As more and more mesh heads are released into the Second Life marketplace, I am noticing that their mere mention is sometimes enough to incite detractors to criticise people who use them. The criticism often sounds like “mesh heads all look alike”, and the falsely dichotomous “mesh heads make you less unique”, followed often by the fearful warning that we’ll all soon look like “clones” and that mesh heads are “the new evil”.
There is a conventional wisdom in western culture – naturally echoed in Second Life – that suggests we are all unique (aka ‘special’) and that uniqueness (aka ‘individuality’) is a human right that we should not only strive to attain, but protect with every fibre of our will against those who want to strip us of our specialness. Yet while we believe so fervently in the value of personal growth, we tend to meet change with fear and resistance, clutching – often groundlessly – to what we already know.
These views are a product of lazy thinking, festooned with the faulty logic of the “Me” generation, and saddled by false dichotomies that make many of our conclusions just plain wrong.
In this post, I’ll specifically discuss the 5 misconceptions surrounding mesh heads in Second Life, why I think we need to review them, and how our attitude toward them is symptomatic of deeper issues related to resistance to change.
- Mesh heads all look alike
- Mesh heads make you more common and less unique
- We are all inherently different
- Our faces are us
- Change is bad
Before I start, let me address what might be perceived as a personal bias. I’ve worn mesh heads since 2013. Over two years later, I’m still not finding my individuality slipping away. I still feel like myself.
While I prefer the look of mesh heads in general, that’s not to say they are perfect. Further, I don’t judge those who prefer not to use them any differently than those that do.
What I don’t like, however, are the false conclusions that get thrown around about mesh heads as if they are undeniably true. With that said, I’m not writing this post to defend the use of mesh heads, or to suggest you should adopt one if you don’t feel it is for you.
I am writing this post to suggest logical counter-arguments to falsely held prejudices shared by those who criticise mesh heads (and feel the need to share their prejudices with the world at large) for the reasons I’ll get into now.
Misconception 1: Mesh heads all look alike
This is like saying all Volkswagens all look alike. They don’t, and neither do mesh heads. Granted, there is similarity among mesh heads from the same merchant, just as there tends to be similarity among cars models from the same manufacturer.
However, when one considers the various brands and changes one can make by changing sizes, skin tones, features like eye colour and ears, makeup options, accessories, facial expressions, and hair, the differences can – and do – become more distinct. When one considers the impacts that lighting in photography and graphic settings in viewers, the differences are even greater. As evidence, just look at the remarkable diversity in looks found in the Lelutka Mesh Head Showcase on Flickr.
The over-generalisation that all mesh heads look alike also reminds of when people say that those from races other than their own “all look alike”. This is a psychological shortcoming that is common to people of all races – referred to as “The Other-Race Effect”: We are reliably poor at distinguishing traits in races different from our own.
I would assert that we are similarly poor at distinguishing the differences between mesh heads because we are still unfamiliar with them.
When it comes to race, these views are not necessarily a result of (or even correlated with) prejudice or racism, they are simply the result of perceptual weakness.
One theory is that we generally spend more time with people of our own race and therefore develop a perceptual ability for those who look more obviously similar to us. As an example, because Caucasians exhibit wider variety in hair colour than other races, Caucasians develop more practice in differentiating others by their hair colour. In other words, we are better at what we practice.
This would hold true in Second Life as well. At the moment, mesh heads are relatively rare. It follows, that we may lack the learned perceptual ability to tell them apart as well as we might be able to do so with system heads.
Another theory used to explain the “other-race effect” is that we think categorically about people who look obviously different to us. What this means is that we notice the obvious traits (e.g. skin tone) and tune out more subtle characteristics (e.g. the near infinite variability in the shapes and sizes of facial features). In other words, we’re lazy.
I think the fallacy that all mesh heads in Second Life look the same is more likely explained by the latter theory – we look at mesh heads and see the obvious differentiators – smoother lines and profiles, porcelain skin tones and near-perfect complexions – yet we lazily fail to note more subtle differences.
Misconception 2: Mesh heads make you more common and less unique
To give credit where it is due, what led me to consider our misconceptions around mesh heads was Caitlin Tobias’ post, where she shares her thoughts (and hesitations) in adopting a mesh head (i.e. Letutka’s Ever) and says: “In the beginning, when the mesh heads arrived in SL, I was almost sure I would never take one.” This initial psychological resistance is echoed by Strawberry Singh – also a LeLutka user, in her post published on the same day where she states: “I never thought it would happen where I would start to prefer a mesh head.” (My emphasis of the word ‘never’ in both statements).
I have read many posts and heard many reflections from people who have now adopted mesh heads that shared a similar reluctance at first. This reluctance was often accompanied by the same absolutism about never adopting a mesh head for day-to-day use.
Never. Say. Never.
As I was reading Caity’s post, I followed her link to Auryn Beorn’s post, that acted as the nudge for Caity to make the move to mesh.
In Auryn’s post, she suggests that we shouldn’t worry so much about being unique, and that declaring one’s individuality and uniqueness to all who might listen consequently assigns one to the very large and common group of people who value uniqueness and individuality. At the risk of being hopelessly unoriginal myself, let me repost my comment to Auryn’s post here (slightly paraphrased):
I make a similar argument with people who have tattoos (in real-life) on the premise that it makes them unique, when I know that the designs they adopted came from a book, or at best someone else’s (the tattoo artist’s) imagination. In the same way, even a completely custom made tattoo in real-life only helps to squarely box you into the category of people who wear tattoos. Tattoos that incidentally have historically been used to signal one’s affiliation to a tribe or group. Oh, the irony.”
Auryn further asserts that there is nothing to fear about being ‘normal’. With that said, she does not put her uniqueness – her identity – into the face of her avatar in Second Life.
I think similarly.
First of all, an avatar’s appearance is only one expression, among millions of expressions – of what makes the driver who they are (note I did not say ‘unique’, that is something different).
I’d argue that what makes you who you are is more about how you think, what you do, what you value, and how you live. One’s appearance is important, but only in the context of the multitude of one’s other characteristics and traits.
I’ve long known that one’s identity – or indeed one’s perception of uniqueness – need not arise from one’s outward appearance. It’s what is inside that makes one who one is – not what one wears or even what one looks like. It’s what is inside you that is responsible for the million everyday manifestations of everything that makes you specifically you.
So no, wearing a mesh head will not make you any less of an individual. This is consistent with my view that adhering to a dress codes also needn’t make one feel any less special or unique.
When people criticise mesh heads (and by association those who use them), they tend to reliably follow their criticism by declaring how they have painstakingly shaped their own appearance as if it were the height of classical sculpture. Like Renaissance sculptors, they have painstakingly chiselled at those sliders for years – from left to right and back again – to the point where they are now ‘unique’.
The implication is that if you customise your avatar’s face, then you are unique. Conversely, if you choose to use a mesh head, then you are common. What follows is the illogical conclusion that unique is good, and common is bad.
In Second Life, we have 6 tabs for editing facial appearance. These contain 11 head sliders, 11 eye sliders, 4 ear sliders, 11 nose sliders, 9 mouth sliders and 9 chin sliders.
Multiplied together, there are a possible 431,244 combinations. We can then add skin to that mix to get even more variation. Now that may sound like a lot to you, but when you compare it to real life variability that can be measured in microns, this number is not really that big, and certainly not enough to make one unique.
Update – 25 of May: I’ve recently been shown that this computation is in fact in error, so I’m striking it out. The actual combinations are much greater than the number I arrived at. Thanks to Sei Lisa for pointing out the error in comments.
Even if you do customise your face, the big assumption here is you have chosen slider settings that are different to everyone else who has also customised their facial features. This is less likely given fashion trends and central tendency bias alone (the tendency to not select an extreme option, and instead pick an option that is closer to the centre of the options). Given that many people don’t even touch their appearance sliders for years, the reality is that avatars in Second Life have looked the same or similar for years. It’s nothing new, and nothing to get all angsty about.
This begs the question, how important is being unique anyway? Individualism is a relatively recent ideology that has its early beginnings in modern times. It’s also primarily a social outlook that has more currency in the West. Individuality has been linked with social inequality, overconsumption, and less social responsibility. The notion of individuality is not even among the widely accepted human universals.
Personally, I think that we in the West have confused the value of uniqueness with the economic principle of scarcity. We tend to associate higher relative value with objects that are in relatively low supply. The more unique or rare something is, we believe, the more valuable it must also be.
This would explain our persistently irrational esteem for gold and other precious metals. Gold, in fact, is only valuable because we – as a society – decided it is. It has no intrinsic value. One of the main reasons that gold is so valuable is because it’s so rare. If you managed to collect and melt down every piece of gold we have unearthed to date, you’d end up what would roughly amount to 20 meter cube.
Misconception 3: We are all inherently different
We are in fact much more the same than we are different.
We often like to claim that our uniqueness is attributable to the complex combinations of the unique genetic endowments successively multiplied by the innumerable combinations of all the generations that have helped to make us uniquely us.
The concept that we are all very different and special in our own way is actually a not grounded in genetic reality. The mapping of the human genome now shows that two people plucked at random off the street, might differ at about 1 in every 1,200 to 1,500 DNA bases (or letters).
Is this a little or is this a lot?
It turns out, if you add up all of those potential differences, you are about 99.9% genetically the same as me. You read that right. You and I are only 0.1% different from one another.
Put another way:
If the genome were a book, every person’s book would contain the same paragraphs and chapters, arranged in the same order. Each book would tell more or less the same story. But my book might contain a typo on page 303 that yours lacks, and your book might use a British spelling on page 135—”colour”—where mine uses the American spelling—”color.” Genome News Network.
We may be genetically unique, but that still doesn’t make us very different.
Then how and why can we look so different, you ask? Well, like I said, we mainly look different to each other. Other animals likely see us as very similar, just like we might have trouble telling the difference between chimpanzees. We do find this hard, which is why we identify apes by their unique nose prints.
Genetically speaking, the reason every human genome is different is because of mutations – which is a geneticist’s term for ‘mistakes’ – that occur from time to time in the DNA sequence. Mutations create slightly different versions of genes that are called alleles, and this accounts for everything we see as ‘unique’ in each other – whether it be in hair, skin, height, shape, and even behaviour and susceptibility to disease. Mutations are not always bad news, and genetic variation is useful (and in fact necessary) for the persistence of the species; but again, variation does not imply uniqueness, and uniqueness has little inherent genetic value.
As a wild and wacky aside, genetic uniqueness might not always manifest itself as different. The two women in this video are genetically unique, but still somehow look very similar to each other:
Appearances aside, most of us also live fairly similarly predictable lives. In anthropology, there is a concept known as human universals. These elements, patterns, traits and institutions are common to all human cultures. According to American Professor of Anthropology names Donald Brown, the following “features of culture, society, language, behaviour and psyche for which there no known exception” include:
age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art, divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethno-botany, etiquette, faith healing, family feasting, fire-making, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift-giving, government, greetings, hair styles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic, marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious ritual, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, tool-making, trade, visiting, weather control, weaving.
Even culturally, we’re not as different as we think.
What I also find dripping with irony is that often the same people who are telling others to wear this and wear that because it’s the latest and greatest, are the same ones that are crying out for everyone to be unique.
What is fashion, if not a call to all and sundry to follow the latest trends, to fit in, and to be in style? Of course, one can clearly hear the fashion industry’s mixed message if only one listens, which essentially amounts to:
Wear whatever we are selling everyone, BUT you must also be yourself!
Misconception 4: Our faces are us
Humans have a moderately large area of the brain that is dedicated to human facial perception. We are born with it, and it only gets better as we age into adulthood. Because of this trait that has evolved to protect us from those who might do us harm, we are hyper-aware of the tiniest differences in human faces – but not differences in other animals or even other parts of human anatomy.
For example, where was this uproar when mesh hands and feet came out? No where.
Instead, mesh hands and feet were widely adopted, are now often found as one of the top 10 best-selling products on the Second Life Marketplace, and have helped Slink become a business that makes hundreds of thousands of dollars (that’s not Linden dollars by the way, that’s US dollars). Yet mesh heads (and to a lesser degree, mesh bodies) are something people resist with a fervour reserved for an invading alien force.
Faces – and their features – are very precious to us, because we use faces to show someone’s origin, emotional tendencies, health qualities, and social information. The funny thing is, we don’t get any of this information in Second Life. So what’s all the hubbub, when we’re trading in what is essentially one static face for another static face?
We have a complex relationship with our faces, that extends beyond our other body parts. One recent study on the psychological effects of aesthetic surgery revealed that breast augmentation (the most common cosmetic surgery procedure in the UK) and breast reduction (the 4th most common) are uniformly associated with positive emotional outcomes – while nose jobs and face lifts present a more mixed picture.
Still, in the UK at least, eyelid surgery is the 2nd most common cosmetic surgery procedure and growing by 14%, face/neck lifts are the 3rd most common and are growing by 13%, while nose jobs are the 5th most common and growing by 19%. (Source).
The statistics for the US are somewhat different, where liposuction tops the charts, and tummy tucks appear in the top 5 due to reasons that very few people will likely need me to explain. All the other usual suspects stay.
Many people walk into cosmetic surgery offices armed with images of celebrities who have features they’d like to emulate. Yet, people who have facial cosmetic surgery remain the same people they were before they had their surgery. They don’t feel any bit less individual, and no less unique.
I’ve heard the argument that mesh heads in Second Life are undesirable because we can’t easily make them look the way we do in real-life. People who have plastic surgery think in the opposite way, they change their appearance to feel more like what they want to look like and what is aesthetically pleasing to them.
Face lifts, neck lifts, brow lifts, chin augmentation, eyelid reductions – these things are no longer considered taboo. Again, while our facial appearance is important to us, we are much, much, much more than that.
And before anyone claims that cosmetic surgery is a fringe activity for a very small market of weirdos or the psychologically deficient, know that there were 1.8 million surgical cosmetic procedures in the US in 2014 alone. Now compare that to the number of people who routinely use Second Life.
Misconception 5: Change is bad
Now that Caity is adopting a new mesh head, which (she calls Caity 3.0) is she now going to be dramatically different from Caity 2.98743 (I heard that was the last update)?
Of course not. Yet, people have, and will continue to tell her not to change, sometimes citing that they “miss the old Caity”.
She is still the same old Caity, in 99.99999% of every way. This change in appearance just happens to be a change that we can see. It’s obvious to us, and compels us to comment and offer our unsolicited opinion on the merits of the change.
Why should anyone care if someone else changes? What does it have to do with us?
I think what it comes down to is that when someone makes a big change we wonder if we also might need to change. Sometimes we fear that someone’s change will threaten our relative position in some way. Do I now have to get a mesh head too? Am I being left behind?
People also fear change in others because they worry about how it will change their relationship with the person making the change. And many people are terrified of this kind of change.
We genuinely believe that whatever we have done for a long time must be the right way to do things. And the longer we’ve been doing something, the better it likely is. Like we do with scarcity, we illogically value longevity. Because something has been around a long time, we tend to think it has deserved to be around, which means it must be good, right? We do this with art, cuisine, trees, our relationships and all sorts of traditions and customs that have little to do with practicality, effectiveness or what might actually be good for us.
The truth is, while some old things are as good or better than new things, there is no evidence to suggest that something is better just because it’s old. As time goes on, the new will become the new old, and tomorrow we’ll be resisting something else that somebody else wants to do.
I doubt I’ll change many minds with this post. It is the nature of entrenched opinions to remain deeply lodged. That’s fine, because as I said at front, it’s not my intention to sell anyone on adopting mesh heads.
I see the resistance to mesh heads, however, as symptomatic of a wider phenomenon that seems to me at odds with what I imagine Second Life residents to be all about.
On one hand we are innovators and very early adopters of something very, very new; and on the other hand we are conservative and old-fashioned, with a very strong and vocal resistance to change.
This conservative side of us, when confronted with change, seems able to so easily trot out the tired clichés to maintain the status quo in so many facets of our lives, even online.
While we protest, and justify our ways, we feel compelled to point out every flaw in the new, as if the old was ever perfect, stifling progress with every unfounded claim and erroneous supposition.
These anxious concerns, like so much of what we mistake for reality, gnaw at us for years until we finally put things into perspective and climb over the walls that we think protect us from what we do not yet know.
This cycle is so reliably repetitive. It’s enough to make one yawn. Yet, it never fails to fascinate me, go figure.