Celebrities are often famous for some specially distinguishing feature they might have. These might just be things they always wear; the colour of their hair; some words they’re associated with (“I have a bad feeling about this” and “I’ll be back”, for instance 🙂 ). The distinguishing feature can be material (i.e. things), related to their appearance, or immaterial, like words they say, attitudes they have, or even states of mind they possess (like always smiling!). Celebrities might age, change with fashion, become more mature in the type of things they do, but it’s not unusual for them to stick to their hallmarks.
But you can go beyond that and see the same thing in common people as well! You might always remember an old aunt by the perfume she wore when you were a baby; a certain hairstyle that you associate to a friend; a colour that someone will always wear on their outfits, a special tattoo… something usually small that creates a distinguishing feature of that person. Very often the person is not even aware of that; in most cases, however, they tie their personality to that “small thing”, and they make sure that they exhibit it where appropriately. Now we shouldn’t read too much into this. Some psychologists might try to elaborate on how our drive to “stand out of the crowd” makes us adopt a certain behaviour — which, as said, can be a thing or something more immaterial that we cling to — and, in a sense, it reinforces our “sense of self” that way. It might be something subconscious that we simply adopt to “feel” unique.
Now this might have either a very shallow or a very, very deep explanation. On the “shallow” side of things, it might just be a materialistic trend (buying something nice that you show off to friends to impress them). It might just be peer pressure (wearing something just because everyone else does). You can also imagine reasons like social constraints (say, an accessory that is gender-specific and that you’re supposed to use no matter what; but you can personalise it to your satisfaction) or showing your membership in a group (like wearing the colour of your favourite soccer club). But on a deeper level we start to enter the realm of grasping one’s identity: you feel, deep down there, that there is little (or even nothing, if you go deep enough 🙂 ) that truly makes you an individual person.
While on a daily base this might not be so apparent, it’s on Second Life that this aspect can truly shine. Some residents are known for the uniqueness of their avatars. This can be shown in several ways that are not possible in real life: from robot to animal avatars, to unnatural skin colours (blue being a favourite one!), specific accessories, and, of course, fantasy styles of clothing. Yours truly always uses a flower in her hair 😉 These aspects of uniqueness are not surprising: avatars, except when viewed very closely, are smallish and have little resolution. Big distinguishing features are good for immediately identifying yourself to your friends and acquaintances — more so than in real life.
For some, however, having an avatar that looks as closely as possible to your real self, is the ultimate hallmark. This has some interesting implications, and some of you might feel slightly offended by my considerations. Bear with me for a moment.
There is a certain class of residents that totally question the above statements. They switch avatar bodies as we change underwear iRL. One day they might be a dragon; the next day, a gorgeous, elegant diva; after that, a robot; and in the following week, just a shapeless blob of radioactive plasma. Second Life allows an immense variety of shapes and avatar types, so why should we be limited to merely a change of clothes? Our self-expression can be manifested through much more than simply a new pair of shoes.
On the opposite scale, of course, are the residents that not only try to recreate their own selves as closely as possible, but that don’t change their avatars ever. They even pick few changes of clothes — and only wear what they would wear in real life. Put into other words, they project their real identity as much as possible to the virtual world, and take pains to reproduce their selves as faithfully as possible.
How do these extremes fit into the model? In the first case, I would claim that these people are beyond the notion of “self” as merely an image (physical, digital, or otherwise), but much more as a process, or a sequence of actions and words. Thus, the avatar-that-is-never-the-same-in-subsequent-days will very likely have a unique way of expressing themselves textually (or verbally). Strangely, this group includes two radically different types. The type I encounter more often usually has a very strong personality, a high degree of self-esteem, lots of confidence, and a strong will. This is consistent with the notion that they care little about how they look, but much more in the way they interact with others. The “look” can be merely a reflection of the current mood; or it’s pure self-expression without any second thoughts about the philosophical implications. In a sense, they don’t truly care about their looks because they have little or no attachment to their physical or virtual image. They don’t see the “self” as truly a property of the body, but of the interaction between minds — even though they might never express it that way, but only feel it on a subconscious level.
The other group is a bit more shy. They are on the opposite extreme: they have little self-confidence and believe in the concept that the visual image (physical or virtual) somehow impresses others to act in a specific way towards them. Now we all know that, as much as we publicly deny it (even to ourselves!), the appearance is important for a first impression. Residents in this group will thus try to adopt an image that is pleasing — or revolting — to the group they wish to fit in (or wish to alienate). Griefers, for instance, often use shockingly distorted avatars when engaging in their activities (the purpose is to deliberately cause aversion), but create very beautifully crafted avatars when sitting among their peers. Others in this group have different avatars to interact with different groups. They might be furries to deal with furry groups; create a Victorian character to run around Caledon; become a sexy party girl to show off in clubs; adopt a business man in a pinstripe suit to deal with “serious” issues (which might be related to their real work or not; it might just be the avatar they use to attend Linden Office Hours). They will also very likely have several alts with completely different types and styles of avatars, and they will easily adopt the fashion, the norms, and the conduct of the group they’re currently in. In real life, they’re the sort of people that change their appearance depending on the group they’re currently in, and will work hard to “fit in” by adopting hairstyles and dressing styles depending on the group they hang out with. These are people that have a problem with their self-image; in their quest for succeeding to fit in a group, they “empty” their own selves and just become a reflection of the group they desire to be a part of.
Finally, the type that proclaim their “real selves in a virtual world” has an undue attachment to their physical bodies. They totally and absolutely identify their (real) selves with their physical bodies; they will very likely be materialists (not in the sense of only thinking about money and property; but rather that they have absolutely no doubts that the universe has an intrinsic, physical reality). In a sense, they’re scared that the world might be anything else but intrinsically materialist. Second Life scares them, because it forces them to challenge their own beliefs: is there really a person behind every avatar in Second Life, and if so, how do you know? They believe that if everybody looked like their real selves this question would not require an answer…
While of course not everybody with a “real me” avatar is in this group (some have several avatars, one of which just happening to resemble themselves, often for the simple reason that their corporate rules require to attend meetings looking as closely as possible as their own physical selves), this group and the preceding one are the most interesting to study, because they will give us a glimpse about the true nature of our own selves, by closely examining what those two groups have in common — and where they so strongly disagree.
But we’ll take a small sidewalk before reaching out ultimate destination…