Last fall, University of Maine senior Lyra Hall led three lives. Most of her classmates recognized Hall as a fairly outgoing mass communication major with a wry sense of humor. But a handful of others also knew that in the virtual world that is Second Life, Hall had two avatars — digital representations of a person, for the uninitiated — she named Jermaine Waffle and Rachael Fromund.
Jermaine liked jet skiing and hot air balloon rides. He was a muscular, jeans and T-shirt kind of guy. Rachael, who hung out at clubs, was very sociable, but didn’t have many true friends. She was slender with a schoolgirl style (think early Britney Spears).
Negotiating the two other personas as part of professor John Sherblom’s course in communication and technology was challenging — and revealing — for Hall.
“You can see how people interact with you differently,” says Hall, who is from Machias, Maine. “Sometimes, it’s a little weird (having an avatar) of the opposite sex. It’s a little difficult to get used to.”
In Sherblom’s class, such lessons occur in what amounts to a laboratory for interpersonal communication processes. In real life, the way students interact is often based on factors over which they have little control: race, gender, social class, upbringing and geography, to name a few. In Second Life, they can choose their avatars’ physical and cultural identities. Afterward, they have time to consider why they made those choices and how those choices affected the way they communicated with other avatars.
As they navigate Second Life, they also become acutely aware that identity is social — a co-constructed reality. For example, there was only one person — the same person — behind Lyra Hall’s avatars Jermaine Waffle and Rachael Fromund. But other Second Life residents treated them differently, in part because of their appearance and gender, and because of the way Hall communicated through them.
“When I talk in class about issues of identity, about the symbolic interaction of the ‘I,’ the ‘me’ and the ‘generalized other’ — about how we construct our social reality through our communication, and how we coordinate and manage meaning structures with others — those are abstract concepts that are not easily understood. But here, in Second Life, students get to experience what those concepts mean,” Sherblom says. “When they reflect on what they’ve experienced, they’re able to better understand.”