Virtually Speaking

Second Life along with the First.

Letting Go

A close friend of mine recently had to have her favorite pet put to sleep. She agonized over the decision for weeks – the dog had been part of her family for almost 10 years but had developed leukemia and her life was slowly becoming a living hell. In the end, the only thing left to do was to perform an act of mercy no matter how emotional the decision was. No matter how much she would always miss her best 4-legged friend after she was gone.

My own trials of late have not involved the life or death of anyone close to me, but I empathize with the struggle we all sometimes have when we wonder whether it’s time to let go of something we love. It is never easy. It is never clear. We can only weigh the options and make the best decision for us.

In my case, I’m referring to the Archan Community. I’ve been a part of this community for over a year and Head Manager (no puns please) for most of that time. I’ve watched it go through so many changes I can’t list them here — the most dramatic being the decision to move toward a Members-Only policy to combat the high level of griefing and stress on the management of the place.

At the time it seemed like the best course of action. If membership was restricted to those who demonstrated a willingness to put forth effort into their appearance and agree to standards of conduct, wouldn’t it be more fun? Wouldn’t the quality of people improve? All of our reasons looked good on paper. Except for one small detail:

Membership restrictions don’t work in Second Life.

It isn’t the first group I’ve belonged to in SL that was restricted to members-only. And without exception, I can’t think of a single one of them that has survived for long. Perhaps part of that is simply the temporary nature of groups in SL. But a large part of it goes directly to the fact that, in Second Life, you are always competing with other groups for ease of access and instant gratification. Why join a group like Archan for friendship when you can find friends almost anywhere by frequenting the same places enough? Why join a group like Archan to get pixel sex when you can go to any of a dozen other places with traffic in the 50,000 and up range without any restrictions at all? Does it really matter to you that most of those 50,000 or 150,000 other members are still in their default Linden jammies? Apparently not for many residents.

I believed that the remedy to those normal SL dynamics was no more complicated than creating a business model. I do it in my RL job all the time. I’m good at it. Why wouldn’t it also apply to a Second Life business?

I proposed that Archan come to grips with the fact that the Members-Only policy had severely restricted traffic — building a couple of small ugly buildings that were open to the public wasn’t the answer. A few poseballs weren’t the answer. The sense of a community was rapidly slipping away because the owner was not prepared to invest the additional effort required to make Archan into a social magnet. Some of the better managers drifted away. Those who were left were either frustrated with the way things were or didn’t understand what it meant to be friendly, engaging, and customer-centric. It was headed downhill already and I wanted to reverse the trend.

I should note here that the owner is a good guy. I have nothing against him personally. When the former owner, Milosz, offered to give me the land and I couldn’t afford the tier, the new owner accepted the responsibility on the condition that he not sell the land for profit out from under us. He’s kept his word — but he’s also limited his role at Archan to paying the tier and logging in every month or so to send me event funds. He’s resisted attempts at restructuring the staff. He resisted suggestions to charge rent for the group mall land, which would have provided funds to hire full time event hosts – the business plan which would have salvaged Archan’s traffic. He did pay for the new clubhouse we built, but otherwise he has operated with a very radical “hands-off” approach. Basically, it meant that I and a select few active managers were left to run things on our own…

– Without the power to make important decisions.

– Without the power to remove absentee managers, or those whose behavior ran counter to what we needed.

– Without the power to set community policy.

Is it any wonder that things began to unravel?

I’ve been accused of being responsible for allowing Archan to languish. I won’t shirk my part of the responsibility, but I wonder what else can really be done when the only person taking an active role as a leader is met with resistance and has no visible backing from the ownership?

In my own defense, nothing I did was done without some measure of concensus from the rest of the active staff. Staff members had a major hand in designing the new clubhouse. Staff members helped to build the outdoor park and contribute their own items and furniture. We almost had our own website built, complete with events calendar and a members forum but personal conflicts interfered. I even purchased my own webhost service to try to do it but ended up hitting a wall I like to call “don’t know shit about php”. I made the unilateral decision to remove the members-only restrictions, but too late.

I cannot hold their frustration against them — my own level of frustration matched theirs but I didn’t feel I had the freedom to just walk away. They had that freedom and some eventually used it. I miss them tremendously, and Archan is much poorer without them.

If you’ve read this far you probably see where I’m going. If you’re not an Archan member, you may not really care much. That’s ok. Maybe this is useful experience that other SL club managers can learn from.

If you’re an Archan member, though, I want you to know the truth: Nobody in that community could possibly love it more than I do. Nobody in that community could possibly be as saddened as I am to watch it fall apart and feel powerless to change it. I’ll not claim I made all the right decisions, but I made the decisions I thought were best at the time. Things didn’t work for reasons that were ultimately beyond my control.

Like my friend who lost her dog, maybe it’s time for me to admit that I cannot control the situation any longer. I am tired of feeling emotionally drained whenever another decision has to be made or when I drop by the clubhouse and find it empty. I’m tired of the most basic business principles being rejected out of hand and then watching something I love languish into a coma.

This hurts me deeply. But I don’t think I can go on like this. It may be time to make that tough decision and just let go.

To the core group of you who stuck with me until the last: I love you. To those Archan members who, like me, love our unique little community: it’s your turn to speak up and let someone know what you want. It’s too big of a job for one person to attempt alone. It’s too big for two or three people. It takes the whole community. It takes love, a plan and an active owner.

I’ve given all I had to give
And now it’s time for me to live
And I won’t look back
And I won’t regret
Though it hurts like hell
Someday I will forget

– Sozzi


June 30, 2007 Posted by | Second Life | 5 Comments

In the Not-News

I have a brand new hero – and apparently I’m not alone.

In this video of a recent MSNBC broadcast, news anchor Mika Brzezski angrily refuses to lead her news segment with another meaningless schlock piece on Paris Hilton.  She even tries to light the script on fire, then shreds it.

If there was any thought to her getting fired, think again — do a quick Google on Mika Brzezski and you’ll find out that (a) She’s the daughter of Zbigniew Brzezinski and, (b) she’s getting a standing ovation around the blogosphere for saying what we’ve all been thinking for years now:  Paris Hilton is not news.

I’ll go one further.  Paris is a spoiled, brainless, no-talent twit (SBNTT) whose only claim to fame is a rich daddy and a sex tape.  It takes so much talent to have sex on tape, you know. 

So why is our media saturated with this SBNTT?  It’s more than just slow news days.   There’s a war going on.  There are other no-talent twits making news (we call them politicians).  She was arrested 4 days before the 6th anniversary of 9/11. 

But all of that was relegated to second page when the blonde heiress rushed out for a midnight snack and got nabbed for being drunk at the wheel.   Then again when the judge – also a hero of mine – insisted that she spend 45 days in the slammer.  And yet again when the sheriff let her go home, leaving her new girlfriends holding the toilet brush back in the slammer.

Real justice would have been to let her go home to house arrest, but require her to bring the other inmates with her.  Let them suffer in the luxury of the Hilton mansion for the remainder of their sentences, too.  They could have made one great reality show out of that.  It’d be more interesting than watching the anorexic Nicole (“I’m not a role model“) Richie try to milk a cow.

What is it with us?  Are we so afraid of having our brains challenged and being made to think that we’ll settle for any old silly, vapid dreck?   Are sitcoms the limit of our public thirst for knowledge?  Understanding this, why are we surprised when so many people actually swallow, hook line and sinker,  Intelligent Design “theory” and seek to have the cornerstone of modern biology – Darwin – excluded or diluted in our schools?

We are mentally lazy.  I’m convinced of that.  I get that way, myself.  My secret vices are detective fiction and online games – while Richard Dawkins or Alan Clark sit unopened next to my reading chair.   I rationalize it as my entertainment – everybody needs some entertainment.  But too often, I find myself thinking “one more quest” instead of learning something new in Photoshop or finishing Clark’s epic masterpiece on Barbarossa.

I’m also convinced that whoever said that Man thrives on adversity was correct.  Without adversity, it’s human nature to lapse into complacency.  Wars, as terrible and evil as they may be, focus mankind’s creative talents in marvelous and remarkable ways.  Poverty and prejudice have undoubtedly produced more artists and comedians and writers than luxurious leisure. 

That explains something else.  How can you expect someone like Paris, coddled in the lap of obscene wealth and fame without having earned it, to discover whatever creative soul may lie within herself?  Maybe, instead of sending the inmates to live with her, they should have sent Paris to live in a ghetto somewhere for a few months.  Not for the sake of Paris, but to demonstrate that justice is blind to privelege and perhaps even wake up one wealthy heiress to how much real need there is in the world. 

But enough about her.  I have some books to read.

June 29, 2007 Posted by | First Life | Leave a comment

Blood Feuds and Fear Politics

Any veteran of internet discussion boards knows what I’m talking about — show me a discussion forum and I’ll show you a commonality of interest that binds the posters together, but I’ll also show you cliques, herd mentalities, “common wisdom” and prevalent attitudes that do not permit dissent. A large percentage of this Common Wisdom is based on subjective opinion and the Scourge of our Modern Era: The Internet Meme.

When Gutenberg invented movable type it changed the course of history – with cheap books came knowledge.  With knowledge came power.  The old pecking order, starting with the Church, was upset and a new one arose.

Knowledge is power today, more than ever before.

The Internet’s impact on society may outdo Gutenberg. No longer is news and communication the sole province of TV networks, phone companies or the Postal Service. The impact of the Internet goes much deeper and wider than the printing press – instantaneous and cheap communications have created new horizons for community creation and new interpersonal dynamics. Knowledge is now distributed to anyone with a computer, whether they have a PhD or a GED. One man can create a website, call himself “The National Association of Truth” and give himself the appearance of authority out of all proportion to his true credentials.

The wave of information we enjoy today has a much lower signal-to-noise ratio than ever before. For every truth being passed around in email or on web discussion boards, there are likely to be ten bogus rumors and outright lies. Fact checking has become a business in itself that only existed in the sanctum of print and television newsrooms until now.

In recent history, we’re all aware of the role blogs played in exposing the CBS News gaffe over forgeries of Bush’s National Guard papers. The vox populi first speculated on the forgery but then was able to confirm the truth — with a very loud, resounding thud from Dan Rather’s career.

That’s one for the blogosphere. But does it mean that blogs and web boards are replacing the news networks?

They may do so in terms of folk wisdom and widely accepted truism, but truisms are not truth. For us to arrive at the truth, we should demand accountability, credible sources and independent verification. All too often, the mob opinion on your favorite web board has none of these assets. Mostly we see wishful thinking, paranoia, and gossip being passed off as fact (buttressed by copious links, links to links, and “my link is better than your link” link wars).

Our definition of “Fact” may be the first casualty of the Blog Era.

American Politics may be the second casualty.

The election of George Bush II in 2000 did more to polarize the American political landscape than anyone since Abraham Lincoln. The political discussions I’ve witnessed and participated in since 2000 have broken friendships, set fire to web communities and – far from convincing anyone to change their minds – only radicalized opinions and made everyone, on all sides, more sure than ever that they are 100% right and the other guy is 100% wrong. In reality, none of us – not a single one of us – knows the whole truth.

My unscientific opinion is that the Left currently dominates the blogosphere (with some notable exceptions on the Right), while the Right has taken to Talk Radio. One of these information sources is no better or worse than the other for accurate and reliable information. Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh are 90% hyperbole (I know, I’ve checked their facts) on one end of the spectrum, and the Left Wing and are the same on the other end.

Fox News, the whipping boy of the Left, uses many of the same wire services as CNN and yet, because they also feature independent opinion pieces which can be mistaken for “objective news”, they’re accused of being in bed with the neo-cons. (Conveniently forgotten in their rush to marginalize is the CNN staffer who spent many nights at the Clinton White House as a guest.)

It’s as if our political landscape is no longer about real issues. It’s about mud-slinging, lies, and disinformation. It’s about whether you are Blue or Red. There can be no middle. No purple or lavender, no shades of moderation. Pick a side, you’re either with us or against us. In this brave new electronic world, your political choices say more about your personal character than all of your charity work and well-raised children. You’re either a “loony liberal” (a favorite Talk Radio term) or a “neo-con” (spat rather than spoken). Some have even suggested that if you’re in the middle, you’re a wimp for not having an opinion!

Our major political parties understand this and do everything they can to foment the suspicion and paranoia — making voters afraid will garner more votes than making them think.

Here’s an experiment. Don’t try this at home:

Take a moderate position on the web discussion board of your choice. Avoid insulting anyone or denigrating their opinions. Point out that extreme opinions tend to usually be wrong, and that Conspiracy Theories normally arise from a potent combination of fear and lack of facts. I’m betting you will be mischaracterized, ridiculous strawmen will be erected in your honor (the more reasonable you are, the stronger the pull of strawmen arguments – they gotta find somewhere to gain traction) and you will be personally insulted and belittled by the extremists on both sides, sometimes with the most odious and offensive epithets. You can’t win.

Either you’re for ’em or you’re agin’ em.

Such is the diary of my participation in internet political and religious discussions over the years. I’ve tried different tactics to avoid that final meltdown. But ultimately and sadly, sometimes there are only two choices: either avoid talking politics and religion altogether or distance myself from the idiocy.

People aren’t going to change on my account and I wouldn’t expect that. But I can change myself. I can preserve my own sanity and simply avoid the vexation of coping with mob mentalities. It’s not “running away” – I have never run away from expressing my opinion. But I do practice self defense. In my real world there are far more important things to worry about than arguing with anonymous fear-mongers on my computer.

Civility appears to be a thing of the past. The rise of Fear Politics and the veil of anonymity have turned much of the internet into a blood feud with no winners. Only losers.

June 15, 2007 Posted by | Internet | Leave a comment

Reality Collides

The last few days have been very trying for me in my First Life.  It hasn’t been as hard for me as it is for the victims of this tragedy, of course, but the ripples of events inevitably spread across a community and impact all of us.  Even those of us, like myself, who are only indirectly connected.

I posted in this thread on Second Citizen in response to a discussion on the kidnapping and murder of Kelsey Smith, the 18 year old girl in Kansas whose body was discovered on Tuesday.  Kelsey was a schoolmate of my daughter’s and, while they weren’t friends they were acquaintances at the same school.  They were the same age, involved in many of the same activities.  They even had similar personalities – sweet, outgoing, smart, goal-oriented. The emotional shock to my daughter is profound.  Her safe little world of boys, summer jobs and going away to college has been upended in the cruelest way imaginable.

I realized that I need some catharsis for all this.  Long late-night talks with my daughter help, but I can’t tell her everything I’m thinking.  I want her to be aware and realistic about the risk of abduction.  I want her to be prepared.  I don’t have to tell her what I think should happen to the suspect they’ve apprehended.  Mostly I want her to feel safe again and understand that if you exercise reasonable diligence and use your head, the risk of this happening to anyone is very small.

The truth is that nobody is ever really safe.  Especially teenage girls.  The statistics are horrifying – according to the FBI, the incidence of missing children has increased 444% since 1982.  And 74% of abducted children are girls.

The sad truth is that there probably was nothing Kelsey could have done to see her own fate coming.  FBI profilers will tell you that, chances are, this perpetrator has intense feelings of inadequacy and anger stemming from a failing marriage, sexual inadequacy, perhaps a failed career or all of the above.  The seeds of his own sociopathy were already there and this was the trigger.   Very often, the killer has unrealistic fantasies about his prey loving and forgiving him, of a sick kind of secret love affair.  When the reality hits him that the girl is terrified and wants nothing to do with him, his reaction can be one of surprise, rage — and murder.

In view of the fact that the actual abduction was so sloppily executed – in broad daylight under surveillance cameras – it was most likely a case of his own frustration reaching the boiling point combined with the availability of a target.  In this case the target was an attractive, friendly young girl.  Maybe she smiled at him in the store because she smiled at strangers all the time.  Maybe he found her clothing seductive (she was wearing dark shorts in the surveillance videos, but nothing provocative).  In his darkest, most perverse fantasies such a cocktail would be difficult to resist. 

We can protect our children but only to a point.  The old adage about information being the most powerful prevention is very apt here — some police departments and schools make safety training classes available where experts tell you how to be vigilant and what situations to avoid.   You can buy your kid a can of mace, but the reality is that if they’re in a situation where they have to use it, they’ve already failed to see the warning signs.

There are no words to describe my contempt for people who kill children.  I admit I want them to be inflicted with horrible suffering and never free to prey on another child again.  But the truth is that there is always another one to take their place.  Our society has a bad habit of producing sociopathic killers regularly, and we have no methods in place for identifying them or preventing them from killing. 

Widespread child abuse is one source of the problem, but so is the trend we see of emotionally detached, unavailable parents.  Children are raising themselves all the time without the love and mentoring that a parent is supposed to provide – most manage to live productive lives anyway but the few who fall victim to the resulting emptiness and psychological scars probably provide the majority of our modern criminals and fill our prisons with lives that can never be ‘normal’ no matter what we do.  Good parenting is the answer to our crime rate, but it is also the hardest thing to achieve.

Here is where I make all sorts of high-minded pronouncements on the evils of modern society and how we’ve betrayed the trust of our children.  But it would do no good.  It won’t bring Kelsey Smith back, or any of the thousands of other children who have died at a predator’s hand.  It won’t change the pace and emotional distance that seems to be hard-wired into modern life. 

The only thing I have control over is my approach to my own children – daily assurances of love, of really and truly listening to them describe their experiences and feelings.  Asking more questions than providing answers.  Truly being there for them when they need answers.  I can do no more than that.  In the end, no matter how much I try to prepare and protect my children against the wolves who walk among us, it is up to the child to remember what to do.  It is up to them to recognize a situation as it is developing and know how to avoid it.  By the time they’re being shoved into a car, chances are it’s already too late.

June 7, 2007 Posted by | First Life | Leave a comment