Thursday, February 11, 2010

How anonymity in Second Life works against a positive reputation for artistic practice in virtual spaces

Anonymity as the enemy of artist branding: "Who is this guy again?"

I don't like to think of the arts as a product. I blanche when marketing folks talk about the importance of "branding" to a roomful of arts managers and artists. Afterall we like to think that we are in the business of providing transformative experiences and not just a product. We hope that the audience will reward the quality of the art and not the brand name.

But in our busy world, we want to easily find what we like and trust, and that includes the artists and arts organizations that fit our interests and consistently deliver experiences that enrich our lives.

In Second Life, performing artists who wish to promote their art in the virtual world are forced to create new identities rather than import their known real world brand. Then they have to bridge the gap the second time to take their inworld followers out to sites to market CD's or downloadable files. Some have decided to market themselves in SL separately, giving up on trying to make the links. This means doubling up on social networking identities, broadcasts and sites. Why does it have to be this hard? Cannot people be given the choice to use real identities in SL?

Anonymity and the credibility of arts in virtual spaces: "Oops, he's not really that guy"

The credibility of SL arts is compromised every time someone fakes their performance or identity. It also places SL presenters in a quandry on the few occasions where they come across an obvious forgery. They have no mandate to police SL and no incentive to get into a disagreement.

One time this season I was asked to present a performer that had a long record in Second Life. From the online samples and program he planned, I scheduled a performance, and so did one of my closest colleagues on her series. The forged performance was easy to detect even by an untrained ear. The pianos used on the various spliced tapes and live streamed bits varied from upright to grand to electronic. An awkward beginning with voice over (live streamed) was suddenly awkwardly replaced with virtuosic performance with a totally different sound colour and spatial acoustic.

I sat in silence unable to affirm this forgery with applause or comment and simply vowed to never invite the entity to the series again and to quietly alert colleagues. As a volunteer who works long hours to present value-added content in Second Life, I didn't feel my interests or the audience's interests were served by getting into some likely contentious expose of this isolated individual's shenanigans. However I couldn't help thinking that if performers used real identities customarily, this guy would not/could not have so easily misrepresented himself.

Anonymity and the safety and security of artists: "I'm crazy about that guy"

The last issue regarding anonymity relates to the behavior of some unbalanced audience members that poison the climate for performers out of resentment, obsessive fan behaviour or other personal problem.

This week we may have lost one of SL's rising stars due to cyberstalking. The artist in question is taking time out from SL and thinking about whether the many pluses outweigh the negatives and danger from a crazy who has invaded their life and privacy. What do you do when someone whose true identity you don't know begins to post things about you on the internet, follows you to your social networking pages and reveals they have contact information for your loved ones? "Creeped out" doesn't begin to express it. While the behaviours might violate LL's TOS or even be illegal if threats or blackmail is explicit, it is all new terrain, legalities aren't clear, and why should an artist bother? It is so much easier to delete the profile, exit SL, and get on with their life.

Once again the culture of anonymity -- while it might be ideal for roleplayers or those seeking to experiment with identity in SL -- is often a huge liability in the marketing of artists, the credibility of the arts in virtual reality and the safety and security of artists. Shouldn't anonymity be a choice and a privilege with some limits for the community good? I believe that those using anonymity to misrepresent themselves and/or to cause harm should lose their right to hide behind avatar names. I have wondered whether the simple device of displaying IP addresses for all avatars would dissuade people from disreputable and illegal acts. Those having no wish to be anonymous should be able to choose to use their own names, verifying identity by the same means that age verification takes place.