Virtually Speaking

Second Life along with the First.

Get Ready to be PWND

My best friend Haver Cole has invited me to start a column on the new e-zine pwnd magazine which she’s co-publishing with Saeya Nyanda!  It’s available in Second Life as a PDF file, or you can read the whole issue on the linked website.

I’ll still be blogging here as regularly as I can, for two main reason: One, I don’t have a word limit here.  That means I can be as excruciatingly verbose and off-topic as I want and nobody will reject my submissions.  Two,  this blog has unintentionally become more serious for me — I’m trying to chronicle my experiences and viewpoints in Second Life and figure out what it all means in the big picture.  Over on pwnd, I’ll try to be looser (*cough*), wittier and more to the point.  That witty thing is harder than it looks, trust me.  Sarah Silverman stopped returning my calls.

The magazine’s kick-off party was held last week.  Everybody who was anybody was there, including yours truly.  We got free gifts and I ended up dancing on the bar.  In the dark.  Alone ~sniffle~

My first short piece has been submitted, titled “Fashion Nazis Strike Again: Second Life Terrorized by Judgmental Twits“.   My old English prof will roll over in his grave after this one, but he probably needs to turn before he burns anyway.   No way that man went to the “Good Place” ™.

In the article, I make an earth-shattering, scandalous confession.  But that’s all I’m saying for now.  You have to read it to find out.



February 22, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | Leave a comment

You Are Your Avatar

As Hiro approaches the street, he sees two couples probably using their parent’s computer for a double date in the Metaverse. He’s not seeing real people, of course. It’s all part of a moving illustration created by his computer from specifications coming down the fiber optic cable. These people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse. –
Neal Stephenson, Snowcrash

Color me surprised when, in the process of implementing a members-only rule at Archan that required candidates to have upgraded their avatars and create a profile, I actually took grief from some people for thinking that virtual appearance mattered.   Even after they were given free skins and hair and instruction cards on how to fill out their profile, some of them grumbled. 

I still hear it, too.  Maybe it’s an unfair generalization taken from subjective experience, but I hear this more from male residents than I do from female (excerpted from an actual conversation with a newbie):

“How do I get to know people and make friends in this game?”
“Be courteous, have fun, relax.  Oh, and it always helps if you upgrade your avatar.  Want some landmarks to free skins and hair?” 
“What for?”
“So you can get to know people and make friends.  People react more positively to a nice looking avatar.”
“But this is pretend.”

… Followed by gentle, patient explanation on how human nature works, how important appearance can be, and how much better that resident will feel about Second Life if he has some pride in how he looks.  As soon as we break past the wrong idea that I want people to all be cookie-cutter Ken or Barbie dolls, it gets easier.  All I’m suggesting is that they take advantage of the incredible custom skins and clothing that are easily available in Second Life –whether you’re a furry, a mecha, an alien, a human or whatever you want to be.  And it doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg.

Sometimes I strike paydirt.  After escorting (in the platonic sense) one newbie to Sarah Nerd’s where he got a free Nora skin and clothing, he told me “I like looking at myself now!”.   Some people do get it.

This constant war against male Ruthness puzzles me, but I really think those who don’t get it are a small minority.  For most of the rest of the masses of newbies, it’s probably a simple matter of not knowing where to find free skins and hair.  For the others, I have to think if they hang around long enough they’ll start to realize how much it matters.  In a virtual world, all we have to convey our personalities are our typed words and our pixel appearance. 

All of this led me down another of my nebulous streams of consciousness this week.  I recalled reading Paul Ekman’s Emotions in the Human Face in my college psychology classes.  That led me to Umiker’s Nonverbal Communication, Interaction, and Gesture – another weighty tome on how human emotions and interaction key so heavily on nonverbal cues.

The quick summary is this:  Human survival has always relied upon our need to form communities (bond, acceptance, nuturing) even more than our brain complexity.  Primitive man killed woolly mammoths for their food and skins when parties of hunters herded them off cliffs, not by using their spear to go Conan one-on-one.  We banded together and thus increased our chances of survival.   That bonding and interaction required communications systems – spoken language was actually a development that came after and grew out of body gestures, facial expressions and grunts.  Every mammalian species on this planet has nonverbal intra-pack communications methods.  Ours just happened to have evolved further.  Face time is probably the single most important key to good communications.

It’s long been accepted in the online world that typed words cannot convey meaning and context as well as the spoken word – when we lose the ability to emote with our bodies or inflect with our voices, we lose two thirds of our communications tools.   Thus, we started using emoticons in chat channels to express smiling, anger, silliness, sadness.  It’s only natural that as humans begin to populate more virtual worlds, we’ve wanted to represent our physical bodies in pixels.  And why not?  Many of us envision a deity who is represented by an old man with a grey beard.  We represent our governments as people – Uncle Sam or John Bull put a human face on a concept.   We even do it with Santa Claus, the human icon for the Christmas spirit of charity.   Stanley Kubric’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was neither the first nor the last Sci-Fi story to depict robots as either looking like humans or thinking and acting like us (see also Terminator;  I, Robot and The Matrix). 

Will it really surprise anyone if, someday in the future, the first functioning home assistance robots are fashioned to resemble humans?  The most advanced, complicated circuits in history would not require a head and 4 limbs to function, but because humans identify more readily with a nice face and a friendly voice, the successful Sears robot of the future will be very human in appearance.  People will buy it before they’ll buy the black box with wires and lights,  just like we prefer dogs and cats to snakes and spiders.  We identify more with faces that more closely resemble our own.

People love to anthropomorphise and see faces and personality in things that may not have human qualities.   So why would anyone question the influence of avatar appearance on how you are perceived in Second Life?

Neil Stephenson has been regarded as something of a SciFi prophet since his 1991 novel, Snowcrash.   He regards himself as the first person to popularize the term “avatar” to mean our virtual 3D physical representation.  Actually, that honor should go to Origin Systems, whose roleplaying games in the mid-80s Ultima series assigned you the role of the “Avatar”.  In ancient Hindu Sanskrit,  an avatar is an incarnation of a deity in human form – roughly meaning “he passes down”.   In terms of virtual reality, it’s another way of saying that the creators of virtuality (humans) pass down to that virtual world.  We are, in essence, the Gods of the Grid and our avatars are our manifestations.

In Stephenson’s tale, status in the virtual world is a function of two things:  First, access to restricted areas (like the Black Sun, an exclusive Metaverse club) and two, technical ability which is expressed in the sophistication of one’s avatar.   The very clear parallels to Second Life are obvious:  those who have the ear of the Lindens, or at least wield great technical or financial power on the grid, have been labelled “The Feted Inner Core“, or FIC.   While the term was originally coined to be a negative, conspirational aspersion, it is part of the way human groups work that some people will be the caretakers (as Clay Shirky calls them) and others will be the followers.

The other parallel is the perception of our avatars as status symbols.   Well done avatars with the best skins, a well proportioned body and nicely textured hair are perceived as people with status — someone who knows enough about the world to create an attractive avatar.  With or without actual status or acumen, the avatar alone provides that perception.  I’ve even witnessed what I call Avatarism — those with default skins and shapes don’t get the same reaction from strangers as avatars that have been crafted and refined with care.   At times the reaction from older residents can even approach rudeness.

Avatarism takes on a new meaning when considered in light of things like Stephenson or Shirky.  And when we ponder the future with these behaviors in mind,  we begin to see how human expression may one day become more completely duplicated in a virtual world.

You finish strapping on the light VR suit, hooking up the USB plugs to your arms and legs.  It was a great bargain at Best Buy for only $299, and it’s well ventilated so you won’t drown in your own perspiration.  Pulling the helmet over your head, you activate the tiny laser sensors which will detect facial movement and replicate expressions.  You log on and find yourself in a large open area with trees and grass.  Park benches offer comfortable places to sit and chat.  Other avatars are milling about and you can hear their voices through the receptors in your headset.  A woman is standing in the middle of the clearing, reciting Ibsen’s “A Doll House” with a heavy Norwegian accent.  Her voice is strong with emotion and power as she delivers her soliloquy, her arms gesturing in the air, her fingers articulating the words.  Behind her, another woman is translating the delivery into sign language for the hearing impaired.  Off to the side on one of the benches, a man sits slumped, his body language telling you that he’s unhappy.

In this advanced world delivering millions of polygons per second, even nerve sensations can be delivered via USB hub (and of course, in my imaginary world, lag is something your grandpa remembers).  Facial expression and body language convey the same nonverbal meaning that they do in reality.   We may not be able to physically enter this Matrix, but to the human eye and brain, the symbols we see make us believe that what we perceive is real enough.

I’m wondering: if a few people resist the idea today that buying a custom skin can enhance the way they’re perceived in Second Life, what will they do when technology allows us to convey  human communications complete with gestures, facial expressions and voice?  When our virtual selves become less distinguishable from our real selves maybe the choices will be more obvious.  Or maybe the cultural divide between the computer adept and the non-adept will only grow.  

It will always be about status, of course.  Like the tribal leader Og who had the biggest spear, if you don’t have a nice avatar today you won’t be as readily accepted by your fellow metaverse residents.   If that doesn’t matter to you, maybe it’s time to find a quiet cave to hide in because you can’t stop the future.

February 19, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | 5 Comments

Money, Sex, and Fun

“That’s what marketers do. We have the “placebo affect” .. Of course, we need to persuade ourselves that it’s morally and ethically and financially okay to participate in something as unmeasurable as the placebo effect.”  (Seth Godwin, “Idea Virus”

I just read Gary Hayes’ blog entry over at Personalize Media on the topic of how major real-world entities can best create a footprint in virtual worlds like Second Life.

My own opinion has always been that a corporate presence in Second Life is not going to have any real impact on sales or real-world visibility.  The bean counters down in Accounting are not going to be happy with the thousands of dollars you spent on sims and subscription fees with little to show for it, but that’s their problem.  It truly is “gee whiz” right now – stick it in your resume and it looks impressive to note that you helped bring your company into the future of Web 3.0.  But in terms of real impact on visibility or power?  Not so much.  Not yet.   It gives Philip Linden something to brag about, but otherwise it’s the virtual equivalent of putting lavender fluorescent light tubes under the frame of your car.  It’s pretty but that’s about it for usefulness.

You could probably say the same thing about the first people to buy Edison’s electric lights.  Or Bell’s first telephones.  Or the first desktop computer. No one could know where it would ever end up.   Gee whiz, indeed.

Gary spent his time outlining the best ways for companies to make their entrance into Second Life without really getting into any depth on the whys.   I should explain that I’m not complaining about corporate entrance in SL –  I think it helps to validate the existence of our virtual world as something bigger than just a “game”.  I think at some point that there will be very palpable financial and marketing rewards for having a presence in this multiverse, just like it eventually happened with the internet.  Just not yet.  Not when we only have a peak concurrency of 30,000 users, tops.

The other main point Gary makes that is important is that you cannot recreate real world functionality in SL.   You can imitate it to a point, but due to scripting limits,  primitive object design and server latency that scale model of your automobile or airplane is going to be basically useless.  And SL residents know it.

Among his business tips to prospective corporate entries was this interesting note:

The number of cafes, cinemas, meeting rooms, lecture theatres, living rooms and so on that are completely empty, yet just outside the door are groups of avatars happily chatting away, staggers me.

And here is an issue that many large content creators have discovered already in Second Life:  without understanding how people gather and what magnets work to create clusters of social interaction, you’re going to end up with empty buildings.   You’re better off handing out your corporate-branded T-shirts for free than trying to sell them for money.  People spend money on skins, prim hair and quality clothing that uses good textures.  Not on becoming your virtual placard bearer.  And they will be attracted to things that help them look or feel unique, meet other people, or enjoy themselves.   A spectacular copy of the Jefferson Memorial or the Eiffel tower might attract drive-by tourists, but if you want to hold people and keep them coming back you have to know what drives the average avatar in Second Life.  It’s not hard.  It’s three things: Money, Sex, and Fun.

If I were a major corporation and had executive blessing to explore this virtual world, I’d go for the fun.  Gary’s example of the AOL and LWord sims touches on this, without clearly stating the obvious: the best sellers, the real social magnets in Second Life are  my Big Three:

1. Money – give me another reason why it’s been so popular for avatars to plop down in a camping chair for hours of mind-numbing boredom just for a few $Lindens?   If you can put an interesting event behind it, whether it’s a game or a contest, that offers prizes, you’re going to get a lot more attention from residents.  Just about every resident likes money.  And they use their money to pursue sex and fun.

2. Sex.  I’m not talking about escorting, BDSM and the x-rated side of SL.   That’s not something most corporations even want to touch.  But sex is what sells the L-Word.  Sex sells the custom skins and prim hair that drive the SL economy just like it drives real world fashion, diet fads and show business.  It also drives the booming (yet volatile) nightclub business.  Sex drives human interaction in many ways starting with our self image.  And our avatars as virtual representations of that self-image are no less motivated by that sexual drive.

3. Fun.  Play, as William Libaw noted, is how we learn.  It’s a species survival mandate.  It’s how we explore ourselves, our social mechanisms, and develop new methods of communicating.  Everyone plays.  I work hard at my career and when I come home at night I love to either play with my children or play in Second Life.  The success of games like Tringo or Slingo is a testament to the Fun concept just as much as it is to the money motivation I mentioned.

So, my advice to a company that wants to find some visibility within the world of Second Life, possibly staking out a presence that can be leveraged in a few years once the internet starts becoming more 3-dimensional and interactive, is to remember Cindy’s Big Three.  If you’re not offering money, sex appeal and/or fun,  your competition will and you will find your venture into virtuality much less rewarding.   Go for the fun.  If you can do that, you can add the adverb “successfully” to the metaverse experiment entry on your resume.

February 6, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | 4 Comments

Forever Young

I read somewhere recently that the median age of Second Life residents is around 32.  From my own unscientific, unofficial polling I think that’s probably accurate.  There are others of us who are older and some younger, adding variety to the mix.  It’s what keeps the oldies music streams going in some sims and guarantees that discussion groups will survive despite being overwhelmed by the hip-hop dance clubs and escort services.

Think ahead, though.  What if Second Life defies normal MMO trends (and my dire predictions of doom) and survives another 20 or 30 years?  Will we hit 30 million alts — sorry, I mean subscribers and 100,000 concurrent users?  Will the grid be able to bear up under that sort of mind-numbing load?

Grave personal doubts aside, the demographics of Second Life are probably going to change as the population ages.  After all, SL imitates reality in many ways – modern American society reflects the aging of the baby boomer generation in its preoccupation with Social Security and the rise in AARP membership.  Second Life will probably be no different.

What does that portend?

Off the top of my head I was thinking of prim walkers, prim false teeth, geriatric custom skins, $Linden retirement annuities.   I pictured the decline of the dance club in favor of avatar retirement homes (they could do double service as voting places every other year) and square dance clubs.  Before your avatar could have pixel sex, you’d have to be sure you had a stock of prim viagra on hand, followed by a nice long nap.

But none of that will happen except perhaps as a joke (send a percentage of your profits to me or I’m calling my SL lawyer).  Because the reality is that Second Life is our dream world.  There, we can be anything we want — which usually is a virtual expression of how we see ourselves more so than how we really are.  Our avatars are our holographic projections of self-image.  If you’re 90 years old, with the attendant brittle bones, bad memory and saggy boobs, why in the world would you want to be all that in a virtual creation?  You’re living those golden years, why recreate them?

In reality, I am a tall, skinny blonde.  I boss people around for a living.  In Second Life, I’m raven-haired (or auburn-haired — I have to use the thousands of $L worth of prim hair somehow, yes?), with a great butt and a flirtatious nature that my real self doesn’t always share.  In SL, I’m happy not being on stage – give me my circle of friends, something to laugh about and a business with which to express my creativity and I’m happy as a clam.  To heck with being a leader and moving and shaking – I do enough of that in my personal life already. This is my escape.  I’d rather leave dozens of bunches of prim bananas in my best friend’s SL office as a prank than organize the next protest against Philip’s Tao.

All of this tells me that the ongoing trend among other virtual worlds leading toward voice interaction and integrated webcams may not be as popular as the innovators believe.  The developments we’ve been seeing for voice chat within Second Life via “Second Talk” are interesting and promise to be popular, indeed — but it’s my belief that many of us are more interested in preserving the fantasy immersion and the focus on our avatars than we are in having our real-life webcam image stuck in a corner of the client viewer, projecting an image that probably has no relationship to our avatar whatsoever.  It’s not just those residents who have chosen to create avatars of the opposite gender – though they stand to lose the veil of anonymity that allows them to switch genders – it’s also people like me, who view our Second Life as unrelated to our First Life except in the most superficial ways.   It’s also my French and Brazilian friends who can barely type English phrases and whose heavy accents will probably be unintelligible if I heard them speak.

I am not my avatar.  My avatar is a fantasy creation – a work of art, if you will.  Super-imposing my real identity over the top of that creation turns it into something else again, something more real and thus less enjoyable.  Second Life is not or Facebook, and I’d hate to see it drift in that direction.   But maybe that just means I really am ready for the Avatar Retirement Home.

February 1, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | 3 Comments