True names: identity, safety and Blizzard’s Real ID

Identity is a perennial sort of a topic, and Activision-Blizzard’s Real ID programme has brought it back into the limelight. Unless you’ve been hanging out under a rock (which would, you know, be fine – especially from a sun-protection perspective) you’ve probably heard about A-B’s programme which is the first phase of tagging your time in Blizzard games (like World of Warcraft and Starcraft II) and supporting services, with your first and last name.

It’s rolling out initially to the forums and to some in-game communications. Quite what Phase 2 is, is not yet clear. One can only speculate as to whether it might be named after the US 2005 REAL ID Act.

The main focus right now is on the Blizzard forums; a place frequented by only an infinitesimal fraction of the user-base, as is normal for most official game and virtual environment forums. After Real ID is implemented, while you will still be able to read them in complete anonymity, posting will display your name (first and last), and you will have the option of adding your character name to that information.

The apparent aim is to reduce the workload associated with moderating the forums (and certain matchmaking and communications services), while simultaneously making them a nicer place to be.

Of course, if you’re under 13, Blizzard cannot legally display your name without your parent or guardian’s consent. An option for that, I understand, is part of the parental controls.

The biggest problem I see right here is one of disambiguation.

While online services almost all insist on unique names, in practice names generally aren’t. This isn’t normally much of a problem in average-sized, geographically-bounded social groups, but does become an issue for large enterprises – and particularly online where geographical boundaries are not key factors in constraining social networks.

Just how do you disambiguate between two John Fitzpatricks or Catherine Joneses? How about ten? How about a hundred?

The Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) gets around this by requiring all members to have a unique name, one that isn’t presently used by another member and hasn’t ever been used by a previous member of the guild. This eliminates ambiguity in crediting. The “J” in Michael J. Fox stands for “Andrew” – because, quite simply, his own name was already taken by another Michael Fox (1921-1996). An increasing number of actors need to select pseudonyms or change their names to register with the SAG.

Are you going to change your name to avoid being confused with that inflammatory arse on the World of Warcraft forums? No, I didn’t think so.

If someone with the same (or a confusingly similar) name to yours starts making an idiot of themselves – and people are people, it’ll happen – you’re more likely to distance yourself from the problem by distancing yourself from the forum and anywhere else associate with the game that your name might appear, right?

Anonymity is the default offline

We don’t normally think of anonymity as the default state, but it is. There’s 6.25 or so billion people on the planet. There are numerous occasions that we hand over our identification or give our names for one reason or another, but we generally do so only to people that we trust to handle them properly or that simply don’t really care who we are.

Do you know your barista’s full name? Do they know yours? Would you have any idea what their first name was if they didn’t wear a name tag?

We routinely caution our children not to give out their full names to strangers, or indeed to anyone that they don’t have a very good reason to trust (eg: a policeman).

If you ask the person serving you at the grocery checkout or your bank teller what their last name is, they’ll probably be reluctant to tell you. For many establishments it is against policy to reveal that information.

Large and heavily trafficked call-centres and customer-support services routinely assign pseudonyms to their staff to avoid issues of harassment. In smaller outfits, it’s rarer, but still sometimes done if a staff member has a particularly memorable, distinctive or unique first name – or if another front-line staffer has the same first name.

Why do we go through all of this?

Because we know it’s safer!

Or at least we think that’s what we know. It’s not something we feel comfortable taking a lot of chances with. Some of us are certainly practiced at having our names out in the public eye all the time, and dealing with all of the rubbish that inevitably seems to come with it. Not everyone is willing to put up with it.

Ask around among your friends. In any group of twenty or so, the statistical odds are that one of them has been threatened, harassed or stalked. And that’s not counting being online. With those sorts of odds, it isn’t a risk we’re necessarily willing to take.

Activision-Blizzard would like to think that the problem people will be shamed or peer-pressured into silence, while more reasonable heads will prevail and prosper. In my experience, though, the problem people usually have no issue with being associated with their names. They’re proud of their behaviour; or they don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks.

That sort of competitive/combative battlelust is thought to be common, but really it isn’t so much. It just stands out more. We’re told that the “The meek shall inherit the Earth”, but they won’t inherit online forums, that’s for sure. Not with Real ID.

And if that service really is going to be expanded to other areas, then perhaps the world really has found its WoW-killer.

Imagine if this sort of scheme was implemented on Digg, or Second Life, or Slashdot. What do you think would be the result?

UPDATE: Blizzard have now reversed their decision.

Identity: Linden Lab change of heart?

Your identity is defined in part by which pieces of identification you choose to share with a person or group. Every person you know does not have the same information about you as everyone else. What you share with your mother, your boss at work, your bank manager, is different to what you share with your lovers (unless there is some overlap there).

You are identified by the identifications you share with those people. You create an aspect of your identity (or one of multiple identities, depending on how you like to look at it) each time you use a subset of your identifications to identify yourself; all those aspects, or different identities, all point back to you, the unique mind or being behind it all.

After centuries of discussion and thought, the only thing we can say for sure about identity is that it points to something that is both unique and somewhat fluid.

“Identity is an umbrella term used throughout the social sciences to describe an individual’s comprehension of him or herself as a discrete, separate entity.” ~ Wikipedia, Identity (social sciences)

“An online identity, internet identity, or internet persona is a social identity that an Internet user establishes in online communities and websites. Although some people prefer to use their real names online, some internet users prefer to be anonymous, identifying themselves by means of pseudonyms, which reveal varying amounts of personally identifiable information.”  ~ Wikipedia, Online Identity

“As other users interact with an established online identity, it acquires a reputation, which enables them to decide whether the identity is worthy of trust.”~ Wikipedia, Online Identity

There are some pieces of identification that hold the promise of telling us all we need to know about a person’s identity. Their name, for example. Or, at least, a name that, when we communicate with them, that they respond to. That’s really as close as you can get – there’s no such thing as a person’s “one true name”. People may have names given at birth, names changed at the time of marriage, names changed by choice by deed poll, nicknames by which they are commonly known, stage names, a nom de plume, a nom de guerre, a gaming handle, a user name, or one of the other many types of pseudonym. All of which can be valid, legal, usable name types, and of which people will often have more than one – and each of which is an identifier for an aspect of identity.  Actors in particular commonly choose stage names; these names are often chosen to reflect a different ethnicity to the one they were born with and named for. It means they often get more work, less discrimination, less chance of being beaten (for example) for having the wrong background. Additionally, a stage name can be chosen to be more memorable than one’s given names, easier to pronounce, easier to spell.

A Second life (SL) account name is likewise a chosen name, albeit with some restrictions on what can be chosen. The behaviours associated with that account name are associated with an identity or identities, depending on how many people use the same account. No matter whether you inject your own personality, wrist, vocabulary, or what have you, or whether you imagine all the behaviours you create for that account, you are still the one creating those identifiers. There’s not some imaginary being making this up for you – this is part of you. As stated in the introductory paragraph, not every person knows everything about you – with an SL account, you may choose to share very few of the identifiers from your offline world with the people you meet there, and very few of your SL identifiers with people who are not a part of SL.

Every person limits how many identifiers other people and groups have about them – it’s what I would call “privacy”, being able to choose the amount and type of information you share. When you are forced to share things you do not wish to, privacy is broken. The bank manager does not need to know your shoe size, the passport office does not need to know your banking details, your mother does not want to know if you’re kinky in bed. We give each person or group only enough identifiers to specify us as an individual, so that they can eliminate all the other candidates. My gender (female) eliminates the 40% of physically male candidates present in the world, my address narrows the field to 2 potential people, my name eliminates the other person, if we were to carry out the testing in that order. Some people and groups do more testing to ensure the likelihood that they have arrived at the correct individual – Social Security, for example, is very keen to make sure that they get the right unique person, as are the police.

Why do we require privacy? Mostly, to prevent other from doing harm to us. Someone who knows your physical whereabouts has the chance to do physical harm to you or your property. Someone who knows how to access you online may be able to do mental harm, or even financial harm, depending on the identification they hold for us. People are judged by their identity – identity is comprised of names, locations, sexuality, ethnicity, preferences, what you choose to wear, what you have for breakfast, and many more such things – and people are quite willing to harm other people who they have decided deserve it.

When does privacy seem like less of a good thing? When it’s difficult to pin-point one person as the individual in question, therefore making it difficult to make them accountable for their actions. It’s where anonymity, or the semblance of it, encourages people to think that they can get away with harmful actions without consequences – because we cannot identify the correct individual to hold accountable.


Residents are entitled to a reasonable level of privacy with regard to their Second Life experience. Sharing personal information about a fellow Resident –including gender, religion, age, marital status, race, sexual preference, and real-world location beyond what is provided by the Resident in the First Life page of their Resident profile is a violation of that Resident’s privacy. Remotely monitoring conversations, posting conversation logs, or sharing conversation logs without consent are all prohibited in Second Life and on the Second Life Forums.” ~ direct from the Second Life Community Standards

There’s no way to know (bar leaks) whether Linden Lab plan to diverge from this standard and either provide “opt-in” ways for us to connect our SL and our other identities or to force us to do so if we wish to continue using their service. Certainly Wallace Linden’s blog post does not give me the impression that they are about to present it as a fait accompli. Unfortunately, we must remember that people who have not signed up to SL greatly outnumber those who have – Linden Lab can afford to throw away every user they have at the moment and, as long as they find a way to appeal to those who are not yet in SL, still come out ahead and profitable.

Book Review: My Avatar, My Self


Firstly, it’s fair to warn you that I’m breaking one of my own reviewing rules here. I generally never write a review of something that I haven’t purchased. That’s a rule that I’m not in the habit of breaking, but it’s worth noting that I’m making an exception here today.

If you want the short version, you should go and buy Waggoner’s book if you have a serious interest in identity, identification, the interaction of people with diegetic and liminal spaces, and/or the core philosophies of human involvement, interactions and identity in virtual spaces and gameplay.

For those of you that are still here, Waggoner has put together a book that doubles as something of a thesis. Littered with references and notes, My Avatar, My Self is a dense and thoughtful read both on the nature of ourselves as well as on the nature of our virtual interactions and extensions.

I say dense, because virtually every paragraph gave me pause for consideration, sparking numerous, lengthy discussions, and causing my editor to wait and wait and wait, and wait some more for me to actually get back to him.

That’s the very definition of thought-provoking, right there. There’s a lot of meat within these covers.

Waggoner discusses the models of modernist identity theorists (who, alas, still aren’t really sure what Identity actually is), as well as contrasting that with the models of post-modern identity theorists (who also still aren’t sure what Identity).

Identity and the nature and definition of it is far from a done-deal, but practical interaction with avatars sheds a whole lot more light on things, and seems to support the post-modern theories rather better.

Debates between modern and postmodern identity theories continue. However, most theorists regardless of their camp seem to agree that communication media impact human identity construction. Even modern identity theorists such as Giddens recognize the importance of these external stimuli: “Mediated experience has long influenced both self-identity and the basic organization of social relations.” This statement is echoed by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin almost a decade later: “[People] employ media as vehicles for defining personal identity”

Throughout, Waggoner focuses on single-user role-playing games primarily (Fallout 2/3, Morrowind, Oblivion), but this is no weakness in his approach. In doing so, Waggoner manages to test and demonstrate his points without considerable, intrusive or distracting noise or complications, as he monitors the interactions and reactions of four diverse subjects as they approach various games.

Throughout, Waggoner examines the motivations, identification, and responses of his four subjects, occasionally highlighting responses that a subject is seemingly unaware of, or unwilling to admit.

If you’re not afraid of some deep ideas about identity, expression, avatars, narrative, genres and spaces, nor of the language required to express these compactly, Waggoner’s My Avatar, My Self should find a place on your reading list.

And now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to go back and read it again.

(You can purchase this book from TMJ’s online bookstore, Amazon or direct from the publisher).

The identity paradox

Who is Tatwoman?Last week, we spoke about anonymity and privacy, and in so doing we brushed past the concept of identity. The problem of identity has been with us for quite some time, as a species and as a set of societies. Newer technologies, such as the telephone and the Public Internet do not make the problem harder or more intractable, but they sure do make it a lot easier to actually see.

Actually, there are multiple issues of identity. Not the least of which that the word itself encompasses a number of conflicting meanings. In one sense, your identity is who you are without your age, name, gender, appearance, job, nationality, race, or home. What’s left is the core identity — the person that you are. For the process of identification however, that meaning is pretty useless. Identification focuses on what you are to determine who you are.

Unfortunately, as we’ve discovered over many generations, that really isn’t much good either. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many dead people casting votes in elections.

The usual standard of identification is to assemble a set of non-unique qualities. Your name is likely not unique, nor your address (there may be several people living there) or phone number or job or your date of birth, gender and so on. Put them all together, however, and they seem to do a pretty good job of distinguishing you from anyone else.

Unfortunately, that really only works one-way. This form of identification distinguishes a person from everyone else. It just doesn’t prove that you’re that person.

If it did, there’d be no such thing as an identity thief.

Identity theft goes back hundreds — some say thousands — of years. People have assumed the identity of others for all manner of nefarious purposes. Just because you’re in possession of identity documents, doesn’t mean that that is who you are, and that’s not even beginning to touch on the issue of faked documents.

Photo ID is supposed to help – but it doesn’t much. Do you really look all that much like the photo on your driver’s license or passport? Could there be dozens of other people who would resemble that photo just as closely? Probably, yes. Dozens or hundreds. With a little hair dye, maybe thousands would pass muster. Then they turn up for renewal, get their photo taken, and then the photo is of them, not of you.

Fingerprints have been suggested, but it has been shown that these are easily faked, not terribly unique, and frequently quite sloppily matched. Likewise even retina scans are of doubtful utility. They’re not as unique as they were once thought to be, and useless for roughly 30% of the general population.

How then can we even begin to identify users online, or in virtual environments? Do we even need to?

Well, yes. Users with their computers turned on tend to break laws no more nor less readily than people who don’t switch them on. In practice, however, it turns out that malefactors are easy to find, if people can be bothered to put any effort into it. Two Second Life copyright infringers were tracked down easily and relatively cheaply despite their having made every effort to conceal or fake their identities in dealings with others. The lack of a definitive atomic identity tied to their online identity proved to be no barrier.

That only leaves us with, for want of a better term, preventative identification. That would be things like, for example, age verification. Let’s start with the fact that age-verification in the atomic world doesn’t work, as a rule. Fake IDs abound, and it isn’t very hard to obtain one. As a result, minors routinely gain access to facilities that would otherwise be barred to them.

Having firmly violated the rules in person, we’re now going to trust that they can’t do the same thing online? That’s just daft. Because at the end of the day, we’re relying on them presenting documents to us (that may or may not belong to them) to prove that they are who they say they are, and that they are what age they say they are. Credit cards are available to all-ages now in many countries, and other forms of documentation are usually no harder to get than your mother’s handbag.

Linden Lab’s plans to move the most extreme Second Life content to an Adults-Only continent, available only to the age-verified potentially suffers from all of these flaws, while simultaneously clustering the content in a single set of locations, where it would be paradoxically easier to locate.

And this wouldn’t really be a problem, except that in many jurisdictions you are liable for exposing a minor to many things. Even if they lied to you (or to an age-verifier), and had the identity documents to back that up. You might be able to separately sue them for fraud, but frequently the law doesn’t care if they defrauded you.

And that’s ultimately the issue people are trying to solve, even though it seems there is no solution in sight.

Anonymity versus privacy, online and in atoms

Who is Tatwoman?Much is touted about the Public Internet and virtual environments constituting mediums of anonymity – that the actions of users are essentially anonymous and free of consequence. That’s actually pretty far from the truth. There’s anonymity and there’s privacy, and these are two rather different qualities, and are available in quite a different mix to what common knowledge would have you believe.

Anonymity is, the dictionary tells us, ‘the quality or state of being unknown or unacknowledged’. In essence anonymity is the lack of connection to any contiguous form of identity. If, online in some venue, you speak with guest613 a number of times and guest613 could be a different person each time, then they can be said to be anonymous. Short of them self-identifying or your recognising their wrist (manner of speaking, word-choice, spelling and so on) they’re functionally anonymous. Each time you encounter that handle, you cannot assign experiences to it that would constitute an identity.

Anonymity is comparatively uncommon on the Public Internet, compared with privacy.

Privacy is the more common case in both virtual and atomic environments. The use of a consistent login, account or handle provides a contiguous identity by which you are recognized, judged and assessed. On the Internet, everyone knows you’re a dog.

In atomic environments, the people you see day-to-day or week-to-week may not know your name, but they come to recognise you, sales staff tend to remember you (and how you behaved). You have a contiguous identity to these people, even if they don’t know your name, your job, your friends or where you live.

Turn up one day at your favorite cafe without your husband, but on the arm of some obviously affectionate fellow, and you’ll raise a few metaphorical eyebrows. Come back the following day with your husband as usual, and you’ll likely raise some actual eyebrows, even though they may not know anything about you, or your circumstances – you have a contiguous identity, and your actions and speech have consequences.

This is the most common case in virtual environments. You choose what details to reveal, and the rest remains unknown. However everyone essentially knows who you are.

Who you are is not what you are. Who you are is what is left after your job, your skin colour, your circumstances and appearance, and your gender and location are all stripped away. In its purest form, who you are is that part which makes choices and interactions, stripped of the conventional trappings that constrain them (though it is not possible to be entirely separated from them). You may be a kind and generous person, a misanthrope, or a callous jerk.

That identity is exposed to everyone you meet, and has consequences. People remember you, and they remember your name. They associate you with your words and actions over time, just as does the sales clerk at your favorite store.

You may not know that Sting is Gordon Sumner, or that David Tennant is actually David MacDonald, but not knowing these cannot be said to grant them any measure of anonymity. Likewise, you may not know the names behind Lowell Cremorne or Tateru Nino (or indeed whether these might even be our own legal names), but that does not detract from or diminish our contiguous identities.

rosa rosa rosa est est (A rose is a rose is a rose)

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