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Who needs pseudonyms?

I was actually working on a different post on the nymwars, FB and Google, when this tweet from Botgirl Questi caught my eye:

I will return to the content of this tweet later in this post, but it reminded me of a conversation I recently had a with one of my friends regarding why I left FB and G+. When I asked him, how he would react if a large part of his network connections was excluded from one of his networks, he acknowledged this, but also pointed to a difference in our connections; “But because you’re working with SL, you have more friends with unusual names and unknown identities – and you’re used to dealing with that – most people aren’t”. I found this very interesting because it points to two common conceptions regarding the pseudonym/nymwars issue.

First of all, my friend had the impression that mainly avatars (or other fictional characters, sic) need/want to use pseudonyms. This is by far the case, but it is sadly a very common misconception, and so I want to point to a webpage that was created in defense of pseudonyms and shows the many different groups of people, who may need/want to use pseudonyms for various reasons: the my name is me webpage.

This page was created to raise awareness about people who need pseudonyms and clearly shows how closely this need is related to the freedom of expression:

“My Name Is Me” is about having the freedom to be yourself online. We want people to be able to identify themselves as they wish, rather than being forced to choose names by social networking websites and other online service providers.

Websites such as Facebook and Google+ ask you to use a name that conforms to a certain standard. Though their policies vary, what they would like you to use is the name that appears on the ID in your wallet, your employer’s records, or on the letters your bank sends you. They don’t understand that many people go by other names, for a wide variety of reasons.

Take a look at some of these heartfelt and personal stories – it really just isn’t us “strange” avatars that need/want pseudonyms – and even so, I believe we all, avatars included, should have the right to choose! Additionally, The Geek Feminism wiki has another list of “Who’s harmed by “Real names” policy”, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) makes A Case for Pseudonyms.

Looking at these stories, nobody in his/her right mind can dismiss the need for pseudonyms some people have to enable them to interact safely online. Or so I thought, but let us return to the content of Botgirl’s above mentioned tweet. Botgirl links to a post on her blog wherein she quotes NPR‘s Andy Carvin, who met Google’s Executive chairman, Eric E. Schmidt at a recent film festival.

Carvin asked Schmidt how he could justify their policy about “real names” given that real identities could put people at risk:

He replied by saying that G+ was build primarily as an identity service, so fundamentally, it depends on people using their real names if they’re going to build future products that leverage that information.

Regarding people who are concerned about their safety, he said G+ is completely optional. No one is forcing you to use it. It’s obvious for people at risk if they use their real names, they shouldn’t use G+. Regarding countries like Iran and Syria, people there have no expectation of privacy anyway due to their government’s own policies, which implies there’s no point of even trying to have a service that allows pseudonyms.

He also said the internet would be better if we knew you were a real person rather than a dog or a fake person. Some people are just evil and we should be able to ID them and rank them downward. (quoted from Carvin‘s G+ (!) page)

I’m trying my very best to ignore the arrogance and stupidity of Schmidt’s comment and to keep a civil tone here, so I’ll let it be for now.

However, let me just finish by pointing to the second part of the statement from my friend where he implies that acceptance of pseudonyms requires (positive) experience. During this period of nymwars, but also during my research in SL, I’ve struggled to understand the fear some people have towards pseudonyms, or as my colleague, Mark Childs calls it: the obsession people have with “real” identities. Based on my own research experience, I think my friend’s stance is quite plausible, people fear the unknown. And identities that do not conform to “real” or “normal” standards do provoke ontological/existential questions. I have no other particular qualified (read: academic referable) explanations at this point, but it is a topic, I will continue to investigate.

/Mariis

Update
On August 30th, Andy Carvin posted a “a transcript of what Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in the Q&A at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International TV Festival, so you can see his direct words rather than my paraphrasing of it”.

Ambivalence regarding projects like Sametime 3D

Via SLTalk I just read about Sametime 3D, an ongoing IBM Research and Lotus initiative to integrate enterprise business applications with virtual world applications. This video shows the integration of Lotus Sametime with OpenSim.

According to IBM’s press release the main purpose of this initiative is to “make it easier for widely dispersed businesspeople to interact and collaborate without the time and expense of in-person meetings.” And here is another quote:

The new software overcomes several challenges that have existed for businesses wishing to hold meetings in virtual worlds:

  • First, businesses can collaborate the way in which they are accustomed, using software they may already have, such as electronic presentations, enterprise security, and instant messaging tools.
  • Second, IBM has prefabricated a variety of re-useable spaces specifically designed for productive meetings, making it unnecessary for adopters to painstakingly build meeting rooms each time they want to meet.
  • Third, these spaces are secure, overcoming privacy concerns manifest in many public areas of popular virtual worlds.
  • And finally, colleagues not wishing to participate in a given virtual meeting can still view documents, presentations and results from those sessions — or even snapshots of a previous meeting.

I have to admit that I’m somewhat ambivalent about projects like these, that is projects behind “closed doors”. I think it’s great that companies like IBM research and experiment with virtual worlds and possible mash up’s between 2D and 3D. And I do appreciate the need for especially private companies to operate on their own servers, securing the data etc.  – and this may also be appropriate in certain educational settings. My fear though, is that this sort of “closed door” behavior becomes the prevailing trend. If we all stay in our own little walled gardens, there’s no need to dub them “worlds”…

Of course I’m aware that there are de facto many closed doors in real life too, but I still believe that one of the major affordances of virtual worlds like SL is the inter-cultural openness in all aspects of the word. Where else do I accidently bump in to fascinating, clever and friendly people? Just this week I made two new acquaintances, Benjamin, who turned out to be a Danish US based e-learning consultant and Digi, a Scottish anthropologist with a special interest in freedom of expression :-)

In the MIL course that I ran in the fall ’08 I had planed several visits to both Danish and international colleagues, and I know that the students really appreciated these opportunities to meet, discuss and reflect on professional matters with people from different educational cultures – meetings that would have been impossible to realize outside SL.

I’ve always felt that if 3D virtual worlds were to make a really, really important and innovative contribution to educational technology the secret would lie in the community – the global community feeling in SL is what brings and binds us together. Quoting Lennon; You may say that I’m a dreamer – but I’m not the only one ;-)

/Mariis

Digital Identity discussion

I’ve had the opportunity to listen to John Clippinger (Harvard Law School), Kaliya Hamlin, (IdentityWoman/evangelist for open standards in user-centric digital identity) and Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn founder/chair) discussing issues on identity on It Conversations.

A brief summary of the discussion goes like this:

As our lives increasingly straddle the physical and the virtual worlds, the management of identity becomes increasingly crucial from both a business and a social standpoint. John Clippinger, Kaliya Hamlin, and Reid Hoffman examine how online identity can foster relationships and deepen value creation. They discuss OpenID, including how America Online has chosen to adopt it, and answer questions related to such issues as anonymity and restricting information.

OpenID and this whole “open access/open source-debate” is not really an issue relevant for my phd-project. My interest on identity will be from a more socio-philosophical perspective. But the discussion was worth listening in on anyways, and I did manage to take some notes on interesting points – all worth returning to. My private ponderings are in the brackets – a few times with references, so I don’t forget!

  • New (social) networks means “new” people, since networks consists hereof
  • Privacy – anonymity – compliance are keywords when speaking of “digital identity” (A much better concept than “online identity” because the latter suggests a – in many cases false – separation between on- and offline)
  • The anonymity claim is all about having the choice – whether you exercise it or not isn’t the issue (Perhaps in some cases – when and why do we choose anonymity – is it ok for the teachers to interact with own students anonymously?)
  • Identity-management is the new buzz word (Usually management is something that needs to be learned – how do we as educators go about this?)
  • Top-down or Bottom-up identity?
  • Data security – personal and corporate control are other keywords
  • Is it possible to keep a stabile identity? (When and why – is stability always a goal? Does distributed identity necessarily mean loss of privacy?)
  • How to authenticate identity? (Usually crucial in formal education, which may be the reason why it’s so difficult for formal education to simulate otherwise)
  • From Place to Cloud – breaking away from silos (shifting metaphors to better understand new phenomena – e.g. Lakoff & Johnson)
  • OpenID – identity provider?
  • OpenID keywords are interoperability, openness, remix
  • Consumers/users aggressively expect a simplified way to navigate on the internet (Usability continues to be an important issue)
  • Social networking – micro-blogging in present tense – live stream of activities
  • If you participate in a social network people don’t care who you are, but whether you’re a good actor in that particular community, and there may be very different standards for “good acting” in different communities. (In a learning context this could be both positive and negative, if students accept learning from others than their teachers. Luckily most of them do, but in a traditional academic setting verification of sources of information is still very much at play and may collide with this …)

I forgot how pleasant (and inspirational!) it is sometimes just to be on the receiving , listening end :-)

/Mariis