Deep Thoughts, Privacy and Protection, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Am I Me? Virtual Worlds, Avatars Rights, and Interoperability

OK, so there is a FIC, and Prok is part of it. Well, not really, but you see, there’s a group of metaversites (metaversians?) who Plurk each other or something and then get together to meet in a secret room in some shady part of New York City “uncomfortably unsticking one buttock and then the other from the plastic office chairs, and staring at our seat mates”. And maybe it’s not smoke-filled, but with the humidity lately and with no air conditioning, I’m sure it felt smoky, or with all the coding talk and debates over platforms and permissions was enough to make your eyes water.

At least Prok is on the invite list, I don’t remember getting one, not that the idea of paying to fly to New York to listen to stuff that i don’t understand would be something I’d do, but hey, there’s always a decent dinner after, in Canada we’re stuck with Pho and Timbits. So I’m not part of the FIC. Which is fine. But I’ll have to remember to ask Prok what that’s like, to be part of the cabal planning the metaverse and arguing over secure socket layers or OGPYthon or whatever that thing’s called, it’s such a mystery to me.

What I DO know, is that a lot of people are talking about interoperability, and openSim, and M mentioned it again yesterday, saying that SL is uniquely situated to be a beacon of standards: “We’re using our leadership position in the industry to drive the architectural standards that we think will enable the metaverse to avoid the fragmentation that leads to slow adoption.”

M claims that lack of interoperability will be nothing less than a nightmare as the fragmentation of the metaverse slows adoption.

Well, maybe. I’m not sure, I don’t have usability stats or insight into public opinion and according to some I’m too geeky to understand the casual user, as if I’m somehow more than casual – I suppose the casual user doesn’t think or blog about it, so sure, that makes me geeky, but I don’t code, I don’t run a successful SL business (OK, fine, I break even), all I’ve got is this idea that this stuff is important somehow and I’m having fun.

But I do know that some stuff frustrates me. It bugs me that I’m probably registered for 100 Web sites and I can remember my pass code to 10 of them. I can’t even remember which e-mail I used for most of them to RETRIEVE my pass code – you change jobs, you decide Hotmail sucks and Google rules, you end up with a bread crumb trail of e-mail addresses and suddenly I’m knocking to get in and no one’s answering.

So that’s the Web. And hey – I’m hopeless. I moved a year ago and I can’t remember my home phone number. I got a direct line at the office and I have to refer to my business card to remember what it is, and this is months later. I guess I start from the idea that there’s stuff that frustrates me, that technology is incredibly brutally NOT friendly, and I wish that would change. So I hear a word like interoperability and I hear “one log in, multiple places to go” and I sort of give a little woot before I settle down and do that thing that i guess is really geeky of me and actually think about it.

Am I Me?

I bought this piece of art. Which is another post for sure. But I bring it up because I was telling someone about this art. And I told them “It’s a sculpture, it’s incredible, and it’s in Second Life.” And their reply was: “Oh, so YOU didn’t buy it, your AVATAR did.”

And I wondered about that. I mean, I FELT like I bought it. It looked like MY bank account it was coming out of. But their claim was that its purchase was somehow once removed – that there was a filter between me and that “thing”, that I don’t actually OWN that thing, because I can’t touch it and feel it in the real world, I need this pesky little avatar in between.

And I said “OK, but does that mean it isn’t ART?” and they said “No, it’s art, it’s just that it exists in a place that’s imaginary, so although it’s real art, it’s less REAL.”

Which really got me thinking, not like I haven’t thought about this before, and not like I haven’t puzzled over Tom Boellstorf’s distinction between the virtual and the “actual” because if you call it reality then it implies the virtual isn’t real. You with me?

Well I’m not. Because it’s one of those loops again. On the one hand there’s a dissonance that’s created because our experiences in a virtual world are mediated by an avatar. So we will always be “virtually there”, kind of like we might say “I was virtually ecstatic” which means, well, I was ALMOST ecstatic, just not quite, but wow it was damn close.

And on the other hand although you’re not 100% of the way “there”, while you’re always just shy of being “actually” there, it’s still pretty close – and so it’s no less real than the experience of seeing a painting – it’s tangible, it’s there, it’s ‘imaginary’, but in a virtual world you can also interact with it and invite some friends over to dance in it.

So then I think about interoperability. And I wonder: what’s more important? The dissonance or the fact that we can get “close”, that we can be virtually ‘there’? Is our ability to be closer to the reality of a virtual world more important than our ability to retain distance from it?

What’s more important: the avatar? Or me?

Isn’t it the same thing?

Bodily Removal
Bear with me. This is tricky stuff, because I can’t always find the language. And I’m guessing half the time when I try to combine what I feel with what I think – an often combustible combination.

Let’s look at this one way: there’s a world. It has a culture. It has artefacts. It has people talking. It has places to live and work and play. It’s a world.

Better definition, Prok’s definition: it has a community, a sense of place, and drama.

So I decide to visit this world and intend to stay. I register. Now I’ve connected a slight bit of information to an account – a name, an e-mail, and maybe a credit card and birth date. All there is now is a bit of data, and that data is held somewhere. And the somewhere is actually a company. Someone trying to make profit, maybe, or someone basically giving stuff away so that you’ll maybe come in and stay where they can serve you up ads like in, or hope to serve up ads and branded furniture like in Lively.

So I have an account and that account is represented by information about the ‘real me’ and all of that information has been given to some entity, after an exchange of contractual vows which I probably didn’t even read when that EULA thing popped up, or the TOS, or the Community Standards or whatever, in exchange for my right or permission to go in.

OK, so I’m not actually “in the world” yet. Because first I need to create an avatar. Now, depending, this will be simple and brainless or incredibly complicated, and sometimes it will happen in a sort of holding area (because what’s help island if not a holding pen) and sometimes it will happen external to the actual “world”.

My choice of avatars might be prepackaged with limited choices or it might be totally open-ended. In one world, I can choose to be a dwarf or an elf, but there’s no option to become a furry or a dragon or a jellyfish. And this kind of makes a difference – because my ability to invest in my avatar can be partly constrained by the folks who are letting me in, those same folks who took a piece of me, and in Second Life, those folks are saying “it’s all yours, be who you want, and we have a trillion billion assets that residents have made, so you can pretty much dress how you want, walk how you want, be as tall as you want, or as tiny.”

So. Now I have an avatar, which in the case of Second Life can be changed, tweaked, clothed, accessorized, and to which various attachments and HUDs can be added, gestures created or bought, animations thrown into your Zhao or whatever, and through this avatar I can interact with the world.

But see – what’s happened is that regardless of how close to the ‘real me’ my avatar is, I’ve invested in it, and I’ve invested in it with time and/or money, and even in Warcraft you’re investing not just so you can grind better, but let’s face it, you invest in those raids so you’ve got the coolest armour and it MATCHES – it’s a sign of how much you’ve invested in….hmmm…in YOU.

So far so good – I gave a bit of information, I was given the ability to invest in this alternate me, this avatar, and so now I’ve got a piece of me in there, some sort of investment, some sort of way of mediating my exchange with the world in a way that’s reflective of the person controlling the avatar, and then….well, stuff starts to happen, because that “me” gets further invested. Maybe even emotionally. And maybe you start meeting people, and this “thing”, this avatar, is more than just this stand-alone thing, it’s integrated into the relationships you have with others, in this world, in this specific culture. Now – is it “me”? Let’s just say that it’s something that I’ve invested in, through which I derive benefits, either through the way I spend and hopefully enjoy time, or otherwise.

Permissions and Code

So here’s the thing. This all SOUNDS really good. All the cards are in the avatar’s hands, it feels like. But generally, someone’s gotta pay for all these good times. No different from Facebook really. Or Twitter. These aren’t charities, even if they’re losing buckets of “real” money. Someone is funding them against the POSSIBILITY that they can figure OUT how to make money.

And in virtual worlds no different. There’s a contract somewhere, written or unwritten, and the contract is the glue that’s supposed to hold together the idea that there’s a profit in here somewhere through various forms of exchange: people invest in avatars, avatars are used to spend time, time is used to make objects, objects are exchanged, land is bought from the world owner, gifts are given and received.

Even sites or worlds which are ‘donated’ or somehow commerce-free – look at Wikipedia, as an example, there are other exchanges that happen where folks ‘earn’ something – they donate something so that someone will benefit, or you contribute because you believe in this reputation currency idea. Someone gains, someone spends. Servers don’t materialize in thin air.

So, someone creates a ‘model’ and its either well-planned or its ad hoc and constantly changing. And in Second Life, parts of the model are reflected in land as the repository of value (prims), and the ability to then translate that repository of value into stuff that people will buy and sell. And other parts of that model are inadvertent. They’re little constraints and openings in the code that make some things easier or hard to do. Before you could teleport anywhere you wanted, locality was part of the model: where land was located was important.

Now, things like the constraint on groups places a premium on things like group notification tools from Hippo and other places, or just the ability to create a group that people don’t want to leave.

The point is, you were given the ability to invest yourself in an avatar, and then the world that the avatar entered faced constrains and opportunities, built explicitly or unintentionally into the code, and with every change of the code, or the policies governing the code (the ability to ban people from the Grid is code-based, the decision process for doing so is policy, but it’s still executed through the contract that’s embedded in how the world is made), the ways in which you “live” in this world can be subtly or profoundly changed.

The Invisible
So now I’m invested and I’ve learned the secret or explicit rules of the world, or have tried to. I try to negotiate the horror of the first land purchase, or I try to create a location for personal experience (say a home) and then deal with the horror of ad farms, or I learn which groups are better than others, or how to dance, whatever. I learn the stated and unstated rules and I’m ticking along and two things can get in my way: the technology itself doesn’t perform, or the rules change, and sometimes without warning. And when those things happen I can be upset, or a grid full of people can be upset, and maybe some will leave, or maybe the changes will attract others.

Now, I’m going to reserve comment here on whether the Lab executes change well or not. The point is that all of these “sites” or “worlds” whether Facebook or Wikipedia or whoever – there are choices being made by some group which is not the “users”, and those choices include ones around information transparency.

And as a result, there is knowledge and information which may or may not be available to the people who use the platform, who have invested in their avatars, and who have participated in a contract, embedded in the code, through which they hope to gain: maybe it’s time well spent, or items sold, friends made or classes taken.

Take the Lab, again because it’s an example I know. We KNOW how many Lindens exchange hands, and we have some data on how many residents have profitable ‘businesses’, and we can even find out what countries people are from.

What we don’t know is how many unique users there are. Or what the Lab’s sales are on private islands. Or how many freebies are given out or gifts given (although I suspect even the Lab doesn’t know that).

We don’t know the size of the outside economy: how many land rentals happen through PayPal instead of in Lindens, or how much is sold through the SLExchange.

We have a decent idea about some of the basic information that’s collected, and we have a reasonable expectation about the privacy that the data is afforded.

But there’s a fair bit that’s invisible, and so we’re often on the lookout for signs that this invisible data may influence our understanding of the world, and the contract in which we’re participating.

You Can’t Take it With You

OK. So that’s a very long, round-about way of saying that there’s a lot more going on when it comes to our participation in a culture or in a virtual world than meets the eye.

And look, that’s no different than other places in the world. The rules at one workplace are different from another. Stated or unstated – if you don’t sing happy birthday to the guy in accounting at one company you’re not a team player, and at another company if you skip it you’re the “right stuff” and have earned the right drive to eat in the executive dining room.

You sign up, it’s their rules not yours.

Well, kind of.

Because just like you enter the workforce and there are certain common rules, and laws, and protections, and norms – although there are subtle or cultural differences within SPECIFIC workplaces, there are still general rules. And there’s a bit of comfort in knowing that every time you get a new job you don’t need to learn new rules about how much overtime is OK or whatever, or that you can’t work if you’re 9, even if there are site-specific rules at play.

See, what’s interesting in all this is that we earn ‘rights’ as avatars, in Second Life in particular but also elsewhere, because of the investments we’ve made in a space whose contracts were formed by Linden Lab, or by whatever company or individual plugged in the servers and got it up and running. And there’s strong case law to suggest that in the way that some spaces are formed, the rights of the avatars are owed as much merit as the right of the platform owner to do whatever the hell they want. In addition, regardless of the social contract or the TOS, there are other laws that can over-rule arbitrary decisions by the “platform owner”.

Regardless, it’s not a democracy. Even if it was based on some sort of democratic function like they did over at Eve Online, it’s still a participatory mechanism in which there are competing or collaborative interests: the folks who plug the servers in, and the people who use them. Linden Lab isn’t a government representing the people, it’s a company. And as such, it makes its own decisions, and sometimes those decisions are hideous, and sometimes they’re accidental, and sometimes they make sense.

But through this whole process what’s happened is that you gave the platform owner some information, agreed to a TOS and maybe some standards, and then it turned out that it wasn’t the end of the contracting phase: it was subject to revision, and its successful execution was facilitated by how well you learned the UNSTATED rules, and there was the possibility of being stymied by creaky technology, but more importantly by subtle shifts in policy embedded in the code.

But what happens IF you want to leave? Now, granted, there may not be anywhere good to go, you may NEVER want to leave. And that’s great for you. You’ve found your home, you’re happy there, you’ve never been much of an explorer anyways and you don’t like people so why wander off to meet new ones?

But there ARE other places. Maybe they suck. Maybe they’re nifty or pretty or seedy or whatever. Maybe they’re run by your company or your school. Whatever. Where you spend your time is your business. Thing is, right now, you can’t take it with you. And the it you can’t take with you is “you”.

Are Virtual Worlds a Web?

So this is like the Internet right? You surf around, you log-in to post on a forum somewhere, you move on. Well – yeah, maybe, but you don’t need to have much in your information wallet to get around, really. You’re just popping in and out. You don’t NEED to register, or load a photo, or even do much of anything other than click around. There’s no 1,2,3 step – sign up, make an avatar, and THEN click around. You just click and go.

Or maybe it IS like the Internet, that social Web thing, and you’re on Facebook and suddenly you decide you like to Plurk and you want to invite your friends over, only problem was that Facebook didn’t let you take your friends with you. OK, no problem, maybe, you’ll email them all instead. Although it sure would be easier if you could remove some of the barriers to transporting information that feels a lot like YOUR information (which is why Facebook is opening up its social data to other sites, I suppose, to try to establish itself as the standard by which you can transport YOUR data).

See, the Web analogy for virtual worlds, this idea of standards and so on, kind of works and it kind of doesn’t. Standards are in place not to protect the interests of the user, they’re in place to protect the interests of the information owners: to ease the ability to access and surf content and by facilitating this to establish a contract with users that says “we collectively want your time, we’ve made it easy for you, come on in”.

So you either buy in or you don’t. If the offer is compelling enough, great.

But it DOESN’T work when it’s only the standards folks who set all the rules. Because they’ve got something you don’t: the right to change the code, and the rules, and the right to KEEP information from you. Now, sometimes they respect you and sometimes they don’t and god forbid government needs to regulate or whatever, but at some point there’s some rules that come into play that protect YOUR rights, you just hope you get a say or that you notice before it’s too late.

And the Web is like that right now too. All these standards that make it easy for YOU to move from place to place are the same standards that make it easy for the standard bearers to suck up data about you: about where you’ve been, what you Googled, whether you like porn or sports, or what chronic disease you have. These days they’re calling it behavioral targeting, and they’re serving up ads for rehab centers or HIV drugs because Yahoo or whatever is telling Merck that you’d really really love to see a banner ad for an antiretroviral, and by the way, all that stuff is information about you being stored somewhere and you don’t even know who you should call to take a peek at what they’ve collected.

Standards as the Holy Grail?

Just because you have standards or someone is proposing them does not de facto mean that everyone NEEDS to follow them, or that they’re a Holy Grail. This is where I seem to part company in some way with this concept of “accessible to all, always” because it strikes me that it’s like trying to tack a mule cart to a speeding train – those standards are an implied contract by the folks who developed them, they’re not a contract derived from user rights.

Just because someone proposes standards doesn’t mean, in other words, that those standards are built on anything other than a desire to create a contract with potential or current users to the benefit of the people who DEPLOY the standards. It’s no different than Linden saying “we’re going to let you sell or buy stuff” the only problem is that more often than not, the promotion of those standards is covered in a fog of language about accessibility and information needing to be free and, hmm, not sure – the betterment of humanity maybe.

The reality is that the standards people should just come clean. They should say “Look, if we create interoperability, or standards, we hope to gain on OUR behalf. We’re the folks who will deploy those standards. Sure, MY gain is good will and, um, reputation currency, but the guy down the street will gain because he’ll be able to sell his ability to deploy standards, Linden Lab will benefit because they can serve up the standards, and IBM will gain because they’re IBM and they always gain.” :P

Now, the nice thing is that there’s always room for some give-and-take. Because if the idea is that standards benefit the standard bearers, it doesn’t do anyone any good if no one buys in, because what’s the use of a standard that no one’s using? Ever hear of Betamax?

So they’ve got to try to navigate some tricky waters here: build standards, get enough standard-bearers with cool sounding names like Microsoft or whoever, and try to package it all up so that those users who will participate in these standards-based worlds will buy in and come over for a visit.

What Happened to My Avatar?

OK. So what about me?

Like I said, I’m not a coder, and I don’t know what all these standards are supposed to do, and I need to read UgoTrade more or whatever, or try to hang out in the alleys of New York City listening through an open window while Prok and the Big Apple FIC meet to carve up the metaverse.

But what I figure is happening here is the Interoperability folks are hard at work trying to extend their “platform” so that there’s standards, and that those standards are a contract of sorts: “we’ll try to do something nice for you, like make it easier to move around, and in exchange, we the standard bearers will benefit”.

But it gets back to me. I’m selfish. And here’s what I’m afraid of: that my avatar became WAY more than I bargained for. I just wanted to look at an imaginary world and see what it was all about. But I invested a lot more in that little cartoon character than I thought I would, I didn’t understand, I was gullible, the world was a lot more than I ever imagined.

And there’s that question that haunts me: is it the FACT that I have an avatar that’s separate from me that’s important, or is it that the avatar is me?

Because if it’s my separation from the avatar, then I want the ability to move from world to world without carrying around a lot of baggage. Every world can be a new experience, because in creating that separation I can benefit from the experiences of my avatar, which is central to my experience. Now, if I make that choice, I don’t want these worlds using their standards to collate my experiences and use that to serve up Slippcat furniture or Crixivan ads or whatever. If I give ONE world my e-mail address and use that to use a DIFFERENT avatar in a different world, I don’t want that being shipped over to other worlds, or Web sites, or linked to my Facebook account.

On the other hand, if it’s the fact that my avatar is me, then I don’t want to have to recreate some of the things embedded in my avatar just because I shift to a new virtual space.

I want options.

And perhaps more importantly, I don’t just want to choose how much of “me” gets moved around, but also that I get, in exchange for letting you standards folks facilitate these choices, greater access to the information and knowledge that’s often invisible behind all these platforms and spaces, because you’re asking me to sign a contract here: you’re coding in ‘interoperability’ and in so doing are embedding still more policy, you’re creating MORE layers of stuff that I need to learn, more barriers or opportunities to how I interact with these platforms you’re creating based on these standards you’re espousing.

See – the thing is, Tarah Oh and Adam Frisby comment that openSim is NOT a world. And that’s the problem. It isn’t.

You build virtual worlds ON OpenSim, and OpenSim is the place where those standards are held. So if OpenSim isn’t a world, then where will the standards for the worlds themselves be held? OpenSim is a technology, a platform, but that “world” part, all those pieces that lead to socializing, to a sense of place, and to drama is going to reside with whoever’s hosting that code, and if you make it easy for us to move from one world to the next without throwing up a big red flag to warn us that you’re not just moving from one space to the next, you’re moving from one set of policies to another, then my fear is I’ll never know who’s watching.

My relationship with Linden Lab may be shaky at times, but I know who they are – and if they let me beam off to some other space without pinging me that it’s being hosted in some basement in Russia and linked to my e-mail address then my sense of trust will be eroded.

Where Do I Live?
I change my mind a lot. I used to think that walled gardens meant that you were always supposed to stay hidden behind some sort of barrier, never letting the benefits of the “real” seep in or the lessons from the virtual leave – that you weren’t allowed to connect with people in other ways, or add them to your e-mail list or Twitter them if you’re so inclined.

Now, I don’t know what a walled garden is. What I know is that Second Life is a world and I like it. Things that dilute that world, or change the contract I’ve come to, in spite frustrations or things I wish would change, aren’t on my wish list. I’d prefer the world wasn’t diluted.

On the other hand, I’m open to someone selling me a vision on all these openSims and connected worlds. I mean, I understand that schools prefer to host their own environments, or that companies need tamper-proof firewalls. Fine. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I want them to be able to influence how the world of Second Life is run or coded or how its policies are constructed. But I’m open. Um. Wrong word. I’m all ears, let’s say.

What I do know is that I’ve invested in my avatar. And sometimes its separation from the actual is a good thing, and I’d like to know that this interoperability thing will give me the option to shield my identity while zipping around so that I’m not leaving information trails that are sucked up by these invisible platform owners. And on the other, if the New York FIC invites me over to their OpenSim E Street, I’d like to be able to carry some of my identity and investment with me.

And I’ve also invested in a contract, one in which I’ve made do with the information I have access to, and the domain experience I’ve gained. And I want to know that if my ability to move from space to space is made possible, that the contract is either honored or that its made clear to me what’s changed, whether there are new rights or rights lost, information collected or different policies deployed.

We can leave it to the standard bearers and they can deliver Betamax or VHS and we’ll either jump on board or not. But I hesitate to believe that folks who tend to focus on a technology which is a platform rather than a world are the best people to explain how this will translate into standards for policy, identity, information and avatar rights in a way that makes sense to someone like myself, a non-tech geek, who sees peril and promise, with fond hopes for the latter.


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