Sunday, January 25, 2009

Do You Manage Your Virtual Identity Value?

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A while ago I was talking to a friend of mine and they called me "Grace". We stopped talking and just stared at each other for a moment, bemused and bewildered because this conversation was taking place face-to-face in the real world, in meat space, in my OP, in the atomic world ... you get the idea.

I asked, almost afraid of the answer, "Why did you call me Grace?". They replied, "Because in that moment I was talking to Grace, you were Grace."

That incident stuck in my mind, leaving me with a lot of questions, mostly unanswered. What did it mean to be "Grace" at that moment? How was the line between my real life identity and Grace blurring? When did people see me as Grace, and how did they make that transition in their minds? If Grace were a male avatar, would they make that connection as easily? What characteristics of Grace, good and bad, carry over to my personal day-to-day interactions?

We need to recognize that identity is a construct. Beyond the formal academic and clinical treatise of identity, there are emergent and complex ramifications from that which recent technologies have afforded us to define and redefine our "identity". We should be both safeguarding and leveraging the investments we make toward that construct.

Tom Peters taught us long ago about personal branding ala "Brand You" and we know how important Online Reputation Management can be in the real world, but are you adopting those same principles to your virtual identity and/or are you recognizing the blurring between the real life reputation you've established and that of your virtual self?

It's fairly easy to track the evolution of online identity constructs from screen name, to iconic avatar, to personal profiles and ultimately to fully immersive representations of our "identity" in spaces such as MMOGs and virtual worlds. What we may be missing in that evolution, however, is the economic value emerging from our virtual reputations.

The Yale Law Journal recently released a great paper called Reputation as Property in Virtual Economies by Joseph Blocher. In this article, Blocher explores the notion of reputation as currency, with value, just as we think of property. As Blocher puts it:

Having defined status as a kind of property, it is possible to further subdivide the virtual reputational economies: social networking platforms like Facebook and MySpace present one model; anonymous blogging and commentary another. In at least one important way, the former are more like online economies than they are like virtual world economies—the status they create and destroy exists both online and in the real-world reputational economy. Individuals use their real identities in these forums and often interact with people with whom they also have off-line relationships. Thus someone whose reputation is ruined in the online reputational economy likely loses it in the real world as well.

Anonymous blogging and commentary, on the other hand, correspond to the virtual world economies describe above. The reputational property this type of activity generates exists only online, associated with virtual identities that generally are not connected to any real-world identities. What enables this division from the real-world reputational economy is anonymity, which permits bloggers—or even blog commenters—to gain online status, often at the expense of others, without risking their own real-world status. And as with the online and virtual world economies, challenging problems arise when the two reputational economies meet, as happens when anonymous posters (members of the virtual-world-style reputational economy) attack nonanonymous online profiles (members of the online reputational economy). From a practical standpoint, it is difficult, though not impossible, to identify anonymous online attackers, making redress rare. But from a more theoretical standpoint, it is difficult to replace, with currency or any other kind of “old” property, the reputational property they have lost.

This leads me yet again to more questions.

What would you do differently in your day to day lives online if there were a legally recognized reputation economy?

What sort of value are you creating or destroying every day?

How will these things (some say predictable eventualities) change the way we see virtual worlds where arguably your identity is more pervasive as it is presented in the context of activity, discussions, etc?

Furthermore, this is becomes even more complex and compelling when you think about the pursuit of interoperability in virtual worlds, and Linden Lab's pursuit of Identity Verification.

These are interesting things to think about for me and I'd love to hear your perspectives.

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