May 15, 2009

Honesty, Trust and Privacy

Posted in social at 2:29 pm by zhaewry

There has been a lot of recent discussion about honesty, privacy, and pseudonymous people in virtual worlds. This is very well captured in Botgirl’s blog and many other blogs and comments.  I have a few thoughts I would like to add to this discussion.

The strongest thought is, that there is no single answer to how to manage your identity in the digital world.  For some people complete transparency works. For other people, a total seperation between identities meets their needs. Most people probably end up somewhere in between.  What matters is candor, honesty and clarity.  This is separate from choosing how to manage ones identity. A totally pseudonymous person can be deeply honest, or totally deceitful. Someone who is transparently linked to their real life self can still lie.  We chose in real life how much to share, this is no different on line or in a virtual world.

What does honesty and clarity mean? It does not require transparency of identity.  It does, I think, require honestly letting people know what you are doing. There is a right for each person to chose what they want to expose. Nobody has a right to demand real life facts that you don’t care to disclose.  I have friends in Second Life and on line where I know *nothing* about their off line life.  I have friends where I know a great deal. Those choices to share are personal and often evolve over time.

What I think is foundational is that there are real people behind each avatar. The keys are pressed by flesh and blood humans. The thoughts, the ideas, the emotions belong to the humans not to the avatars, not to the digital persona but to the human being. The clarity desired is not clarity from the avatar, but from the human being.  Be clear. If you are role playing, tell people. If you chose to separate your real life from your virtual persona, make that clear.  If you have multiple personas in the virtual world, I prefer to know when I am interacting with a single person behind the avatar. It is not my right, you may chose otherwise, but I think it common courtesy. No semantic games here.  The onus lies on the human, not the avatar. There is nobody else there.

Equally foundational is respecting people’s choices.  Respect people’s choice to be private. Respect people’s choice to be more open. Respect people’s chosen persona. The ability to chose one’s appearance and persona is one of the powers of virtual worlds, and of the Internet. When people chose to share their chosen persona they are sharing part of themselves. When we disrespect that, we disrespect the person, not some avatar, not some digital person, but a real human being.  Equally, when someone uses their digital persona as an excuse for bad behavior, that is disrespectful of everyone who does not.  Honestly saying “I have changed my mind” or “I am no longer comfortable with how I am managing my identity” is far more respectful than various forms of deceitful behavior, justified by pseudonimity.

I personally feel that, as botgirl has expressed, pseudonymous behavior impose limits in inter personal relationships.  Everyone has the right to make that choice and they have the right for it to be respected.  Choices have consequences, and one of the very real choices of deep pseudonomy may be being taken less seriously by some people and finding some people emotionally guarded.



  1. daleinnis said,

    Very well said! Honesty is key. If I can try to interpolate between two of the thoughts here, pseudonymity can sometimes interfere with honesty, but it doesn’t have to (and a lack of pseudonymity by no means ensures honesty).

  2. Debs Butler said,

    Dear Zha and daleinnis,

    Truth and honesty as well as trust and privacy as well as clarity – and can I add, integrity to this list are all of the same quality. Sincerity.

    As you say, a totally pseudonymous person can be deeply honest, or totally deceitful, however this is also true of a non- pseudonymous person, I think of the snake oil salesman, who is undoubtably a con-artist, but little old ladies believe in him, his stories and his wares, the same goes for pseudo-identities.

    What really matters is what goes on in a heart, how much sincerity is in our interaction with others. Too often a person will promise and cajole for their own aims, without considering the pain and hurt it can afford others.

    As a child I was taught a trick, which I call ‘switch’, where you imagine yourself in the position of the other person with whom you are having the interaction. This way, you may understand more clearly the effect of what you have said and done, on them.

    Ultimately, that is all that matters, the effect you have had on someone else, so consider carefully before you lie or conceal a truth, because eventually the real truth will out. Better always to tell the truth initially, rather than to cause pain and evade the issue, which will increase and escalate until it becomes unbearable or unconcealable.

  3. I wrote about “The Importance Of Identity When Doing Business in Virtual Worlds” a number of months back. Although I agree that “outing” people who wish to remain anonymous is not appropriate, people who want to conduct business in Virtual Worlds must be prepared to sacrifice their anonymity for credibility.

    • Debs Butler said,

      Yes, Valliant.

      Many of us agree and have been writing on this subject for a while now. If you notice, I do not hide behind my virtual identity of Debs Regent at all, my real name is at the top of my posting, rather than my pseudonym.

      To demonstrate greater integrity, it is vital that we who do business through Second Life do not hide behind an ‘avatar’ or an avatar name. Because, just as actors are known for who they are in their real lives, we are also actors, albeit on a virtual stage.

      This alternate stage is one of greater reach and interactivity than those in film and theatre. Therefore it is more imperative that e operate with integrity and sincerity. Actors walk away from their characters, which in some cases their real lives emulate, we cannot.

      It is important to note here that there is an epidemic of apparent Second Life deaths and ‘outs’ (including some very deep-voiced ladies). It seems that virtual worlds are having their own variant of ‘swine flu’, one where our ‘inconvenient’ avatar character is either killed off or the actor behind it exposes their true identity, which often transforms the appearance of the associated avatar too.

      As we are all pointing out here, to be seen to have credibility in the real world is to give the belief to the other person that we are behaving in all honesty, this is still not the case in many business scenarios anyway.

      I envisage a seesaw effect in virtual worlds where – from the lack of trust due to hidden identity – we will swing to over-confidence of an individuals’ integrity, simply due to the fact that they come out and ‘unmask’ themselves.

      Remember, virtual worlds have had many tales of robbery and overstatement, some by so-called ‘credible businesses’. There are crooks everywhere and if you have something of value, whether it be your heart or your wallet – be sure to know that they will be out to take it from you, especially if you are unwary.

    • Actually, I conduct business in Virtual Worlds _without_ sacrificing my anonimity: this is not a theory or an essay, but a matter of fact. Deal with it.

      My business partners trust me _exactly_ because of the credibility I built around my pseudonymous & my virtual identity.
      My scenario may be a rare and singular one, YMMV, etc.

      Zha, insightful post – thanks for sharing!

      • Dale Innis said,

        Thanks for adding that, OO! I was going to say something along those lines (having heard the same thing from a few other folks), but since I don’t have firsthand experience I resisted.

        I think it’s quite true, where the world is now, that it’s easier to do business if you give all sorts of RL information. And I think it will always be the case that in order to do significant business I’ll need to give *some* sort of information that gives the other party some recourse if I mess up, or wander off, or try to abscond with the down payment. But that doesn’t have to be an RL identity; I think (and hope and trust) that we’ll be experimenting with all sorts of possible alternatives (reputation based, or third-party identity-escrow, or bonds against good performance, or etc etc).

  4. Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I agree that no matter how many identities we project, there is only one sentient being behind the wheel. I believe that we individually have the right to decide what, if any personally identifying information we want to disclose, and to whom we want to disclose any particular information.

    That said, I believe it is unethical to withhold information for the purpose of “misleading by omission.” This includes the example Zha gave when an individual uses an alt to interact with the someone they know in another identity. If Alt #2 has and personal information that was disclosed to Alt #1, I would consider this to be unethical.

    I also have found that for myself, it has started feeling inauthentic to not share my identity with the small number of online friends I trust, feel close to and expect to have long term friendships with. Since I also want to maintain public pseudonimity, I realize that will be somewhat risky. But I’d rather take some calculated risks in the pursuit of growth, than sit safely in a pool that’s growing stagnant.

    • daleinnis said,

      I think I would resist the suggestion that it’s possible to “mislead by omission” where purely RL-related information is involved. In the case that Zha mentions, where the withheld information was “I am an alt of X”, the situation is murky; both RL and SL facts are involved, and I can see both sides of the argument that it’s an unethical thing to do.

      But for purely-RL information, I don’t think there’s any obligation to provide any at all, so I don’t think one can be guilty of deception by omission. If someone’s “1st Life” profile tab is blank, and they don’t give out any RL facts about themselves, then they are not being deceptive. If someone else assumes that they are the same gender or race or height or fitness in RL as they are in SL, and that turns out not to be the case, the fault lies with the person doing the assuming, not with the person the assumption was made about.

      Otherwise we’re forced into a position where, to be ethical, we have to either make our AVs exactly like our RL bodies, or we have to post lots of information about ourselves on our 1st Life tabs, for fear that otherwise someone might be deceived by omission. And that would I think be a great pity.

      We need to tell people, up front, that people may look entirely different in SL than they do in RL, may be a different age or race or gender or fitness, and that that’s entirely normal and they should make no assumptions to the contrary. As long as that’s the expectation coming in, then we both maximize the opportunity for creative experimentation with the self, and minimize the danger of later misunderstandings, feelings of betrayal, and all like that.

      Eh, what? 🙂

  5. carl said,

    Not many people realize that they options as you stated
    “Choices have consequences,” They only think of one side of the equation the up side not the down side. They need to understand who they are, people have to take a close look at “self” so that they can start the process of improvement.You know where you have been, you know you have to change, you do not want tomorrow to be a repeat of yesterday. Now is the time to understand what happened and why it happened.Read The Power of SElf Separation and you will be stronger, understanding yourself is half the battle. Good luck

  6. ina said,

    Well, I do respect people’s preference to know who they’re speaking to, but what of the case where people find it impossible to believe that your virtual self is, in fact, your RL self? — even in the case of people who don’t know you in RL.

    In my case, I actually started SL as “myself”, but as I became more involved in it, people seem to paint a different “picture” of me from my actions (I have a monomaniac’s tendency towards creating enterprise-size endeavors — relative to SL, at least). In RL, I’m neither white nor old — but, people on SL can’t seem to believe this of me, and, rather than accept the truth, they’d go through some soap-operatic extent to disbelieve!

    It came to the point where I found myself believing in this view, as well — so, finally, I adopted my current “main” avatar and imagery — basically, the figurehead of a venerable WASP. People have no problems attributing that iconic facade with “me.”

    Out-of-world, though I’ve recently started leaving hints — here and there — of the duality. The interesting thing is… people still take my RL self as the “fake”.

    So, anyway, the next time you question the identity of said avatar… consider the possibility that you might not be able to believe that they are who they are in RL…

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