The Big Controversies in Second Life

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Societies and communities have their own “backgrounds”. Although Second Life® does not have equivalent concepts to “skills”, “levels” or “experience”, commonly found on massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs), there is a single difference between a brand new resident and an older one: you’ll be familiar with the complexity of relationships inside Second Life, and, most likely, have an opinion on the types of controversies that occur in this virtual world.

So, to bring you up to date on what people talk about, and what you’re expected to know, here is a list of topics. Most people, after a few months, will have very strong opinions on most or even all of them. Some will not even recognise those as being “controversal”; many will ignore their existence; and some, while having read a bit about it, will clearly state they don’t want to give any opinion on it, since they don’t care (which is, in a sense, an opinion as well!).

In a world where you’re defined on what you think about issues, “having an opinion” is your ultimate way to depict your self…

Social aspects

Group tools

No matter how much people ignore them, the abstract notion of “groups” in Second Life, as supported by the new and improved group tools, is the (current) focus of structure in Second Life. Groups allow mega-corporations, local artisan’s collectives, or a simple way to get announcements from your favourite club. They determine co-ownership of items and land. They facilitate communication and they bring together people with similar-minded issues. Thus, they’re the very blood of SL’s society.

You’re defined by the groups you join, and very likely, your choices will define the persona you present to others. If you’re fond of partying, you’ll be subscribing to as many club groups to stay in touch with their announcements — since everybody will know that all you care about is to join these. If you’re a big landowner, you’ll have several rental/land management groups. “Being in a group” is, thus, the first step of showing others your place in Second Life.

Sooner or later, you’ll develop an evaluation of what these groups mean to you, how their limitations affect you and your friends, and they will also get you in touch with similarly-minded people who share your views. You won’t be able to escape being labeled because of the groups you’ve joined.

The “SLogosphere” vs. in-world society

Forums, blogs, websites, Snapzilla, and videos and pictures posted on everything ranging from MySpace, Flickr, Google Video, you name it. These days, you see one new website becoming part of the SLogoshpere every day. While at one time you were able to keep up with a handful of blogs and the Linden forums, nowadays you have to work harder. The sheer amount of data and information that is written (and read!) about Second Life is daunting.

Sooner or later, you’ll have to make choices: what are you going to read? What will be your choice? Because, at the end of the day, your choice will define your interests, your affiliation, and where your heart lies. It’s next to impossible to list them all — but once it was easy to be a “SL celebrity”, just post on the Linden forums. Nowadays, with just 600 or so users, the Linden forums are just a pale shadow of their former glory; even Prokofy Neva’s blog has far more regular readers than that. So your choices of where to get current information will be way more overwhelming. What should you do? Whom should you ask as a reference? Should you look up del.icio.us to see what they recommend? Or Technorati? Or Digg? Or Blogshares, or… well, you see, with literally thousands of websites related to Second Life, you’ll have a tough choice. How will you know you have made the right one? 🙂

Favouritism and the gamer culture

Many users of Second Life — some would say, the majority of them — come from popular gamer culture, which is a rather fascinating subject to investigate properly, perhaps on a separate essay, although I’ve alluded to it before (yes, even Linden Lab is seriously contaminated by the gamer culture).

Gamer culture has its own social norms, which are quite unlike the “real world”‘s social norms. They split the world between the “Gods” (creators of the universe) and the “Users” (players of a game). The closer one is to the “Gods”, the more you can ask from them. Thus, favouritism bends the “rules” by giving some people a higher percentage of “success” — it is shunned.
One expects the “Gods” to be as fair and neutral as possible. But what happens when they aren’t? And what signs do you expect to see when the Gods play unfair?

On MMORPGs, the signs are sometimes clear to see: a “friend of the Gods” gets an impossible-to-find item just after days of entering the game. Or they get killed, but somehow still keep their character. Or their suggestions become new features. This all is obvious, blatant favouritism.

On Second Life, however, things are not so easy. Sure, some people have gotten a discount on a private island, because they have a “cool” project. Residents will yell “favouritism” — but in reality, that group was perhaps a non-profit company (or exchanged part of their fee in return of some RL advertising on some sort of media). Nobody might know the reason why LL gave a discount to that group. Is that favouritism? You see, we might never know everything between the transactions between a company (LL) and a partner (the group getting the private island). Unlike what happens in MMORPGs, Linden Lab actively engages into negotiations with other companies…

The more common sort of “favouritism”; however, comes simply from good ideas. While some might view Linden Lab as “Gods”, they’re not omniscient. They make mistakes. Very often they choose the “worst” path towards a goal. And suddenly, out of nowehere, someone comes up and publicly says: “Why don’t you do it this way? It is much better like that!” Sometimes, Linden Lab reads that comment and implements exactly that. Favouritism? Hardly so. LL is not a company run by mindless white-collars. They understand some issues, and they can see how sometimes an idea from a resident is much better than their own ideas. And thus they implement it.

Give Linden Lab enough good ideas — or solid, constructive criticism — and they will be prone to listen to you more. Favouritism again? No, just a question of an attitude. You see, people with good ideas and knowing a way to implement them, in a non-costly manner with few resources, are precious: they’re sometimes called business consultants 🙂 So, LL is getting free consultancy. They would only be stupid if they didn’t take advise for free, if people are willing to give them that. Favouritism? Now things become tricky…

Real life software houses depend on input from their customers to make products better. But they work like dictatorships, not like democracies. Not everyone is “allowed” an opinion — since just because you’ve got an opinion, it doesn’t mean that you know what you’re saying. Naturally enough, crying out loud “Stop lag immediately! SL sucks!” is definitely not being helpful — it’s just emitting a (rude) opinion. While giving them a link to a free graphics engine where some issues with alpha textures are better dealt with, and pointing out the sections in the code that could be used by Linden Lab to improve their client, would be a valuable piece of information. LL, here, acts like a software company. They have to filter out the chaff from the wheat — and naturally enough, the ones whose opinion on “why lag sucks so much” will be left behind. Immediately, the community will yell “favouritism”.

Understanding what exactly is “favouritism” in the context of a software house which has to strive for improving their product to keep their customers happy is not easy. I claim that the whole notion is part of the “gamer culture” that has to be discarded as quickly as possible in order to advance SL successfully as the future Metaverse, but many disagree. You have to work out your own answer.

Ostracism and discrimination

Let’s face it: we all have encountered clear, blatant examples of discrimination, segregation, and ostracism in real life. Be the company where all the chiefs are males but the females do all their work; your colleague who is gay and never gets a promotion; the Afro-American Einstein sitting on a corner filing forms with his potential neglected — we all have seen similar examples in our alleged “equalitarian” world. But we humans are pattern-seekers, and quickly apply stereotypes and labels to our experiences.

Some would even go so far as to claim that this is the way our brain works: instead of filing each individual we met with complete data, we classify every individual in neatly tight, isolated boxes with a label. And then we add some extra tags on top of it. That way, our brains can just store the differences from proptotypes, but some neurologists even claim more than that: that our capacity for tagging people is limited. The authors of the Monkeysphere concept tend to defend that we can only keep track of a limited number of people as being part of our close sphere of contacts (150, according to some theories). Beyond that, every human being in the world has to be stereotyped, and that’s the way we deal with people beyond the Monkeysphere.

It’s hard to say if this concept is correct or not, but at least it explains prejudice very neatly. Prejudice appears because we classify someone under a stereotype, with its own tags and flags, and simply don’t bother to “update” the information for a particular individual, because we don’t care (or, perhaps, because our brain can’t handle it).

What this means is that even in Second Life you’ll get very strong ostracism. The most usual example in the book is the recurring prejudice against furries, which is truly not rationally explained. Like many dozens of thousands of people, I have some furry friends, have been around at their marvellous places (and are still amazed every day I visit Luskwood), and have some good customers among their community. The ones I talk to are clever, friendly, and often very very dedicated — I can see how hard they work at the Help Islands, for instance: you can rely upon them to be available and to come when you call for help.

But most of the resident population doesn’t see them that way. Why? Under their stereotype tags, they flag furries as “deviant sexual behaviour” (more of that in a minute) and “egotists”. Egotism leads to individualistic behaviour, which means that sooner or later, one will ignore other’s feelings and needs, but just your own — you have the basis for griefing there. So, in people’s minds, a furry is tagged as a griefer. And there is nothing one can say to change people’s opinions on that. It’ll be a stereotype that gets propagated all over the virtual world, and is so hard to shake it lose.

I’ve never been “griefed” by a furry — rather the contrary, I got help from furries when dealing with some griefers. They are community builders, not destroyers — in fact, one of the largest community in SL is run and inhabited by furries. The largest community destroyer I’ve ever met was an insignificant human being, a Caucasian, living in a democracy, happily married and with a child, and who is studying for a PhD, allegedly helping people with Alzheimer in real life. What could be more further from the typical stereotype for a “griefer”?

Still, it’s not my place to discuss the way stereotypes grow into ostracising people or whole communities — just to warn you out. Yes, ostracism exists in Second Life, and prejudice runs very deep in the resident’s veins. You have been warned — chose your friends carefully, and ask them what they think about. You’ll be far better off if you know beforehand how people will react to stereotypes.

Borderline behaviour

It is not my place to discuss the aspects of “hacker culture” — it used to be a word that some people were proud of. Being a hacker would simply mean having the necessary know-how (often applied to computers, but not necessary exclusively to them) to be able to do amazing feats with simple tools that would seem impossible to the eye of an unexperienced person. That’s all it was.

On the computer networks of the world, the word “hacker” has become synonymous with cyberterrorism, massively destroying systems and networks, often for cybercrime. And in a lower key, they’re “annoyances” — the guy that is able to remotely shut down your computer just because he’s exploiting a security breach. Annoying, but hardly “dangerous”.

The problem becomes more serious when these types develop an egotistical, autistical, sociopath-like behaviour. The emergence of things like Asperger’s Syndrome, which has studied deeply the connections with a certain degree of autism with highly intelligent individuals, has become a focus for many studies in human behaviour. In earlier times, we would call them “arrogant, egotistical bastards” — people who would care only about themselves, and employ their intelligence and cleverness to gather benefits only for themselves, disregarding the whole world. This is rather well studied nowadays, and you can understand much better all the nuances of this kind of borderline behaviour. An interesting aspect of SL is that, for instance, many people with Asperger’s Syndrome are actually community leaders — they always explain to me that SL allows them to “filter out” very successfully “confusing signals” from voice and body language, and they can thus employ all their intelligence and skills towards social interaction (I’m quite sure that once we get VoIP, things will not look so bright for our Aspies). A fascinating concept, well worth another essay 🙂

Still, it’s true that sociopaths abound, lurking in virtual communications, and Second Life is not an exception. On virtual worlds and MMORPGs, they’re called “griefers” because they inflict grief upon others. On textual communications (forums, news, blogs…), they’re “flamers”. Totally egocentric, on what Kohlberg would call the pre-conventional level of moral reasoning, these individuals never evolved beyond autoritarianism and moral relativeness. Every action is justified if it gives the self any advantage; you associate with others only to improve yourself. The rest of the world are basically mindless beings that are to be preyed upon (unless they have the power of authority, ie., if they can lock you up in jail). They also view everyone else as being at the same stage of moral reasoning.

This is a stage that we all go through when we are children, but almost all of us will evolve towards later stages. However, a large number will never evolve beyond those basic levels. They’ll remain utter egotists — we can call them sociopaths — for the rest of their lives. This will not mean that they will be violent, or automatically become murderers or rapists. Not at all. They simple will not be able to understand why there is a need for something like “sharing” (thoughts, goods and services, feelings, a common culture) — the concept will not make sense to them at all. Only the self will matter.

Second Life has an interesting catalyst for so many sociopaths to come to it: it doesn’t actively enforce (almost) anything. Griefers go mostly unpunished — they simple log off with an account, and log back in with an alt. On the mainland, you can’t even touch them — if you do, a clever griefer will file an Abuse Report on you instead, and send a clever email to Second Life on how awful you are and how deeply they were hurt by your actions, and that they’re now going to leave SL because they never thought it would be so bad… remember, these guys are often very, very clever.

Help Island is a notorious place where people are completely at the mercy of griefers, and they know that very well. No Mentor might lift a hand against the griefers — that would mean immediate removal of the Mentor status, which is not so easy to get. But on the other hand, there is no way you can protect either you or the new users from griefers. The new users will be too confused to be even able to react. The griefers, with returning alts, will be able to do whatever they please.

There are tricks and strategies to deal with this kind of borderline behaviour, but they’re not easily applied — it takes some training, and some skill as well. Most people are simply unprepared to confront griefers — because in real life, if you’re harassed, you go to the police. In SL there is no police, no justice, no laws, no enforcement. This is very hard to accept for many, who are used to live under democratic institutions and a code of law — and naturally, it’s only when you miss those that you understand how important they are 🙂

Sociopaths are actually dangerous for a virtual world that touts “social interaction” and a “collaborative environment”, specially if they are allowed (as they are) to roam the world unchecked. It means that sooner or later you’ll meet them, but you have to understand their psychological traits and not let them affect your enjoyment and participation in SL. Too many people get such a strong reaction against griefers and leave, never to return. This is actually the wrong approach; one should stay and ignore the griefers, since the more they’re ignored (something which can be very difficult for some), the faster they will go elsewhere, where they can be the focus of attention. Griefers, unable to deal with social relationships, only know one way of gathering attention: by disrupting social networks. If you prevent them of doing that, they’ll leave.

Deviant behaviour is not found only on this area, but on many others, mostly of a sexual nature. Being not an expert in those, I will mostly let you explore for yourself. A few articles on Wired magazine by Regina Lynn should be able to give you a good outlook on the many possibilities for sexual interaction in the virtual world of Second Life (Regina had also a special appearance at the SLCC 2006). Here, you’ll truly have to keep a very open mind! About a third of all users of Second Life have some sort of relationship inside the virtual world, and in many cases, it is everything but conventional. Failing to respect that will get you ostracised 🙂

Political aspects

Anarcho-syndicalism, anarchism, or libertarian neoliberalism?

Forget “communists” vs. “capitalists”; the notions are too blurred to fit in exactly. Calling someone a “communist” because they only participate in volunteer projects (say, social causes, fundraising events) where someone else pays for the land and you only provide your work in a team collaborating on construction projects is a too narrow-minded view — people might do that simply to gather attention for their shops/malls or services, so these can be just marketing stunts of a good capitalist. Similarly, just because someone owns vast amounts of land and hundreds of tenants, it doesn’t mean they’re automatically ruthless capitalists — they might use all that money, for instance, for social causes: in SL, this means mostly helping out new users with free (or low-cost) rental areas, providing them with prefab homes, helping them out setting up their shops on a “common ground”, and so on.

The old labels simply don’t apply so well. Still, a few trends can be spotted, the anarchist being the best example. Anarchists will disregard any rule whatsoever, except the ones they have created for themselves. Many, unlike the common stereotype, are not loners. A good example is concertated griefing: they disrespect and disregard everybody else’s buildings and privacy, are strongly convinced that the fun of Second Life is having a game where you can do whatever you want to do without repercussions. Everybody should do the same, and settle on the boundaries — “you don’t shoot me, I don’t shoot you” approach.

Anarchists can be utterly non-violent. They do simply what they want to do, but don’t disturb anyone while doing it. They just want to be left in peace, and enjoy what they do. Nobody has the right to bother them.

Anarcho-syndicalists are very commonly found among older users. They group together to defend themselves from external threats. They idealise a Second Life where money, land, and prim limits are unnecessary and contrary to the purposes of making “a better world”. They also believe this to be Linden Lab’s plan for Second Life, and will defend the right to freely collaborate on amazing projects and concepts, without being tainted by money. Thus, they feel morally superior to the rest of the residents, who are still on a lower level of social thought, where “money” is still a needed concept. Not surprisingly, they’re angry at Linden Lab for having introduced the concepts of “money” and “propriety”, which they find utterly alien in “the brave new world” they’re building.

Many are effectively anarcho-capitalists (a notion that is disputed): they believe that the strength of their group is enough to defend their right to free trade, without the interference of LL or, obviously, other groups. They want unbounded and unchecked free exchange of money, items, and services, but… only by having themselves as the sole producers of goods and services. To do that, they will form close bonds with LL’s employees, specially with the former residents who have become employees. Prokofy Neva identifies this group with the “Feted Inner Core”; no matter how informal or formal they are, they have the means to influence LL’s actions and planning, and exhibit two important aspects of social relationships: they protect themselves (ie. they work in a closed group), and they persuade LL to implement their concepts world-wide. Since they’re open to commerce — assuming, of course, that they are the providers, and the rest of the world are the consumers — LL tends to overly encourage members of this group as well — more in the past than nowadays. They are fond of structures of power that organise and plan this world according to their own views, to the exclusion of anyone else’s.

The larger majority of LL’s residents, however, are libertarian/neoliberalists. They believe in equal opportunities for making money for everybody; the best way of assuring that is keeping LL from interfering on the economy. They disregard and disrespect (and even find it dangerous) all kinds of resident-based organisations that promote some tort of ethical codes of business conduct. People ought to be free to exchange items and services as they like. What others call “cheating” or “lying” is just a twisted view on commercial practices — everybody knows that you’re allowed to “slightly bend the truth” when selling a product, and it’s up to the consumer to know “the rules of the game”, inform themselves, and shop from merchants with a good reputation — or the cheapest prices.

This group utterly despises the others, since they view them as dangerous inhibiters of free, unregulated commercial transactions in Second Life. The in-world economy is established by people selling their creations or services, not by fancy, utopian moral values that are imposed upon others. If people want complexity in defining “rules” to organise commerce — they should go away to RL and live there.

Many residents are neither of the above, of course, and are very likely on the moderate centre, either on social capitalism (SL companies have a moral obligation to develop this world to support new and poor users, through low-rent/low-cost mechanisms that allow poor residents to enjoy themselves, and slowly help them to work up in the social ladder) to what Rudy Rummel calls “soft socialism” (or Europeans call social democracy), a means where, through a non-voluntary financial contribution, businesses create a pool of money and resources to deploy structures (social and architectural) to be enjoyed by all (like, say, education, arts and culture in SL). These types of “moderate” residents are the ones commonly found around and being shocked by the lack of organisation, planning, and structure, and will volunteer their time (and often their money!) to better plan and organise things at the local level (their own groups, their own communities, their own businesses), hoping to “lead by example”.

Sooner or later you’re going to find people from all these groups, and the way you relate to them will label you accordingly. The daunting task of balancing friends from all these contradictory groups will get you ostracised by all of them 🙂

So, think about Second Life politics. What are you, a democrat, an anarchist, a libertarian, or you simply don’t care? Take a look at the Wikipedia’s page on forms of government to know what people are talking about!

Relationships towards Linden Labs

The employees

Lindens — love them or hate them. We all have our “favourite Linden”, and we all have that special guy at Linden Lab that we point to when things go wrong. Some will know who the Lindens were before they became Lindens, and they’ll be everlasting friends; some, for exactly the same reason, will be their antagonists forever.

Linden Lab has a rather heterogenous group of employees. While they share with us the bright-eyed, wonderful magic of Second Life, they have personal motivations as well. Each will look at SL in a different way — just like us residents (see below). Also, they are not ugly, lazy monsters that refuse to add this or that feature, or not answer the phone when you need; if there is something that unites them all, is their amazing ability to work hours after hours to make SL work — even if so very often they’re accused of doing exactly the opposite.

It’s hard to work at LL with such a demanding crowd of angry residents. Remember that they’re also humans, even if they can click on God Mode 🙂

The company

Being a Californian start-up, lead by visionary Philip “Linden” Rosedale, and funded by several visionaries as well (Mitch from Lotus 1-2-3 and Mozilla fame, Jeff from Amazon, Pierre from eBay… among so many others), Linden Lab is quite hard to understand as a company. They have an amazing (and utterly naive!) corporate culture — the Tao of Linden, meaning mostly that their employees can pretty much work on what they want, and hopefully they’ll cook something together that is greater than the sum of the parts. Hopefully 😉

Sometimes the company has the weirdest ideas. They’re the only software house in the world that doesn’t have a User Group (too worried about favouritism!) or a Partner Programme (they don’t understand the concept). They sell a software that allows integration with back-end application servers, but haven’t published any documentation on how that should be done. They get lots of press reviews and references in the (real) media, but they don’t have a marketing or advertising strategy. Their former “hired evangelist” left LL to create his own company, providing customers with consultancy services on how to create a virtual presence in Second Life. They don’t make deals to get ads inside SL to at least cover some of the costs. All in all, this company is too weird to defy description!

To baffle even more the ones desperately looking for any signs of “corporate culture” at Linden Lab (and who are obviously quickly disappointed), they’ll soon find out that it’s impossible for LL to be a huge profitable company. They’re a struggling one, covering the costs, but still struggling. Return on investment will take decades, if not more — they are now on a steep exponential growth curve, and we all know how dangerous these are, after three years of steady, linear growth. Still, they don’t make a lot of money, but they’re still around. Why? How?

The answer is simple: Linden Lab is lead by visionaries, not by business people. They want to create something unique, something that has never been tried before. And for that you need stubbornness — not greed. Being a visionary in the post-bubble days is something very hard to be! But still they struggle along.

Also, you will have to make your opinion on what Linden Lab’s role in Second Life is. Are they “distant gods” that “left the world in our hand”, just coming in to observe what we’re doing? Are they benevolent dictators ruling over a mostly libertarian landscape, just stepping in for some blatant violations (hate speech, child porn) but letting us do whatever we please? Or are they “merely” a software developing house which created an amazing platform for creating the Metaverse, and we should deal with them like we deal with any other software house, and expect them to behave just like the Apples and Microsofts of this world? The way you relate with Linden Lab will also define what you think that Second Life actually is.
Skeptics — or realists perhaps? — think that LL has about 18 months to prove that it was worth to be stubborn, and to go along their planned route, despite not making enough money to make it worthwhile as a company. If LL has 3-5 million users by the end of 2007, they will gather a huge attention — the momentum will be so great that it will be unstoppable. Things like MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, and all these “social tools” of the much-touted “Web 2.0” will suddenly become meaningless — they will just be seen as crude attempts of doing something, at a very limited scale, of what Second Life can be and become: the ultimate social tool ever developed on top of the Internet, dwarfing everything done so far. At the same time, it’ll conquer its spot as one of the potentially most interesting e-Business marketplaces in the world: with 3-5 million users, they’ll easily have over US$ 10 billions in transactions per year, shadowing all the other virtual worlds, even if they’ll have a small overall share of all people connected to virtual worlds. The whole business (and techie) world won’t simply be able to ignore them and sweep them under the carpet.

If they fail — well, then, this technology was developed ten years too soon. People will still talk about it with fondness for a while, then quickly forget it and return to blogs and MySpace and Flickr and Google Video. And in ten years, someone will announce the Metaverse, using 3D photorealistic texturing and cheap goggles for an immersive experience “unlike anything ever done before”. Although, from a technological standpoint, compared to some 3D engines, SL might be terribly outdated, from the point of view of a product, it might just be on the market too soon.

The product

… which comes to the ultimate question regarding Second Life. Both amateur techies and professional programmers, system administrators, and network engineers tear their hairs (real and virtual) when they look at SL’s suite of clients and server applications. Why the so unconventional choices? Why was the group server writing on text files, and not on a database, thus limiting our choice of group tools? Why do we need to update our clients (dramatically so) every time a few bugs are fixed? Why is performance so terrible, and why do we have to suffer so much when over 25 avatars are in the same spot? Why does the asset server crash, if it’s supposed to be a cluster of servers? Why is IM proprietary, and not Jabber-based and federated with Google? Why did they stop development on Havok, on in-world HTML, or Speedtree — things that 10-year-old products have had for ages? Why the so many limitations and delays built-in on Linden Scripting Language, that all experts and professional scripters know how to work around (and are thus silly as a concept), but need to spend almost 90% of their development time doing so? Why are monetary transactions not atomic? Why is the whole user interface drawn by the renderer, instead of being on separate windows (on their own threads)?

Why, why, why?

On the other hand… why don’t we just pop over to another virtual world, where “everything works like it should”, and are instead on Second Life?

The interesting bit of Second Life’s technological platform is that sometimes it can work in such an awesome way that we have to think twice on “how did they manage to do that?” while on the very next moment a spike lag can make us turn back to reality and make us remember how clunky, primitive, amateurish, glued-together-in-a-hurry some things are.

As soon as you deal with both extremes — wonder and amazement when something works way better than it should, and grumbling and mumbling when it doesn’t — you’ll have to forge your opinion on Second Life, the Metaverse platform.

Philosophy

A game versus a platform?

Henrik Linden (now not working for LL any more) has coined two very interesting words that define Second Life’s experience very well. The first-generation SL residents were interested in Second Life as an “alternate reality”, one that is disconnected from “real life” but bears some resemblance to it. In this alternate reality you would be able to be whomever you wanted to be — and requests for revealing your real life data are considered rude. This group is called by Henrik “immersionists” — they want an experience where SL becomes a real country, with a real economy, where real people are going to live, have their jobs, have their fun. It will have nothing to do with the physical world. And they’re working hard to make this become true.

A later generation, the “augmentationists”, have a different point of view. They look at Second Life as an extension of real life — a tool, a platform, a communication medium, the 2nd generation World-Wide Web in 3D. For them, anonymity is as silly as faking your voice on a phone call; just because you’re a “phone number” you’re not a different person. And sure, people can have a job as virtual architects in Second Life — contracted in real life, with real customers, and paid in real US dollars. This doesn’t mean that SL is just work and no fun; rather the contrary, it’s an entertaining experience, a fun place to be and meet people. But it’s just that and nothing else.

Being trapped between both extremes, I can’t really say what to advise 🙂 I guess I’ll always be an immersionist struggling to look at Second Life as an augmentist. But you have to make the choice on your own — and be ostracised by the other group, forever.

Types of users

SL resident Jon Seattle defines four types of users of Second Life: Builders, who join Second Life to express their creativity by creating things — from buildings, textures, animations, clothes, to creating communities and interesting projects. At the extreme case, some are “self-builders” — known for their plethora of alts, each one a personality they have “built” for themselves. The second class are Business Owners. No matter what they do, they have a very strong focus on Second Life: this is a place to make money. Some are more or less obsessed with it, and the scale can be very different. Not everyone is an Anshe Chung; many will be perfectly happy to open up a small shop and sell their clothes. In any case, their idea is that SL is a nice place to open shop and cash in, by being good at some product/service and filling in a niche nicely. The third group (by far the largest!)are the Consumers. They are in SL to get entertained. They don’t really produce anything — SL is an escape, a place to relax, to be with friends, to get entertainment, to join groups, to have fun. They admire Builders because of what they do; they grumble at the prices set by Business Owners; but they accept both in their place in SL: to fill up the empty sims of this virtual world and get them some goodies. And lastly, there are the Debaters. These are usually untalented as creators and are lousy business owners; what they do, mostly, is to think about Second Life, and get an audience to listen to them (I’m sure Jon had someone in mind when he defined these four roles!), and mostly write/talk about it. They’ll be the proselytisers and evangelisers of all what is cool about Second Life — and will do that in-world, on blogs and forums, or or real world conferences.

No one is truly just one of these groups, but you’ll have to figure out what you are, because your needs and desires (and the ones of your group) will be quite different of the other groups! And they’ll be at odds with each other, when pushing for new features, for example.

But it’s not real!

After a few weeks online, you will very likely see how serious the inhabitants of Second Life are. They’ll get offended quite easily if you are rude to them. Drama will erupt because someone stole a texture, or because one sim was down for a few hours. And some residents will laugh at them and just shake their heads and say: “What are you making a fuss out of it, come on, this is not real, this is just a game”.

Although this naive group is slowly dying out, the question still remains to be answered at some point. What is “reality” after all? What we perceive with our senses? But through Second Life we have visual stimula; so why is it “less” real? When you watch a movie on TV, you know it’s not “real” but just “pretend”. But you still laugh and cry — why, if the people portraied there are just actors? And how do you know that what’s in the news, just before the movie begins, is “real”? Just because someone tells you so?

We are all humans here, with our motivations, our feelings, our friends and companions, our daily chores. No matter how much you can dismiss pretty pixels on a screen, you’ll have to face with the ultimate reality (virtuality?): there are people behind the screen, staring at you.

Identity and self

Avatars are cute pixelatted graphics with human souls

Extropia DaSilva will very likely be the reference of “self” and “identity” in Second Life. Even if you don’t agree with her ideas, this will definitely make you think a bit about what means when you talk about “self”.

All we know is that people in SL behave like people in real life. Their patterns of social conduct, norms, and even things like physical distance will be “brought” over to Second Life. We apologise for bumping into people; some men (or male avatars) open doors for women (or female avatars). We dress up for special occasions. We build homes, mostly on the ground, and with roofs (although it never rains inside, and our avatars don’t get wet). We adopt the language of our own medium, status, or reference group (computer programmers will talk about computer programming, lawyers will talk about laws). So, if we don’t identify with our cute pixellated avatars, why do we behave as if we do? 🙂

The question begs asking, and many will dismiss it saying that “I can look like I want in Second Life”. Sure you do. But why do 7-feet-tall ogres run for elections and talk like professors? Why does the blonde bombshell patiently train new users in scripting or building? Why does the lady dressed in a Victorian dress organise large groups of volunteers? Why does the guy dressed like Prince Charming flame the world with his bluntness and strong words, acting as a hero of the nation bringing righteousness to SL? The answer, of course, is that we can shed our physical aspect, but it’s way harder to shed our mental processes. You’ll behave in SL more likely like you behave in real life — unless you’re a very talented actor or role-player (and sure, these exist as well!). At the end of the day, you’ll be stripped off all physical attributes, and will commune with your fellow residents mind-to-mind. So, where is your sense of identity then?

Conclusion

Imagine you’re planning your travel to a new country which you haven’t visited before. These days, with the Internet so handy and with such a wealth of information on what to visit in any country (think Wikitravel), it makes a lot of sense to browse for the existing information before making a trip. Will you need vaccines? What are the nicest places to visit, and how will you be able to travel there? What do the natives speak or eat? And more important — what do they talk about?

Second Life gets more complex by the minute, as about 10,000 new users log in every day. Most of them just saw a link on a web page or a magazine, or watched a TV broadcast mentioning Second Life as the “virtual world” where every dream can become possible. They come unprepared and in desperate need of guidance. Just looking at the new users that drop in every day at Help Island, I would say that over two thirds simply come from other MMORPGs — with totally different expectations on Second Life: they want to know how they can make money, or where the red light district is. Another third simply has no clue — they have never logged to a virtual world before, and like the very first time when you connected your computer to the Internet and launched a web browser, they ask themselves: “Now, where do I begin?” The next question is most likely: “What is all this about?” or “What do I need to know”?

If you can answer each and every one of the questions on this article, and make an opinion on all the issues, well then, you’re ready to take the plunge into SL’s dynamic and complex society 🙂

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