The Avatars United will never be defeated

I was busy with some real life issues over the last week or so, and hadn’t been paying attention to all the various SL-related blogs and tweets that I usually monitor in a sadly obsessive way, so when I finally got round to looking at them I thought I might have missed a big story. Everyone seemed to be going on about “Avatars United“, and for one terrible moment I feared that someone had stolen a march on my plans to start up a virtual revolutionary movement by launching their own grassroots organisation.

The truth turned out to be a bit less exciting; AU is a two-year old social networking site that had been more or less moribund until Linden Lab unexpectedly bought it over at the end of last month. This prompted a flurry of interest from the SL community and a rush to take advantage of the site’s USP; the ability to collect all your virtual identities in one place and associate them with one another and, if you want, with your real one (though not many people were taking that option up). Amusingly, they don’t seem to have any system to verify that users actually own the avatars they are claiming, which has led to a rash of virtual identity theft.

Why the Lab has bothered with this is not entirely clear, since I thought they were trying to promote SL itself as a social networking service with benefits, and I can’t see the advantage for them in encouraging people to take their chatting off the grid and on to some other site. I imagine that they are more interested in harnessing the development skills of the AU staff to improve the SL experience than running a virtual Facebook.

From a user’s point of view the appeal of AU is even more opaque; the main attraction (for me anyhow) of having multiple online identities is that they are separate, and thus able to reflect different aspects of my personality. (Shelly Turkle wrote about this years ago.) If I need to integrate my avatars for any purpose I already have a perfectly good place to do so; it’s called “inside my head”.

I’m not the only person to have doubts; in what must be one of the shortest hype-cycles ever the AU backlash has already started.

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