Who am I?
Ever since I first started posting on message boards and playing the few online games I've played regularly, I've had an online identity, essentially a name I call myself in every online thing I've done. I've always used some variation of the same thing, either CombatC or CombatC122, in everything from games and message boards to email and instant messaging. So far, I've found this identity hasn't carried over from one thing to another since no one in one community has ever recognized the name from a different community or game, but within individual communities, it provides me with an identifier while allowing me to remain somewhat anonymous. I even have people I consider friends who know me by my screen name. Generally, I suppose the identity represented by the name is pretty similar to my own since I don't approach online discussions any differently than I would normal ones, but I'm sure the simple nature of being anonymous and allowing me to express myself with written rather than spoken words could give people a different impression of me whether they know me online or in real life. I'm definitely quieter in real life than I am online, and my online friends really can't get to know me as well as they would if they knew me in person. I mostly just talk about pretty superficial things with them, like common interests and random stuff going on in our lives, and I try to stay away from overly sensitive or personal information that I might not necessarily consider so sensitive or personal if I was talking to someone face to face. Most of them seem like pleasant people who I wouldn't mind meeting in a chance encounter somewhere, but I don't think I'd ever go out of my way to meet anyone I only know online.
While the kinds of online communties I'm used to involve pretty simple discussions and the people who continually show up for those discussions, Second Life takes the concept of community to the extreme and actually allows you to design a new life for yourself. On one level, all it's really doing is taking those kinds of discussions away from the context of simple lines of text on a computer screen and placing them in a more relatable, human environment, like a bar or restaurant. Part of the fun of having friends is going out and actually doing stuff with them, which is one level I've found I haven't been able to relate to my online friends as well as my real life friends. Sometimes, I don't really feel like interacting with them not because I don't want to, but simply because I don't have anything interesting to say to them. Second Life is able to give you that illusion of taking your friends out. But then, that's all it is, an illusion. You're talking to people in the context of being at a bar, but is that the same as actually being at a bar? I particularly like Turkle's analogy of main street and Disney World to explain this (Turkle, Life in the Network, 234). An online cafe is a representation of what a cafe actually is, but it's there for a totally different purpose. You may go out to a restaurant to meet friends, but you also go there to eat food, which you need in order to stay alive. Meanwhile, your online avatar in Second Life may appear human, but it's still a computer program. It certainly doesn't need to eat, and yet you can get food for it when you go to the virtual cafe to meet your online friends. But even though nothing in Second Life is actually real, it's interesting how wealth in the virtual community corresponds to real life wealth, exemplified by how money within the virtual world and real dollars are interchangable. The story of Anshe Chung is particularly remarkable (Kirkpatrick, It's Not a Game, 3). I can't imagine having that much money and being an employer simply because I'm doing well in what amounts to a huge online game. In a way though, the world itself is sort of like an avatar of the real world, just as the people are avatars of what they are in real life. Some things are similar, but overall it's a representation of how we wish the world was.