Anonymity, identity & the future according to gurus

Last night I went along to Chinwag Live's final event of 2007, and as usual it was chock full of interesting people and ideas. The event this time around was focused on the future, and those jolly Chinwag chaps & chapettes asked some of the UK's leading marketing and digital media folks to tell us what they thought things would be like for marketing, PR and all things online in 2012. I won't post a full summary here, as I'm sure the podcast will be available soon (and I can smell my dinner in the oven calling me), but some of the choice nuggets for me were:

  • Nikki Barton's predictions for the way user interfaces will change, perhaps even leading to the death of the mouse. She said that in future we would need different UIs because we would be accessing the net primarily through mobile. I think she's spot-on, especially after my recent trip to Japan where none of my relatives used their computers (if they even had one) to go online, they all used their mobiles. In fact they used their mobiles for lots of things other than phone/SMS, the most useful for us being the Japanese-English dictionary.
  • Guy Phillipson's predictions that as information becomes cheap and readily available, people would have more space and time in their lives for creativity. He predicted that in future (not by 2012, mind!) we would have in-brain search engines where all you would need to do was think about something and the answer came to you. Kind of like Neo's learning in The Matrix, but without the need for a socket in your head or an 'operator' with data stored on discs - discs are sooo last century ;-).
  • The panel's consensus that 'digital' is still a 'ghetto', a niche where specialist geeks reside and do their own thing; but a positive change for the marketing, PR & advertising industries in future would be that by 2012 digital natives would be reaching Board/Director level of these agencies, and so digital would inevitably become more integrated and taken more seriously.

After this came the Q&A, and I have to admit I must have done a pretty poor job of asking my question, because I think the panel got the wrong end of the stick. I made a comment on how no one had really talked about virtual worlds, and I also wanted to pick up on something Guy had commented on earlier in the talk about privacy issues in social networks, as I felt that in virtual worlds, most of the appeal is the privacy/anonymity factor. I personally think of Bebo, SecondLife, and other true virtual worlds as simply another form of social network - which is why I place MMPORGs like World of Warcraft in another category (the core purpose of WoW is gaming, not just hanging out).

Unfortunately, the panel seemed to interpret this question as a question about the future of virtual worlds specifically in terms of platform (ie. who would 'win': SecondLife,, etc), which is not what I meant at all - but it probably didn't come out that way. To me, it's pretty obvious that the future of virtual worlds is being able to move seamlessly from one world to another... but this is exactly where it starts to cross over into the troubled privacy waters social networks like Facebook are facing now. In order to port your data (or avatar) between systems, you will need to have something like Open ID, which will tell the system who you are and what data/inventory/avatar is associated with you. While I'm a big fan of Open ID, I'm also intensely aware of the fact that much of the appeal of virtual worlds is being anonymous, or keeping your FirstLife identity private and separate from your virtual life.

A lot of the backlash I've been hearing/reading about Facebook is tied to the fact that Facebook knows who you are, as a real person. And as they don't seem to be uber-keen on keeping that data private, it also means that quite a lot of people can also find out who you are & what you're up to: (potential) employers, retailers and of course some people whom you lost touch with over the years for a reason.

So my question was more about what impact the social networking privacy issues would have on virtual worlds in the future. Would a single identity system come into play within virtual world social networks, as well? And what would that mean to people like the members of Second Life's umpteen support groups, who are only able to exist because they offer the comforting cloak of anonymity? These groups convene in the safety of virtual worlds to talk about rape, mental health, abuse and other very private issues that are very difficult to talk about in real life. In fact, I've found that general conversations with many of the people whom I've met in Second Life  or overheard in open chat are intensely personal, and disclose deep feelings and thoughts that would rarely be revealed to even the closest of real life friends.

Things are already changing in Second Life, when the introduction of voice chat inevitably changed the landscape massively. After all, it's quite hard to keep up the facade that your female fairy avatar projects when you have a voice like James Earl Jones. So what next? I guess only the misty advance of time will tell.