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Second Life Tinfoil Hat Theory, Part 4: Who Do You Want to be Today?

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Before I get involved in this next aspect of the Tinfoil Hat Theory, I want to mention something that's happened related to last week's article.

On Tuesday, PayPal announced a new system for micropayments for virtual goods, and Facebook signed up. Though it has always been possible to pay for goods in all incarnations of Marketplace via PayPal, what was missing in the scenario last week was a link that could connect it directly with Facebook.

That link has now been provided through this new system, without anything complicated (Facebook credits, exchanges, or pesky banking regulations) getting in the way. The vampire bunnies march on -- and so do we.

If I were someone else, I'd quote Shakespeare -- specifically, "Romeo and Juliet." But I'm not, so I'm going to quote Oingo Boingo.

Oh boredom is so terrible, it's like a dread disease
Nothing could be worse
Than when there's nothing on T.V.
I'd rather be a cowboy than to stare blank at the walls
I've been reborn so many times
I can't remember them all
(And I say)

Who do you want to be today?
Who do you want to be?
Who do you want to be today- do you wanna be just like someone on T.V.?

Just like someone on T.V.!

I think I'll be a teddy boy, I think I'll be a hunk
I think I'll be a tough guy and I think I'll be a punk
I might just be a fashion star
All dressed in frilly rags
Or perhaps I'll cross the other side
And walk around in
Drag!"
- Oingo Boingo: "Who Do You Want to Be?"

Why no one has yet to make an SL machinima video for this song, I will never know. Boingo had it pegged 25 years ago (and if you're too young to know that the guy with the suspenders is Danny Elfman, don't tell me.)

They understood even then how many people wanted to be someone else. It just took time for the technology to catch up enough in order to allow them to do it successfully.

The Old Hocus Pocus

Second Life has always given its users the ability to change appearance on the fly. You can go from man, to woman, to robot, to animal to cardboard box in the space of a minute.

Nothing about your physical appearance cannot be altered in some way. The person you see one day in one virtual body may be wearing one that is unrecognizable from that form the next time you encounter them.

Poof -- you're an aardvark. Poof -- you're a cyborg. Poof -- you're a giant mechanical spider.

Some folks use that very ability as their own personal form of self expression, or therapy, or entertainment. It's part and parcel of the Second Life experience -- the molding of your virtual body into whatever you think it should be.

There's a lot of interesting sociology that goes along with that, but the point is that everyone is free to create themselves in whatever image suits them, whether that's radically different from their physical selves, or as similar as possible. If you feel the need to change it? Just like magic, it changes completely.

sew7.2-mid.png

The Still Point in a Mutable World

With all the potential ability to rapidly change your virtual form, one might think it could get awfully confusing. Well, it might, except that until now there was something that could not change -- your name.

No matter what form you were in, your name was always the same. Not only that, but until now, names in Second Life were unique.

Only one official first/last name combination was permitted per avatar. It was the name displayed over your head for now and evermore. You could add to it via a group tag, or via an additional titler but your name itself sat alone on a line visible to anyone who might wish to see it, and it could not change. It was an immutable tie to identity.

sew7.2-small.png

It was also an immutable failsafe against identity theft, which is a problem growing by leaps and bounds in real life.

The Good, the Bad, the Changing

The unique and unchanging nature of names in Second Life provided both opportunities and problems for both its residents and the Lab itself.

Because names were unique, many merchants used their names to brand their products, creating a tie between their name and the things they create, and utilizing that name as a marketing tool. Your name becomes tied to reputation in a way it might not in the real world, with a less unique name -- after all if there are many "Jessica Andersons" in the world, some are likely to be great people and some are likely to be not so great. The pressure isn't focused on the name as a link to reputation.

This of course works the other way, too -- if you have a poor reputation in SL, your name is likewise unique and you can't get away from that, either. If you happened to get a name you really loved, then you could be assured that it would be unique to you forever. Or so you thought, anyway.

But there were downsides.

For example, if you got partnered, and wished to change your last name to that of your partner, there was no way to do that. If you were an avid roleplayer, and wished to change your name to your roleplay character for purposes of greater immersion -- well, there was no way to do that, either. Finally, if you didn't really understand that your name was unique and forever in Second Life and chose something you wound up regretting later, well... you're just outta luck there, st3v3th3dingus2701 Barton.

For years, people had asked for the ability to change their names under these circumstances, and for years they were told that it simply wasn't possible. This of course seemed strange, since all scripted back end code for SL supposedly does not rely upon your name to work -- it relies upon your UUID (unique user ID), which is a long series of numbers and letters, like this: 5285e200-e1aa-11df-85ca-0800200c9a66 (no this one isn't mine -- I got it from a random UUID generator), leading to speculation that the back end code was far more messed up than previously believed. People even offered to pay for the ability to change their name, to no effect.

But as of now, your name is no longer quite the unique snowflake it once was. This is not due to any of the problems that the previous name system caused users. It was because of the name system causing problems for Linden Lab.

"It's Not a Problem Until It's A Problem For You."

That's sort of what happened down at Linden Lab. After years of keeping a firm line on how the name system operated, the problems with it for the Lab finally grew to a point where it needed to be changed. As previously mentioned, most accounts that Linden Lab can claim as a measure of Second Life's success are inactive.

Only approximately 750,000 of the over 20 million existing accounts are active on the grid, and it is fair to say that many of those are alts. That being the case, the number of unique users active in Second Life is well less than 1 million people.

However there have been over 20 million names chosen in Second Life, and under the old system, all 20 million, active or not, would not be available for re-use. As there is no current mechanism in place for purging or even determining which names are truly inactive, those names are considered to be gone forever.

Further, the name system that has existed all these years is believed to be a source of signup abandonment. That is to say that the way the system of names was designed caused people to abandon the account signup process at the point of selecting a name, and only a lesser percentage of those people would return at a later point to try again. (I actually believe this, though I know many do not, simply because this was true of me. It took me several months to get my account for this single reason.)

For those unfamiliar with the original, longstanding names system, you would pick a first name when you signed up and be presented with a limited list of available last names, which ran the gamut from the ordinary to the ridiculous. Refreshing the page or trying a different first name might give you a different list, but your choices were still restricted.

People could try again in a few weeks, as last names were retired and new ones put into circulation to see if you could find one you liked. It was a process that often took a lot of time, if you knew that whatever you chose, you were stuck with it forever with no way to alter it.

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Over the years sites like SL Namewatch have tried to take some of the pain out of this process, but most people don't know they exist until long, long after they have signed up for their accounts -- making the service good for secondary avatars but rarely for your first shot at the brass ring.

The signup abandonment issue is of significant concern to the Lab, as they have been trying extremely hard to entice new account holders to sign up for Second Life with only limited success. Anything that they feel would impede this process is looked upon as something that must change.

The Tipping Bucket

But the tipping point- the point at which something was done about the names issue, has to do with the Tinfoil Hat Theory. More specifically, It has to do with Facebook's TOS.

As I mentioned last week, the ability to link microgames within the Second Life environment to a larger audience via Facebook was hampered by Facebook's Terms of Service, which specifically disallows people from creating an account based on an alias. They require you to use your real name.

This clause put SL itself in direct opposition to Facebook as up until that point, Second Life was something that could be be completely separate from your RL existence, and nowhere was that more apparent than in your name. Most people never even had the option of getting their real names when signing up for their SL account (I know I sure didn't -- in fact I know precisely one person who was able to use their RL name in SL.)

In order to bridge this gap and prevent potential liability in terms of Facebook's terms of service, the Lab had to create a system by which people could be able to use their real names within the SL environment. Enter Display Names.

Actual vs. Potential

I've said this several times in this series of articles, and I'm sure I will say it many more -- Linden Lab is not concerned about the users they have. They are concerned about the users they could potentially have.

However, my observations over the past few weeks tell me that people are putting far more emotional content into that statement than I mean when I say it. To me, that's a neutral statement based on some very real financial realities.

Second Life is a venture capital funded business, at the end of an investment cycle. That means those very same VC's want their Return on Investment (ROI). To date, the current population of Second Life has not been able to offer that ROI -- and therefore the Lab must look to new revenue streams in order to expand, grow and create it.If they don't do this, Second Life goes under or is sold.

While the residents of Second Life may value it as a community, from a business standpoint it is a commodity, and can be sold and bought as such. Further, whomever buys it is not guaranteed in any way to be kind to it. All this being the case, it stands to reason that they are favoring the potential over the actual at this time.

That's not to say however that the advent of the Display Name system was well received -- because it really, really wasn't.

Pitchforks, Torches, and Jack.

In mid-August, two weeks after the annual Second Life Community Conference, Jack Linden made the first Display Names announcement. It... didn't go well. At all.

In fact, the light from "well" has not yet reached this planet. There were over 1,000 comments to that post, the vast majority of them utterly outraged at this new proposed change. The only thing people have little issue with is the ability for Display Names to provide Unicode support, so people whose names are not written in standard western English letters can have whatever name they want in the alphabet they choose.

The second blog post on this topic, ironically titled "Changes to Display Names Based On Your Feedback" has fared only slightly better in terms of response. Perhaps after the first debacle, most people knew that nothing they said would make a substantive difference and simply stopped bothering to comment.

This became apparent rather early on -- no amount of community outcry was going to stop this feature from being released. Much like Viewer 2, and Marketplace, there was clearly an internal deadline here, and Display Names was set to roll no matter who it rolled over in the process. That, by the way has not changed- the new Viewer 2.3 which was released by the Lab this week includes Display Names as a live to the grid option, out of beta.

SL 2.3 Everything Enabled-mid2.png

The stars are aligning for Linden Lab. It seems clear to me anyway (and was at the time -- several of the angriest comments in that Display Names mess are mine -- I admit I'm not a fan of this change) that display names are a means by which the Lab can get around the pesky Facebook TOS problem, and that once again, this was a means of leveraging the current residents of Second Life against potential account holders who may or may not ever exist.

But if the Tinfoil Hat theory holds up, they wouldn't necessarily need to exist -- because the Lab would be making money even if all those Facebook and mobile app people did was buy stuff from Marketplace, without ever setting a virtual toe in SL.

That being true, why are the residents of Second Life so very angry about Display Names?

So Many Reasons, So Little Time

Though many people already inworld have a lot of objections to this, I will try to break down the big ones (I'm sure that if I miss any someone will throw it up there in comments.)

Basically, they can be separated into three categories: The changeability aspect, the uniqueness aspect, and a loose aggregation of other reasons I'm going to call the privacy aspect. All of these are indications to various extents of the difference between the audience SL currently holds, and the one they're about to try to grab.

But first, some more Boingo (hey, Boingo is always perfect for Halloween.) Let's start with...

Change

"Don't you ever wonder why, nothing ever seems to change
If it does it's for the worse, seems it's just a modern curse
Sometimes when I take a peek outside of my little cage,
Everyone looks so asleep, will they die before they wake

And, hey... Don't you know? We're just products of our time and Hey ...
What d'ya say? Show me yours, I'll show you mine

Better dumb and happy than smart and without any friends
Better cute and better loud, better join up with the crowd
Keep up or be left behind, there's a dust storm in my mind
Seems I can't see straight these days, doesn't matter anyway
Hey . . . Don't you know? We're just products of our times and
Hey, what d'ya say? Show me yours, I'll show you mine...."
- Oingo Boingo: "Change"

In the initial post announcing Display Names, a lot was said about how this feature was going to solve issues for existing residents -- ones they'd been asking for and about for years. Yet, even the link in comments provided by the usually much beloved Torley Linden shows that this isn't really true. In fact, the Display Names system does very little to address those concerns.

Display names are only changeable once a week. They are intended to be flexible, not permanent.

This, right off the bat is not what those who were partnered in SL and desiring a name change were looking for. What they were after was an actual, permanent name change.

Now, the cynic in me (what can I say, I've been around SL long enough to see this), says even though the current display names scheme doesn't actually address their concern, this might be a better solution, considering how partnerships can and do change in SL. But it isn't what people were asking for.

Because they are only changeable once a week (though I am told that at least now you can go back to your original username at any time -- this is not as yet confirmed by me though -- if anyone can confirm that one, shout it out.), their usefulness to roleplayers is limited. If you roleplay in several different venues, and use different names for each one, then this feature is not very useful to you unless you're going to switch off your roleplaying on a weekly basis (see: unlikely).

An add-on titler is more useful in this case (and has been the solution to this problem for years.) If you only roleplay in one area, and only use one name, chances are you were after a permanent name change -- not a display name.

fliptitler in action-mid.png

If you had made an unfortunate decision when choosing your original name, display names help somewhat -- it gives people an opportunity something else to call you other than whatever inane thing was originally over your head. But chances are you were after a permanent name change also, since only people using viewer 2.3 can even see display names, and they're optional for viewing even in 2.3.

So you're still not really getting away from the terrible choice you made in the first place. If only half the room can see you as "Mary Thornton" and the other half are still calling you "Boz0gurl Hax" it's not exactly solving your problem.

Much of the outrage over the changeability aspect has to do with the fact that no matter how you slice it, the display names feature really (and rather obviously) had little to do with the current inworld population. The spin attempted to be placed on it towards that direction seemed obviously false -- a tacked on addition rather than the real impetus of the project.

Considering how often the current inworld population has felt ignored by the Lab of late, it isn't surprising that they viewed this as just another example of the same thing, with a sugarcoated lie on top. But that's not where the really loud screaming started.

Uniqueness

"Another place another time
Another face that looks like mine
Another soul for all to see
Is this reality??

If I could only find the words
I'm sure that they would go unheard
With one exception I can see
Is this reality ..."
- Oingo Boingo: "Is This"

The biggest objection current inworld residents had to the Display Names announcement was the ability for people to use a display name that was already in use as a username by an existing resident. That discussion mostly centered around the increased ability for fraud, griefing and other bits of mayhem. The fires were stoked even higher against the Lab when this little gem was found in the Display Names FAQ:

"Can I prevent other Residents from using my Display Name?

Not generally. Display Names are not meant to be unique identifiers. Instead, if you notice that others are using a similar Display Name, feel free to change your own name."

That right there? Is when people lost their minds.

Merchants who had used their previously guaranteed-to-be-unique name as a brand identifier were understandably both worried and angry. The old name system was the only real guarantee against identity theft in SL. Everything else somewhat relied upon the person being deceived to be smart enough to figure out they were being deceived.

Anyone who has been in SL long enough can tell you that many people on their best day do not read instructions, notices or information clearly and adequately. Not only that, but they simply don't want to have to work that hard (I wish I were kidding about that, but sadly, I'm not.).

However, ultimately the objection was that the potential for people to be fooled was not only damaging to those who were fooled. It was to the people who had been impersonated in the first place -- and that the Lab had no mechanism in place to adequately deal with that eventuality other than to try to sort it out after the fact with an abuse report.

Unfortunately, the handling of Abuse Reports are part of customer service, which has suffered an immense drop in quality. Trusting that these issues could or would be resolved in a timely or efficient manner was placing a lot of faith in an organization that had done very little to actually deserve it.

Further, for those impersonated, it's a lot like closing the barn door after the horse is out. The damage is already done, and since name and reputation have always been so linked in Second Life, people were understandably upset at being forced to play dice with that while gaining absolutely no benefit whatsoever for the feature.

It became clear however that many residents simply weren't getting the point of this. They kept making the suggestion that existing usernames be precluded from use as display names. In fact they begged for that very thing, all the while not understanding what was not said in Jack Linden's responses on the topic -- this has nothing to do with existing residents.

Here's the problem:

Linden Lab has no current mechanism to weed out dormant accounts from live ones. In fact, it would be counterproductive for them to attempt to do so -- they need those dormant accounts to bolster their account numbers, which are touted widely as a margin of success. That being the case, the names attached to those accounts would be lost to users forever.

OK, but so what? What are the chances of someone actively looking for the name "Fruitcookie Cooljoke" (I just made this up, though it is an actual SL last name).

Well, the chances of that are probably really infinitesimal. However, for all the zany last names Linden Lab has offered over the years, such as GossipGirl, MacFanatic, Crazyboi, Xootfly and Manimal, most of the last name choices have been real, legitimate RL last names like Mansfield, Davidson, Gomez, Phelps, and Allen. The chances of people wanting to be able being able to use display names based on those last names is significantly greater -- and the more common the name is in RL, the more likely that is it already taken.

To disallow those names from being used as display names defeats the real purpose for the display name system to begin with -- it's about being able to honor Facebook's terms of service, not about existing residents. Further, it's an attempt to appeal to a larger, more mainstream crowd who wants to use their real names everywhere they go.

Ironically, within this chaos was a way for the Lab to do something they haven't been able to do yet -- increase the number of paid account users. It was suggested (I only wish I had come up with this one.) by Dare Munro that the Lab offer a name whitelist for paid account holders only -- that the way you could protect your name from use was to have a paid account. This would indisputably cause paid account numbers to rise as people deeply invested in the uniqueness of their names would scramble to pay for the ability to keep it that way.

Yeah, I know. It sounds like extortion. However it would be extortion that worked.

Unfortunately, this still would inevitably disallow common RL names, which the Lab cannot afford to risk. Then, in one huge moment of irony, Linden Lab disallowed the last name "Linden" as use in a display name.

While this is understandable from a business perspective, it also rather proves the point others were trying so desperately to make -- if this is such a great and failproof system, then why aren't the Lindens themselves willing to put their necks on the line as well? Answer: they know it isn't. But they cannot pass up on this potential grab for a mass audience.

But there's one more stack of issues... Cue the band again, gang.

Private Life

"This is my private life
I have no friends to fear
I've got no problems no cross to bear
If you can find me
come and get me out of here

This is my private place, Everything is neat and clean,
The skeletons are hidden in the closet,
This is my private place, come & get me out of here

This is my private life
This is my private life
This is my private life... "
-Oingo Boingo: "Private Life"

As I've said previously many times now, there's an enormous amount of people who absolutely, unequivocally do not want the RL/SL barrier crossed. Though many people want to attribute that to "well that just means you're doing something you shouldn't be doing in SL" (don't ask me for my response to that -- it's not pretty), the reality is that there's innumerable reasons to not want to do this, not the least of which is that some people are simply not interested in sharing the details of their SL to their RL people and vice versa.

Some are worried about very real life problems -- stalking, being unwillingly outed for being gay, bisexual, a fetishist, whatever. No one wants to lose their job because their one place to escape from the demands of their RL existence has been compromised. There are many places where having your real life identity outed is not safe.

Even in pre-Display Names SL culture, just getting people to verify that they are over 18 officially with the site is like pulling teeth (I manage an adult sim. This is absolutely true -- the amount of whining, bitching and arguing over simple age verification is unreal). Getting them to turn over their RL name, too? Good luck, gang.

But again, this isn't about current residents. Even if none of them ever use Display Names to show their RL names, it doesn't matter -- the Lab's focus is on people who aren't even signed up yet.

Although the argument can (will, and has) been made that no one is forcing anyone currently inworld to reveal their RL identity, it's not like this kind of thing hasn't already been tried elsewhere. There are very real concerns as well that an influx of people used to Facebook's abysmal privacy record will seek to bring that same sense of lax privacy culture into SL.

Though some changes have been made to the initial Display Names plan which address some of these concerns, there are many unhappy people who are very worried about this latest change. However, we're still not done tying this together yet. Because in order to tie all of this up in one complete bundle you need one more thing.

A working search engine.

Which right now? Doesn't really exist.

Oops.

Happy Halloween, everyone.

Thank you to Pie Zipper and Will Burns for help with the photos/screenshots, thank you to Oingo Boingo, for once again proving that they can illustrate anything.


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