One January night in VRChat, something peculiar happened. Suddenly, a red and black robot avatar dropped to the ground and began to convulse. While VRChat is described as a meet-up-chatroom-esque virtual world, it’s worth remembering all of its characters are very real. Concerned, a Pokémon, leprechaun, and skeleton — among other avatars — ceased their activity to examine what was happening. The robot didn’t stop, unresponsive to the other players’ worry. Thoroughly evident due to their motion-tracking gear, the robot, and its controller, were having a seizure. With no name, no location and no context to what was happening, bystanders in this virtual reality watched helplessly. Fascinatingly though, despite the reputation VRChat received at the time for sophomoric behavior, the onlookers here all knew, there was a real person behind this robot avatar.
As 2018 begins to unfold, not only are we still faced with the same unanswered questions in respect to online identity, but now we face a new set of challenges — those regarding identity in social virtual realities. With a swift surge in popularity for VRChat, a new Directorial-hire at Facebook’s developing Spaces VR, beta-testing underway for Linden Lab’s Second Life VR project Sansar, and anticipation for Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the VR adventure Ready Player One, social VR is confidently slated for its introduction to the mainstream this year.
As social VR ventures swell in prominence in 2018, an opportunity arises, one to revisit the seemingly-tabled conversation on how we approach identity online. Concerningly though, there is deep-seated disagreement on how to fundamentally approach this play, without proportional active discussion. Today a new playground is being revealed; a scene unwitnessed in all of human history. With our platforms and tools, never before have we had this much power to stretch, tear and mold our identity so easily. The “self” is witnessing radical metamorphosis. This incredible moment allows us to not just review how we’d like to further shape our existing platforms, but also how we’d like to imagine our new ones.
Most foundational to this entire subject is the debate between verification and anonymity. Some platforms like Facebook and Google promote a real-name policy, anticipating their users are precise representations of the physical beings creating their accounts. Then there are pseudo-anonymous platforms like Reddit and VRChat, with less personal verification — allowing users to create sometimes multiple accounts more loosely attributed to their physical being. On the other end of the spectrum are platforms like 4chan, requiring no authentication, intentionally allowing communication without any ties to a user’s physical being. Along this continuum, online social platforms — traditional and those in VR — have adopted a variety of ideologies of what identity means, consequently producing a variety of spaces and experiences.
Mark Zuckerberg touts the philosophy of a single identity, and even goes as far to claim, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” In early 2018 he acquired a company specializing in government-ID verification and doubled down on his dogma. Chris Poole, the Founder of 4chan, which allows far more behavioral freedom, believes Facebook is approaching identity all wrong. “Individuals are multifaceted”, Poole clarifies. “[Facebook] would have you believe that you’re a mirror, but we’re actually more like diamonds. Look from a different angle, and you see something completely different.”
Our projected personas in social VR however is a fascinating departure from how we discuss identity on platforms like Facebook or Twitter. Since VR users actively embody the representations of themselves, we’re faced with a new set of conditions. With the ability to physically control an avatar with a first-person POV, the intimacy between our physical and VR selves is radically different from the relationship between our physical self and say, Reddit self. As the founder of Second Life, Philip Rosedale admits, “Translation of identity into VR is amazing. No one’s ever understood it. We still don’t understand it. It’s still unfolding as a story.” This is a radically new idea of how we approach identity, which begs further discussion.
Not only is there vast debate regarding the qualities of our identities, but there’s also more intricate speculation surrounding the quantity of our identities. As Sociologist Erving Goffman and more recently Mike Rugnetta of PBS put it, “We’re different people, in different places, at different times.” Or in other words, we think and behave differently on each platform/stage, largely dependent upon the audiences before us, and the personas we wish to present to them. As Goffman believed, these performances are critical to our social interactions and our conceptualizations of self. But now, with countless platforms, come countless personas.
To invoke Nathan Jurgensen of Snap, he proposes a “Digital Dualism Fallacy.” He considers our realities and identities online to not be separate from our reality and identity offline. As he explains, “…people are enmeshing their physical and digital selves to the point where the distinction is becoming increasingly irrelevant.” Essentially, we are the culmination of each of our personas online — an idea that does not lend itself to any identity “fracturing.” After all, each online existence is still… you. However, Media Theorist Douglas Rushkoff, offers a grimmer outlook on our quantity of selves online. He proposes the concept of “Digiphrenia” which recognizes the inability to tend to each of our personas spread across the web. He warns that our technologies “put us in more than one place — and self — at the same time”, disallowing us to be truly “present” everywhere.
When it comes to managing our online personas, in VR an opposite problem exists. Rather than having to manage multiple personas all at once which all exist simultaneously, due to the conditions of VR, we can only manage one at a time. This includes our physical reality. After all, when the headset is on, we are confined and our attention, time and energy can only be allocated in a spotlight-like fashion. This new dynamic also deviates from how we’ve been approaching identity online.
In today’s technological climate, we now have reason to not only return to our trite yet widely unresolved quandaries around identity on online social platforms, but also to begin a more experienced conversation around identity within social virtual realities. As we further barrel into this perplexing territory with presumably historic psycho- and sociological effects, mindfulness of our platforms and tools, and their guidance upon our very real psyches remains a priority. Whether social VR is here to stay, or is a mere temporary fad, this flash in culture invites more everlasting discussion.
As the internet is constantly opening new doors to how we approach and understand not only each other, but ourselves principally, from the state of affairs, this is a space and subject worthy of brisk yet diligent re-contemplation. With more deliberation on identity, we can establish safer, healthier, and more productive social spaces. From users and onlookers to academics and developers, let us profit from this moment to study our past to vastly inform and improve our future.
Matt Klein studies the profound effects of the internet on mind, behavior, culture and business while working with brands. You can follow his thoughts on Twitter.