Thursday, September 17, 2009

Alt Country

The other day I had an unusual private chat with someone I've been casually acquainted with in Second Life for the better part of a year. With little preamble—but not in an accusatory way—this person said s/he thought I was the alt account of another well-known trivia player because we both have used an I-guess-uncommon phrase in public chat.

A gaggle of trivia players at a recent Metal Shop game. Spot any alts?

On one hand I was kind of flattered, because this other player is someone I respect who wipes the floor with me, and I was thrilled to be considered remotely in the same league of triviosity.

On the other hand, I was mortified.

What's an Alt?

In Second Life, everyone has an avatar with a unique name, and only a single avatar can be associated with a particular account. However, plenty of folks have multiple Second Life accounts—which is easy to do, since basic accounts are free and take only a few minutes to set up. So far as I know, the use of alts is not specifically endorsed by Linden Lab, but nor is it explicitly prohibited and alts are widely acknowledged as a common practice in Second Life. While the Lindens might potentially frown on a user with hundreds of alt accounts, a small number of alts doesn't seem to get anybody in trouble.

Although Linden Labs can certainly determine if some accounts are used by the same person (identical billing info would be a solid indicator, inferences can be made if accounts always log in from the same IPs or MAC addresses, etc.) it shouldn't be difficult for a Second Life user to disguise their use of alt accounts, and there is no direct way for residents to determine if two accounts are driven by the same flesh-and-blood person. A user who can double-log into Second Life can have their alt can stand right next to the primary account avatar, and for all intents and purposes, they come across as two separate people. In a nutshell, the use of alt accounts raises a number of issues of identity and trust, both of which are hugely important commodities in a virtual world.

Alternate Views

As usual, I'm late to the party on this topic: Lette Ponnier wrote a thoughtful piece on alts a few months ago, and Luce Portland has recently opened a new discussion about alts. I'd recommend reading those posts for a broader perspective, particularly among my SL "peers." I have no idea to what degree we're representative of SL in general, but they're one of my few yardsticks for SL social norms and I respect both them and their opinions.

Instead, this post represents purely my own opinions about the use of alts in Second Life. I haven't discussed this with anybody, and that's probably just as well because I'm sure I'm going to piss some people off.

No, Tell Me What You Really Think

Bottom line, I think alts completely suck. Moreover, alts are sucktastic suckholes of sucky suckosity.

And, yes, I realize I'm saying this when (likely) the vast majority of people I know in Second Life—including many of my friends—have and use alts. So…string me up, pillory me, draw and quarter me, hit me with your avatar deformers. I'll still say it loud and proud: alts suck. Readers who want to proceed right to the angry should just skip ahead and post their comments. Nothing I say after this will matter.

But here it is: In my opinion, the use of alt accounts in Second Life derives in part from the identity-agnostic nature of many online services, and in parts from huge, glaring shortcomings in the Second Life client, service, and platform. But what sucks most about Second Life's lifestyle of alts is that anyone's mere presence may be violating basic social norms most people take for granted in their everyday real lives. Alts shatter the "immersive" promise of a virtual world and create a milieu of doubt, suspicion, miscommunication, and mistrust. Just as one should not take as gospel anything that might be published on a Web page, one cannot trust one's perceptions that an avatar in Second Life is anything approaching who or what he, she, or it appears or claims to be.

And I think that's a f-ing shame.

Yeah, I know!

Yes, I have caveats. First, I'm not saying people who use alts suck; however, my personal opinion is that it's a tremendous pity alts exist at all. Second, I completely understand that there are a myriad responsible and appropriate uses of alt accounts in Second Life. However, I contend most—perhaps all—those above-board uses of alts merely work around limitations in the Second Life world, client, and/or platform. Third, I heartily acknowledge that while there are many deceptive, duplicitous, and even criminal ways to use alts, use of an alt does not automatically imply or involve any sort of duplicity or violation of trust—it all depends on what the account holders actually do.

But I'm not taking it back: alts totally suck.

It's The Internet—Everything Is Anonymous!

I've heard (many) people say the ability to create anonymous alt accounts willy-nilly is just the fundamental nature of the online world—on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog, and an avatar shouldn't be considered any more concrete than a "From" address in an email or the "reliable source" cited in some fanboy blog. The meme goes that the relative trustworthiness of a Second Life avatar should be based on the community's assessment of his/her/its actions and behavior—effectively, their virtual whuffie—rather than tied to "meatspace" or the real life details of the typist behind the avatar.

On one hand, I agree wholeheartedly. Someone famous once said that people should not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, and I would certainly prefer people treated me based on my actions and my words rather than my virtual appearance. I try to take avatars as they come, and treat them with respect until they prove they don't deserve it.

But on the other hand, I call total bullshit on the "it has to be this way" thought. According to Linden Lab, most active avatars have identity information associated with them. Further, there is no technical reason anything on the Internet has to be anonymous and divorced from "meatspace"—tell that to a bank! Linden Lab has chose to let anyone create an account in Second Life without proof of identity, to enable users to create multiple accounts with the same identity information, and not to create or enable resident development of any tools which assist in associating avatars with individuals in the real world.

Some reasons for the Linden's business decisions are blindingly obvious—encouraging adoption of the platform and preventing abuses of resident privacy, for instance—but these are business decisions, not technical decisions. One far-reaching ramification is that users can create accounts without assuming any responsibility for actions using those accounts. This completely undercuts any notion of a social meritocracy or social capital in Second Life—leaving aside the many failure points with the "wisdom of crowds," whuffie only works if it can go up and down. In Second Life, alts let people escape downsides of actions others would find objectionable and commit those actions anonymously and with impunity.

But I Only Use My Alt for Good!

Why do the Lindens want alts? One reason alts are so common is that are a million legitimate, above-board, and even necessary uses for them. A great example is the separation of roles, whether real-world or in-world. An acquaintance of mine got his primary Second Life account through the educational institution where he works, and later set up an alt to perform live music in Second Life. There's nothing secret going on there, but he doesn't feel it would be appropriate for him to perform music while wearing the "uniform"—or in this case, the avatar—of his employer. And he's right. Most—perhaps all—Lindens have alts too; some pre-date a particular Linden's being hired by Linden Lab, but some don't.

Another example is one I've butted my virtual head against repeatedly: content creation, building, and script development. If I create an object that needs to behave differently for its owner than for anybody else, I can only test the functionality keyed to the owner since, well, I own it! I can't trigger the non-owner functionality on my own: I have to lasso a friend to help me out. Sometimes, if the non-owner functionality is complicated, this takes quite a lot of my friends' time: it would be far simpler if I could just log in another account and have two avatars—one owner, one non-owner—poking and prodding the object until I get it right. The same issues apply to creating objects or scripts that need to deal with group memberships, privileges to any particular parcel or object, or various avatar permissions. Can you imagine trying to develop and test things like rides or games that have to support groups of avatars?

(If you haven't guessed, this is the issue that is likely to drive me to create an alt account.)

I would argue the use of alts in cases like these represent workarounds to deficiencies in the Second Life platform. There's no reason the Lindens couldn't build a "Joe User" mode into the building tools so I could test scripts and objects from the perspective of a non-owner. Such functionality could be expanded to include simulating group memberships and roles, as well as other permissions. Not simple, but not rocket science either.

Similarly, there's no reason the Lindens couldn't build role and privacy management capabilities into the Second Life viewer—and I really wish they would. Roles could let avatars manage objects, property, communications, and other things the way real life people switch between employers or "wear different hats". Maybe one minute I'm wearing my trivia maven hat, and all my trivia friends can see me. Another minute I'm wearing my trivia host hat and I'm set up only to deal with folks at the event. But an hour later I'm in scripter mode and my clients (or even just one client) can ping me, I can manipulate group objects, but everyone outside that particular project gets a polite "I'm working now" message. Maybe sometimes I'm ambling around and just want to be a social butterfly and anyone can ping me. Point being: I'd love to be able to manage contacts, objects, and communication in SL by role, just like I screen my calls and refrain from checking personal email when I'm, I dunno, being paid to do something else. But in Second Life, I can't do that: I only have three states: fully present, Away, and Busy.

I would also like improved privacy features in Second Life—there are times I'd be perfectly happy to share my in-world location and activity information with all my friends, or even the entire SL world: when I'm hosting a trivia game, when I'm out on one of my jaunts to explore random sims, or when I'm skidoodling between music performances. Other times, no one needs to know I'm online or what I'm doing, like when I'm deep in the guts of a building project, helping folks organize an event, or just deep in conversation with someone. I'm sure there are a myriad other reasons people might want some privacy in SL.

I know a ton of people who use alts for exactly these role and privacy management purposes: their primary avatar is well-known, has a lot of responsibilities, performs, or just a lot to do. If these people want to attend a concert, play a game, or even just chat with a friend in peace they have to log into SL in cognito. It's utterly stupid, but that's the way it is.

Giving avatars tools to manage disparate groups of friends, roles, colleagues, property, co-workers, visibility, accessibility, and more is all doable. I'm not saying it'd be easy, but it is well within the realm of technical possibility. The Lindens just haven't done it. I also have little doubt the easy availability and widespread use of alt accounts as workarounds for these problems means solutions will not be forthcoming soon. In a like vein, other legitimate uses—such as needing to be in two places at once—will be probably dustbinned for the foreseeable future because of the easy availability of alts.

Several other uses of alts are tougher to solve: bots and interactive agents, "live" models in stores, musicians in backup bands, and more. I haven't had occasion to put too much thought into these, but I might posit that the Lindens could create a type of "non-interactive" account that could be openly "owned" by a primary avatar or group, and that these types of accounts would somehow be treated distinctly in the SL clients. These uses seem to be clearly separate from "real people."

Perfidy, Thy Name Is Avatar

But, as we all know, people also use alts as a way of masking their identity in Second Life. Some of these people are griefers, who just want to log in and wreak havoc for "lulz" until the Lindens get involved and suspend their accounts. Others use alts as a way to clandestinely monitor and interact with their friends, intimates, and others in Second Life without being recognized for who they "really" are.

Second Life is supposed to be "your world, your imagination," and for some people that means completely re-instantiating themselves. My avatar is analogous to my real life self—I suppose I lack imagination—but some of my best friends in Second Life parade arounds as animals, impossibly tall scarecrows, nekomata, glamour babes, Conan-types, stick figures, sketches, robots, and much more. Many people change form; some people change genders; some do it from moment to moment like putting on a new set of clothes.

But Second Life is also supposed to be an immersive virtual world that takes many of its cues from users' reality. Avatars are (by default) human and gendered. Although people can fly, Second Life has ground to walk on and a horizon so users can orient themselves, further, the vast majority of all in-world building and content emulates real life. We might not have poseballs out here in the real world, but we sure have homes, stores, malls, benches, trees, rocks, chairs, roads, concert halls, gardens, fields, and more. The vast majority of Second Life relies on users recognizing elements based on real life, and using that real-world knowledge to get around the virtual world.

As humans, a big chunk of our brain is wired around recognizing people, and another big part is wrapped around social customs involving appearance, dress, and behavior. Second Life is compelling in part because it taps to these predilections, encouraging users to express themselves by creating a unique recognizable avatar of their very own, moulding everything from height and spare tires to "breast buoyancy" and facial features. And, of course, one of the pillars of the Second Life economy is clothing and other avatar accessories, enabling users to craft their appearance and identity to a dizzying degree. Most people spend the majority of their time in Second Life crafting and promoting their individual identity, and our social brains latch onto these cues in the same way we recognize doors, chairs, windows, and trees in-world—in fact, we probably respond more strongly to these social cues than anything else.

One of the central social norms of human society is that individuals are unique. Sure, over the aeons humans have gotten good at clumping people into groups of "us" and "not us"—the ramifications of which are a whole 'nother discussion—but we all understand that while individuals change over time, they are persistent and unique unto themselves. Identity is one of the absolute pillars of all human societies, and our reliance on it is one reason tales of ghostly or demonic possession scare us: a body controlled by another consciousness—and the fear of not being in control of our own bodies—is one of those fundamental tropes that probably goes back as far as the origins of language.

And this is the fundamental reason why alts suck. Manipulating shape and appearance is a whole different thing than manipulating identity, and that's what alts let people do. In this way, the presence of alts in Second Life absolutely violates expectations of an immersive world based on real life, destroying the foundation of every person-to-person interaction, whether it be indirect, social, sexual, or merely commercial. In a world where anyone could literally be anyone else, the only rule to live by is the X-Files axiom: Trust No One.

And, yes, it pisses me off. Because Second Life doesn't have to be like this.


  1. Lou, since you've been so aggressively honest here, I'll take my cue from you. I find this post incredibly disappointing and more than a little naive. Mostly for your lack of imagination. My expectations of SL are not that it be an immersive world based on real life, but that it be an immersive world based on a world full of possibilities, content AND identity that has the potential to go beyond real life. Your continued insistence on comparing SL to RL baffles me. Yes, I recognize the basics of human communication -- new users do need RL things to relate to in order to orient themselves. But being able to release yourself from the shackles of purely RL virtual representations is an important step in virtual maturity. Breaking out of that is where exciting things are happening in art, in medical health (the disabled in SL is a fascinating subject), in online education, etc.

    Also, why do you assume that trust is necessary? I don't trust you. I don't ask you to trust me. I assume that you don't, actually. This is not real life, the same rules do not -- and should not! -- apply. I can enjoy myself, have intelligent and engaging interactions with all sorts of people from around the world without having to reveal anything about my real life identity, and, as someone who has experienced significant identity theft as a result of online relationships, that's exactly the way I want it. My SL is no less rich simply because I try to keep RL out of it.

    My SL is also undiminished by the presence of alts. The only time alts bother me is when they are used to intentionally and maliciously deceive. Otherwise, for many of the reasons you've touched on above, they are awesome. Sorry, my alt does not suck simply because my alt is. That's just ridiculous.

  2. It's Second Life not real life, Second Life!

  3. As one guilty of a silly drama in the past, I'm so ashamed that I'm now living totally as an alt. I cannot stand that the object of my affliction might recognize me (and probably does anyway.)

    Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.

    That's why I alt.

    So, you're correct. I expect you to be pissed off by my incomprehensively rude behaviour. But you treat me well anyway. Thanks.

  4. Lashes taken, Mako. Intellectually, I understand and even agree with much of what you're saying. But you make important points I simply don't feel, in my heart, to be true for me. (Well, I do agree with the part about my lacking imagination.) I readily cede to your experience…but I guess "virtual maturity" is a clique like the "cool kids" I won't be joining.

    I compare SL to real life because I have nothing else to compare it to. For me, SL only exists in relation to real life.

    I don't assume trust is necessary to Second Life, and did not say so. "I don't trust you. I don't ask you to trust me. I assume that you don't, actually." Sadly, that's kinda my whole point.

    I'm not a gamer. I'm not a movie-and-media girl. I'm not prone to wild flights of fancy. I don't believe I am a cybernetic organism. I don't have dreams about morphing into, I don't know, a 20m tall mecha so I can do battle with, uh, things and stuff. As much as I go "ooh pretty!" (or, "how gloriously icky!" or whatever) at a lot of the content in Second Life—even take snapshots and ruminate about it—I freely admit (and have repeatedly admitted) I don't really get the "why" of it. See "lack of imagination," above, I suppose.

    The bottom line is probably that I'm not cut out for this.

  5. I don't use alts myself, and I hardly ever Google in trivia. Because I can do nothing about others using alts and Googling, I'm not going to worry about it, nor am I going to be critical of others who choose to alt or Google.

    What I would like to know is whose alt the person thought you were, and what the phrase was!

  6. When alts are used to deceive, I totally see your point. But as you said, they can be useful too. Mine I made mostly just for fun, trying to see what silly names we could come up with one day. And he's come in handy so a friend could use him too. And anyone who's been to Inferno during trader knows I can't keep them straight anyway. lol. I'm just me, regardless of whether I'm using an alt or not- I don't try to hide it or act any different, and the first time I say "spit" would give it away anyway. And there's not a thing wrong with this post- just a well expressed opinion.

  7. I agree with most of your rant, I too suffer from massive altanoia in SL. I believe 90% of users are alts, and in many cases I have the same person on my friends list 3-4 times unbeknownst to me. I only am sure of a handful of people who I can link to a real name through their blogs/linkedin/etc - and yes maybe they are alts of those bodies :( . I think the builder testing is one case where you do need separate alts. Using alts for RP in RP areas seems alright, but when a person I know starts hanging around amongst friends as a new person just for a larf I find it irritating and generally I lose what little trust I had in that anonymous SL aquaintance. The irony is the alts and anonymity allow many people to be more open and um able to discover things that they probably normally wouldn't be able to delve into. But just "hanging" on SL with people is not a place to toy with others. Using alts to play tricks , do pseudo-studies or just cheat on your SL girlfriend is detestable.

    I would prefer SL used real names on accounts.

    I found this piece to be insightful:

  8. All of a sudden everyone has "Alt Fever". Some of us are admitting we have them, some are even challenging others to find them.

    Yes, I have an alt. I have my own reasons for having 2 avatars, and I consider them good reasons, and the rationale behind that choice was not one taken lightly nor is it anybody else's damn business either.

    The problem I have here is when the discussion takes on a harshly contrasted "all good" or "all bad" character. Can you spot the alts in this image? How well do you really know that avatar? Have you ever seen these two avatars together at the same time? So what's next - should we form a a committee and begin asking people "Are you now or have you ever been an Alt?"

  9. JoshuaStephen SchismFri Sep 18, 05:12:00 AM PDT

    How dare you Lou? This was not very altruistic of you.

    (JoshuaStephen Schism has a good, long laugh).

    The only reason someone should be wary of alts is if they have enemies, like I do. I'm sure my very ex vik has only pretended to disappear from the face of second life. I'm sure she's alting around me. It's the reason why I've been very hesitant to befriend any of the new girls. I'll say hi to anyone, but I think Devin and Cinna are the only two new people in the past 5 or 6 months who I've let myself get to know, and I needed to see a lot of real life proof from one of them first.

    At the same time, if I stopped worrying about it and just enjoyed my second life I'd have much more fun. A bunch of my friends know about my favorite alt, a monkey. They treat me differently as him. One friend always wants to cuddle him, others toss monkey insults at me. I'm not Josh, I'm hop. It's fun.

    The world will never be as you wish it to be, real life or second life. But nobody ever got what they wanted by telling the mass majority of people they were wrong for the ultimately harmless choice they made. Just ask Kanye West.

  10. I had to sleep on this and spent much of the night pondering my response. Lou, I deeply admire your candidness in this post. It takes some balls to lay it all out there and talk about stuff like this. It takes even more to cross the neutrality threshold and actually present your own opinion on the matter. I think that Mako's criticism regarding your naivety and lack of imagination is unnecessarily harsh. While I do disagree with some of what you said, I think it is also naive to label such a carefully written and eloquent post in such a way. The beauty of the blog is that it is yours, Lou. Not ours. And considering that you consistently publish commentary that is intelligent, clever and entertaining, I wouldn't insult you by guessing that any less than a fuckload of thought went into this post in particular.

    /me steps down from her soapbox. Ok, now on to my commentary on the matter. While I agree that the existence of alts does create a certain suckiness in some arenas, I must say that an alt does have its place. For me, I think the one legitimate justification I might have (other than nerdy things like multi-trivving) would be if I was representing my RL self to RL peers. I started SL because my professor boss paid me in my capacities as his research assistant to get a feel for SL to better assist his research regarding the IP issues created in virtual worlds (of which there are a great many). If I had to ever introduce myself academically, I don't want to have to censor myself as Luce based on such a prospect. The legal field isn't one where lawyers are encouraged to be snarky and get naked at truth or dare trivias. Moreover, the existence of my blog and my experiences with avie-raping venus flytraps aren't the kind of things I'd like to share with future clients and/or superiors. So there's my one excuse for a Luce alt that I would actually feel justified in using.

    Mako's point about trust bothers me- "I don't trust you. I don't ask you to trust me. I assume that you don't, actually." This saddens me, but I think/hope that differing definitions of trust may resolve this. I undoubtedly have a sense of trust with my friends within the trivia community, that includes you, Lou, and even you Mako. And yes I mean friends, and not just people who I have in the more arbitrary sense "friended" on SL, I mean friend in the sense that we see each other often, we enjoy our time together, and share a common activity in which we exchange witty banter and have some good ol' fashioned fun. Trust doesn't mean I'm going to hand you my social security number and twiddle my thumbs hoping you won't ruin my life. The trust we create in a virtual world where our true identities remain anonymous manifests itself even in the fact that we all calmly and respectfully can discuss intelligent matters, on OH I dunno, something like this blog. Trust isn't about being open about your RL, trust is about honesty with how you communicate with others and how you represent yourself - whoever that may be - in a way that is free of maliciousness and deception. (Someone wanna help me out here? I feel like there is more to be said in defining the kind of trust fostered in an environment of anonymity).

    I think that the freedom to create an alt is a worthwhile and appreciated aspect of our second living. Much like so many aspects of RL that piss me off, the existence of such freedoms are a necessary evil that I just have to endure. There are SL users who, like you, see SL as a reflection of their RL. And then there are the great many others who use SL as a new life, with the potential to be as unrealistic as their imaginations (and the imaginations of our fellow SL residents) can manage.

    I think that is all I have to say for now, sorry its so long. And Lou - any "friends" lost due to this post, so not worth it.

  11. Chadd, in response to the link you shared, I agree with this comment left on that post:
    "I agree with the basics of what you're saying, but I think you're putting it too strongly and too absolutely. There are people who keep their RL information very very close to the chest, but still manage to build up lots of trust inworld. And there are people for whom compartmentalized identities are very real and very important. So while I respect and believe what you're saying about how the world is for you, statements like "Trust Trumps Anonymity" and "Compartmentalized Identity is a Myth" are too easy to read as what's true for you must be true for everyone. And I don't think that's true."

    I think that comment could easily apply to this post. It's important to realize and respect that people want to and need to use SL in ways that may be different from how you use it. Make SL what you want of it and let others do the same.

  12. Luce, I stand by my comment and am somewhat baffled by yours. Not once did I suggest that the post was not well written. I did not suggest that Lou has no balls, or that, as you so eloquently put it, nothing less than "a fuckload" of thought went into her post. I'd argue that I didn't even insult her. I disagreed, as is my right, and made some valid points.
    /me shrugs.

    Your ongoing effort to paint me as a raging asshole aside, you do make an excellent point about varying definitions of trust in an anonymous environment. Lette's response has good insight on this as well (I'm assuming she'll have posted a link to it by the time this comment gets approved).

  13. Two minor administrative notes:

    1) Please direct comment vitriol towards me, not each other. I have now rejected two comments attacking other posters and invited them to restate their points without attacking other commenters. Say what you want about me here, but I will not offer a forum for a internecine flaming.

    2) I am working to get a link to Lette's response posted; we're having a technical gaffe with the live link.

  14. What can I say? I can be a bit long-winded. You can see my response here:

    Here's a teaser:

    I can't be angry at your post any more than I can be angry at my evangelical Christian cousins who were raised to believe that my lovestyle is wrong and sinful and who, at age 13, thought the idea of me roller skating hand-in-hand with a boy of another race was unthinkably ludicrous. Anger in that case is simply waste of energy, since my relatives' perspective is based on a set of beliefs they take as "true" that I see as mythology.

  15. Lette! I am shocked and disappointed to hear that you were roller skating hand-in-hand with a boy of another race as a teenager. If you were my daughter you would have got a right telling off.

    If one of you falls over whilst you are holding hands the other one is dragged down too. The risks of serious injury are in this type of fall are much greater than if you alone are tripping up. Never hold hands whilst roller or ice skating!

  16. Lou...I think this is a great post and an interesting topic. I think dismissing what anyone writes on their Blog as "ridiculous" is unnecessary and rude. If I deem something as ridiculous I move on, why waste my time on ridiculousness?

    Personally I don't care if people have ALTS or not. If I don't know an "SL friend" is present because he or she is there as an ALT, then my SL friend is not there. Someone else is. I will interact with that entity, if I even interact with them at all, as I deem applicable.

    Of course, I wholeheartedly agree with you and others that using an ALT in order to deceive or spy on friends, or even enemies, is appalling and frankly sad.

  17. I have 2 alts. I admit it, and I don't think Lou is at all wrong in her opinions. Why? Because we all have different opinions on things, and we are all allowed to air them. Wtg Lou for having the guts to be - well - Lou!

    My first alt was actually my first account. I joined SL without really knowing what it was and I just sort of blustered along. I was never really happy with the character or appearance, but it wasn't until I created an alt that I found what I see as my true self in SL. So I pretty much ditched the first one, and I now play as Cully. My other alt is a guy. I created him purely and simply because I got fed up with being hit on by guys everywhere I went! So I created a boy to blend in to the background and it sure worked.

    I do log these on occasionally, but you won't find them standing next to you at a trivia game, or griefing people. One person does know who they are, but they mainly just troll around not interacting with people. Why? Because of points raised by other people - anonymity. I host at different places, I also manage the mall and sometimes it's nice to be able to switch off and just have some SL time to me. And yes Lou, it would be nice if we could have a way of switching off to other people. Not that we want to be rude to them of course, but we all have RL times when we won't answer the phone, so why not be able to do it here.

    I do find it sad that some people create alts simply for griefing, or for sitting around spending endless hours camping. I once knew someone who would have 3-4 alts camping in different places at the same time! Great use of SL time - NOT!

    I try to keep my SL self as close to my RL self as possible. I really am a little person with a big mouth, and I do have limitations on what I will and won't do in SL which are mainly based around what I will and won't do in RL. You won't find me at strip trivia for example (shocker - shoot me!) because I don't feel comfortable with my own nudity in RL, so it transfers to my SL self. Does this make me unimaginative? Who cares - it makes me 'me'.

    My alts are not there to deceive, and they only appear on the friends list of Mael and Lotus (she knew my first account), and they both know that that person is me - so no deception there. I think I understand where Lou is coming from with the 'mistrust'. If you have someone you consider to be a close SL friend on your list, and then find out that another friend is actually them, then you would have to question how close that friendship was that they didnt tell you at the time.

    Alts have a place as long as they're not used to deceive or grief, then life and let live. Some people don't like them - then so what. Now then - on to the real important stuff - Luce!!! Where's your alt!

  18. Hey, Lou. Sorry this is late, I'm a bit behind on my blog reading. I do like your blog, love thinking about things sometimes.

    So, I read your post, couple of times actually, and all the comments. Impressed by the detail in your piece, the analysis and fisking of the various arguments that people have for using alts, the reasoning about why you don't feel they're necessary. Impressed that you were willing to stick your neck out on a subject that does raise some people's tempers.

    And I get that you think alts are so horrible that they're worth 4 'suck's in one sentence.

    What I don't get is why. Why you think that they completely, totally, sucktastically suck. I tried to go back, read it again, understand the why. When I distilled the 'why' bits, it seemed to me that it boiled down to: "somebody might be pretending to be something that they're not".

    If I got that wrong, I'm sorry. But I didn't really see much else. There was a mention of violating basic social norms, but the only norm I saw mentioned was that identity is unique, and therefore pretending to be something that you're not causes the end of Western civilization, er, sorry, destroys 'the foundation of every person-to-person interaction, whether it be indirect, social, sexual, or merely commercial'.

    It just all seems, well, a bit much. I do respect you, from what little I know of you (mostly your writing and your hosting), and I like the reasoned discourse. But... well, pretending isn't all that horrible. I believe that most everyone has in their life pretended to be older (especially when you were 19), or more accomplished, or something, sometimes you got away with it and sometimes you get called, and yet life goes on.

    In this regard, SL isn't a lot different than RL. In RL, when I get a new boss, she says that her door is always open and she wants honest feedback, but what if she's just pretending and will throw me under the bus the first time it's convenient? Or I just met a new exciting person at the club and he says he's not seeing anyone, but what if he's just pretending and that wedding ring is in his glove compartment? In SL, I just met WandaWonderful and she's a super-fun grad student but what if she's just pretending and sometimes comes out to play as DebbieDominatrix or in RL she's 50 or married or wheelchair-bound or usually called Fred? What if? Sure, could happen. Any of them. Does happen, and worse things, too. Doesn't mean that everything's going to fall apart. There are lots worse things in the world than somebody pretending a little.

  19. I wanted to state *for the record* that I posted the comment attributed to "Anonymous" dated Fri Sep 18 @ 05:45:00 PM PDT.

    It was a technical burp - I wasn't trying to hide my SL identity. As always I always do, I stand behind what I wrote.

  20. I was not going to post again in response to an anonymous comment, but since Hilda has claimed it...

    Sorry, Hilda, but I think stating that "alts are sucktastic suckholes of sucky suckosity" in such vehement earnest is a bit rude to begin with. And I responded precisely because I don't think Lou herself is ridiculous -- I would never "move on" from a chance to converse (or cheerfully butt heads) with Lou, she's worth discussing and debating with. I agree with Lette that there are things being misunderstood about the very nature of SL in this post and, yes, I think some of the things that Lou has said here are ridiculous. So? That doesn't mean I dismiss Lou herself. My alt and I are still quite happily on her friends list, which is more than I can say for some who have reacted to this post. In this case, to have said nothing to a friend -- and to one who enjoys chewing on and discussing SL as much as I do -- would have been irresponsible. I value honest opinions from my friends, not congratulatory bullshit for coherent expression (something I expect from them anyway). Yes, her post is thoughtful and nicely written, but that doesn't exempt it from responses that don't support her stance on this issue.

    Meanwhile, well said, Kiri! I'm hoping Lou responds to your comment.

  21. Kiri—

    The four-sucks-in-a-sentence were intended as a way to inject a little self-ridicule and humor, not as a yardstick of antipathy.

    In a nutshell, the "why" is:

    - In my opinion, the pervasiveness and ease of creating alts makes social capital deeply difficult to impossible in SL. No matter what we do, how we conduct ourselves, what we bring to a community, etc., etc., there will always be a legitimate question whether we're acting in good faith. Pretending is fine—I have no illusions Chadd is really a duck—and I'm not proselytizing people should model their avatars on their real life appearance or behaviors. (I do it because—as has been plainly established—I have no imagination.) However, the ease of creating and abandoning alts means we don't have to be accountable for anything we do. Think Lou is a nutcase? Make an alt, tell her off, shoot her with prim feces, hell, even engage in abuse-reportable griefing! What's the downside? It's even more fun if you can do it while your primary—or the alt she knows, whatever—smiles to her face. Get a larf! Come on, everyone else is doing it and it's so much fun!

    - In my opinion, the pervasiveness and ease of creating alts has inhibited Linden Lab from developing Second Life what I would consider obvious, useful ways. To a significant degree, they've let alts fill in around major gaps in the platform. And let's face it: after six years, they aren't going to change it. I think it's a pity, because SL, it's tools, and capabilities tools could be tremendously better and more useful than they are…and I'm not talking about spiffier graphics.

  22. Lou,

    Thanks for taking the time to expand on the 'why' - as always, well written. I hope we can agree to disagree on your thesis, as it just doesn't seem that way to me.

    I do have a social network in SL, and the social capital just doesn't seem that hard to me. I have acquaintances, friends, some very close friends, people I dislike to varying degrees, two black-hearted enemies, and one person to whom I gave up my heart in that world, who holds and protects it and keeps me safe. So... I see that all the time, there, friends and family and spats and support. The people I like to hang with understand that there's a real person behind the fancy cartoon, and they establish real relationships with those real people.

    Alts make it easy for the jerks to be jerky, no argument. I can make a case, however, that in SL it's often easier to identify the jerks. In my experience, the jerks feel less constrained to follow social norms, and their jerkiness explodes openly - making it easier to note them and stay the hell away from them. The kinds of people who would do the awful things you said? Most likely they'll be horrible and unrepentant in their primary AV as well, sooner rather than later.

    Meh, I could go on forever. Which would just be boring. Kiri likes to be a lot of things, but boring isn't one of them. So, I'll just say thanks for the stimulating post, and I hope you'll still speak to me when next I see you at a trivia game. :)

  23. Oh no! Mako called me out!

    Surprise! I disagree with you Mako. Shocking, I know.

    The main difference, in my opinion, is that Lou wasn't directing her suckosity claims at anyone specific - you however specifically said her opinion was *ridiculous*.

    Not only "ridiculous", but you also said her post was "disappointing", "naive", "lacking imagination" and - this one actually made me laugh - that because of her opinions she lacked "virtual maturity". Did I somehow misunderstand and you meant those terms in a complimentary sense?

    And really Mako, "virtual immaturity"? Come on...:)I'm sorry if I sound disrespectful, that is truely not my intention - it just strikes me as taking this way too seriously. Color me virtually immature I guess.

    I agree with you (GASP!) that by posting her thoughts on a public Blog with Comments enabled, Lou is open to and in fact invites her readers' input, but we'll have to agree to disagree on how you address yourself to your (using your word) "friend" - particularly in so public a forum.

    Like you, I stand by my comments. But I really hope this doesn't mean there's gonna have to be a rumble the next time we run into each other. As far as I'm concerned, this is nothing more than a difference of opinion.

    Peace out.

  24. OK, time to weigh in and rein in a little here:

    First off, I used strong terms in my piece, and it's entirely appropriate for Mako (or anyone else) to use strong terms in a response. I set the tone. Although it would be OK to light into me—I invited it, after all—nothing Mako or anyone said to me in followups has been rude or disrespectful. Mako disagrees with what I wrote: that's perfectly OK. I have absolute confidence that if Mako wanted to attack me personally, he knows how to use words to do just that. Instead, he used my tone as a basis to express his opinion—he didn't even go as far as I did—and he disagrees with me. So be it.

    Further, an argument could (easily) be made Mako's opinion is worth more than mine. He's put more time, energy, and thought into the whole virtual world schtick than I have; he does take these issues seriously and gives them the gravity they're due. I may not agree with everything Mako says—well, I don't, obviously—but I certainly respect what he says, and take it in the constructive spirit in which it was offered. Hearing from people about this topic is one of the main reasons I wrote the post.

    I realize we're all flying here without professional editorial assistance: things get said, hackles get raised, not every syllable is going to land property and do a pirouette. But let's remember: I kicked the hornets' nest. If you have to sting someone, sting me.

    I'm trying to work with the authors of comments that I haven't accepted to get their opinions in here without attacking other posters. But from this point forward I'm raising the bar; let's keep it respectful.

  25. Thanks, Lou.

    Hilda, I'm not going to get into it with you personally. If you have a problem with me, you can IM me. Nor am I going to continue to repeat that yes, I meant what I said. Lou and I are friends, we respect each other, regardless of your opinion about that and even when we disagree. And a great many people take SL seriously as a social, educational, technical and professional frontier -- virtual maturity is not a concept that I just made up. Lou's post is an analysis of the function alts have in SL and, on some level, an analysis of the SL user interface and of virtual culture. Lou and I both happen to do things in SL that are connected to RL work -- Lou's opinions about alts might impact her scripting jobs, or, as she suggested, professional practicality might eventually demand that she sidestep her aversions and create an alt. I'm not the only one taking things seriously. Also, you can choose to read my initial comment as though I'm screaming at Lou, and you can also choose to read it in a reasonable tone of voice (try it).

  26. Lou, I assume you rejected my earlier comment, but didn't have a way to get back to me. Or didn't want to, lol.

    I wish you'd taken a less confrontational tone, but re-reading you were careful to direct your comments at the concept of alts, rather than the people who use them. You paint a picture that even well-meaning people may not have any choice but to use alts. Fair enough. My first comment was no doubt too reactionary and defensive: first I thought you were telling me I sucked for having alts, and then I wanted to defend you from people jumping down your throat. Looks like you don't need any four-lettered anonymous backup.

    You seem to look at alts as a bug; I look at them as a feature. Second Life is more interesting to me because I can spawn off special purpose avatars. I tend to look at them like email addresses: I suspect you would think nothing of setting up a Yahoo or Hotail address to handle a project. I look at alts the same way. I don't know if you roleplay, but making characters is, I think, another valid use of alts. It of course involves deception, but it's a given for the game: if we need a villian for a particular story, an alt account is a great way to go.

    I think most people don't put the kind of thought into their SL experiences that you do, and I appreciate that you take the time to write these things down and put them out there. Second Life seems to have no shortage of inarticulate teenagers and gone-to-seed philosophers; I appreciate that you're neither. I look forward to you pissing me off again.

  27. I wouldn't post publicly, but your essay has become enough of an event that comments seem appropriate. You touched on many subjects; I'll only hit a couple here.

    Mako hit on something important in his first sentence: you are aggressively honest, and that has perhaps become your defining trait in SL. You are attempting to overpower the tissue paper-and-gossamer nature of a virtual world by force of will, by being as straight-up as you can and, truly, by being more candid than you should. Your approach is honorable and admirable, but also wildly impractical, Ms. Quixote.

    In my experience, you are correct there is no inherent social currency in SL. It only comes through interfaces with real life. Economic participation may be enough - Linden dollars smooth many rough edges - but when necessary people step outside SL to establish credibility and integrity. I believe this is another source of your frustration with SL. The membrane between SL and RL is porous and too complex to sum up here; however, you are correct that SL only exists in relation to RL.

    Your post barely mentions griefing, and I don't know to what extent other commenters are familiar with your experience. I have some idea, and I would suggest your opinions on alt accounts have been strongly influenced by the degree to which you witness griefing and are yourself attacked in-world. Naturally, the vast majority of that harassment is conducted by way of alts, and I've seen how it colors your moment-to-moment behavior. Your exposure to griefing is far outside the norm for anyone who is not a major land owner, business owner, or public figure in SL.

    I agree with most of your assessment that the Lindens have ignored and deferred enhancing account management capabilities due to the easy availability of alts. It may not be a failure of the platform, but the limitations impose significant difficulties both for people using alts and the handful who try to get by without them. I support your call for stronger account management and content creation tools.

    Others have reacted strongly to this piece; as you noted, you set the tone. I would not assert your opinion is based on a cultural fallacy; however, the level of idealism surrounding the concepts of identity you present in this essay simply cannot be represented in Second Life. You wish SL were different; so do I. I agree the sort of virtual world you're implicitly proposing would probably be more interesting, and perhaps in a decade we'll be closer. But right now your position is like holding your breath to make the weather change. The weather will change anyway; you just need to decide whether turning blue is meaningful in itself.

    And for the record, you do not lack imagination.

  28. I know that I am late in this posting but I just heard about the controversy.

    I wanted to make a few simple comments regarding alts. I will start by saying that I have 8, yes 8, alts. However, in the beginning of my SL existence, I was totally against alts.

    I play 3 games within SL that require building empires and networking in requires killing but that is a whole other issue lol. 95% of the players in these online games have alts. Just as in RL, one must keep up with the times in order to compete. When I was alt-free in these games, I was left in the dust.

    I can agree with those that say that alts should not be used for deceit as I take my friendships in-world seriously. I get to know my friends and the lines that they draw here regarding RL and respect them accordingly. If people use alts to strictly deceive people, they are not your friends to begin with and possibly one needs to consider the meaning of friendship before clicking the "add friend" button.

    Another point that I want to make is this...and this is where RL bleeds into SL, we develop reputations in our avies. We work as hard trying to fit in and making good impressions as we do on clothes or skin. We want to belong, to be liked.

    If someone has an avie, well-liked and respected and also known by others in their "RL", but this same person wants to explore fantasies or other things in SL that might not be respectable, what is so wrong with this person creating an alt??

    Hmmm, I might create a 9th alt so that I can find a date or get someone to ask me to dance for a change :)

  29. Honey, I assume you're referring to in-world games like Tiny Empires? I have no experience with them and don't know how they work; however, from your comments it would seem people use alts to "game the game." If so, I guess it's kind of an arms race.

    I don't think there's anything "wrong" with someone creating an alt to explore different aspects of Second Life; however, I think it's a shame that creating alts seems to be the primary mechanism Second Life provides for managing roles and privacy—and that seems really be what you're talking about. I just wish we had better tools, not more accounts.

    Geoff—as you know, hearing from you here stings more than anything else thrown at me publicly or privately over this. However, this post wasn't about griefing—it's about Linden Lab and Second Life relying on alts as ways to circumvent shortcomings in their platform, and a tiny handful of the issues that raises. I can only say that, even tho as an anonymous avatar without my RL deets in my profile, I do have to be honest about my opinion. Yes, I know I'm tilting at windmills, and, no, I don't expect SL to change just because I think something is bass-ackward. But that doesn't mean I'm gonna drink the Kool-Aid, say I see four lights, or praise the Alt-Emperor's new clothes. My opinion remains that it's bass-ackwards.


Comments are moderated. You can use some HTML tags, such as <b>, <i>, <a>. If you'd like to contact me privately, use a blog comment and say you don't want it published.