Friday, 5 September 2008

An Avatar, By Any Other Name...

.. might be a lot happier with Second Life.

Most of us who came into Second Life out of curiosity, and have stayed ever since, are probably happy with our avatars. We instinctively associate our avatar name with ourselves - regardless of where we sit in the 'Spectrum of Involvement' that goes from the fully-immersed digital beings at one end, to the augmented reality users at the other. Incidentally, if these terms mean nothing to you, then I'm afraid you will have to Google them if you want to know more. The subsequent romp across the blogosphere makes for a long and interesting diversion!

For the more prosaic purposes of this post, I want to consider names. It hadn't really occurred to me just how out-of-step Second Life is, compared with other virtual worlds. Everywhere else - as far as I know - you are pretty much free to select your own avatar name. OK, it may need to be unique in the World, which can be a challenge. But in principle, you have carte blanche. For example, I am used to a semi-digital existence thru' my avatar, Aleister Kronos. Therefore, in all the virtual worlds I am signed up to - and there are many - I am happy to use this name, or variants that may be forced by a local naming constraint (like no spaces in the name). Importantly though, I could instead have opted to use the name I was given in the atomic world, Tim Kelly (again, subject to some basic constraints). I'm hardly blowing away any great atomic/digital divide here, since anyone who was remotely interested could have garnered this information in about... ooh... one Google hit.

So where am I going with this? Oh yeah...

Second Life marches to a different tune. It forces you down a path of pseudo-anonymity by compelling you to select a surname from a predefined list, rather than allowing you to elect for anonymity or openness. And what a bunch of surnames you get! If your aim in Second Life is to have a laugh, muck about and generally use it as a purely social environment then the disproportionately high ratio of "wacky, zany" surnames may be just the ticket. It means you don't have to employ too much brainpower of your own in order to appear interesting, when you can get instant charisma, off-the-peg, just by choosing a suitable surname. Maybe most Second Life regulars are happy with this arrangement. Personally, as a resident, I'm perfectly happy with my avatar name.

But it is as a corporate resident that issues arise. I have recently been hosting or assisting with a number of internal presentations for various company folk. The aim of such presentations is to show that you don't need to waste time and money travelling to meetings when they can be done, at least adequately, in a virtual environment. And virtual meetings are far better than the other alternatives: video and teleconferences. Most of the attendees are not out-and-out Second Lifers, but rather casual visitors, looking at the potential for using the environment as a work tool.

Now then - in proper Blah 2.0 fashion I have been eliciting feedback, to understand their experiences and see how I can help to improve them. Oddly, the recurring concern was not the awkwardness of the user interface, or the lag, or indeed any of the technical issues that I had anticipated. Instead, it was the avatar naming constraints. The general view was that the absence of real names lead to confusion and lack of clarity, while the names that were used could not really be characterised as 'professional'. When you have large numbers of colleagues using virtual worlds on an occasional basis, for specific activities or events, they are not likely to know each other's avatar names - leading to confusion and lack of effective communication. While this will change over time, the process is unnecessarily slow, when all you ever wanted was to use your own name in the first place.

There are cumbersome ways around this, usually involving a dumb-ass surname but putting your full name (without spaces!) as your avatar's first name. Don't get me started on the ludicrous costs associated with having a user-defined (in this case, corporate) surname. The point is, it should not be necessary to go to these lengths.

Second Life is coming across as somewhat antediluvian, a primitive throwback to a time when happy-clappy early adopters wanted to look funny and have hilarious names. While I accept that many, more recent residents also share these aims - it is time for Second Life to grow up, grow out and make better provision for those who don't share these aims. I am sure that it is not just business users who have this frustration.

So a note for Linden Lab: if you are still trying to be taken seriously by the business world then changing the naming system would be a small, but non-trivial step in the right direction.

(And God knows... it seems that right now Second Life could do with all the help it can get)


Lunette said...

Excellent post! I am not a business user, but I don't like the naming system, either. If I had known more about Second Life before I registered, I would have picked a different name. I can see where it would be especially problematic if you were trying to use the platform for RL business purposes.

Sin Trenton said...

Couldn't agree with you more.
"What's in a name"? Well, an awful lot if you ask some people.
And the early adopter traditions with references to Slartibartfast, etc doesn't really cut it when you want to use SL in a more professional manner.

The reason I picked my surname was simply the same reason. A short, not too hard to remember name with a more.. neutral touch to it, so to speak.

And just in case you would end up on 'murrican telly, you don't want to to be known as Glitteractica-something.. ;)

Otenth Paderborn said...

I have taken much the same path as you, electing to make Otenth (with or without last name) my general-purpose digital persona. On the other hand, I was very disappointed to discover that my actual last name came and went in a two-week or so window (after I was in SL, no less) without me noticing.

I do enjoy the creativity engendered by the last name constraints, and must confess to having created an alt or two simply to take advantage of a surname. I'd hate to see the surname process entirely eliminated. But for business purposes, which Linden Research is clearly trying to aim for, they need to provide easy ways for people to get business-friendly names.