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Class 12: Virtual identities

May 3, 2017

Sitearm Madonna visited DIT in Second Life this week to talk about the origin and development of his online persona. An engineer in the US oil industry in RL and manager of Virtual Dublin in SL Sitearm is glamorous female avatar who happens to be male in RL.

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The glamorous Sitearm Madonna discusses the evolution of his avatar.

A resident of SL almost since its inception in the early 2000s Site elected to inhabit the virtual world in the form of a female avatar from the start. Attracted to the classical Greek myth of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, wild animals, childbirth and virginity but finding the name already proliferating in SL he settled on the anagram. He muses on this decision wondering how it might have been influenced by his working single mother’s life experience, or a simple curiosity. He soon discovered that not only was there a greater choice of clothing available for female avatars but, male associates were prone to bestowing gifts of jewellery.

In the early days of SL communication was via text chat – voice chat did not became available until late 2009 – so there was little to give away the fact that a female avatar might be directed by an RL male. It was only as Site became more engaged with the virtual world in RL, attending conferences and developing a consultancy practice for companies trying to move into SL that his identity became an issue. This led to some colleagues variously being surprised, irritated, embarrassed or unaffected by the revelation.

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Sitearm, left, introduces one of his alternative avatars.

However, men using female avatars and women using male avatars turns out not to be unusual in SL. Women sometimes refer to unwelcome attention from male avatars as the reason for their choice and, indeed, Site also spoke of this. Locks Aichi also spoke of her decision to use a male avatar saying that she grew up as a tomboy and felt comfortable that way in SL having tried female and male avatars. She does have a female avatar in traditional Nigerian costume which she reserves for special occasions.

We also remembered a past student, Box of Chocolates, who photographed herself in RL with a cardboard box over her head and face, sporting hand drawn features, which then influenced her avatar for the semester.

Virtual worlds such as SL, and social media in general, allow us to explore our identities in new ways. This can be an interesting and revealing experience. In Asian Genders in Tourism Rokhshad Tavakoli reflects on how virtual tourism could be used to overcome barriers to travel for Iranian women. But, one needs to be mindful of the impact this may have on others. There are numerous examples of how it can go terribly wrong from the Syrian lesbian blogger who was revealed to be a married man in 2011 to the outing of a white woman who posed as a black civil rights leader in 2015. They were both seen as behaving fraudulently despite their own insistence that they were presenting an inner integrity.

Somehow, the discussion segued into the subject of robots and cyborgs with special reference to Donna Haraway’s seminal feminist text: A Cyborg Manifesto (1984) which challenges traditional theories of the performativity of gender, proposing the confusion of gender roles against the essentializing of them. For Haraway the Cyborg represents the space to move beyond binary codes into more a fluid and dynamic understanding of identity, she writes;

Cyborgs might consider more seriously the partial, fluid, sometimes aspect of sex and sexual embodiment. Gender might not be global identity after all, even if it has profound historical breadth and depth. (P.108)

Within this conversation Site told us about the Museum of Robots in SL and promptly his avatar become a yellow robot, reminiscent of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2.

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Tasrill Sieyes, an SL Resident who made Duchamp’s legendary painting come alive.

This constant merging and morphing of identities throughout the presentation was resonant with practices in the field of Queer Pedagogy which seeks to use pedagogical techniques to disturb and trouble the way social norms are constructed and affirmed through traditional educational frameworks. In Site’s performance, the ‘Dragging’ of identity expressed a creative space between socially assigned norms ie ‘Male/Female’, Drag being the in-between (/). Such performative pedagogies also subvert the traditional role of mastery assigned to the teacher in education, allowing for more constructivist horizontal approaches reminiscent of Joseph Jacotot’s radical conception of Universal Education discussed in the first session.

As an extension of this discussion and as a way to both engage with the ‘making’ potential of SL and to interrogate and question the formation of identity in SL, Glenn suggested we build a robot for our next project. However, given that this is the last class of the module before the exhibitions and presentations on the 17th May, this ambitious undertaking will have to be postponed until a future point.

This last class has really been the wildest of them all and certainly opened up new questions and new possibilities within Second life. The students have been on a creative and somewhat disconcerting pedagogical journey through this project, one which has been challenging and bonding in equal measure. It has broadened our understanding of what constitutes a world in the contemporary sense and how we might act in worlds that are still too new to be fully comprehended, but which might at the very least give us a glimpse of what is to come. Class ended with Site offering a guided shopping tour in SL. This was received with much interest and we closed a most interesting discussion.

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