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SIEF2011 10th Congress: Lisbon, Portugal.
17-21 April 2011

(P101)

Shaping virtual lives: identities on the internet

Location Tower B, Piso 3, Room T13
Date and Start Time 18 Apr, 2011 at 11:30

Convenors

Theo Meder (Meertens Institute) email
Violetta Krawczyk-Wasilewska (University of Lodz) email
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Short Abstract

This panel will deal with the ways in which people present themselves on the world wide web, ranging from social networks and dating sites to online role-playing games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft.

Long Abstract

This panel will deal with the ways people present themselves on the world wide web, ranging from social networks and dating sites to online role-playing games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft. The central question is: what identities do people take on in order to shape their virtual lives? What ideals do people cherish? How do they present themselves and why?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

"You have to make up your own story here": identities in cyberspace from Twitter to Second Life

Author: Theo Meder (Meertens Institute)  email
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Short Abstract

How do people represent themselves on the Internet in programs like Twitter and Second Life: how do they shape their identities and the worlds they are living in, what are their ideals and dislikes?

Long Abstract

As a folk narrative researcher I'm always on the look-out for new stories, not only in real life, but in virtual environments as well. There are a lot of MMORPGs that let you choose from a limited number of identities and that offer you a basic plotline you'll more or less have to follow in order to progress to a next level. What if there's no ready-made identity nor any kind of preconceived narrative there? Then you will have to make up one of your own. On one end of the spectrum there's Twitter, where people can share their real lives with others in 140 character messages. Still, how real is real here? Isn't there a lot of virtual image building going on, even on Twitter? On the other end of the spectrum there is Second Life. There is still debate going on whether it's just a 3D chatting program or a game. If it's a game, it has no goals, no levels and no narratives of its own. If it's just a chatting program, why don't people use MSN then? The main attraction seems to be that people can shape and dress up their (ideal) avatars, explore virtual worlds, live in virtual houses, go to virtual clubs and so on. What identities and stories do people create? The possibilities are seemingly endless and range from vamp to vampire, from child to hero, from dancer to treasure hunter, from slave to master, and from furry to gender bender.

Performing self: questions of identity competence in a virtual world point to real life constructions

Author: Jennifer Meta Robinson (Indiana University)  email
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Short Abstract

An ethnographic study of virtual world philosophy simulations reveals that participants are concerned directly and indirectly with identity. Performance of self and evaluations of performative competence point to the constructed nature of identity in both "Second Life" and everyday "real" life.

Long Abstract

Authenticity is a pervasive preoccupation in virtual worlds. Says one person of his "first life": "What I do and how I look there, is much the same here." Says another, "1st Life? - bah! The graphics are good but . . . it requires too much roleplay." Such diverse approaches to the issue of identity and authenticity — from claims of and desires for seamless continuity between first and virtual life, to skeptical comments about the desirability of fidelity with "1st Life," to efforts at immersion in a new reality — suggest an uneasy relationship between real and virtual performances of self. Throughout the online virtual world of Second Life, people animate graphical characters in human, animal, abstract, or object form in such a way that requires negotiation and invites scrutiny. Frequent conversations about fidelity to real life identities are rarely noticed as remarkable "in-world"; however, they point to the constructed nature of identity that presents challenges to what is commonly assumed to be the whole and continuous identity that individuals inhabit in their everyday lives. Performance theory — including notions of expressive language, emergent performance of self in conjunction with assumption of roles, and evaluations of performative competence — clarifies the constructed nature of self in virtual worlds. The seams in identity revealed through extensive ethnographic study in the electronic medium, in turn, allow us to glimpse the emergent and social nature of self in everyday "real" life.

Thinking virtually: an insight in the culture of virtual identities

Author: Adrian Stoicescu (University of Bucharest)  email
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Short Abstract

Today a world without virtual connectivity is deemed impossible and the interaction is shaped in different ways such as forums, chats, games, and socializing sites. The question is to what extent the everyday life cultural profiles of the virtual space consumer is similar to the virtual identities.

Long Abstract

Staying online is maybe one of the few cornerstone goals of our everyday contemporary lifestyle. Not being connected to the internet is maybe the most severe case of social exclusion at least amongst the youngsters who live by and through connectivity. On the other hand, not being online equals not existing socially. Bearing this in mind, the paper aims at analysing briefly how people interact and enact different types of identities while being online during games, chats and forums. The paper is based mainly on two points of view. The first is shaped by the experiences of the live interaction with unknown people during online encounters while the second is built on the interviews with a group of people in their early twenties about their online activities. The conclusion of the analysis leads, surprisingly or not, to the conclusion that in a vast majority of cases there is a huge discrepancy between the people's identity in real life circumstances and the one they display during internet interactions.

Rules and boundaries: the morality of Eve Online

Author: Óli Gneisti Sóleyjarson (University of Iceland)  email
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Short Abstract

Eve Online is a game with few rules. Characters can lie, cheat, steal, extort, kidnap and murder without breaking any official rule. But if you look deeper you find that the players set rules for themselves and others. I will examine these rules and their rationale.

Long Abstract

Eve Online is a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG). A big draw for players is that the game has very few rules. Characters can lie, cheat, steal, extort, kidnap and murder without breaking any rules set by the designers of the game. But this is only the surface; if you look deeper you find that the players set principles for themselves and others. Some are grounded in personal morality while others come from their respect for the game itself. In this paper I will examine the values that govern game play for the various different types of gamers that inhabit the world of Eve Online. From this I will look at the various conflicts that can arise from the diverse moral outlook players have towards their game.

Expressions of grief, faith and narratives about deceased persons on the internet

Author: Anders Gustavsson (University of Oslo)  email
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Short Abstract

As an ethnologist I will present a study of how relatives and friends, on memorial websites on the Internet in Norway and Sweden, express their grief, memory, love to deceased persons. Thus the scholar has a real opportunity to study how they express their identity in difficult life situations.

Long Abstract

I am a member of the newly founded Nordic Network of Thanatology (NNT). I will present an ongoing study of how memories of and addresses to deceased persons on the Internet in Norway and Sweden have increased noticeably during the past few years. Both relatives and friends express their grief, memory and love to the deceased. Extremely intense emotions are obvious in these contexts. Emotions are evident for example in poems composed to the memory of the deceased. Through the study of the strong feelings in the presentations of the authors the scholar can define their identities. The sense of loss, regret and remembrance can be given tangible expression for several years after the death.The authors show by their words and by for example pictures of angels their conceptions of a life after death. One common conception concerning the dead persons has to do with a reunion some time in the future. Conversations can be conducted with the deceased persons in which the authors of these statements express hopes that the addressee can hear what is expressed. This can develop in a dialogue with the deceased that is continued over and over. There are many instances of deceased persons being perceived of as angels who are believed to watch over their relatives and friends on earth.

Matchmaking through avatars: social aspects of online dating

Authors: Violetta Krawczyk-Wasilewska (University of Lodz)  email
Andrew Ross  email
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Short Abstract

This paper discusses the social impact of avatars as virtual identities in real life. It focuses especially on avatar dating websites as newly developed and trendy way for real people to find friendship or a relationship.

Long Abstract

Unlike systems for flirting or dating within virtual games, avatar-dating systems are designed to enable real people to set up real-life dates. An avatar-mediated discourse enables the players to remain anonymous and invisible. The appearance of dating websites that support the interaction of customers masked by avatars seem to be a result of the popularity of online games, but also reflects the growing number of single computer users who prefer to hide their real identities behind 3D avatars and avoid discomfort on their first real date (women in particular). At this early stage, the world of dating via avatars often presents itself in a limited way and in poor graphical quality. But the trend towards the use of avatars seems to be inevitable and has attracted many protagonists of virtual technologies. In support of this trend, avatar-dating technology within matchmaking websites is likely to become more sophisticated with new, future generations of hardware and software. The author's opinion takes into consideration Walter Ong's established conception of 'second orality' as well as recent criticism of the Internet by Nicholas Carr. The above polarized opinions do not change the fact of growing popularity of new forms of online dating.

Petersburg and Moscow compete: the use of city myths in presenting the self and negotiating shared identities in Ru.Net Communities

Author: Maria Yelenevskaya (Technion, Israel Institute of Technology)  email
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Short Abstract

Competition between Moscow and St. Petersburg for power is reflected in literature and lore, revealing conflicts between dynamism and loyalty to the tradition. We analyze how stereotypes attributed to the dwellers of these cities are appropriated or challenged in self-presentation on Ru.net.

Long Abstract

Competition between the two largest Russian cities for power and prestige has been going on since the foundation of St. Petersburg. It did not cease in the Soviet period when uniformity of thinking and behavior were enforced by the official ideology, neither did it disappear after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The rivalry of the two cities is reflected in literature and lore, revealing the sizzling conflict between westernization and patriarchal orientations, dynamism and loyalty to the tradition. Not only citizens of the two Russian capitals but the population of other Russian cities participated in the dissemination of legends, anecdotes, sayings and jokes dealing with real and alleged differences in the way of life, mentality, behavior and speech habits in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Internet has added a new dimension to this never-ending dialogue of cultures. Comic texts and lists comparing residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and humorous tests determining which of the two cities had an impact on the personality and speech portrait of the test-taker circulate on the Ru.net inspiring numerous comments and discussions. This paper will analyze which of the stereotypes traditionally attributed to Moscovites and St. Petersburg dwellers have remained intact and which have reversed in the post-Soviet years under the influence of political and economic changes. We will discuss how the users appropriate or challenge these stereotypes in self-presentation and virtual communication. Finally, we will look at the elements of social criticism when Moscow is juxtaposed to the rest of Russia.

The presumption of harmony: hostility in online rumors and legends

Author: Patricia Turner (UC Davis)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper compares pre and post Internet discussions of racially-charged rumors and legends. While access to the perspective of other folk groups is possible in cyberspace, the perceived anonymity inherent in Internet exchanges allows for volatile and counterproductive discussions to occur.

Long Abstract

It is often taken as an article of faith that tensions between blacks and whites in the U.S. diminish in conjunction with significant milestones that mark African-American progress in society at large. When blacks are rewarded in spheres that require white support---the earning of an Academy Award, the promotion to the highest military ranks, the election to the presidency--- the prevailing theory is that racism and ethnic tensions are subsiding. African-Americans often caution that the successes of select individuals should not be used as evidence that racial harmony permeates the U.S..

By examining the rumors and contemporary legends that whites share about blacks and vice-versa, we can shed light on this presumption of harmony. This paper compares pre and post Internet discussions of racially-charged rumors and legends. On-line commentary containing embedded rumors and contemporary legends regarding Hurricane Katrina and the presidential campaign and election of Barack Obama will be juxtaposed against verbal and written legends and rumors about pre Internet era African-American politicians and racial incidents. Focus will be on the ways in which pre and post Internet narrators identify themselves and their positions with established anti-white or anti-black ideologies. The paper will grapple with the extensive evidence of deep-seated and profound racial distrust evident in on-line articulations of rumors and contemporary legends. Given that these 21st century on-line commentaries reflect more racial disdain than late 20th century commentary, is the appropriate conclusion one that argues that racial tension is increasing rather than decreasing?

Digital devotees: vernacular authority in a new kind of religious movement

Author: Robert Glenn Howard (University of Wisconsin-Madison)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper documents a new kind of religious movement that emerges as believers use the Internet to enact a form of ritual deliberation. This deliberation creates a dispersed vernacular authority that both enacts the identities of the believers and limits the participation of those do not believe.

Long Abstract

This paper documents the definitive characteristics of a new religious movement. It is new because it focuses on a particular "End Times" interpretation of biblical prophecy that differentiates it from broader forms of evangelical Christianity. It also constitutes a new kind of religious movement because even as its beliefs have diverged from existing institutions, no new central leadership has emerged. Instead, it takes shape as believers use the Internet to enact a kind of ritualized deliberation that they believe generates an online church. While the dispersed nature of this network-based movement might suggest that it is free from social control, this is not the case. Instead, individual members use the Internet to create a dispersed vernacular authority that enforces a self-sealing ideology. Through ritual deliberation, individuals both enact their identities as believers and limit the participation of those do not believe. In this research, the perspective of vernacular religion suggests that individual believers instead of institutions or charismatic leaders are responsible for participating in the religiosity their movement constructs.

Dis/abled in cyberspace: the relevance of dis/abling practices in virtual communities

Author: Arnold Tolnai (LMU München)  email
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Short Abstract

This research project deals with handling patterns of disabled people in Virtual Communities. The focus lies on strategies and competences of communication and interaction developed by the users and on the subjective meaning for the coverage of their daily online/offline life.

Long Abstract

The focus of this research project lies on the handling patterns of physically disabled people in virtual spaces as Virtual Communities and also on strategies of communication and interactions (e.g. dis/closure of disability) which have been developed by users. The subjective meaning, regarding the space of perception, is going to be analysed, based on qualitative interviews and with the help of (N)etnography.

Besides diverse advantages of the Internet (mobility, flexibility, etc.), the fact can be foreclosed that in the virtual "space of simulation" physically disabled people can develop skills and competences that could lead to a self-assured handling of identity and eventually can be transferred to the real space (Real Life).

However, an escape to Cyberspace can lead to addictive behaviour or to a complete exclusion of reality. Different handling patterns and practices and their positive or rather negative effects point a fortiori to the proximity of the real space (Real Life) and claim to percieve the virtual space (Virtual Life) not just as a further "window" of reality. Even more, the question has to be proven what extent there is to assume a fusion between the real and the virtual dimensions, where especially people with a physical handicap could benefit from.

The assumption of identity - and the death of geography?

Author: Anita Pincas (University of London)  email
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Short Abstract

Multiply assumed identities are a normal facet of life via role-playing, and I therefore challenge the commonly heard claim that varying identities on the web are not as genuine, valuable, or "real" as those in traditional physical spaces. I will present overviews for today and the future.

Long Abstract

As a 20 year specialist in new technologies for being and learning, I have myself experienced [and observed others experiencing] the positive benefits of virtual identities, either in text or new media such as Youtube or Second Life. The talk will explore different affordances of identity in newly available media, also taking note of the unbelievable growth in computing power matched by decrease in price.

The purpose of the workshop is to explore in some detail the drivers behind the fact that there were in November 2009 around 250 million people spending time every week inside some kind of virtual world. Perhaps World of Warcraft: a social dynamic around joining tribes and fighting campaigns. Or IMVU: about 40 million chatting teenagers listening to music and buying things. Or Second Life where millions are recreating real world spaces to realise their fantasies, visualise scientific datasets, or simply to run normal distance education. What have these new identities in common? Why are they important and different from the familiar text based identities?

The "virtual" worlds are real. Neurologists and others agree that we are all constantly building mental models of the universe. Many of our forms of communication and art are attempts to communicate these so as to share them with others. The 3D metaverse we can see on the screen today seems to represent an incremental step in that process. Identity is far from unitary. Participants are encouraged to come prepared with their own stories of identity on the web.

O! Simsim is open, Treasure is yours!

Author: Sadhana Naithani (Jawaharlal Nehru University )  email
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Short Abstract

Everyone gets mails with offers of billions of $$, €€, ££ that have become free because someone had to flee some civil war in Africa, or because of some other reason. This paper analyzes several such mails to see if the fairy-tale type of riches is offered using various tools of the real fairy tale.

Long Abstract

I am sure you receive it too, in your email inbox: offers of billions of $$, €€, ££ that have become free because someone had to flee some civil war in Africa, or heirs have been lost in migration, or even that someone made money by corrupt means and now wants to relieve his/her soul by giving it to you. I get these too, and for years I have felt amused with the way such senders depict their personal situation with clear references to micro- and macro-historical events. Years ago I opened them because of ignorance, then started recognising and deleting them, and now they are opened by mistake, due to the sender's clever subject title in the inbox.

The Call for Papers of the Panel "'Shaping Virtual Lives: Identities on the Internet'" has inspired me to express my thoughts by studying every such mail I will receive from now, July 2010, to April 2011. It is a foregone conclusion that such mails are fake messages, spam and junk. I do not propose to find out who creates them. I am interested in their art of storytelling: in the way fictional biographies are narrated, historical events are utilized and social contexts are reflected in these mails. The fairy-tale type of riches is offered using various tools of the genuine fairy tale.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.