Identity and Expression, Privacy and Protection, Second Life

Virtual Worlds, Calling Cards, and Identity Interoperability

I was talking last night with someone about cell phones, which led to a discussion of the Google Android operating system for mobile, which led to me giving one of my pointless rants about how Google is sucking up information when we browse, when we e-mail, and who knows, maybe with Google voice they’re going to AdWord my phone calls. He gave me the usual response, the one I just don’t understand: “It’s too late, we’ll never close that door, get used to it….everything that can be known about you will be known” and he gave me a sort of satisfied smirk that I associate with young’uns or coders (in this case, he was both).

I don’t quite understand the kind of global lack of concern over privacy issues. We’re increasingly living in a surveillance society. Data is being collected about us and we don’t even know it’s happening. And whenever I bring this topic up, I get the same kind of comment as above – Vint Falkenothers have replied on this blog that they don’t feel like these giant data streams about us are necessarily a BAD thing, because it means that information can be tailored to us, coupons or shopping points targeted, whatever – the idea was that if you give someone else the power of data, we get some kind of customized window on the world in return.

The problem is, that same technology that can give us a “we recommend” thing on Amazon can also give an insurance company a “we don’t recommend” thing when they suck out the fact that you have HIV or cancer or depression based on your browsing habits or filling out some form somewhere online.

Now, it’s not to say that there aren’t counter-measures. There’s the old “on the Internet no one knows your a dog” saying – except that they DO know you’re a dog, because most people don’t use anonymizers, or proxy servers, or clear the cookies in their cache or all the other things you’re supposed to do to keep a clean data trail – and do you REALLY trust that “safe browsing” thing in Google chrome? Sure, your mother may not be able to check your browsing history but it’s not mom I’m worried about, it’s Google.

The Avatar as Repository
In any case, against this backdrop you have avatars. And my point of reference for this is MMOs like Warcraft, say, but in particular Second Life. And Second Life has two things in particular that I think make it a game-changer: it has an economy with some modicum of protection for IP (and, more important, it has perms); and it has anonymity, although I’ll be the first to admit that I place a perhaps unwarranted faith that Linden Lab isn’t connecting our avatar profiles across to some vast consumer database somewhere, linking our in-world purchases to our Visa card or something.

But it’s the concept of the avatar as a repository of data that I find appealing, because with an avatar we have a proxy for managing the information that we display about ourselves, the connections we make, and the data we collect.

It may be clunky, it may be awkward, inventory and friends lists may be a mess, but the avatar provides the potential to gain some level of control to how we present ourselves, what information we make public, and how we’re perceived.

So when I rant and rave about Second Life it tends to be about those two topics: one, don’t switch around the perm system without major strategic thought (and couple the strategy about IP with policy and enforcement); and two, treat the user’s control of the data that is attached to an avatar as a key strategic asset and build tools and technology from THAT basis rather than from a “platform usability” perspective.

My secondary rant, I suppose, is to push back against cultural pressure to link real world with avatar identity. This has come up every now and then on Metanomics, or it has for me anyways – I remember when I was asked to appear on the show a year ago or whatever it was whether I wanted to use my RL name, and the regret I felt that in doing so that I’d be giving up some control over the benefits of a controlled identity portfolio – namely, my avatar.

The topic comes up every now and then – recently, New World Notes asked whether people like Scope Cleaver put themselves at a disadvantage in winning business because they wouldn’t reveal their real identities. I understand the question, but I also find it insulting and feel that it exerts a cultural pressure to life the “avatar veil”.

Identity Interoperability and Walled Gardens
Look, maybe I’m fighting a losing battle here. For an ever-larger percentage of Residents, Second Life is now ‘interoperable’ with the Twitter accounts, or LinkedIn, or their Facebook profiles. Sure, lots of people keep a sort of contained “Second Island” of identity – using their avatar name as an identity proxy across all kinds of platforms. But this starts to bleed over, at some point, into the same issues of identity management – either your avatar information connects to your real life information, or the avatar information itself starts to become difficult to manage.

I was fascinated to see a post about MMOs and an argument that identity interoperability should be an increasing feature of games:

“Here’s the dilemma: By spending the first few hours in the MMO adding people to a friends list, you’re missing out on crucial launch day gaming. But by immediately jumping into the MMO, you’re forced to initially play by yourself and put your hard-earned reputation as a reliable guild master on the line. Had both MMOs instituted some kind of social networking interoperability, this situation would’ve never surfaced.

Playing in an MMO or inhabiting a virtual world can sometimes feel like an isolated and very private experience without the company of friends. By creating a universal platform or unifying friends lists into easily transferable data, each end user will find greater value in the social online experience, potentially leading to an increased number of hours logged each session. Word of mouth could also spread faster, but that’s both good and bad for developers and publishers.”

Metaplace already does this, to a degree, allowing you to register using your G-mail, Twitter, Facebook, AOL or other ID. I can’t help wondering whether Second Life and other platforms won’t allow you, at some point, to do the same.

Augmented Reality Calling Cards
But I suppose there’s still hope. Because if I want some sort of control over my identity portfolio, maybe other people do to, and if that’s the case then maybe there’s a business in that. Pais pointed me to this demo of an augmented reality application for the new iPhone:

When I saw it, I couldn’t help thinking of Second Life calling cards. (Yeah, I know, totally useless as they exist today but hey). And I couldn’t help thinking of how it would be great to have “identity toggles” within Second Life, and then to use this as a basis for broader Web-based identity management tools – tools that could extrapolate from SL into “avatar-based” portfolios that we could use to interact with the Web more generally.

Sure, it might not be Linden Lab that leads the charge in giving us control over what data we present to the world, or what data is collected about us from others, but at the very least the idea of user-based control over avatar identity should be a sacrosanct feature of Second Life, and whatever else happens we should keep Google AdWords away from my in-world search history.


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