Posts Tagged ‘second life’
Well, has there been enough coverage of online worlds for you this week? Unfortunately, it’s all been about how an online affair – ‘edultery’ – in Second Life led to a real world divorce.
Oh, and add to that a side order of old chestnuts in the form of the old “addicted to computer games” perennial, and a topping of “fired for Facebook comments” and you have a couple of weeks in which Web 2.0 has been unusually prominent – but unsurprisingly muddled and ill-informed.
The Second Life story is about Newquay couple Amy Taylor and David Pollard, who originally met online and then took up residence in Second Life., where Pollard’s avatar – Dave Barmy – had two virtual affairs that led to their breakup. It’s not exactly a new story – anyone who has spent time in online communities will know couples who originally met online. And yes, these new connections have led to the break-up of existing marriages and divorces. I think the first time I was aware of this happening in an online community I was a member of was back in 1997 – so it really is old hat.
Such a tawdry story is not the usual kind of thing to merit BBC News attention, so instead the BBC did a news article on … how avatars have sex. Really:
“First you need to buy genitals,” says technology journalist Adrian Mars, explaining the process in Second Life. “You start off with no genitals and then you buy some. These objects can do all sorts of things. You can have ones that ejaculate at the right moment.
The article also describes the range of male genitalia on offer to buy, including skin colour control, sound, animations, ejaculation, urine and some that are touchable by other players to lead to arousal.
Yeesh. It’s hard to see this article as anything other than a big of high-brow BBC titillation, a way of talking about sex by pretending it’s a serious piece.
The Guardian newspaper also had to work hard to fit this story of a humdrum affair into its pages, so they made it a tale of journalism and actually found an interesting angle: how press agency South West News got the scoop on the story by sending in two virtual reporters who found that, “In real life [Amy] had rejected everything – knocks on the door, letters, phone calls. But our characters started chatting and it was different. She began to trust us. Amy’s character was much more confident in the game than she was in real life.” That was a quote from Jo Pickering, described as one of the South West staff who controlled that reporter avatar: of particular note in that description is the “one”, suggesting that there were others also working that avatar. Would it be verging on fraud and deception by the journalists if they were working to build up trust with Amy without telling her?
Having almost touched upon an interesting facet of online identities, The Guardian story quickly veers away and back into safe sophomoric wisecracks by noting that one of the avatar reporters wore a red mini-skirt and a black slip top, adding: “Not sure where her notebook is kept.” Oh, ha ha.
Really, if you’re a serious newspaper doing a serious story, then by all means go for it. But they made it into at least four separate articles in the Guardian, including today’s ‘analysis’ piece in the Sunday sister publication The Observer. Surely to use it as a peg to hang a salacious story about some unconventional sex to titilate your readers with a nudge nudge, wink wink tone is tabloid territory?
And of course the tabloids did love the story. They particularly loved pointing out the discrepancy between the couples’ online avatars and their real world selves: in real life, David Pollard is described as a “25-stone balding 40-year-old who lives on incapacity benefits and hangs around his bedsit in his jogging bottoms,” while is avatar Dave Barmy is “a 6ft 4in nightclub owner in his mid-20s, a slick dude with long dark hair and dressed in a snappy grey suit, sunglasses and a large gold cross.” The London free paper helpfully printed side-by-side pictures of the man and his avatar side by side, without comment but with clear “isn’t it sad?” implication.
This story got worldwide saturation coverage – which wouldn’t be surprising if this were the August silly season, when news is slow and editors will jump on anything to fill the pages. But instead it’s November, political high season, with economies in trouble and collapsing, a major child abuse death in the UK, a new President-Elect being micro-analysed in the States – and yet still this tale gets international attention. It’s a strange world (real and virtual.)
Nor was this the only online community story hiting the news headlines. The BBC also provoked a little local storm with a piece on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme covering the launch of the second expansion pack for the fantasy role-playing online game the World of Warcraft, “The Wrath of the Lich King”, which went on sale on Thursday with more than 2,000 people waiting outside an Oxford Street store holding a special midnight opening.
As a result of some comments emailed to a companion BBC blog from teachers who said that they’d seen students become addicted to WoW and drop out of their studies, the story focussed on that instead. How many years have we had periodic stories along the lines of “Britain’s teens addicted to computer games shock!”? As long as I can remember, surely at least a couple of decades.
The strange thing is that the journalist who put this together, Rory Cellan-Jones, is the BBC’s technology editor, and a good one too. Moreover he uses all the online Web 2.0 tools – he’s written about the WoW story on the BBC dot.life blog, he’s also on Twitter and mentioned the story there too. So this is no clueless journalist sitting in an ivory tower writing about something they dont know, so why did he – and the Guardian journalists and all the other reporters on these stories – take such an oddly distanced, ill-informed and snide view of what could be some serious issues relating to online life?
It’s especially odd when you think that almost everyone in the media now uses online tools, and that Web 2.0 is rapidly becoming as essential a skill to a journalist as shorthand ever was. And while a mocking and disdainful approach to these stories is perfect for the Daily Mail‘s audience demographic, to any publication reaching a wider and less reactionary section of the public – people who also use the internet every day – this kind of coverage just makes you want to shoot the messenger for garbling the message.
One story that was widely reported – and reasonably straight, too – was the sacking of 13 Virgin Atlantic who labelled Virgin customers chavs and criticised the maintenance record of the airline’s fleet of Boeing 747s, the airline’s position being that the comments had “brought the company into disrepute”.
There are some major issues here about free speech: these comments were made by off-duty staff and were the sort of light hearted water cooler banter common to workers almost everywhere. So do the sackings mean that employees now can’t say anything about their employers at any time? That their employers own them 24/7?
The role Web 2.0 technology played in this is that, instead of the comments being made as off-hand remarks quickly forgotten among a group of friends, they were preserved online for all to see. So it’s actually the 13′s fault that they didn’t understand this subtle yet massive difference between old and new social networking. It’s something we’re all going to have to get up to speed on pretty quickly: if you think your next potential employer isn’t getting online to do a quick search on you, read your blog and your Tweets, then you’re being naive. I’m certainly mindful that any future application I make will be held up against this blog, my Facebook page and any other online activity I do to ensure that I live up to my CV. It’s just part of the working life in the 21st century.
So Web 2.0, online communities, social networking are all increasingly important parts of our real lives. We deserve good media coverage of them and some real insight, and it’s time that the mainstream media caught up with that and that it wasn’t purely the realm of the bloggers delivering high quality thinking here.
I’d forgotten just how much Americans throw themselves into the Halloween spirit. In the UK Halloween lasts for little more than two or three days, but in the States it dominates for a good month before the day itself – and that enthusiasm for all things ghoulish extends into Second Life just as passionately as it does in the ‘real world’.
So for the last few weeks it’s been fun to stroll around various SL locations and view the scuttling spiders, flying ghouls, swirling mist and cute Halloween treats such as blood wine left out to tempt visitors such as myself. Some of these touches are wonderfully subtle, such as the family portrait over a fire that morphs in the corner of your eye into a picture of ghosts writhing, so briefly you wonder if you actually saw it.
Here for example is a Frankenstein monster guarding a gravestone that popped up in one of the public areas of SL in the last couple of weeks:
While Britain might think it’s getting more into the Halloween spirit these days, it’s nothing compared to the States. When I was travelling around the States in the 90s, I was bemused to arrive at a public transit bus station to find it decked out in orange and black – in mid September. So all this activity in SL reconnects me to that time I spent in the US, watching Halloween itself in a wet and spooky Seattle and wondering whether all Americans were really this barking mad. (I needn’t have worried – further investigation proved that they were, indeed, mostly this mad!)
So does this mean I’m having a better time of Second Life since my first look earlier this month?
Well .. Yes and no. I’m still enjoying strolling through and finding some great locations; particular thanks to Wagner James Au’s New World Notes blog for finally steering me to the Crooked Tesseract House, for example, a location I’d heard about for weeks beforehand but been unable to track down – and rather wonderful for a mathematician at heart such as myself.
Other contacts have also led me to find some nice coffee houses and general relaxed chat destinations, mercifully free of griefers, vampires and juveniles running around wanting to have sex with the nearest lamp post if they can. Instead, these places are generally full of like-minded people who just want to chat about life, the universe and everything – including US politics, fairly inevitably at the moment, but that suits me fine. I generally only check these places out at unreasonably late hours of the night, UK-time. And bizarrely it seems that most of the people I meet are also insomniacs from the UK!
The technical problems I wrote about at length in my first SL post have mostly eased away or got under ctronol, making it less of an exasperating experience. The teleport problem is still around – but only if I try and log in between 7pm and 11pm, suggesting it may be something to do with peak rate net use on the UK side rather than something inherent in SL itself, although I can’t find any information about it through the usual support channels so it remains a mystery – I just know better than to try using it at that time.
But as to whether I’m warming to SL and becoming properly ‘embedded’ – no, that doesn’t seem to be happening. It’s a nice enough place to visit now I’ve got the hang of it and know the places that suit me; but it’s not ‘sticky’. I can go for days or a week before thinking “Oh, maybe I should pop in … just briefly …” and doing so more out of a sense of “should” than because it excites me.
It occurred to me that my lack of commitment and engagement was because I hadn’t really invested anything (other than a little time) into Second Life. I hadn’t paid for a membership, I’d just signed up for a free account. Maybe I would feel differently if I had a little “skin in the game” as the American saying goes? So I decided to exchange some real world money for some Linden Dollars, the in-world currency, and give myself a little “walking around money” – $10 bought L$2550 and I suddenly felt pretty rich!
“Skin in the game” has a double meaning in the SL context, because the first thing I wanted to buy was … a new skin. Yes, in SL, beauty is not only skin deep, the skin also comes “off the rack”. While Second Life’s normal control seem to offer the user a myriad number of controls over one’s avatar appearance – from the size and shape of the ears, to the spacing of the eyes, the length of the arms, the shape of the jaw – the end result of all this tinkering is strangely frustrating. The blank face staring back at you looks more like a lump of Play-Doh than a realistic character, and after a few days of walking the SL world with this expressionless automaton it’s very easy to begin to dislike the poor sap with a passion.
Where Second Life’s default tools fall short, a whole new industry is sure to spring up from the inventive, profit-seeking members, so “skins” have been one of SL’s top commodities almost since the start – almost to the point of looking like SL’s creators, Linden Labs, intentionally hobbled the avatar creation system in order to allow some free enterprise opportunities. These skins are in essence suits that are worn over the basic body avatar, allowing some artistic person the freedom to ‘paint’ a realistic face and body that then replaced Play-Doh Boy entirely. It’s amazing the difference it makes to how you feel: I felt suddenly more ‘real’, and felt I looked less like the penniless new boy.
(The skin does not come with … how can I put it, essential male body parts. These are available for purchase as well – “fully working” come to that! – but I managed to hold off on such a purchase thinking it really unnecessary and even slightly indecent and pornographic. That said, I did have a moment of feeling personally somewhat emasculated as a result of this decision; and I could swear that I detected a note of deep hurt and annoyance from my avatar, too, as he sat down and … very pointedly crossed his legs.)
Hair was next. In the regular avatar settings, hair is also modifiable – but remains in essence a static blob of colour with a faint texture painted on it. Hardly inspiring, so it was no surprise that SL retailers started selling hair made up or ‘prims’, the basic building blocks that constitute everything in SL. Now the hair could be any shape or style, and it had realistic properties – so that if you fly, for example, your hair can stream out behind you in the wind. (Linden Lab’s decision not to utilise such prim building blocks for the regular avatar hair is more clearly based on practicalities than the avatar limitations: these prims all take time to rener, and when there are too many prims in once place then the system lag can get really bad. Sending off every avatar with a headful of prims would have brought down the system in double quick time; this way, only people who really want such detail will find out about how and where to do it, and hand over the money to achieve it.)
And then onto some clothing. Here was a bit of wish fulfilment for me (and isn’t that what SL is supposed to be for, deep down?) I’ve always wanted a long black coat, figuring it would look stylish. Unfortunately such coats are expensive in the real world, and look ridiculous in just about every real world situation (shopping, at the office, on the train – they just end up making the wearer look like a sad Goth/Matrix reject) so I’ve never had one. But it would be perfect attire for Second Life, I thought, and after hunting around I finally found one that I liked.
Which is why if you bump into draml Braveheart in SL these days, he’ll look rather different from the scruffy Play-Doh Boy of a few weeks ago:
Yeah, the Matrix-esque dark glasses are a bit over the top, but they were free. The watch was free, too – just because I had some walking around money didn’t make me immune to a bargain!
So did getting “some skin in the game” in both senses actually change my view on Second Life’s stickiness overall? Well, certainly while I was out and about shopping for skin, hair, coat and accessories it made a huge difference, and was very enjoyable – certainly worth $10 (and there’s a lot of cash left over from that investment still to be spent.) But once that was done … No, not really. As I write this I haven’t been to Second Life all week – partly because of being so busy in First Life, and mainly because I’ve had a cold that’s left me feeling very unlike playing in either First or Second Life – I just want to wrap up warm and go to bed early.
But I’m not sitting here yearning to log in and take the new avatar for a stoll, either. I’m increasingly thinking that SL is a nice place to visit occasionally, but not anywhere I’d want to move to for any length of time.
Given my current project to get immersed in all things social media, it was only a matter of time before I washed up on the shores of Second Life. It’s the online community of the moment, the one you can’t avoid hearing about – but also the one I approached with the least personal enthusiasm.
It didn’t start well. After registering and downloading the software, I initially found I couldn’t use the teleport function, which in Second Life is rather like being house bound: no fun at all. Even though a subsequent download of beta software seemed to fix it the problem keeps recurring at random moments. Today, for example, it worked fine first thing but then not at all since.
Trying to sort this out plunged me into the Second Life website’s myriad of alleged help pages, which ranged from bland basic “how to” FAQs of no help at all, through user forums where there were lots of questions and complaints but no answers, to a wiki that points back to the support centre home page and an incident tracker that’s an IT service desk manager’s vision of hell and should never be let anywhere near the general public. It wasn’t reassuring when I found my issue was already logged – and was some 30 pages long, compiled from dozens of different incidents, and despite being ongoing for a year was still classed as ‘unresolved.’
I think somewhere in my travels I read that Second Life were worried about user retention – and that there was mention of a 90% drop-out rate or new members within the first hour? As astronomical as that sounds, after my own experiences I can well believe it. Only complete stubbornness and my inner geek kept pushing me to keep trying. And for a time the software was stable enough to allow me to take a touring holiday of the promised virtual land.
Despite glitches that make this seem more like a modest beta release than anything resembling a read-for-public release, it’s nonetheless astounding what Linden Labs – the makers of Second Life – have accomplished with this software. A massive world of thousands of locations, with tens of thousands of simultaneously logged-in users, all able to walk through, interactive with and even build the world around them. And all delivered to the quality of a console game of the likes of the original Tomb Raider – only built completely on the fly and then successfully stuffed down a broadband connection.
The fact that the members of the world are also adding to it is crucial, because it means that the world is as creative and imaginative as only thousands and thousands of completely individual minds can make it. No one person or team has built this: in one area you might find a world right out of Blade Runner; in another, an island retreat with a village in the shadow of a towering castle keep; a Japanese garden here, an ordinary business street there, now an office block, over there an Italian Renaissance township. There’s even a vision of hell – but apparently it’s quite difficult to get into, despite what the moral guardians in the real world tell you.
My personal favourites include a terribly inaccurate but charming pastiche of London (Big Ben is apparently in Chelsea, and you can bungee from it) and a very geeky online Doctor Who experience that catalogues with incredible anal retentiveness every type of Tardis console and exterior ever seen in the original classic series. Top of my list however would be an orbiting dance club, situated in an asteroid field and offering some of the most wonderful vistas I’ve seen in Second Life. Even the trance music is to my taste, and I can spend long periods of time spinning around the universe up there watching everyone else float by. You can find some other great locations on Second Life from New World Notes by Wagner James Au, Second Life’s “embedded journalist”.
But the thing with being a tourist is, after a while it gets a bit dull just wondering around and seeing the sights. An online community has to offer more than just vistas: it has to offer community too, and there didn’t seem to be much of that around. Other than a few introductory exercises and notices to help you learnt to walk, pick things up and fly, there wasn’t much in the way of a welcome wagon from Second Life itself. Most of the people I ran into were similarly bemused, walking into the furniture and too busy attending to their appearance to chat. (In fairness – so was I for the first week.) The one conversation I did have went something along the lines of:
Her: “You look hot. Want to be my boyfriend?”.
Me: “No thanks”
Her: ” Why not?”
Me: “I’ve only just met you.”
Her: “So? Why can’t you be my boyfriend?”
Fearing this level of emotional maturity was worryingly suggestive of pre-teen entrapment, I got the hell out of Dodge. Thank goodness the teleport function was working that day.
As well as bringing the best of our creative natures, it seems we’ve also brought the worst of ourselves to this new land – “wherever you go, there you are” as the saying runs. Too many places are littered with crass adverts; other supposedly public places shut you out midstride with red ‘do not enter’ forcefields. Buildings are locked and barred, fraud and theft is as rife as in the real world. And then there are the ‘griefers’ – the equivalent of message board ‘trolls’. These clowns unleash waves of icons (Bill Cosbys, demonic Captain Americas) all yipping away with some random sampled sound as they swarm and flood over the area making it completely unusable for the duration. Actually, the first couple of times I found it fascinating and great fun – but it gets old pretty quickly.
What I have I have enjoyed is just sitting around and people (avatar?) watching. And you see all types of people – from elves to trolls, Amazonian women dating Darth Vader, vampires and angels walking side by side. My own avatar – as you’ll see from the screen shots – is very ordinary, just jeans, T-shirt, sneakers and jacket: I just didn’t think I could pull off the winged look, not this soon.
I’ve watched an “only in Second Life” gun fight (one person pulls out a gun, the next pulls out a machine gun; the first person responds with a cannon, and the second trumps it with anti-aircraft artillery from the deck of a warship.) And I’ve watched the sadder moments, as an avatar created the basic building blocks of a mausoleum for another Second Life character, before packing up the building blocks to take them away to the intended resting place. I depart, wondering whether it’s the avatar or the person behind that character has passed away – and realise than in some genuine sense it doesn’t make any difference to the moment.
But still for me there wasn’t a connection to this place, a reason for being here. It looked nice, and was a decent idle distraction for a half hour or so, but would I really return here much – or at all?
Fortunately I have one trump card – the fact that I’m a member of The WELL (the “original” online community, you might say, from when text-only bulletin boards were the awesome, advanced thing of their day.) It seems that everywhere I go on the social web, there will be some WELL members already there – and it makes all the difference to have someone to call up and say “Help!” or more likely “WTF?!”
By chance I happened to be sleepless and awake this morning at 4am and was online. I fired up the Second Life viewer by habit, and for the first time got an invitation to meet up from a real live WELL friend. (The 4am is key here – being in London it means that I’m in the wrong time zone for most real time, synchronous events. It’s why I like the asynchronous communities like The WELL for the most part, since the 4am thing really is once in a very long while.)
I got a tour of a lovely quiet corner of Second Life, beautifully realised and charming with its little passages and hideaways concealing all manner of deft touches. And I learnt the history of this place from my friend which gave it a truly affecting personal resonance – as well as revealing a whole new side to someone that I had never had the chance to know on The WELL and who has now sadly passed away. Second Life had managed to make me truly sorry that I had not been able to get to know them better.
So finally Second Life had given me something truly worth the trip which I would treasure. The irony of it is that it was with friends from an older online community, and when we stood around ‘talking’ it was through the medium of type – IMs – just as it would have been back on The WELL. The only difference is that I could watch their avatars’ hands dancing in mid air to illustrate them typing: the audio chatter of birdsong and the distant rumble of thunder over the speakers were the only multimedia enhancements of merit there. Oh, and I got a Cuban cigar and a glass of port to play with as we chatted, which were greatly appreciated.
One thing that Second Life can do that would be hard in any other online community environment is performance: there are plenty of stages that bands can rent and put on a show, and there’s even a replica Globe Theatre for a serious acting troupe to work with. I’d be interested in seeing how companies can use these tools to do corporate presentations or engage staff; and moreover, how governments and politicians can reach out and engage with citizens.
I haven’t seen anything like that yet, but the prospect is one of the reasons why I set up my avatar – as a foothold in Second Life, a quick way of getting back in should an intriguing prospect come up. I’m on the look-out and if you know any good events coming up then let me know, so that I can write part two of this article- instead of ‘package holiday’ you could say it would be more like ‘business trip to Second Life’.
And if you’re around Second Life and bump into Draml Braveheart, do say hello – unless you’re a pre-teen angling for a boyfriend waaaaaaay too old for you!
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