Never judge a book by its cover. Never judge a person by his or her online avatar.
When I placed a library hold on Being Virtual: Who You Really Are Online by Davey Winder, I expected advice on enhancing one’s online persona. Well, sort of…. True to its theme, this book is not what I expected, but much more interesting than a how-to.
Winder writes about the differences and similarities between who we are when we interact in cyberspace and who we are in person. He shares his own experience discovering virtual communities (back to the days of online bulletin boards and FidoNet) after suffering an attack of viral encephalitis that left his body largely paralyzed. “Getting online wasn’t easy, nor cheap, but it was all I had,” Winder writes of his explorations soon after being released from the hospital. His body was limited by paralysis and the physical barriers that impeded his wheelchair, but his mind roamed freely in cyberspace. Eventually improved technology and Winder’s hard-won experience led him to complex online worlds such as There.com and SecondLife.
Most of Being Virtual is made up of interviews with and profiles of other people who, because of physical or mental disabilities, live rich online lives that sometimes dwarf (and occasionally integrate with) their lives in the “real” world. He describes online communities that offer comfort and support to those who are experiencing difficulty in their daily lives. And he doesn’t shy away from some of the dangers of the Internet–especially interactions with those who use anonymity and virtual identities to disguise unethical actions.
In the end, Winder concludes that our online selves can be every bit as “real” as our physical presence. “The hidden aspects of personality bubble to the surface and reveal the person we really want to be, the person we truly are,” he concludes. After all, our selves are made up of many aspects in the physical world–how we behave with our families, friends, colleagues–that it should not be surprising if our virtual selves are just as multi-faceted, and every bit as real.