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May 18, 2007

Identity management and Second Life

A few weeks back I went along to an 'identity management' brainstorming session in Bristol organised by Nicole Harris (JISC) and involving representatives from several of the JISC-funded services.  The intention was to spend some time thinking about the future of access and identity management, and in particular how the JISC should be steering the community and what kinds of things they should be funding.

To kick the session off Nicole ran through a useful overview of her take on what things are happening in this area and how she sees things developing.  There were no real surprises - which is good!  Towards the end she put up a slide that summarised the things that JISC are tending to get asked about at the moment w.r.t. AIM.  This included all the usual acronyms and names (OpenID, CardSpace, Shibboleth, the Federation, metadata, policies, etc., etc.).  One thing stood out though... Second Life was sitting there in the middle of the screen.  My initial reaction was, why!?

We got slightly side-tracked by this and had quite an interesting discussion about the role of SL in education and why it was appearing on the screen.  Actually, we almost got sidetracked by the 'what is identity' question, but fortunately managed to pull ourselves back from that particular kind of intellectual meltdown!

It seems to me that SL tends to highlight the not knowing who you are dealing with aspects of the online world rather more than 'traditional' means of interacting online tend to do.  In SL one is always aware that it's not clear whether you are dealing with a man or a woman, a person with disabilities or not, a student or a lecturer, etc., etc.

I made the point that this isn't really much different to the current situation.  For example, a distance learner that only ever interacts with their lecturer via email and their Bebo page isn't really in a much different situation than a student that interacts with their lecturer in SL.  But somehow, the not knowingness seems more obvious (to me at least).

Once we got past the hurdle of SL, we had quite an interesting discussion about various facets of the way our world is changing, not least the implications of user-centric identity management (read OpenID) and the need for identity provision to span life-long learning.

As an aside, I'm interested in the use and application of OpenID in the context of Second Life and hope to do some playing in this area in the next few weeks.


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I've not really got into SL - I have to admit that so far I've been sitting on the sidelines - having signed up and spent about half an hour in SL several months ago I'm not really in a position to critique the concept, but I've been a bit unconvinced how much the environment adds to online interactions.

However, when I did sign up, one of the things that immediately annoyed me was that I had to assume a different identity - I can't even use my own name. Quite a bit seems to have been written about how freeing having an alternative identity is, but I generally like being me. I dislike having to 'create' an alternative persona, and when I meet people online I want them to know who I am, so if I meet them in another context they know (and vice versa - I could bump into you in SL, and not realise I know you in RL - how tiresome!)

Although I understand it is important to protect identity, and also that some (possibly many) people like to be able to create something different, am I alone in finding this a frustrating aspect on identity online? I also take the point that SL just makes some of this a bit more 'obvious' than other online forums - but what it also does (it seems to me) is actually force this obfuscation rather than simply 'allowing' it as more traditional forums do.

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