Virtually Speaking

Second Life along with the First.

A Eulogy

For the record, I hate change. The problem is, in the years I’ve been on this planet change has been the one single constant. Everything changes and online in our virtual communities, change comes even faster. Smaller changes can also cast wider ripples that spread faster and diminish more quickly. Just as our communication moves at light speed, so too do changes in virtual space.

Ancient pagan religions began the ritual of celebrating change, recognizing that the death of Nature in the winter would eventually give rise to new Life in the spring. Those traditions were adapted for modern religions as well, though we call them “Christmas” and “Easter” today. And that’s the important part to keep in mind – when one door closes, another opens. When something we enjoy goes away, usually something else springs up into its place to continue the cycle of death and renewal, change and progress. Without that cycle, Nature would stagnate. We humans and our societies would become dormant, unchallenged, bored without the adversity that change brings.

My second SL birthday is coming up on Wednesday and I’m not sure I’ve seen any changes in Second Life that were as dramatic as what we’ve seen happening this past month or so – not even the precursor event in June of 2006 when free registration was introduced. Some old doors are closing and at this writing we’re not sure what new doors are going to be opening or what will lie on the other side. But it’s the proper time to say goodbye to some things — a few we will miss, a few others not so much.

Say goodbye to massive naked newbie orgies. They’re easy to find – just search for “sex” like a lot of new residents do and teleport to one of the top 10 in traffic. Wear a movelock shield because the avatars are so anxious to get to the pixel-bumping that they’ll run everywhere and run over everyone regardless of who’s in their way. You’re liable to be poked by outsized prim genitalia and, if you’re female you will be asked to play in several languages and with varying degrees of lucidity or vulgarity. Goodbye to the images burned into our minds of dozens of unfinished, default Linden avatars crawling over each other giving vent to their cyberlust. Very soon, the obstacle of identity verification will reduce these clubs’ numbers drastically and make instant cyber gratification much harder to find.

Say goodbye to the innocent ageplay so many SL residents found liberating.  I’m not referring to sexual ageplay — I’m talking about those who had abused childhoods, or had to grow up too fast because of missing parents and have found the ability to pretend they’re a child in SL to be a liberating, wonderful self-exploration.  These are the people who did nothing wrong and yet will have to either abandon their chosen virtual lifestyle or else brave the slings and arrows of ARs and accusations of pedophilia.  Say goodbye to Dolltopia – Zoe Llewelyn’s PG-rated sim for child avatars, which she now plans to close for fear of being banned by Linden Lab in response to moronic Abuse Reporting and vague LL policy statements.

Say goodbye to the old caste system of “Payment Info Used” versus unverified. Ironically, the age of ID verification which is upon us will replace the old freebie-account prejudice with a new prejudice: “ID verified” versus anonymous. “ID verified” will loosely translate into “cyber pervert” since mostly those of us who either sell adult content or frequent clubs that contain adult content will need to bother verifying our identities. The rest of SL has no need to risk having their information stolen or sold and will likely not bother. Say hello to a new paranoia – if you’ve had your ID verified to use Second Life, will other data-collection agencies connect that with pornography and the pedophilia scandal? If you have a government security clearance, say goodbye to adult areas completely.

Say goodbye to some of the freedom we’ve taken for granted in the past. One of the priveleges of being an adult is that your view of the world doesn’t have to be filtered and diluted. You can decide for yourself if The Passion of Christ is too bloody and violent or if the art of Andres Serrano is objectionable. Once Second Life has been partitioned into “mature” and “perverts”, shop owners and artists will have to decide if they want to remain open to everyone by removing sexual or violent materials, or block a significant portion of their potential traffic by flagging their land ‘Adults only’. Those owners and artists who don’t flag their land will risk being abuse reported. Not even radio streams will be exempt from abuse reports.

Say goodbye also to anonymity. Once the tools are in place to verify your identity, the Lindens are saying that there will be ways for residents to reveal as little or as much of their personal lives to each other as we choose. This is what Philip Linden calls “building trust and making the grid safer”. In actuality, it will create yet another dichotomy, dividing the grid even more. If you’re a real female and choose not to verify your gender, you will risk being griefed as a gender bender. If you do verify gender, you risk being stalked. If you’re transgendered/transsexual, you will lose the wonderful ability to escape all that real world prejudice you endure daily by entering the grid. This isn’t building trust and making things safer – this is adding more ways to destroy privacy and move real world bigotry into Second Life. Say hello to a new phenomenon: identity politics.

I wanted to say “goodbye to fear” here, but on second thought I can’t. The whole purpose of ID verification is to keep children from accessing adult materials and activities. It won’t do that. Any suitably motivated and determined child can still steal their parents’ IDs and enter adult parcels. All this process will do is alleviate Linden Lab and club owners from legal liability should a child encounter some kind of psychic trauma when a busty blonde stripper admits she’s a 50-year old construction worker from Oklahoma named Luke. You will be able to randomly cyber now with a clearer conscience, if that’s worth anything to you.

Say goodbye to plywood cubes. Lost in all the messy press over German pedophiles, Linden Lab is beta testing new sculpted prims. These will allow us to map prim shapes using 3D textures, achieving remarkable results with very few prims — like this ONE PRIM object by Chip Midnight:

Lift a glass and toast the Second Life we used to know. We’re losing the newbie sex orgies but we’re also losing some of our freedoms and anonymity. A New Age of Second Life is about to begin and we don’t know what doors are going to open. Welcome to the new, ‘safer’ Second Life grid where paranoia and prejudice will be given new impetus and children still steal Mom’s driver’s license. Despite that, we will now be able to sculpt our prims.

May 13, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | Leave a comment

Welcome to Myspace 2: Goodbye Anonymity

As the current controversy rages over Linden Lab’s announcement that subscribers will be required to verify identities in order to access adult content in Second Life, a lot of unexpected fallout is also happening.

Yesterday I attended a question-and-answer session with Robin, Daniel and Philip Linden.  About a dozen or so residents were present to query them on details of the ID verification system they’re planning.

Much of their feedback was reassuring — concerns over the links between Integrity and their parent company, Aristotle International, Inc, were largely laid to rest by revealing that Integrity will be prohibited by contract from sharing any information with Aristotle.  So we don’t have to worry so much about spam from PACs or donation appeals from the Republican Party.

Near the close of the session however, the Reuter’s reporter asked a question that has begun to send some shock waves through the grid:

[10:43] Eric Reuters: will linden be offering gender verification as well now that is has the data?
[10:43] Daniel Linden: We could do that, as part of the system.

At first blush, you might ask “so what?”.  This would probably be a welcome tool for residents who are planning to SL-marry another avatar.  It would probably become a requirement for escort agencies who don’t want angry customers finding out that hot escort they paid $2,000L for was actually Fred the beer-gut truck driver in Mississippi.

And, after all, it will be an optional part of the tools available for residents, right? 

As I understand it, the new verification system will only be used by the Lindens to verify that you are who you say you are and that you are over the age of 18.  It will be a “yes or no” result passed back from Integrity.   But residents who verify will apparently have additional options available to them — if you choose to, you could have your RL name, address, gender, and other details about yourself available for other residents to view.

I immediately thought of Myspace,  that backwater of teenage angst where “privacy” is secondary to being validated and accepted by your peer group.  I’ve seen my daughter’s Myspace page, and I’ve been horrified by the real life information her friends reveal about themselves — and I’ve been told I am “prehistoric” for forbidding her from revealing certain things about herself, as well.

This dinosaur just isn’t ready to risk being stalked or having her real world life printed out on a public website for all to see.   I see a lot of residents in SL these days who have real pictures of themselves, even their Myspace address and AIM screen name showing, and I’m shocked and appalled at the lack of concern they show for privacy.

On one level, I understand their need to connect with peers in some way that is separate from school and family control.  But on another level, I see a generation which has done a one hundred and eighty degree turn from the days of my own youth, when computers were bad words and the general paranoia was all about turning people into numbers.  The Myspace generation, on the other hand, has embraced the thing.  They’re putting their faces on those numbers and charging ahead with no fear of their own safety — is that naivete or optimism?

So,  while the Lindens take steps to protect themselves from legal responsibility for all the age play and the minors on the grid, the unexpected consequence for many of us will be an unwanted loss of anonymity.

Some Second Life residents live out their SL lives as an extension of their real lives.  They have no need for the fantasy or anonymity elements which make the grid so appealing to thousands of others.  Until now, both approaches have been valid and co-existed in harmony.

But in my opinion, the new ID verification system — as badly as it’s been needed for the last year and as strongly as I support the general concept — is also going to rip away the veil of anonymity many of us prefer. 

Sure, revealing your location or gender is going to be optional.   Just like it is now, when the first thing out of so many guys’ keyboards is often “Where are you from?” or “Are you really a girl?”  or “How old are you?“.   Age/Sex/Location is a common and acceptable question in AOL chat rooms and instant messaging.  But it often rubs up against the anonymity of Second Life and creates cultural rifts as those AOLers meet people like me who don’t want you to know much about me unless I’ve grown to trust you.

With the new verification system, we are liable to find that the real world hierarchies of gender prejudice begin to manifest themselves.

Transgendered and Transsexual residents will be the first to feel the pinch.  Certainly a great many of them are honest about their status, but what about those who wish to explore the side of themselves that they’re not physically equipped to be without the ostracism and ridicule they experience in real life?

Women in general aren’t going to be immune – as one forum poster noted, women are liable to be griefed if they don’t confirm gender and stalked if they do.

As it stands, most residents realize and accept that a number of ‘women’ in SL are really males playing female avatars.  For most of them, it’s a non-issue.  It just hasn’t been that important in the culture that is Second Life.

Not any more.  Now that the tools are there to reveal your identity, I expect the social pressure to accompany it — use the tools or fall under suspicion for being a game player and a liar.

In the Q&A with the Lindens, Philip said that one of their goals was to make Second Life safer and to promote some trust among residents.  It will do that, to a point.  But ironically I think it will also create distrust and social conflict for those who choose not to fully utilize the verification tools we’re getting.

My friends and my family know me because I trust them enough to reveal myself.   My husband knows my gender because he’s seen everything.  As for everyone else on the grid who wants to get into my virtual pants because my avatar is hot, but think that because I’m reluctant to lose my cherished anonymity I’m a liar,  you can go to hell.  I don’t care what you think and it angers me that the methods chosen by the Lindens are being rushed into production with so little thought to the consequences that the results are liable to be the opposite of what they intended.

It’s exactly what they did a year ago.  Same poor planning, same disregard for social impact, and the same unforeseen results. 

My peers back in the 70s had it wrong:  the computer age isn’t turning us into numbers.  It’s worse.  Computers are destroying our privacy and limiting our freedoms in ways nobody expected.  

Welcome to Myspace 2.

May 9, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | 5 Comments

In a Smoke-Filled Back Room

“That was a great blog piece you wrote, Cory”, smiled Zero. “You really diverted a lot of the crap we were facing with that Open Letter thingie.”

“Thanks, but I think the Town Meeting yesterday kinda undid all that. Guys, we should seriously think about holding our next meeting right here in the Lab and just supply Quicktime feeds to people’s PCs instead of trying to do it in the middle of craptastic lag. That was embarrassing.”

Phil licked the last remnant of the Reese’s cup off his fingers and smiled benignly.

“They’re not going to go away, you know,” scowled Jeska. “This time they’re pissed.”

“With good reason,” nodded Cory.

“We need a diversion,” Torley piped up from the end of the table. His eyes were twitching around the room nervously. “Something big. Something ‘wowzerama‘!”

From a dark corner of the room came a disembodied voice, deep and booming, “Age verification.”

Every head in the room swivelled in unison toward the voice. They knew who he was. They never said his name, but they knew. The awe and respect he commanded was apparent by the way the heads turned.

“Make all of ’em cough up their real identities. One, it gets assholes like Jack Thompson off our trail and two,  it’ll lower resident concurrency back to maneagable levels for a while.  Three, it’ll divert their attention away from how badly the grid sucks. You might lose a few customers, but most of those will be people who aren’t paying anything anyway. And we have the subscription flow-through to absorb a few of the more visible losses. If things get dicey, just put Phil on Business Week cover again.”

That made Phillip giggle.

The Lindens looked at each other again, pondering the suggestion. It was brilliance. Evil, but brilliant.

“Zero, call your friend over at that website. Find out what they use to keep the D.A. off their ass,” growled Jeska.

Phillip grabbed another Reese’s cup and smiled.

May 5, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | Leave a comment