Monday, July 19, 2010

Pygmy Hippo: Avatar names in Second Life are influenced by its discourse and milieu

Harbin ethnography:

... The Harbin experience – as I've heard it called, and sometimes by Harbin residents in the sense that to call the 'now' experience as experience, takes it problematically out of its 'nowness' – is what I hope will inform a reading of the posthuman vis-a-vis virtual Harbin.

Avatar names in Second Life are influenced by its discourse and milieu. My name in Second Life is Aphilo Aarde. I chose the last name of my avatar 'Aarde' from a list that Linden Lab's Second Life offered, and because I liked the sound of it. I later learned that it means earth in Dutch. I chose the first name 'Aphilo' for my avatar, because '-phil-' has connotations of 'love.' I chose 'Aphilo' also because I had a great uncle named Philo, because the name shared something in common with the word 'philosopher,' and because having a name beginning with the letter 'a' would put it toward the top of any list, something possibly helpful in computing. Names which are chosen, as they are in a variety of ways in Second Life, compared with 'real life' to use a term from Second Life, can connote or denote something about the chooser of the name, or the avatar - the representation of the figure, sometimes fantastical and imaginative and always cartoon-esque in SL at this point - which names in real life, often given by parents, don't. And people/end users in Second Life can have multiple avatars with different names (Turkle 199?), and thus engage Second Life in a variety of ways. At actual Harbin many people have New Age spiritual names, often with Hindu-origins, in my experience, but actually with origins that are 'all over the map' – hippie-like. As a cultural practice, this name selection at Harbin reflects the New Age vision and practices that have developed there since the 1960s. From the spiritual name of the (visionary, perhaps a hippie, and businessman, in some ways) founder 'Ishvara' (a.k.a. Bob Hartley, in actuality) – meaning supreme commander in the Hindu pantheon of divinities – to a variety of others, names at Harbin are sometimes chosen by the individual out of their beliefs which found support at Harbin, or were given, sometimes, by spiritual teachers. Sometimes spiritual Harbin names, or self-selected ones, are taken from nature, or from art, or from a fascinating trip. Spiritual, or self-chosen names, also express an individual's vision of the highest order, and sometimes in relation to their understandings of the divine. In a place like clothing-optional Harbin, long visited by hippies and other northern Californians especially, with an openness to bodywork, intimacy, its alternative and pools-centric 'counterculture,' other names, besides legal ones, have an advantage of a kind of anonymity. Colorful, creative, visionary spiritual names also reshape an entire discourse in new and innovative ways at Harbin, because people associate these names with people, and all of this becomes part of the fabric of life – Harbin's culture - as well. Virtual Harbin names will be fascinating to observe as they emerge. For example, what will Harbinites' spirituality, and anonymity, add to the virtual Harbin experience? What Second Life groups will emerge in virtual Harbin that are unique to Harbin? What programmers, script writers, and even new virtual world experiences – not Second Life and Open Simulator, for example - will emerge?

In ethnographically examining the idea of the virtual Harbinite (vis-a-vis the posthuman) in relation to Harbin folks (vis-a-vis the human), I'm also interested in questions of personhood itself, about which avatar use in a virtual world opens new areas of inquiry (Boellstorff 2008: 28). ...

( - July 19, 2010)

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