Identity and Expression, Privacy and Protection, Second Life

Linking Second Life to Real Life Names

Following was my response to Wallace Linden and his post about how nifty neat and cool it would be if Second Life could take advantage of all those super-awesome social networks out there. If my voice seems like it’s dripping with sarcasm, um, it is. Read on:

First, let me start by applauding the following (and the more general attempt at a conversation):

And 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. Their answers will do much to determine who we become as the next generation of connected human beings. How we as technology providers handle such questions largely determines what choices we as individuals have open to us. 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.

If the rest of the post had lifted off of this basic premise, I think we’d be off to a good start. But let’s be clear: this shift into a conversation about linking identities is built on a basic premise – that a move in this direction will make Second Life more appealing to new users, that it will allow Second Life to somehow ‘go viral’ in Facebook, that it will hep facilitate wider adoption of the platform.

While I recognize that the Lab has all kinds of data and ideas on what can improve the platform, the first hour, the user experience, and acknowledges that providing tools and resources to the current user base is important towards facilitating a robust platform, these are all in the broader service of making SL more accessible, more appealing, and larger.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

However, I’m rather stunned that in the service of these kinds of metrics and growth targets that the Lab neglects its larger mission of improving the human condition and in so doing has the potential to dilute the power of its brand in much the same way that AOL diluted the power of its brand in favor of becoming that “other thing” – it needed to be less community and more media, less niche and more mass market, less craft and more consumption.

Second Life is at a similar crossroads. In the effort to make the transition that AOL was not able to accomplish, the Lab risks making the same mistakes, and in trying to conform with what you perceive as broader cultural and digital trends may risk leaving behind a model for our lives on-line that is a welcome counter-balance to all the Facebook pokes and endless circling, seething masses that are the tribe of social media.

The Ultimate API

Second Life has, I believe, the most robust and stunning API on the planet today. While the server itself might not be “open”, the APIs built on top of that provide a range of tools for expression, connection and sharing unparalleled in any online environment.

Think Twitter – a simple source, an API, and a robust ecosystem of value creation. Similarly, SL has created an API that lets us train, act, create, play, dance, listen to music, make love, collaborate, teach.

With the Media API, HTTP-IN and other tools, Second Life is increasingly INFORMING the Web rather than being informed BY the Web. We’ll start to see data on a Web site and be able to click through that data to its 3D representation in SL.

Reality will increasingly embed sensors, feed data through Web interfaces INTO SL, where it will be responded to sending data back out.

This is a position of privilege. Second Life succeeds as an API because it was not informed by the same protocols that drive today’s Web 2.0/profitless mobs – it was informed by a system of code, governance and tools which have allowed a deep exploration of new modalities for living our digital lives.

As such, the interlinking concepts of governance, identity, and commerce have created a powerful force which does not need to “fit in” with wider cultural and digital trends. Rather, SL is in a position to inform those trends, to change them, to show how our lives online can be rich in creativity and connection.

To take the meme that “the network is everything” at face value simply demonstrates that you’ve taken on, in a non-critical way, the thinking of the Kapor/Kelly crowd, something that surprises me after the often insightful thoughts you put forth in your book with Ludlow on governance and identity.

The network is NOT everything. My individuality still has more power than the collective. I am not part of a hive, although it increasingly feels like technology is being crafted so that we feel compelled to be part of it, to conform to the social Web 2.0 mentality which tells us that we need to be plugged in, connected, networked if we’re gonna “get it”…..while relegating a more individualistic approach to our lives and humanity to the trash bin of fading concepts.

Second Life was never built for mass conversations or networks – just look at groups! It kept growing and expanding and being a source of incredible creativity in spite not being linked into that neural flow of data and social conversations which we’re all supposed to be part of.

And yet – well, and yet history is not a foregone conclusion. And we may yet discover that building technology towards this vision of the networked collective got it all wrong, and we’ll start clawing our way back to our humanity.

So – first, this idea of linking to identity is to facilitate tapping into the viral power of social networks, and it’s meant to make people feel somehow ‘better’ about coming into SL. As if somehow people just WON’T come in if they can’t use their real names. As if in a world of Twitter handles, anonymous blog posts and fake mySpace pages we’re suddenly all terrified of digital spaces where we have to put our real life names in our profiles rather than in a corporate database somewhere.

And if you can’t figure out how to be viral without linking to real identity – well, it’s over then. There is no power left in the plant.

But let’s just pretend that you’re not motivated by these things. Let’s pretend you think of this like some kind of new “feature” (which is, um, highly unlikely).

If that’s the case, then let’s think about this from the perspective of what we mean by identity in a virtual world and use a little more imagination and foresight than you seem to be able to muster. I mean – look, everyone gets it – identity is all over the place, social media is a seething cauldron, let’s tap the wider wave of the world blah blah.

An avatar is, I believe, something different.

First, an avatar (in the long view) does not necessarily equate on a one-to-one relationship to a person. No, I’m not talking about sharing avatars. I’m talking about avatars that will increasingly become automated. There is already some interesting work in-world on using avatars as a repository and channel for information, linking our avatars to wider systems. This “oh, it will merely be optional” linking to ‘identity’ sets up a mind-set in which we start to think of avatars as expressions solely of ourselves (or one aspect or persona) while neglecting the longer-term power of avatars to begin to exist semi-autonomously and to have variable presence.

I’d like it for my avatar to signal when I’m only partly “there”, I’d like it to be a repository of sorts, I’d like it to fade in and out as my attention does, I’d like it to sometimes link to my real life facial expressions and to sometimes be masked by clever AOs.

This rush to link avatars to “identity” funnels us into a way of thinking about avatars that saps them of their potential magic.

This magic also works on the level of heuristics. My avatar, to me, is a representation of a particular mental modelling of the world, a way of interacting with information, and a mind-set through which I view creative work and value generation. Avatars increasingly become representational not of the “person” but rather of a particular data-rich persona which signals to communities the cultural and values-driven perspectives which we enact.

Again, the rush to link avatars to “identity” saps them of their power to signal the creative domains from which we tackle problems as other users bypass this signalling capacity in order to find the short cut to “real life name” with all the promise it seems to hold of “oh, ok, now I know you”.

These may seem like esoteric notions – but let’s look at the 5-year time horizon not next year. In 5 years, Facebook won’t even be around, and in 5 years someone, somewhere, will realize the power of the avatar as an interface device.

In fact, I’m of the belief that the avatar will be perhaps the most powerful interface device on the planet in 7-10 years or sooner. And we’ll all look back and say “Aw, could have been Second Life avatars, but they did that Facebook linking thing and missed the point in their rush to go viral.”

See, I think you’ve made more than one mistake in how you’re thinking about this: one, no, the network is NOT everything, bigger networks are NOT de facto BETTER; two, real identity may provide short-term platform gains but you’ve given no apparant thought to how it would impact the power of the API, and three, you state the following:

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.

And that may be true in many social spaces on the Web. But I’d beg to differ with it being how we think about our digital “selves” – because it is not ME that links them together. It may be a common element but the fact that there IS a common element and that common element is ME does not lend those social networks their coherence, nor does the explicit and visible linking of that “me” thing in the middle lead to a clear advantage.

First, our online persona is linked by all kinds of systems, data, sub-routines and procedures which are increasingly more powerful than the ME behind those personas.

Second, there is no clear reason why the linking of these things together should happen, either philosophically nor commercially, and I’d argue that so long as every Web click and Google search is being mined for my behavioral tendencies, I have every reason NOT to participate in this cross-linking, even though I’m often helpless to stop it.

In fact, I would argue for the opposite of what you said:

The thing not to miss here — and it bears stating despite how obvious it sounds — is what all these online “identities” have in common. It is that technology increasingly wants to connect the very real and personal YOU behind the avatar, the Warcraft character, or the GMail I.D. into ever larger networks of data, links and connections. The offline “you” SHOULD be scared – because technology is taking no prisoners in its relentless effort to sap the exploratory and creative potential of things like avatars in order to make them conform to the wider economic imperatives of this “network”.

Second Life works as an API because with fairly rare (and usually disastrous) exceptions, the Lab focuses on keeping the code running and not upsetting the delicate balance of governance, policy and economics which, combined, has created a unique vantage point from which to view the many negative and frightening trends going on in the social media tidal pool outside the garden walls.

At the very least, the Lab should acknowledge that it is the resident’s use of the API that have led to the profound possibilities that is the Grid. Any attempt to restructure the server code with such a short-sighted view of the so-called joys and benefits of social media while neglecting the deeper potential for SL to inform rather than be informed by these wider trends is, in my opinion, a mistake.

Leave it to the Residents to make whatever links they like, give them APIs into the group system or the first life tab – but don’t impose some kind of optional new field for the ‘real me’ without realizing that it has the potential to sap SL of the very things that CAN make it a place from which we can improve the human condition, anonymous avatars and all.


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