What not to wear in virtual circles

Academics might party in Second Life, but they can't agree on attire, writes Rebecca Attwood

October 22, 2009

According to stereotypes, academics do not care about their appearance.

But in the virtual world, it seems, university lecturers do worry about what to wear.

When an online discussion group organised a get-together in Second Life, where outlandish garb is the norm, it led to a debate about what constitutes appropriate attire for university representatives.

Members of the forum, set up for academics with an interest in virtual worlds, were invited to meet their peers on Second Life in the form of virtual characters - "avatars". After the event, there was animated discussion about the outfits.

"It amuses me that two or three people were worried about how their avatars were dressed. I didn't see anything particularly inappropriate," one said.

Another, a university librarian, was less sure, confessing to being "very particular about how I dress in Second Life".

She cited a study that concludes that anyone representing their workplace in a virtual world "should appear and dress conservatively".

She questioned whether this rule held true for university staff, even those who use Second Life to hold seminars and interact with students.

"While it may be true for big business, it isn't so true in education; the people we are communicating with are likely to be outrageous, too," she said.

Another lecturer described an awkward moment while teaching in Second Life: "How do we justify it if students are there to learn about tsunamis and ... some semi-naked avatar passes by, gyrating in front of them (which happened in one of my classes)?"

Most agreed that, even in virtual reality, a degree of formality is appropriate.

"If I were working with students, I would naturally dress conservatively," a learning-development specialist said.

"Not necessarily smart - I don't think something different and distinctive is out of the question - but anything remotely seedy or overly sexy would be."

While acknowledging that it was "obviously important for a learning institution that staff image is respectable", the lecturer added that in informal meetings online, academics should be able to "let their hair down, or, indeed, grow hair all over".

"What's the point of being in Second Life for an evening with all that visual power if you don't enjoy it?" she asked.

Another commentator suggested that the answer was to use different avatars in different social contexts.

"My solution is to have two avatars: a boring one for institutional business, and one with a more adventurous character - and a much more extensive wardrobe - that I use for recreation.

"That way, I don't get into difficulties."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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