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Real Discrimination Against Digital People

"I must have lost almost half of my potential contracts because the companies wouldn’t deal with an anonymous avatar." So says Scope Cleaver, a designer and architect inside Second Life. Praised by New York Times Magazine for his design of Princeton University’s Diversity Building (the article headline: “Architectural Wonders of the Virtual World,” 12/7/2008), his creations have extended his reputation beyond Second Life and across several continents, but even that can’t protect him from what appears to be discrimination. “I offered the companies a real world proxy who could sign all the papers, but it didn’t seem to help.”

Some people see the freedom of anonymity that virtual worlds give them as a nice perk. Others enter virtual worlds to promote their real world selves, or projects, and avoid anonymity for their avatars as much as possible. But for thousands, keeping their avatar’s identity separate from their real world identity is a serious philosophic matter. They believe they should strive to be the people they are in their hearts and minds, rather than the person suggested by features of their physical body that are observable on the outside. After all, these external features were forced on them. Ethnicity is the cliché example, but other accidents of birth that either can’t be changed — or can’t be easily changed — include age, gender, stature, attractiveness, nationality, social class, the accent of their birth language, even regional dialect. None of these were chosen, and they are impossible or difficult to change in the physical world. Calling themselves Digital People, they design avatars that better fit their self image, and then use them to build reputations, personalities and social circles that also better fit them.

Those who oppose this philosophy feel that Digital People present a false self to the world — a grand and elaborate lie. Bad feeling has accumulated as the result of social pressure and insults experienced by Digital People. Even non-Digital People who mean well have shown remarkable intolerance.

“I won’t disclose names,” Scope said. “What I’m talking about is pretty sensitive. I’m awaiting feedback for a few jobs right now. Some of these are recognizable corporate names, and it’s international: France, Germany, etc.“

"Last year I had a German client; about $10,000 USD contract. Lost it because they didn’t trust an anonymous avatar."

“Many potential clients are expecting to talk to me on the phone and sign Real Life documents. I tell them that I have two options. One is total anonymity, which sometimes works because I have a pretty solid reputation in Second Life and a recognizable name. The other is I offer a Real Life proxy to sign all papers. Exactly the same as when people do business in Real Life. It’s binding. If something goes wrong, they can sue him."

“I can’t seem to find a way around it. It’s very difficult to tell your client you want to remain anonymous and then say, ‘trust me.’ They immediately suspect something is wrong. Reputation and photos of past projects is enough for some — it was for the Estonian Embassy, Princeton University and others — but I could have worked for the biggest names in SL if it wasn’t for that obstacle.”

How Deep the Rabbit Hole Goes.
Digital People who rely less on non-digital people tend to experience something more akin to confusion than discrimination. Extropia DaSilva (a Digital Person who is also a transhumanism activist, essayist and text-based public speaker) explained, “It is not uncommon for people to ask out loud if I have Multiple Personality Disorder after I explain what a digital person is.”

Ivanova Shostakovich (a Digital Person who is also a virtual furniture designer and the co-owner, with Peter Stindberg, of a Second Life store called Greene Concept Furniture) emphasizes that discrimination is not limited to the divide between the devoutly anonymous Digital People and those avatars for whom anonymity is unimportant: “Most examples of prejudice I have heard of in Second Life are between different cultural subsets.”

For me, reality and legitimacy were digital. I was involved in a project that would affect my digital reputation. For him, reality and legitimacy were atomic.

Hers is a valid point. Furries (avatars that resemble natural or cartoon-like animals) still risk frequent harassment in public places; and avatars that resemble children are banned in many SL locations because of fear that some may be the creation of child molesters looking for avatar-on-avatar sex. Small-breasted short women who want their avatar to look like their real body have been subjected to insults and discrimination based on this fear, as have people who wish to relive aspects of their childhood by being an avatar child.

Discrimination today is pretty much universally frowned on. But Digital People’s rights are still subject to much debate, even in the most techno-progressive circles. For example, when, in December, 2008, the Order of Cosmic Engineers (a transhumanist organization of physical people that holds meetings in Second Life because its membership is global) accepted into its ruling body not one but three Digital People, there was a passionate debate as to whether the new members could vote. Since Second Life allows anyone to create any number of avatars, without limit, for free, community members voiced concern that someone who exists only as an anonymous avatar could vote twice by creating two avatars. Despite the Order of Cosmic Engineers’ respect and admiration for the individuals in question, they decided to make the three Digital People non-voting members.

Scope Cleaver doesn’t seem to think things will change soon. “I don’t see it improving. There was a chat about this recently in the Metanomics Group (ed: a group in Second Life that discusses business, education, economics, science and policy in the metaverse: meaning all virtual worlds, gaming or not, online and off). [Anonymous avatars] seem to be a hot topic in SL related blogs lately. There sure seems to be a movement toward untangling and shaping how people think about the issue.” When asked if the mood was mostly pro or anti, he said, “Anti, especially when it comes to business.”

World of Warcraft has seen discrimination too. On June 19, 2007, Wired online reported that some guilds will not let players join unless they use voice chat, because text-only chat “seems shifty.”

Don’t Dis My Creds, Bro.
Sophrosyne Stenvaag is the host of Sophrosyne’s Saturday Salon, a series of discussion events in Second Life. Her guests have included, in avatar form, many noteworthy thinkers such as bestselling authors Robert J. Sawyer, David Brin, Charles Stross, Catherine Asaro and Kim Stanley Robinson. Sophrosyne experienced some in-your-face discrimination from within the hallowed halls of academia.

“Last summer I attended a fascinating conference in a digital world,” Sophrosyne told me. “There was a lot of interest in keeping the group together afterwards to build a digital community. Two of the three sessions were run by academics with little experience in digital world events. The moderators seemed to think that their high-level credentials entitled them to deference from the pseudonymous masses around them."

“Events after the conference took a natural digital-world-style turn: a democratic, collaborative desire to create the basis for an ongoing community. I contributed a little organizing — networking people to projects, and providing a few ideas for events. One of the conference organizers emailed me, politely asking for my credentials. That’s where things got interesting."

I must have lost almost half of my potential contracts because the companies wouldn’t deal with an anonymous avatar.

“Basically, I told him: Here’s my bio. Here are links to my portfolio, my project website, my dozen or so digital presences — business blog, personal blog, business and personal Twitters, business and personal Flickr sites. Here’s a list of references in business, academia, and government that I’ve done project work for. I was applying a tribal standard: look, here are the elders who can vouch for me, the assets I’ve acquired, the measures of my standing in my tribe.”

But his take was: “I don’t understand or value any of this. What I need to know is your atomic name, and the names of the entities that verified your intelligence and employability — schools and corporate employers. That’s what will let me determine if you are generally real and trustworthy. He was applying an atomic standard: don’t tell me personal crap, give me your brains and dedication credit ratings from agencies I respect. And it rapidly went bad from there.”

“For me,” Sophrosyne said, “reality and legitimacy were digital. I was involved in a project that would affect my digital reputation. For him, reality and legitimacy were atomic, and the project would affect his atomic reputation.”

This is the crux of the divide. Some people believe that the same tools used to measure reputation in the physical world can — or must — be used in a virtual world. And for Digital People this is an impasse. They won’t submit to that standard.

Second Life, and perhaps other virtual worlds, have evolved reputation systems sophisticated enough to verify an anonymous avatar’s credibility. But as Sophrosyne points out, these systems aren’t familiar to most people alive today. Our tribal ancestors would not have been so ignorant. They successfully used these community reputation systems — these tribal codes —through hundreds of millennia.

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17 Responses

  1. Tina Figgler says:

    I will never understand the debate between digital and actual ‘people’. The way you present yourself in either case should be honest. I’m sorry to hear about discrimination on ANY platform, especially online. It won’t be long until everyone has a digital persona and this will all be a bad dream.

    Keep me updated, please!
    Tina Figgler, Internship Coordinator

  2. Ann Otoole InSL says:

    I have declined offers for contracts because things did not add up and it appeared to be attempts to phish my RL identity for unknown purposes.

    So the sword has two blades. If an RL company is unwilling to do business with another RL company and demands to know exactly who the employed artist is in real life then there is a problem. Something is wrong with the picture.

  3. Charles says:

    Hello Stephen

    I enjoyed your article. The status of the avatar is still being sorted out by society at large. The choices for the Real lifers is pretty apparent to me. You either trust no one or trust only your “friends” who have “proven” their integrity. I believe only a fool would trust every avatar at their word. I’m sure you don’t.

    One thing disturbs me however and it is the way avatars are treated by the “owners” of virtual worlds. I feel the owners (I will not name names you know of whom I speak) had better start paying attention to the what I call “Avatars in Business”. These industrious souls have really been the pioneers of the 3D virtual environment. There long hours and dedication shows when you interview them and spend time in their space.

    Just like you Stephen they have made the mental paradigm shift necessary to forge alliances with integrity while putting up with some pretty wild wild west scenarios.

    I know I won’t solve the many issues with discrimination here I dropped by just to let you know that your work will endure and as long as you stay true to yourself other like minded souls both online and offline will be on your side.


    Charles is a Global Ambassidor of Virtual Worlds
    with the Association of Virtual Worlds
    he can be reached at:

    • It’s interesting to me that everybody talks about this in legalistic terms, rather than as in interesting culture-in-transition conundrum. There are many definitions of discrimation, but it seems as soon as you say use the word, everybody gets worked up over the potentials for legal action. I think we’re a long way off from any serious legal challenges in this area, so not thinking about this in a panicky way might be recommended…

  4. Part the first:

    As a fictional character, I can’t help but wonder how many real people in the world are fictional like me.

    No, that is not sarcasm, or condemnation, but a real question.

    I put put forward that we are all convenient fictions, personalities created for interacting with the world through whatever mode we prefer to interact with it in.

    Our public selves exist to interface with the public. They may not be who we perceive ourselves to be, but who we must be in order to operate. Every living, breathing person is, in their own way, a convenient fiction.

    Part the second:

    Why can people prove who they are with a legal document, but not prove who they are by being them? If we take a legal document to be the inscription of a legal fiction upon the world (the creation of a contrived state of being within an abstracted system or structuring reality), does that mean that any legal representation of identity is also a fiction? Furthermore, does that mean identity, in the sense of a legally binding one, itself is a fiction?

    I postulate the existence of the metonymic person, a person whose very existence has been replaced by its own signifier, such that they no longer have existence outside the signifiers that represent this existence. Furthermore, I postulate that this is a very recent occurance.

    This can be seen in obvious ways such as the number of places people are noted by an account number, or a driver’s license, or a federal ID number. But I think it goes deeper than that. I think people are becoming so subsumed under their signifiers that their signifiers are becoming more real than they are. This was a category of non-existence that was once reserved for nobility, but is now available, if not actively imposed, on every person dealing with modern society.

    Perhaps it is a factor of consumption, our real selves must be consumed under a legal fiction of identity into order to create the mental state necessary for us to consume new, ready made, identities.

  5. Brian says:

    What makes a digital or H+ person?
    I have a very real virtual practice.
    I manufacture real goods but collaborate, develop, produce and present online better than 90% of the time.
    Almost none of my customers have met me in person but they own very real gear.
    My reputation – good and bad – is almost totally online because the majority of my relationships are as well.
    I have a number of presences on blogs and forums but no presence on SL or the like.
    So am I a digital or H+person?
    The issues present doing business in meatspace are no less real in a virtual world.
    Discrimination is a fact of life, whatever life that happens to be.
    We don’t always have our feelings for desirable partners reciprocated, nor earn the trust of potential business associates, pets, children or their parents.
    It’s unfortunate that people run into this problem but not surprising.
    When your virtual world is arguably little more than an augmentation of your gray matter, doesn’t it make sense that you carry much the same baggage with you?
    H+, H-, H, our basis is what it is.
    You may provide all of the bona fides you like – tribal or otherwise – but get stuck with the same ol same ol.
    Who seriously thinks complicating the human interaction landscape by adding additional venues is going to all of the sudden make the world happy happy?
    How about we H+ by just getting on with it and leave the H- whining behind?

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