May 21, 2009

What’s real…

Posted in Musings, social at 4:42 pm by zhaewry

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.

In closing

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.



  1. A while back, an individual contacted me with an ’emergency’ project, stating that a number of the people who had been working for him previously just up and disappeared, leaving his project unfinished. I made it clear with him that I operate on a professional basis (including estimates, a deposit and invoicing), and he volunteered his RL info so that we could see eye to eye, as it were.

    Things worked out after some debate about methods of construction, transfer and the like, but one building got built, and he decided he wanted me to do another.

    At which point, again, I made it clear i preferred to send estimates, recieve a deposit prior to proceeding, etc. To which he refused, claiming that estimates, signed letters of agreement and invoices had no place in his project and that they were all informal documents that would never hold up in court.

    Wow! Really some trust engendered there. My father likes to call what happened next me firing the client 😛

    On the other hand, I’ve recently had a very good experience with a sweet couple who wanted to hire me for a landscaping project for a special (private) event. While I never learned anything but their SL names, their thoughtful and vigilant manner of making sure i had what i needed to get the job done put me at ease and the project was a breeze. Anything i could have thought i needed, they got to me first on.

    They did everything in their power to be frank, friendly and trustworthy, while the other individual, in an effort to appear trustworthy by thrusting about an initial deposit and RL info, did not.

    I have no problems with providing RL info in business situations – actually, I quite prefer it and have never made an effort to hide my RL identity. I do believe an employer has a right to know who is working for them and how to contact them in RL – even if only for tax purposes or even if only because many content creators do hide behind an avatar and disappear when they feel like they can’t or don’t want to complete a job.

    However, RL information doesn’t *make* trust – trust is earned. Instead, RL information is simply that – just information. It’s a tool that should be handled carefully *in trust* as well as to create trust… but it should never be bandied about as a substitute for trust.

  2. John Carter McKnight said,

    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.

    Some time back, I decided to “play” in a new environment. Friends of mine were developing a technology with some interesting applications, and we wanted to see if we could make some money from it. One of the first things we did was to “create a separate person [and] disconnect our personal responsibility from” it: we created a fictitious person with a made-up name, and we insisted that when our potential investors and clients talked to us, they were “really” talking to this pretend person with a made up name. We even *signed agreements* using that made-up avatar name.

    Why did we do that?

    Yes, exactly. To *avoid* personal responsibility for our “avatar”’s actions. We did it *specifically* so that, if things went bad and creditors came calling, we could deny responsibility and claim, by your analogy, that “the pen” signed the contract and not us.

    Delusional? Dishonest?

    Perhaps, but the entire world works this way.

    Avatar pseudonymity is a tool for the same *social* end as a corporation is for *economic* ends: a means to limit personal liability in order to encourage risk-taking and growth. If you want unlimited liability, by all means – do business in your own name, don’t buy insurance, and disclose everything. It may work for you. However, the tools of limited liability have proven themselves beyond anyone’s imaginings in the economic realm. Supposing that they may have similar benefits in the social seems a justifiable hypothesis.

    It seems that one thread in this ongoing discussion involves confusing the two realms, the social and the economic. By all means, if the “game” you play is economic, follow economic rules. Attempting to apply those rules to non-economic interactions, however, is a category error, every bit as much as trying to apply social-capital rules to a financial negotiation.

    Another thread could be summarized this way: liars lie, cheaters cheat, no protections are necessary against an honest person and none will suffice against a cheater. There are no foolproof means to distinguish between the two: either you choose to invest (social or economic) capital and take your chances, or you keep it under the mattress. I believe there’s even a Biblical parable suggesting the wiser choice.

  3. daleinnis said,

    Oh I dunno. 🙂 I’m willing to grant that there are interesting senses in which you might have more than one person associated with a given brain (when this happens and it goes wrong we call it “Multiple Personality Disorder” or other Latinate things), and that that might sometimes come to happen in a way that involves a virtual world. It’s a sort of nontraditional thought, I admit 🙂 but I don’t see anything obviously false or impossible about it.

    On the other hand, while it’s possibly possible 🙂 to have even two different moral agents associated with a given brain, it’d be really hard to tell if that had really happened in a given case, and if it’s clearly very tempting for someone wanting to disclaim responsibility for their actions to claim that it was another person, a fellow tenant of the same body, that did those actions. So in general I think we should be very dubious about claims of multiple moral agency, even if out of politeness we should give the benefit of the doubt to claims of multiple identity simpliciter.

    ‘We did it *specifically* so that, if things went bad and creditors came calling, we could deny responsibility and claim, by your analogy, that “the pen” signed the contract and not us.’ Do you have any reason at all to think that that would have worked? It would certainly be a novel legal theory. 🙂 But I’d give it about a thirty-second lifespan in any court of law…

  4. chestnutrau said,

    30 seconds, Dale? You are generous. I would give such a notion less than that in a US court.

  5. daleinnis said,

    Well, if you talked really slowly…

  6. John Carter McKnight said,

    @daleinnis and chestnutrau: It’s not a novel legal theory, it’s been settled US/UK law since the UK Limited Liability Act of 1855.

    Wikipedia’s articles on “Corporation,” “Limited Liability” and “Corporate Law” provide a good overview with lots of citations to the academic literature, if you care.

    In short, the *purpose* of a corporation is to limit its shareholders’ liability to the amount of their investment. Now, that can be waived, and often venture capital investors will require personal recourse – the ability to sue and take your house to get their money back – but that’s a request for a side agreement to waive the protections of the state corporate statute.

    None of which really has anything to do with anything. I brought this up because people seem not to realize that they almost never have the disclosure and assurances in their ordinary business dealings that they claim are essential in VWs.

    We live in a corporate world, one of “fictitious persons,” institutions created to avoid individual liability, and anonymous transactions. Those are the norm when we deposit our paychecks, buy groceries, but we don’t recognize that, and seem to want to hold VW business dealings to a very different standard.

  7. Dale Innis said,

    /me chuckles. I don’t think the process and legal consequences of incorporation can really be described as a way to ‘deny responsibility and claim, by your analogy, that “the pen” signed the contract and not us’. (You still signed the contract; you just limited the resulting liability.)

    But if that’s in fact what you were describing, it is indeed nice and relevant. We allow ‘fictional’ entities (corporations) to take part in important RL activities all the time; so it’s not immediately obvious that ‘fictional’ SL entities shouldn’t also be able to. That is, if we can create unique persons that can do RL business via incorporation, why not also by creating avatars?

  8. Dale Innis said,

    (Which is, now that I read the original posting again, pretty much exactly what Zha was saying in her fifth paragraph up there…)

  9. chestnutrau said,

    Clearly corporate entities operate in virtual spaces all the time and using incorporation to limit personal liability can be perfectly appropriate. If I somehow implied I thought this was not the case I do apologize for communicating poorly.

    Where I think we have a difference of opinion, John, is your suggestion that it is acceptable to create an avatar so that “if things went bad and creditors came calling, we could deny responsibility.” For me, that crosses an ethical divide I am personally not comfortable bridging.

    I do maintain that in a court of law any effort to suggest “I didn’t do that, my avatar did” (absent an actual incorporated entity) would not be taken very seriously.

    Can avatars incorporate without supplying the name of a human being? I don’t know but that would certainly be something to consider when thinking about these issues broadly.

  10. zhaewry said,

    Corporations live in very specific legal frameworks. Corporate law defines, very clearly the boundaries between the corporate liability and personal liability. Important to this discussion, the corporation is subject to legal recourse, and the board and owners of the corporation a matter of public record. Forming a corporation does not divorce the participants of all responsibility for their behavior. Creating a corporation for the purpose of avoiding financial and legal responsibility is fraud.

    The internet has given us the opportunity to explore identity in a number of interesting ways. We can share ideas, and ourselves as publicly or anonymously as we care to manage. Identity can be more fluid, more subtle and more managed by our own desires.

    The rise of “free” cities, during the Renaissance challenged societal notions about people’s roles and status. New ideas of what was proper behavior emerged from this process. Similar changes have occurred as technical, economic and societal progress has permitted new freedoms. At the same time, some fundamental notions of honesty, ethics and proper interpersonal behavior remained unchanged. As we explore new freedoms created by the use of computers to mediate human experiences. I so no justification for abandoning personal responsibility and honesty. Indeed, people who do so, create a negative reaction which could ultimately limit people’s tolerance for the very freedoms they are exploiting.

  11. […] couple of days ago I responded to a Plurk from Bevan about a blogpost titled ‘What’s Real..‘ by […]

  12. Lewis Moten said,

    I would still like the option to associate my real life avatar/meat puppet with my virtual one. Partially because coworkers and other staff with my employer would not be so confused if they were able to easily verify who I am in the real world, rather than going by my avatar name alone.

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