating watching business-types consider the value-proposition of pseudonym and/or anonymity as a creative vehicle and the implications for business and learning while the creatives reveal more of their day-to-day selves to others through their avatar creation.

I remember the first time my wife posted a photo of the physical me on our land. She made no distinction between her physical self and her avatar. I laugh now at my reaction of panic based on one of your points, that feeling of not measuring up to your avatar. My wife's appearance makes the best avatar look silly, which might be why. Not so for me.

I was naive. Since then, Mo has taught me more about myself and walked me down the path of self-actualization more than any shrink or guru ever could. As you so beautifully and satirically capture, we grow to accept and find places within ourselves for our creations as well as answers for who we are.

One of the biggest truth's I still have trouble accepting is that people will dismiss you for facts about the physical you that cannot be changed, race, age, ability, even gender. That will always remain a dilemma. But ultimately I concluded I would not care to befriend people who would make such prejudgments and assumptions in the first place. That remains a very real hurdle for the majority of those active in SL. But suggesting everyone should do or think as I is every bit as wrong as those prejudging in the first place. So I won't. ;)

Chestnut Rau said...

/me stands and applauds. Well said.

sororNishi said...

yes, very true...

I have not found that everyone wants to know, tho, my "real" identity, some people would rather not.

Ask before you tell...might be sound advice.

Cindy Ecksol said...

@tateru: Yes, I absolutely agree. I've met several of my avatar friends in RL now and haven't had any trouble recognizing them right down to being able to pick them out of a crowd even though I'd never seen a photo. And I agree on the "pseudonymity" vs. "anonymity" thing too. I think it's close to impossible to behave as someone so different as yourself as to be unrecognizable for any length of time. Unless maybe you're psychotic :-)

Anonymous said...

Over time, people become who they pretend to be.

Camilla said...

My closest SL friends know my actual world self. We talk in Gchat, Twitter, email, on the telephone, and in some cases, even share holidays together in the physical world!

It is not something to do lightly however, because there are a lot of people out there in the world (SL and RL) who are not who they seem, and you must be careful. I knew my friends in SL for 2 years before sharing personal information such as my name, or meeting in person.

In order for SL friendships to deepen, you do reach a point, I believe, where you need that trust level of knowing each other outside of just what you see in SL. Trying to constrain a friendship strictly to SL eventually leads to stagnation.

Interesting blog post. :)

Unknown said...

It's been my experience that openness right from the start avoids many of the problems addressed.

Dale Innis said...

Very interesting subject! I wonder how much this applies to close personal relationships in general, and how much of it is specific to (to use a phrase that we're all avoiding saying) romantic love relationships, especially the officially-monogamous virtual-marriage kind.

I have friends in Second Life who I consider to be close personal friends, and whose RL identities I know little or nothing about. And that doesn't seem to me to be any problem. We are friends because we enjoy each other's company, because we laugh at the same things, because we understand (or enjoy coming to understand) each other's in-jokes, because the exchange of thoughts and ideas between us is deeply rewarding.

I don't care if they're male or female in RL, young or old, blue or green. Why should I? It's useful to know what timezone they're in :) and sometimes we talk about RL things, the weather, happenings in our respective nearby cities, and so on. But if it turned out that they'd been doing some protective masking there, and talking about the weather in Duluth when they're really in Peoria, I wouldn't feel angry or betrayed.

Friends are *friends*, darn it, and if they feel they need or want to keep some information private or obscured for their own reasons, being a friend imho includes being understanding about that, and letting them have that choice and that space, and assuming that there's some good reason behind it.

I've never had a personal relationship in SL come to a bad end or otherwise turn unhealthy because someone (either me or the other person) insisted on pseudonymity, and I have a hard time imagining it happening, for the reasons I give above; friends are allowed to keep up whatever barriers we're comfortable with.

Of course we're also allowed to lower whatever barriers we want to lower :) and I've had close friends eventually tell me RL things about them that they generally keep hidden, and that's a lovely feeling of trust and closeness. But I don't think that means that all barriers must always be lowered for a close personal relationship to be a healthy one.

On the other hand I *have* seen people (all too many people) get into what they thought of as virtual marriages, nominally monogamous, exclusive, trust-me-with-everything sorts of things, where barriers have come to be a problem. In that case, where either implicitly or explicitly each party is promising complete openness to the other, then holding back on that promised or expected openness can be an unhealthy thing.

Maybe because I myself amn't looking for a life-mate in SL :) I think it would be good to distinguish between things that are true of close personal friendships in general, and virtual marriages in particular. And my current feeling is that "pseudonymity is unhealthy" may be true of the latter, but is not particularly true of the former.

Anonymous said...

[nods in agreement with Dale]

Thank you, Dale, for that. You've managed to address my issues with the original post.

I think there's a fundamental difference between relationships where those involved are discussing and dealing with in-world matters, versus those where helping the partner deal with FL issues and giving emotional support related to those issues.

I think both are valid, and both have their merits. My relationships in-world are primarily based on in-world events and the thoughts and feelings that spring from them. I never felt any need to disclose, because it was largely irrelevant to my experience, and because the other people involved had the same philosophy as me.

I know others here use SL as a kind of confessional, or a means of emotional support for dealing with FL problems. I won't say that's wrong, although I think it can give rise to the "unhealthy" relationships that Botgirl is talking about a lot more often if you're not careful.

I want to share something from personal experience now...

I feel that very real and lasting FL friendship *can* be built out of in-world experiences.

Since I've "left" SL, I found there were people who I didn't want to lose touch with. I've been doing a lot of artistic expression in FL since retiring, and the desire to share those things is just too strong to suppress.

The people I've been with my whole time here, and have gotten through some hard *in-world* times with, our humans stay in touch. In *every* case this has turned out well. The tenor of the relationship may not be the same, but the quality is. Maybe I'm just lucky, but I don't think so.

Friends are friends, and in most cases I think if you *really* get to know an *AV* well - and I'm talking about living, working, and suffering together, not just woo-hooing at a dance club - then you know a *lot* about their human. Bad people just can't fake being good forever, and good people are good whatever incarnation you see them in.

[gets down off the soapbox and fades back into the crowd]

Botgirl Questi said...

Thanks for the great comments! I have more questions about this topic than answers. As a matter of fact, my main "answer" is to keep questioning our own actions and beliefs.

Responding to some of the comments (in reverse chronological order)...

Dale: I agree that it's helpful to distinguish "classes" of relationships when thinking about what level of disclosure makes sense. And I think it's not just a question of "why" disclose, but also "why not." I'm a pretty private person in general and also an introvert, so one reason for me not to disclose is simply to limit my points of interaction. On the other hand, there are a couple of fairly long-term and consistent online friendships I've developed that have led me to WANT to share personally identifying information over the course of conversations.

I've personally dodged the whole issue of romantic relationships, because I'm totally and ecstatically committed in that area. But I can't for the life of me imagine being in love in in a virtual relationship to the degree I've hear people express it, and make the choice to not disclose RL information and meet in the flesh. But that's just me.:)

Serious: I'm all for being open from the start from a perspective of my thoughts and feelings. But not open with my human identity. But that's because I value the adventure of public pseudonymity, which would be quickly killed if I wasn't very selective about who I revealed it to. That said, I realize that once I let the cat out of the bag a month or so ago, it was only a matter of time before at least some identifying details start to become easier to find.

Princess: I like your thoughtful approach to your decision-making making process about personal disclosure.

Tateru: It's good to hear of your positive experiences (which I assume means the absence of stalkers), especially since your virtual identity is so well-known.

Cindy: On one hand I agree with you that it would be hard to maintain a character that was vastly different than one's standard human personality over a long term friendship. That said, even in long-term offline relationships, sometime people suddenly expose a strong aspect of their character out of the blue. That's usually when some repressed trauma from childhood comes screaming out of the subconscious.

Soror: For sure, on that some people don't want to know. I don't want to know in most cases. :) But again, that's my introversion for the most part. In the few cases I've disclosed identity, I've asked first.

Chestnut: Thank you! I was a bit nervous about this post because I thought it might strike a nerve that some people would find offensive. But since this was mostly a personal disclosure and thoughts around my own experience, I decided to throw it out and take my chances.

Rob/Mo: Thanks for sharing your journey! A good spouse is worth his or her weight in diamonds. I agree that there's no ONE RIGHT WAY for everyone, with the exception of trying to maintain self-awareness.

Raven: I have a love and hate relationship with words. "Real" is a doozy. I take it you were using it as a pun, but I think it's a touchy word to many Second Lifers when it comes to rating a relationship. Since up until a month or so ago I was 100% NO on any disclosure I avoided the dance you describe. I'll see what kind of mess I've gotten myself into by letting on that it's not an absolute anymore. :)

Anonymous said...

Nods in agreement and shares that I can see the merit in both sides of this. But as I've thought through this, it really always comes down for me to authenticity ... whether authenticity means sharing FL info I'm not certain. But I do know that for me authenticity means being who we are at the core, whether inworld or in FL, in avatar or out. That seems to me to be the heart and the health of the matter. I agree with Dale and Argent that friends are friends because we accept each other, share with each other (all the way through the good and the not so good times), and celebrate each other from the fundamental depths of our value system and character. It's from there that trust is built and sustained. As Argent so eloquently put who we are can't be faked forever. In many ways, I always sensed that's what you're getting at too, Botgirl. For me, your post and your point are both about authenticity because it's from there that trust and health spring.

Unknown said...

I'm just going to comment on a specific portion. I believe Pseudonyms provide anyone with the ability to become named what they choose to be named.

When people are born, our parents give us our first name, and we adopt the family name... and sometimes society laws (like marriage) allow the name to be changed.

Since when has it a bad thing to drop your birth name, and take on a name you feel more fitting?
Malcolm X did it, Muhammad Ali did it, and Madonna did it.

In my opinion, everyone can name themselves whatever they want, and it should be acceptable. Not everyone is trying to scam when they adopt an alias. Instead, by having a pseudonym, it allows people to choose the name(s) they want in life.

Anonymous said...

Responding to some of the comments (in reverse chronological order)...It's ok, Botgirl, you can say "all but one of the comments" ;)

Botgirl Questi said...

Hey Argent: I started on the reply before you posted and didn't refresh :)

Anyway,it's so good to hear from you and I'm glad to hear you're doing well! I'm also intrigued about transitioning some of your SL relationships to your atomic life, especially since your Extropia family was pretty much the poster child for extreme immersionist philosophy. I'm so happy that you've had the courage to make your relationships more important than the philosophy!

Botgirl Questi said...

Michele: Authenticity, for sure! That was really the tipping point for me...when my roleplay as Botgirl began to feel inauthentic within the context of developing friendships.

Botgirl Questi said...

Doubledown: Hey, my Twitter buddy finally made it to my blog! Welcome. Great point about giving people the space to move on from the birth name they didn't choose. But in the context of this discussion, psuedonymity = consistent name + secret human identity.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hey Argent: I started on the reply before you posted and didn't refresh :):)

I'm so happy that you've had the courage to make your relationships more important than the philosophy!I've thought a lot about that. I think the more positive aspects of the philosophy remain true, but over time the negative parts have fallen away. Like the people and the relationships, it has evolved, but the core remains the same. We're still free to be what we want, provided we don't deceive, that hasn't changed. not entirely relevant to the conversation at hand. I'll save further musings for a post of my own...someday.

Marly said...

For me, it depends on the intention of the person; are you in SL to indulge in your fantasies and behave as differently as possible from your OL (Other Life-to me, all of it is part of my reality) self or are you there to extend the possibilities of your conscious self? I came to SL to carry my creative abilities further by seeing what I could do in a new domain and to reach more people free of geographical boundaries. I never disguised my OL identity and even have a picture of myself in the FL tab of my profile. Some of my friends, however, came to SL to experiment with behaviors and lifestyles that are very different from their every day personae. For these people, maintaining an anonymous identity in SL is important.
However, this does not make our exchanges or caring for each other any less authentic since we are discussing stuff that matters deeply to each of us and people reveal themselves by the manner and depth of their chat. I know very few people in SL who are not willing to confide in me once they experience my openness about myself.

Kanomi said...

There are many personal and professional reasons why someone would not want their rl name compounded with their sl identity.

I realize you're talking about private sharing, not a public outing, but in reality there is no such thing as a secret between two people, and for some of us that risk is just too much.

Botgirl Questi said...

Kanomi: For sure! If public disclosure is likely to create serious negative consequences in one's personal or professional life it sure makes sense to be very, very cautious about letting anyone in on the secret. My only question is whether you're sure there would be tangible harm done, or perhaps there is the possibility of some unforeseen good.

Moggs Oceanlane said...

Ah. Much better. I like the question "is it healthy" as opposed to "is it real?"

Online identities do allow you to be more creative - or in the case of work/professional pseudonyms, more professional or more of ... whatever. They can help provide a focus and/or allow you to step outside of the boxes and preconceptions others wrap around you.


HeadBurro Antfarm said...

I've pretty much always shared RL info about me in SL - friends know my RL names and location - they share my family flickr and get emails & tweets from the RL me as well as the SL me. I just don't think I have it in me to keep my two parts apart...

HeadBurro Antfarm is me, just with horns and a better bod :)

But then I am HeadBurro Antfarm with a family, job and the ability to eat M&Ms :)

Like in RL, I don't tell everyone everything and like in RL, some friends in SL prove to be less of a friend than you first thought. No biggie.

Good luck, Botgirl - merge your two halves :)