The Social Experiment

Second Life’s society today

Second Life is struggling to define itself as a social model. On one side, Linden Lab would prefer it to be right-wing libertarianism, or at the very least, laissez-faire capitalism (the difference between both is subtle). Residents wish the best of both worlds: laissez-faire capitalism but with a strong hand by Linden Lab “where it matters”: dealing with unfair trade, copyright infringements, fraud, and disruption of the peace (griefing). Anything else should be left out of Linden Lab’s hands.

However, Linden Lab has its hands tied. As they leave the notion of “carrier” more and more (a neutral entity that provides mere access to a service, but has no control over the content transferred through their infrastructure), and becomes a “service provider”, they’re subject to Californian law to make sure the content inside their infrastructure is complying. This causes several problems. On one hand, it makes Linden Lab partially liable for the kind of content their users create. With the acquisition of XStreetSL, since Linden Lab gets a fee from sales — even though it’s just L$, it can be reasonably proven that those L$ have a financial value — they are, to a degree, party to the sale, making them automatically liable for it. So, while on one hand Linden Lab would rather prefer that residents just do what they wish, and complain among themselves, they now have no choice but to interfere. And the more they interfere, the less “pure” this social experiment is going to become.

There is a huge stress between the two extremes… on one hand, online gambling had to be shut down, as well as offering banking services. Adult content, at least the extreme hard core adult content, was moved to a special area. Paedophilia is strictly forbidden, without appeal. In real life, all these would be expectable during the transition from right-wing libertarianism to a more central form of government: these are usually the first things that get regulated. On the other hand, Linden Lab had no choice but to combat ‘bots create “unfair advantage” on search scores, since the demand from residents to do something about it was overwhelming — and ‘bots put some stress on the underlying infrastructure as well, which obviously also hurts LL as a company. Content piracy is being addressed with much harder rules, and a more simplified model of reporting it. “Fraud”, while not explicitly mentioned on the Community Standards, can be reported as Abuse. While limiting all these is definitely a step towards making interpersonal exchanges in SL more “fair” (in the sense of ethically fair) or even “just” (in the sense that they are now more than vague guidelines, but bannable offenses), it also means that LL has to interfere more, and we all know what it means when the “government” has more excuses to interfere: it will put more and more rules in place and limit their residents’ freedoms more and more.

So, interestingly enough, we can look back to the seven years of Second Life (since the closed alpha tests) and see history fast-forwarding very quickly. I had predicted as early as 2005 that as more and more people would join SL, the more its society and control of that society would resemble more and more what happens in real life, for a simple reason: more and more “mainstream” users would become the majority of SL residents, and they would bring with them their own expectations on how a society should work — namely, just like the society they live in RL.

The era of experimenting with utopias and social models is slowly over. It’s not completely pushed away from the board, since we still have quite interesting differences. For example, many of the most notorious content creators in Second Life are still pseudonymous and earn a living from SL based solely on their reputation — not on the ID card emitted by their RL government. And Second Life, as an environment, is not a democracy, but a gentle form of benign dictatorship (or enlightened absolutism, as I prefer to call it) — the vast majority of residents still don’t want a democracy, but just the right to express their opinion freely (against LL and their fellow residents) without fearing retribution — but they don’t demand the right to vote for what they feel is better for SL.

The only problem I personally see with “enlightened absolutism” is that, unlike democracies, it tends to create conservative societies that change little, but just preserve the status quo. And this is definitely something that happens in SL right now: more and more you see typical inroads from the conservatives in SL. A degree of Puritanism has settled in SL which will be hard to shake loose — if at all — and the best we can hope for is that it doesn’t get worse.

However, it will be hard to prevent it. Second Life has now the dubious honour of being the sole virtual world out there that doesn’t treat their customers as children but as adult human beings. Unfortunately, like I love to say, “adult” is not a synonymous of “maturity”. The current generation of inhabitants of the Western World are sadly immature — too much time spent watching TV, I guess 🙂 — and this is a trend that will accelerate, not decrease. Maturity also implies responsibility, and these days, the main drive to happiness is not assuming so many responsibilities, seek pleasure wherever it is to be found, and focus on the self instead of the others. These are trends and signs that are exhibited throughout our societies, so it’s only natural they happen in Second Life as well. Unfortunately, it also means that to keep things in check — like we do with our children, or at least ought to do so — Linden Lab just has to be harsher with the rules, knowing full well that they cannot rely upon “common sense” to be the driving force for their residents’ achievements. We can’t really change the world — to change the world, you need to change the people first. All of them 🙂 And that’s an impossible task.

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