Friday, 10 December 2010

Identity.... let’s get this straight.

There is an increasingly annoying misuse of the word Identity.

Now, as with most of my blog posts I am not setting myself up as an authority although some people tend to skip over caveats I nearly always pepper an opinionated post with and get hot under the collar because I state my case forcefully in an attempt to stimulate debate.

So...back to identity. There have been more than one reference to people assuming different or multiple identities in SL. NWN, in a terrible post recently gave space to some armchair psychologist talking about post modern thought. Now, the very phrase ‘post modern thought’ is enough to get me ranting, but my distaste of the sort of inane thinking that can lead to, as an example, Wagner James Au saying..”I'm a logical empiricist, scientific triumphalist mofo” will have to be the subject of another post.

This guy, Robert, talks in a video (which is cringe making) of the theory that “an individual may define themselves as any multiple number of identities”.

Now, my argument is NOT with Robert but with the continued misuse of the word Identity. We recently saw a show in SL which fell into the same trap, namely a misunderstanding of Identity as a concept.

[wikipedia: In philosophy, identity, from Latin: identitas (“sameness”), is the exact sameness of things. According to Leibniz's law two things sharing every attribute are not only similar, but are the same thing. The concept of sameness has given rise to the general concept of identity, as in personal identity and social identity.]

Identity is, by definition, something you can only have one of.

[wikipedia...Personal continuity is an important part of identity; this is the process of ensuring that the quality of the mind are consistent from moment to the next, generally regarded to comprise qualities such as self-awareness, sentience, sapience, and the ability to perceive the relationship between oneself and one's environment.]

You cannot assume a different identity by putting on a different frock, or avatar. Your Identity (despite the misnamed “identity theft”) cannot be stolen, traded, changed, or swapped. You are you...even in a coma you have the same identity. Only on death will you cease to be you, although all your previous worldy actions, etc. will still continue to be accredited to the Identity that was you.

So.....Is it Personality? Can you say you assume a different, or multiple, personalities in avatar form. I personally think not. Your basic personality doesn’t change, if you are a nice person in RL, chances are that will shine through whatever avatar you wear..... and a fool will always be a fool, that we know for certain.

Aspects of your personality DO change when you wear different clothes/avatar, your basic personality doesn’t.

So...what of Role Play? Well, an actor doesn’t change his identity when he plays Hamlet, he may try to identify with that role, but he will have the same Identity and personality when the play finishes as he did at the start. He may have had insights into aspects of his psyche through doing so, as we do when assuming an avatar, or a role.

The clothes you wear, the avatars you wear, are a facade you present to the public, a manufactured You which is normally called a personas we have many of. Daughter, wife, mother, employee, party goer, etc, etc. the list, for a healthy person is endless, we adapt to the situation and act in an appropriate manner.’s alway Me. It’s never another identity, I don’t become Wizzy...ever....and should I change my name to Wizzy, that still doesn’t change my Identity or my personality.

Now, it could be said...’well, you know what I mean, why be so particular?’ but it’s only when you listen to someone like Robert that you understand how confused people can become when they are not precise in their use of concepts.

The things we discover through living life as avatars are aspects of our selves, we do not discover new selves or new identities.

Your Self and your Identity you are stuck with, and you only ever have one of each.... by definition.



  1. i changed my display name to soror Nishi and unfortunately i didn't become her. damn.

  2. excellent post!!

    lolol Wizzy =)))

    I have always tried to educate people in this subject, but no one seems to understand what im saying (is it because I speak swedish?) ;)

  3. Ahhh....changing my name to Wizzy may compromise my Avatar Identity however, as for my avatar the continuity of existence is in large part dependent on Name.
    This is why Display Names is such a huge mistake of course.
    ....but changing my name to Wizzy will not make me a geo-Wizard.

  4. Once again, dead on, soror. But unfortunately you have foiled my cunning plot to become Philip Linden and retire young, wealthy, healthy and king of SL. "There can only be one." Now I see I must defeat him in a sword fight on the rooftop of Linden Lab.

  5. I'm certain of few things....
    Water is wet...
    Sky is blue...
    And to quote the cartoon Popeye, "I is what I is and that's all that I is".
    {and I'm sure that there are those that are glad of that}

    Leopards and spots etc...

  6. I am gonna be pdenatic here ..... I think your wiki definition is too narrow - the quality of 'sameness' is only one of several definitions. Eg. OED says identity and personality are synonymous.
    OED says identity is the quality or condition of being a specified person or thing - therefore I can 'assume' an identity, or have my identity 'stolen' or 'lose' my identity (if Wizzy steals my name).
    You can (and most of us do) have several identities.

  7. Nice rant! Here's my two cents;

    Identity, like many words, has multiple meanings. That's not the problem. Trouble comes when you're using the word in one way, I'm using it in another and we don't perceive the discrepancy. Or if I'm using the word in multiple ways myself and thus make logical errors in how I think about the topic. I've probably posted over 100 times on virtual identity in the last few years and I'm still a bit fuzzy on what I mean by identity. Here are a few ways I've noticed it being used in such discussions:

    There's the identity that goes along with "identity card" which are the essential facts about our selves and our lives that in combination make us unique: Name, DOB, height, weight, marital status, address. It's interesting that everything but one's birth date is transient and can change over time. Eventually we'll probably have a genetic code as part of an ID designation which is probably the most constant aspect of identity. In this case, a "false identity" would mean one which included false information about the current state of the person in question.

    Another use of the word identity is to describe the roles we play. In this, we can have multiple identities such as parent, lover, teacher, blogger, etc. I think that's the use of the word that annoys you, right? A false identity in this case would be someone who falsely pretended to be something claimed as an identity, such as lying about one's age, marital status or professional credentials.

    Finally, some people use it as a word to describe the "real you". Many religions equate this type of identity to a person's soul or god-given characteristics.

    That's all I have for now. Please keep those rants coming!

  8. Yep. I think most people would agree with Botgirl. we have multiple identities, a different identity is formed depending on which role we are in, which social group we are interacting with. This is a self-informative identity, i.e. the way we conceptualise our own self. The identity that s/he talks about on identity cards is our nominal identity - there's a useful discussion of these in Manders-Huits, N. (2010) Practical versus moral identities in identity management, Ethics of Information Technology, 12, 43–55

    I guess whether these are different aspects of one self, or different selves is a moot point. All these different identities have to join up somewhere, but we definitely become different people as we move from one situation to another. This isn't role playing, who we are adapts.

  9. Hi soror,

    Yup, fuzziness about the concept of identity in discussions of SL (and elsewhere) is rampant; I've commented on this in a rant of my own. I should say, I too am wary of the theory that we can only have one identity, among other reasons because that raises issues of essentialism which are often (though not always) involved in that view. But setting that aside, I'd like to mention that there's an additional concept often confused with identity: "social role." This is different from "role play," a topic which is I think a bit of a red herring, since it involves the creation of a character in a fictional world (SL enables all sorts of fictionalities, but it isn't itself fictional); but it's also distinct from your term "persona." Social roles are, obviously, established within society; some are necessarily in all societies (such as "mother"), but others are socially contingent (e.g., "queen," "serf," "shaman"). But -- people can occupy the same role yet conduct themselves in it differently. For instance, there are supportive bosses, dictatorial bosses, ineffectual bosses, etc. Your term "persona" seems more appropriate for how a person conducts their social role than for the role itself.

    Yours in distinction-making....

  10. Well, all great stuff.

    As a 2 or 3 years old we begin to use the word "I". I do not use this word for anyone other than me. This is the name I give my Self. I cannot have several selves, by definition that is a non-sense, it is a misuse of the word self.

    There are decided linguistic differences in the way that "Identity" is used, but if Identity is not connected to the "I", the Self, then obviously there is going to be total confusion.

    To say you have different Identities in different social situations when you mean you play different roles is a complete misuse, common or not, endorsed by OED or not.

    Personality is not the same as Identity, they are different words. The fact that they may be commonly mixed up, interchangable and confused, does not mean anything.
    Personality is..." the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual's distinctive character." This word isfrom the latin personalis =of a person.
    Indentity is..." the fact of being who or what a person or thing is"...from the latin Idem = same.

  11. ...excuse typos..:)))

    The failure to get a grip on these usages is, as I said in my post, the cause of much fuzzy thinking.

    We have to be aware of how modern slack usage, e.g. in the press, and sloppy thinking will eventually thwart all serious discussion if we allow it.

  12. Soror: I think that in the context of a particular conversation, it's certainly legitimate to try to reach a consensus on a particular usage of a word such as identity so that everyone is talking about the same thing. But I think it's also useful to explore the multiple dimensions of the term if we want to escape our habitual perceptions. For instance, The Random House Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language provides this nuanced definitions that are related to the "self" that you speak of:

    1. the state or fact of remaining the same one or ones, as under varying aspects or conditions: The identity of the fingerprint on the gun with those on the file provided evidence that he was the killer. 2. the condition of being oneself or itself and not another: He doubted his own identity. 3. condition or character as to who a person or what a thing is: a case of mistaken identity. 4. the state or fact of being the same one described. 5. the sense of self, providing sameness or continuity in personality over time and sometimes disturbed in mental illness, as schizophrenia. 6. exact likeness in nature or qualities: an identity of interests. 7. an instance or point of sameness or likeness: to mistake resemblances for identities.

    It actually might be interested to think of identity through each of those definitions, including the context of pseudonymous avatar identities and see how they play out.

  13. If we really want to go down the rabbit hole, the wikipedia page on identity leads into many interesting and diverse dimensions of the concept:

  14. Thanks, Botgirl. Wikipedia was one of my initial starting points ofr this post of course, and, with the exception of the social identity theorists who seem to have corrupted the use of the word identity, most of the references make there, and in your last comment relate to the continuity or sameness.

    I disagree strongly that the "the multiple dimensions of the term will help us "to escape our habitual perceptions" anymore than a liberal attitude to the value of a particular number would help us with our mathematics.

    Philosophy, or any struggle to try and think a thought through to some clarity involves a less than liberal attitude to the Word.

    If we start to accept that personality = Identity, then we can pack up and go home rather than try to make sense of Avatar Identity.

  15. Just posted on the topic in my blog. :)

  16. Soro wrote: "an actor doesn’t change his identity when he plays Hamlet, he may try to identify with that role, but he will have the same Identity and personality when the play finishes as he did at the start".

    But in Rita Carter's book 'Multiplicity' she includes the following case study:

    "The actor David Suchet had a long stage run in Timon of Athens during which he found it increasingly difficult to flip back to his own major (her term for a person's main personality)when the nightly performance ended. One evening a psychiatrist friend visited him backstage and observed that he still seemed to be acting like Timon. Suchet dismissed his concern, at which point the psychiatrist shot him a number of questions such as: ages of your children? Phone number? Date of birth?. To his consternation, Suchet found he had to work hard to retrieve the answers- the 'Timon' personality he had created was so firmly in charge that his major's memories were temporarily irretrievable'.

    As for the comment " you only ever have one of each.... by definition", it completely disregards the evidence for co-consciousness that neuroscience and psychology has uncovered, some of which I covered in the essay Alt Who Goes There Part 3.

  17. Soror: After thinking on this a bit more, I've determined that I'm not exactly clear on what elements are included within your use of the word "identity". You've shared some of what you believe should not be included such as personality and roles, but it would help me understand your point of view more clearly if you would also share specific examples of attributes or elements that you see as legitimately falling within the scope of identity.

  18. @ Extropia I am not disputing that there are occasions, instances of aberrations and exceptions to this general state of affairs. I would not disagree that 'another' personality can dominate the Self at times. My point was that after the play he is still David Suchet, as he was before.

    @Botgirl I am, like you, looking to understand more of the nature of Identity. I experience the world as I. I is something I call the Individual Me. That I is the same I all my life, no matter how my body or opinions change with time, independent of social roles I play or avatars I wear.

  19. cont... @ Botgirl... My initial aim is to show that, in the same way that talking about Train Tickets, train of thought, or dog training tells us nothing much about Cards, group identity and Indentifying tell us little about Identity.

    The central self, or consciousness, or core of my being which I name I is my Identity, from my point of view. That is normally singular, unique and lifelong. As Identity is, to make any sense as a word, dependent on continuity, then it has to be to this central core, rather than it's attributes (personality) that the word Identity refers.

    It is this core, manifest in its different guises (persona, roles, personality) that people name... that is my identity.

  20. Soror, you're defending an ontological definition of "identity" that doesn't really apply to Second Life, where nearly everything related to what we commonly define as identity is so malleable, and you're certainly not speaking to what Robert was talking about. I'm not sure how useful the standard definition of identity is in a context where one person can appear to be a hermaphrodite robot, a lesbian furry vampire, an bisexual tree house, and Sarah Palin in the space of several minutes. And we haven't even talked about alt avatars.

  21. @ Hamlet. That is exactly my point... changing avatars is no different to changing clothes.... it doesn't change your Identity, only your appearance.

    I am not aiming to defend an ontological definition, but hoping to make you think twice the next time you write "identity" when you mean personality, or persona ...and falling, unthinking, into the trap you set yourself (as above).

  22. >changing avatars is no different to changing clothes.... it doesn't change your Identity, only your appearance.<

    One could argue that there can be a difference between clothes and avatars. In the case of Hamlet Au, just about everyone associates that avatar as the avatar of Wagner James Au, to the extent where you could say Wagner/Hamlet is one identity. Hamlet is an aspect of Wagner's 'wardrobe'.

    But what about someone like myself? I provide virtually no information enabling my social contacts to link my identity to any specific RL identity. In my case, is it not more appropriate to say that the social interactions that have developed around the 'Extropia DaSilva' personae have established an identity that stands apart from my primary? That we are two different people, as opposed to one?

    >The central self...This core..<

    Various experiments have shown that people will adopt whatever personality best suits the situation, while at the same time believing they are giving an honest and neutral description of their ‘real’ personality. Arguably, the 'core' people refer to does not exist, except as a consequence of various cognitive illusions that evolved to help the brain make sense of the world.

  23. @ Extropia, I agree entirely. Avatar Identity, where that has not been compromised by making it a sub-set of the RL identity, is indeed a new and slightly different thing. I would not say that this is merely like changing clothes, and needs to be looked at totally differently to 'normal' identity. In avatar identity the name plays a very large part, maybe more so than RL identity, in the continuity of beingness.

    I also agree that a persons idea of their 'core' is largely flavoured by illusion/delusion, hence the old mystery centres called for man to "know thyself" as most of us do not.

    The core, however, does still exist even if it is viewed incorrectly by the individual. It is still the "I" to that person and the "thou' to another in spite of it's hiding behind the smoke screen of various persona/personality/character traits.

  24. Yeah. Maybe you can compare the 'core' to the Kaniza Triangle. This is an optical illusion in which various black shapes form the impression of a white triangle. You see the triangle because the visual cortex has edge detection software and the shapes have been cunningly arranged to trick the cortex into seeing something that is 'not really there'.

    But, arguably, it IS there. There IS a triangle. Just because it emerges as a result of the arrangement of shapes and the way the brain interprets them and has no existence indepdendent of the objects (if you remove the black shapes you can no longer see the triangle) does not mean to say it doesn't exist. Similarly, just because you can perform a reductive analysis on a brain or mind and find no 'core self' does not mean to say such an 'I' does not exist as an emergent property of many brain processes.

  25. Well, as a dream is a psychic reality, so is the "I" or I wouldn't name it, I guess.