Life in the Post-immersionist world

Hiro Pendragon has often claimed that he would never do business with someone with whom he hadn’t talked on the phone. This followed a series of developments in 2007 when it was clear that the level of mistrust due to anonymity (or pseudonymity, to be more correct) in Second Life had reached astonishing proportions, to the point where SL residents started to effectively engage in all sorts of scams and illegal activities and completely break trust. Linden Lab tried to introduce age validation and we were looking ahead for more similar steps to be taken to restrict fraud. The ban on banking was one of those steps.

In a smaller scale, fraud in the unregulated business environment is rampant. SL residents not only copy content, but they set up fraudulent companies (some in SL, a few even in RL!) engaged in all sort of scams. Or they do the oldest trick in the world, which is to engage in business (again, SL or RL) and default on payments, confident that they’re above being sued, although, as we know, that has happened as well in a few scattered cases. But in general, mistrust is the dominant force on the business side of Second Life, specially on the “real life” side of it.

Frauds are not new on the Internet, either, and the difficulties are the same: hard to verify the claims, transnational borders are way easy to cross to avoid lawsuits, and verifying people’s identities is way too hard. Governments could only protect their citizens saying that the same set of laws regulate virtual businesses. So if you’re caught, you’ll go to jail (or be subject to fines and lawsuits). The difficulty, of course, is “catching” the miscreants. Several countries in the world have deemed spamming to be illegal, but that didn’t make the world-wide spamming stop for a heartbeat. Allegedly, Nigeria’s suit of email scams already contributes positively to its GDP. The list of “Internet frauds” is vast, and, to a degree, completely unresearched, since it’s so hard to track down a scammer.

Business is about trust. The most important aspects of the “Trust Equation” on that linked article are credibility (ie. what people say and how they say it), reliability (ie. what they actually do) and intimacy (ie. the amount of information they feel comfortable with in sharing with others). This is naturally just one of many ways of defining business relationships, but, in general, I believe that all these aspects are important.

Any starting company has probably very low scores on all those aspects. But after some time they’ll start at least to improve one of the aspects: credibility, which tends to be spread around. Your potential partner might feel attracted to the perceived high value of credibility, and if they have a good experience with your reliability, they will trust that they have a solid relationship.

Intimacy is where certain (valuable) knowledge is shared, and here is where, for instance, we saw the collapse of the many banking systems in SL before the ban: they were all quite unwilling to reveal any data about how their systems actually worked, or what they were actually doing with all that money from investors. In a sense, one might blame the current financial crisis on the reverse aspect: banks lent money without getting any data from their clients, and thus when they suddenly found out that the majority of their clients were unable to pay for their loans, the world-wide banking system crashed. Or almost.

Even if you take a look at that article, you’ll see that there is quite a mix between “the business” and “the persons working in the business”. This tends to give a feeling that business trust relationships are both personal and institutional. Thus, if you wish to strike a deal with, say, Microsoft, you can trust the institution: they’re credible and reliable, and probably open enough to share information with you. But you’re also going to trust the person you’ll be contacting with: you expect that person to be credible, reliable, and intimate with you, too.

When we move over to business using telecommunications, some things necessarily change. Most of us won’t be able to physically visit Microsoft’s HQ in Redmond, WA; however, most of us will trust that it actually exists (at the very least, we can use Google Maps to see its location). We don’t ask anyone about Microsoft’s credibility and reliability directly — we can read all about it on the news, or, better, watching as the stocks go up, always a fine way to trust a company. So we’ll implicitly trust anyone from Microsoft that comes to offer us a deal — we expect such a trustworthy company to act sensibly and hire trustworthy employees as well.

However, the difference is that in most cases you will not have access to direct validation. You rely on indirect sources to verify Microsoft’s credibility and reliability (even if it’s just talking to a business acquaintance which can vouch for them). And unless flying to Redmond is an option, you’ll have to trust that the person who just walked into your office and offers you a business card from Microsoft actually is who she claims to be. You can most definitely check her up over the phone or by sending an email address and be satisfied with the answer — but the truth is that you have no way to make sure that the phone call wasn’t routed elsewhere and that a fake email server intercepted your message and someone in a basement answered it for you. Granted, when dealing with Microsoft, there are far more layers of checking up credentials, but I hope you see my point.

But the smaller the company, the harder it is to check those credentials. When I met one of the Lindens that happened to visit my country, and we went out for dinner, how could I validate that he was actually who he claimed to be? (I hope he’s not reading this!!) Well, actually, we exchanged emails, and I think he mentioned on his blog — written under his avatar’s name, of course — that he was going to visit. He also had my phone number. However, the truth is, how did he know that I was who I claimed to be? 🙂 After all, I didn’t send him my ID card. This blog could have been written by a ghost writer (a few people humorously comment that they think that Extropia DaSilva is one of my alts, something that amuses us both), or even a series of ghost writers all writing under the same pseudonym. We could even share the same avatar account on Second Life, defeating LL’s request on the ToS not to share passwords. My company could be completely fake — after all, how many people know how to look companies up? All there is to “check” is a rather outdated WordPress blog, which suspiciously is hosted on the same virtual server than my personal blog (then again, a few millions are hosted by DreamHost) with a phone and an address. In fact, if someone goes to that physical address it’s highly likely that they’ll never meet any of us there — we’re all telecommuters most of the time and work from home. Most of the team does not live on the same country, or not even on the same continent. So… how does that relate to the equation of business trust?

In spite of a large amount of lack of physical validation, nevertheless, I might unashamedly boast that I have a certain degree of credibility and reliability. The more interesting aspect, of course, is that both of these are completely unrelated to my physical self but only to my digital self. (I’m actually used to it; since at least 1994 I’ve been engaged in similar ventures, where my physical self had little relevance to my credibility or reliability; Second Life is just the latest and greatest in digital communications) And obviously I behave in the same way when contacting new potential business partners: I check them up on LinkedIn or Plaxo first, to see what they have done, and how well known they are. Ironically, I trust their digital selves more than I trust their real, physical selves. In this day and age, if you don’t have anything about yourself on the Internet, how can I know if you are who you claim you are? 🙂

This inversion of the role of how to “trust” in a business environment is what I call post-immersionism. Intimacy comes from the willingness of a person’s digital self to provide data about themselves online — if you wish, to present a narration for their digital self that I can check up. If you have no digital self with a narration online, I will mistrust you. Why? Well, my question will be exactly the reverse one that Hiro asks: not why you don’t pick up the phone or meet me in the flesh, but why don’t you reveal anything about your digital self? If you’re not working hard on presenting yourself digitally, it means you have “something to hide”!…

More conservative business persons will obviously claim the reverse is true. Having a lunch with a client or driving to see their offices is the way to make business. It’s the old male stereotype of “feeling a man’s grip” (mostly crushing delicate bones in the process…) to gauge their “reputation”. Well, traditions are all very well but… why should a handshake be more “trustworthy” than a webpage showing an artist’s portfolio? When hiring an artist I don’t wish to evaluate how strong her handshake is, but how good she can develop a concept — and for that, I prefer to know in advance how good she is. I can do that by visiting her webpage, and read the comments, and see who links to her, and if there are any reviews from other professionals… a handshake definitely doesn’t convey any useful information.

Similarly, having a phone call to an obscure mobile phone is of little use to me. I remember dealing with AT&T, eons ago, at their offices in Spain. I was quite reluctant to talk with them over the phone, because all I had was a mobile phone for one of their reps. How could I look up a phone number and say: “this number belongs to an AT&T sales rep?” I could call their offices and ask if that phone number belonged to my rep, but the answer (at least back then) would be: “I’m sorry, but we cannot give out the personal mobile phone numbers of our employees”, which was a popular policy. So how did I know this guy was for real? Very simple: he had an AT&T email address. And once I could check that this email address actually worked, it was pretty sure I was “talking” to the right person. I trusted AT&T not to give out AT&T email addresses to anyone. So doing business over email was safe and had a higher degree of trust than over the phone, where I had no clue if I was talking to the right person.

What about personal relationships? Hiro Pendragon claimed that for personal relationships, a phone call is not important:

Personal – yes, sure. I have had and have and will continue to have meaningful personal relationships with friends whom I only chat with via text.

Although Hiro and I left the discussion at that, I believe that his theory is simple: the stakes are higher when talking business or talking friendship 🙂 I never commented back to him on that old post of his, since personally I tend to value friends above business, but I’m sure that many feel otherwise. (After all, losing a friend just makes you sad; losing a business might mean no food, no heating, no home, and have your whole family suffering, so I guess that Hiro does have a point.)

As time goes by, and in spite of the criticism of the move towards the digital space having more pitfalls and traps than by doing business “in-the-flesh”, I believe that the dominant attitude will be to trust more and more what people do on the Internet (and write about themselves, and are peer-reviewed that way). We can get way more data out of the Internet about some person or some company than using any other method. In a sense, the “person” or “company” becomes the data we read about them on the Internet. And thus we’re back to the point where we started: once we cross back from the digital world into the physical world, and we begin to forge relationships on the physical world because of the ones we forged on the digital one, then we become post-immersionists: the digital world is where the focus is, the physical world — and what we do to establish relationships in the physical world — becomes less important. In a sense, post-immersionism is reverse augmentationism: the physical world becomes an extension of the digital one!

This might be not as far-fetched as it sounds. I’m pretty sure that almost everybody who is reading this long essay keeps in touch with the majority of their friends on a daily basis — online. They will also send many more emails to their business acquaintances than have physical meetings in the flesh — and some might even send more emails than make phone calls. Although we still enjoy the occasional special meeting with our friends when we go out with dinner with them or join them to do something together over the weekend, during the rest of the days, we’re not “forgetting” them, but send them text messages, add comments on their Facebook profiles, read their blogs, send them direct tweets, and generally keep in touch with them all the time — just not physically. Even in business we do the same — I might meet physically with my accountants once every quarter, but we exchange emails every day. My business partner in NY sometimes calls me up every other month or so, but we spend almost an hour together every day on emails and in-world meetings in Second Life. In a sense, even a “phone call” is the first step towards post-immersionism, since it replaces the physical self by “something else” which is not quite you (I get more angry on the phone than in the physical presence of someone, for instance!). While our society has fully embraced phone calls as being part of our digital self, and is slowly moving ahead to do the same with emails (specially once we can get rid of all those spammers), things like Group IM on MSN/Gtalk/Yahoo or even virtual worlds like Second Life are still too new for us to fully embrace it. But… it’ll come. Nobody in their right mind thought of sending a lawsuit to court by email in 1972 (when Internet email was just invented), but these days, in my country, the court doesn’t accept documents submitted any other way. You can’t even walk in there in person with your ID card and two witnesses and drop the document on a table. If it’s not sent by email and digitally signed, it’s not valid. Perhaps in 20 or 30 years courts will meet in Second Life and they won’t accept anyone physically entering a courtroom at all — I hardly believe that, but it might happen… — but, granted, it’s too soon.

The fun bit about post-immersionism is that at some point we’ll all be post-immersionists and the term will totally lose its meaning. It’s just controversial right now for a limited time 🙂


A note on the photo above. Wirecard is a German bank which has had a virtual presence in Second Life for quite a while. They couldn’t care less if they emit a perfectly valid Mastercard, usable anywhere, with your avatar name (they don’t provide credit, just debit cards). When I showed this card to a friend of mine, he just commented: “now I totally lost the remaining trust I had in the banking system”. The amusing bit, of course, is that you have no way to know if that picture is real or a forgery, since it was clearly photoshopped to blur the numbers (so I could presumably add the fake name on it, too), and you have no way to tell if it’s really me holding the card, or if that’s my real computer. Post-immersionists won’t care, so long as I’m able to pay for what I buy with this card!

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