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Change Your Virtual Identity
and Discover Your Real Self

During a library-sponsored symposium about the Internet titled "What's Playing on the Celestial Jukebox: Real Knowledge in a Virtual World," moderator Terry Gross, host of the nationally syndicated radio show Fresh Air, asked panelist Sherry Turkle to talk about some of her experiences in the world of MUDs: Multi-User Domains. Turkle, professor of the sociology of science at MIT and the author of Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, began by describing what the symposium itself, held in November, would be like if it were taking place in a MUD instead of a basement auditorium in Meyerson Hall.
The medium of common software, she said, "would give each of us in our home space the illusion that, through the computer, we were in a space together, and that space would be descibed either through text or through graphics as a large room, enclosed with brick, with blue seats. And there is a stage, and on the stage are sitting five people, each with microphones. And our words, as Terry has
Celestial Jukebok Illustration
asked the questions and as we have responded, would be scrolling down, and we could talk to each other by giving various commands. You in the audience could talk amongst yourselves without our hearing you, [and] we could talk amongst ourselves without anyone hearing us. In other words, we could have conversations and engage in relationships in this space."
Those who were interested, she added, "could all decide to meet here in the virtual University of Pennsylvania hall next week to continue some aspects of the conversation -- something that would be more difficult to do off-line."
There, she suggested, the real explorations could begin.
"I could log on as a man," she said. "I could log on as a much older woman. I could log on as a much younger woman -- create an identity, a name, characterizations, and then have relationships with other people in these spaces who have similarly described themselves." What distinguishes the most interesting MUDs, she added, "is that you get identity changes of a more profound nature when they become like Cheers, where everyone knows your name, or at least your virtual name... You begin to get the kinds of friendships and identity-play that I find so compelling."
Asked why people change their identities or genders when they log on, Turkle said that a big part of it was curiosity. She herself had stumbled onto the gender-bending aspects of the game when someone simply assumed that the initials S.T. were those of a man. And, she said, it soon became clear that as a man, she had certain kinds of freedoms that she had not experienced as a woman: "I found it was much easier to say, 'Excuse me, I'm busy; I'm working on something here,'" without feeling that she was being rude. Turkle said she was also offered "a lot less help on-line" as a man -- which led her to the question: "Has being offered all this help all these years made me think of myself as someone who needs help?"
When men log on as women, she added, they often get deluged with remarks such as "You busy?" "Want to talk?" "Love your virtual outfit"; as a consequence, "they develop a healthy respect for the many forms that sexual harassment can take."
In Turkle's view, the process of "playing out different aspects of self" on the Internet "creates a sense of psychological maturity that has to do with flexible transitions between aspects of the self and discovering different aspects of yourself on-line." Doing so, she argued, leads not to a split personality but to an ability to be "flexible" among those parts of the self and to "seeing yourself more as a multiplicity than a one."
As a student at Harvard University, Turkle recalled, she studied with psychologist Erik Erikson, who "used to write about adolescence as a time of moratorium, a time of 'time out,' " one often associated with the college years. "You had a chance to experiment with these many aspects of self -- to have a kind of consequence-free time, and he wrote about how important that was in the development of a healthy identity."
Today, she noted, "the college years are not a time-out; college is pre-professional. AIDS has made the notion of consequence-free sexual experimentation an impossibility; we interrogate our political candidates about what they were doing in 11th grade. There is a sense in which this time for a 'time-out' has closed down. And what you see on the Internet is many people seeking out this moratorium space, to have that permission."


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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/23/97