In a previous post, I describe the notion of personhood.
I’m browsing skincare online when a chat window pops up from the bottom left corner of my screen.
>Hi! I’m Jessica. Is there anything I can help you with today?
I hesitate. The cynic in me is unsure, to begin with, whether this is one of those useless bots who will “refer” me in endless cycles to imaginary “colleagues”, none of whom can answer my query, or if there’s an actual person on the other end of the line, waiting, desperately, for someone to reply.
I decide to write back.
>Do you ship to Australia?
>Sorry, I can’t answer that. Let me refer you to one of my colleagues.
OK, “Jessica”, if that’s even your real name, refer me to one of your “colleagues”, or should I say, fellow bot–
>Hi! I’m Gabby. Jessica forwarded your conversation to me. We do ship to Australia, but it’ll take a bit longer, around 2-3 weeks.
Well. She’s real. “She”? I couldn’t possibly know for sure. I was raised on the Internet playing avatar-based games, and spent the latter half of my teenhood in cyberspace communities; assuming an embodiment that doesn’t match one’s own is nothing new to me. How do I know that the skincare company isn’t just exploiting the probable femininity of their customer base? And, yeah, isn’t it weird that the majority of robot assistants – Siri, Alexa, Cortana – are “female”?
If this encounter with the unknown (and indeed, unknowable) seems familiar to you, you may also have ventured tentatively to imagine who else is “really” behind the screen. Like my mum, when she first discovered I was hanging out on the Internet: “Who are you really talking to?” It could be a bot, a human being with a real or fabricated persona, multiple people masquerading as a single user, or the reverse – a single person commanding multiple accounts.
Growing up, I spent most days at home with my sister watching VCRs, reading, and spending countless hours watching her play video games.
I was appointed the all-important role of repeatedly mashing a key to unleash a flurry of attacks on monsters who were just out of counter-attacking range in a certain side-scrolling massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).
I remember my sister being married in-game to another user in the U.S., a guy named Nate, who would send her in-game gifts that cost real-life money. My 10-year-old brain, primed to squawk “stranger danger!” at any unfamiliar interaction, couldn’t comprehend the exchange. They had never met in real life, never even seen a photo of each other, and the extent of their marriage beyond the game consisted of MSN chats and illustrations of their avatars dating that my sister made.
Boellstorff’s (2008) exploration of intimacy, sexuality and love in the online virtual world Second Life prompted me to reflect on the virtuality-reality continuum; do virtual feelings mirror or eventuate in real feelings? What kinds of activity, both online and off, might “sustain or threaten the gap between actual and virtual?” (p. 172) For example, Turkle (1995, p. 241) observed that a person in a real-life relationship participating in an erotic online role-play who had no intention to de-virtualise (i.e. make real) the in-game romance, didn’t consider this an act of infidelity. Is this because the roles weren’t considered persons, merely characters in a fictional play?
On the other hand, Boellstorff found that a genuine emotional and romantic bond formed online would very much constitute cheating on one’s partner; in fact, some felt that it would be “worse to cheat [online] than in [real life],” because in “[real life] it’s a physical thing, but here it’s your mind.” (2008, p. 172).
Throughout my teens, I was a user of a microblogging platform and became friends with people from all over the world. I finally appreciated the kind of relationship you can have with only a username and text on a screen: as Tufekci calls it, “words without bodies” (2012, p. 32). I ended up meeting some of these friends in real life (thankfully no catfishes), and I’ve stayed in contact with many of them on other social media platforms.
In 2018, the exposure of Russian-sponsored propaganda campaigns that resulted in the termination of 201 accounts stunned our community. Documents had been leaked from the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a pro-Kremlin group labelled a “troll farm”. The documents revealed that Internet sockpuppets (online identities intended to deceive) were involved in a disinformation effort to sway American political discourse with propaganda geared specifically to Black American youth.
I remember in the aftermath of this event, some people expressed disbelief at having ever imagined a sense of friendship or solidarity with these accounts. They felt betrayed because they had actively endowed credibility and personhood and opened their community up to beings that were not really persons at all.
The online realm illustrates the plurality of personhood, not merely because it offers another platform for performing the self, but also because these varied manifestations of personhood have always existed in other less systematic forms that couldn’t exploit personhood in the same way. In thinking as we sometimes do in binaries of selves – the “self as a body” and the “self that is built by society” (Durkheim 1914, p. 318) – virtuality provides different ways for “being a person”…for better or worse.
Boellstorff, T 2015, Coming of age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton University Press.
Durkheim, É 1914, ‘Le Dualisme de la nature humaine et ses conditions sociales’, in Durkheim 1970, pp. 314-332; trans. 2005, Durkheimian Studies no. 11, pp. 35-45.
Tufekci, Z 2012, ‘We were always human’, in N Whitehead & M Wesch (eds.), Human No More, University Press of Colorado.
Turkle, S 2011, Life on the Screen. Simon and Schuster.
Maddie’s article, Subtle Diasporic Traits, for more insight into how the online is altering conceptions of the anthropological field.