This week’s Virtual Conference on Counseling in Second Life offered a wide variety of topics, not to mention the novelty of a professional conference conducted entirely in a virtual world. I noticed a striking theme that seemed to run through many of the presentations. Here are some examples:

Identity Renegotiation on the Virtual Playground by Thomas Blume

  • People use virtual worlds such as SL as a means of exploring appearances, relationships, and even genders that they might never know in real life.

Second Life as a Tool in REBT by Jeffrey Warren (REBT is a particular set of therapy techniques.)

  • People can use SL to experiment with social behaviors that frighten or overwhelm them in real life, in a simplified environment. It can be a testing ground for change.

Suicide in SL by Jason McGlothlin

  • People in a lot of pain sometimes use SL to explore the experience and the emotional consequences of acts that they might be thinking about, but wouldn’t necessarily carry out in real life.

In the Shadows of the Net: Understanding, Assessing, and Treating Problematics Sexual Behavior Online by David Delmonica

  • Virtual worlds and online communities often reduce or remove people’s sexual inhibitions, creating a space that feels safer to explore sexuality in ways that real life doesn’t offer.

All of these folks are talking about how in a virtual world, you get to play with ways of being and doing that are different from how you live in Real Life. People have different opinions about what this looks like — and about which are healthy and which are unhealthy.

I’d like to broaden this notion to describe our online identities in lots of different contexts. In virtual worlds and online games, in discussion groups and blogs, on dating sites and on social networking pages — we always make a choice about who we want to be in each of these venues, expressed by what we do and don’t talk about, our choice of language, how an avatar looks and behaves, how we describe ourselves on a dating profile, even our screen names. It depends on the medium, the experience you want to have, and how you want to be seen. For example, in this blog I’m engaging my readers with the part of me that’s a therapist interested in online interactions, as opposed to all the other parts of my life and identity that aren’t represented here.

Some people fashion their online identities as closely as they can to what they feel is their authentic, real life self. Others construct identities that are very different from how they perceive themselves in real life. Some describe this as “the ability to be someone you’re not.” I disagree; I think when you’re constructing an online identity that intentionally differs from your real life self, you’re actually exploring parts of yourself that were always there, but that don’t get a chance to come out in real life.

What identity choices do you make, in which areas of your online life, and why?

Update: Sherry Turkle began writing about the forming of online identities nearly fifteen years ago, in her book:

Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet

Many of the environments she describes (remember text MUDs? Usenet? ELIZA?) look different today, but her discussions about Who We Are online are just as insightful and relevant as in 1995.