Identity and Expression, Privacy and Protection, Second Life

Avatars as Diaspora: Identity and Content Wallets for the New Age of Privacy

There’s power in your avatar.

In my recent post about MyWorld, a new mirror world social gaming platform, Metacam Oh commented that without avatars it isn’t a game changer for the metaverse. Now, I’d argue that the metaverse is more broadly defined – it includes mirror worlds, augmented reality, and life logging. And so while MyWorld may not rattle the cages of World of Warcraft or Second Life, it will be a game-changer for “places” online in which users interact with each other.

But Metacam is right that there is something significant about participating in a virtual space with an avatar. They provide a sense of presence, allow us to explore different identities, and are an intuitive interface for relating with other people (and throw a dance or, um, sex bed animation into the picture and you can carry that relationship to unexpected levels of engagement).

Avatars as Repositories
I’ve often thought that there’s a deeper potential for avatars, which relates to the information and content that we ‘embed’ in our virtual personas. With avatars as proxies for our physical selves (whether they look anything like us or not) they contain signals for identity, are the ‘container’ for rich content (our inventories), facilitate social connections with other people, and can be used to tag ownership of spatial content.

The avatar is, in addition to its expressive properties, a wallet of sorts. Or perhaps a better term is a repository.

There’s something intuitive about maintaining social relationships through avatars, for example. Unlike what’s called an avatar on a social network (usually consisting of a tiny photo of ourselves or a cartoon symbol), an avatar in a virtual world is easier to remember and is more richly expressive of personality. When I SEE someone in a virtual world, the act of seeing them makes it easier to associate them with a personality, interests, a way of talking and sometimes a voice.

While inventory may be a borked mess in Second Life, there’s still something strangely intuitive about the concept behind it. Different types of content are created and stored differently and can be sorted and searched in a wider number of ways.

And our avatars allow signaling of intent for a number of functions: through our avatar, we can signal copy/mod/transfer, change land parcel controls, set up groups and apply permissions and roles, and accomplish a whole range of things which are more intuitively executed and which create a web, of sorts, between our avatars and objects, other people, and land.

I can’t think of many environments online where the role of “self” is the primary signaling and containing device for so many relationships, so much content, and so many interconnections between data.

Clean, Well-Lit Places

Years ago, one of the most influential things I remember reading was an interview of Eben Moglen by Tish Shute. The post opened my eyes to the challenges of privacy and identity online, and helped to shape my understanding of what we should demand of online systems.

Moglen proposed that our ability to turn on and off elements of our identity should be partly triggered by how we feel about the spaces we enter, especially as the virtual world becomes more ubiquitous and the ownership of worlds becomes less clear. He proposes that:

It has got to tell you what the rules are of the space where you are it has to give you an opportunity to make an informed consent about what is going to happen given those rules. It has got to give you an opportunity to know those things in an automatic sort of way so I can set up my avatar to say, you know what, I don’t go to places where I am on video camera all the time. Self, if you are about to walk into a room where there are video cameras on all the time just don’t walk through that door. So I don’t have to sign up and click yes on 27 agreements, I have got an avatar that doesn’t go into places that aren’t clean and well lit.

Moglen painted a picture in which our avatars can easily become ensnared in a Web of information, whether by the design of platform owners (often referred to as “stickiness”) or inadvertently, as in the example above:

We don’t want that to happen to people. We understood when the Soviet Empire decayed that all over it were places where people felt trapped in webs of surveillance and betrayal and interaction that had a kind of sinister feeling even if there is no Gulag and there is no shooting…But we are aware that these webs of knowledge about us are beginning to control us because our digital persona is subject to leverage and to being interfered with in ways that matter.

In this view, current code can create traps in which because avatar identity and transparency can’t be as finely managed as he proposes, and because the environments into which we move our avatars also don’t provide markers as to the levels of privacy (and the ability to ‘opt out’), there is the very real possibility of ending up in a position where our digital representations are trapped. He argues that this isn’t that much different from the real world ‘surveillance society’ (I’d extend the analogy to ‘dead end jobs’ and being ‘trapped in a marriage’) nonetheless, we can leave a marriage or leave a job, but in the digital domain there are often traces of ourselves that we can’t pack up and take with us, much like the example of the Facebook page where we can’t easily back up our photo file and ship of a copy to your friends list.

Diaspora and the Avatar Seed
I was intrigued to see that Moglen was partly an inspiration for Diaspora, which is using the concept of a “seed” to give users control over their information. As they explained in their KickStarter application:

This February, Eben Moglen, Columbia law professor and author of the latest GPL, gave a talk on Internet privacy. As more and more of our lives and identities become digitized, Moglen explains, the convenience of putting all of our information in the hands of companies on “the cloud” is training us to casually sacrifice our privacy and fragment our online identities.

But why is centralization so much more convenient, even in an age where relatively powerful computers are ubiquitous? Why is there no good alternative to centralized services that, as Moglen pointed out, comes with “spying for free?” Why do we keep our personal data in a thousand places? We have the technology, someone just needs to take the time to figure out how we can communicate smoothly and intuitively, without the hidden costs of “the cloud”. As good programmers, when we noticed that the application we need doesn’t exist, we set out to fill the hole in our digital lives.

(With Diaspora, you) enter your Diaspora “seed,” a personal web server that stores all of your information and shares it with your friends. Diaspora knows how to securely share (using GPG) your pictures, videos, and more. When you have a Diaspora seed of your own, you own your social graph, you have access to your information however you want, whenever you want, and you have full control of your online identity. Once we have built a solid foundation, we will make Diaspora easy to extend to facilitate any type of communication, and the possibilities will be endless.

But what strikes me about Diaspora is that, well, it could have been done years ago, and it could have been done in Second Life.

Linden Lab achieved more than a few breakthroughs in creating Second Life: the ability to buy, sell and rent land; copy/mod/transfer; and a fully anonymous online environment that proved that you didn’t need to have “real identities” in order to establish trust, community and caring.

But as I’ve long argued, the Lab had something else, which was an unmatched system of presence, identity, identity management and expression, namely the avatar. And that rather than worrying about how our avatars should bring IN external social media (the infamous “connecting to social networks” meme of Mark Kingdon), they should focus instead on what values the avatar holds which could be exported OUT.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the Lab every got it or understood the value they were sitting on, and I have no confidence that Philip Rosedale does either – he treats his own avatar as some kind of hold-over artefact from 2004, in spite his promise to update his appearance. The Lab has always been more concerned with the world itself while giving the short straw to avatars, the ways we communicate with each other, and the ways we store our content (i.e. group chat is borked, the friends list sucks, inventory is a mess, profiles are limiting), and YET, in spite all of that, the users derive incredible value from their presence in the online world.

Back to Basics
With the Lab getting back to basics, or getting all fun and easy or whatever, maybe it’s time for a working group that can look at the avatar as a system.

Not chat as a system, or inventory as a system, but the overall approach to how the concept of an avatar actually works. Maybe there’s a chance to integrate something like the Diaspora seed by having a programmable component of the viewer that allows us to manage those seeds.

I’m not sure – what I know is that while much of the focus seems to be on improving the state of the world – on optimizing load times, reducing lag, rezzing textures faster and whatever other “should have done it 5 years ago” things they’re working on, it’s still our avatar that’s the main interface the the virtual world, regardless of what viewer we’re using, and there’s still more value in that concept today than the coders seem to recognize.


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