The Social Experiment

When I first left the Orientation Island on my rezday, a bit over five years ago, I remember to have bumped into (literally!) a lot of immensely creative residents. What they built on sandboxes was simply awesome and kept me amazed for hours upon hours. But what amazed me most was that the majority of residents back then were not top-of-the-line 3D modellers, designers, or architects. They still did utterly amazing work just by learning a moderately complex set of tools, but one that was pretty much suited to them.

Fading into virtuality

I also remember when my roomie Moon Adamant started tweaking with the building tools. She’s got a background in architecture iRL (that’s why the building above looks so good!). She went insane with the few features that the in-world Second Life tools provided. “Oh no, prims, nobody uses prims since 1995!” was a usual expletive, shared with almost all professional 3D modellers, designers, or architects. But with enough practice, she now is way more faster building things in Second Life than in using any other 3D design tool — no matter how much experience she had with those, or how simple they are (like SketchUp).

What was Second Life about?

That was one of my very first questions, and the one that, of course, has no answer. But at the very beginning I had no idea what to expect — a game, probably, like TheSims, something like that. The lack of any instructions didn’t help, but most games are supposed to be intuitive these days (I fondly remember the days of games that came with 150-page-manuals 🙂 ), so that was fine.

So, what did people do back then?

They created things.

And that made me wonder. The appeal to a lot of games was the ability to create your own things; Civilization was one of the first to reach a huge, organised fan base who were always patching and modding the game. But almost all popular games since the mid-1990s had groups of fans creating more and more content. Soon game developers understood that if they made their games easier to patch and modify, the game would be more long-lived (and, indirectly, it would also help them to launch their own “extensions” and “upgrades” later on). Of course, in the first years of the millenium, nobody knew better than Maxis — first with SimCity and later with The Sims — how important it was to allow user-generated content that could be shared among fans.

But surprisingly (to someone who definitely spent way too long playing around with The Sims!), user-generated content was not even what came to my mind back then; I sort of assumed that all games, in one form or the other, had user-generated content, or would soon have. No, what fascinated me what the eagerness of all those residents happily creating stuff. And then I asked them why they did work so hard on that.

The answer was often “because it’s fun”, but also “because then I can sell it”. That made sense. It was my first contact with the virtual economy on SL, and all of a sudden, I understood the drive to be creative: creativity, in our virtual world, pays off. It pays off to learn the building tools; or how to script; or how to create clothes, animations, whatever. All you need to do is to spend all your available time practicing a lot with the tools, and you’ll hit gold.

And all around me was a very diligent crowd; I used to spend hours learning from others how to link prims together or how to drop scripts into them; then I would log off for most of the day, and return later, just to find that my new acquaintances hadn’t left their spot. While I had been idly spending my time with unimportant things (oh, say, working for a living; doing the home chores; going out to shop for food), they would have remained inside SL and continue to build.

Now, of course I understand that “new users” are often so fascinated by a fancy tool or gadget that they might spend overdue time with it (it certainly was my case in those early days!). But back when I was an utterly clueless newbie, long-time veterans at that time — people like Washu Zebrastripe, Damien Fate, Eggy Lippmann… — continued to log in every day and spend uncountable hours creating content for Second Life. One would probably think that as time passes by (the appeal of a game is usually around six months, and designing it to make people play the game regularly beyond that period is a real challenge). Was the appeal to making money the only incentive?

Second Life as an entrepreneurship game

In 2002, the US Army had released a rather well-designed multiplayer game called America’s Army. For the eager gamers, this was perhaps the very first game that featured realistic details and sounds from real US weapons, something that allegedly had been forbidden thus far. I never played it beyond the “training area” (which was way too hard for me anyway), just watched other people playing, and remember to have exchanged a few messages with my brother, who was an eager player of AA. The whole point of the game was not to be “more realistic” than, say, CounterStrike or any other similar games, but the notion that you could measure leadership was intriguing. The US Army was interested to see how some of their citizens reacted in a field of battle; how they aggregated teams; how they charismatically gave orders to them; how they applied their intelligence and knowledge to a scenario and lead others to successfully complete a mission (scoring was perhaps a bit secondary to it; a better leader might deploy the troops in order that they finish together a mission, even though in terms of score, the leader might not do well — their task was mostly coordination, mission evaluation, correct deployment, and making sure the troops obeyed to the orders and kept to the plan). These leaders, of course, were good officer material, and it’s more than reasonable that the US Army would be very interested in contacting them and gently persuade them to engage a military career.

If the idea sounds weird or out of a science fiction book (Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card comes to mind), it does — but perhaps not so much in 2009 as it did in 2002. Vast amount of academic research has been done to show how through gaming we earn new skills; that shouldn’t surprise us in the least, as almost all predator/hunting mammals do engage in “playing”, which the biologists believe is a successful training method to acquire, for instance, hunting skills.

So, well, clearly Second Life was not a first-person-shooting game, nor a strategic battlefield simulator. Nevertheless, it seemed to encourage users to be creative and sell their content, and clearly there was a “competition” going on — or else, why would all these people spend uncountable hours developing all those things, without stopping even for a break? There was definitely something going on, and I was unable to grasp it.

Since Linden Lab, the company, was unknown to me (although Philip Rosedale’s fame as the inventor of streaming would later on give me a hint on who they are), I wondered if it wasn’t just a front for the US Government, this time not to find out who is good at leading troops into battle — but to succeed in the tough business world.

After all, creating a social experiment to figure out who the best entrepreneurs are, through a “game”, and approaching them carefully in order to invest in them (by putting them in contact with venture capital firms and business angels) is not such a far-fetched idea. My own company, Beta Technologies, is participating in the development of something like that (a business game simulator to teach entrepreneurial skills) in an European project with several leading universities (and of course this is going to run on top of Second Life).

But this is 2009, where everything is supposed to be clear 🙂 Back in 2004, I had really no clue if Second Life wasn’t merely a simulator to let psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists take all sorts of measurements on human behaviour in a virtual world, extract some metrics, and figure out who’s the best business person, and chat with them to help them launch a successful business in real life.

I know, the idea sounds ludicrous now 🙂 And I think I extracted a few laughs from the old-time Lindens when I told them what I though about Second Life. Let’s say that I couldn’t be more wrong; the whole concept, in the early days of SL, couldn’t be more opposed to that: it was the left-wing libertarian days of Linden Lab, and “business” was so far away from their minds that it was just another planet.

From left-wing to right-wing libertarianism

After a few more weeks it was clear that Second Life was not what I thought it would be. First and foremost, in the 12,000-user-sized virtual economy of mid-2004, there was a huge proportion of people who just worked for free. They didn’t want to make money. They gave everything away, or bartered for other things. And they spent as much time having fun doing things as the ones that only worked for their next L$. Trying to fit a conspiracy theory that explained their existence — after all, if they were refusing to compete in a simulated virtual economy, why would LL allow them to stay? — was starting to stretch the boundaries of my imagination, so I obviously had to drop my beautifully laid out plan for becoming SL’s leading entrepreneur and get a few interviews with the venture capitalists and business angels was going astray.

So what was SL’s history so far, and what were actually people doing with it? The recent past (from the perspective of 2004, of course) had been quite different: there was no economy and no need for it. People just connected to SL because they felt the urge for being creative. They built things and had fun building them. There was not even a need for “barter” (although this quickly appeared later, in the form of “prim hoarding” — in the early days, there weren’t any parcels, and you’d have a fixed amount of prims to play with. So Beta testers just hoarded as many prims as they could, by rezzing them, and then traded them with others who wanted to have a go at building). This was pretty much the left-wing libertarian’s dream: no rules, no money, no problems. Just be creative and build.

We might find this naive, but the real truth is that the whole Internet just started like this: people volunteering their time to do creative things together. While of course the Internet of 2009 is not the same as the one in 1969 — and mostly because of a paradigm shift — the whole point is that the small-scale left-wing libertarian utopia of Second Life worked well.

For a while.

Like almost all these social experiments, these kinds of utopias work quite well up to the limit of the Monkeysphere, or about 150 people. From here on it becomes a complex problem worth studying by anthropologists and sociologists, but putting it bluntly, put over 150 people in the same shared environment, and conflicts will arise, as you start seeing people as merely “stereotypes” and not “real people”. “Real people” are the ones you really care about; the rest you ignore (or hate). It’s the way we humans are — it’s part of our nature, and it has evolved well before homo sapiens even existed.

So how does a loving, caring, gentle, altruistic clan or tribe of 150 grow beyond that number? Studies show that the only option is to complexify the society. It cannot be based on the same altruistic model any longer — it requires norms, rules, ethical codes of conduct, and someone to enforce them. That way, societies can grow, apparently exponentially, since if we look at our planet, we can definitely create single societies with a billion human beings in it (just look at China and India; but even the European Union is growing beyond half a billion). We might even extrapolate and believe that one day our whole planet might be under the same society — it’s not that far away — or even beyond that (if someone figures out how to do human space travel profitable). The trick, history shows us, is to enforce social norms and conducts.

At this stage, my left-wing libertarian friends have lost interest in this article 🙂 I can only tell them that just because you wish an ideal society based on altruism, it doesn’t work for more than 150 people. Sorry. We’re just not genetically engineered for that. However, we’re nevertheless clever enough to create way more complex societies. We just have to discard some of those nice, warm feelings that come from designing ideal societies.

And this was what Linden Lab actually did, even before the official launch of Second Life. Land became private property — you wouldn’t be any longer at the mercy of “prim hoarders”, since your parcel would have an amount of prims just for you, that nobody could take away. That meant that land had to be owned, and since barter is not so good for privately owned land, Linden lab introduced money. At the same time, they also started “policing” a bit more, to avoid people abusing each other’s private property. Intellectual property rights were codified into Second Life — the permission system. Now, not only “land” (or better: “the right to own prims”) was private property, but your own content became private property as well, to lease, sell, or give away at your whim. This model of society required little else, but it managed to advance to the next stage: right-wing libertarianism.

In real life, right-wing libertarianism doesn’t span a long time in history, but it certainly allows “millions” to live pretty much as they wish, so long as they have a common currency and recognise an authority (that employs force) to settle minor disagreements. We see how this worked in the US’s Wild West or during Australia’s expansion phase. There are not many examples around, but they have a few common denominators. One is that it doesn’t work long-term (beyond a few generations) with an egalitarian society, because ultimately brute force will dictate the rules — and either you have it or can afford to hire it, or you’re out of luck. Modern governments limit brute force by making it a state monopoly. Put in other words, violence against others is a crime — except if it’s the government exercising that force. Democracies believe that the best way to make sure the government doesn’t abuse that force is to regularly elect the representatives on government through universal suffrage. Thus we come to our current models of government.

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.

Speculum mundi or the failure of the social experiment?

The more time passes, the more Second Life seems to be a failed social experiment, in the sense of allowing to create human structures and societies that don’t exist in the real world, because of the conditions of the countries we live in RL. My Immersionist friends would say that this is the premature announcement of the death of immersionist places — spaces we create where we’re not bound by the rules and laws of the real world.

I wouldn’t be so drastic in claiming the “death” of the social experiment, just recognising that the current way things are going, Second Life just mirrors real life.

The good news is that we know of an alternative that actually works.

It’s called the Internet.

The Internet is a real anachronism in our time. In spite of being much more regulated that it was on the early 1990s, it still maintains one fundamental aspect: nobody really owns it. Oh sure, if the US government shut down the root DNS servers, things wouldn’t go well for a while, although the Internet is robust enough to allow for “alternative root DNS servers” to emerge and replace the existing ones. You might also claim that there is no Internet, there are just telecommunication providers, linking all those networks together — and whomever controls the telecoms, will control the Internet. Again, this is also not correct. It’s true that most of the traffic on the Internet is carried by a limited number of carriers — but there are quite a lot of them! It’s also true that if suddenly, say, the US government would forbid the US carriers to connect to the Internet “because it’s full of pornography” (20% of all traffic on the ‘net is porn), the whole world-wide Internet would be severely hit. But it wouldn’t disappear. Existing non-US carriers are big enough to handle the load; they would simply find an opportunity to expand their world-wide fibre networks, it would just take some time.

But the beauty of the Internet goes beyond that. In theory, there are technologies that allow you to be totally anonymous on the ‘net — but not beyond the long arm of the law. Just far enough to allow borderline behaviour to transcend local, regional, national, or international barriers. We can see that on the websites sharing copyrighted material for free — they switch nodes, they use peer-to-peer networking, they use proxy services, and overall, it’s hard to track them down. And uncountable millions use them. These netizens are technically outside the strict boundaries of outdated concepts like “countries”, even though they have their own rules, their own codes of conduct, their own procedures to deal with culprits. In a sense, they’re the last remaining libertarian society on this planet, and they’re hard to eradicate, since it’s very hard to point a finger to where they actually are. Today, for instance, if you wish to host a gambling site to offer online gambling to US residents, you can opt for several out-of-border hosting providers to deploy your services, and with enough ingenuity, you’ll be impossible to track down (even though it’s getting harder to do so).

Although this is at an extreme end on what is technically — or legally — possible, there are far better alternatives. Simply switching borders for hosting your service allows organisations and individuals to display information and sell services that otherwise would be impossible. Thus, in countries with repressive regimes, hosting a blog on a server located in a country with freedom of expression, allows people to write whatever they please. If they’re careful enough to take some measures, they’ll be able to get away with it — as we all followed in the media with the Iranian students on Twitter — and it’s not easy to stop that. The Internet is just too universal, too pervasive, too ubiquitous.

Thus, a “less central” Second Life could, in theory, allow the same to happen. There are two possible alternatives, of course. The first is that Linden Lab starts co-locating elsewhere in the world — and switching private islands to the co-location facility that allows a different range of local laws that better accomodate the wishes of residents. To do this effectively, it means using the same trick that PayPal originally did: setting up different companies, and just loosely binding them in a consortium (but without ownership relationships between them), since, of course, the “mother” company is subject to the laws of the country they’re in, and all subsidiaries will have to respect both the laws of the “mother” company and of their own country. Having the companies set up as merely “siblings” would neatly sidestep the issue: each “Linden Lab Company” would only need to respond to local laws. If no legal relationship exists between them, this ought to work. In a sense, Linden Lab’s “SL behind a firewall” product might allow this to happen.

Nevertheless, it would still mean that all residents would be subject to the same ToS defined by the abstract, overarching organisation “Linden Lab”. A better approach is to do it the Internet way: no relationship whatsoever, each company is independently owned and organised, subject to their own country’s laws, and just agree to exchange traffic among themselves. In fact, this is what is happening under OpenSimulator’s HyperGrid right now. The problem is that OpenSim grids are still at very early stages, have very few users (probably less than 50,000, adding them all together) and cannot connect to Linden Lab’s main grid, something which will very likely be impossible before mid-2010, when the protocols to define the way non-LL grids might be allowed to interconnect with LL’s own grid will be finished, and that will also take a few months to get implemented.

Thus, at this stage, we’re just waiting to see what happens. Until the end of 2010 it’s unlikely that we can expect the social experiment of Second Life to continue. We’re at the waiting stage. OpenSimulator will continue to evolve; possibly other technologies might (or not) become “SL-compatible” in the mean time; possibly Linden Lab will experiment with truly discontinuous grids (i.e. each having their own sets of central servers, as opposed to the current model, where both co-location facilities are connected through fibre and actually share the same central servers directly) before that, and open their first non-US grid next year. We can only speculate.

One thing is for sure. No matter what will happen by then, I still think that creativity, but most importantly economy, will be the driving forces of Second Life. As LL will start facing some serious battles on the technology front (the most interesting ones probably coming from OpenSimulator itself!), Second Life will have to make sure that its biggest success — the virtual socio-economic environment — continues to evolve and expand. Technological stagnation might be acceptable for a while (and in the recent pre-M Linden days, this mostly meant focusing everything on stability and bug fixing, and forgetting innovation; M Linden desires that technological breakthroughs make part of the LL agenda again), so long as neither the social and the economic environments are affected. The current trend seems moderately optimistic. SL’s economy grows above its number of new users, which is positive. The same can also be seen, to a degree, to the higher number of hours used by the residents. LL also has some metrics on the number of IMs exchanged, which might give a clue on increased social interaction. The rest, however, is not very easy to measure, and even more obscure to interpret. In any case, SL has quite strong arguments on those two areas — and “community” is seen as a way more valuable asset as anything else, and the main driver for economical transactions. I find that extremely encouraging, and quite in line with what is happening on the Web, too — a reason that made my company launch a business-oriented community (and not merely a technological “pack” of services, or simply a land rental system for corporations), the Beta Business Park. Bringing people together to talk about business is the very stuff that Second Life is made of.

In any case, I definitely look forward to what we might be doing in 2011 or so, not only on the technological level, but in the social and economic level. It should be interesting to see if the protocols that allow Second Life to exist today will truly become the “3D Internet” — with its freedom from local borders — creating a virtual space that is unbound and unstuck from national borders and laws, just like the Internet did for the 2D world, and expand its community and the economical transactions that way.

It certainly worked on the Web.

And no, I’m afraid that the building shown at the first page is not available for viewing in Second Life; the university that is doing the research for it (a project that has been going on for almost 4 years now!) has not enough funding to keep it in SL, so, well, it’s on Beta Technologies’ own OpenSimulator Grid. No, unless you have a very good reason for it, I’m not going to create logins for that 🙂 However, if you’re a Gridnaut you can use OGP, or if you’re registered at another OpenSim grid, you can use Hypergrid to teleport over. If not, well, you know — you won’t be able to see it before the end of 2010 🙂 If nothing in this paragraph makes sense to you, I’m sorry, but you’ll need to read one of my other articles to get a glimpse of what I’m talking about 🙂

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