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A Rose Tyler By Any Other Name…

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So the blogosphere is abuzz about Second Life changes once more. In a way I’m impressed – not since the land rental scheme was reformed did bloggers give SL much screen space, unless they were damning or defending it for its decline. It’s for a quite baffling new feature announcement, though – the option to create an avatar bearing one’s real name.

It’s quite a surprise, and one which by turns has me nodding approvingly, and wondering what Linden Lab have been huffing. For those who’ve never entered Linden Lab’s flagship online world, users are restricted by default to a drop-down list of surnames, and must choose a unique but personalised forename. My avatar, for example, is named Sinnyo Wirefly. There are a few other Wireflies in the world, but you’d never find a Thomson because that name’s not been added to the library. Names are even phased in and out once they reach capacity, as demonstrated by this nifty tracker tool. The reason forenames are unique is that the avatar’s full name forms their login. There can be no Sinnyo Wirefly but myself.

This has influenced Second Life culture pretty noticeably. Along with a few chance names like “John Haroldsen” or “Richu Rajesh”, there are many names which certainly don’t sound normal by ‘real life’ standards but would roll off the tongue to an SL resident, like Botgirl Questi or my own Sinnyo Wirefly. There are also “Honeybabe42 Toocool”s and “Superstar Gothly”s to contend with, but names like that will often make a pretty poor impression on the long-term SL user.

Names like this have been a useful means of discerning the type of user one might be speaking to. Someone with a quite normal-sounding name is likely either a businessperson, one who’s presenting themselves pretty much as they would on the street, or one who wishes to give that impression so as to lend their avatar some gravitas. Someone with a little more cartoony flair in their name is likely an SL exclusionist. Second Life is as far as their activities go, and that’s fine. Bump into someone with numbers and adjectives in their name, and you could expect them to be wearing so-called bling jewellery and very little clothing. I hate to play to a negative stereotype, but it’s broadly true.

What would choosing a real life name do, though? The option to use one would have very little effect on the culture at all. Unless somebody’s vigilant enough to keep track of the various surname choices that have come and gone since SL started, it’s likely only the user would be aware of their name’s true meaning. There’s a problem when their name conflicts with those users already present, though. If Linden Lab hopes to welcome a man named John Smith and offer him the use of his legal name, he has to contend with the inevitable John who’s already created his account with Linden Lab’s surname choice, as well as every other John Smith who hopes to use the platform. Without a doubt, this’ll mean a change to the login system, but it’s bound to play havoc with that most fundamental of systems too – Second Life‘s inventory system.

Being a world of user-generated content, every single object an avatar brings into the world is assigned permissions based on their avatar name. So long as the names are unique, so is ownership. Changing this so that logins and avatar identities are assigned some new form identifier is going to be a huge undertaking. It’s at that point I can’t help but ask, “for what?”

So we return to the shock factor. Mark Kingdon, Linden Lab’s CEO, has given the blogosphere something to talk about which doesn’t involve discussing the world’s downfall. But will it merely be words? Or is this now truly a Linden Lab falling over themselves to market to businesses?