Immersionism (and remember, there is never a “pure” form of immersionism; it’s an abstract concept that defines a stereotype that doesn’t exist) thus starts from the following assumption: if all human beings inside a virtual world only have a self (a digital self, in this case) that results from the ability to interact with each other through that very same virtual world, the virtual world itself is the defining element that gives existence to them.
The concept of “existence” is a complex one. There is no doubt that — barring a few ‘bots — we all exist independently of Second Life, or of being logged in or not. This follows from the fact that our physical selves are not constrained to exist only when interacting with others, but that it exists in spite of those interactions. So we cannot say that when Second Life goes down, we cease to exist.
However, we can make that assumption for the digital self. It seems clear that when Second Life is down, the digital selves cannot interact with each other, and thus, by definition, they cease to exist. That’s one reason why immersionists are often strong virtual world evangelists and wish virtual worlds to continue to exist. A virtual world like Lively, when shutting down, caused the “virtual death” of hundreds of thousands of digital selves, who, by losing their ability to interact through Lively, ceased to exist. So continued interaction through digital communication is actually a requirement for digital selves to exist.
However, this cannot be so drastic! After all, if I log off from Second Life, I’m not interacting any more — does this mean that my digital self “dies” (to be “reborn” as soon as I log back in again?)
Certainly not. After all, even if we’re not in touch with our friends in the physical world, we know they exist nevertheless, even in the absence of communication (granted, if the period since the last communication is too large — say, half a century! — we might start thinking that they have sadly departed the physical world).
So although my digital self “ceases to interact” when I’m logged off from Second Life, it doesn’t cease to exist. After all, I still write blog posts when I’m not logged in, and other people read them 🙂 (well, a few do, anyway). People still find me at Twitter. I reply to emails. And even if there are longer periods of inactivity — because I’m busy with something — people still have a notion that my digital self “continues to exist” even outside Second Life.
Now this is a less researched aspect of digital selves — their persistence beyond the digital environment in which they are (usually) perceived. And I might claim that Second Life has indeed brought a slight expansion of the whole concept.
World of Warcraft players usually blog a lot about WoW and they also participate on WoW forums. Thus, in a sense, although they’re just “digital selves” when happily slaughtering Orcs, they persist in the discussion outside WoW itself, and by reading what they write — although we don’t get such a rich visual interface that way — we continue to “add” to the perception of their digital selves. On other platforms, people sometimes abandon their “handles” when posting on forums and blogs — they write things like “John Doe, who in WoW plays the character Drakonian Overlord…”. Many, however, will sign their posts and articles as “Drakonian Overlord” — but there is a limit to how far they can go.
Now take a look at what happens in Second Life. It goes way beyond that. Aimee Weber (closely followed by yours truly) trademarked her avatar name, and all her projects (real life projects, that is) bear her “handle”. She’s the girl with the purple butterfly wings. And she’s “bigger than life” that way. Why?
Consider that Aimee’s work has not been limited to interacting in Second Life. It has far outgrown SL itself — it became her RL job. She participates regularly on conferences and workshops — because her digital self is so rich and full, I can quite well imagine that her business card has something like “Aimee Weber, also known in real life as [insert Aimee’s real name here]”. In fact, several SL residents have, indeed, changed their RL names to become their SL names.
Mitch Wagner, aka in SL as Ziggy Figaro, even comments on that:
In America at least, a person can call themseves whatever they want so long as there’s no intent to defraud, and I expect the same is true for the rest of the free world. Most people never really need to change their names.
So the question is really not “what’s in a name” — although so many are terribly paranoid about pseudonyms — but more about how the digital self influences the physical self.
Consider, for the sake of the argument, that Wagner James Au had never been invited to write New World Notes. Would he be the (real) world’s most prominent virtual world journalist and invited to write a book? Very likely not 🙂 — although he’d continue his career in writing games reviews. However, his contact with Second Life developed his career in (possibly) completely unsuspected ways. And I’m not even mentioning Anshe Chung, of course, who would probably be still living in an obscure neighbourhood somewhere in Germany with her accountant husband instead of masterminding with the Chinese Government to create high-tech jobs in China, designing content for virtual worlds. I jokingly ask my friend Maria Gherardi when she’ll drop her RL job and commit full-time to fashion design, even if it’s just SL fashion design. In RL, however, she has no chance of becoming a fashion designer for RL brands.
But feel free to develop your own list. No matter how “big” or “important” these things are, there is a trend going on, which has started probably in early 2006, and becomes more and more relevant with each year that passes: digital selves become more real than the physical ones. The “realness” comes from the fact that they’re mentioned. Most of us who have posted articles frequently using our avatar names will be quite surprised once they start doing searches on Google, and see how little their RL names come up (try GoogleFight for some fun, but take into account that having a very “normal” name like John Smith will completely give the wrong impression). This is not surprising. For most of us, Second Life is either our major hobby or our line of work, and we spend more time enhancing our digital self than worried about what our real self is publishing out there. We post images in Flickr, machinimas on Yahoo, we blog, we write on forums, we publish on SlideShare… we tweet, we add comments on Facebook, all using our digital selves. This adds up. And, ultimately, the digital self becomes bigger than the physical self. Remember, the digital self is only defined by the amount of interactions it has with other digital selves. The “growth” depends on that amount. The sense of being “bigger than life” comes from an understanding that a certain digital self has more narrative than the physical self (which is certainly true for an incredible amount of SL residents).
One should not be very surprised — after all, pseudonyms like Marilyn Monroe became quite bigger than what Norma Jean Baker had ever accomplished before being Marilyn. And you can think about popular bloggers or YouTube directors who have gone through the same process. Although we only experience their selves digitally — through what they write or the videos they make — they are “more real” than many others who never contributed to the vast Internet, and have interactions with far more people than, say, popular real life celebrities. If the “size” of the digital ego is just measured in how many people know you, it’s quite certain that some digital selves have quite a bloated ego!…
The method through which a digital self actually becomes “more real” than the physical self — in the sense that it accrues from an ever-expanding narrative that encompasses an increasing number of digital interactions with other human beings – is what I actually call post-immersionism: the point where the digital self is at the focus and “spills over” to the physical self, in the sense that the physical self is merely defined as the background for the digital self to thrive.
Delusional? Not quite…