On Second Life and national identity

One aspect about a virtual world like Second Life, where there is no common mythology imposed on residents by those running the world (literally:-), is that this clean slate offers some fascinating insights into the relative malleability of the many components that make up a person’s identity.

When people create avatars for anonymous use they will probably experiment with some aspects of their looks and their behavior. In terms of appearance, they might change their sex, size, skin color or dress code, and in terms of behavior, they may change sexual orientation and/or shed their inhibitions.

But some aspects of people’s identities seem to be harder to let go of. Not many people seem to switch nationality or religion. Come to think of it, not many people I know seem to change their ethnicity either.

There are several possible explanations for this. Maybe it’s harder to fake being Swedish or French if you’re not. Language is clearly a challenge: You can’t rummage about in your inventory for Swahili and try it on.

But even in the case of religious affiliation and ethnicity, these identity traits don’t seem malleable. I suspect it is because the real-world common mythologies that underpin these identity components are so strong that they bleed into Second Life.

One way to judge the relative strengths of identity components is to look at which ones people spontaneously choose to organize themselves by in Second Life. We’re not just talking folksonomy here, but auto-folksonomy — those attributes we spontaneously pick to describe ourselves to ourselves.

Here, it’s clear that nationality is one of the most persistent self-organizing principles in Second Life. There are national “watering holes” for a good number of countries — Sweden has Second Sweden, of course, but also the Belgians, the Dutch, the French, and many more have a place to fraternize.

And in many a conversation with new Second Life acquaintances, my avatar has been asked where I’m from — and never if I am actually a tall white bald well-built male (all except one of those attributes is true:-). The nationality question, in Second Life as in real life, seems designed to get a quick fix on people, because the answer is hard to fake for long, and because there seems to be so little interest in faking it.

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