Remember the human being…

In the past I used to have on my emails a signature saying something like: “Avatars are computer-generated cartoons with human souls”. I remember people protesting and saying “I’m not an avatar, I’m a human being!” (since then, I’m more fond of quoting Philip’s famous saying “I’m not building a game. I’m building a new country.”).

In certain circles this is known as one of the rules of netiquette: “Remember the human being”. Behind layers of anonymity, there is always someone else, with their feelings and emotions, who is typing behind the keyboard.

Why do we forget this so easily, to the point that we need to write it down as a “rule”? After all, we can very well imagine people’s lives when we read the newspapers or even an autobiography; reinforcing “words” with a 3D graphical representation should even make it easier for us to picture that there is a person behind the picture. But we don’t.

Somehow, we are not “wired” to recognise “people” behind electronic communications. Is it as simple as that?

I would say that something else is at play here. Let’s go back two centuries. People wrote to their lovers and put their emotions and feelings in their carefully hand-written letters. They literally “fell in love” through an exchange of mail. This was customary — it was, to a degree, expected. As late as our parents’ time, “love letters” were part of our civilisation.

What did change?

After all, people still claim to “fall in love” in IRC, in the many IM programs, or by sending emails to each other. To this bold claims, most people’s attitudes are denial, dismissal, or a benevolent smile. “It can happen — but not to me.” In a sense, people who say “not to me” are thinking that they’re “immune” to emotions through electronic media. They frown upon the “sincerity” of people communicating through computers.

If you push the issue further, what will they tell you? Almost all of them will say the same: “I cannot trust someone that hides behind a computer. Who knows who is there? How do I know that their feelings are honest and sincere? How can I differentiate between lies and ‘fake’ emotions and a real desire to communicate honestly?”

Why is it so hard?

Why do we assume that an “anonymous user” will always use that anonymity for “harming” others?

I’ve been toying with that idea for a while, and even held a Thinker’s meeting to discuss it, as well as exchanging ideas, concepts, and proposals for an answer between friends, family, and acquaintances. The answers are not easy. When I talk to my brother via MSN, I know he is my brother. I know how he looks like; what he really thinks; I have grown up with him and know when he feels good or bad. Even if his words show differently when he types something to me, I’m quite sure that deep below these words, he is just feeling sad/tired/bored or happy/exultant/humorous. I know all that because I’ve lived with him for a long time 🙂

Similarly, when dealing with my Significant Other, it’s very easy to pick up these “signs” — we can type messages to each other and easily know what the other is thinking, just because we’ve developed a common “complicity”. Mind reading is something we humans are rather very good at. By picking on hints, body language, and subtle, unspoken semantics, we can pretty much know what the other person is thinking.

So, if you know someone very well (in real life), you will naturally “read beyond the words” when they type on a chat box. As human communication goes, we’re quite good at dealing with partial knowledge — our brains compensate, based on previous experiences, what is left unsaid.

Let’s see a simple example. You type to your significant other:

“Hi dearest, how are you?”

and they answer:

“I’m ok.”

What is your feeling about this? Remember, this is your significant other — someone you’ve learned to love for several months/years/decades! If they say “I’m ok” something is certainly wrong, your next line of chat will be very likely:

“Oh, what’s wrong now??”

And you’ll very likely hit on the spot.

Why is it so? After all, your significant other has written exactly the opposite of what they’re feeling! But because you know them very well, you also know that they would never simply type “I’m ok”. They would highly likely ask something in return, or tell you something about what’s happening to them, or anything else. “I’m ok” is just “body language” (in this case, written body language — which is weird) for saying that “I’m busy/bothered/worried/feeling sad/pissed off and just answering you quickly because I’m not really in the mood of explaining it all to you”. With someone that you know truly well, you’ll be able to read well beyond a simple “I’m ok”. You won’t be fooled. And very likely, nine times out of ten, you’ll be hitting on the spot.

We humans are weird, compared to computers. All this “unspoken words” are as much part of ourselves than we think. We are able to communicate large amounts of data with simple keystrokes, because we have shared knowledge. Nicholas Negroponte, in his outdated book “Being Digital”, gives a good example. At a dinner with several people, someone mentions something about a certain Mr. X. At this point, Nicholas’ wife winks at him, and Nicholas smiles. His wife used just one bit of information (a wink) to remind Nicholas that she was at Mr. X’s place this morning, his house was being rebuilt or something, and she had found out that he had misplaced a tool or broken something (I can’t recall the details myself!). All this she had shared to Nicholas a few days ago; Nicholas naturally remembered all the interesting bits of the story, and replies with a smile for acknowledgement. Now only two bits of information have been exchanged between Nicholas and his wife — but how much “hidden information” was in that simple communication?

The answer is: both shared a huge amount of common information. This enabled them to be very efficient in communicating. Nicholas wife did not need to tell him the whole story during the dinner; he remembered it.

In online communications with persons you know well the same applies. You can type something like “Philip Linden sucks” and someone will just answer with a “:)”. You both share a common ground — you have read the same forums, the same blogs, have attended to the same discussion events, and, for all that matters, you have discussed thoroughly why Philip Linden sucks. At the very least you share the common idea that Philip is always fond of saying “Blame it all on me”, and so, if something sucks, he is the one to blame 🙂 (sorry, Philip, this was meant to be a silly example only, no offence intended — and for the record, you do not suck 🙂 )

So, two people who know each other well in Second Life will share a lot of common knowledge as well. This is why I usually recommend people to try to absorb the whole culture and society of Second Life before, say, doing a forum post. We have all a common background to draw from. Sometimes people are in awe at what recollections I have. I remember my first days in SL very clearly. After a month, one was expected to know who was the best clothes designer or the best scripter (it was easy, with a population of around 20,000 🙂 ). If you didn’t know even that, how would you be able to enjoy yourselves? That was how thins were “done” those days.

Let’s see the opposite example. I know people that hate TV, but they still watch it from time to time. When confronted with that apparent contradiction, they simply say: “How will I be able to understand what other people are talking about, if I don’t watch TV?” I usually make surprising sounds when I hear that. But after 6 years without owning a TV, I’m beginning to understand that question. Suddenly, when everyone around me are talking about the latest TV show they watched, I feel like an alien from another planet. I have no idea why the red dress that Sue wore the other day was so indecent; heck, I don’t even know who Sue is! But naturally enough, as 99% of the people in western world watch TV every day, they naturally assume that I should know who Sue is and what she was wearing (and probably emit a fundamented opinion if her dress was indecent or not). But the point is — I have no common references any more regarding TV shows. I simply don’t know. What is so hard for me to explain is why this piece of “common sense” is lacking in my knowledge (“oh, Gwyn, surely you have seen Sue’s dress? I mean, even Cosmo had an article on it! With pictures! It was on the 8 o’clock news and all!”).

I have been through several embarrassing moments like that (when I have to patiently explain that no, I have no idea who Sue is, why her dress was indecent, and since I rarely read Cosmo, I have naturally missed the reference — but even if I read that article, I’d still be clueless about the whole issue; my revenge is, naturally enough, to chat about Second Life with my RL friends who are in SL as well 😉

In any case, the assumption that people need “a common background” to draw upon to fully communicate at a deep level is, indeed, important. I would say it’s the base of the whole issue regarding misunderstandings and miscommunication in Second Life.

Consider the following problem. Mrs. Jane Doe, who in RL works as a secretary in an office, with a very boring outcome in life, comes home at 7:30 PM after another dreadful day at work. Her boss has yelled at her because the coffee served during that oh so very important meeting with the CEO from Japan was cold. Then her best friend was fired for having misused the fax machine — which is now broken, thus preventing Jane to send those crucial forms to the suppliers. Her boss, already furious, yells at her again, and she has to go across the street to fax the forms from a friend’s office. While she crosses the road, a lunatic driving a sports car almost hits her; she is not hurt, but breaks one of the heels. Now hopping on one leg, she comes to her friend’s office, but has to wait for him over an hour — while her boss keeps phoning her on the cellular to “make haste”.

She comes tired and angry to her home. The cat has vomited on the carpet again. Her two kids finally found out how to unlock the drawer where she keeps her felt markers, and have decorated the dining room wall with undeletable graffiti. She thinks about preparing dinner, when she finds out that for some reason the cord for the fridge is unplugged — all food inside is now a smelly mess. Her husband comes home at this precise moment, dragging his feet — things did not work well at his workplace either, and his boss has recommended that he looks for another job, since the company might be bankrupt by the end of the month.

Jane Doe, frustrated, furious, and very tired, logs in to Second Life just to think a bit about something else. And what does she see as soon as she logs in? Her neighbours have put up a giant rotating prim with particle showers all over the place!

Furious, she now engages in very verbal abuse in IMs with the owners of the rotating prim, and starts to post all over the forums on how this abuse cannot go on, and how the f***ing Lindens should start doing something about it, and it’s all because of those d*** FICs that nothing gets done these days, etc. She turns back to SL, and a griefer is now launching a prim replication attack on her sim — which collapses and fails. Almost in tears of frustration, she goes back to the forums, where all sorts of people got seriously offended and engaged in name-calling. “Who do you think you are, your fascist b**ch?” being the general trend of the replies. Torn between frustration and hate, she raises the threshold of name calling, to the point a Linden is called, and suddenly her account does not work any more. “Jane Doe, you are now suspended for violating ToS…”

Now, Jane’s friends know that she is a loving and caring mother. They also know that her husband is incredibly fond and proud of her, and while her job might be boring, she is one of the oldest and most valuable employees there. Her group of friends is sad at Jane, they call her up to cheer her up, and they really feel terrible about her bad day, and invite her to dinner and everything.

In the mean time, the forums are cackling with glee yelling with 60-point-characters “JANE DOE — YOUR FASCIST TYRANNY IS OVER!”. Everybody applauds Linden Lab’s decision to ban Jane, and her SL neighbours create a mock statue of Jane being burned. Rallies and events all across SL announce “Jane Doe — The End of the B**ch”. There is not a single voice to support Jane in SL. She won’t be forgotten, but the decision to permaban her will be told over and over again to generations of newbies.

How different is Jane’s RL from SL! In RL, the next day, her boss will apologise to her. He has known Jane for years, and he will admit that he was very nervous about the important visit from Japan, but will praise her skill in dealing with the fax machine (her friend at the office will get a nice phone call to return; the boss was just “in a bad day”). Her friends will smile upon the good news, fully understanding that there are good days and bad days; they have known Jane for long and know that she will overcome every problem with a smile and persistence. She will find a new cleaning thingy that removes the children’s graffiti easily. And her husband has bought her a new pair of shoes; with a shy smile he’ll admit that probably the company won’t be bankrupt so soon so he’ll still be able to afford a small gift.

But then Jane goes to her computer, and finds out that she is still banned from SL. She cries. None of her acquaintances in SL has left her a message. Not even a “bye bye”.

This is naturally a made-up story, cooked from bits and pieces from real stories. But how often is this true? We forget that we don’t really share a background, a circle of friends, or a job with most of the residents of SL. All we know is how they behave. We judge them by their acts. If our Jane Doe only posts hateful messages on the forums every time she is angry — she will be seen not as a caring, loving mother, struggling to make a living while taking care of her children under stress — but just as a “fascist bi**ch” who torments the forums and the residents. The residents have absolutely no way to think otherwise of Jane; all they see is her “dark side”, the only one she shows in Second Life. This is the only “shared background” she allows others to see.

Gwyn at Rocker's RequiemSo, electronic communications have indeed a disadvantage. We tend to forget so very quickly that we’re being constantly evaluated by our fellow residents. We’re building a reputation — no matter if we really wish that to happen or not. And here lies the tricky bit: we are what others see. Or, as the old netiquette saying goes: “Act like a jerk, and you’ll be treated like one.”

Take an example from the picture shown here. I happen to enjoy to go once in a while to a hard rock club in Second Life called Rocker’s Requiem. It features some of the best rock DJs in SL — in contrast to the usual score of trance, hip-hop, house (and, more recently, eventually some jazz), that predominates in the SL culture (mirroring closely RL in that respect). If someone drops by Rocker’s Requiem, you’ll see a large assortment of vampires — one group that strangely likes hard rock. Now, put yourself in the place of someone who sees that picture — would you do serious business with that person? Would you entrust her the care of teens and young adults for training and education? Would you sign up contracts with her? Would you do any complex land business? Would you give her the responsibility of organising large-scale events?

And why not? It’s just an avatar; the habit don’t make the monk — or does it?

Think again. We humans are very sensitive to “trust with our eyes”. That’s why we take pains to do a good presentation of a meal to be served — after all, if it’s all about taste and smell, why do we care how food looks like? But that’s not how we humans think. Images are very strong a part of our culture. We immediately associate stereotypes with the way someone looks and presents themselves.

Unlike what happens in text-only chat or in the forums — where people only need to act through their words — in-world you get a strong, visual reinforcement. Like iRL, first impressions do count a lot! So, when I’m teaching a class, or doing a presentation, I’m usually wearing some sort of business suit and wear glasses. People associate that image with the archetypical “professor” — and they’ll see a “respectable” person in front of them. I also dress up for meetings with the Lindens — not that they care (by now, they know me very well 🙂 ) but because impressions count. Similarly, when I’m invited to a party — a birthday party, some celebration, or just an impromptu party — I usually ask first what the “dress code” is. Is it formal? Is it casual? And I dress accordingly. At Rocker’s Requiem I’d be laughed at wearing a simple pink summer dress with flowers; at the Help Island, when doing some volunteer duty, I don’t wish new residents to get the wrong impression about me and wear simple outfits (often made of freebies, or from my own, imperfect collections — so I can always tell them that you can get very low-cost outfits or do them by themselves).

We might find it strange (I certainly did!) in a world where changing clothes, shape, gender, or even species, is as easy as slicing bread. But the “easiness” does not influence the way our brains are “wired” to think. We are a visual species, and visuals are what catch our first impression.

The second impression, the one that will last a long while, comes from our actions. You can look like a college professor, but if you type bad English full of spelling mistakes, that “first impression” will be shattered immediately. You can wear a nun’s habit, but if you swear like a whore, you’ll be classified like one. You can have the smartest business suit, but if you cheat your customers, your suit will be worthless — your reputation will go all over the grid in less time than you think.

Why, then, do so many avatars “look” completely different from what the person behind them is? It’s escapism, certainly; and role-playing; and dreaming about what you would like to be. But remember the hints/clues you’re giving away. A scantily dressed gorgeous blonde who talks about TCP/IP or XML-RPC and is as familiar with the command line of Cisco IOS as with the best shops for kinky underwear gives “the wrong signals”. One extrapolates from real life — and let’s be honest, in real life, the chances of meeting someone like that is virtually nil. So you have no experiences to deal with that overlap of visual and textual clues — they are dissonant, they grate on your nerves, and you can’t fit that person in your archetypes and stereotypes.

Some may argue that the whole point of SL is that you can have hard core computer geeks posing as brainless valley girls; or middle-aged housewives, closed at homes without a job and a horde of children to feed, pose as top designers, SL lawyers, or land barons. One thing is being able to do so; the other thing is being able to do that consistently. Unless you’re a professional actor, it’s quite hard to be consistent with the image you present.

Naturally enough, a “veteran” in Second Life will look “beyond the avatar”, understanding it to be childish to label someone just because of their looks. This needs training, too; you need experience to “look beyond images”, and this experience does not come easily, as so many BDSM subs, when they unfortunately found out when their gorgeous master was nothing else but a creep. The examples pile up. How many people do you know that have created their own “cult club” and have rounded up their groupies for self-gratification? What does that say about them? Just that really are (mostly) emotionally immature persons, usually with low esteem, “professional victims”, and desperately needing to be admired. They compensate with living an extravagant style in SL and surround themselves by others that want to bask in their (apparent) glow of “power”.

This is sad… since many will, after a while, see “beyond the avatar”, and find a pitiable human being behind it. Once that external shell is shattered, you won’t be able to go back. SL creates very good illusions — illusions of external beauty that have no internal beauty to match; illusions of power, when it is just manipulation; illusions of knowledge and intellect, when it is just bragging and repeating lies ad nauseam to make it “sound” true; illusions of confidence and self-assurance, when in reality there is a poor excuse of a human being behind the lovely curves of an avatar.

Because we “forget the human being” behind the avatar — those people are able to create their illusions for a long, long time. Some of us are “natural actors” (or role-players) and will be able to maintain long-standing relationships (personal or business) for months and ages, without anyone suspecting who is behind the marvellously designed and tailored avatar. But sooner or later, our acts will catch up with us — and be prepared when that happens. The castle in the clouds will quickly fall in ruins, and there is no way you’ll be able to build it up again.

So does it mean that one should only be allowed to have “RL avatars”? This issue has been brought up over and over again. It is, like everything else, a fallacy. A RL avatar does not say anything about the person behind it. It just gives a first impression, nothing else — it’s not because you have a “RL avatar” that you’ll be trusted more. Imagine that Al Capone had joined SL with a RL avatar — would he be less of a crook? Of course not. As said, the image you present to others can influence the first impression — but it never lasts long. Your “true self” — your good and bad sides, your balance between rational and emotional thought, your altruism and egotism, all these facets of your soul — will shine through, in bright colours, sooner or later. You can’t avoid it — even if you think that “later” may mean several years 🙂 As the old saying goes, “you can fool some people all the time, or fool all people for some time, but you can’t fool all people all the time”. This is true in RL, and as true in SL as well — although so many pretend otherwise!

There is no intention of sounding condescending here. Over twenty years ago, a rather large group of people wrote articles and texts on “codes of conduct” for online communications — the Netiquette rules. And they had some few basic rules of common sense:

The Golden Rule — Would you say it to the person’s face?
The Silver Rule — You’re not in the centre of the Universe!

I have found out that these two have served me well in the past 15 years of online communication.

CC BY 4.0 Remember the human being… by Gwyneth Llewelyn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...