A Mixed-Reality Piece by

Lori Landay/

L1Aura Loire

for Frontline’s Digital Nation

Switching between realities, modes, and perspectives


In making my video piece about Second Life friendships crossing the border between the actual and virtual worlds, TOGGLE, I came to the conclusion that in my mind, I move between the virtual and actual images and perceptions I have of my friends.

I switch between realities, modes, and perspectives in my own self, too.  There are moments when I am both Lori and L1, when I am immersed and we are fused, and I often shift, or toggle, back and forth between where my awareness is primary, in the virtual or the actual world.  Sometimes I become very engrossed in what is happening in the virtual world, what L1 is doing, seeing, hearing, and experiencing, so it seems like it is in the sharper focus, although of course my sense of my body and self in the actual world never goes completely away.  In fact, the mind-body connection makes some virtual experiences seem surprisingly real, which is why it is fun to play video games, or dance or sail in SL.  As the simulations get better, more convincing, and as 3-D or holographic technology becomes more feasible, this aspect of virtual experience will only deepen, and we will indeed toggle between different modes of experience.

A word about virtual social interaction and relationships: Although it was beyond the scope of the piece for the Digital Nation Stories website I was asked to make, I recognize that the nature of the communication that I extol in the piece has its own specific characteristics.  Computer mediated communication (CMC) researcher Joseph B. Walther describes a kind of text chat that is “hyperpersonal” and allows for selective self-presentation in a way that face to face communication does not.  Although Walther is not specifically discussing SL communication, his research is highly applicable to how we form and maintain social relationships in a virtual world.  Computer-mediated communication like the text-based instant messaging and local chat which is still the prevalent mode of communication in Second Life despite the availability of voice, has several factors which foster a more idealized self-presentation than face to face communication.  In his essay, “Selective self-presentation in computer-mediated communication: Hyperpersonal dimensions of technology, language, and cognition,” Walther describes four ways people use CMC to manage impressions and  enhance their message:

- it is editable,

- it is possible to spend more time on a typed communication than on an utterance of speech, even in a concurrent text chat

- it is removed from non-verbal cues that might undercut the language that is chosen, and

- it allows for a reallocation of resources from the kinds of decodings that come into play in face to face communication

There is a feedback loop involved as well, because the two people involved in the conversation who are shaping their online or inworld friendship with CMC are both creating a persona in SL through the self-design of an avatar (as anthropologist Jason Pine terms it), and each is decoding the text messages, shaped through the affordances of CMC, in a low-cue environment, so that they are interpreting the already carefully crafted self-presentation how they want to see it.  This is a powerful filter, or magnifying process.

Nevertheless, in my experience, and with the added modes of voice chat in SL and then with face to face interaction, over time, people cannot maintain a carefully managed self-presentation.  What I think is appealing, rather than selective self-presentation, although that certainly is a factor, is what Pathfinder Linden (Jon Lester) calls “emotional bandwidth.”  Text chat has a lower, or smaller, pipeline and although the typing can become tedious, it is an easier form of communication in many ways.  Certainly the control of self-presentation Walther delineates comes into play, and I have also found that the people who really enjoy socializing in SL are often readers and writers who love language, stories, and words, as well as the compelling visuals and technological aspect of the immersive experience.  

Although I would not generalize too much, in my experience, most everyone who sticks around in SL has a great sense of humor.  The people I know playfully move between different levels of ironic and authentic awareness and commentary in their interactions.  With some people, text chat is a literary fencing match of wit; with others, riffing on metaphors, and with others, deep and serious conversation that often takes a poetic turn.  I laugh a lot, indeed out loud sometimes, and enjoy cracking people up.  

There is also a very serious side, some sharing of secrets, of things gone wrong in the actual world, in the present or in the past, or triumphs, too.  Just like in face-to-face relationships, we share our experiences.  What is different, perhaps, is where we start, and we trade real world details for greater intimacy and trust in our friendships, giving up some of the mythic and idealized aspects of the avatar, because ultimately, the avatar and virtual world become another channel for connection and communication between the people on the other side of the computers.  These details are not necessarily identifying facts, and some people preserve anonymity fiercely, something I have come to terms with, even if it feels asymmetrical to me.

None of this takes away from the selective self-presentation that Walther notes, the fact that in this way of communicating, through this channel, in this mode, so much remains hidden, sometimes deliberately.  We overemphasize similarities and ignore differences as we forge connections between the idealized, edited self we are putting out there and our image of the idealized other with whom we communicate.  It makes me think of something I have seen in many avatars’ profile descriptions recently: the idea that SL is not a game.  This is significant in several ways: SL is not a game in that there is no goal, nor plot, nor direction given to the “residents.”  It is an open-ended environment to do in what you wish.  It is also important, though, in thinking about interpersonal interactions--are we playing games with each other, or playing a game together?  Because of the nature of CMC, it is often hard to tell.  People spend time in a virtual world for a myriad of reasons, not all of them compatible, I suppose.   The name of the virtual world, “Second Life,” is really a misnomer for many, because, as this project suggests, there is --for me at least, but also for others--a continuum, rather than a break between the actual and virtual worlds.  For those of us involved with art, education, music, new media businesses, or the virtual economy, SL or any virtual world is an essential other reality in which we spend time, a different kind of venue.   It can also be a place of exploration, of relaxation, and I have online friends who still can’t believe that I choose to work in there, because for them it is recreation. 

I made my machinima piece “The Falling Woman Story” because I was so moved by the idea of the real feelings swirling around in SL, how they are experienced and expressed in such an intense and metaphoric interface.  I have found a high instance of synchronicity in SL, of coincidence, or maybe I am looking for commonalities and patterns and see them because I want to.  Either way, there are moments in SL that are like living a poem, and in our online friendships, which are really mixed-reality works in progress, we experience and sometimes write that poem together.

Works Cited

Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23(1):3-43.

An Emergent Second Life, Video. [28 min] Paper Tiger TV.  Co- Producer and Director, Bianca Ahmadi; Associate Producer, Juan Rubio; Editor, Juan David Gonzalez; Content Director, Jason Pine.


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