January has been a frenzy of data collection in the hopes of finishing my PhD by April 15. This would be enough of a challenge if my subjects were all in the same geographic area as I am but they are all over the US – six different states. In order to observe the physical/virtual interplay for my dissertation, Life as Art: The Interplay of Identities Among Virtually Performing Musicians in Second Life, I needed to observe my subjects performing as avatars, from the vantage point of a human. Two weeks and 2800 miles later (part of it stranded in a small hotel to wait out a massive snowstorm), data has been collected on three of the subjects, with data on the other three to be collected within ten days.
The data collection included a one-hour videotaped interview, asking the subject about their level of transparency with their avatar persona. Some of my questions had to do with the avatar as the subject’s voice on particular issues, how the subject’s real life identity might be embodied in the identity of their avatar, and then the question that seemed to stump them all: How embedded are you in your avatar persona? This addresses the subject-object orientation framework by Kegan (1994) that determines to what extent the individual personalizes what happens to their avatar. If someone were to critique the subject’s performance in Second Life, how does that affect the physical identity of the individual, if at all? How separated are the identities of the real vs. the virtual individual?
Interestingly, it didn’t matter how long they had been performing in Second Life; all of the subjects I have spoken to up to this point are embedded in their avatar persona. Some are more clearly transparent than others but they all feel so connected to their virtual selves that whatever happens to their avatar happens to them personally. This is consistent with the hypothesis I present in my dissertation and is somewhat unique to artists and musicians, who become more subjective over time because of the extremely personal nature of the product they share with their fans.