Virtual identity stress

I’m intrigued by the ever-expanding interest in Second Life. I gave a talk at Interesource with Jo Twist last week and it seems that our gushing prosthelitizing may have met with a positive response.

And then, I read about SL at TrustedReviews via Toby:

How about these for interesting statistics – the percentages are research findings, the hard numbers are factored up to the working population as a whole:- 16 million (64%) of employees don’t believe in what their company stands for
– 15 million (58%) change something about themselves to adapt
– 5 million (20%) change their appearance significantly
– 3.5 million (14%) have modified their accent
– 1.5 million (6%) have concealed their religious identity
– 1 in 50 hide their true sexual orientation

It might not be a surprise, then, that the survey suggests almost one in three workers (30%) feel dissatisfied at work and almost 20 per cent are looking to move jobs.

The survey suggests that the ‘identity stressed’ take their troubles home with them. We are talking about things like low self esteem, poor sleep patterns, poor social life and generally low confidence levels.

Maybe, and this is my pop psychology effort, so forgive me if you disagree, but maybe this is all part of the reason for our increasing interest in online communities.

…Maybe Second Life doesn’t use the phrase ‘Escape your identity stress’, but the inference is certainly there.

Virtual identity stress. I don’t want any of that. I have enough in my offline life to bring more upon me in online space.

But I expect that Mynci Gorky, my virtual persona, demonstrates at least a few of my stress-related offline tics. I don’t see SL as a separate life, regardless of the name of it. It is an extension of my offline self. I’m not alone. Rutter and Smith (1999) argue (via Postmes and Baym, 2005) that people use the internet to “extend and enrich” their lives.


~ by aleks on August 14, 2006.

5 Responses to “Virtual identity stress”

  1. I was there. I responded very favourably, it was fascinating.

    Do you know if there’s anywhere I can read the Rutter and Smith article without being a member of an academic library or even (oh, man) buying the book? Google’s let me down.

  2. Ian – here’s the complete reference:

    Rutter, J., & Smith, G. W. H. (1999). Presenting the offline self in an everyday online environment. Paper presented at the Identities in Action, University of Wales.

    Here’s a link to the pdf:

    Happy reading!


  3. Whoosh! Thanks for the speedy response.


  4. Aleks

    Do you think that Second Life people are experiencing the same sort of interaction as the RumCommers? The Rutter and Smith article is at great pains to point out that they were not describing ‘fantastical’ environments, which Second Life must surely be. Maybe the length of time spent in-world erodes the fantasy element.

    I’ve only been able to go into SL for a few hours, but a lot of the fun seems to be in moving away from one’s normal identity and creating a new one (one that looks like an enormous cat beast or that has a very flat stomach). Do you find that wears off?

  5. Ian – I find yours a very interesting question, and one which cuts to the (evasive) definition of a virtual space like Second Life.

    Firstly, as the creators (and Jo and I) are at great pains to maintain, Second Life isn’t a game, it simply uses a game engine. In other words, it looks like a game but it “plays” more like a large-scale, well-integrated chatroom.

    Secondly, I would argue that most of the people who are in SL aren’t striving to be different people in the world. Sure, there are those who do put on the clothing of giant cats and/or penguins, but these are changes of clothing, rather than changes in the identity of the person controlling the avatar.

    There is fantasy in the range of things one can wear (and indeed, in things that people can do: I can’t fly outside of SL even though I did try as a kid), but the fantasy which Rutter and Smith refer to is most well-represented in goal-oriented virtual worlds, where the _aim_ of the thing is to immerse yourself in a truly fantastic situation.

    That people are explicitly using SL for their offline benefit (e.g., business, extension of interests, politics) further suggests that the environment isn’t wholly “fantastical”.

    Perhaps the fantasy of SL does wear off with time. At the beginning of any interactive pursuit people are keen to find out how far they can push the boundaries and, perhaps, themselves. But I would argue that the preponderance of activities in this virtual world is grounded in offline life. People may explore elements which they may not be free to explore elsewhere, but what they explore is different from adopting a mage, a wizard or a healer character in other online virtual worlds.


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