ALT! Who goes there? – Part 5 – An essay by Extropia DaSilva


I keep chat logs and I sometimes like to review old conversations, particularly chat history between people I love, like my sister Jamie or my partner Seren. When I do, I am struck by how much is missing from the text. Of course, SL is no text-based MUD, so perhaps it is not surprising that a chat log should preserve only a fraction of my past experiences. But, maybe that is not the only reason? I am reminded of an online love affair that Sherry Turkle wrote about in her classic study of MUDs, ‘Life On The Screen’.

‘Peter, a twenty eight year old lecturer in comparative literature, thought he was in love with a MUDding partner who played Beatrice to his Dante (their character’s names). Their relationship was intellectual, emotionally satisfying, supportive and erotic’.
When Peter decided to meet the person behind Beatrice, the relationship did not survive long. He discovered, upon reviewing logs of his every online encounter with Beatrice, ‘that he could not find their relationship in them. Where was the warmth? The sense of complicity and empathy?’.

What Peter was confronted with (as, perhaps, am I) is how much of an online relationship exists in one’s own imagination. In the previous essay, we saw how online socialising can lend itself to projection. This can have a positive effect on self-understanding, but when one’s hopes and fears are projected onto another’s online presence, that can lead to idealization and demonization. Many people have noticed that relationships develop faster online, with an acquaintance blossoming into a lifelong friend, all within the space of one week.

As well as projection and the exaggerated likes and dislikes it can manifest, we need to consider the influence of virtual reality. It tends to be forgotten just how pervasive virtual reality is, since the term is most often associated with online worlds and videogames. But, really, radio, TV, cinema, books and music systems can all be considered forms of virtual reality. And what they offer (among other things) is a way to fill the spaces in our lives and give a comforting illusion of companionship.

Compared to the far more limiting illusion of companionship provided by these one-to-many media, and also in comparison to the very limited forms of interaction videogames currently provide, the much richer and complex social interactions that take place in online worlds can feel ‘real’, rather than the denatured and artificial experiences they truly are.

There is no indication that virtual realities are going to retreat and disappear. Quite the contrary: More and more business and socializing is being done online. This lead one person to wonder ‘why grant such superior status to the self that has the body, when the selves that don’t have bodies are able to have different experiences?’. At the same time, physical reality is not going anywhere, either. Indeed, Howard Rheingold argued that the word “community” is only applicable to virtual worlds ‘if at least some of the people reach through that screen and affect each other’s lives’. Because it can affect other people, the actions we take in virtual worlds can have real consequences, but alts seem to promise an escape from the past.


One of the earliest known examples of identity exploration is the following scene, which featured in a play Epicharmus wrote in the 5th century BC. A lender asks a debter to pay up. The debter asks the lender if he agrees that, when something changes, it is no longer the same. The lender agrees, at which point the debter says this proves he owes him nothing. How come? Because people change over time, ‘so it follows that I’m not the same person as the one indebted to you’.

Epicharmus was playing around with the fact that personal responsibility depends very much on a continuation of self through time. If there was no such thing, it really would make no more sense to punish me for ‘past-Extropia’s’ actions than it would to punish me for something some other person did. In the physically-embodied world, we have little choice but to assume responsibility for our past actions. Part of the lure of online worlds, though, is that they promise that which is not possible in real life. This includes the possibility to present oneself as somebody other than the person you think you are in real life, or to break from your past by dividing experiences up via alts.

This brings us to the other major question: What kind of accountability do we have for our actions in online worlds? Imagine if the debter in Epicharmus’s play had the ability to literally vanish without a trace. Or, imagine if that person had the ability to become somebody else. The debter never suspects that one of those faces in a crowd has a peculiar history with someone who owes him money. This is the dilema that alts present to business in SL. Whenever somebody says they refuse to deal with someone who does not provide RL identification, the immersionist community often howls with indignation. How dare anyone imply we are intrinsically untrustworthy? I think this misses the point. It is not that augmentationists are any more or less trustworthy than immersionists, it is that, if the deal should not be honoured, one person has provided the means by which someone can be held to account, whereas the other could delete their account and disappear. Alts, meanwhile, allow us to disassociate actions from consequences. You could become a Jekyll and Hyde character, acting with perfect respectability with one account, while being a complete and utter griefing nuisance with another avatar. So long as nobody can prove the connection between the two, the actions of one personae has no baring on the reputation of another.

Of course, it would be the worst kind of stereotyping to suggest all ‘active’ alts are griefers and fraudsters. But, then again, if we assume the majority of alts set out to harm nobody, why is there this general mistrust of this kind of identity exploration? Maybe it is simply because an alt designed with treacherous intentions makes for much juicier gossip and headline grabbing news, a point that was echoed by Ordinal Malaprop:

‘Most alts which actually come to the attention of other people… are created purposefully for deception’.

But, what can be considered by ‘deception’? I expect most people would agree that faking an identity in order to steal someone’s money or double-cross them in some way is not a good thing. These are rather obvious examples of bad intentions, though. The more interesting question is whether running an active alt is always an act of deception, even with the best of intentions? The most common complaint I hear about alts, is the fear that you might unwittingly reveal something you never meant to divulge. We all need to let of steam and bitch about our friends from time to time. But what if the person you are letting of steam to should be the alt of that very person you are bitching about? If the primary is running two avatars that are intended to be individuals, your friend may show no indication of knowing any such conversation ever went on behind her back. But equally, it might not be the kind of alt that is so separate from the main avatar. You might then be confronted with a very upset friend.

Stories like ‘Pygmalion’ have an enduring popularity because the idea that we can recreate ourselves and not be tied down by our histories is such a powerful fantasy. Words like ‘fantasy’ imply something that cannot actually happen, but in an online world if you slip into a new avatar with a different name to your main one, and everyone treats you as though you are somebody else, then as far as that community is concerned you ARE somebody else. Should we encourage roleplay and identity exploration not tied down by RL constraints like past history (and accept the possibilities this opens up for lying, cheating, fraud and griefing), or should we push for a unified identity that is tied to a particular, accountable individual (and limit the freedom to experiment with alternate personas and different selves?).

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