The End of Anonymity, Part II

Gwyn ToplessSome apologies are in order to some of my unfrequent readers 😉 — not being very good with humour (I wish I were), I usually use irony and sarcasm instead.

Obviously it’s funny for me to see people commenting me elsewhere and misquoting my words as meaning exactly the opposite 🙂 Sarcasm is usually hard to spot in written communication, even when it has some nice smileys or exclamation marks after it. But I’m not consistent in my use of them — caveat lector.

So if it wasn’t obvious to the many people who commented, misquoted, misunderstood, and misused by words — no, I’m not “happy” with all the new things that Linden Lab is introducing that will allow — I even say “require” — forfeiting your anonymity (I prefer the word “pseudonimity” which is not only quite different in scope, but established as a right across millenia) and introduce as much real life data about yourself as technically possible; ultimately, if things go this way, a Matrix-style Second Life will capture your whole body through your webcam and replicate it to the last precious atom inside a pixellised world — Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, I can only presume.

Voice in SL, validation techniques for age, sex/gender, race, religion, and who knows what else will be possible, will be here in a very short time, as will grabbing chat logs for private estates, to help estate owners to deal better with abuse reports, now that those will be handled locally first. Next will come face morphing, and perhaps a scanned copy of your ID card on your SL profile. The important bit here, that is always being stressed by so many (including Linden Lab!) is that all this will be opt-in — you can remain anonymous/pseudonymous if you wish.

Just don’t expect that people will tolerate you any more.

The usual argument that is brought up with my “over-reaction” on the imminent lack of privacy and anonymity is that SL is huge, and that people not wishing to reveal any RL data will still have their place somewhere in the grid, and that there is no real reason for worry. Also, as SL grows (and it certainly grows!), there will be more and more spaces for the privacy-conscious to visit — and not less.

This is certainly correct in absolute terms. However, there is a significant difference, and I think I have not been very clear in pointing it out.

Second Life was developed originally as a non-discriminating environment. Since things like age, gender, even species, are changed at whim, and at a click of a button, you couldn’t assume anything about who was behind the keyboard. SL was designed specifically with that in mind; even Linden Lab’s Terms of Service protected that, by strictly forbidding people to reveal other people’s real life details publicly. These were the assumptions. Of course you could, if you wish, reveal as much data as you wanted, all the time, both to friends and to the public as large, and provide or offer any means of validation/verification on your real identity. The choice was yours.

In general, however, this issue was not truly important. A good builder or scripter in SL was as valuable as people valued them; it was irrelevant what kind of avatar they had, what country they were in, if they lived on a trailer park or a luxury mansion in Beverly Hills, or if they had any disability — physical, psychological, or social. You could definitely tell people about your personal and intimate details of your life, but most residents would ignore it anyway — since you could either lie about everything in your personal life, or even say the absolute truth, and nobody could tell the difference. So it became irrelevant. Second Life, as an environment, did not rely upon your real life reputation, but the reputation of yourself inside Second Life — your acts, your words, as they related to the virtual world, and not if you held a letter of the Vatican with the Pope’s signature on it stating that you’re a good person.

This placed the responsability of trust and reputation directly on people’s hands. Your RL credentials were not much important; you could be a famous criminal in RL, but a lovely person in SL, and people would adore you for what you do in SL. The reverse, however, is much more frequent — like parish priests running casino and escort services in SL. Your certificate as a preacher would be basically worthless for running a successful sex shop in SL. The notion of “Second Life” applied ultimately to becoming what you’re not, giving you a “second chance” in a world that did not discriminate anyone, and doing what you wished to without constraints — moral, ethical, or, in some cases, even legal. Ultimately, the responsibility was yours, and no wonder this was supposed to be an adult world — assuming responsability for your acts is the hallmark of adulthood and matureness.

Was this model so bad? Well, we can only see what this has lead to: in essence, we have seen on the microcosmos of Second Life that a majority of people (and this means mostly none of the readers of this article!), once “released” from the shackles of morality, ethics, law and order, or even democratic principles, have created a world comprised mostly of fraud, cheating (in business and relationships!), pornography, gambling, and, in general, of hedonism.

Naturally, this raised a few eyebrows, and although I’m sure that most of the anthropologists and sociologists are not surprised — remove people’s artificial inhibitions (ie. an ordered society, where social norm and conduct are enforced externally or internall), and, apparently, they revert to hedonism, at least initially. In many cases, this has not been bad per se, but the consequences of some activities have naturally crossed the borders of legality — from griefing to pædophilia, gambling, money laundry, and for some puritan societies, overtly amoral sexual behaviour — and someone had to put a stop to it.

In this case — and we’ll probably will never know about the details and the real story about it! — very likely someone tapped on Philip’s shoulders and said, “This is going too far. Put a stop to it, or we’ll put a stop on you“. The first attempt was to push over the responsability of the consequences towards the users, not lay the burden on Linden Lab, but apparently that was not enough. To make people responsible for their acts, when they behave on the borderline of morality and legality, they have to be identified, pursued, targetted, and removed from this virtual world.

We’re not talking about a “huge mass” of residents (something people always misread me). All it takes is a statistically significant number. One does not require, say, 50% of all residents to be active child porn sellers; only a handful is enough to alert the authorities and the RL media to label SL as the “pædophiles’ paradise”. One rotten apple is enough to spoil the whole apple pie; it’s not enough to claim that the overwhelming majority of SL residents (in fact, almost all) are not pædophiles. You have to make sure they’re not, not rely upon self-stated claims that nobody can validate. In any case, since this overwhelming majority of residents loathes all aspects related to child porn, what do they fear about introducing any form of age validation? In fact, the argument is employed close to the following: if you’re honest and truthful, you don’t need to fear the police. Which is the first rule in any totalitarian state.

So, all those honest and truthful residents of SL — these days, millions and millions — have “nothing to fear” from these new measures. In effect, group and peer pressure will evolve do “demand” from any of your acquaintances that you “prove” you’re honest and truthful — not that you rely on your in-world reputation. And LL is providing the tools for that: use voice to verify whom you’re talking to. Use the voluntary opt-in system for age validation. Take a look at residents’ chat logs. If you’re who you claim to be (in RL), you have nothing to fear.

What about the honest and truthful residents of SL that do not want any of these methods to validate their in-world reputation? As I wrote on the other blog post — sorry, you’re out of the game now. The age of immersionism — where you build trust, honesty, reputation, acquaintances and then friendship, all based on what you do and how you behave in-world — is now over. And this is what I was mentioning on my other blog. And no, I’m not happy about it.

For a hard-core immersionist, this is not worrying — “there are always places to go”: the immersionist ghetto. For any augmentist — even if you don’t realise you’re one! — the answer is even simpler: people not wishing to provide their full private details are “hiding something”, and aren’t being honest for some reason. There is nothing they want to do with those kinds of people; so, anyone refusing to use voice are freaks of nature; anyone not wishing to validate their age must be a minor; anyone not placing a RL picture on their “1st Life” profile page is hiding for some reason (maybe they’re just ugly, or older than they say they are, or married, or — worse — they’re of the “wrong” sex). As augmentism becomes mainstream in Second Life, immersionists become freaks and weirdos — borderliners, outcasts, “different”. They may even have legitimate reasons for not revealing their data (example: if you’re part of a victim protection programme, or are a RL celebrity tired of papparazzis, or are simply afraid that people who harassed or molested you in RL might be around and be able to track you down) — but these will be extreme cases, very small in number, so they can enjoy their “immersionist utopias”, their role-playing ghettos, and the mainstream resident will not want to have anything to do with it.

Thus, what was a level playground, an egalitarian society, and a very tolerant and open-minded medium, suddenly becomes something quite different: it becomes the society for the mainstream, and the shunning (or ostracism) of the differently-minded. And this is what I personally dislike about the turn of events, even if I’m powerless to prevent it.

In RL, I’m not part of an ethnical or religious “minority”, so I have no real feeling for what it means to be discriminated. However, there are two examples that might give you an idea of what can happen in areas which traditionally people do not associate as “discrimination”, but which show quite clearly what happens when you refuse to accept what is politically correct and assume the responsability of your choices.

In my country, it’s perfectly legitimate to run topless in all beaches. All beaches are public (ie. the whole coastline is part of public land and the State cannot resell it), so this applies to all of them (there are some nudist beaches, too, which are clearly labeled, of course). This means that a topless woman of any age can be surrounded by children or even nuns; the law allows it, and you cannot forbid a woman to run around topless. So, there is nothing you can do to prevent a beautiful woman to lie on the golden sand, sensually enjoying the pleasure of the sun. If you’re a mother with a puritan mind and a bunch of underage children, you cannot have this topless woman arrested, censored, or ask the police to ban her from the beach. You cannot claim that your religion, or your morality, are being “offended” by that public “outrageous exhibition of indecency”. In fact, you cannot really do anything about it; if you’re very, very polite about it, you might ask the woman in question to move to another spot of the beach, and, depending on how you address her, she might even comply. Many, however, will ignore an unfriendly request; it is, after all, in their right to do so.

The other example is simply being a smoker in this era of anti-smoking and restrictions on the use of tobacco. Being cynical, the major reason why my country has been relatively tolerant of smokers is because they pay enough taxes to contribute to about 3% of the State’s income (or almost 2% of the GDP), more than enough to support the State’s own welfare system. But the truth is that smokers are, by definition, not a “minority” that has any “non-discrimination rights” that apply to them; any person or any law can discriminate them totally and not violate the constitution (which don’t recognise smoking as a discriminating factor anyway). This mostly means that people are welcome to be intolerant, ostracising, and discriminating towards a smoker; the major advantage a smoker has is that they can stop smoking, at least temporarily, to enjoy the company of anti-smokers. Some anti-smoker groups, however, go much further in their intolerance, and advocate the total elimination of smokers, which I always found an abhorrent notion in our allegedly enlightened western world.

In any case, if you pick up smoking, you’re aware that you’ll be “an outsider”, and it means that you’ll gravitate more often than not to other smokers and go to each other’s places to enjoy your habit in peace.

Thus, in Second Life, so far, you couldn’t refuse anyone’s right to do whatever they pleased, but you could certainly avoid going to certain places. However, you wouldn’t be able to shut them off and out of “your world”. It was their world, too, and they had every right to be around as you did.

The changes that are now happening in SL are like saying that topless, smoking women in the beaches have to pack and go elsewhere. Sure, they can go topless if they wish – but out of the public areas. They’ll have to make do with a patch up in the rocky hills, without access to the ocean (but still to the sun), where they can smoke and go topless as much as they want. But — out of sight. They’ll be shunned and discriminated de facto even if not de jure: they’re entitled to do what they want, but outside the public view. And this is what the next step in the Balkanisation of Second Life will bring us: over the years, a Disneyesque “politically correct” mainstream SL, where all people will use voice chat, face morphing, webcams, and display their driver’s license on their profiles, and the “badlands” or “outlands”, where the ones that refuse using any of these things will have their solitary plots, and be part of a “community of weirdos” of their own. They will still be “tolerated” in the sense that nobody will kick them out of SL; but they will effectively be shut out of the mainstream SL. This means that if Disney opens up their new sim, they’ll be out of it — they will be eyed as aliens, descending from their immoral private utopias to mingle with the “normal ones”, and they generally will feel that they’re not welcome any more.

I don’t think this will happen “in a few days”; but it’ll come quickier than most optimists imagine (and you know how much an optimist I am!). Anyone observing people carefully will understand pretty well how they think, and wear other people’s shoes and see the world how they see it. And the answer is simple: the ones “not fitting in” — because they’re different (in their opinions at least) — will be looked down. An example is the current stigma falling currently upon many furries — just because they’re furries, a lot of people think they’re griefers, and no rational argument will make people change their minds (“if they had human avatars like everybody else they would not be griefers”). Obviously you can look at the statistics and see that the majority of griefers are not furries, but follow the same distribution than the overall population — but that’s what’s discrimination about: believing false concepts about other people because they have the right to be different (either by choice or by design), but people do not make the effort of trying to understand them.

So what do I think that will really happen? It will be a slow and gradual process. Mistrust on people not using validation or voice will start slowly gnawing at people’s nerves. Here and there, you’ll start to associate only with the ones using either of those, and, in the future, both. The transition from pseudonimity (where everybody’s identity is private) to merely using a nickname (like, say, on MS Live Messenger/Yahoo/Skype) but where it’s quite clear who’s behind the webcam will go many steps further. We have seen that happening on instant messaging systems; we’ll see it happening more and more in SL as well.

A lot of very old sites (like AdultFriendFinder) actually gave a statistic on that: publish your real photo, and you’ll attract a lot of attention (“twenty times as many new friends!”); the next step was saying: publish a video of yourself, and you’ll get even more. Now they push people to use webcams, saying it’s the ultimate tool in getting “a lot of friends”. This is a world-wide trend that is being pushed all over the Web 2.0 social sites — people are expected to reveal as much data as they possibly can. How different from just a decade ago!

“Revealing data” and “forfeiting” privacy is the trend, and we can’t expect to avoid it. Blogs gave us the notion that your personal journal, your most intimate details, should be broadly exposed to the whole world and they should be able to know everything about you — from what food you like to what kind of lingerie you wear every day. Twitter goes a further step; you’ll be soon telling everybody in the world what you’re doing at every instant; it’s very addictive, so people tell me, and soon anyone not using Twitter will be flagged as “being strange” if they don’t use it.

Reality shows like “Big Brother” opened a window into people’s most private and intimate details, and broadcasted it to audiences of millions on TV. When I first saw that show, I was actually shocked — why would people have any interest in others’ private lives? Indeed, as many people who have studied the phenomenum, it seems that something has changed in our mentality at the turn of the millenium. From a society that respects privacy, we’re moving towards one where all public and intimate detail is revealed and shown publicly.

There might be several reasons for that, and I’m sure you can add your own list. Some say it’s to give you a sense of “security” in this era of international terrorism. Some simply say that there are scams and cheating on the Internet going on every day, and this is the way to finally get some common sense back into the Internet. And some simply say that “privacy” and “anonymity” are the enemies of a modern society, which should be open, transparent, clear, and publicly known. I’m sure any of you have heard these arguments — or very similar ones! — before. They keep popping up everywhere.

In SL, however, there is a very strong “voice of the minority”. It’s always the tiny disgruntled minority that complains. The Second Life forums, for instance, are viewed by less than 0.1% of the resident population, but people tend to look at them and get scared of what is being claimed there, and not understanding why Linden Lab “doesn’t do anything”. Well, if they can please 99.9% of the residents, why should they listen to 0.1% (even if they’re the 0.1% that is right and the rest is wrong!)? The Official blog comments are even smaller in number; and in-world events, due to their nature, even less so. This mostly means that the most vocal ones are actually a tiny, tiny minority — how does Linden Lab know that they are representative?

The truth is, they don’t. They can make statistical samples; they can look for anedoctal evidence; they can ask for advise (in fact, they do all three!). But they can’t know, just do “calculated

And it’s definitely a “calculated guess” that exposing people’s private details in public will help making SL more appealing to everybody (except a tiny minority). LL can use all examples they wish — from TV to all major “social” sites, the keyword is “more information about people, less privacy please”. Profiles all over the social Web are flagged as “adult” or “mature” or simply removed from the system if the members don’t comply with the rules; in fact, the number of the ones that get removed is tiny. Probably even less than 0.1%. The number of social sites that do not have a way of at least upload a picture of yourself is insignificant (the only one that comes to mind is LinkedIn!) — and the number of people without pictures on those is also close to zero, in this age where everybody who doesn’t have a webcam has at least a mobile phone able to capture a snapshot of yourself. An increasing number of sites allow you to store audio clips, or video clips; an also increasing number allow voice chats of some sort. What can LL conclude? That a successful site grows more and more, as people who joined disclose more and more of their personal, private, intimate data. SL was, in a sense, the oddball player in the field: the one that insisted on privacy, anonymity, and protected everybody’s right of not having their RL data exposed.

They’re playing catch up now. Very quickly.

There were a lot of threads on the forums in the past about things like “why doesn’t LL enforce things like gender/sex or age or skin colour for the avatars?” and their authors have been flagged as discriminative or plain silly and ignored. Well, thinking a bit in the future, I can imagine a SL log-in screen where you’ll be able to optionally (and a very small fee) connect to a LL representative via a webcam, show yourself and talk to them, show your driver’s license or passport or national ID, and then get a new “validation” flag on your profile saying: “this avatar looks as close as possible to their RL self”. Sure, I could probably use makeup to make myself look younger and some tricks to look thinner, and in that case I’d get a flag saying “Gwyn looks younger/thinner than on her ID card” 🙂 but that would be the limit of what I could “disguise” of my RL self. And I would probably be doing it just to make sure I could still speak with my friends and business acquaintances and not be limited to roaming around the immersionist ghettos.

To conclude, I see this change as “inevitable” just because it makes sense — for Linden Lab, for Second Life, for the vast majority of SL users (all augmentists these days), for business, for establishing relationships or friendships or even something more. And I think that from reality shows in TV, to biographies of celebrities, to social websites — everything points into the direction that “the less anonymous you are, the more people will trust you”, and this, in the minds of the ones who hate privacy, will enhance SL in all possible ways, thus bringing more people in, not less. This issue is not about “the end of the world as we know it” — it’s about further growth, a sustainable one, that will please an overwhelming majority of (future) users. A majority, of course, that will expect these things to be in place when they start interacting with others; in a year or so, 70-80% of the people in SL will have entered a non-anonymous, voice-enabled, age-validated (and who knows, sex/gender-validated as well) virtual world, and they will find it very strange why it was ever different before.

However, it doesn’t mean I’m supposed to like it. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its Article 12 boldly states: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks. But it also says on the second article: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Discrimination does not come from asking you to voluntarily give out all your personal data — but from the lack of acceptance of those who will not understand the reluctance to relinquish one’s privacy.

Immersionist ghettos, here I come…

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