In 18th century Paris, for the Friday evening thrill, you could attend a Masquerade—a social event where guests wore masks to conceal their identity. The masquerades were socially perceived as liberating and stimulating, as you could leave your original identity behind—that old toil you have been dragging along for years and years! At a masquerade, you could enjoy the freedom of being anyone and mingle with anyone else, free to assume any identity you would.
It is towards such parties my mind wanders when I am socializing with strangers in Virtual Reality. Each clothed in an avatar, perhaps even of their own construction—often roleplaying bizarre personas—the experience is stimulating and sometimes… too much. In this piece, we will discuss some of the Philosophy behind Social VR.
The Social Web
The benefit that VR provides as a social medium, is its wholesome and rich expression. It is a medium with great possibilities of avoiding perceivable abstraction of the presented information. Essentially, this means that VR has the capability to mimic real life in ways other mediums can not; VR presents its information in the format of reality. Given this, it makes sense why the largest social network chose to buy the largest VR company in 2016. Not only was this seen as a proof of VR reaching maturity—it also speaks of the social ambitions for the medium. Eventually, VR may give way to solutions for social and affective communication that, in many ways, is the complete opposite of the way social networks work today (with textual profiles, smileys, emoticons, and other abstractions of emotions.) VR has the possibility of transferring, instead of classifying, all of our body language—and current work on recognition of facial expressions while in VR is really impressive.
In this entry, however, we will be discussing the current reality of social VR. We will start with the mad hatter in our VR universe; VRChat.
The Virtual Masquerade
The ability to hide your identity, and simultaneously convene in a wholesome way, has many benefits. Thinking of this theme, I am first reminded of how Journalist Yusuf Omar used Snapchat AR filters to allow rape survivors in India to tell their stories anonymously. With the use of VR also, there are numerous of beautiful stories that illustrates the potential of this kind of anymous, yet wholesome, expression. For instance, YouTube channel Syrmor exclusively performs interviews through VR—where you can watch people telling personal stories through VRChat. Watch, for instance, how this kid opens up about getting bullied, or this video where a guy talks about getting taken away from his mom. The stories are beautiful and you feel an intimate connection to those who tell them. Another fantastic example of the expressiveness that follows VR communication which I always show in my lectures, is this video where a guy is suffering a seizure, and the group discusses how they can help him. This would not have played out the same way if conveyed through another medium.
The way I see it, the contrast of the absurd avatars and environment—combined with the deep, personal stories—create a remarkable fusion of meaning that challenges how we normally experience these emotions. The beautiful comes through the unexpected, which alters the experience.
It should be noted, however, that this is not necessarily a typical VRChat experience. This video is more illustrative of the chaos that these worlds also lay the grounds for.
Avatars as an Existential Problem
Now, what may Philosophy bring to the analysis of Social VR? Discussions on the current, or future, nature of social relations through VR has some philosophical implications. In our entry on Hinduism and Virtual Reality, we discussed the etymology of the word “Avatar” from the Sanskrit “Avatāra,” meaning “to descend,” and thus referring to the Gods visiting mortals. Avatars in the context of social VR, is a necessity as we need a body to clothe and express our selves. People have always been especially fond of their characters in MMORPGs, which only goes to tell the potential future importance of ownership in worlds where we actually inhabit them. With the magical powers of Virtual Embodiment as well as the combination of the strong self-expression and self-identification that these avatars can facilitate for, the role of these kinds of representations can end up being very important and meaningful for our lives.
The Philosophy of Social VR
Now, a philosophical theme that is possible to consider in relation to this is how the question of who you want to be in VR—how you want to represent yourself—is essentially an existential question. In VR, we are given the freedom to express ourselves without any pre-given limitations. In this way, through the medium of VR, we may one day be able to express our selves as we want, in fundamental terms.
In trying to imagine how we may communicate in the social worlds of the future, we will quote a section from a previous entry at Matrise called A Psychedelic Virtual Reality where we discuss an idea by Terence McKenna, that details how VR may be used to convey visual languages:
In referencing Lanier’s interesting embodiment experiences, where he turned himself into a lobster, McKenna imagines how humans can choose to be like octopi — in how octopi communicate ‘telepathically’ by wearing their inner life on their outer manifestation, so dissolving the boundaries between people. He writes:
“in the world of the octopus, to behold is to understand, [the octopus] does not transmit its linguistic intent, it becomes its linguistic intent.”
In other words, McKenna envisions how VR can allow us to quite literally wear our hearts on our sleeves, and approach a unity between appearance and being. McKenna calls this “visible languages”, and imagines how these may make it possible to “overcome the subject/object dualism as well as the self/other dualism”.
The question we are left with in considering this, then, is: Who do you really want to be? Or at least, how do you really want to be perceived?
And based on this, how will the social VR worlds of the future look like?
For the interested reader, Matrise has written entries that are similar in theme to this entry. Although not explicitly discussing the Philosophy of Social VR, these entries deal with how themes around how we identify and represent our selves in virtual worlds:
In The Existential Problem of VR, we discuss philosophically the themes that this entry has raised in a deeper manner.
In The Experience Machine, we discussed how Nozick’s thought experiment of the potential Experience Machine, a thought experiment aimed to test Hedonism, is related to VR.
In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves. This may be regarded as a partial answer to the thought experiment that this entry has discussed: what would we like to do presented the opportunity?
Similarly, In Virtual Embodiment we discussed how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars. It can help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.
In Hinduism and Virtual Reality we paralleled the broad metaphysics of the East with the potentiality of VR tech. The religious-philosophical system similarly concerns the dilemma of omnipotence: what would you do if you were God?
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Artist Top illustration is a cutout from The Naked Masquerade by Nancy Farmer.