Virtual Spaces and Online Identities

Professor Sue Thomas[1. Sue Thomas is Research Professor of New Media in the Institute of Creative Technologies and the Faculty of Humanities at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. Her most recent book is the cyberspace travelogue ‘Hello World: travels in virtuality’ (2004). She has published extensively in both print and online, and has initiated numerous online writing projects including The Noon Quilt, now an iconic image of the early days of the web. She founded the trAce Online Writing Centre in 1995 where she was Artistic Director until going to De Montfort in 2005. Her research interests include transliteracy, social media, and transdisciplinarity. She is currently writing ‘Nature and Cyberspace: Stories, Memes and Metaphors’ a study of the relationships between cyberspace and the natural world (Bloomsbury Academic 2012). She attended Virtual Futures in 1995 and 1996, and believes that both conferences had an incalculable effect on her development as a writer and scholar of cyberspace.], Research Professor of New Media at De Montfort University, recently spoke at Virtual Futures 2011. Prof Thomas’ talk centred around her experiences of virtual spaces, particularly LambdaMOO. Here, Prof Thomas reflects on her first experiences of the virtual space, and how her understanding and experiences have changed in the 16 years since she first attended Virtual Futures.

My talk at Virtual Futures 2011 is about the 1995 Conference, my first VF, where I fell into the virtual space of LambdaMOO. But as I prepared my talk and looked back at the crazy identity games people played there in the 1990s, current events in 2011 seemed to be running parallel with issues I haven’t given much thought to for quite a while.

I had been planning to point out, for example, that these days most people seem to use their real identities online. In early chatrooms and bulletin boards it was common to use a ‘handle’ or ‘nickname’ rather than your RL (Real Life) name. This convention was so wide-spread that it was almost a surprise when someone appeared with an apparently ordinary ID, so that a user named ‘John Smith’ would be looked on with more suspicion than one called ‘Jelly_on_Toast’ or ‘Gandalf’. In my talk I was planning to point out that today the situation is often quite different because you can’t really make the most of Facebook unless you use your ‘real’ identity. The complicated people-weaving that Facebook does so well simply wouldn’t work for the ‘Jelly_on_Toast’ persona. Your Twitter name might be a bit more fanciful, but very often your public profile reveals your true name and perhaps even some personal information too.

In early chatrooms and bulletin boards it was common to use a ‘handle’ or ‘nickname’ rather than your RL (Real Life) name.

Two Boys

That’s one of the topics I planned to discuss at VF 2.0/11 – and then I happened to notice that this month the English National Opera is running a piece called Two Boys with a very amusing YouTube teaser. Following it back to the ENO website, I discovered that Two Boys is about the true story of the stabbing of a Manchester teenager by his best friend who, it turned out, was also the unwitting victim of the stabbed boy’s fantasy. Boy 1 had tricked Boy 2 into an online affair, enticed him into an offline friendship, then manipulated him into stabbing the instigator (Boy 1) in the belief that he was acting under orders from a female secret agent, also played by Boy 1. Confused? Everyone was, including me in 2005 when I was asked to appear in a TV special about the case. Kill Me If You Can was a timely reminder of the complicated goings-on which sometimes took place online at Lambda and other MOOs in the 1990s. Of course, they still happen today in many environments, but they seldom hit the news so frequently.

Fake blogger

And then the next day, as I continued to work on my talk, the Syrian gay girl blogger Amina Abdallah Aral al Omari was revealed to be the work of heterosexual American man Tom MacMaster. In Kill Me If You Can I had talked about how Boy 1 (called ‘John’ in the film) seemed to have been authoring a complex fiction but with real people as his characters, and how he was really too young to understand where it was all heading. He was only fourteen at the time, and when the case came to court he came up in front of a compassionate judge who sorted it all out very sensibly. But Tom MacMaster is forty years old. He knew what he was doing. And his ego knows no bounds, as evidenced on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme Monday 13 June 2011 when he stated with some pride that the fact so many people had believed in Amina’s authenticity was proof that he could ‘write convincing fiction’. Never mind the Syrian LGBT bloggers he had endangered in the process.

Online identities

After a week of this, I became concerned that my account of anonymous people with peculiar names pretending to be ambiguously-gendered would sound pretty tame. Then I reminded myself that their pioneering adventures continue to be very important in any discussion of life online because they paved the way for new ways to manage identity and because they began a discourse which continues today as we learn how to live with much more sophisticated social media.

What is LambdaMOO?

The text-based virtual world of LambdaMOO was set up in 1990/1 by Pavel Curtis, a software architect at Xerox PARC. It began as a technical experiment but soon grew into an online social laboratory where privacy and freedom were considered equally paramount. Anonymity was fiercely protected, along with one’s right to take any form or identity, and this apparent contradiction was just one part of the heady anthropological mix to be found there. My own first encounter with LambdaMOO was at a workshop run by Australian cyberfeminist and performance artist Francesca da Rimini (aka Gashgirl) at Virtual Futures 1995.

Visit LambdaMOO yourself by pasting this into your browser telnet:// and following the onscreen instructions. (Telnet is a special protocol – you may need to get help to enable it on your machine.)


Reproduced with the permission of the Knowledge Centre, University of Warwick

Photography by Andy Miah