Trust and Shame in Pseudonymous Personal Relationships

I’m borrowing (oh alright, stealing) the title of Botgirl Questi’s post of the same name, because this post is mostly a long comment that I wrote for that posting. (Yes, more word-reuse! Conserve neurons!)

The original posting (which you should read) suggests that pseudonymity (by which I think she means withholding real life details, and speaking only and always from within a virtual identity) is not a healthy thing in close personal relationships. As we’ve come to expect from Botgirl :) the post is well thought out and thought-provoking.

My own first reaction to reading it was that it was obviously correct (I’ve seen all too many SL relationships founder on the rocks of RL/SL separation), but on the other hand it felt wrong. In particular it felt wrong for me, and for quite a few of my SL friends, who have been functioning quite comfortably for months or years in SL as virtual creatures, with no particular interest in RL facts about people except as they happen to come up in conversation.

What’s the difference between those two cases? Well, I realized, to first order the relationships that have foundered have been aspiring to something like marriage, whereas the ones where pseudonymity seems just fine have not. So I tried to write that down in the comments; here’s what I said (very lightly edited for clarity):

Very interesting subject! I wonder how much this applies to close personal relationships in general, and how much of it is specific to (to use a phrase that we’re all avoiding saying) romantic love relationships, especially the officially-monogamous virtual-marriage kind.

I have friends in Second Life who I consider to be close personal friends, and whose RL identities I know little or nothing about. And that doesn’t seem to me to be any problem. We are friends because we enjoy each other’s company, because we laugh at the same things, because we understand (or enjoy coming to understand) each other’s in-jokes, because the exchange of thoughts and ideas between us is deeply rewarding.

I don’t care if they’re male or female in RL, young or old, blue or green. Why should I? It’s useful to know what timezone they’re in :) and sometimes we talk about RL things, the weather, happenings in our respective nearby cities, and so on. But if it turned out that they’d been doing some protective masking there, and talking about the weather in Duluth when they’re really in Peoria, I wouldn’t feel angry or betrayed.

Friends are friends, darn it, and if they feel they need or want to keep some information private or obscured for their own reasons, being a friend imho includes being understanding about that, and letting them have that choice and that space, and assuming that there’s some good reason behind it.

I’ve never had a personal relationship in SL come to a bad end or otherwise turn unhealthy because someone (either me or the other person) insisted on pseudonymity, and I have a hard time imagining it happening, for the reasons I give above; friends are allowed to keep up whatever barriers we’re comfortable with.

Of course we’re also allowed to lower whatever barriers we want to lower :) and I’ve had close friends eventually tell me RL things about them that they generally keep hidden, and that’s a lovely feeling of trust and closeness. But I don’t think that means that all barriers must always be lowered for a close personal relationship to be a healthy one.

On the other hand I have seen people (all too many people) get into what they thought of as virtual marriages, nominally monogamous, exclusive, trust-me-with-everything sorts of things, where barriers have come to be a problem. In that case, where either implicitly or explicitly each party is promising complete openness to the other, then holding back on that promised or expected openness can be an unhealthy thing.

Maybe because I myself amn’t looking for a life-mate in SL :) I think it would be good to distinguish between things that are true of close personal friendships in general, and things that are true mostly of virtual marriages in particular. My current feeling is that “pseudonymity is unhealthy” may be true of the latter, but is not particularly true of the former.

It’s probably obvious that my thinking isn’t fully-baked here :) but there it is. Comments are most welcome, either here or perhaps better over in the original post. Or both!

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