|April 10th, 2011|
The Lawbringer: A prelude to avatar rights is an article kicking off what appears to be a series looking at avatar rights in the context of World of Warcraft. It has been a while since the original article on avatar rights has been commented on much on the web, though it still regularly gets discussed in books on Internet law. Very few worlds ever adopted any variant of this as a terms of service, and Metaplace doing so back when we ran a customer-facing service had no real impact other than garnering some publicity.
Oddly enough, the article has been much on my mind lately, mostly because of how it closes, with a prediction that avatar service providers will both hold immense quantities of personal information but also dominate the market, making it hard to use an alternate provider:
Someday there won’t be any admins. Someday it’s gonna be your bank records and your grocery shopping and your credit report and yes, your virtual homepage with data that exists nowhere else… it may be a little harder to write to Customer Service. Your avatar profile might be your credit record and your resume and your academic transcript, as well as your XP earned.
On the day that happens, I bet we’ll all wish we had a few more rights in the face of a very large, distributed server, anarchic, virtual world where it might be very very hard to move to a different service provider…
…It’s a hypothetical exercise.
Not very long ago my daughter was banned from Facebook. She has no idea why; neither do I. I would keep an eye on her page, and there was nothing untoward on it that I saw. She hadn’t been using it actively, and it took her several days to notice it was gone. And she’s just not interested in it enough to bother setting up a new one.
More interesting is the fact that it just went bye-bye, with no due process and no real recourse and no easy way to do anything about it. And that got me thinking about how important a Facebook page is becoming these days. It is the first stop for looking up a real person, and it is your default identity provider for many many parts of the Web. I commented to some folks at work that “my daughter was erased from the Internet.”
Not really true, of course; she’s got active profiles at sites like DeviantArt and GoodReads and more. But she’s using handles on those, not her real identity. On the other hand, these are often more representative of her than the Facebook page was. It’s all too easy to lose sight of the fact that your Facebook identity is still just a persona — an avatar; just one that happens to use your real name. And the more followers you have, the less this avatar of yourself resembles the real you, as you grow more concerned with privacy and oversharing with strangers.
Internet identities, particularly around social media, are ultimately a combination of self-censored thoughts and the accretion of mined quantified data. In other words, social media profiles are roleplayed chat plus a bunch of stats and badges. Social media is already “gamified” in that sense.
Doing a search & replace on the original article with “social network” instead of “virtual world” (in the spirit of “the world virtual”) is illuminating precisely because it doesn’t change very much.
Just as an extrapolation of gamification trends leads us full circle back to something that looks very much like the world as it already is, unchanged by the addition of points and badges, so too does this line of thinking lead me right back to the last paragraphs in that player rights essay. We do have a distributed, anarchic identity system full of data that is hard to migrate, and we don’t really have solid access to admins or very clear rights in the face of this database’s usage everywhere. If you’ve ever dealt with a credit reporting company, you know what this feels like; just realize that now it applies to who you are and not just whether you paid some bills.
What was a hypothetical exercise is so no longer, and we should expect the same waves of questions that existed with avatar identities and virtual governance to return. If my daughter stays banned and Facebook continues to get woven into everything we do on the Internet, what impact could that potentially have? Does it mean that her real name and identity are simply not available to her? Name camping? By the time she goes out to get a job, what will that mean?
Back in 2008 I did a talk called “High Windows” that sharply divided people. The core point of it was that as virtual worlds started gaining mass acceptance, they sidestepped answering the truly important questions. I wanted to make VW developers have a closer eye towards the consequences of what they did, because if we do not examine where we have been and where we are going, the title of this post might be a statement, or it might be more of a plaintive cry.