Identity and Expression, Privacy and Protection, Second Life

It’s All in a Name: Display Names in Second Life

Linden Lab announced the addition of display names to Second Life, permitting residents to have a name which, well, displays in addition to the account name chosen on sign-up (gone is the requirement to pick a last name from a pre-generated list).

Back in the days of M when everything was done in secret and every third person on the Grid had signed an NDA for some reason or other – they were in the mesh beta, or the Viewer Beta…I was asked to contribute to an NDA’d display name messaging roundtable or something. It wasn’t a roundtable on the feature itself, which was a foregone conclusion, but rather a discussion of how it was marketed and positioned but what with my constant blogging about identity I guess they figured it was better to bring me in regardless of the chance that I’d hate it.

Now, I don’t. Hate it that is. But I thought it was a missed opportunity. Following is an edited version of what I told the Lab when they previewed the feature to me a month or two ago. Keep in mind that much of my commentary was focused on messaging which changed a bit since my response.

Also keep in mind that this was written a few weeks before M’s departure from the Lab and so some of the comments aren’t as relevant under Philip’s new tenure (for example, my comments about linking to social networks).

First a comment on the overall messaging.

Like much some of the Lab’s messaging, what I’m reading here speaks of a feature set and takes a fairly granular view while not putting it in a larger context, and giving the ‘short straw’ to two important elements: the Lab’s motivations, and Second Life ‘culture’ (a loaded term, but replace it with whatever you feel comfortable with – “norms, what you’re used to, the way things have always been, the habits and affordances, the features that you’ve come to know, love and sometimes hate”).

The Lab’s Motivation and Goals

I’m reminded, frankly, of the kind of phrasing popping out of Mark Zuckerberg’s mouth these days in trying to back-peddle (without ever actually apologizing) on the changes to Facebook’s privacy controls. Consider this quote from the Washington Post:

“The challenge is how a network like ours facilitates sharing and innovation, offers control and choice, and makes this experience easy for everyone. These are issues we think about all the time. Whenever we make a change, we try to apply the lessons we’ve learned along the way. The biggest message we have heard recently is that people want easier control over their information….We have heard the feedback….We hope you’ll be pleased with the result of our work and, as always, we’ll be eager to get your feedback.”

The quote is disambiguous at best because he phrases, couches and slides around the underlying reality of WHY they made these changes, which was to monetize user information on behalf of Facebook, while making a broader claim of usability.

I’m not suggesting you’re doing that with this messaging, but it would be refreshing to hear an honest account of why this has come up from the Lab’s perspective:

  • We’re deeply committed to growing Second Life. This is one of our key priorities. We believe we can do that by improving the tools for content creators (coming mesh, new Market, etc.) while at the same time aggressively finding ways to court new users, e.g. by making their first hour (and first 30-day) experiences compelling.
  • We’ve made a strategic decision that one of the ways to attract new users is to create connections between Second Life and the ‘wider Web’. We want to do this because Linden Lab wants to grow, and we hope you’ll benefit from that growth.
  • But we need to be careful – we’re also deeply committed to the culture, beliefs, and values that makes Second Life what it is. For example, avatar anonymity is a key feature for many Residents. But we have made a decision that by allowing OPTIONAL linking to display names we will be able to attract new users and to give SOME of our current users a feature they’ve long asked for.
  • But we don’t want to be coy about this. While display names and choice of account name will include optional choices, this is a shift to a more open Second Life, one which connects in new ways to other forms of communication on the Web. This is a change, and a significant one, but we’re doing this in a way that we hope respects the ability for users to retain anonymity if they choose.

In other words, PLEASE STOP justifying feature choices with phrases like “We  understand that this is a hot button topic, but it has been consistently requested by Residents for years”.

This messages may be true. But it has the unintended consequence of either inviting attack (show me the data, what percentage, who do you listen to more, are education/business needs more important than an RP sim or someone having sex in Zindra) and in shifting the reason you did this solely on the backs of Residents.

Say the truth: “We want to expand SL, and choice of account and display names are important components in the larger vision of linking to the wider Web in order to promote, connect, advocate, etc. Some residents have wanted this for years and we’ve listened to that feedback, and some will hate it or choose to use display names for all kinds of purposes other than ‘real names’ (linguistic, gamer tags, etc).”

Similarly, I’m not a big fan of the messaging around “choice and control” – sounds like Facebook. Gimme a break.

The Broader “Cultural” Question

One of the values upon which SL was built was the ability to use avatar identity as the ‘affordance’ in which we express ourselves, conduct commerce, create relationships, explore, and live in Second Life. You’re changing that by adding something: choice. But the change is profound.

I’m personally of the opinion that you’re losing a significant strategic opportunity. Second Life has the opportunity to set a new standard for how identity, trust, privacy, user control, platform interests and choice are managed online. By choosing to shift towards whatever broader “cultural” standards are prevalent on the Web, you’re missing one of the most significant inflection points for Second Life that will come along in the lifetime of the platform.

One of those inflection points was the implementation of C/M/T, which I’m still convinced is one of the breakthrough “inventions” of our time.

You’re at another inflection point, and you’re going to miss making a move that could have placed Linden Lab and Second Life back where it belongs: at the leading edge of how technology can be constructed to facilitate innovation, expression, creativity, connection and the fulfilment of the vision to enhance the human condition.

I sense that it’s too late, but that’s the gist of my broader commentary on this feature: fine (in some ways) in a granular way, but lacking imagination, foresight and vision (or at least lacking it in the current context).

Broader Recommendations


As Second Life scales, this connection of in-world activity to our broader activities online may be one of the ways that Linden Lab chooses to monetize the platform.

In light of the recent changes to the TOS and EULA, expect to get feedback on the possibility that this opens up a broader intent to monetize the activity data of users because the comment about ‘linking to social networks’ implies also linking to the activity on those networks.

In particular, this section of the TOS is problematic:

Information Displayed to or Collected By Other Users

Certain account information is displayed to other users in your Second Life profile, and may be available through automated script calls and application program interfaces. This information includes your account name, account type, the date your account was established, whether or not you are currently online, user rating information, group and partner information, and whether or not you have established a payment account or transaction history with Linden Lab. Further, you agree and understand that Linden Lab does not control and is not responsible for information, privacy or security practices concerning data that you provide to, or that may otherwise be collected by, Second Life users other than Linden Lab. For instance, some services operated by Second Life users may provide content that is accessed through and located on third party (non-Linden Lab) servers that may log IP addresses.

The result of the ‘linking’ of avatars to the broader Web, and the inclusion (by choice, but still) of display names which can be collected by third parties and archived, sold, or commercialized opens up the possibility that our choices and behaviors in Second Life can eventually be parsed for commercial purposes….the further “Google-fication” of Second Life.

In light of this, I’d consider a few things:

Stating up front your policies around data mining and selling of data (refer people to the privacy policy):

Except under certain limited circumstances set forth here and in our Terms of Service (“Terms of Service”), Linden Lab does not disclose to third parties the personal information or other account-related information you provide us, such as IP address, without your permission.”

Be prepared to respond if the issue comes up; or decide on your end what your long-term strategy is.

I’m not saying any of this with the intent of presuming you have a nefarious plan in mind, simply pointing out that security and privacy are major concerns, while you’ve focused mostly on IP infringement and griefing. (Your section in the FAQ doesn’t address privacy other than under the concept of choice).

Privacy/Identity Czar

Now, display names may not seem like it’s going to be the cataclysmic end of privacy in SL.

I know that the Lab’s attitude is: “well, it’s no different from the Web, people should act like they’re on the Web”.

But Second Life ISN’T the Web. I can say that if I personally hear messaging again along the lines of “you should act in Second Life the same way you do on the Web, recognizing that cookies are collected and that it’s no different than shopping on Amazon” I’ll blog and rant until I run out of words.

Second Life has many features of the Web, and much of the same data can be collected, but it’s also unique. (Mind you, that comes back to my “missed strategic opportunity” comment above).

Regardless, I’d like to see the Lab appoint a privacy/identity czar….preferably someone external to the company or someone who can be an advocate within the Lab on these issues.

The Missing Picture

Now having gone on what must sound like a tirade, I generally am happy that there is SOME way to deal with a different display name. But without seeing the rest of the road map for all this social media linking that’s coming, or how larger authentication or batch registration processes will work, we’re a bit in the dark here.

I think you’re missing the boat, but you may only be missing it SO FAR. I’ll be curious to know how the next set of features is rolled out:

  • Will teachers be able to batch register students as a class, using their names
  • Will you be able to have authenticated display names or other profile info by linking to OpenID or other systems
  • Will users be able to keep any of that data locally rather than on the Lab’s servers
  • Will you be able to execute granular controls – showing certain profile data or display names only to certain groups? (A student whose real name is visible only to a teacher, an employee whose name is visible only to corporate group members?)
  • How will the SL account link to social media work? (Avatars United Model?) Will that process be open API?

In the meantime, display names will provide a granular feature that’s not such a bad thing, but will leave many questions about identity unanswered.


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