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Virtual Personae: Part I (2011)

Virtual Personae: Part I (2011)

©2011 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (2011, 7 March). Virtual Personae: Part I. TG Forum.






Virtual Personae: Part I (TG Forum Verson)

Virtual Personae: Part II (This Website)

Virtual Personae: Part II (TG Forum Version


Virtual Personae

Part I

By Dallas Denny


In a paper written in 1993, Allucquere Rosanne (Sandy) Stone described an incident that took place in 1982 on the text-only CompuServe CB chat simulator: Sanford Lewin, an American psychiatrist and a male, created an account using the name Joan Green and contrived an elaborate masquerade as a physically disabled female neuropsychiatrist. [Footnotes: I, II, III, IV]

Joan was a whirlwind in the chat rooms. She spent long hours counseling people and started a support group for women. She cautioned the group members to be wary of men masquerading as women.

Lewin’s intentions weren’t evil— he was trying to help people and believed he could communicate better with women as a woman—but inconsistencies in Joan’s elaborate contrived history began to make some people suspect her. When Joan finally admitted to a few of her friends that she was male-bodied, the news went viral and the small and intimate CompuServe community was rocked to its core. The people who had known Joan were shocked, dismayed, and outraged.

Stone points out how, as Joan’s personality developed, she took on a life of her own, to some extent out of Lewin’s control:

Apparently [Lewin had] never expected the impersonation to succeed so dramatically. He thought he’d make a few contacts online, and maybe offer some helpful advice. What had happened instead was that he’d found himself deeply engaged in developing a whole new part of himself that he’d never known existed. His responses had long since ceased to be a masquerade; with the help of the narrow bandwidth online mode and a certain amount of textual prosthetics, online he had become Joan. She no longer simply carried out his wishes at the keyboard; she had her own emergent personality, her own ideas, her own directions. Not that he was losing his own identity, but he was developing a parallel one, one of considerable puissance.—Stone, 1993 [V, VI]

Today virtual identities are a fact of everyday North American life. We create personae for our e-mail accounts, icons and bios on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn, and develop complex characters on MMORPGs [VII] like World of Warcraft. On these virtual platforms we are defined not by our birth certificates and physical bodies, but by our public online presentation and profile. And as Sandy Stone demonstrated nearly twenty years ago, our online selves don’t necessarily correspond with our legal identities. [VIII]

This is probably more true for transpeople than for others. For many of us, our online identities offer us a safe way to explore or express our gender that would be dangerous and debilitating in physical space. In fact, for more than fifty years there has been a tradition among crossdressers of using female identities in written correspondence, so extending the practice to digital space would seem a no-brainer.

There’s one thing, though—in venues like Transgender Forum and at support groups and conferences we’re all aware that those with female-sounding names are likely to have been born male and individuals with male-sounding names are likely to have been born female. We’re not engaged in deception in the same way Sanford Lewin was on CompuServe thirty years ago. Only when we go beyond our own venues and venture into the larger virtual world do we actually present ourselves as that which we are not—as having been born in the gender to which we aspire or of which we have become. [IX]


Virtual Personae in Virtual Worlds


We’ve seen that even in simple chat forums the perceived gender of the various participants can be a powerful and compelling concept. But what happens when instead of words there are haunting moving images, when instead of being 50×50 pixel flat representations, avatars have three dimensional bodies complete with moving joints and (if their controllers so choose) breasts and genitals, when avatars can be made to look realistically human, dressed in exotic virtual fashions and animated to stand and walk in stereotypically masculine or feminine manners? What transpires in the mind of the humans behind these avatars as they navigate their way through a three-dimensional interacting with objects and with other avatars not only with chat and instant messaging, but with voice and sexually explicit animations? What is it like to be a young, beautiful, and scantily clad female avatar strolling in moonlight along a beach in the company of a nicely-turned-out young male avatar with dreadlocks and tribal tattoos as night birds and insects sing and waves crash upon the shore? How is the user affected when his avatar looks longingly in to the eyes of another avatar and then tenderly kissed her (or him!). And specifically, what is the meaning of sex and gender in such a setting?


My Second Life Avatar, Dancing

I’m talking here of three-dimensional virtual worlds, and specifically of Second Life. [X]

Second Life is a huge three-dimensional space. The land mass is approximately the size of Rhode Island, with oceans, islands, and continents, a variety of terrain ranging from dead flat to mountainous, and vegetation ranging from tropical to temperate to desert to arctic. The landscape, which is created in its entirety by residents, is filled with objects ranging from cabins to skyscrapers, space ships to antique automobiles, household objects like beds, couches, bathtubs and lamps, and landscaping items like gazebos and waterfalls, all also created by residents. Depending upon the aesthetics and skill level of land owners, the various areas range from tacky and ugly to stunningly beautiful (or deliberately grungy).

Ugly, Ugly, Ugly

Second Life Can Be Astonishingly Ugly

Although Second Life owner Linden Lab has developed broad community standards and terms of service designed to prevent resident-to-resident abuse and overly offensive behavior, Second Life is not a game. That is, it has no external rules. There are no points to be earned, no queens to capture, no gold to find, no levels to reach. Goals, if there are any, are internal, just as they are in real life, or are mutual, shared by members of various communities.


Second Life Can Be Astonishingly Beautiful

It’s perhaps because of this lack of external goals that many of Second Life’s new residents seem at a loss for how to proceed and why many log out and never return. It probably also explains why there are many role-playing communities. For those with imagination, though, Second Life is a compelling interactive space where they can develop new skills, create works of art, engage in commerce, meet others, and even fall in love.

When creating a new account residents can choose between a limited number of male and female avatar shapes and looks. Once the world is entered, however, the avatar can be changed in almost limitless ways. Not only is every variety of human shapes possible, avatars can be turned into anything from a flying book to an 80-meter dragon. Most avatars are human, however, and most are set to be young, thin, and beautiful and dressed in virtual fashions. Many avatar enhancements are free, but many must be purchased with Linden dollars, which can be earned in world or purchased with U.S. dollars.

Residents engage in a variety of activities, including homesteading, socializing, creating content, running businesses or working as employees, attending cultural events like live concerts and art exhibitions, role playing, exploring, and pursuing sexual relationships.

In my next column I’ll look closely at the performance of gender in Second Life.




CompuServe CB Simulator

Stone, Sandy. (1993). Violation and virtuality



I: Such deceptions are hardly limited to digital media. Throughout history writers and others have created fictional cross-gendered personas. In their 1993 book Cross-dressing, Sex, and Gender, Vern and Bonnie Bullough discuss the case of Fiona McCleod, the nineteenth century female persona of male writer William Sharp (p. 195).

II: Stone is considered by many to have launched the field of transgender studies with her 1993 essay The Empire Strikes Back

III: The CB Chat line was a text-only virtual space accessed via dial-up modems. People from all over the country, using Commodore 64s, Atari 800s, and Apple ][ home computers, could talk to one another by typing messages in open chat or in private spaces.

IV: I was active on the CompuServe CB simulator in 1992, but didn’t come into contact with either Sanford Lewin or Joan Green. I did, however, run into a reporter from The National Enquirer. Perhaps I’ll tell that story one of these days.

V: Writers of fiction often discover that their characters insist on writing themselves.

VI: Stone has written widely about virtual identities. In the paper under discussion here, she drew analogies between virtual personalities and the psychiatric condition Multiple Personality Disorder.

VII: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games

VIII: Nor, as some authors have argued, are they necessarily less authentic than legal identities.

IX: This is sticky language territory. I’m not saying we don’t have every right to present ourselves in any way we please, just that the people who interact with us in the real world often make assumptions about us that don’t necessarily correspond with our personal histories. This of course is as true on planet Earth as it is in virtual space.

X: Membership in Second Life is free, although its market culture certainly tempts many people to spend money for virtual goods and land. The complex user interface makes the first few hours difficult, but many residents are happy to help newcomers and there are video and printed tutorials that explain the interface and the culture. See