I Am Not Really Me, and I Probably Never Will Be: Avatars and Actual Identity

A bunch of things have me thinking about the link between our avatars and our actual identities, not the least of which being that at Metanomics the protocol or whatever is to ask guests whether we can use their actual names – in most cases, the guests say yes, they have real businesses, and reputations associated with those businesses, and they’d probably feel weird if folks were calling their offices and asking for their avatar names.

It’s an optional thing, but I can’t help feeling that the whole thing is fraught with peril – as if by asking, you’re also implying something along the lines of “if you don’t tell us, you’re not one of the cool kids, you’re just an AVATAR”, and while I don’t believe this is the actual belief, or intent, the idea that this would ever be implied gives me pause.

I remember being invited to be a guest on Metanomics, and there was this form, and lots of information to give, and I remember thinking “Wow, I’ve come face-to-face with reality here”, I felt like I was signing up to become one of those dreaded augmentationists, or to join a cult or whatever – although it was all very patiently explained to me that most of it was optional, and was kept private and secure and would never be shared – who knows, it still felt like an overwhelming moment:

“Please provide your name and a ‘real life’ photo” and suddenly I was into something bigger than talking about UI designs and I couldn’t quite decide what the implications were. It certainly felt like my days walking around in grunge clothes and tool belts were coming to a close.

My point isn’t to talk about Metanomics policies here, it’s evolving and changing, and I came into this not wanting to mess with what has worked. But more than anything it has me thinking, and wondering – why is avatar identity so important?

I AM a Builder
Prokofy is talking about roads this morning. And I found it a really touching post: because SL to me IS a place, at the best of times – the kind of place you wander around in, that has a geography, and that because of this provides moments of serendipity.

I really mourn the fact that I wasn’t around in the days of telehubs, the days when you couldn’t teleport around – I find it hard sometimes not to just beam in and beam out: you know what I mean, hop through search or landmarks, arrive, let stuff rez a bit, and if you don’t like what you see off you go to some other random place.

The best experiences in SL have always been those times when I actually walk around.

I had a friend who I’d go shopping with, and he’d always stand at the front of the store not moving, while I was wandering around inside. And I’d ask him “Are you just going to stand there?” and his reply was “Why move? I can cam around” and that struck me as a cop-out somehow, it made the experience sterile or something, I like the feeling of walking through a space, of taking time, of feeling what a display looks like because you discover it when you turn the corner rather than camming across the sim.

And I take a kind of odd pride when someone IMs me about one of my houses and says that they love the space, or they invite me over to look at how they decorated their living room, or send me photos or whatever. I think it was Prok who commented on my post about the Lab’s purchase of XLStreet that “You obviously haven’t tried to run an in-world business”….but I take a lot of pride in the fact that I have, and that the houses sell OK or cover tier at least, and that I have hundreds of happy customers to boot.

The Temple I built

A mall-type thing with offices

OK – so why is this important? I’m not entirely sure: except to say that online, your reputation accrues first in the communities you join, and extends from there. This seems contrary to the notion that we bring established identities with us – increasingly, we rebuild as we go, and what’s useful in one place isn’t in another.

And this implies a tribal morality – something that has both benefits and problems, but which basically says that “you are important insofar as your contributions to whatever particular ‘culture’ you are in, whatever social platform you belong to, and although these things overlap and bleed, the reference points for reputation are not easily transported.”

Which means that while we’d perhaps love it if our “identity” was all kept in one place, I don’t think it can be, or ever will be – and I also believe that this isn’t just true of online communities, this has been true forever, even in those small towns where everyone knows your business.

Sex, Ruined Marriages, and the Media
Like at the dawn of the Web, or the dawn of online dating, or when people realized that kids were hooking up on MySpace, virtual worlds are always good for a story about people living fantasy lives that end up ruining their real lives, and the implication of course is always something like “what losers, investing in a FANTASY”.

But I love it when this comes up. I love it when people I work with say “Did you see the Fifth Estate last night” and then arch their eyebrows as if to say “OK, so, this Second Life thing you keep preaching about…I guess we all now KNOW that it’s a crock and filled with geeky misfits.”

And I love it because I get a chance to challenge people’s assumptions about identity. Because I can get all Socratic on them and ask questions back. Like, “So what does that tell you about virtual worlds that people can see it change their lives like that” which leads into the loser discussion, and lets me ask whether they think EVERYONE in a virtual world is a loser (to which they have to admit no, when pressed on it) and then lets me ask: “OK, so if not everyone is a loser, do you think the non-losers also find their lives affected by their avatars in different ways? And what does that tell you? What does it mean that people attach and get value, whether good or bad, from having an avatar?”….at which point, the REALLY interesting discussions can begin.

Because at some point the discussion cycles back to the actual world. And sort of ends with the main question, the real question: “Why is it that we, as humans, use so many different techniques to express ourselves, to escape, to wear different masks, to want to join different clubs, to want to belong to different social circles where we assume a different persona…is there REALLY such a thing as being REAL?”

The Traps of Trust
So, look – virtual worlds let us explore, try on different persona, live different lives, understand what it means to be meaner, or nicer, or gentle, or to be beautiful and famous. But it’s as if there’s a line drawn around all of this, a line that says “well, that’s all fine, but when it comes to doing REAL business in virtual worlds, we need to know people’s identities…otherwise how do you establish trust?”

Which consistently strikes me as a cop out. Because issues of identity aren’t primarily linked to trust, they’re linked to having an option for RECOURSE. It’s as if to say: I need to know who you are so I know who to hold accountable, who to sue, who to pursue if things go wrong. And sure, there’s some truth to all that: and if you’re spending big bucks or putting your business on the line or making some huge strategic bet, sure…it’s due diligence I guess, but just remember that you’re not really asking for identity to establish TRUST, you’re mainly doing it in case things go WRONG.

And I’d further argue that virtual worlds actually give us a far cleaner, far more intelligent way to establish trust than the bonds of contracts and identities and signatures: you establish trust because you work with someone, they perform, you work with them again, and if everyone is treated fairly then the relationship is solid, and can be the source of far more value than signing up some sub-contractor you barely know and hoping that because you know their real name this will somehow make them more trustworthy.

I hire people without meeting them. They have a good reputation. I don’t care about their names, or which jurisdiction they’re in (although sure, I end up covering that stuff off….but the decision ahead of that is about TRUST, the rest is about lawyers).

These issues of identity are, I believe, profound. The things that are happening in Second Life aren’t just about protecting our right to role play. The Lab has actually set up a massive test bed on which issues of avatar identity, trust, collaboration, work and play can be experienced first hand, that give us a sense of what tools we’ll need in the future – a future in which we’ll just as easily be working with avatars run by machines as avatars run by people, in which we may not know the difference, in which an avatar name will be sufficient, and which may end up being more of a bond than the one which appears on our birth certificates.

And so I sign off, Dusan Writer.


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