Monday, December 6, 2010

Some Random Thoughts on Identity, Names, and Reputation

originally published 22 March 2009

Anyone who's spent some time in SecondLife (or any other 'social' virtual world) will tell you that having an avatar will twist your mind around a bit. Once you buy into the entire paradigm of having a visual proxy of yourself that's "somewhere else", you begin to identify with your AV ... and that's when things can get a little weird.

But not necessarily in a bad way. In the same way that the advent of the Internet expanded our minds and made many of us aware of the richness of the world, having an AV can be a positive, educational experience: I've heard people talk about how it can be a chance to 'start all over again'. And it can be that: our AVs may be tougher, or more sensitive, or more masculine, or feminine, than our real-world selves. And our RL selves can learn from the experience. I myself have more than once asked myself "what would Jessica do?" -- and sometimes her response is better than my 'natural' response would have been.

Alas, I know there are also people who have a few issues with their alter-ego, and take to dressing up like furries when they pop by the grocery store and other assorted whackiness. But I'll submit to you that there will always be people who can be pushed over the edge by anything: yes, there's a problem, but it's deeper than just identifying with cute anthropomorphic animals. Or heavy metal music. Or television violence.

But I digress.

One odd thing about identity is how tightly it is associated with something as simple and insubstantial as a Name. Names are tightly associated with Reputation -- and Reputation is one of the most valuable things in the world. This is just as true in Real Life as it is in virtual spaces. Here's a gedanken experiment: offer a RL celebrity the chance to start all over again from scratch at age 18, with a healthy young body and a different name. L$5 says they turn you down flat.

I think that Stephen King learned about the importance of Name and Reputation years ago with his "Richard Bachman" books: he had several short novels published under the pseudonym "Richard Bachman". They weren't half-bad -- but they didn't sell well until someone (the publisher? nawww, couldn't be!) leaked that Bachman was really Stephen King. Then they started to sell.

An interesting aspect of virtual worlds is that you really can start all over again from scratch. But even though you can create a new AV and tell people "Hi, I'm Robert Cinchring but I used to be " (and not get carried off to the loony bin) it's still very difficult. And it sounds pitiful, too. Offhand I can only think of one person who's ever pulled it off, when the sculptor Starax Statosky came back into SL as Light Waves.

In the course of my job, I've been involved in a number of large internal events that have been held in SecondLife, some of them large and involving Big Names. And one thing I've noticed is that people demand the use of their real names during real business events. Doubly so if they're a 'mover & shaker' with a Big Name and a Big Reputation. They'd also like for their AVs to look exactly like their RL selves[1], too -- but The Name is the important part. And I can't fault 'em for that -- it's simply The Way Things Are.

Thankfully, this is becoming easier and easier. Virtual spaces like OpenSim, Metaverse, and Forterra already allow the use of real-world names, and the new Nebraska "SecondLife in a box" units do, too. So -- no more screwy titler attachments (and good riddance to them).

Having said all that -- there are those of us who are simply more comfortable with their avatar name and identity. I'm one, and I know there are others. Perhaps my career would be a lot further along if more people knew me as "Craig" than as "Jessica". I'll never know -- I simply prefer to be Jessica when I'm inside of a virtual space[2].

[1] For certain values of "exactly", of course. A more accurate statement might be "... to look exactly like their RL selves -- but younger, slimmer, and with better hair". This is why building "realistic" avatars is currently more of an Art than a Science.
[2] And the whole topic of "Why do I have a female AV?" I will leave to a future post.

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