Art and Exploration, Identity and Expression, Second Life

Creative Destruction: Deleting Avatar Accounts in Virtual Worlds

Are virtual worlds like company towns you cannot leave? What’s the price of just deleting your account and starting over? Have we become so interconnected that we can’t just pull the plug and start over?

There’s nothing wrong with being part of a culture, or even a support group, which is often what it feels like Second Life actually is: a bunch of people with this sense that all of this MEANS something and is GOING somewhere but we’re all king of wavering between absolute faith and certainty and dark despair and a suspicion that maybe we’re living some kind of delusional fantasy of a new reality. We’re in it together, and we need each other, and let’s buck each other up and be there when the chips are down and we’re feeling blue.

But technology is creating other forms of connection that are making it increasingly difficult to pack it up and move on, if we choose, and these connections are facilitating tribal or cultural norms whose implications we may not have fully articulated.

The Obscure and the Practical
When it comes to virtual worlds, I suppose I prefer to dance on the side of totally useless and exploratory compared to the pragmatic and easily understood. I mean, there are tons of people exploring the pragmatic:

“Pragmatic technology buyers will require immersive software to expose and document APIs and provide out-of-box interfaces to enterprise apps, information worker tools, and back-end systems. Pragmatic end users will demand that applications perform as expected and are easy to use, even for the first time.”

But I lean to the side of prims that don’t entirely make sense but that perhaps challenge our notions of space or information design or community or art. I’m not interested in dress codes for avatars, although I certainly understand that you don’t want people showing up topless for a client meeting, in any reality (other than technology or car shows, but that’s a form of virtuality entirely).

And there’s room for both, I believe, because bless the practical and the process-oriented, they’re the ones who get the job done. They’re also the ones I surround myself with at work, mostly because I’m neither practical nor process-oriented but I do see the need for those things.

But let’s be honest: if you’re going to truly explore the potential and promise of virtual worlds you’re also bound to explore its perils as well. If you’re going to push the envelope and try to grasp the enterprise of the future through the prism of virtual worlds, then you’re going to bump head-long into issues of identity and what the ’self’ means. And if you’re going to just hang out in virtual worlds then you’ll also push up against some pretty stunning revelations about love and connection and the tyranny of body or geography.

Pretty mind-blowing stuff sometimes, and in contained doses even businesses can use these insights to quite possibly open the doors to radical innovation.

Welcome to the Tribe
Now, against this backdrop there’s something else, and I call it the shift from a territorial to tribal morality. As we become increasingly connected through the mediation of technology, there’s a return to a morality that is based on the common good rather than our property:

Celia Green has made a distinction between tribal and territorial morality. She characterizes the latter as predominantly negative and proscriptive: it defines a person’s territory, including his or her property and dependants, which is not to be damaged or interfered with. Apart from these proscriptions, territorial morality is permissive, allowing the individual whatever behaviour does not interfere with the territory of another. By contrast, tribal morality is prescriptive, imposing the norms of the collective on the individual. These norms will be arbitrary, culturally dependent and ‘flexible’, whereas territorial morality aims at rules which are universal and absolute, such as Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’. Green relates the development of territorial morality to the rise of the concept of private property, and the ascendancy of contract over status.

So what we have, online, are new exploratory environments in which this tension between the territorial morality that has informed much of capitalism and policy, and the tribal morality which arises from our ability to connect around common concerns.

“I’m Leaving, Now Let Me”
These thoughts come up today because of a rumor that was spinning around last night about the possible departure of one of Second Life’s top content creators/artists.

And bless Bettina Tizzy who is the mentor, advocate, fan, supporter, promoter, and, occasionally, our conscience, because the possibility spurred a plea amongst members of the Not Possible in Real Life group to – well, to not leave. Or if you ever plan to leave, to sleep on it.

So here we have an artist, who is exploring the very boundaries I talk about above. And we have a rumor that they might leave – simply delete the account and walk away. And the immediate reaction is a kind of horror, which I understand, especially when it comes to the person in question.

But I couldn’t help wondering whether the impulse to convince someone to STAY shouldn’t be tempered somewhat by an understanding of how DIFFICULT it can be to walk away.

While I understand mutual support and seek it myself, and I get the drama/emo bombs and have had one or two over the years, and I shudder to think of the loss of art if someone hits the delete key and takes their inventory with them.

But on the other hand, I resist the notion that this is a company town that we shouldn’t leave. That we’re obliged to be convinced, or to get a big group hug, and have it lovingly argued that yes, it’s worth it, one day this will all make sense and have its own rewards, we’re in this together and we can’t disband or just disappear.

Maybe we’ve explored the limits and we need to find new ones elsewhere. Maybe we’ve sat down and made a practical accounting of what we put in and what we get out and decided that the ledger tips in favor of departure. Maybe we just decide that we’re exhausted and need a rest and prefer the feeling of a clean start.

There are lots of reasons for just, well, deleting our virtual selves.

But technology is making it increasingly difficult to depart. I wrote about this in reference to an interview on UgoTrade with Eben Moglen:

“I see again and again,” said Moglen, “The ways in which people now find themselves unable to make certain life choices easily because there digital self has acquired an inflexibility that constrains their non-digital self.

He gives the example of a woman who wanted to close down her mySpace page but was pressured by friends and family not to do so, because they depended on her for the archiving of photos and some other information. As Moglen pointed out:

“Now there is a point that a fundamental decision occurs that she feels pretty seriously about as an individual. But she is being subjected to a campaign of peer pressure to hold her in circumstances that she is not going to like in order to get the photo album back.

Oh we might say oh there are a million other ways to solve that problem you can upload them all to Flickr and get the hell out of there. But what is actually happening she wanted to leave town and she couldn’t.

We have got to understand that when she wanted to leave town and she couldn’t. The digital self was trapped by a fence that the physical self had no problem passing through and moving on from.”

So, while the loss of an artist in Second Life is a loss for us all, I can’t help also applauding the instinct which allows someone to say: I am not bound to this, there are many frontiers to explore, and a benefit of this virtuality is that I can just walk away.


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