FREE SPEECH ZONE | Breaking up the Body


   Between the short time of arriving home after a screaming fight and putting groceries away, my girlfriend Dana did something that eased her mind.
   “I defriended you on Facebook,” she told me after we had made up. “I didn’t want you reading my Wall.”

At this point, Dana and I were sharing a small one-bedroom apartment. Her laptop rested on one half of the kitchen table and my computer desk was a chair’s distance away. The kitchen where she often cooked our meals was the size of a foyer in a typical home and literally right inside of the door entrance.
   In other words, it was not difficult-if not impossible-to not know what she was up to. Was the online world different? Did it allow one to be in a different place? Dana no longer cooped-up in a 500-square-foot apartment with her de-friended boyfriend? Was having an online presence a way of extending traditional notions of human embodiment?

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   According to virtual anthropologists like Tom Boellstorff, one of a growing number of scholars studying the interaction between the actual self and the embodied virtual one, the ability to have a body in two distinct places is the crux of the draw of online worlds, and this ability is specific to virtual worlds like Second Life, not to web pages like Facebook.
At a recent lecture on the virtual body (which I attended as a part-time staff at the University of Minnesota Institute for Advanced Study who sponsored the lecture), Boellstorff, a Professor at the University of California at Irvine, argued that the presence of place makes the virtual body possible. His own ethnographic research in the virtual world of Second Life supports his claim that place is essential for being embodied and that this is the crucial difference between email and web pages (like Facebook) and Second Life. In the latter, one is not on Second Life (like we may be on Facebook) but in Second Life or in World of Warcraft, Boellstorff said. “The avatar is about a gap between the physical and the virtual, and in that virtual space you have the avatar but you don’t have them move back and forth,” he said. “My Second Life avatar I can’t have in this room because it needs to be in its place.”
   Second Life, to summarize, is one of many Internet-accessed virtual worlds in which members, known as Residents, participate, build and explore virtual terrain, and communicate with each other through avatars. In these worlds, the avatars may range wildly in form-from tiny-sized cats to hundred-foot dragons-and participants can control more than one avatar, known as Alts, or alternates. Participants log in from all over the world and there may be as many as 80,000 people logged in at a particular moment.
   The story of Second Life residents Eshi and Glenn is an amazing, albeit unusual, example of the ways participants may engage in virtual worlds, explained Boellstorff. Eshi Otawara, who lost her physical-world husband Glenn, created an avatar in Second Life who physically resembled Glenn. “If I can’t have this guy in real life, I will MAKE him in Second Life,” she told Wagner James Au, a Second Life journalist . So Second Life resident Eshi re-created her husband Glenn. “Rather, she re-made herself, transforming her avatar to look like her husband,” Au writes. “And when she was done remaking him, she took him on a tour through Second Life. She even gave him a flat belly, something she knew he wanted for some time.” Au then asked Eshi if she ever thought of turning Glenn into an Alt so that they could be logged on at the same time. “It’s a scary thought,” Eshi said, “It wouldn’t be him and me then…it would be me and me.”
   To those who are not participants, the extensiveness of virtual worlds like Second Life-billed as the “Internet’s largest user-created, 3D virtual world community”-is startling and unexpected. In Second Life, there are university courses being taught and research being conducted, work conferences being held, language-learning sessions taking place, newspapers with paid staff, religions, and even embassies. Furthermore, currency internally known as Linden dollar is exchanged as virtually-built things are bought and sold in money that can be translated into actual American dollars.
   Recently, scrolling through the Facebook news forum, I saw an update that announced that the world-renowned medical facility Mayo Clinic has created a virtual island inside of Second Life, complete with hospital buildings, a helipad, and a conference center. When I last checked, seventeen people had “liked” this. And on March 31st, Mayo Clinic hosted its virtual conference on colon cancer first in Second Life. One commenter described it as an “innovative approach” to increase attendance and spread awareness about medical illnesses. In this way, someone with a bed-ridden illness may be able to attend the conference and meet other patients or a caretaker in New York could interact with caretakers in Minnesota without leaving her home while at the same time being in Mayo Clinic. So the Facebook social media webpage that I was on had pointed to a virtual place that I could go into and attend a medical conference.

    “There’s always a gap between the virtual and the actual. The online and offline stay separate even though they influence each other,” Boellstorff had said in his lecture. And the two worlds may collide, as well. A New York Times article “Breaking up in a Digital Fishbowl” reporting on this growing collision ends on this somber note: “You cannot de-boyfriend yourself.” The words were spoken by a woman who had broken up with her boyfriend so she de-friended him on Facebook but remained Facebook friends with his children. Nonetheless, digital artifacts, like photographs, remained of the two of them together online. “You cannot de-boyfriend yourself,” she then said. In other words, she could de-friend her boyfriend but memories and artifacts from the relationship nonetheless had limited “de-friending” capabilities. And, further, she herself, the self that was not her online profile, could not simply click a button to forget the relationship ever existed. On social media pages like Facebook then the gap between the online and offline seems to be smaller, while in virtual places like Second Life the gap seems to be starker.
   While Dana was de-friending me on Facebook, I was standing, or sitting, mere inches away from her in the actual world of our second-floor apartment. And by this we were both locked-in-place-she could de-friend me, as she had, but she couldn’t de-boyfriend herself. She couldn’t alter her mindset, her feelings, her actual world as drastically as she had feigned on Facebook. But had she, after our fight, went into Second Life, perhaps something altogether different might have happened and she might have left.

   I wonder what the future of online presence and virtual embodiment holds. Might we have our human minds simply uploaded into computer programs and modules where we can instantaneously realize our ever-changing attitudes with a click of a button-erase not actual history but our cerebral records? Or perhaps the future of virtual embodiment is here-or rather, here and there-in a virtual place that many argue is as real as the actual world.        Meanwhile, on Facebook the News Feed displays, with next-to-no context but due speculation: “Dana and Amir are now friends.”