May 21, 2009
There has been a whole bunch of additional posting about pseudonymous identity and the limits (and implicit) benefits of keeping your real life separate from your virtual persona. What follows are some additional thoughts based on the ongoing discussion.
Real and Trustworthy are not direct synonyms
Its easy to get carried away with notions that “real world” identity is inherently more trustworthy than a well established digital persona. I see people say words like “in order to do business in virtual worlds, you must use your real life identity.” A real life name, phone number and picture don’t create trust on their own.
Trust has several parts. Reputation, the “affirmative” or “positive” aspects of trust, requires a stable identity. It does not, however, require that identity be tied to the real world. Recourse, or what happens when trust is broken, a “negative” aspect of trust is more problematic. Slightly ironically, having recourse enhances trust. A pseudonymous identity can limit or even totally prevent recourse. To the extent that this occurs, it clearly limits trust.
Informally agreements, and more formally contracts, are part of how we encode trust. Agreements include notions of recourse while contracts often include specific penalty clauses for non performance. Avatars, not having a will or existence of their own, can’t sign a contract or make an agreement. An avatar can be the agency of making the agreement, just as a phone can aid negotiation or a pen can be used to sign a contract. Anyone who says “Oh, no, the phone agreed to that not me” would be reasonably laughed at, as would someone who claimed that their pen signed the contract and therefore should be sued. An opaque pseudonymous identity gets in the way of a formal agreement or contract because it breaks the the tie to the actual person undertaking the agreement.
Its less the real life name that provides the trust and more the possibility of recourse that matters. Recourse ties to roles. You don’t sue people personally when they fail to deliver as an agent of a company. Indeed, one of the major purposes of the corporation is to make it the legal separation between the individuals and the corporate entity clear. The recourse is generally proportional to the harm done. This offers possible avenues for pseudonymous people who wish to engage in business where recourse would be of value: interpose an agent who can sign a contract and manage recourse.
Virtual Worlds create magic effects, not actual magic
This is where I get blunt. There is tremendous power in the immersive effects of a virtual world. This immersive effect is not magic and doesn’t create digital people or disembodied moral actors. Very cool and powerful effects happen when we immerse in a virtual space. We can chose our appearance. We can role play, we can explore lots of facets of our life. We do not, however, either create a separate unique person or disconnect our personal responsibility from our avatar(s). You are welcome to be totally private and create a rich fantasy back-story for your avatar. It does not change the fact that the human being is the actual motive power behind the avatar and remains responsible for the avatar’s actions. I will happily accept your choice of avatar and behavior at face value. I would hope you would reciprocate. None of this creates a separate person.
Connecting people via computers doesn’t introduce anything that isn’t present when two people interact. Putting aside fundamental debates about the nature of self awareness and consciousness, avatars are projections of people. Excepting explicit role play, an avatar acts and speaks as an extension of the person controlling it. Second Life isn’t a game, it’s a medium through which people interact. Calling avatars “characters” “playing” a “game” may sound cute but its a corner case.
Pseudonomity doesn’t change this fact. For most people their avatar is not a “role” they take on, it is an expression of themselves. I don’t think of myself as talking to a “role” or a “character.” I am talking to a person. I don’t think that “whizbang avatarname” is a role who could be “played” by someone. I think it is an expression of what the real person behind the avatar is thinking.
I might be able to guess what some person might say in a certain situation. This doesn’t make me that person. When the person who uses an avatar dies, the avatar dies. Sure, someone could use it, possibly even act a lot like the original avatar. It wouldn’t make them the person behind the avatar nor would it make a discussion with them the same as a discussion would have been, had the original person still been alive.
To recapitulate the point I made in my previous post — there is nothing wrong with pseudonomous identities, but they do impose limitations. To make a new point — there is nothing within our experience of virtual worlds which introduces a magical new actor. There are people and avatars and interactions. Thinking the magical power of the experience creates a new moral actor or person seems perilously close to delusional. Virtual worlds are magical, not magic.