So here is where we run into problems. Of course we all know that the hardest-core adult content is available on Zindra (and private islands set to Adult) and kids will be completely off-limits there. Most regions in Second Life — according to some counts, perhaps more than 70% — are Moderate (formerly known as “Mature”) — and they ought to be free to roam by teens, since from the outside, at least, they look perfectly innocent: it’s mostly what happens on the skyboxes that is not fit to be watched. Linden Lab, by allowing teens only on General areas, and somehow “muting” non-General areas on their viewers, will go a long way to at least easy parents’ minds about what teens can see or not. I imagine that there will be a lot of work to be done regarding more complex things: for instance, it would be nice if we could flag text chat or voice chat as being “adult” and it would be immediately blocked from teen viewers. If that’s the case, even if the cammed around, they wouldn’t be able to catch their own moms having fun with a complete stranger — they wouldn’t be able to see the surroundings, they wouldn’t be able to see the avatars (just a vague grey shape, and perhaps not even the avatar names or their titles), they wouldn’t be able to see the animations, they wouldn’t be able to chat and/or listen in to voice. Under those circumstances, they might imagine that something would be happening behind closed doors, but they wouldn’t have a clue about what is happening.
The problem, of course, is in the subtle forms of innuendo. These cannot be programatically filtered out. In real life, since we can spot kids and teenagers quite easily, we can “tone down” these subtle forms and wait until they’re out of sight. In Second Life, we won’t have visual cues about who is a teen or not, so it’s important that LL gives us those clues. Many have suggested that underage avatars be flagged as such, quite visibly so (via a name tag in a different colour, for example, and showing on the map with a red marker), which at least would give people ample warning. Third-party viewers like Imprudence also alert users automatically as soon as they come in range; if there is a way to extract the real age from their profiles, this could be seen as a red, flashing warning (equivalent LSL-based HUDs do pretty much the same thing, for the viewers that don’t support this functionality — like all the range of LL-developed viewers). And, of course, we have always had the option to ban our parcels against unverified avatars.
It’s not a perfect solution but… how much better it is compared to a lot of social networking sites! Have you ever been stalked by a minor on Facebook, who, for some reasons, is deeply attracted to your pictures, even though the images might be completely innocent? It’s a very strange and awkward feeling. And there is really not much you can do about it: even if you lock down your profile against the kid, you will always have this nagging thought in your mind that he or she might have downloaded all your pictures while they could, and have them safely stored in their hard disk, are sharing it with other friends of their own age, and so forth… it’s creepy, but there is nothing you can do about it, except, of course, never register at any social networking site, and never share a single factoid about yourself online. I actually know a few people who do exactly that.
On the extreme scale of panic, what so many residents posted as comments on that LL announcement goes an entirely different route: they’re scared — and really scared, not merely arguing for the sake of an argument — that if a minor inadvertently catches them in an adult conversation, even if they’re not doing much, they can immediately be arrested by the FBI and spend the rest of their lives in jail. Of course this is an overreaction — in real life, you’re not liable if you’re having sex with your partner, and a kid just happens to have a long-range telescope and amplifies an image reflected in a mirror over your bed… — but it’s one that makes people nevertheless leave SL because they believe it could happen. While they might consciously agree that the real life is full of opportunities for kids to watch adults having sex with each other, and they might even remember reading things about how kids get access to “kinky” (but not really “adult”) profiles on social networking sites, or even lie about their age to join webcam cybersex rooms every day to watch what’s going on there… subconsciously, they forget about all that, and just panic about Second Life. It’s an irrational fear… or just something more profound? I really think that, in a sense, although SL is just about pixellated avatars, the sense of immersion goes way deeper than showing some kinky pictures on one of the millions of dating sites out there. Somehow, people don’t feel “threatened” by having their RL pictures on those dating sites, but nevertheless panic about SL, where most people’s identities are pseudonymous anyway (while a picture of yourself on the Web will reveal your identity almost immediately!). It’s the quality of the immersion that makes us rethink our priorities about our fears and expectations.
And SL has always been an adult playground, even if many really didn’t understand the implications. In a sense, what we read on those comments, is that adults in SL feel all of a sudden that they’re close to their idea of paradise: a virtual environment where they don’t need to worry or bother with pretence. They can be whoever they want to be, free of Puritan constrains or what other people think, and away from those pesky minors, who just force them to behave in ways they don’t enjoy. This is the next best thing to paradise, and people have been enjoying it for many years, and, naturally, are not prepared to accept that it might change abruptly.
But it doesn’t have to. I think it’s important that Linden Lab at least explains the whole process of muting adult content for teens in more detail. Of course, there are no 100% safe-proof methods of guaranteeing safety — like the saying goes, if you want your computer to be 100% safe and secure, do not connect it to the Internet, and do not load any applications on it — but this would go a long way to make people more comfortable about teens (and even kids) on the main grid. It’s highly likely that all the methods described before will be implemented by LL until the year’s end, since a lot of those features already exist. Some, like banning parcels from non-validated avatars, or avatars and content getting muted, have been little used because people fear they’ll ban their friends from countries where validation doesn’t work; but residents might get more comfortable with it once it becomes clear it’s the only way to shield yourself from minors roaming the grid. Others, like clearly identifying and tagging minors as they approach your location, should be feasible (at least on the newer viewers, which already label friends in a different colour), and able to be developed well within the allotted time-frame for the grid merge.
Overall, I think, it’s mostly an issue of communication and unrealistic expectations. After all, in real life, we managed to handle all of these issues quite neatly. Ironically, the Web is far less safe for kids than Second Life, but we just pretend it’s safer and tell ourselves this convenient lie. Second Life, unlike the Web, is a closed environment which is under the absolute control of a single technology provider, Linden Lab. All it requires is Linden Lab’s goodwill to take this issue seriously and place good safeguards in place — and make sure they are able to properly communicate them to residents.
Many thanks to the ever-amazing Vint Falken, artiste extraordinaire, for the hilarious comic to illustrate this article. Even though the subject is quite serious, I hope that you managed to read the whole article with a smile.