Virtual Identity Management

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by: Rick van der Wal via Business and Games Blog

On the internet we present ourselves differently to different audiences. Of course this is not a purely digital phenomena, but the internet has greatly amplified our need, and ability to do so. As Joseph B. Walther, a professor of communication and telecommunication at Michigan State University, told the New York Times in a recent interview, On-line Social Networking is like “impression management on steroids”.

The need for ‘impression management’ has seriously increased over the last couple of years because people have become ‘browsable’. Dating sites, job vacancies and social networks have a lot of information on you, and are often searched by people who want to learn more about you. The ‘wrong’ kind of information on the wrong moment could have serious consequences. That one picture of you proudly showing your ‘1st place in the Milwaukee Beer Drinking Contest 2001‘ trophy could make your potential employer think twice about hiring you.

Our ability to manipulate our identity has also greatly increased. We’ve become master marketers of our personal brands. We can amplify certain aspects of our identity on-line (like this blog amplifies my interest in Virtual Worlds) and hide others quite easily. Many people Google their name and see what others will learn about them on the first page of the search site, and find a way to create a better picture. But the questions is: a better picture for who?.

Different goals of your Identity

In real life you are a different person, to a lot of different people. You probably are a different person to your colleagues when compared to the person you are to your children, or significant other. You manage these identities naturally, its normal behavior, and you adopt the traits that you feel comfortable with in any given situation in various roles. Being a father at the soccer match of your son is a different role than writing an application for a job interview.

Same goes for on-line identities – reading my linkedIn profile should show you a different side of me, highlight different aspects as my Facebook account, or Twitter account. On this blog alone I show you 3 different identities:

Personal Identity: I post these messages as me, my personal identity. My real life name is underneath the title of the posts and there is some information in the ‘about’ page. It tells you some part of what I do in real life, demographic data such as my age and interests, and geographical data.

Corporate Identity: My corporate Identity is my brand Digado, or my linkedIn profile. Its tells you how I could be useful to you, my fields of expertise and experience. These are likely to contain factual data, as it has a high likelihood of being checked by people who will be able to verify it, but usually don’t give you a good idea of who I am in person, as its very much like a personal advertisement.

Virtual Identity: My Virtual Identity for Second Life is my avatar Roy Cassini, I used to have a digital identity in the game World of Warcraft as well, and a couple of forums on Cultural events in Rotterdam and SEO. These identities don’t tell you who I am, they tell you what I think on certain topics, or even a level of skill in a game. Abstract data within the context of the place of the identity.

Virtual identities don’t stop there however. As there is no real relation between you, or your virtual identity it can be ‘cloned’ and adjusted for multiple goals. Creating completely different persona’s for different goals. The disgruntled consumer, the religious philosopher, the expert on parental advice could be the same person. The perfect free form of schizophrenia. Or is it?

Managing Identities in Virtual Worlds

The Virtual world Second Life doesn’t allow you to choose your own name, so everyone has a different identity by default. Which identity you bind to this new Virtual Identity is entirely up to you. You could be someone completely different, or shape your new Virtual Identity to a combination to the other identities you’ve been building so far. Some people, like Clever Zebra developer Onder Skall (see header image), choose to create different avatars for different goals, the most extreme switch in identity per goal online.

Dusan Writer recently published a great article on the technical, therapeutic, psychological, philosophical and even moral consequences of having such an ‘alt’ – an alternative character (as opposed to a ‘main’ your main representation in a Virtual World), and concludes to say this:

If we view and describe avatars as possessions or ‘extensions’ of ourselves, as game worlds do in which their function is first the accomplishments of goals (no matter how slowly or with how much socializing you attain those goals) then we’re missing a larger question which is whether the code and the ‘policy authorities’ (platform owners but ALSO those in the world with us) are constricting our abilities to control our expression, and thus setting us up to buy into a morality without even realizing it’s being sold to us.

In light of that I personally would like to see Virtual Worlds use a more Facebook, or Flickr kind of approach, allowing more management of personal Data. These social Networking sites have adopted to the ‘identity management behavior’ a lot better instead of forcing people to create different accounts for different social circles or goals. These websites allow you to share information with ‘anyone’ ‘contacts’ or ‘friends’ in its most raw form. It allows me to have the same contacts, 1 profile, but different levels of access to its information (or different information), something that would really benefit Second Life as a Networking tool.

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