Second Life’s New Red Light District

Underage in Second Life? No problem!

If only age-verified adults can enter any area flagged Adult, Linden Lab has also solved the next question: what to do about the Teen Grid? How to allow educators to have classes with a mix of underage and adult students?

For now, however, the Teen Grid will remain as it is, and teenagers will not be able to enter the Main Grid — not even the non-adult part of it. This will not change in the immediate future.

But we can certainly extrapolate.

Once the whole mainland is PG (or, rather, “ages 13 and above, no parental guidance needed” — I hope they change the name of the “PG” rating too, since it’s totally misleading), there is no problem to open the gates and let SL be flooded with kids. This means that the Teen Grid, which already appears on the SL Grid map, could be turned visible. Kids could freely start to visit the rest of SL too — safely so.

Linden Lab is introducing some new interesting tricks. It’s not just about “parcel access”. In fact, Adult content is not viewable by non-verified adults. If that means that the prims don’t appear at all, or that you see a “fuzzy” cloud around content marked Adult, we don’t know — yet. One thing is for sure: if you’re not a verified adult, you won’t see that content. Ever. Not on Search, not on Profiles, not anywhere.

If they have the technology to do that, it’s conceivable that they can do the same for mature content too. In that case, if the Teen Grid ever gets merged, kids would not even be able to see the mature content, only PG content. The important development with this announcement is that LL is able now not only to restrict parcel access but actually limiting the viewing of content by type. Once that works for one type — adult content — it’s possible to imagine that they extend it to other types as well (namely, mature).

There continues to be a problem, however: one thing is content, the other is interaction. I guess that the reason why the Teen Grid will remain is that there is no simple way to avoid kids interacting with adults. After all, in real life, you don’t have police regulating access to public areas by kids and adults, and we peacefully co-exist with them in public gardens, in malls, on the supermarket, even on the movie theatres. In Second Life this could happen too, as it happens on almost all virtual worlds. LL, however, remains cautious. The temptation of putting non-flagged content (ie. mature or even adult content incorrectly flagged as PG) in the hands of teens is too great, too easy, and too hard to police. So, for now, LL is not even considering that move.

But, again, let’s hypothetically assume that LL does, indeed, go ahead with the idea. After all, if WoW, IMVU, There.com, and all the others have no qualms of mixing teens and adults, why shouldn’t LL allow it, too? The risk is great — but in fact it’s the parents’ ultimate responsibility to control their kids, not LL’s.

Now, of course, what this means is that suddenly you would get kids all over the place. Not many — the Teen Grid is not densely inhabited, and a major reason for that is that it has few worthwhile content, lots of griefing, and a lack of overall overseeing, or so tells us Katharine Berry. For some residents this would be an opportunity: creating compelling content for the kids as well (schools will love the idea). For most, however, it will be a nuisance. Remember, there is no privacy in SL, so you cannot shut the door and keep the kids away: you’ll have to endure them.

Unless, of course, you move into the Adult regions, or the Adult Continent.

Now here we come to the next problem. What about adults that do not want to be age-verified?

I don’t want LL to know who I am!

If you’re a business manager and read that headline, you’d be shocked. If SL is all about business, and you cannot trust the other person’s identity, how can you establish a business relationship, except by providing your credentials? I have addressed this same issue on one of my essays about Post-immersionism, so I won’t go into that again.

However, Second Life has been strongly influenced by the Anglo-Saxonic ideal that nobody should be able to be forced to reveal their identity, except on extreme cases (e.g. opening a bank account, buying a house or driving a car). Revealing it voluntarily is fine, of course. But joining Second Life is hardly an “extreme case”. It worked wonderfully well so far for the past 5 years or so, and a glance at the LindeX shows how happy those millions of residents are exchanging millions of US dollars every month without much more than a pseudonym. In face of the facts, any explanation or theory of “pseudonymity doesn’t really work” will utterly fail.

Nevertheless, in this age of terrorism and a lack of security, it’s hard to change mentalities, and understand that the number of creeps and scammers has not increased, nor decreased, through more “validation” schemes. They just get cleverer. Still, it’s what people perceive as a threat that makes them respond emotionally; and people will always react to incentives, positive or negative. Right now, the incentive not to reveal any data about yourself is quite low because of a perceived lack of trust. At least in RL.

SL has traditionally been quite different. For the escapists — and to a degree, the immersionists as well — nobody really has to know who you are, so long as you’re not committing any crimes; and if you do, the authorities will find you anyway. Thus, if you claim you’re an adult and wish to see adult content, that should suffice — your word of honour. Granted, honour is out of fashion these days, and in real life, you have no choice there: if you wish to have access to adult content, in most parts of the world, you have to prove you’re an adult.

The question is how you prove it. On the Internet, the answer seemed to be “show us your credit card”, because, really, the number of sex-crazed teenagers stealing their parents’ credit card is surprisingly low, no matter what the media say. So I’m personally very happy to see that LL is reverting their policies and starting to accept credit cards as a valid method of age verification: I guess that they’ve consulted with their lawyers and agreed that it’s enough.

The problem, of course, is if you are an adult, but do not own a credit card, which is not so common outside the US (still, it’s more common than most people tend to think), and do not wish to send your personal data to LL’s validation services — a company that allegedly had in the past some close associations with selling profiling data for marketing purposes. Even if they don’t reveal specific customer’s data — but only generic data, with no ties with specific names — many are still uncomfortable with the idea.

What this means is that the university professor, with a solid RL reputation, who enjoys a flirt with her domme in the comfort of her gothic castle in SL, in perfect anonymity, has now a dilemma. From now on, she has no choice but to move to an Adult region. And that means getting validated.

Similarly, for the ones without a credit card, this means a complex validation method. I did try the “manual” validation back in December 2007 and it worked flawlessly and was very fast (a few hours). But even LL says that it can take 5-7 business days. If it takes that long just to get a sneak preview of “Adult Second Life”, most casual residents of SL will give up. Or, well, get a credit card.

This will be a complex change.

There is also a positive side-effect, of course. Adult areas will be griefer-free without much hassle — after all, if you need to validate your avatar to enter an Adult area, it means giving LL some real life information, which they will naturally use to block a griefer from ever logging back with an alt. Interestingly enough, this side-effect will do wonders for the economy. Anyone afraid of CopyBots will set up shop on Adult regions, since the risk of someone that has given their RL data to LL pirating your content is low. The piracy rings will stay away from those areas as well — or at least they will have to be incredibly careful, or devilishly clever. A few, of course, will continue to operate — but the incentive to continue those illegal activities, once LL has your RL data, will be much, much lower.

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