Monday, January 25, 2010

oh, I'm scared of the middle place, between light and nowhere

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Reasons why Dusan Writer occasionally rocks and rocks hard, #39: sarcastic excellence.

On identity directly:

So – first, this idea of linking to identity is to facilitate tapping into the viral power of social networks, and it's meant to make people feel somehow 'better' about coming into SL. As if somehow people just WON'T come in if they can’t use their real names. As if in a world of Twitter handles, anonymous blog posts and fake mySpace pages we're suddenly all terrified of digital spaces where we have to put our real life names in our profiles rather than in a corporate database somewhere.

This may be something slightly stunning to people who didn't grow up as the web evolved, but believe, once upon a time, in the world then: handles were our only online identity, some creative, some thuggish, some plebian, some archaic; and we played by the simple words, names, places and ideas we pretended to be.

Emilly, for instance, goes back farther than SL; and there are other names before her that would pop up in searches from five years ago, eight, ten, fifteen.

I won't dissemble and tell you people didn't choose unwisely; and really, if the choice is between Steve Sumner, for instance, and Ychebotarev ProductEngine (look him up, he's out there), I think Steve would reconsider the mouth-filling nominatives in favor of the simplicity of meatspace. After all, even God has a real name (though I'm amused that the name of God's typist? Is Peter) on Twitter.

But put that aside (who hasn't seen the endless parade of Sexxygirls and FoxxyLadys on SL? And I dare you, I double-dare you, to count how many avatars are named some variation of "Vagina") because stupidity is everywhere; I want to talk about why it's deemed so important, in these days of instant communication, to go by the real names our real faces wear.

Think about that. I link up my RL name to my SL avatar. Now I'm one step closer to anyone who has that name to go in and find my RL address. My RL phone number. My medical records. My bank accounts. An overhead shot of my house. I don't want this. No one who's sane wants this.

This rush to link avatars to "identity" funnels us into a way of thinking about avatars that saps them of their potential magic.

This magic also works on the level of heuristics. My avatar, to me, is a representation of a particular mental modelling of the world, a way of interacting with information, and a mind-set through which I view creative work and value generation. Avatars increasingly become representational not of the "person" but rather of a particular data-rich persona which signals to communities the cultural and values-driven perspectives which we enact.

Again, the rush to link avatars to "identity" saps them of their power to signal the creative domains from which we tackle problems as other users bypass this signalling capacity in order to find the short cut to "real life name" with all the promise it seems to hold of "oh, ok, now I know you".

This is a longer passage, but I wanted everyone to understand what I meant. What Dusan's talking about here has nothing to do with who the avatar, per se is, and everything to do with what the avatar represents, to us, to those viewing us.

If that still didn't make it clear, let me offer two examples.

Mr. Drinkwater remains one of the best examples for this concept. It's a national Caledonian secret-that-is-not, the identity of Mr. Drinkwater's typist, his "Boswell", as he says. He is polite and affable and cheerful and feels no compulsion to hide this fact; it's come out, and there it is, and life goes on, and it wasn't really that hidden in the long run.

All right as far as it goes; if you put up a picture of Mr. Drinkwater next to a picture of Boswell, you would understand these are two radically different people. And yet, the same sense of humor underlies them both. That same fierce hunger for knowledge and experience, page by page or in living breathing color; that same curiosity about people, from the taste of skin to the appropriate symbols to paint on the sole of the foot: these are earmarks of the avatar that are recognizable, solid, unwavering. And these things shine through if the avatar in question is tall, lithe, and erudite, or short, frenetic and furred.

And I should add, the best second example I have is me: my profile, a long while back, used to contain the phrase If you don't recognize the face under the nametag, it's me. That still holds true a great amount of the time; but most of the time, my identifying markers are that I'm short, I'm oddly colored (be that color skin, outfit or fur), and my movements, sad as I am to say it, are tilted either towards the twee or the confrontative. (Right now my AO contains both.)

And I have a language of symbols that goes beyond that, that also is reflected in the images I take in world. Stitches; seams; patchwork; pale skin or hair; vibrant, occasionally unsettling eyes; a wide-ranging love for the anthropological and costume design both. I rarely consider it getting dressed anymore; I consider it closer to painting a canvas, and I have a wide-ranging palette from which to draw.

Anyone who knows what I look like RL would again, note the wide disparity between me in RL, and my avatar on the grid. And yet, I spent so long using the same AO during my first two years I still fall into two poses off the grid. My mouth frequently looks amused, yet paradoxically rarely smiles fully (though these days that is changing). And my avatar falls into building the way I fall into research--pursuing it for hours at a time, barely speaking, entranced by the potential gain--with new build techniques, or new information both.

And both my avatar and I communicate best through inference and allusion, over actual conversation.

All of that? Is not tied into my name. All of that would be discarded by the wayside if I was forced into the shell of mundane reality on SL. All of that is what makes me living, vibrant, and real in my own way on SL.

I loathe Facebook. I use MySpace for the music links only. I use Twitter, but though I do follow people, and I have made friends there, it comes and goes in stages--two, three days with no word, then one day of every-two-minute sends. It depends entirely on how much I want to communicate, on any given day.

Or perhaps, bundle all of that up, and see it in this light: my RL name? Is protected only to the extent that it's my legal identifier. Beyond that, I don't consider it that often.

But Emilly? Hit Google, Emilly shows up--and so do some of my other chosen nommmes d'net. I am invested in what Emilly does, says, thinks, writes. My words come up, good or bad, when my SL name is employed.

And yes, there are still more people who call me "Em"--or by other handles--in RL than by my real name. Why would I ever want to lose that cachet (whether it brings to mind a sneering malice or the infamous past) to move it to my real name--a set of words with no set value (save what other people put on it), that I did not choose?

I chose Em. I chose that identity. And just as with family members we choose, over those we're simply born with, it does make a difference.

And I agree with Dusan--it would be the beginning of the final death knell for Second Life, were it to demand compliance to real-world ideals. Because "your world, your imagination" still means something to some of us. And it should mean something to the Labs.

(Also: thank you, Dusan. Thank you for changing the word in your paraphrased statement to "character". I will be a character, I will be a ragdoll, I will be an avatar--BUT I AM NOT A GODDAMNED TOON. For the love of all gods, I loathe that word with a fiery vengeance.)


Rhianon Jameson said...

Well said!

Emilly Orr said...

Thank you!

Encapsulate said...

I was thinking about this as I watched the pilot episode of Caprica.

The main character has basically created a Second Life style metaverse... Before you enter it though you receive a full body scan to create your avatar. It seemed SUPER strange to me that the avatar you end up with has a 1:1 relation to your physical appearance.

Emilly Orr said...

Oh hai. :)

But yes, isn't that odd? I mean, of everyone I know in SL, that I know RL, who has created their SL avatars to match their RL selves...well, Hank, he's at the top of the list. And Stiv, when he was human. Ish. Serenity Semple (who yes, has white fur, purple hair, and cat ears RL, due to the fursuit).

Then there's...everyone else. Why match avatars that closely? Why not have your avatar reflect your interests, some facet of your soul, your emotions, something that makes a bigger, truer impression of you? Or just to create something you like looking at when you wander a virtual world?

It feels wrong to be so limited. It's virtual. It's not real. And even in reality, we're working on nanotechnology.

Fogwoman Gray said...

As soon as I can be blue on the meat grid I will be!
Oh, and my offline name is mine to give or not to whom I choose. Period. I am not hard to find, but my agreement with LL was that I created an identity that was not linked to my offline identity.
My agreement with LL was that I could file an abuse report against anyone who revealed offline information about me. And I do NOT give my permission to alter this agreement.

Emilly Orr said...

Oh, I so hear that. There's this moment in Total Recall, just this small little color detail--the secretary in the Recall office painting her nails with a nanopen. I craved that set--or something equivalent--like a drug for several years.

Within my lifetime, could we see programmable color pens? Hair you can alter with a keystroke combination? Skin dyes that are temporary or permanent? Talk about the color boundaries then, when people can be green, violet and blue, as well as black and white and all the shades in between.

But that's another point I forgot--right now, the ToS does make that an abuse violation. If they implement this policy, will RL info become hardlocked into the system? What's abuse now will become passe? They need to think on the repercussions that will have on the grid culture, too.

Sphynx Soleil said...

My opinions have always been variations of this, yes. :)

But then, I don't need to tie an RL name to something in order to behave like a sane adult, either.

Emilly Orr said...

You know, that's part of it too. As if tying real names to avatars will automatically ensure a docile population packed with cash. We don't have that now in RL, what makes anyone think that mapping to RL names will make everyone responsible and mature?

Anonymous said...

JJ Drinkwater is a story Boswell is telling. But, in some rich sense, we are to be known by the stories we are able to tell, are we not?
Gentlebeings, your servant

Emilly Orr said...

Precisely. In that sense, we are still around the fire, telling stories to make the dark hours pass more quickly. Some part of all of us remembers the stories, and the storytellers; if imperfectly and imprecisely, through distance and misapprehension, still we tell them.

(It's a very good story, too, Mr. Drinkwater's. I think many have been touched and charmed by it.)

Galactic Baroque said...

I am highly aware how easy I am to find online: my phone number, pictures of my house, and a whole mess of other things linked through another nickname that I use for in a business (thanks Tensai). I'm certainly not going to make it easy for anyone in SL to find all that without my knowledge. When I was in the classroom I would offer an extra credit point to the first person that could find my myspace profile that did not have any reference to my real name... it never took more than a couple hours. It is extremely difficult to keep an avatar completely unconnected to you, chances are you will slip up eventually with online registration somewhere. You want to know just how unanonymous the internet is, challenge a teenager to find you. Try scrubbing your own trail sometime, its very enlightening. I hear there's a bit of an industry for those who posted their sexyfun photos all over the place while in college to get cleaned up for their first big job interview. Wouldn't they just love to have their boss know what they do in SL?

Emilly Orr said...

Mr. Baroque,

And while social shaming can and likely does play a part, I'm more concerned about the total rewrite of grid culture this will take.

How many people, like Lady Fogwoman, know the SL ToS by heart? All those passages, gone, if this becomes the new reality. If it's mandatory, first, there will be the staggering amount of avatars abandoning the platform. Even if it's not, someone asking for "who you really are" can't be ARed at that point; not if the ToS changes to that extent.

Past that, say one is above reproach in SL. There's nothing that can potentially scorch an employer seeking to investigate the background of a potential employee. Fine; not everyone in SL wants to, or needs to, use SL to retain employment. In fact, most of the platform, even now? Is dedicated to personal use. In further fact, most of the platform, using their own advertising videos as indication, is still designed for personal and recreational play.

Why do we need to be linked in off the grid? If it's purely and totally optional, fine; but they then need to recognize people will choose to opt out of being listed.