Identity versus Reputation: Wandering and Wondering in Virtual Spaces

x-ray visionThere is something about 3D spaces that seems to make us think harder about virtual identity.  It usually comes in the form of the question: “How do you know who is really behind the avatar?”

It is almost always the first question that comes up at every presentation or conference I’ve participated in where virtual spaces are mentioned.

It is cited as one of the “big three” issues of doing business in virtual places.

The identity question has all kinds of insecurities behind it. Just who is the puppeteer hidden behind this little mass of bits and bytes displayed on my computer screen?”  Can I trust this person?  Are they who they say they are?  Are they really representing what they say they represent?  Can I do business with someone I can’t see?

Yet today we wander almost without thought through hundreds of 2D virtual places every day dressed in our virtual identities, dealing with other virtual identities, and leaving virtual breadcrumbs along our path of virtual footprints.

In business we wouldn’t function without our virtual email identity, and we’re professionally “hooking up” with others via Linkedin or Xing identities.  We buy products from web sites although we’ve never met the people behind it nor have we walked into their RL store.  We create, affiliate and transact within virtual identities hundreds of millions of times per day.

What allows us to do so comfortably is reputation.

Identity is a set of facts: name, location, employment, position, age, gender.  To the marketer it may be merely certain online behaviors.  Identity in the real world is carried with us from context to context – the office meeting, the cocktail party or the football field.  We “are” those set of facts.

But reputation is contextual.  On the sports field you may be the great coach.  But in the office meeting you are the one who is always late; at the cocktail party you “work the room.”  The fact you are a winning sports coach is unlikely to automatically earn you respect as an expert at a wine tasting. We don’t carry a “good” reputation into all the different areas of our lives.  We earn reputations within particular contexts.

In business at the moment of “transaction” (however it is defined) what we really need to know and care about is reputation.

So, we’ve created reputation devices like credit scores or D&B ratings; a domain name system or eBay ratings.  It is a measure of reputation allowing us an assessment of risk in doing business with someone.

Identity online is more easily created, abandoned or shielded than in real life.  But virtuosity is making even that easier.

Reputation is of course tied to an identity. They are two sides of the same coin.

Reputation however is earned over time.  Identity without reputation is nearly meaningless.

As we delve deeper and wider into virtual spaces, both our identities and reputations are scattered across them.

Philip Rosedale CEO of Linden Lab told the Guardian last week that they are building the technology to allow a Second Life avatar identity to wander out across the web.  He said:

“We are building the backend to support that. We believe the concept of identity through your avatar will span the web. We are going to seek to enable that. Technology-wise, it’s only about 18 months away. I do think we will see some interconnected virtual worlds…

But reputation must come right along with identity.

Tools such as OpenID and ClaimID are the beginnings of managing our virtuosity across online spaces.  OpenID allows us to carry our identity from one virtual place to another for convenience, while ClaimID gives us a tool to pool and manage our various reputations.

Peter Pan ShadowIn thinking about the identity/reputation challenge for today’s communicators I can’t help but conjure up for us an image from the story of Peter Pan: Wendy attaching Peter’s lost shadow before they fly off to Neverland.

Photo credit:  Dedric Mauriac, Marianne McCann

Originally published at my blog, Business Communicators of Second Life,  2007.

 

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