Identity is a complicated concept—who are we really? Most of us have government IDs that define part of our identity, but that’s just a starting point. We present ourselves differently depending on context—who we are with our loved ones might not be the same as who we are at work, but both are legitimate representations of ourselves.
Virtual spaces make this even harder. We might maintain many virtual identities with different degrees of overlap. Having control over our representation and identity online is a critical component of safety and privacy, and platforms should prioritize user agency.
More importantly, autonomy and privacy are intrinsically intertwined. If everyone saw my google searches, I would probably change what I search for. If I knew my employer could monitor my interactions when I’m not at work, I would behave differently. Privacy isn’t just about protecting information about myself, it’s about allowing me to express myself.
Avatars are a digital representation of individuals. They enable virtual embodiment, making communication in a virtual environment more natural and analogous to communication in real life. They also help us ground ourselves spatially in the 3D environment and allow others to have a specific point to reference, which enables directional sentiment and simulated eye contact.
Your decisions about avatar representation can both reveal personally identifiable information about you, such as your face and affect your self-perception and influence your behavior. This phenomenon is known as the Proteus Effect. This effect can induce societal biases, like feeling more confident when embodying taller avatars.
When we think about applying concepts related to identity to social VR platforms like Hubs, platforms need to design and implement features that focus on enabling users to easily manage their identities. On the avatar side, that means making it really easy to choose, change, and customize avatars so that you decide how much or little you want it to represent you.
In Hubs, we chose robots as the default avatar instead of picking a single human representation. However, any glb files can be used as the base avatar form - it was important for us that the platform could support any number of avatar styles, driven by the communities and users themselves. That means if you prefer cats or pinecones, you have the flexibility to choose that representation for yourself instead.
When it comes to determining visual identity of one’s self in a 3D space, that control should belong to the user, not the platform.
When you interact with others online, there is a risk of exposing different parts of your identity to them and it isn’t always clear what is exposed when you make an account on a website. Your profile on a social network, for example, may have an image of you shared with other people, display your legal name, or show an account pseudonym that you use with other online services.
Hubs allows you to use the platform regardless of whether or not you have an account, but one of the benefits of account-based services is the ability to have a known identity that can be responsible for certain actions and behaviors. Certain actions, like being promoted to a room moderator, require an account. A challenge with pseudonymous and anonymous spaces is that a lack of a valued account can also result in a lack of accountability.
Hubs accounts are purposely lightweight, requiring only an email address. Being able to tie your virtual identity to a second account, such as a Discord account, can provide further benefits, such as increased room security, and the ability to communicate across different platforms. Particularly when room links are more widely distributed, the room dynamics can benefit from linking users to a known identity— but platforms should respect how much information they request from users.
There’s a balance with how much knowledge the platforms need to validate identities and how much data users need to provide. When possible, personal information collection should be minimized.