In ‘A Tale Of Two Avatars’, Wagner James Au reports on the discovery that there are two ‘Hamlet Aus’ on the social networking site ‘Avatars United’. Like many things to do with life on the screen, a superficial consideration of this discovery leads to a clear-cut and simple conclusion: There is the real Hamlet Au, and then there is a fake Hamlet Au. However, again like so many things to do with life on the screen, this clear-cut and simple conclusion may not hold true in all cases.
Why not? Well, it all centres on what is meant by ‘Fake Avatar’. The purpose of Hamlet Au is simply to provide one more means of getting in touch with Wagner James Au. It is like his telephone number or his email address. Just as a person hopes and expects to speak to Wagner when they ring his number, they also expect to talk to Wagner when they encounter his avatar in SL or any other social networking situation. In fact, it is probably fair to say that hardly anyone communicates TO Hamlet Au, anymore than a person speaks to their mobile phone. No, you speak to the person on the other end of the line THROUGH the phone. Similarly, Wagner James Au is spoken to THROUGH the Hamlet avatar.
Clearly, then, there is a big difference between speaking to Wagner James Au and speaking to some person pretending to be Hamlet Au. That is why it makes sense to talk about ‘real’ and ‘fake’ Hamlet Aus.
But in what circumstances might this not be the case? The answer is when an avatar is not used just as a means of communication with a specific RL person whose identity is generally known, but when the avatar is a roleplayed character. If you define a fake avatar as ‘some person pretending to be [insert name of avatar here]’ you immediately run into trouble when talking about roleplayed characters, for they are, by definition, some RL person pretending to be [insert name of avatar here]. What is the difference between some person pretending to be a character, and some other person pretending to be that character?
At this point, I want to introduce a relatively new phrase: ‘PrimaryBound’. This refers to the belief that every avatar is tied to one specific human. ‘PrimaryBound’ was assumed by Wallace Linden in the blog post ‘Will The Real You Please Stand Up’, when he talked about all the diverse online worlds and social networking sites an avatar might belong to, adding:
“[Here is] what all these online “identities” have in common. At the center of them all, the hub that ties all these personae together, is the very real, non-virtual, analog and offline “you.” Whether the connections are public or not, your Second Life avatar, your World of Warcraft toon, your Facebook profile, your LinkedIn employment history — all of these and more are just different aspects of a single entity: the person reading these words. They are all already connected to each other, via you”.
But we have already seen in the case of Hamlet Au that an avatar with a familiar name may not necessarily always have the same RL individual behind it. For ‘PrimaryBound’ to hold in all cases, the following statement would have to be true:
‘Avatar X is authentic only when that account is owned and/or accessed by one particular RL person’.
But, why should that be the case for a roleplayed character? The assumption here is that, of all the people alive today, there is only one that can convincingly roleplay, say, Extropia DaSilva (by ‘convincingly’ I mean the rest of the online community believes they are interacting with the person the avatar claims to be). Surely, though, the billions of people alive today should be broken down into more catagories than just ‘the one who can convincingly act the part of Extropia’, and ‘everybody else who never could pass as Extropia’.
A more realistic way of putting it would be to say, ‘of all the people alive today’:
Some would be excellent at roleplaying Extropia DaSilva.
Some would be very good at roleplaying Extropia DaSilva.
… and so on down a sliding scale towards ’some would be hopeless at roleplaying Extropia DaSilva.
Suppose some person from the ‘very good-excellent’ end of the scale were to login to my account or set up an account under my name in another online world or social networking site, and then they pretend to be me. Would the rest of the online community know this is a fake Extropia? Well, why would they? Here is an avatar called Extropia DaSilva that acts just as Extropia DaSilva is expected to behave. So what conclusion could anyone draw, other than ‘this is Extropia’? Also, remember that ‘somebody logging in to my account and pretending to be me’ is the default situation for a roleplayed character. That is always what is happening. Unlike an avatar used as a tool for communication, where you speak to the RL person THROUGH the avatar, when communicating with a digital person you speak to the digital person aka the character that exists in online spaces. While a person may believe they are speaking to the person behind the character, that is not the case in any meaningful sense because psuedonimity does not allow you to model that person in your mind. Think of Hamlet Au, and you visualize Wagner James Au. But think of Extropia DaSilva and you will visualize… Extropia DaSilva, because that is the only identity you get to know.