Several years ago – in 2007, in fact – I wrote my first ever article about Second Life®. Titled, ‘The language of love; the love of language,’ it was written for a rather short-lived magazine in SL called ‘The Spork’ and concerned my horror at all the talk there was at the time of introducing voice to SL. “We pad out our speech with such guff sometimes,” I wrote, “the errs and the umms are perhaps the tamest examples, where at least we’re having the decency to communicate we’re not quite sure what to say.” The point I was trying to make was that text is something we’re able to control, whereas spontaneous speech is, well, spontaneous. We’re none of us really as good at it as we think we are, which is why most people hate hearing their voice recorded.
Text, on the other hand, is something we have to think about: those extra few seconds between thinking something and delivering it to an audience give us the opportunity to consider, formulate and – if needs be – edit it. If we choose to, we can present something far more in keeping with the personality we want to present through our avatar. This isn’t to say that every SL user’s textual output strikes me as some sort of poetry – I frequently find myself thinking lemon squeezed in my eyes would be preferable to having to read some of the poorly formed views I encounter in SL (not SL’s fault, of course, and if we were to bring Facebook opinions into this consideration I would seriously consider something permanently blinding rather than lemon juice) – but just that text creates a layer between us and other people which can sometimes be useful. That little pause that we’ve come to expect between typed comments can come in very handy when, for example, you need to turbo-search an adjective someone’s used in order for you to appear knowledgeable.
Voice did of course get integrated into SL and, eight years later, it’s still text that most people use as their main method of communication. I feel a little bit smug about that. Actually, I think voice is brilliant in certain contexts: I’ve used it a great deal in my various spoken word performances over the years and there are certain types of one-to-one conversation that are just a heck of a lot easier in voice than in text. I’m glad that we have it. I’m just also pleased that it hasn’t become the default mode of interaction. Very pleased.
Regardless, the architects of the future metaverse still seem convinced that more natural communication is one of the elements which will make virtual reality more appealing to the masses. Facial expression is one such element, with new advances in this technology making frequent headlines in the tech websites. Reported recently in New World Notes, for example, is work by researchers at the University of Southern California and Facebook’s Oculus team on tracking users’ mouth movements via a camera mounted to the Rift by something that looks like a drooping selfie stick. From a technological viewpoint, the results look pretty good (even if in RL the user with all that kit on his face looks a little like a Dalek with erectile dysfunction), however the whole idea just makes me shudder. If this thing comes as an optional extra, I think I’ll pass.
I’m not here to pour scorn all over the concept: I accept it will bring many benefits to virtual interaction just has voice has done to SL. RL facial expression will enhance massively all manner of audience events: theatre will be transformed; concerts will become more intimate; virtual teaching – we seem only now to be working out that it’s the relationship between the teacher and her student that’s the most important dimension in learning (something teachers have known for decades) – will be enhanced to a degree that might actually make something like a virtual university finally plausible. Without a doubt, this is useful technology that I would be perfectly happy to use for, say, a live reading.
But for everyday social interaction? No thanks. I value my facial privacy. I like not having to think about what my face is doing whilst I’m chatting with others. I don’t especially want them to see me yawning or rolling my eyes or grimacing at some stray thought that pops into my mind or panicking when someone asks me if I’m being bellicose and I have no idea what they mean. What if I involuntarily give off one of those scowls my face does when I get indigestion? What if I feel the need to burp? For God’s sake, can I not even burp in the privacy of my own home anymore?
In fact what I fear the most is how my face might appear when it’s doing absolutely nothing at all. When we see well-produced video of people interacting with others via text of some sort on their laptop we see interested expressions, raised eyebrows at revelations, smiles, laughter, wagging fingers at some cheeky remark, and so on. I suspect this to be stage-managed bollocks, a fiction engineered to make online interaction look just like real world interaction for those who don’t understand it. Perhaps I am uniquely non-expressive in my nonverbal engagement inworld, but I doubt it. What my face is actually doing most of the time I’m in conversation is, quite simply, nothing. And faces doing nothing are not an attractive thing to behold. Those forty muscles they contain are there for a reason and it’s not to make you appear like a discarded sack of potatoes.
All of this was superbly summarised by one of New World Notes’ readers (Issa Heckworth) in a single phrase: ‘The Gawp,’ (defined by Wagner James Au as “that gape-mouthed, dumbass expression you make when wearing a VR headset”). I fear the Gawp.
The obvious counter-argument to my position here is that maybe I should try a little fucking harder; that if I wouldn’t treat people I’m speaking to in RL to my own personal version of The Gawp then perhaps I shouldn’t treat SL acquaintances to it either; that imagining people are looking at my face whilst I’m engaged with them might even help me to immerse a little better. The flaw to such an argument is it assumes I engage in RL in the same sort of interaction that I do in SL. I do not. For my job, I regularly and quite happily talk in front of audiences sized anything between ten and a hundred people, but that is quite a different thing for me than social conversation, where talking even to just one person for anything over an hour becomes mentally exhausting (I have a dread of any form of barbecue invitation). One of the very attractions for me of SL, then, is that it enables me to access social interactions I wouldn’t ordinarily be comfortable with by relieving me of certain burdens – managing my facial expression being one of these.
If you think that constitutes some sort of self-outing on my part as being somewhere on the autism spectrum, spend a moment or two reflecting on your own preferences. How do you respond when someone you know points a camera in your direction – do you automatically attempt to arrange your facial muscles in something approaching acceptable for the judgement of posterity? Is video Skyping for you a bit more of an effort than a phone call? Do the first couple of drinks you consume on a night out serve the function of reducing your self-consciousness? Are you absolutely certain you want every flicker of your face to be seen during what were once upon a time carefree social metaverse engagements?
Between writing the sentences of that last paragraph, I became aware of the fact that I was pinching and pulling out my lower lip, a habit I have when I’m concentrating on something and which I’m sure will look just delightful when it’s picked up in the future by a virtual reality headset. Except it won’t, because that option will remain turned off for me for all but the most formal of occasions. But if this article has raised your anxieties about the broadcasting of all your own private facial habits then fear not: I fully expect the innovative market of user-created content to devise a product precisely for residents like us so that we too can look just like those beautifully engaged people in those video clips.
It will be called the facial expression overrider.