Alt! Who Goes There? An Essay by Extropia DaSilva


In ‘Virals And Definitives In SL’ and other essays, I discussed the concept of the ‘Pairson’: A character in an online world that is controlled by two or more people in RL. This lead to various questions, not least of which was ‘to what extent does the character remain the same, if the person behind it has changed’?

A more common challenge to personal identity is to do things that other way around. That is, two or more avatars that are controlled by one RL individual. ‘Alts’, as they are commonly known. Broadly speaking, alts fall into two categories which I shall label ‘Actives’ and ‘Dolls’. Those who have watched Joss Whedon’s TV series ‘Dollhouse’ will recall that an ‘active’ is a person imprinted with a personality that is not their own. An ‘active’ alt, then, is one used for identity exploration. The type of roleplay that gets discussed the most seems to be gender-based: swapping between male and female avatars. But one can also explore alternate political outlooks, social classes, religious beliefs…anything society uses to categories a person as ‘this’ rather than ‘that’.

When they were not actives, the characters in ‘Dollhouse’ were kept in a ‘doll’ state. In this state they had virtually no personality or sense of individuality to speak of. In SL there are many reasons to use alts that do not necessarily involve identity exploration. With more than one avatar at your disposal, you can attend several events going on simultaneously across the grid. Another reason to have a doll alt is privacy. Some residents are very well-known and can be overloaded with IMs from friends, associates, clients etc. Such people sometimes create an alternate identity, tell nobody else who is behind it, and enjoy the peace and quiet anonymity can bring. Scarp Godenot pointed out yet another reason to use a doll alt:

“An alt is a good way to go to a live review of your art and hear the truth”.


It could be argued that dolls and actives are not distinct from each other, but are actually part of a spectrum. Sometimes, Gwyn Llewelen attends events while Gwyn Llewelyn is elsewhere on the grid, attending to business.  ‘Gwyn’ acts, and is treated, almost exactly the same regardless of which account her primary is using. It is the same person in two separate avatar presences.

But what about alts created for reasons of privacy? In RL, it is sometimes the case that an individual will acquire behaviour patterns at work that are quite different to how he or she behaves in private life. So, perhaps it is also the case that a person using an anonymous alt in order to escape the attention their well-known avatar attracts, comes to emphasise aspects of their personality that are harder to express while logged-in as their more famous avatar?

“When I feel like exploring BDSM”, commented Scarletta Ember, “I go to a different av”. Here, we have moved further along the spectrum. Actively seeking out a markedly different experience, perhaps often enough to develop a personae that suits that social group, arguably results in a greater identity divergence than the anonymity a private alt offers. From here, one can imagine the alt becoming increasingly distinct as aspects like gender, age, social class, race, etc, are played around with.

So, at one end of the spectrum, the personality remains virtually unchanged. As we move alone, different