Friday, May 15, 2009

OOC: Musings on On-line Anonymity

It's Friday, I should be writing something but I'm procrastinating, and I'm sleep-deprived by several hours this week (mainly thanks to a smoke detector that decided to announce its presence twice one night: a little after midnight, and again at 3 a.m.; I realize those are peak working hours for some - yes, you, Miss Orr - but not for moi), so this seemed like a good time to ramble a bit.

I've been following - and aiding and abetting - Miss Untermeyer's thread on the Caledon Forums, prompted by the sordid Rheta Shan affair, regarding one's moral and ethical obligations toward one's RL companions and friends as well as one's virtual comrades. Somewhat off-topic was my thought about the nature and purpose of on-line anonymity.

For some purposes, knowing those with whom one interacts is entirely unnecessary. In most online games, for example, where the purpose of the interaction is to play the game - no more, no less - it matters not what the person at the other end of the fiber optic line does in his or her other hours. For the time the players are together, the person is the character: the Princess, the Orc, the Level 20 Mage.

At the other extreme, some online interactions require absolute trust in the individual (or business) at the other end - for example, when wiring money to an investment account, one really, really wants to know that the "B. Madoff" with whom one is corresponding is who he says he is, and that he can be trusted with your money. Hmm, perhaps a bad example, but you get my point.

SL falls somewhere between those extremes. Indeed, the nature of SL is such that it encompasses both extremes, as well as the ground in the middle. One can be a character in a hard role-playing environment and never leave that character. Your fellow role players have no need to know any piece of information about you. Alternatively, one can do business through SL, or take classes, or any number of other activities that require knowledge - sometimes one-way knowledge, sometimes two-way knowledge - of the typist rather than the character. Most of the people I have met in Caledon and other neo-Victorian sims fall somewhere in between: in-character for the most part, even if that character is merely a veneer over the typist, but willing to share the occasional RL tidbit, or even more amongst friends.

Indeed, SL does not lend itself to that end of the spectrum in which trust in and/or the identity of the other person is important. Our names are required to be other than our true names, except through uncomfortable machinations ("JohnSmith2847 Steampunk"), and, try as some might, we cannot look enough like our RL counterparts for visual recognition to help verify identities. (In many cases, that's a good thing.)

But suppose one did not need absolute certainty over another's identify, but would find such information useful. Rather than a neo-Victorian society, suppose we had a fountain pen collector's club. We'd upload photographs of our latest finds, or pens available for sale, as textures, and circulate them. I'd need to know something about your identity if I'm to sell you a pen - I need a shipping address, and some method (such as PayPal) to be assured of payment. I don't really care if you've given me your real name, but it makes things easier on both of us that way. Or suppose we had a professional organization of, say, librarians. Rather than have everyone travel to a conference, we could hold it in-world. I will represent to the others that I am so-and-so, and direct people to my professional resume. No one knows with certainty whether I am that person, but other professionals can tell fairly quickly whether I am one of them, and anything that needs a higher level of verification - for example, submitting a paper to me, as editor of a professional journal, for publication - can be done through old-fashioned means, such as mailing the paper directly to the journal.

In such situations, would people be willing to disclose their identities? The usual reason given against doing so involves cyber-stalking and other creepy behavior. Fair enough, and I don't mean to minimize that problem. But we make those decisions on a regular basis. Indeed, my work address, e-mail address, and telephone number are available on-line, put out there for professional reasons. Google my name and one ends up with hits that are mostly for me, which leads the diligent to my home address, e-mail, and telephone number. I'm just not important enough to attract creepy behavior. *grin*

If most people would feel uncomfortable disclosing a real name and address in an on-line group - say it's a closed group, invitation-only - then the concept of using a virtual world for serious businesses is almost certain to fail. All that's left is a game-playing, role-playing environment. My guess is that this is the case, at least at present. But the very fact that ethical, honest people prefer to maintain their anonymity provides cover for the unethical, dishonest creeps to exploit that anonymity - and drama, or worse, ensues.

And thus ends the rambling for today.

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