Monday, November 27, 2006

Super Public, Super Sexy

I'm making my Monday rounds of my RSS feeds, catching up on a few long-unread folders. David Hayward, at Functional Autonomy, is running a very interesting series of thoughts on privacy, and transparency, in a world where social networks and online behaviour destroy conventional notions of the public/private sphere.

His discussion of Danah Boyd's apophenia: super publics, and her throwaway comments about sexual privacy in a recent talk caught my attention.

I've recently become an 'expert' in Second Life. By expert, I mean someone who spends time there, actively thinks about the experience, and reads enough secondary literature around the subject (blogs!) to be able to contextualise it for busy media executives in a series of pithy soundbites. So, not especially expert by my own standards (I'd want some kind of PHD in the area to really consider myself approaching an expert in any field), but more than enough expert for the purposes of my job - moreso when you consider it to be an extension of the social aspects of living an internet-mediated life.

When I opened my Second Life account, I had the intention of keeping it very, very seperate from the rest of my online identity. After all, the fun of an alternate existence is playing with the boundaries of your behaviour, and exploring what it might feel like to be a different version of yourself.

Any internet identity used to be good for this kind of self-extension/obfuscation; Usenet of yore was full of nobody-knowing-you're-a-dog. I suspect the compressed, disembodied nature of online communication coupled with the being-someone-else-ness of the online space goes some way to explaining why heated arguments and griefing are more frequent in virtual commons than in real world public spaces. I should incidentally relate that someone-elseness to the disembodiment of the internet experience; the having your head in a different place to the rest of you.

Anyway; it turns out that the ideal position of keeping part of my online life seperate is untenable.

I shouldn't be surprised, really; I'm not noted for public discretion about what would be considered to be my private life*. Furthermore, I suspect that the more 'real' an avatar or alternate identity feels - and that's strongly related to the (visual, rendered, realised, identified) tangibility of the representation - the harder it is to partition off the existence of that self-shard. I think that Danah Boyd probably reached that conclusion well before I did.

Ishi - my current otherself - got off to a wobbly start in the seperation stakes. A comedy misunderstanding between myself and Alice meant my real name got attached to a Second Life product. Picofame followed, and I met a few people in Second Life who understood where my other Mildly Diverting internet identity lived. A friend who only knew me in world* could attach my real name to my avatar after seeing BoingBoing, and use google to find me elsewhere. My notoriety at work as being 'girl who knows about the internet' led to helping out on a machinima shoot for a fairly well known arts presenter, and more admissions to in-world friends about my out-world life.

But why seperate? Well, basically, sex. I'm fascinated by smut; those who know me well** know this. As I started spending time in Second Life whilst on holiday (both literally away from home, and on holiday from the work-play and social work-play of Warcraft) I had the time to investigate (indluge in?) the seedier aspects of the world. It's nothing unusual for me; I've investigated (indluged in!) some of the seedier aspects of first life too; luckily there are few permanent digital records of this though.***

David Hayman is perceptive around the intersection between shame and privacy:
If there?s anything in my life I?m really, actually ashamed of, it usually indicates that I don?t understand it well enough. Subsequent investigation shifts myself around that thing, either eradicating it from me or giving me a more confident foundation in that aspect of myself.

Whilst most aspects of my sexuality have shifted myself around them over time - I'm most of the way through adjusting to being post-gay (or, if you like, have come out and gone back in again) at the moment - there are still some aspects that I feel not exactly shame, but more... insecurity about. These are precisely the areas of self-formation that become attractive loci of exploration in a safe, alternate identity-space; playing with the thing that frightens you renders it powerless. When you couple that with the colourful group of people I hang out with, some of whom are much more concerned with privacy and seperation than I am and trust me not to violate their boundaries, then also consider that I am being asked to expose my online identity in a professional context, it becomes more of a tricky course to negotiate.

It does revolve around trust.

Giving a presentation over the summer, I was asked to demonstrate embedding a youtube video in a blog. I did; this blog sat on the projector behind me. Someone made a casual joke about my self description in the sidebar. Not about liking girls, but about being too serious. Does that person now have significant information about me that might affect my future career? It depends how prejudiced she is against serious people, I suppose; I do not have enough one-to-one experience of the way she thinks (either through talking to her, or through her online presence) to make a decision about the amount I trust her. Ages ago, I demoed Bittorrent to a producer here; my dowload list was rife with smut; embarrasing, but I trusted him just enough to make a nervous joke of it. I gave an adhoc demo of Bloglines to another group of people; they probably noticed the folder of feeds labelled 'smut', but in this case I trusted them all enough that I didn't compulsively make a joke of it. I've joined a few networking groups in SL that might impact on my professional life; I wonder, occaionally, if anyone might raise an eyebrow at the other groups I belong to. Which one do I worry about? The one whose honest reaction I can't judge.

The moments of flustered embarrassed panic I have each time this happens boil down to:-

  • having exposed something that transgresses a perceived societal taboo (etiquette breaches)

  • the potential this exposure might be used against me professionally

  • in ways I might not be aware of in a system where reputation is hidden

  • do I thus trust these people enough not to weild that power over my professional reputation I have just inadvertantly given them in ways that might negatively impact me?

Then, last week, I was asked to demo Second Life to a producer, and also to make a few clips to illustrate another talk. I made an alt, fresh and clean and innocent. But I didn't use her.

Why? Practically, because it was too much fuss to send through money and objects and yada yada. But also because I realised that, you know, Ishi is me now. That's me; the more salacious things I get up to online are probably more fun for being a bit secret and furtive, but shame is probably not a healthy reaction to the situation. It's not to everyone's taste, admittedly, but each to their own. The fact I'm out there enjoying these spaces and playing at the edges means my colleagues don't have to; in a funny way, it's valuable experience. It makes my presence in Second Life authentic. I hope, in some way, that my willingness to expose vulnerability there renders a reciprocal trust dynamic.

More from Danah Boyd:
A reporter recently asked me why kids today have no shame. I told her it was her fault. Media is obsessed with revealing the backstage of people in the public eye - celebrities, politicians, etc. More recently, they've created a public eye to put people into - Survivor, Real World, etc. Open digital expression systems coupled with global networks took it one step farther by saying that anyone could operate as media and expose anyone else. What's juicy is what people want to hide and thus, the media (all media) goes after this like hawks. Add the post-9/11 attitude that if you hide something, you are clearly a terrorist. Should it surprise anyone that teenagers have responded by exposing everything with pride? What better way to react to a super public where everyone is working as paparazzi? There's nothing juicy about exposing what?s already exposed. Do it yourself and you have nothing to worry about. These are the kinds of things that are emerging as people face life in super publics.

I'm not deliberately foregrounding my sexuality in these professional situations, you understand; it's incidental. It's just one aspect of the cloud of data on me, my tastes, my behaviours that is now present for all time on the internet. In that stew of data on me, my sexual life is as weighted as my musical tastes, or my reading materials; it's all noise, just data points and only relevant if you want to make it so. Added together, though, it will probably tell you if I am someone you'd find entertaining to have a chat with in the pub.

It's just crystalised gossip. How terribly, terribly significant.

* Much to my Mother's disgust, and I suspect my father's amusement. Hi Dad!
* I suspect findable on Google due to an unusual nickname, but trying would invade her privacy; this is about my relationship with my otherlives. It's all about me. Me me me.
** And in some cases, for values of well approaching 'met me whilst a little too drunk once, and heard it all anyway'
*** My ex was less lucky. I'm not doing *that* google search in the office though.


Anonymous said...


Also, very very sorry about outing you. Umm. Woops.

Really, really good read. Beer's on me, soon.

kim said...

Thank you. That is a nice Hurrah

(although I have just noticed how terrible my spelling is in it, ugh)

I'll forgive you for the outing. As you can see, it's kind of an interesting experience. I think there's more to come on this subject - I saw a note that Scoble is talking about sex in second life...

Specifically, I need to go back and consult my old notes on Freud and the Fetish, because the deliberate denial of privacy thing is niggling me as a reverse/reversion of fetish formation theory...