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Monday, February 11, 2019

Trust and Transparency: Digital Citizens share about the edge of Real and Virtual Worlds

Shiny Journo Reporting Twitter: @ShinyJourno

artwork by NarayanRaja

Many issues of digital life are explored in the film “Ready Player One,” based on the novel of the same title written by Ernest Cline, and brought to cinematic life by Steven Spielberg and Industrial Light and Magic, not the least of which is the blurry yet inherent line between reality and virtual reality. In a pivotal scene which takes place deep within a digital multiverse, two fantastical avatars swim and dance with each other in a zero gravity ether at a digital disco called he A.V. Club.

While these two avatars share this intimate occasion, their physical selves, existing in a seemingly failed reality, are enmeshed in technology which enables the virtual moment, and they experience it through this projection and are given a respite and much more. But soon the boy behind the avatar Parzival, overcome by his romantic feelings for Art3mis, risks everything when he does what many fear in this world to do.

"So, I've been thinking. Maybe it would be cool if we met up in the real world," suggests Parzival.
"No, you'd be disappointed," Art3mis replies cooly.
"No, I wouldn't. I would like you," he retorts.

"You don't even know me. This isn't what I really look like. This isn't my real body or my real face," Art3mis somewhat pleadingly answers.

"I don't care. I wanna know your real name," he says in a more serious tone.

"Stayin' alive, stayin' alive ah, ha, ha, ha" by the Bee Gees pumps from the digital sonic temple while they do their levitation-dance. Parzival hesitates, knowing that he will pass a point-of-no-return if he speaks and yet still crosses a line and simultaneously opens a door. He blurts out, "My name's Wade."

"What?!" Art3mis asks in a tone of shocked disbelief at his admission.

Of course, a villainous mercenary, i-Rok, who has them under surveillance, overhears this and with little empathy and a lot of condescension says, "Well, Buckaroo blows it. Shocking."

Then Parzival (and/or Wade) continues, not understanding the rhetorical nature of her question. "I said my name's  . . ."

"Stop!" Art3mis demands. "Are you crazy?! You don't tell anyone who you are. You can't use your real name!"

"You're not just anyone." Parzival pleads, lost in the moment.

Art3mis pushes back, "You don't know me. You don't know anything about me. We've never met."

"I do know you Arty. I'm in love with you," Parzival says without reserve.

At that moment the antagonist's goons, the Sixers, explode into the room with guns blazing and the heroes are forced to shoot their way out. Meanwhile, Parzival's secret identity is passed on to the nefarious who plan to leverage this knowledge over him in the real world. This scene captures anxiety that all will experience in digital life.

The line that separates real life from virtual life is as much a connection and a path as it is a border. The promise and perils of digital identity create a range of choices and responses, raising the concern as to how much personal information is safe to share across "real life" and the virtual one.

Asking citizens across the grid how much information about real life is safe to share in Second Life reveals opinions and advice that is wide-ranging. Most suggested a cautious approach built on trust, but even that trust is tempered more often than not.

"I have shared personal information with others after a few months of knowing them, and others a few years.  It's a really touchy subject because you never know. You kind of have to trust your gut in most situations. I am a very private person and when I share my personal information I have to know that person is safe," one long-time resident shared.

A resident of 10-years and business owner said, "Very little (personal information should be shared) and it's a challenge to not do so, particularly in close relationships. Keeping in mind that everyone is an angel in the beginning and it's only later, if things go badly, that there is (a) reason to regret sharing too much."

Another resident of 11-years, who manages a SIM, and details high-quality and provocative appearances for her avatar states, "Most everything, even my address, and real-life Facebook if I know the person very very well. But I am extremely wary of most people I meet randomly online and that info is not easily given. Especially if they are asking a lot of real-life questions."

Many residents revealed the intentional and prolific cross-reality aspect of their work and play, explaining how more transparency and openness is useful to their work life. Through education and media literacy, these users actively move their relationships and communities from a fear-based reaction to a proactive model, one where digital citizens make conscious choices about privacy and transparency in order to empower and enrich their lives inworld and out.

These people are real-world artists, professors, counselors, musicians, and business people who use the virtual world to expand their network and exposure in hopes of sales, growing audiences, sharing knowledge, resources and collaboration. How do they manage “crossing the line”?  Their confidence seems to arise from their etiquette. These users generally keep a positive presence online, are responsible users that keep others’ confidence, abide by terms of service, never forget that virtual spaces that seem private are still essentially social networks, and conduct themselves accordingly. They behave professionally and build brands that are at the same time personal, often supported with blogs, websites, and resources linking their real and virtual identities clearly.  This strategy they hold closes the gap and builds trust with those they encounter or choose to engage.

In a thread in the lifestyle & relationship category of the official Second Life Community Forum, resident BJayy posed a similar question in 2011.  "How much do you mix your RL with your SL or do you prefer to keep the two totally separate? Is that even possible?"  The answers here ranged from "no information at all" to "I'm an open book!"

Resident Bree Giffen in response to the thread’s variety said, "I categorize people in SL in three ways: the roleplayer, the average gamer, and the facebooker. The roleplayer is someone who is completely playing a character.  The average gamer is someone who chats as they do in real life, pursues things that interest them, acts as they would in real life, and generally are just playing SL to enjoy it. The facebooker is exactly like the average gamer except they are playing with their real-life information tied to their avatar and want to know the real-life information about others."

Knowing or being ignorant of what kind of users we are and how we are moving inworld at any moment seems to be a fault line of missteps and drama. Pamala Clift is a teacher and the CEO of Virtual Handhold, LLC. In a lecture called “State of Being” about "Avatar Perceptions" which she has shared extensively inworld over the years, Clift helps others understand this potential rift she sees as a "conflict of perspective" by categorizing three types of viewpoints: immersive, augmentative, and disassociative.  

Slides from her lecture (available on her website) define describe the characteristics of the three aspects. Some qualities of the immersive user are more intense care and concern for the virtual environment and other virtual beings, deserving of as much care as any physical reality, whereas the e disassociative user sees it all like a cartoon without consequences. The augmentative generally uses the virtual world as a place of social value and consequence, but also a tool that can be utilized and put away. Clift also argues that users can change or possess all of these perspectives, that they are all valid, have a purpose, and have advantages and disadvantages.

 artwork by NarayanRaja

From these models, the intention driving the sharing of personal information (or not ) across the digital divide varies as the disassociative troll might hide behind anonymity to avoid real-world consequences to their abusive behavior, whereas a harmless roleplayer may choose a veil to enhance a therapeutic and/or playful fantasy.

Preventing drama associated with mixing real and virtual worlds is a question of perspective and that includes each one's idea of what is a drama. Saoirse Heart, a SL resident for five years, journalist and travel blogger has no problem sharing personal information after trust is gained and has several friendships that have moved from virtual to physical life. She sees the digital divide as an arbitrary one and challenges the "no drama" profile cliché asking, "What IS drama?  That is really key to this question. Some SecondLifers use the word drama to mean they should be able to behave poorly and the recipient of the behavior should suck it up. But really drama means exciting or emotional experiences, yet what is emotional to one person may not be to the other person in the exchange. My daughter was concerned about my time in SL initially and she wanted to visit SL. She did and then told me she wasn't worried anymore. That is the closest to "drama" I have experienced. Drama is created by two or more people.  That means that all share ownership for the event/experience. It has been my experience that those who cry "no drama" are the ones the least likely to take ownership for their part in an emotional moment."

As the film Ready Player One  
culminates, the protagonists known as the High Five including Art3mis, Parzival, Aech, Sho, and Daito are all drawn into the fray that has escalated into the physical world. They join forces physically, and in doing so, their real faces and names are shared. Now known now to each other as Samantha, Wade, Helen, Zhou, and Toshiro, together they spoil the villain’s plot of domination. and the real world consequences that an evil corporation has set to control and oppress the Oasis, the virtual world that has become the center of life. Even with their actual faces and names revealed, their united friendship and heroic selflessness, in either real or virtual, masked or transparent, is the reality that bridges all the worlds and saves the day.

Second Life Community Forum Link:
Avatar Perceptions Lecture
Virtual Handhold, LLC
Ready Player One Official Movie Site
Ready Player One Wikipedia


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