Saturday, 24 September 2011

Anonymity - Three cheers for Linden Lab

I'm now a regular columnist for AVENUE Magazine.  Here's my September column.

Read Linden's August update and you might just be forgiven for detecting the slightest hint of smugness in their comments on Second Life® Profiles. “As always,” they assert, “we value your right to network under any identity you like... let your imagination run wild!” It's not exactly an open declaration of ideological distance from Google's recently criticised stance against the use of 'fake names' – it's more of a knowing wink, really – but given the many complaints thrown in Linden's direction over the last couple of years concerning all manner of perceived ideological departures, the opportunity to sneak in a subtle, “See? We're doing something right, aren't we?” must have seemed just too good to pass up on. Quite right too.

I have a Google+ account for my SL avatar. I'm half expecting it to be suspended any day now. The other half of me thinks this won't actually happen, the same way it hasn't actually happened for my Facebook account. Facebook have – apparently – a similar 'real names' policy, though quite how this applies to, for example, 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' (who I follow) I have no idea. Did HBO change a volunteer employee's name to Curb Enthusiasm (middle name Your)? I think not. It's all exceptionally confusing. And search the Google+ guidelines for a definitive no-you-may-not-use-an-online-identity-for-your-profile and you're unlikely to be satisfied (I say “you're unlikely” rather than “you won't” because Google policy statements on this issue appear about as stable as the world economy). The latest official comment (at the time of writing) reads, “It’s important to use your common name so that the people you want to connect with can find you. Your common name is the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you.” On the issue of pseudonyms, they add, “Put nicknames or pseudonyms in the Other Names field.” In other words, where everyone can see them. Kind of missing the point about pseudonyms, isn't it?

There's a certain phrase that tends to get wheeled out at about this stage in these sorts of conversations. You know the one I'm talking about. “If you've nothing to hide,” it begins and then tails off into one of a variety of finger-waging wisdom impartations like, “you've got nothing to fear” (true wisdom, by the way, never gets accompanied by a finger wag, which should be considered by law the grounds for instant dismissal of all implied knowledgeability). Of course you have something to fear; we all do. A visit to should furnish you amply with all the reasons you could possibly need as to why human beings might want to use an alias online in terms of the avoidance of bad things happening. They range from bloggers in politically oppressive countries expressing the frustration of their daily lives to professionals in western democracies wanting to protect their professional integrity. The latter example might seem a little bit precious – kind of like wanting to have your ideal career and eat it. It's not just the tabloids that form judgements of people with responsibility, however: we're all guilty of this from time to time. In an incident that could have jumped straight from the pages of a scene from Friends, for example, I myself once made unfair critical judgements on a doctor's competence based on the fact that she addressed me in Klingon. A liking of Star Trek is one thing, I reasoned (I'm quite partial to a bit myself), even dressing up in the costumes is a bit of harmless fun; taking the time to learn the language, however, is a step too far for a person whose hands the life and death of people reside in. And I mentally wagged a finger at myself as I thought this. It would be wonderful if we lived in a society where every last feature of our personalities (non-harmful features, naturally) – no matter how distant from our own – was welcomed non-judgementally as part of the patchwork quilt of our uniqueness. But we don't.

Luckily for us, Linden appear to understand this. “We value your right to network under any identity you like.” All comments on the opportunistic promotion of SL Profiles aside (it's like Facebook, by the way, except with your SL friends and no annoying apps), they're right to focus on 'identity,' because actually anonymity isn't only about avoiding unpleasant consequences. I didn't join SL just because I wanted to see what I could get away with; I joined because I wanted to see what I could be in the metaverse and what that would feel like. You don't go rock climbing because there's a safety line, you go because you want to be the person who conquers the cliff.

A popular theory in Psychology – one I have some issues with – proposes that we all poses a number of masks that we wear in different social contexts. We wear a different mask at work from the one we wear at parties, which is different from the one we wear during visits to our parents at weekends. And so on. The problem I have with mask theory is the notion of concealment it implies, that personality presented in different social situations is primarily an act of some sort designed to prevent people from seeing 'the real us' in order to facilitate our acceptance. Without a doubt, we do mask from time to time – particularly when we find ourselves amongst people we haven't got to know yet and are trying to win our place within a group. But the working me is the working me and the party me (not one of my shiniest personalities, incidentally; if you should encounter me during a party, be warned I will probably cling to you all night so I don't have to talk to other people) is the party me. And the SL me is the SL me. For sure, concealment will happen every now and again but, first and foremost, these are all equally valid expressions of my identity. They're all the real me.

I'm Huckleberry Hax, by the way. Pleased to meet you. I'm not quite the same in SL as I am in RL, but don't worry – I'm not trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Huck wears clothes I wouldn't necessarily wear in RL; he has tattoos; he sometimes lives in a beach hut and occasionally makes 1960s era furniture because it reminds him of my childhood. He reads aloud his stories and poems every now and then, and people from time to time tell him they quite listening to him do this. Huck likes it a lot when people say things like that. In RL, I've never read aloud any of my literary creations in front of an audience because I'm basically too shy to do so and – yes – I have my RL professional identity to think about. But it's just possible now I might one day do that, and if it happens then I'll have SL to thank for enabling me. Even if I don't, I'll still be grateful that SL let me discover these aspects of my personality in the first place. The difference this policy makes, then, is that it's enabled me to explore completely new areas of my potential – of my identity – rather than being confined to the quarters of my existing 'real name' me.

The IT revolution, after all, was always meant to be about empowerment. On this issue, then, I permit Linden their smug little smile and hope – genuinely – that they feel proud.

AVENUE Magazine
Photography: AnnoughLykin

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