Our groundbreaking Cyberethics luncheon last week was preceded by a cerebral dinner the evening before with several media experts and personalities, including Carnegie Council fellow Josh Fouts, Salon.com writer Alex Koppelman, and Linden Labs CEO and Second Life creator Philip Rosedale aka Philip Linden. (Phil is stepping down as CEO of Linden Labs.) One of the major themes we discussed that evening was the relationship between online and offline identity and accountability.
Phil's contention was that the identities that we create online, in virtual worlds such as Second Life, may be truer to our real identities than what we are born with. In a sense that philosopher John Rawls might have a appreciated, since we are in control of our online identities, the persona you create online is in some ways closer to your "true" self, if such a thing exists. Panelist Rita King, a Carnegie Council fellow, blogs about Phil's view in her post "Becoming More of Yourself" in Dispatches from the Imagination Age:
In the last few months, I've spoken about the cultural value of the Imagination Age on four continents, and I know how people react. Some are fascinated. Some are disgusted. Many respond with the predictable, "But I already have a first life." Some lament a perceived decrease in socialization and intimacy between people. Quite the opposite. The issue of virtual identity is an extremely critical one in the development of global culture.
"When you're in Second Life," Philip Rosedale said during the hearing, "there's a very strong sense that you are kind of, in a way, becoming more of yourself."
I never expected it to happen to me. But it did.
The name of Rita's online identity is Eureka Dejavu. The fact that her name online is different from her real life name begs a question that we have dealt with a lot on Ethical Blogger: How do you hold people accountable online if they use fake names, pseudonyms, or no names at all (anonymous)?
Rita, Phil, and others answered that like an author who writes a book under a pseudonym, a blogger or inhabitant of a virtual world spends a great deal of time in creating his or her online persona (a "truer" identity). With this time and energy invested, they accumulate a reputation that they feel compelled to defend and protect. In other words, if the dream of a true online identity holds, these people will avoid reckless behavior.
The problem, which Phil and others admitted to, appears when people create multiple online identities that fit their mood rather than their "self." When identity is split, there is less accountability. Phil said people might have a party self or a mean self or a nice self online. This could create a problem. When identity is unified, online societies can hold that person more accountable.
And this dynamic of people investing themselves online and related societies emerging online was the essence of the positive prognosis for Ethical Bloggers. No one wants the Internet regulated or censored as it is in China. The alternative is that we govern ourselves--that a sense of ethics emerges, not regulatory regimes or even systems of laws.
More on the Cyberethics panel later. Stay tuned for video clips of Alex Koppelman, Steve Clemons, Rita King, Michael Getler, and Jay Rosen as well.