Roots of Self-Organization Are Grafting in SL

It was bound to happen.

As we slowly plod along towards 32,000 residents, things are changing in the social dynamics of Second Life®.

I’m still a pretty new resident, compared to several thousands. The Old Ones knew a world which was a tiny, intimate, almost private club. There was a point in time where you could meet the whole of the population, and talk with all of them – all where eager, bright-eyed idealists, working towards a common goal, and side-by-side with the Lindens.

As the population grows, it’s natural that it reflects different tendencies, ideologies, and even cultures. The first thing that anyone experiences in Second Life is the sensation of absolute freedom – you can be anything, become anything, and do anything, and nobody is there to stop you. This is the stuff the Internet is made of – let’s enjoy it to the fullest!

Of course, this enjoyment of freedom goes both ways. “Liberty of expression” is too often interpreted by “liberty to do whatever I want, and who cares about the rest of the world”. Discussing the difference between both is, sadly, a question of education – a good topic for discussing at the Thinkers’ events, but not for me to say.

The first “enjoyment” of SL’s freedom leads, naturally, to abuse. That is the state we’re at the moment. It could be foreseen. The larger the population, the most likely you get people unable to distinguish between both freedoms, and since the group understanding only “freedom to abuse” is the largest in RL, itr makes only sense that even in SL this group grows.

Fighting abuse is a full-time job – and not even then successfull. We have this lovely tool called “Abuse Report” which allows us to complain to Linden Lab whenever we see an injustice or feel that our rights – our “freedom” – has been abused. Of course, this is a powerful weapon to put in the hands of residents. You can stuff the abuse report queue with so many reports (again, it’s in your “freedom” to do so…) that LL will only be able to reply to them after months – sometimes too long, since not every resident stays in-world to hear the veredict. And even if he/she does, the harm was done so long ago, that it’s pointless to insist.

So, what is the alternative? One could consider a massive influx of new Liaisons, but that would hardly be a cost-effective solution. Things like the Welcome Area – a special meeting place for everyone welcoming the new users – are completely out of control, for months. It’s rather more the unwelcome area – quoting myself, kindergarten during break hour, with all teachers absent. Although there have been Liaisons around, and even a “Mentor Special Task Force” called on emergencies (of course, in an unorganized way), the truth is that one or two Lindens are helpless to deal with the chaos, and Mentors are just regular residents with a fancy title – they’re most likely to attract the wrath of griefers first than be of any serious help.

In the mean time, fraud and abuse all over Second Life are rampant, and grow unchecked. Feeling that the abuse report system is clogged, that people are successfully able to pull their scams without any punishment, that the multiple-avatar rule is a safe way to constantly replace the hosts of griefers, the Dark Side of the Force is definitely gaining followers. After all, if you suffer no consequences, and your way of having fun is depriving others of either their fun or their money, who’s to stop you? Not the Lindens, that are overstressed to deal with so many problems at the same time…

New scams are invented every minute. The defective land tools are an excellent way to deprive residents unfamiliar with the complexity of the real estate business of their money. Also, even if you do it “legally”, on the mainland scammers now resort to creative tacticts – building horrid constructions only to force others to sell cheap and go away, encircling smaller plots completely and activating ban scripts (so that you’re unable to go to your home, nor invite your friends over). Some of these tactics are perfectly “legal” under ToS, and it’s hopeless to appeal to the Lindens for help – nothing really prevents people to “harass you” visually or by using the tools that have been created to deal with harassment for exactly the opposite purpose. Here and there, some Lindens tend to define stricter rules for proper use of those tools, but the truth is, there are far more creative ways to abuse them.

Recently people were advertising “sim bombs” on public websites – devices that you can buy, press the button, and force the sim to reload. Yes, that’s how far we have gone in SL – plain terrorism. While selling these kinds of items is not forbidden, its use is cause for immediate ban. But so what? You create a new account, get money transferred from your main account or from a friend, buy the “sim bomb”, release it on a sim, disconnect and cancel that account permanently. Repeat ad nauseam – and you’re free from ToS or any sort of abuse report (which is targetted to an avatar, not to a real person). There are lots and lots of ways to get randomly-generated VISA cards with fake names, that are used just for the purpose of verification of your age, and discarded well before LL charges you anything.

It’s not my purpose to describe what sorts of things are possible to make SL a worthless experience for others – unfortunately, this platform, designed for creative people, is attracting all sorts of creative griefers as well, and they are able to do things utterly imaginative.

I’ve discussed “sexual harassment in SL” on some forums and in-world discussion groups. However, this time, we have “digital terrorism” – the equivalent of real-life crackers. But they are much worse. Crackers usually target a specific system or service, either for their own benefit, or just to annoy; digital terrorists in SL usually target everybody, intended victims and innocent bystanders alike.

They are very ingenious, and the following example should show you the incredibly difficult moral dilemmas that Linden Lab has to face. Peaceful Resident Adam Avatar buys a tiny plot of First Land at the edge of a new sim, a pretty new one, so it’s unusually fast. Quickly the nearby plots are filled with new residents, buying happily their First Land. Since they’re filled with a certain naivity common to new residents, they happily talk to each other, bonding, creating a happy community, a nice neighbourhood to live in.

Suddenly, the real estate terrorists target this particular sim – maybe it’s conveniently located near a telehub, or perhaps it has escaped yet the attention of the bigger landowners, or perhaps the ethical real estate agents think it takes too much time to buy all the tiny plots, one by one, in order to create a megamall. So, the real estate terrorists – let’s call them “land sharks” – enter this sim, and start bullying some of the newer residents with their tiny plots: “you either sell and go, or else…”. “Or else” is usually much more than a simple threat. They can buy neighbouring plots, and set a “griefing tower” – something which creates lag, fills the screen with particles or lights, disturbs the landscape, whatever. Soon one or two residents pack up and go, and the sharks eagerly add a few more parcels to their growing plots. Now it’s the old “divide & conquer” strategy: you surround the tiny plots with your own terrain, put the names of the small landowners in your ban list, and effectively prevent them from going into their land (except through the “teleport home” feature), and, worse, people can’t visit them at all. Since this is a borderline behaviour regarding the ToS, it means that the Lindens will not intervene happily. And at this time, the small landowner also understands that abuse reports take half a year to be processed, so it’s better to leave the land for the sharks, and move on.

The original community of happy residents dwindles to a few seelcted ones, who stubbornly remain, eventually because their plot is not easy to “surround” or is away from the “particle towers”. In any case, the land sharks can’t take too much time to get a profit from their land – they know that sooner or later, repeated “abuse-like” behaviour will attract attention from the Lindens – so they invest in their mega-mall instead, with a thousand active scripts, and tons of events. The few scattered First Land owners suddenly find themselves in a pretty laggy region, full of towers blocking the view, and understanding that no one will like to visit or attend any sort of event there.

The last ones to go may, thus, easily be turned over to the Dark Force as well. After all, if you go, it’s good to go with a revenge. Adam Avatar now creates a new alt, Caim Avatar, and buys a few tons of “sim bombs”, push guns, earthquake devices, or whatever may be the fashion in terms of “terrorism warfare”. By timing things carefully whenever there are many people in the megamall/club/casino, Caim Avatar now plants his doomsday device, and runs away, cancelling his account. The sim blows up repeatedly, or people get harassed in other ways, and the land sharks get really pissed off. They start to gather evidence (often illegally) about Adam, and spread slander and libel about Adam – who, in turn, having gotten rid of Caim, will denounce the “land shark campaign” against “a poor First Land owner”. Adam has actually a pretty good chance in the forums, for instance – he’ll present himself as a “poor victim” and earn the credibility and respect of SL’s virtual community (since everybody loves the David vs. Golias story). The “war” escalates. At some point in time, Linden Lab has to intervene.

The question is, who is guilty in this case?

Poor Adam just shrugs his shoulders and, after being “exposed” as Caim Avatar (“ah-HAH!”, yell the land sharks. “We ALWAYS knew it!”), he would plead that he never would have become a digital terrorist if the land sharks would assume a more ethical behaviour. After all, Adam was the only one of the “innocent victims” that fought back – he’ll be able to give a long list of people living at that sim who went away in disgust, thanks to the “domination tactics” employed by the land sharks. And he’ll be able to accuse them of almost everything – scams, unethical behaviour, bullying, mobbing, divide & conquer tactics, and so on. He, Adam Avatar, only employed force when reasoning was impossible. And so many others hailed him as a brave “fighter” against the land sharks, when so many simply abandoned the field, shaking their heads.

What a tough time for dealing out Linden justice…

People in SL are cunning and devious well beyond what they would be in RL, and the reason is pretty simple: judgement is slow, punishment is light, and by stressing that you have “freedom of expression”, you will be able to override the ToS most of the time, except for those clear-cut cases. But there are increasingly less clear-cut cases – more are on the “shady” region, where it’s hard to decide who has acted wrongly first.

So, what is the natural reaction? Push people too far, ignore their pleas, and they’re going to take the matter of justice with their own hands.

A small group (which shall remain unnamed) started a few months ago a “newbie protection system”, mostly for dealing with violence, abuse and harassment in the public sandboxes. Since some new residents have to use the public sandboxes – having no other place to go – and you can use all sorts of scripts there, it’s pretty easy to get abused. Liaisons can’t be at all places at the same time, so it’s mostly the Mentors who try to go there and sort things out – which almost always doesn’t work, since the “Mentor title” is just a different way to yell “Shoot me!”. So, this group started to use heavy weaponry instead – super-strong push weapons, unmoveable “anchor” fields, and shiny armour acting as a shield and giving you immunity to several other weapons. They were “Mentors on steroids” – dealing with abuse with force, not with nice words – and with a Code of Honour (if you failed to comply with that Code of Honour, you’d be dropped from the group). So, for a while, this self-proclaimed SWAT team roamed the sandboxes, and I guess that they were slightly successful. The question is, is this the sort of environment we want to live in?

Others are starting to join forces and simply leave the mainland. Some previous articles showed a few examples of “private communities” which are appearing spontaneously all over the place. People need protection, and inside private sims they can get it. Of course, you lose one of the most fascinating aspects of living in the mainland, which is – for me at least – the ability to relate with your neighbours, people that you probably never met before but which live next to your door, and now have a pretext for getting together and have fun, even if their experiences are completely different. Exchanging different experiences and points of view is intellectualy stimulating, and this was the hard-selling point of the mainland. Whereas on the private sims, you come with your own neighbourhood, or you join a neighbourhood that has its own rules (which you agree with – or not, and move away). This is the same sort of philosophy behind the closed condominiums – “we cannot care what goes on in the outside world, as long as we are safe from it”. I find this a bit disturbing, although, honestly, I cannot condemn that idea.

This “first step” is definitely catching on – if you can’t fight them, isolate yourself from them. Even the Cabinhead project – a sort of a “Greeter Island”, under private rule and control, to avoid griefers to annoy newcomers – is due to be launched soon. Basically, this will allow newcomers who benefit from the Greeter program to get an instant teleport to a newbie-friendly zone – sort of a “real” welcome area, and not a “griefing area” – where they can get further information and real help, as well as an advise telling them that they’ll be able to log in at the welcome area, but explaining to them that this area is everything but “welcoming” these days.

Of course, this is polemic – after all, this is still going to be a “private island” with its own access rules, and not open to the public. These days, Mentors, Instructors, and Greeters are as easily griefers themselves, or at least abusers of the system – taking advantage of their “status” to scam newbies – so, Cabinhead will need to screen them properly. But the owners are just residents – thus, targets for accusations of favouritism (of course they will “favour” people they know over others with an unknown reputation!).

And lastly you have all sorts of proposed “regulation authorities” – bodies of residents trying desperately to organize themselves against the griefers/scammers, promoting ethical business, and voicing their opinions against the Dark Side of the Force publicly. They set up sites to promote their goals; they annouce and discuss their ideas on the forums; they set up in-world meetings to argue about ways of organizing themselves against the threat of griefing/scamming. Sometimes these groups grab the attention of the Lindens themselves, or of very old residents. Naturally enough, these groups are viewed wirth suspicion – both by the griefers/scammers, who are afraid that these groups are able to change anything, but also by the more common variety of residents who always suspect about the hidden agendas of “residents organizing themselves”. Throw in a Linden or two, or one of the older residents, and immediatly a a new paranoid conspiration theory is born, and for weeks the forums will denounce that group as being more harmful for the SL society than beneficial.

However, I really think that there is no other way out.

SL organizations are desperately needed

The problem right now is that any group that organizes itself to promote “ethical behaviour” in SL will have two different battles to fight. First, of course, the battle against the griefers/scammers. This is an easier battle – almost everybody is against griefing/scamming, although so many are confused about what griefing/scamming really is. The first issue of these groups is to try to define ethical behaviour. I must admit that people were arguing in-world if buying land for L$ 1 per square metre is or not “ethical”. Both sides of the argument often sit on the same meeting, both claiming to be right. It’s hard to “define” a rule that will please both camps, and on several other “shadier” examples, things are much harder (ie. think about the Adam Avatar above).

The harder battle, of course, will be to convince the larger part of the SL community to accept these groups as useful. You can view the current SL population as a bell-shaped curve. On one extreme, you have 5% of griefers, scammers, abusers, and all sorts of people relying on unethical behaviour to make their way through SL. On the other extreme, you have another 5% of people worried about the state of things in SL, and wishing to suggest and propose ideas to limit and contain the amount of unethical behaviour in SL. These are the ones that self-organize in different ways. In the middle you have the 90% who either don’t care, or, much worse than that, think that the 5% of “organizers” are much more dangerous than the 5% of “griefers”, and voice this opinion publicly. Their reasoning is simple: those 5% want to “rule the world” with their ideas, and this is dangerous. Since that type of claim actually touches a tender nerve on all of us – who still dream every day about the “freedom of expression” – they easily get public support, to a point where even the Lindens must admit that they cannot allow something to exist which displeases the community at such a vast scale.

Don’t neglect the anti-organizing faction. They’re very, very strong; mostly, very intelligent people who draw a lot of support, and have had a lot of experience with online communities. They know that in almost all cases, organized communities will fail, due to “favouritism” and corruption. There are exceptions, yes, but they are very few, and the risk far outweights the eventual benefits. They promote the idea that griefers should be addressed by Linden Lab, and urge LL to increase their vigilance, to change their ToS/Community Standards to encompass more guidelines, and demand faster replies to abuse reports. A failure of LL to comply with those demands will mean that more griefers go unpunished, and that more “elitist” groups will form, trying to defend their “rights” and their “views” of what “ethical behaviour” means.

It’s very hard to fight these well-constructed arguments. Imagine someone proposing the use of nuclear energy in the middle of an ecologist meeting. You’d argue that with one single nuclear power plant, you could get rid of dozens of coal/oil power plants, which are much more polluting, and even argue that you wouldn’t need so many dams, whih create artificial lakes, changing habitats and disturbing the ecology. It would be both cheaper and safer, and even the byproducts of a nuclear plant – clean, warm water – could be recycled and used directly. But you could argue with all the statistics you wished, and no matter how well intentioned you were with your opinions, there is simply no way a group of ecologists would listen to you.

That’s the same thing that happens to the self-organizing groups in SL. The secret of their success won’t be in the way they can convince the 5% of their “cause” – or even Linden Lab, who never hided that they would prefer the community to enforce their own rules – but how they will get 90% of the population to accept their ideas. They view both “griefers” and “organizers” as threats to their own status quo – and are not interested in siding with either extreme. Like in real life, I think that things must become much worse before they can improve; right now, 90% of the population is not really so worried with griefers/scammers (“after all, their schemes do not affect me, and let LL deal with the rest”), since Second Life apparently has a much lower griefer ratio than other platforms. Thus, organizers are viewed with suspicion, since they are seen as more harmful than beneficial to the community.

My personal opinion is very simple. The best we have in Second Life is not “freedom of expression” (since that sadly means you can abuse it), but more “freedom of choice”. Organization is “good” in so far as you can opt-in for organization, but leaving you the choice of keeping away from it. This, I think, is the first important step – making sure that organizations are voluntary. If you join them, you get extra protection; if you don’t think you need that extra protection, you are able to say “no”.

Thus, I envision things like private islands with megamalls where a strict code of business practices is actively enforced (yes, they do exist). People will shop there because it’s safe to do so – no griefers, and no shopkeepers scamming you. The same already applies with the renting or leasing options on private sims. A group oversees that the land in those communities is properly planned and the buildings upon them are strictly following the guidelines. In both cases, if you don’t like so many rules – buy in the mainland.

A similar approach can be done towards “ethical business practices”, which are not tied to a particular sim. A group of people may voluntarily agree to a certain code of conduct. The ones that follow it will be able to promote their wares and services, announcing their compliance with a “business code of honour”. If they fail to follow that code, they will be punished by their own organization – which, in turn, will be “punished” by the population at large if they fail to deal sanctions to members of the group who did not follow the code.

Also, some groups definitely could need more self-organization. For some reason, the Mentors have had a “special” status – it comes from a time where being accepted as a Mentor was not easy, you really had to have a pretty good SL reputation. Some people, like Malana Spencer, are actively promoting some sort of organization between Mentors – getting them to regularly do events at the same spots, for instance, so that they are easier to spot on the Event list. Also, by spreading the news that a certain spot always has some sort of class going on, will be known by word-of-mouth, and people will refer new residents to that spot – no matter who is running the class at the moment. It will be a SL reference. Other Mentors are involved in the above mentioned Cabinhead project; others meet spontaneously in-world, exchange ideas for classes, warn other fellow Mentors about known griefers or “negrate freaks”, and so on. Although the Mentor community traditionally was very unorganized, this is slowly changing.

Grouping together to bring order to SL seems to be a new fad. After all, we cannot fail to remember that many griefers are organized as well – to the point of having their own identity and culture. The Second Life Herald sometimes write about that culture, at the same level of RL graffiti artists, for instance. They can also form groups to collectively present a stronger force when doing a “griefing attack” – most of us have successfully dealt with a single griefer in one event, but get 5 or 6 together, and the event is definitely ruined. So, if griefers organize, we must organize as well.

Will we have a strongly organized SL after all? It will be interesting to watch. As slowly my first SL year comes to an end, I have definitely changed my views over time. From open skepticism about any sort of “organization”, I have come to see “organization” as being tolerated, then accepted, and nowadays as a “need”, although people are still struggling with the “best” way to organize themselves.

Law comes to the Wild West? We shall see.

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