Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I am Spartacus -- linking real life identities to SL personas


I've been tryin' to be a good virtual citizen and actually read the Linden blogs...still can't force myself to look at other things there like the bleedin' forums, but hey, I tend to work up to things slowly. I've even taken to commenting now and then...including a comment on this thread in which the new Conversations Manager Wallace Linden brought up the issue of linking our identities..particularly that of the SL avatar and the real identity of the "typist." he said:

"I want to open a conversation about some of the issues surrounding identity and how it gets handled online. (That's my job, after all, to start some conversations.) We show up in the digital realm under so many different guises now, it has become difficult -- perhaps impossible -- to separate the real from the imagined, and the actual from the virtual....as Web and mobile services continue to work their way into all corners of our lives, these aspects will continue to proliferate -- and as they do, we'll start facing important questions about how we handle these collections of selves....And the choices we make as individuals in these contexts can have a surprising impact on who we are -- in "real life" -- and who we can become.

The thing not to miss here -- and it bears stating despite how obvious it sounds -- is what all these online "identities" have in common. At the center of them all, the hub that ties all these personae together, is the very real, non-virtual, analog and offline "you." Whether the connections are public or not, your Second Life avatar, your World of Warcraft toon, your Facebook profile, your LinkedIn employment history -- all of these and more are just different aspects of a single entity: the person reading these words. They are all already connected to each other, via you.

The question we now face, both as people and as organizations, is how we handle these connections, how we handle these collections of selves. "

A lot of people responded and joined in this conversation...and rather took it from the theoretical into the very practical question that is on many people's minds: would it be desirable to have Linden Lab facilitate a direct connection between your real life identity and your SL persona, and enhance connections to social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, which is something they seem very interested in. So, not wanting to be a bad citizen, I figured I would go ahead and add my opinion to the overall Philip Glass-like symphony of verbiage.

Being as the comments on the thread have really stretched out and one's opinion can kind of get lost--and because I am feeling lazy today and didn't feel up to writing something else for this pile of turkey turds, here's the comment I contributed:

"Ok Wally, I'll bite. I will go ahead and assume for the moment that the Labsters actually want to know what we think about things and offer you my perspective, although the general pattern of your responses does sadly suggest there is a predetermined outcome. If I am incorrect about that, I'll ask you to forgive my doubting nature, but alas, I feel what I feel, and I see what I see.

Regardless, if you do actually care for input from some longtime users of the platform, allow me to add my voice to the cacophony...which in general--other than the occasional straw man--has been, I think quite thoughtful and eloquently expressed (gee, the things people can say when not limited to 140 characters, eh?).

Frankly, I believe that the concept of openly connecting my rl identity to the "Dio Kuhr" persona would prove not only superfluous but counterproductive.

Yes, there are situations in which I willingly share rl information with certain people in-world, but it is on a case-by-case basis. It is something that I find it advantageous to have control over, to implement as I get to know people by talking and working with them, and finding common ground and shared interests. I have done some worthwhile networking within SL, but it is something that I don't need or want the Lab to be helping me with.

I can do it very handily myself, thank you very much. And in fact, if a significant number of people were contacting me out of the blue because of some public presentation of my rl information, I would find the usefulness of being on SL greatly diminished. Yes, there may be the occasional serendipitous making of a productive connection, but on the whole the signal to noise ratio in those uncontrolled conversations is not good--you can just get bogged down wading through all the shallow slop.

That, in fact, is why on Facebook and Twitter, I keep a very tight control over friends and followers, and strictly limit who I follow in turn.

Facebook in particular is--as far as I am concerned--an egregious waste of bandwidth. I do have a FB account that is based upon my physical space information. At this point, it has displayed some utility as a means for keeping in touch with dispersed family and reconnecting with some old friends. But generally, like many people, I have the account but simply don't do much with it.

With Twitter on the other hand, where I have an account for Dio Kuhr, I do find it to be a practical and often enjoyable means of sharing information with a very focused group that is primarily made up of a few educators and other sl people. It is a handy way for those of us who are writers to notify each other when we have new posts up on our blogs, and some people I follow are really great about providing links to articles on numerous topics that I would not know about if they weren't passing on the scuttlebutt. And thanks to Second Lie's tweets I no longer feel quite so disconnected from the more Kafka-esque aspects of life on the grid. Simply put, I am not convinced that having this function more integrated with SL would do anything other than serve as a distraction. And having "real life" information associated with it--even just a name--would not be an improvement. If anything, it would simply open up another avenue for potential harassment to migrate from virtual to physical spaces.

As for your contention that "The more people you're connected to, and the more people they're connected to, the more useful the network becomes," I agree with those who have already suggested that in arguing thus, you have made an assumption that may be based more upon wishful thinking and anecdotal evidence than any actual quantifiable reality. Another possibility is that your contention may hold true for some people in certain circumstance, but not for others. For example, in your line of work, it may in fact be useful. In mine, however, mass connection just increases the garbage ratio. So maybe we're both right.

However, it is important to not impose your own focused context in trying to determine what is useful or deleterious to the rest of us.

And yes...I know this is supposedly going to be purely optional. You say that no one is going to force me to put up my real life identity in connection with this pseudonymous identity, correct? Ok, cool. But that does bring up the question that so many people have already explored, the idea that SL will develop a class system. When I use my account that is not labeled with my real-life identity, will I become a second class citizen and be ostracized from various locations, shunned by the elite "real people?"

All I have to say to that is..."No...I am Spartacus."

I--and probably others--will cheerfully embrace that status as a member of a class that cherishes privacy and the maintenance of careful control over our connections and our relationships and our identity. If you don't want me to come into your club because I'm not parading the true and real name of my typist over my head, then fine. I probably didn't want to come to your bloody club anyway. A form of reverse-classism will undoubtedly kick in. So I'll be fine, jack--no worries.

But people with in-world businesses...yeah they will be boned, big time. Especially if having the real name made public becomes any part of an "approval" system for vendors and content creators. And yes, there are jolly good reasons why someone doing business in SL would want to keep their real life identity to themselves. Have you ever dealt with an SL customer base? Most people are great, most people are cool, but there is that certain number of stalky-freaky-psycho idiots who think just because they saw your name on something they bought, they are now your best friend--or worst enemy. Things are bad enough when they are continually badgering an anonymous avatar, but if they have your real name too? Belay that. Life is already hard enough for our in-world business folks. But what will you say to content creators who might someday find themselves boycotted by the elite "real people" because they won't display their real names?

Does the Lab really want to take another dump in the content creators' collective chapeau?"

Oh, and one other thought from Wallace's post that struck me:

"For many, using the word "virtual" in regard to online worlds and other digital contexts has become nearly meaningless. To me, there's nothing virtual at all about my presence in various online contexts. Like many people, I have a handful of email addresses, a Flickr username, an XboxLive gamertag, and more than one Second Life account. Each of these represents an aspect of my identity, one of the various ways I express myself online."

Is it just me or is that another variation of my on-going argument that we shouldn't be so black and white in distinguishing between the virtual and the physical: that it's not about having a "first and a second life," but is just about living your life?


And of course, as soon as I posted my feeble expression of opinion, I have found that there are other people writing like mad about this subject at length--and certainly doing a much better job of it than I. Among the damned good pieces out there are one by Prokofy Neva, another by Dusan Writer and finally, a real corker by Emilly Orr, written as commentary on Dusan's piece.

It's all worth reading, but as usual, I found Emilly's thoughts to be particularly meaningful to me, with an eloquence built on a foundation of emotion and experience, as well as intellect.



  1. Well said, as usual. I suspect the major difference here is how they invision the platform being used.
    If you plan on using the platform as a place for business to be conducted, where legal contracts and other business necessities will be utilized, then it becomes important to be able to verify who you are doing business with, especially if the possibility exists you may need to recover goods or funds.
    If your vision for the platform is a place for creativity to flourish, where artists and writers, automobile mechanics and housewives, corporate CEOs and coders can live out their dreams and have the opportunity to create - then connecting to a "Real Life" identity is not necessarily useful.
    I think the thing the lab should keep in mind is that what they have now is pretty unique from the perspective of having a plaform where pretty much anybody can create content. There are a LOT of platforms out there that can host the other sorts of businesses they seem to be courting, and frankly do it better.
    But unfortunately we have moved from the era of Philip Linden - the creative platform, to M Linden - the business platform. And like you, I suspect the decision has already been made, this is the window dressing required to claim resident input in the decision.

  2. Hey Fogwoman!

    Yeah, I understand the thing about wanting to have real names connected with business situations--but again, I think that is something that can be handled behind the scenes. If I was going to enter into a business arrangement, I think an initial part of the process would be the exchange of real life information.

    But up to that point you can certainly be "doing business as" XYZ avatar. After all...we create reputations for ourselves under these personas, based on what we do and haw we have interacted with people.

    And yes...I agree that it would be a grave mistake for SL to abandon what makes it unique.

  3. Great analysis.

    Hmm.. you brought up some possibilities that I had not considered when the original announcement was made awhile back.

    In my line of work I find it convenient to manage two identities -- one linked directly to RL, and one effectively anonymous; this provides the best of both worlds.

    I suppose it's inevitable that identity becomes more concentrated over time, as things like spam and impersonation become more prevalent. That's just the natural response to combat the very real violations both public and private that take place. Accountability, transparency, these values are crucial for any functional and healthy society/community.

    Anonymity is really a purely incidental luxury that we've all enjoyed and taken for grated for a very long time. Ultimately it's our "deeds" that decide our social status e.g. banksy, even if not tied to an identity; but in general it seems as though our technological layer of obfuscation is not compatible with reality.

  4. Great post, Dio. (I thought as much about Miss Orr's post as well.)

    I'm afraid my Twitter account is blathering about my RL persona, for the most part - it's my place where the two worlds like to mingle.

    In general, though, I agree that it's useful to keep the two worlds separate. Frankly, none of the hard-nosed economist friends or the harder-nosed relatives who know about SL at all think it's a waste of time. (From people who never tried it, I might add.) Somehow I think my professional standing wouldn't be enhanced by reading Rhianon's adventures in the Steamlands, and poor Rhianon's reputation wouldn't be enhanced by connecting her to a dull social scientist.

    If someone finds it worthwhile to tell folks about a RL identity, that option is there.

  5. Hey Matt,

    I think you are hitting on something important there: yes, anonymity is a luxury (though often a very desirable luxury when someone decides to stalk you, or you wish to express opinions or discuss activities that might not enhance your family or professional standing). And yes, accountability and transparency are necessary for the functioning of a healthy society and successful businesses (although I think you could also make the argument that accountability seems to be a luxury in the world today as well, and a pretty rare one at that).

    But seriously...I think you're on the money that what it comes down to is that the best circumstances offer both. A good example being your usage of two personas, one linked to your real life identity and the other, anonymous. I actually know quite a few people who do that. But the key is carefully deciding when it is appropriate or necessary to employ one or the other.

    I think of it not as "hiding" anything, but as "controlling" or "managing" an important personal asset, which is your identity. After all...most people don't walk into a real life bar wearing a little blue and white sticker proclaiming "HI! MY NAME IS: Hojo Homminigrits," but you do wear that nametag when you walk into a professional meeting or the Homminigrits family reunion.

    It's about looking after our shit, and didn't Mom always tell us to take good care of our stuff?

  6. Hey Rhia,

    It is rather Clark Kentish isn't it? Being innocuous social scientist by day, daring steamlands adventuress by night. Or for me: cranky middle-aged consultant by day, cranky middle-aged frontier entrepreneur by night.

    It's an interesting effect to experience.

    You know, I think that in his piece about linking to real life identities, Dusan was exploring some interesting ideas that are sort of related to this Clark Kent phenomenon. I believe he was saying that if we tie our avatars too closely to the real identity, we limit them--not just in what they can say, but in how they interact. Arguably, it even places limits as to what we can grow into...who we ourselves can be.

    If Clark Kent refuses to go into the phone booth and change, he'll never be a super hero.

    I am quite glad that I have gotten to know Rhia--the hyper-realization of who her typist is. The Rhia I get to see and talk with is a persona that is certainly founded in the reality of the hard-working social scientist, but who has extended herself through her created identity into someone who is able to relate to and communicate with the world in an expanded way.

    I think your colleagues and relatives are much poorer for not having the opportunity to get to know the expansive version of Rhianon that we get to see in SL and in these discussions we have here or on twitter.