Conversational Identities….

(Mark) Wallace Linden fires off his first topic for “conversation” this week, and it is a doozy on so many levels.  Will the Real You Please Stand Up brings what several Lindens have been mooting for some time  – the linking of real life information potentially directly to your Second Life avatar(s) identity/ies – in to the “public” domain of the flogrum.

What interests me about the post – other than the intense and understandable reaction from users to Wallace’s words – is the lengths to which Linden Research is prepared to go to in order to justify their decision to start putting in place “open” links between people’s RL and SL identities and the fact that the decision has clearly already been made.

As such, Wallace Linden has not so much initiated a conversation around the idea of bringing in the tools to make this possible, he’s more-or-less making a pronouncement LL will be actively undertaking to implement the tools in the coming months.

Let’s start with the former first: the degree of negative feedback from the majority of “residents” – the likes of you and me, whom I’ve opted to start calling “casual users”, on account of the fact that by-and-large we use SL purely as a form of “entertainment” (even if we run in-world “businesses”) as opposed to the “emerging market” of so-called “corporate users” LL seemed determined to try and find woo – is on record. Many are concerned over Facebook’s recent policy changes which have effectively made revealing much of your personal information filed with the company an opt out process, rather than, as it should be, an opt in (or so I understand, having never, ever gotten involved in Facebook in my life).

Yet, rather than confronting these concerns head-on and using them as a means of opening a two-way dialogue, Wallace instead opts to go back further in time – using Friendster’s 2003 approach to “false” identities to somehow further justify the need to link rl and SL identities more closely.

Indeed, were I a total cynic, I might even conclude that there is a veiled threat hidden in Wallace’s choice of example as an opening gambit.

From this dubious outset, Wallace goes on to paint a rosy picture of online interconnectedness that is  – in essence – fair and true. For, as he states, 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.

Yes, yes, absolutely, Wallace. But here is something else not to miss – and it bears stating despite how obvious it sounds – is what, for the majority of us, these online “identities” have in difference to one another. Whether the connections are our Second Life avatar, our World of Warcraft toon, our Facebook profile, our LinkedIn employment history – they are all what we have chosen to reveal of ourselves through these differing media to meet different aspirations, wants and needs. They are all already connected to each other via our real-world self. And as such, we don’t need you, or anyone else at Linden Research trying to engineer / persuade / cajole / drive us into greater degrees of self-revelation than we’ve already opted to make.

Strong arguments to this effect have been made in response Wallace’s post, but what is interesting  – to turn to my point on this having been a “done-and-dusted” decision on LL’s part – is not so much that Wallace has replied to critiques, but rather the wording of his replies.

Not once does he reply directly to the arguments raised against such a move. Not once does he even suggest that LL are seeking to engage with users on the pros and cons of the matter.

No. The only assurance he will give is that there (presumably) still-to-be-defined tools will “opt in”. and really, even this is a pretty bland reassurance, as “opt in” cover a variety of “up-front” sins. Yahoo Messenger, for example, has a default “opt in” user must then physically opt out of in order to ensure the messenger doesn’t deposit cookies (or “biscuits”, as I believe Yahoo calls them) on their computer that enable Yahoo to target users with adverts based on their web browsing. It is only AFTER you’ve gone through the process of creating your account, editing your profile and tracing down the “opt out” function that the “biscuits” are actually removed from your computer…

The only other assurance we get from Wallace is that “I don’t think anyone at LL is in favor of forced identity publication.” Which again, is pretty bland, given it is immediately followed by, “That said…..” – which immediately carries the implication that there is nothing inherently wrong with forced identity publication.

Does this mean we should roll over and accept the inevitable? No. Whether or not this is a done deal within LL’s ivory towers is moot. This kind of social engineering simply is not needed. As Ciaran Laval states, it’s time to say no to this invasive function creep and take care of our own identities, we certainly don’t need social networking sites to manage our identities for us, it seems as if George Orwell was two or three decades premature.

This is the message we need to carry to LL through the flogrum, through posted replies, our own blogs and posts to any and all metaverse sites that report on this move: we are all intelligent adults and we’ve been perfectly capable of managing our online identities for as long as the Internet as a whole has been available to us; we certainly don’t need the likes of Linden Research and/or Facebook or any other organisation or partnership telling us how to do so going forward. And we need to fight every step of the way to make sure than any such “tools” alluded to in Wallace’s post are fully, truly and demonstratively opt-in in every meaning of the term, and not just in some facile “well, it’s sort-of opt-in…” half-arsed implementation that we’ve tended to see in the past where LL’s policy moves are concerned.