Posts Tagged ‘Digital Identity’

I’ve talked about issues of privacy and digital identity before, but a recent court case involves the intersection of both.  For years, companies such as Electronic Arts have been making video games about college athletics.  The problem is that college athletes are not able to sell their likenesses for personal gain (because, you know, they’re amateurs!).  In recognition of this fact, those making video games about college athletics change the names of the athletes while leaving other identifying characteristics such as physical traits, statistics, and even uniform numbers, intact.  The games do allow users to change the names of players, though, and fan dedication combined with internet connectivity means that updated rosters with players’ actual names are often available shortly after a game’s release.  For example, NCAA Football 12 was released on July 12 and this post from August 1 lists changed rosters for the two most advanced home consoles.

For players, the fact that others are profiting from their likenesses does not always go over well (though it sometimes does – the cover athlete is typically a player one year removed from college sports who appears in a college uniform).  Some college players are so upset about this that they do what any good American would do, they sueOne such court case was recently dismissed by a federal district court because “EA’s right to free expression under the First Amendment supersedes a former quarterback’s right to control the use of his likeness.”   Video games, you see, are works of creative expression protected by the first amendment.

This is likely not the end of the road for court cases such as this.  The NCAA considered a rule change this year that would have allowed corporate sponsors to use clips of current athletes in advertisements as long as those advertisements included the name of the athletes’ institutions.

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It has been a while since I’ve talked about issues of digital identity, but technological advances also present us with the possibility that our analog identities will be captured and shared with the world.  Some, like Anthony Weiner, find their private communications are being spread far beyond their intended targets, but I am more interested in public behaviors.  The question of whether public behaviors can be recorded by researchers without consent has long been a part of methodological debates, but today this goes far beyond whether somebody will describe our behaviors in seldom-read books or journal articles.

The Society Pages recently asked whether Americans have the right to conduct citizen surveillance, such as recording conversations with police officers during traffic stops (and then risking injury to highlight the problems with the officer’s directions).  The police officer, though, was aware that he was being recorded.  Others are unaware that their behaviors will be shared with the world.  In the case of Hermon Raju, a “well-educated” NYU grad, or Cathy Cruz Marrero, who fell into a fountain while texting, momentary lapses can lead to internet infamy.

If I attend a public concert, the songs remain the intellectual property of the band.  My limited knowledge of copyright law suggests that I may be allowed to record this concert for personal use but I cannot sell it and while I might post it on YouTube the band has the ability to have it taken down.  While this works for some copyright owners, to my knowledge the issue of whether an individual’s public behaviors are effectively intellectual property has not been addressed in a way that reflects the realities of our digital world.

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I was recently talking to my students about the potential ways that technology will affect today’s children as they grow up.  Following on Anomie’s post about her daughter’s cyberself development, I am extremely interested in seeing how these things play out (maybe this is due to the presence of my own pseudonymous cyber identity).  The other day I came across a post on a gaming website examining digital identities and self reflection:

Although some use their real names and conceal nothing about themselves, most of us rely on constructed personas when we participate in online games. For the past 12 years, I’ve used the moniker “Clifford” while gaming. Truth be told, I have no idea where the name came from. Few of my real-life friends are aware of my alter-ego, while I have a bevy of online and community friends who exclusively know me as Clifford.

I wouldn’t say that I live two disparate lifestyles, but there seems to be a distinct disassociation between Omar Yusuf and Clifford.

So who am I — Clifford or Omar?

In an essay written in 1995, digital-technology theorist Howard Rheingold made the claim that “the latest computer-mediated communications media seem to dissolve boundaries of identity.”

What Rheingold means is that under the auspices of the Internet, the attributes which characterize our “identity” are often absent. The vocal and gestural queues that we use no longer exist. Our sense of humor is less palpable. Our values and ethical standards become irrelevant in-game. It is both impossible and impractical to try and socialize on the internet in the same way we socialize in real-life. In that vein, online gamers often allow avatars, handles and profile summaries to represent them while gaming online.

This brings us to a pivotal question; are online identities absolutely necessary?

I for one believe they are. Although my Steam account profile is relatively honest when compared to those of my fellow online gamers, I don’t normally provide my name to those who ask. For some reason, like most gamers, I’m reluctant to engage in candid interpersonal discussion while online. Handles and screen names provide a security blanket that we can hide behind.

So do I use Clifford as a security blanket in order to free myself from judgment and insult, or is the name completely arbitrary and meaningless?

Richard Coyne, a professor of architectural computing at the University of Edinburgh, would disagree. He claims that the “security blanket” turns out to be more of a mask. The professor argues that while the mask hides the gamer’s true identity, it’s not completely secure because it often reveals details about who lies behind the mask.

Maybe there is something more to this security blanket/mask distinction.  An online persona such as Omar’s may be acting as a security blanket to the extent that it protects him from potential prejudgments based on his name (Clifford does not seem to have the racial or ethnic overtones that a name like Omar Yusuf does).  I also wonder if gaming identities are typically distinct from other online identities (such as blogging or commenting in online forums).  Outside of my posts on this blog, I actually have a fairly stable online persona in the form of variations on a single user name that I use for nearly all of my online interactions, despite the fact that those interactions do not overlap.  Maybe the real question is whether I am using these online identities to create security blankets or masks.  I suspect it is a little bit of each.

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