What does her real-life family think of all this? “My parents actually play too,” she informs me, though she won’t reveal their SL identities. “They don’t tell people their real age . . . and if people knew they had an 18-year-old daughter, their cover would be blown.” Falco agrees to ask if they’d be willing to meet me in-world; less than a minute later she announces, “My dad is coming here now.” And then — poof! — a male figure whose avatar-moniker I promised not to disclose appears.
Tapioca’s father explains that he’s at home on a Tuesday afternoon because he works at night; his real-world name is Anthony. He’s admittedly “impressed by [my daughter’s] ability to build and create,” he says. But he has no personal interest in busting his ass for imaginary stuff. “Work is a real-life function for myself,” he texts.
Of course, real-world Anthony could be Tapioca’s “alt,” an alternate avatar account, or a friend Tapioca IM’d and rounded up to sustain the parental ruse. (For what it’s worth, the two characters typed simultaneously and spoke in different tones.) But the who-really-is-that dilemma is one of SL’s major complexities: real-world anonymity is not only an intrinsic feature of the imaginary realm, but a Linden-upheld guarantee.
There are some residents who don’t blur the lines between their digital personas and their flesh. Ex-MTV VJ and podcasting guru Adam Curry, for instance, is a celebrity SL resident who goes by Adam Neumann and has his own compound, Curry Castle. (Earlier this month, when Curry’s real-world mother passed away, an in-world wake was held in her honor.) Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford legal scholar and Internet-copyright expert, is also an SL resident. And Long Beach, California, city-council candidate Brian Ulaszewski one-upped Howard Dean when he coordinated a virtual meet-and-greet in Second Life.
VIRTUAL WORLD, ACTUAL GRIEF: Earlier this month, Second Life residents held a wake for Adam Curry's mother.
Yet Rosedale must have partly intended, obscurity can be a great equalizer. “I have this big Tiki house [in SL],” says Milford-based C.C. Chapman, a digital marketer at Babson College who also hosts the music podcast Accident Hash. “The other night we did a strategy session [in the house] talking about digital marketing. I knew who these people were from talking with them before, but everyone else there didn’t,” he says. “This guy over here was a CEO and this woman over here is a stay-at-home mom trying to start her own business. But here they’re on a level playing field — they don’t know the difference — and that’s cool. The medium empowers people to be whatever they want to be.”
Such freedom can also be a conundrum, as when real-world writer Wagner James Au spent three years reporting on SL as his counterpart Hamlet Linden. SL, he theorizes, “demands new ethical [journalistic] standards because, really, in Second Life, you don’t want to violate people’s anonymity.” So in researching a story, “I would ask people questions that, based on my knowledge, would work, and demand a detailed explanation,” explains the San Francisco–based reporter who dons a white suit in honor of journalist Tom Wolfe — as does his avatar. (Au’s actually been recognized at his local Trader Joe’s, thanks to his real-world resemblance to his avatar.)