Sunday, June 1, 2008

Your cheating alt: Botgirl's Guide to Living With Lies

A discussion popped up on Twitter last week about the deceptive use of alts in the soap opera known as Second Life. Many readers here have heard (or experienced) horrific stories of betrayal, lust, revenge and greed. I must admit that a few have sent shivers up even my pixelated spine. I'll spare you the gory details now (sorry) and share a bit of Botgirl's Guide to Living with Lies.

Botgirl's Guide to Living With Lies

Humans lie. Online humans in anonymous settings lie even more, especially those who spend a lot of time here. Nevertheless, I think the fear of duplicity is a much more pervasive source of harm than any actual screwing-over taking place. The specter of deception hangs over virtual interactions and relationships like a hungry ghost. Okay, I hear you, my imaginary human friend:
"Don't be naive Botgirl. My boyfriend cheated behind my back using four alts of two genders and three species."
I'm not saying that there aren't plenty of devious, duplicitous, manipulative, calculated lying-through-the-virtual-teeth goings on in Second Life. I'm just suggesting that while some of us are harmed by malicious deception, all of us are negatively impacted by the way the fear of deception plays out in our interactions and relationships.

There has been a lot of good thinking related to the ethics and management of disclosure in anonymous environments, including an insightful post by Dusan Writer, an academic paper by Hyung-Yi Lu and a great body of work by Nick Yee. So instead of trying to add my two cents to the why and how, I'm going to throw out a few little ideas about how humans in avatar form might open their hearts without exposing their jugulars:
  • Enjoy the present without expectations. This one is hard, but well-worth the effort. As I've written previously, there is no telling who is directing the avatar in front (or on top) of you. And you know what? If you are enjoying the company it doesn't have to matter. A lot of the hurt I've heard expressed related to relationships in Second Life seems to be more from shattered expectations (believing one's own lies) than overt deception by someone else. Which leads me to...
  • Assume nothing and ask questions. If you DO care about something beyond what someone discloses, then ask and do not move forward in the relationship until you're satisfied with the answer. Now they are not obliged to tell you. And they can lie. But at least if you are wounded, it won't be self-inflicted. That's some consolation, right?
  • Know what you don't know. Personal interactions in virtual worlds can certainly be authentic when avatars don't know each others' human identities. But our conceptions of even our closest loved ones are mostly fabrications of our own thoughts. As Bryon Katie said, "In the history of the world no two people have ever met." I think that goes double or triple for those we "meet" in the virtual world. Of course, there is a connection between your perception of someone and the qualities they possess. The mistake is to reify them into some solid entity with stable and knowable characteristics.
  • Focus more on what you have to give, than on what you want to get. I'm not talking co-dependency here, but genuine no-strings-attached loving kindness; what Buddhists call metta. W.C. Fields said "You can't cheat an honest man" because there's usually an element of greed involved in a swindle. I think it's just as fair to say that you can't betray someone who is genuinely in relationship from a metta point of view.
My final suggestion dear humans is to lighten the hell up! Out of the seven or so billion people on Earth, you are among the luckiest. If you're reading this, you probably have the resources to spend dozens of hours a week in a virtual world where you can do pretty much whatever you want, whenever you want. You're not worrying where your next meal is coming from or how to keep your child from dying of malnutrition. So if your new online loves stabs you in the back, try to keep things in perspective.

With tough love,


A few observations on Avatar vs. Human test results

First, thanks to everyone who participated! Although I thought it might provide some interesting data, my purpose in throwing this out was as much to encourage people to spend a few moments self-reflexively experiencing each identity. I'd be very interested to hear any insights the experience itself provided.

Although the haphazard methodology and tiny sample size don't allow for any authoritative conclusions, the higher extroversion scores for avatars were fairly significant and consistent as visualized by the chart below.


If real research were done through this modality, it would be interesting to see difference between sub-categories of participants. For instance:
  • Subcultures such as Furries vs. Extropians (are there any furry Extropians?)
  • Casual users vs. those who spend 20+ or 40+ hours per week
  • Business users vs. personal users
  • Human gender including same-sex and cross-sex avatars
If you have any good ideas to add to the list, please post them to the comments section.


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A beautiful thought experiment personified through the imagined perspective of a self-aware avatar. My creator's site can is at