Identity crisis!

Fun days are ahead of us, as Linden Lab rolls out a much-awaited feature: the ability to change one’s avatar name at will, just like on every other platform, and to decouple the username (which is unique in the system) from the Display Name (which is what other users will see displayed on the screen), as announced by Jack Linden on the Official Second Life Blogs last week. Interestingly enough, the amount of drama it generated was almost as bad as the one surrounding the merger of the Teen Grid with the Main Grid — over a thousand angry comments were made on that article.

And not by the same people, either, so, no, it’s not a resident conspiracy attacking Linden Lab’s latest projects. This time, the biggest complains come mostly from all sorts of content creators. And this is where the issue is: avatar names, so far, have been unique, and that meant for the content creators (remember, live music and performing weddings are content too!) that one’s reputation is closely tied to a name that is unique. Remove that uniqueness, and all of the sudden the avatar name loses value.

To explore this further, we have to see some analogies on other platforms.

Let’s start with the simplest analogy. Pretty much every social networking site out there allow a registration login — which is unique; popular ones are, these days, email addresses or OpenID URLs, which are guaranteed to be unique on all the Internet — but often a display name as well. Most services never check if the display name is unique or not; if the unique registration token is the email address, most sites won’t even display it, but just the user-created display name. Except for very ancient sites (where your username was also the display name), this is pretty much what we expect these days to happen.

Changing display names is routine — people had their laughs back in the early IRC days as everybody had fun pretending to be someone else in a room. Some IRC admins did limit this to a degree — you might need to “register” first to prevent your nickname to be used, and it was dealt out on a first-come, first-served basis. Other types of chatrooms never imposed any limitations whatsoever. To the best of my knowledge, MSN, Yahoo, AOL, Skype, Gmail don’t check what people use as nicknames (except perhaps for lists of offensive English words). This was carried over to MMOGs and virtual worlds as well. The point is that with over a billion regular Internet users in the world, nicknames, due to their nature, will inevitably clash, and restricting them is not a choice.

However, as said, some things are unique. IP addresses are unique and centrally managed for the whole Internet. Since an IP address doesn’t convey a lot of opportunity for personalisation, but are just a technical way to uniquely identify Internet nodes with a sequence of numbers, the question never arose. Domain names, on the other hand, are a completely different matter: they’re also centrally managed (at least, each Top-Level Domain has a central authority for it) and all domain names have to be unique (email addresses and URLs, building on top of domain names, have to be unique as well).

Different top-level domain (TLD) registries have different rules. Probably the reason why the .com domain is so popular (it has the largest number of entries) was its policy of handing out domain names first-come, first-served. Remember that originally the Internet was mostly academic, and even the few companies on the Internet used it for research purposes; nobody would seriously consider registering ibm.com or sun.com (both as old as at least 1986) for their nodes. It was just a small, tightly-knit community, where everybody pretty much knew everybody else.

With the boom of the Internet in 1990, some rules changed. In many non-US countries, domain name registration was (and still is!) limited to companies operating in those countries, so it means that the company had to send a proof of existence to a central registry. In some cases, the central registry was a techie group, run from a Government computer lab, but still had to do the validation manually. Countries like Germany very early on implemented the registration of a domain name as part of their own governmental registries — the very same ones that were in charge of trademarks.

Indeed, throughout Europe, it’s not infrequent to see that the country’s registration authority is either the national trademark registration office, or works closely with them. The reason is that a domain name is a valuable asset: it identifies a company, product, or service, and, as such, European governments have to make sure that only the legitimate owners are entitled to use their own brands as a domain name.

The popular .com or .net domains, however, run under a different policy. The idea is that most people will not pick a trademark as their domain name, and, if they do, the legitimate owner can just simply sue to get the domain name assigned to them. So instead of domain name protection, you fight it in court. Makes lawyers more happy and deals with the issue nicely, too 🙂

Why are domain names handled so differently than the rest of the “names” on the Internet? The reason is simple: domain names are really valuable. You can take a look at the many sites auctioning domain names to see how much they’re worth. Short names are more valuable than longer ones (because people will remember them more easily). Names describing a generic product or service are incredibly valuable; mail.com, for instance, is such a good name that it was often resold… and of course I’m sure you can imagine your own examples. In fact, at some point in time, when Linden Lab started enforcing their trademark Second Life® more aggressively, there were, if I’m not mistaken, around 2,000 registered domains with “SL” or “secondlife” as part of the name. So, yes, getting a domain name that can somehow be immediately associated with a product or service that is in itself valuable, is also very valuable.

Thus, of course, they have to be unique — and in some cases, regulated.

Now let’s get back to Second Life. Sure, a lot of people are frustrated because they registered a name like “john12876 Avatar” hoping to change their name later — just to find out this is impossible to do, and that after having befriended a few hundred friends, spent a lot of money with their avatars, bought land, build things, and acquiring 20,000 items on inventory… dropping that silly name was not an option. Being able to turn their Display Name into something more sensible, like “John Smith”, is quite more interesting and user-friendly.

A lot of possibilities will also be open with this new feature. Non-English speakers can now finally use their own character sets to display their names; also, they will not be limited to FirstName/LastName but have no limitation on how many names, prefixes, and so forth you can add. You could certainly set your name as “Right Hon. William Smith, Esq.” or something silly like that — fun for the roleplayers in SL! While it might make it harder for people to figure out who is speaking, LL is keeping the ability to always check for the username (on search, profile, and object creator/owner tags), so it’s not as if you can “hide” your username away.

Two things, however, were not considered by Linden Lab. The first is what happens when two people pick the same Display Name. And the second is how often the Display Name can be changed — just once per week.

CC BY 4.0 Identity crisis! by Gwyneth Llewelyn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...

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