Thursday, May 14, 2009

My Inadvertent Avatar Harrassment

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

That's What They All Say

Really, I did not mean to impose a man's outfit on my colleague, but he arrived at the OpenSim test space at the psychically perfect time, as my other colleague was showing me how to give people a folder full of men's clothing.

There he was, standing across the grassy plaza, looking small and a bit vulnerable.

"What, you don't like my red leggings?" He asked, when I chatted my offer. In this particular OpenSim tool, everyone arrives as female their first time in-world, but his or her real name appears over his or her cartoon-head.

In real-life, I've met this colleague only a few times, as he's from another country, and probably, we have not seen each other since 1997, though we see each other's status in Facebook nearly daily.

"Sarah's having her facilitator final exam and she needs to give away clothing," my colleague typed, tongue-in-cheek, or a similar message, as a way of excusing my intrusiveness....Indeed, she was trying to help me gain that experience at that very moment.

How amazing that I saw my colleague's photo all the time in Facebook, but I got extra-excited when I spotted his avatar moving around in OpenSim because it felt like we were together in the same place, for real, even though his name did not match his appearance at all.

It Goes Both Ways, Whether or Not Intentionally

Very soon, a bunch of big guys in suits, all from his country, materialized by his side, like body-guards, and I felt intimidated. Why isn't he taking the clothing I offered, I wondered. I waited with some frustration while he stood with his back to me as the big, suited avatars began moving around the plaza.

My female colleague and I were the only "real" women in the space and I felt vaguely menaced, and alternately nervous, like we were at a high school dance. Suddenly, I saw my male colleague's body swell up and transform, hulk-like, into a man's body, and when he turned around, he was wearing a men's suit with a Hawaiian shirt. Unlike his colleagues, he'd opted against wearing a tie, which made him look less menacing, but also less accessible than when he was small and a bit chesty. Now, he reminded me of the actor Don Johnson during his "Miami Vice" days.

Didn't I need to get back to work? They started asking my colleague useful questions about the technology that I could have learned from, but suddenly, I felt awkward and shy, and the need to get out of there. Reluctantly and eagerly at once, I typed, "I'm gonna go. Thanks," to my female colleague and clicked "Quit."

Both of Us Were Still Thinking About Our Chance Meeting

Later in the afternoon, I received the following, gentle message from him in e-mail:
Hey Sarah,

Thanks for the help in SL.That was very useful. I am really liking using Sametime 3D for meetings. I hadn't used SL in awhile (The personal ROI wasn't there for me). But with all the tools that are there now, I am much more enthusiastic about it. I can see it being a de facto way of meeting.

I think there will also be some interesting discussion around what constitutes appropriate business dress for these things. I suspect it will be that people will wear roughly what they wear in the real world. On the other hand, if I wanted to change my gender in SL, who is going to say I can't? Instead of business casual we might have gender casual. Or species casual for that matter! :) (e.g., [my colleague's name]? Oh, he's that rooster over there! Lookin' good, [my colleague's name]! :) ) Seriously, it could provide for some interesting discussion. Likewise, the reverse could also occur, where instead of it being more open, it could become more closed if we were meeting people from more conservative parts of the world. (I might not like that, but I could see the potential of it happening).

Talk to you soon, Sarah.

Oy, how ironic! Me, who was just training other facilitators this morning via a draft of facilitator notes:
Note: Men appear as female avatars by default; do not bait them or be too apologetic and rather, just help them change genders matter-of-factly, if they wish to, as in my experience, a number feel unsettled by the experience and we ought not add to their anxiety by joking with them about it; also, if they joke first, and it's not funny, don't laugh along, as we don't want to appear misogynistic to any other participants -- I know how this might sound overly-earnest/too PC, but I appreciate your taking this advice.

The facilitators of two genders were fine with my advice, and then virtual reality happened later the same day, and I did not rise properly to the occasion myself. It's remarkable, as I've been talking to another colleague for months about the sensitivity around self-expression in Virtual World environments; she has raised my consciousness that some people even prefer to present themselves in-world as an animal, or a robot.

It's true. At a recent, behind-the-firewall event, I saw a little, brightly-striped fish, a short robot and a man with a big, furry tail, among the rest of us, who were more conventional. Most recently, my childhood friend, who's an avid avatar, gave me the gift of some shoes that sparkle brightly, until I type in the chat window, "Bling off." Not too wild, except that I would never wear blinding stilettos in real-life.

Bling On

I responded to my virtually FTM colleague:
Yes, yes, yes to all that you said. It was really fun to see you suddenly/psychically in there today. All of the sudden a group of [his native country] guys materialized....

I didn't mean to foist men's clothes on you. Truly, just when you arrived, [my other colleague] was teaching me how to give any man who was anxious about his default gender being female a packet of men's clothing, and voila, there you were! A friend and colleague is actually drafting ideas on how to enable IBM people to express themselves as they see fit in SL/OpenSim behind our firewall, e.g., being whatever gender or species or machine they wish to be.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, Sarah, what's the deal with foisting men's clothing on me when I was rocking the red tights! :)

I was considering this initially as a area around gender, but really, it is really more about identity in general.

If I were using SL for leisure, I might be inspired to be an animal or a even a machine (I would choose to be a bubblegum machine, dispensing happiness and fresh breath. :))

However, using SL professionally, I would likely continue to use avatars that somewhat closely resembled my real self (ok, perhaps a bit more buff than my real self, but still). The semiotic confusion that could arise from using an significantly different avatar could just mess up any business meetings I am attending (why is Bernie a rooster again?).

Plus, to be honest, I am somewhat conservative when it comes to my identity. But that's just me. If others wanted to change their appearance or gender or wanted to show up as Darth Vader or a 1401 mainframe computer, that would be fine by me. I assume people judge me by my appearance, but I make an effort not to judge people by theirs. And if people feel they can provide more value by having an alternative identity and that identity doesn't imply any harm, then I say go for it.

It's interesting how you perceived the situation. For my part, I hesitated for a second to change my gender, because I didn't want you to think: oh, Bernie is embarrassed being a female avatar. The first time I was using this technology, I looked like I did today. However, today, I was wanting to have more control over what I do in SL, so I was glad you were there to help me with that (just like the other people I was with were helping me with things like sound and movement).

So, thanks again. Both for help with the wardrobe and for providing some excellent food for thought. Now I think I'll go change into my PJs! :)

Karen said...

I have an automated google search for Sametime 3D, and imagine my surprise to see my colleague Sarah's name come up on the results! So, of course I had to read it... I am the unnamed "other female colleague"...

Thanks Bernie for your perfect timing yesterday- I was getting tired of Sarah handing me the men's folder and making me put it on so she could "see how it worked" :-)

Sarah and I and others have had some interesting discussions around the implications of being able to choose your gender, and I am sure they will continue. Also, not to worry- in the next release we will allow you to choose your gender before you come 'in world' for the first time - so if you wanted to get in touch with your feminine side, you would be welcome to do so. It is very interesting how attached people become to their appearance, even if it is "just" an avatar. I know the first thing I do is load up my favorite shirt and jeans, and put on some decent hair...

Glad you are liking Sametime 3D. I did want to clarify for you that this is not actually Second Life (we just use the SL Viewer as a browser)- it is an Opensimulator based application, so it can be placed behind a firewall for privacy and security.

Sarah Siegel said...

All I can say is, I didn't think we could top the web -- the thing that made me so excited, especially circa 1995-2000, which is how Bernie and I met, since both of us were excited by it back in the day -- but this Virtual World stuff, especially when it includes mashed-up spreadsheet/document-creation capability, like what Karen's team has developed, really grabs me!

Bernie, I love your point about identity, rather than gender. You're right. So far, I've been an Egyptian princess in Active Worlds; myself in the body of a 20-year-old in the IBM Metaverse; and "Gamer-girl" in Second Life, among others, because I liked the hilarious outfit, which included a big-beret-like cap, fishnets, baggy shorts and combat-boots. My personality never has differed, though; I have always been fundamentally me.

Anonymous said...

Glad you could join the conversation here, Karen! And glad to be a mannequin for the male clothes!

I think the ability to chosen appearance attributes, including gender, clothes, hair, etc, before going in world would be a preferable thing for most people. On the other hand, a “make me random” feature would be fun as well! It could help people overcome some of the boundaries they might unnecessarily impose upon themselves. I don’t imagine everyone wants to vary too much from their identity, but if everyone starts showing up in business attire, it could be a creativity drag and enforce an unnecessary sort of group think.

I didn’t know that about Sametime 3D (i.e. that it is not Second Life). I wonder what other users might think? SL has a bit of a bad reputation. If people knew it was not really SL, they might feel more comfortable. What do you think?

I agree with you, Sarah: this stuff has that same excitement about it that breakthrough technologies like the early Web had. When talking to clients about virtual worlds, I tell them that while they went up a pretty steep hype curve, they will be coming back and be a significant presence in the way we work. Especially when there are practical tools like those that Karen’s team are work on. The easier it is to integrate any system with other systems, the more people get out of it, I believe.

Finally, I am fascinated by the opportunities that virtual worlds provide us in understanding such things as identity and capability. I hesitate to use The Matrix as a metaphor, if only because it is a dystopian future, and I think virtual worlds are much more positive than that. But that aspect of the Matrix, that ability to transcend our so called limits, provides us with a wealth of opportunity if we can harness it.

And on that note, I am going to go get my daughter and have some dinner. Talk to you soon!

P.S. If you have any duds that include White Tie and top hat, let me know. One so rarely gets to wear that these days in the real world. :)