Wherever possible, articles on Virtually Blind identify sources and subjects by real-world names, but many individuals involved in virtual worlds prefer to be identified only as avatars. While there are certainly reasons (both good and bad) for anonymity in virtual worlds, traditional journalistic standards dictate that readers should, at minimum, be able to distinguish virtual-world pseudonyms from real-world names where there could be confusion.
Though virtual worlds have been around for awhile, the problem is far greater now than ever before. Back when most virtual worlds were games with a little social networking thrown in, there wasn’t much chance that “Grimm Wolverblade VII” or “H4xxOr R0xU” would be confused with a real person. But now, avatars in popular virtual worlds like Second Life almost all have names that are not easily distinguished from “real world” names.
I have seen many attempted solutions to this problem, including italicized names, double quotation marks, and most popularly, in-text clarification. All seem either unnecessarily cumbersome, implicitly critical of the decision to remain anonymous, or simply confusing.
VB’s Solution and Proposed Standard: Single Quotation Marks
When an avatar’s name is used on VB, the name will appear in a set of single quotation marks to distinguish it from a real-life name. Pause your cursor over my avatar’s picture (above, left) for an example.
There are several advantages to single quotation marks. While they serve as an appropriately persistent reminder, they do not carry the implied skepticism of double quotation marks, and they avoid possible confusion with titles of books and movies caused by italics. They are also far less burdensome on both writers and readers than constant in-text explication. As an added benefit, they don’t have any significance in HTML (unlike double quotation marks) so they can be used in blog comments and other fields where HTML is sometimes prohibited.
I encourage other writers dealing with virtual worlds and online-only personalities to consider adopting this style. Please email me if you decide to use this style on your site; I’ll compile a list of links to all sites that do.
Should Journalists Quote Avatars in the First Place?
A related question is whether journalists should be quoting avatars at all without knowing the real identity behind the avatar. Mainstream journalistic standards hold that reporters must (generally) know who their anonymous sources really are, even if those names are not revealed in the resulting article.
Given the nature of virtual worlds, however, it is difficult if not impossible to report on them under these guidelines. As Second Life Herald Managing Editrix ‘Pixeleen Mistral’ (who herself is identified only as her avatar) said in a recent article on Editor & Publisher, “if you want to cover transgendered furries, getting a real-life name and contact might be hard.”
‘Mistral’ is exactly right. Anonymity is a key feature of most virtual worlds, and a large percentage of participants choose to remain completely cloaked in the identity of their avatars, even (and perhaps especially) to journalists.
VB’s solution to this problem is to request permission to identify sources and subjects by their real-world names wherever possible, but to respect the decision of sources and subjects who prefer to remain known only as their avatars. In those cases, VB will verify the identity of sources and subjects in-world, and will identify those sources and subjects in articles here by placing their avatar names inside a set of single quotation marks, as described above.
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