A discussion about identity and trust in Second Life has come up in the MUVEnation forum. Is it OK to ask for an avatar’s Real Life name? Is it important to know who is behind an avatar in an educational setting? Can I have a professional relationship with an avatar without knowing their real identity? Can I discuss educational topics with a dragon? Shouldn’t professionals look professional?
My avatar is I
Personally, I very much identify with my avatar. My avatar’s name is a translation of my Real Life name, my profile is full of information and links leading to my Real Life identity and activities, which are, by the way, the same as in my Second Life. For me Second Life is part of my Real Life professionally and socially. But I respect when this is not the case for others or when people have different avatars, one for their social life in SL and a professional one. (added 12 Dec 2008: This might even make sense if you have many friends in SL and don’t want to be bombarded with IMs during meetings or classes).
I have to agree with Anna, who says in the forum that in general it is rather rude or impolite to ask an avatar what their Real Life name is. I would not even do that normally in a professional setting if it wasn’t necessary for our work or communication. I can understand people not wanting to be identified because you never know what people can do when they have your Real name. After all, there are people with good and bad intentions everywhere. This does not mean that they are not trustworthy. I would compare asking for a person’s RL name in SL to asking somebody in RL how much they earn or their political affiliation. You just don’t normally do that in many cultures.
In the English course I gave in Second Life, I worked with my students for six weeks, but I never felt the need to ask them for their Real Life names. Some even created e-mail addresses and signed up for Moodle with their avatar’s names. Only two students wanted to have their printable certificates with their RL name. Does that mean I didn’t know my students or their needs and personalities or didn’t trust them? No, it doesn’t. People always present themselves the way they want whether this is in RL or SL. And we figure out who they are as much as we can by interacting with them. Do we know in RL who somebody really is? We might know one or several facets of that person but usually not all. This does not mean we cannot work together professionally or be good friends.
It is, of course, a different issue when you are participants of a course, like MUVEnation, were the whole purpose is learning about Virtual Worlds and helping each other create our avatars or in a course where students will be graded in RL for their work in SL. Then, there is a need to know who is behind an avatar.
How important is looks for professionals in SL?
I think we attach too much importance to looks in RL instead of looking at what this person has to say. I hope that SL will help us overcome this “judging by appearance” and to listen more to the person. In SL, there might be many reasons why people dress in unexpected ways. It might be another part of their personality which they do not show in RL; it might also be simply playfulness (like dressing a doll) or an experiment to see how people will react to name a few reasons.