Identity: Linden Lab change of heart?

Your identity is defined in part by which pieces of identification you choose to share with a person or group. Every person you know does not have the same information about you as everyone else. What you share with your mother, your boss at work, your bank manager, is different to what you share with your lovers (unless there is some overlap there).

You are identified by the identifications you share with those people. You create an aspect of your identity (or one of multiple identities, depending on how you like to look at it) each time you use a subset of your identifications to identify yourself; all those aspects, or different identities, all point back to you, the unique mind or being behind it all.

After centuries of discussion and thought, the only thing we can say for sure about identity is that it points to something that is both unique and somewhat fluid.

“Identity is an umbrella term used throughout the social sciences to describe an individual’s comprehension of him or herself as a discrete, separate entity.” ~ Wikipedia, Identity (social sciences)

“An online identity, internet identity, or internet persona is a social identity that an Internet user establishes in online communities and websites. Although some people prefer to use their real names online, some internet users prefer to be anonymous, identifying themselves by means of pseudonyms, which reveal varying amounts of personally identifiable information.”  ~ Wikipedia, Online Identity

“As other users interact with an established online identity, it acquires a reputation, which enables them to decide whether the identity is worthy of trust.”~ Wikipedia, Online Identity

There are some pieces of identification that hold the promise of telling us all we need to know about a person’s identity. Their name, for example. Or, at least, a name that, when we communicate with them, that they respond to. That’s really as close as you can get – there’s no such thing as a person’s “one true name”. People may have names given at birth, names changed at the time of marriage, names changed by choice by deed poll, nicknames by which they are commonly known, stage names, a nom de plume, a nom de guerre, a gaming handle, a user name, or one of the other many types of pseudonym. All of which can be valid, legal, usable name types, and of which people will often have more than one – and each of which is an identifier for an aspect of identity.  Actors in particular commonly choose stage names; these names are often chosen to reflect a different ethnicity to the one they were born with and named for. It means they often get more work, less discrimination, less chance of being beaten (for example) for having the wrong background. Additionally, a stage name can be chosen to be more memorable than one’s given names, easier to pronounce, easier to spell.

A Second life (SL) account name is likewise a chosen name, albeit with some restrictions on what can be chosen. The behaviours associated with that account name are associated with an identity or identities, depending on how many people use the same account. No matter whether you inject your own personality, wrist, vocabulary, or what have you, or whether you imagine all the behaviours you create for that account, you are still the one creating those identifiers. There’s not some imaginary being making this up for you – this is part of you. As stated in the introductory paragraph, not every person knows everything about you – with an SL account, you may choose to share very few of the identifiers from your offline world with the people you meet there, and very few of your SL identifiers with people who are not a part of SL.

Every person limits how many identifiers other people and groups have about them – it’s what I would call “privacy”, being able to choose the amount and type of information you share. When you are forced to share things you do not wish to, privacy is broken. The bank manager does not need to know your shoe size, the passport office does not need to know your banking details, your mother does not want to know if you’re kinky in bed. We give each person or group only enough identifiers to specify us as an individual, so that they can eliminate all the other candidates. My gender (female) eliminates the 40% of physically male candidates present in the world, my address narrows the field to 2 potential people, my name eliminates the other person, if we were to carry out the testing in that order. Some people and groups do more testing to ensure the likelihood that they have arrived at the correct individual – Social Security, for example, is very keen to make sure that they get the right unique person, as are the police.

Why do we require privacy? Mostly, to prevent other from doing harm to us. Someone who knows your physical whereabouts has the chance to do physical harm to you or your property. Someone who knows how to access you online may be able to do mental harm, or even financial harm, depending on the identification they hold for us. People are judged by their identity – identity is comprised of names, locations, sexuality, ethnicity, preferences, what you choose to wear, what you have for breakfast, and many more such things – and people are quite willing to harm other people who they have decided deserve it.

When does privacy seem like less of a good thing? When it’s difficult to pin-point one person as the individual in question, therefore making it difficult to make them accountable for their actions. It’s where anonymity, or the semblance of it, encourages people to think that they can get away with harmful actions without consequences – because we cannot identify the correct individual to hold accountable.

Disclosure

Residents are entitled to a reasonable level of privacy with regard to their Second Life experience. Sharing personal information about a fellow Resident –including gender, religion, age, marital status, race, sexual preference, and real-world location beyond what is provided by the Resident in the First Life page of their Resident profile is a violation of that Resident’s privacy. Remotely monitoring conversations, posting conversation logs, or sharing conversation logs without consent are all prohibited in Second Life and on the Second Life Forums.” ~ direct from the Second Life Community Standards

There’s no way to know (bar leaks) whether Linden Lab plan to diverge from this standard and either provide “opt-in” ways for us to connect our SL and our other identities or to force us to do so if we wish to continue using their service. Certainly Wallace Linden’s blog post does not give me the impression that they are about to present it as a fait accompli. Unfortunately, we must remember that people who have not signed up to SL greatly outnumber those who have – Linden Lab can afford to throw away every user they have at the moment and, as long as they find a way to appeal to those who are not yet in SL, still come out ahead and profitable.

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