The Google+ Controversy & Virtual Worlds – A Question Of Identity

Last Friday afternoon, I had a short exchange on Twitter with Ciaran Laval, in which I mentioned I wasn’t writing a column because it had been a slow news week and nothing had happened that warranted the usual 1,500 or so words I type in this space.

Of course, last Friday evening all hell broke loose.

Note to Universe: please do this earlier in the week.

Thanks ever so,

The avalanche of news last weekend was triggered by the story that Opensource Obscure, a Second Life resident from Italy, had his profile suspended by Google+ because his name “violated community standards.” This was followed by reports of the accounts of Second Life users being culled, much in the same fashion as had happened at Facebook weeks ago.

The landslide regarding names, pseudonyms, and identity started there, and has only grown in the past seven days, putting Google+ as a fledgling social networking organization in the spotlight. Google+ has some hard choices to make.

But there are a number of issues here. Not all of them directly relate to virtual worlds, and it’s really important to understand that, so I’m going to make it clearer: The issue of pseudonymity is only partially a virtual worlds issue, and how it’s being handled (or not handled) has to do with that distinction.

Let’s Get Personal

To illustrate some of the issues here, I’ll use myself as an example. Please note that I don’t have a Google+ account (I blocked all invites after the first half dozen) just as I don’t have a Facebook account. But the reason I don’t have either has nothing to do with not being able to use my Second Life avatar name. It has to do with a long rant full of cursing that my editor would only have to remove anyway.


Both of these images are pictures of me. I write here at Search Engine Watch under my real name (a.k.a., “wallet name”) – the one my parents gave me at birth. My Second Life name, Axi Kurmin, is not a secret (it’s at the bottom of every column I write here), but it was chosen for two reasons:

  1. Because I could not get my real name in SL in 2008 (and now, seven businesses later it makes no sense whatsoever to change it through the ridiculous use of a display name)
  2. Because when I signed up for Second Life in 2008 you were required to have two names – firstname lastname, which prevented what I really wanted – a single name, which would have been the Internet handle I’ve used since 1995 (I did eventually score that account as a single name alt, but since alts can’t share inventory from a main account, it’s not much more than useless – my main account is the one with all the stuff.)

Facebook’s TOS claims that you are required to use your wallet name in order to use their service. Part of this has to do with the ethos behind Facebook and part of it has to do with how Facebook makes money – via the collection, sale, and dissemination of personal information that the users of the service provide, linked to that wallet name.

Google+ was, in theory a little different. Their rules state that you should sign up using “the name your friends, family, or co-workers usually call you.”

It would seem, however, that the folks at Google+ were very shortsighted about what that might actually mean. Twenty years ago, that would probably mean nothing more than people named Robert being called Bob, or folks named Jennifer being called Jenny.  But for reasons I can’t explain, no one at Google figured out that when people live their lives online, that the “name people call you” often isn’t related to your wallet name at all.

What’s more, people like it that way. In my case, the way I’m most known by the vast majority of people in my day to day life isn’t by my wallet name or my SL avatar name, but by my Internet handle. According to Google+, that’s not OK with them. It seems that Google has a very narrow definition of identity.

Identity and Pseudonymity

These two concepts, while related, aren’t really synonymous, and the differences between them in this situation are important. So let’s talk about those.

Samuel Clemens wrote his books under a pseudonym – Mark Twain. Plenty of people, particularly those who are famous, operate under a pseudonym in their day to day lives. Here’s a list of some you might be familiar with..

In some cases, the pseudonyms were there to create “stage names”, which were for whatever reason deemed better than the wallet names of those same individuals.  In some cases they were a way for those people to retain their wallet names for private use. But they were not generally a way to create a new identity completely.  They were not really “fictional characters” – they were simply name changes of one kind or another.

In the modern, online world, there’s lots of reasons for people to use pseudonyms, particularly in matters of safety. Minors, for example, for whom putting their wallet name in the open could be particularly dangerous, or those fleeing abusive relationships.

Pseudonyms are useful for those who would be unreasonably persecuted if their wallet identity were known – political activists, or members of marginalized groups of all kinds. The reasons people use a pseudonym are legion, but as we have observed in the (rather endless) series of privacy breaches coming out of Facebook, and the rise in identity theft rates, there’s quite a lot of excellent reasons not to use wallet names in any online interaction where they’re not truly necessary.

However, just as Samuel Clemens wrote under the name Mark Twain, he also invented characters in his stories. Huckleberry Finn is a character. He is not a real person. He’s just someone invented by an author.

The difference between Mark Twain (a pseudonym) and Huck Finn (a fictional character) is the crux of the Google+ issue as it relates to virtual worlds. This is where things get sticky.

The Virtual Identity

In my case, my virtual self is as close to my actual self as I can make it. I don’t roleplay at all, and I’m the same in Second Life as I am in my first one.

I don’t have a second identity. I only have one (I like to tell people I have a hard enough time being me – I certainly don’t have the energy to try to be someone else too). I just use different media in which to project it, and my RL and SL selves are fully linked.

In my personal case, my SL account name is nothing more than a pseudonym (and it’s not even one I’d use on a SM site anyway, any more than I’d like to use my wallet name. Again, my self identity is tied to an Internet username)  But for years part of the draw – in fact, part of the raison d’etre of virtual worlds was, and is, to do the exact opposite of what I did.  It’s to completely reinvent yourself as someone else.  Someone you couldn’t be (for whatever reason) in your day to day life. Maybe even several someone elses, in the case of multiple characters used for roleplay.

In that case, those account names are not merely just names, but fictional identities in a much more holistic sense. They are the modern equivalent of Huck Finn, except you’re writing the story as you roleplay it.

This, at its core, puts virtual worlds at odds with both Facebook and Google+ because they are trying to avoid fictional identities, and virtual worlds are loaded with them. Since they have no way of determining which are just pseudonyms and which are fictional identities, apparently their solution is to eliminate anything that sounds like “a name that isn’t a real wallet name.”

But not all virtual identities are fictional. Some are simply pseudonyms.

The issue is how to separate out purely fictional identities from pseudonyms and the truth is that they have no way to easily do that. And so, they’ve decided to err on the side of believing all virtual identities are inherently fictional. This simply isn’t true, and in fact some take the stance that even roleplay identities are still real, because they are inherently acting upon an the extension of the identity of their typist. I see a clear distinction between the two, but the fact that this is something that can be discussed and debated shows that the entire issue isn’t clear cut at all.

“How Should We Know You?”

I was recently reading a blog post about something completely unrelated to this. But in the comments was a touching anecdote from someone who had been going through a rather difficult series of choices regarding gender reassignment.

A person was discussing an incident at their church group, in which they were asked by the group “How should we know you?” This was meant as a kindness, as in “By what name would you like us to call you?” No judgment, no harshness – but simply “you tell us how you wish to be identified, and we will respect that.”

That philosophy is one I use in my own day to day life. I don’t care if you want to be called Cream Cheese – if it makes you happy? Fine, whatever, that’s what I’ll call you.

It’s not up to me to decide who you are. It’s up to YOU to decide who you are.  Apparently, neither Facebook nor Google+ has learned this lesson.

This is important to virtual worlds as well, because sometimes people who are different than their physical selves in a virtual world are actually far closer to their real selves there. It is a place for people to be whomever they choose to be without physical limitations or (generally speaking) the harsh and unforgiving judgments of the outside world. That self that they project within the virtual medium is far closer to their “true self” than whatever it might say on their wallet.

Conflating The Issue

While there’s an awful lot of cases to be made for why people should be allowed to self identify, there’s quite a few folks who seem to be operating under the impression that truly fictional identities are just as valid as real ones.  From Facebook and Google+’s standpoint, they aren’t – because they’re really data aggregation services. Whomever uses the data wants the data of real and not fictional people, because that’s what they’re paying for. So it’s important to them that they make a good faith attempt to make sure that all accounts can be tied to “real people” by whatever means they define “real.”

Because Facebook and Google+ are currently tied to the traditional model of identity, they are missing out on a way to increase their data aggregation.

If identity multiplicity is embraced, the number of identities would exceed the number of physical selves, but with each one still possessing a clear and distinct dataset from which to draw marketing conclusions. This, in turn, allows them to apply the equivalent of digital alchemy by turning the worth of each user in to multiples.

Your Name, And The Law

However, all it might take for Facebook and Google+ to allow pseudonyms of all kinds is a stern legal challenge.  Will Burns has written about this here, and his point is basically this: in the United States (which is where Facebook and Google+ call home) you are legally permitted to use any name you like, as long as you are not using that name with the intent to defraud anyone.

In short, the social media giants may soon not have any other option, as the law trumps their TOS. But it will take someone who has the time and the money to fight the battle, and to date no contenders are yet stepping into that ring. We can but hope someone actually does it.

Filling The Void

As I mentioned two weeks ago, Second Life itself has taken the proverbial bull by the horns (Sorry, Orvan) and announced they will be releasing Social Profiles, as a way for Second Life users to link to one another, social media style.  I am told that this planned release should go live in just a couple weeks, and in fact on Wednesday night/early Thursday morning, Linden Lab emailed its userbase with a series of “recommended people” based on your profile interests. They were also kind enough yesterday to send out a lovely survey asking people about what they thought of that email.

As much as I not only personally don’t want recommendations (I can make my own friends, thanks) and the thought of the Lab recommending me to anyone (oh please no) sounds even worse, it is the mere fact that they bothered to ask at all that has me flabbergasted, in a sort of “who are you, and where have you put Linden Lab’s pod?” sort of way.

As much as the Lab is known for blunders, lately I admit they’ve been doing an unusual number of cool things (more on that next week.) I applaud the survey, as it shows an actual willingness to at least get genuine opinions (whether they act on them is another story, of course.) It does appear that they are making an attempt to closely watch the Facebook/Google+ battle with names and identities.

But unfortunately, Social Profiles only go so far.  They only partially solve the problem, by reversing it.

Social profiles are designed for avatar to avatar communications.  It’s really sort of the mirror image of the Google+/Facebook problem. It doesn’t intergrate true choice. (Nor, by the way, should the Lab be forced to – they are merely providing a service to their own account holders. Since you can’t get a social profile without a profile in the first place, you’d need to sign up to Second Life to get one, thereby creating a user account in whatever name you’d managed to snag.)

Enter another option, Diaspora, which gives true choice in terms of how you wish to be presented, and allows anyone to interact with anyone else. There is no limitation on what name you are able to use. or how you must present your identity.

Though Diaspora is still in alpha, the fact that they are willing and happy to allow this choice where the two social media giants are not is creating a growing buzz within the online community, not just within virtual world circles, but within others as well (I was reading about it first having to do with people looking to distance themselves from abusive relationships, and political activists.)

Will Burns beat me to the punch on discussing Diaspora and the Distributed Self here. It allows a social media model that is closer to what many had hoped Google+ would be, in opposition to Facebook (and were sorely disappointed with the results.)  But it is still early days for Diaspora yet, and there’s a long way to go.

The Battle Hasn’t Even Started Yet

I’ve been hearing a lot about how “this is how the world is now”, and that “if you don’t join up you’ll be forgotten.”, where it comes to Facebook and Google+. I think both statements are patently nonsense, primarily because unless multiplicity of identity is embraced as time goes on, more and more people will reject the single identity model for any number of reasons. All that will remain are, ironically, companies and brand names, selling things to each other, where people who actually want to truly interact will be wherever they are allowed to be their real selves – whatever that might entail.

Even if that means that their profile photo is of a robot, or a cartoon chicken, or a cardboard box, and their name has nothing to do with what’s in their wallet.

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