For better or for worse, anonymity is a fundamental part of surfing the web. Whether we’re posting on forums or online dating, our personas are carefully — and deliberately — crafted.
The trans boy with hostile parents can be himself on the internet, never being labelled by his physical appearance. The veteran from an ancient conflict can learn about the culture he fought, seeing for himself what the next generation is building. The small town girl with the freckled cheeks can contribute to scientific commentary, not once told she’s too young (or too female) to know what she’s talking about.
But so, too, the angry young man with a chip on his shoulder can attack from the shadows. The voice that should have gone raw from screaming can never really be silenced. The joke that would never be told in a crowded room sees the light, and is shared, and shared again.
We build a series of masks, and inside those masks we operate in a fundamentally different way than we do inside our own skins. We are bolder. We are less afraid. We speak our truth for good or ill, and we do what we can to avoid the ugly truths of other people. This is more than an important part of the internet — it once defined every single interaction we had on it.
That is slowly beginning to change. Facebook has instituted strict rules about using “real” names, and is now a standard login for other services. Online dating, for instance, often links back to Facebook to make sure no one is being catfished. Friends are becoming more likely to communicate through services like Musical.ly and Snapchat, where their physical appearance can’t be hidden, and where the only strangers they’re likely to run into are friends of friends. Even online comment sections are trying to fight back against trolling by banning anonymous comments, instead requiring logins that can at least track a user’s comment history, if not link back to their real identity.
But which of these trends will virtual reality follow? In a world where half the adventure is that you can become anyone you want, will we force people to be themselves?
It isn’t an easy question to answer. The move away from anonymity has been largely motivated by online bullying and harassment, which we’ve already seen is a problem that VR doesn’t dispel. Psychological research shows that online trolling is motivated by a lack of reprecussions; when anonymity is taken away, the fear of reprecussions grows, and trolling lessens. If that’s the case, allowing anonymity in VR is a potentially serious problem.
But other critics disagree. They say online trolling is more closely tied to the online disinhibition effect, which essentially means that because we’re disassociated from real-world selves through a lack of facial expression, tone of voice, and body language, abusers don’t step back when they normally would. If that’s the case, realistic enough VR should create the same “step off” feelings that would be triggered in the real world, meaning we’ll see far less virtual trolling as soon as we start to have truly realistic avatars.
The question of whether anonymity is worth the risks is an important one to ask as we begin to build virtual communities. Most currently allow users to build any kind of avatar they want, using whatever aliases they desire. While some are tied to real world identities (like Steam accounts or Facebook logins), it’s relatively easy to simply create a new email and login for most of those services. Right now we’re trending towards anonymity, and that means a virtual sandbox in which anyone can play. Oculus is using gender neutral avatars, for instance, while other services are letting us experience what it’s like to be the woman surrounded by men, or vice versa. Studies have shown that just looking in a mirror and seeing a person of another skin colour can help combat racial bias, and of course never knowing who you’re interacting with means meeting people you might otherwise never come in contact with. It has a potential to help us build the shining utopian future dreamed of in optimistic science fiction.
But harassment in VR is real, and as we move towards that future, protecting at-risk groups is incredibly important. The trick will be finding a way to protect those communities without losing the magic of the creation of self. One possible solution is realism — combat trolling by making people forget they’re online. Another is protection mechanisms like the ‘Hero Gesture’ that punish trolls and give strength back to victims.
No matter what decision we make, it’s one that should be made both intelligently and consciously, by the community. Because harassment is too serious to ignore. And the power of self-invention is too precious to toss away.
Written by Wren Handman for www.hammerandtusk.com.