Alter Ego on SBS, and thoughts on vocabulary, identity, truth and perspective

wolfie-alterego-smlSo, here I am, watching the Alter Ego documentary on SBS. Indeed, it is still running at the time I am writing this. I’m not really quite sure what I expected. Not the usual sense of regretful chagrin that I’d expect at a documentary on Second Life, because Writer/Director Shelley Matulick is basically a good sort.

Nevertheless, the emotion that most comes to the surface right now is one of frustration.

“Real world”, “virtual world”, “real”, “fake”, “virtual” terms and prefixes are thrown around with little consistency, and make me wince or cringe.

It’s not really anyone’s fault, exactly. The users presented on the program lack the vocabulary to clearly express their experience. They obviously have a firm emotional and instinctual grasp of it, but not the conceptual vocabulary to clearly explain it to others.

For the part of the viewer, the average non-virtual-environment-user, well, without enough first-hand experience or a few doctorates in philosophy it’s really hard to absorb the concepts. Until we take our lives online in a decisive sort of way, we don’t really give much thought to core issues like identity or the fundamental nature of humanity – issues that remain relatively intractable after thousands of years of thought by the best minds that our species has to offer.

With such vast conceptual gulfs, how do you convey the obvious?

Good luck trying to explain it to someone who doesn’t have the common experience of a different perspective. Remember in Sesame Street, they had a number of animations that explained communication? One figure with a series of coloured shapes in their head, and as they spoke, the other person wound up with similar coloured shapes in their own head.

What we lack is a vocabulary to express the colours and the shapes. I tell you that there’s no difference between virtual identity and non-virtual identity.

In interviews with the BBC, I was often asked “What is the difference between virtual identity and real identity?”

The obvious and correct answer is that there isn’t any difference. If that doesn’t make sense, then it’s because you’ve misunderstood the nature of identity itself, rather than the nature of virtual identity.

It’s simple, it’s obvious, and if it doesn’t convey the proper concepts to you, then as a message it’s wrong, even if it’s the truth.

This is why the parable (παραβολή) was originally developed – sometimes a fictitious story can convey more truth than the factual one. If simpler truths cannot be grasped, metaphors, analogies and parables need to be employed. Rectitude is not only in possessing the truth, but in effectively sharing it.

Virtual environments, somewhat paradoxically, tell us more about the nature of our ordinary mundane world and selves than actually living it, because in order to grasp the nature of something very large or very close, you need perspective.

If you’re paying attention, a year of using a virtual environment will teach you more about humanity, identity and gender than 30 years of actually experiencing those things first-hand. If you’re not paying attention, though, it may teach you nothing at all.


  1. Wolfie Rankin says

    Yes, I am always Wolfie, whatever the body looks like at the time.

    When people talk of “real life” I've noticed a tendency to feel that anything online isn't real, that it's always a fantasy… frankly, I don't get it. Tell your boss on the phone to shove his job and you've lost it… Tell him online and it's all just a big joke??? Why don't people see that the internet is just an extention of the phone service?


  2. makomagellan says

    I didn't watch the program, as SBS is temporarily not cooperating with my TV, but the confusion over self and identity caused by facing a new aspect of these concepts is a subject that really interests me, and one I think we have touched on before – certainly the paucity of common vocabulary has cropped up. I reckon it will take much longer than we might think for the conceptual nuances to trickle through, and then eventually everyone will think it obvious, and wonder what all the fuss was about 🙂

  3. I confess I do see some differences between my real life self and my virtual self, but I suppose you could say it's a question of emphasis rather than identity. Being a rat, I try to emphasise my cuteness online in ways I can't do in the real world, but then I do the same thing when I'm in my rat fursuit and even in my human form I've been called cute.

  4. Thank you, Tateru, for attempting to articulate some of what the majority of my friends and I feel. I was terribly disappointed by the choices made in the presentation of this documentary, for some of the reasons you've outlined and a good many more.

  5. lauraanneseabrook says

    Identity is a funny thing, because “folk” ideas about it say one thing (that it's inside oneself, inherent and defines one) but in practise identity comes from a history of one's actions in relation to others, and is multiple and discrete, rather than singular and encompassing.

    The net created new opportunities for creating new (and often disposable) identities. People behave differently when they perceive that there's little or nothing to lose, hence appalling behaviour on newsgroups and mailing lists; hence all sorts of outrageous behaviour in Second Life, where the default is anonymity and the assumption that behaviour there has no consequence.

    I have four AVs which I use to create web comics, but apart from that each has a different role. Elsie was my original and the one I most identify with, and here 'primary purpose' (as it evolved over time) was for socialising and attending support groups within SL. Laurel I created when I didn't want to use Elsie, but now she's the one I build with, and use when creating scripts or other works within SL. Marble was originally a web comic actor but is also used to explore with (and be a Furry). Optimum is solely a web comic actor, but her persona is thoroughly that of a 'mad scientist'.

    Do these AVs define my identity in SL? Perhaps, but by definition they can't in Actual Life. In actual life I am a comic creator (I'm currently working on two graphic novels for my Masters in Fine Arts) but it'd be a mistake to say that I AM my comics, and I think that's a mistake also made in SL.

  6. lauraanneseabrook says

    Maybe “Actual Life” is a better term, then? “Real” is a relative term and it may be that we (as in humans) all live a degree of fantasy anyway, interfacing with the model that our mind constructs of the actual world, rather than an unedited version of “what is”.

    I'm glad you are always Wolfie (I really like Wolfie) but not everyone has such a fixed point of identity. I've been a chameleon in Actual and Virtual life, though maybe that's just me.

  7. Wolfie Rankin says

    I was thinking about this last night, and should say that at no time did they ask me to explain secondlife, or that they intended to… the focus was mostly on personal experience and feelings.

    So there was no “Well there's this thing they call a mouse, and it's got two buttons…”


  8. My life doesn't stop or go on hold when I log into an online service. It's just another thing that I do as a part of my life. Parts of my life are spent online, parts are offline. (This is an online part right now). It's something that I *do* not something that I *am* 🙂

  9. Wolfie Rankin says

    If you were to check my blogs on the History of Wolfie, You'll see that it all begins around 1986… I think that was a few years before I'd heard the word “internet”. Secondlife was mainly a vehicle to show others what was already happening in my mind, and to get everything functioning more or less as I had imagined. Secondlife is a taste, it's very restrictive and if I was able, I'd go a hell of a lot further. but it's merely 2009, not 3126. Someone buy me a TARDIS for christmas? a used one would be fine, I think I could get something out of it.

  10. Lowell Cremorne says

    That's pretty much my experience too, although I find I have different levels of attachment to my avatar e.g. Lowell is me, whereas my WoW toon is just one I play, same for my Metaplace av.

  11. Lowell Cremorne says

    I just checked on Ebay – no TARDIS sorry.

  12. Wolfie Rankin says
  13. Thanks Tateru for your thoughts and observations. It has generated a really interesting discussion. This was a pretty tough film as we were told from the outset that it was for a mainstream audience who may not of even heard of SL or virtual worlds (if there are such people). So finding a balance between dealing with the basics and trying to push into more philosophical ideas was a bit of tug of war with the producers. I agree, it was a missed opportunity for a deeper discussion on many issues. Wolfie and Marko shared so much of themselves with me and only a fraction of what you get to see in the doco.
    the director

  14. I forgot to link to this discussion of identity and SL:

  15. lauraanneseabrook says

    Quite, which is what I said in a separate post.

  16. lauraanneseabrook says

    I found a Tenth Doctor version in the skies near Isabel (and also included a classic control room). However, it was just as big outside as it was in.

  17. lauraanneseabrook says

    I found it much better than other docos I've seen on SL, which focussed on online romance and how that broke up families. After those were shown on public TV, there was an inrush of new AVs looking for cybersex!

  18. lauraanneseabrook says

    I came across Furry fandom back in 2003 when I traded zines at Aussiecon in Adelaide for a copy of VOOTIE (see It all predates the net and SL by at least one or two decades. Always wanted to do a “funny animal” comic, but have never got around to it.

  19. Wolfie Rankin says

    Hi Lauraan, I found furry via usenet newsgroups when I first tried the internet with my Amiga A1200, I had no graphics, just text, but could download images at least. that was about 1996-ish? Minotaur books in Melbourne had a handful of furry comics and I got Omaha the Cat Dancer and a couple of others (not really into comics). I loved Greener Pastures though, An aussie one about a farmers stud bull who suddenly becomes half human and decides that he should go to college.

  20. lauraanneseabrook says

    You would love Craig Hilton's stuff, which he's been drawing for years:

  21. Wolfie Rankin says

    Lauraan, Marko who was in Alter Ego, Was the guy who started South Fur Lands… I have some of the older copies. Had a short story published in one years ago too.

  22. lauraanneseabrook says

    Really? I'm impressed!

  23. I certainly appreciate your work, and that of the crew, and of course of the participants. My only real complaints are systemic ones, not a product of your work 🙂

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