Greenies may have invaded some time ago, we hear

Until not very long ago, if you searched Google for “Second Life Shrink” you would find that this blog was in second place on the results list. I’m glad to say that we are now number one (or we were when I wrote this), having overtaken the previous leader, a 2007 post in the long-dead “Technochondria” blog entitled “Greenies invade Second Life; Avatars Shrink to Size of Mice!“.

The post reproduces a press release promoting the opening of the Greenies Home, a sim set up by Rezzable to showcase the then-revolutionary sculpted prim. It’s still on the go, so I decided to pay a visit to our now-vanquished rival, only two years after it opened. Don’t say we’re not topical here at SLS.

Teleporting in, you arrive atop an oversized table in the centre of a open-plan apartment. From there you can start exploring by wandering around the sitting room:

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and the kitchen:

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coming across little green men and various other creatures:

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You get the idea – you’re small, things are big. Exploring is mildly diverting for a while, but everything is static, so it’s more like a novelty museum than a fun park. There are giant hamster balls that you can roll around in, but I couldn’t figure out how to control them before my attention span gave out.

Other attractions include a fairly hip looking performance space, and a shop selling a wide range of Greenie avatars. The doll house in the background above apparently doubles as a fashion boutique, though it was shut for restocking when I dropped by. You can also pick up a free “/me <3 prim” t-shirt (a real life version of this is available too – this is apparently Rezzable’s new SL monetisation strategy).

The place was fairly crowded by SL standards, with about a dozen people milling about, so I sought out some peace in the garden, where there was, well, more big stuff, including this rather fine dragonfly-powered boat:

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There are a few other things to see at Rezzable, like the Tunnel of Light, a trippy tea-cup ride through a psychedelic light show, which would probably be best experienced projected on to a wall in a darkened room, while stoned.

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Then there’s the ominously-named Carnival of Doom:

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Be careful on the carnival rides, or you might end up in a David Lynch-style Hell:

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Finally, Crimson Shadow, the vampire clothing emporium, where I got my new boots.

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Now I know where to get the vampire outfits, I might try getting into the Bloodlines craze…

MMORPG mental health professional

In a bid to expand my knowledge of the metaverse beyond Second Life I’ve been reading a bit about EVE Online, which claims to be “the world’s largest game universe”, and sounds rather more action-packed than SL, if this BBC report is to be believed.

I was tempted to try out their 14-day free trial, especially when I saw that there was a linux client available (though it’s apparently going to be discontinued soon). I’m worried that I would end up hooked enough to start paying the €19.95 monthly fee though, not to mention the extra time I would waste online (the average weekly playtime is 17 hours apparently), which would be hard to justify. There do seem to be some interesting in-game dynamics – deception and subterfuge are an integral part of the experience – but I would struggle to convince myself that I was conducting some sort of serious psychological research rather than just playing a game.

When I was first thinking about setting up this blog I considered getting an account at Entropia, which at the time was getting more publicity than Second Life. Four things convinced me that SL was the way to go: Entropia seems more restricted in what there is to do, the creative possibilities provided by SL‘s building and scripting functions were interesting (though I have actually made very little use of them), SL supports linux, and finally, and most importantly, Entropia Shrink doesn’t really trip off the tongue.

A suitable case for Tweetment?

If the thought of Facebook ripping off all your stuff wasn’t scary enough, it now turns out that social media use is, allegedly, bad for your health.

According to Dr Aric Sigman (a “business and performance psychologist”) a whole host of physical ills, from the common cold to coronary disease, stroke, cancer and dementia, can be linked to use of social networking sites. He implies that the causative factor is lack of face-to-face interaction, caused by people spending too much time online.

I have read the full paper, published in Biologist, journal of the Institute of Biology, (there is a good summary of it in the Guardian), though it’s more of a magazine article than a scientific paper as such, containing as it does no original research, and no indication that Dr Sigman has carried out a systematic review of work published on the topic. I have to say that I find his conclusions somewhat hard to swallow (or at least the conclusions he highlights in his press release – the actual paper is rather more circumspect in what it says about social networking services).

First off, even if one accepts that there has been an increase in “social disconnectedness” in the last twenty years, there are any number of factors that could explain this, and attributing it all to social networking services, which are a fairly recent development, sounds more like a way of generating headlines than serious science. My experience, admittedly anecdotal, of services like Facebook makes me think that the people who use them most are actually among the more gregarious in society, and that those who have problems with real-life social interaction tend to find it difficult to cultivate online friendships too. There has perhaps been a change in the definition of “friendship”, but I think it is wrong to assume that this change is necessarily a devaluation – Dr Sigman seems to give no value to the definite positive effects of virtual interaction for people who would otherwise have little or no contact with other humans, due to physical disability, mental health problems, geographical isolation, or just lack of confidence.

Secondly, while there may well be an association between measures of social isolation and adverse physical and psychological health outcomes, the direction of causality is less clear, and the mediating factors proposed in Dr Sigman’s paper seem speculative to say the least, so it is absurdly reductive to claim that there is a direct connection between use of social media and ill-health.

Then there’s the ad hominem stuff. Dr Sigman is a repeat offender when it comes to scare stories about modern life – he has previously warned of the dangers of too much television, violent films and computer use generally. Unsurprisingly he is regularly quoted approvingly in the conservative press. He has a website of course, and a book to promote (Remotely Controlled: How Television is Damaging Our Lives), and he is available as a “Business Speaker” at £4-7K a time.

Lastly, (and I’ll admit that this is pure medical snobbery) I’m always a bit suspicious of anyone who lists “Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine” first among their qualifications, especially when they are not medically qualified. You may think it is just for top doctors, but the title is, as the RSM website says, available to anybody “holding medical, dental, veterinary or higher scientific qualifications; or in senior positions in healthcare and related fields” who is willing to pay the annual fee. I get junk mail once or twice a year inviting me to become a Fellow of the RSM – that’s how exclusive and prestigious it is.

So, on balance, I think that people can go on Tweeting and Poking without worrying too much about premature death.

Creative licence

Facebook, in response to general outrage, has been forced to abandon proposed new terms of service, which would, if you believe the detractors, have allowed the corporation to claim ownership of all material uploaded by users of the service, even those who had deleted their accounts This raises several interesting issues, including how social media blurs the distinction between personal and public space, and the extent to which users of services like Facebook and Twitter can expect to retain control over content they create.

I have always felt that it is prudent to regard the internet as being completely public, and to assume that anything that you put into the system will persist forever, indelibly marked with your digital fingerprints, and accessible to anyone who knows how to look for it. Accordingly I do my best to be discreet, but despite this I often, in retrospect, feel that I have been lulled by the apparent anonymity of the medium into revealing more about myself than I might have intended. There is a certain amount of narcissism involved in such worries; while it is technically possible to, say, link all the Google searches I have done to my IP address, I seriously doubt that anyone is going to bother. Similarly, it seems unlikely that Mark Zuckerberg was really planning to purloin millions of badly-exposed pictures of Facebook users grinning drunkenly during their works’ night out, for some nefarious purpose that only he can imagine; all he wants are your shopping preferences, so that he can sell advertising and convince the venture capitalists that he does have some sort of monetisation strategy. Still, the idea that once you join Facebook you can never leave makes it sound even more creepily cult-like than it did before.

On the face of it Second Life residents don’t have to worry about being creatively expropriated by the Lindens; the terms of service clearly state that copyright in content resides with the originator. As I’ve touched on before though, “creativity” in the metaverse isn’t limited to the production of discrete items. The very act of interacting with others on the grid is in itself a performance, one which can be observed and appropriated. Who, if anyone, “owns” this? You may not have to worry that the Lindens will claim control of your entire virtual life, like Facebook is trying to do, but perhaps you should be concerned that all the imaginative energy that you put into living your second life will end up providing free inspiration for some lurking writer.

Is Olivia a Punk Rocker?

We’ve changed a few things here at SLS this week.

We finally got around to registering the “secondlifeshrink.com” domain after months of dithering. This may well bring the wrath of the Lindens down on our heads, but we figured that we could reasonably claim that the blog is about the general concept of living a “second life” rather than any particular trademarked product. If that doesn’t wash, well we’re sure the freedom-loving SL-blogging community will rise in our defence.

From now on we’ll be posting under individual bylines, and we’re planning a basic division of labour; Olivia, who has more time to waste on the grid, will handle the Second Life travelogue pieces, while I’ll keep on churning out the pretentious, pseudo-intellectual analysis stuff.

In the true SL spirit of constant re-invention I’ve taken the opportunity to change my pseudonym to the vaguely-punky “Johnny S”; Olivia has decided to stick with her posh-bird moniker for now, despite there being plenty of suitable alternatives.

Turn On The News

My blistering critique of the Second Life Herald obviously hit a nerve with its publishers, as less than a week later they have (re-)re-branded themselves as the Alphaville Herald and promised to eschew the tittle-tattle of Second Life in favour of consideration of serious issues in the wider metaverse.

Second Life Insider went down the same route more than a year ago, reinventing itself as Massively, again with a remit to cover all virtual worlds, though they seem to mostly concentrate on World of Warcraft.

There used to be five online publications that I read for news on Second Life – but now the Herald and the Insider have changed focus, and Reuters SL and the Ava Star have folded, leaving only New World Notes soldiering on (and lately they seem to have been running a lot of puff pieces about their business partners). There are still scores, if not hundreds, of individual bloggers documenting the grid of course – blogs I read at least semi-regularly include SL on SL, Gwyn’s Home, Metaversally Speaking and Your2ndPlace – but the scaling down of organised news-gathering specific to Second Life suggests to me that there is less confidence around about the platform’s future as a significant cultural phenomenon.

It might go the way of crop-circles; they were everywhere, now you never hear of them.

Precocious wisdom

My assertion that only the young and inexperienced can have the confidence to write authoritatively about the mysteries of love seems to be borne out by the news that “How To Talk To Girls”, a book by nine-year-old Alec Greven, has made it on to the New York Times best-sellers list.

I would point to this as further evidence of the infantalisation of our culture, but, as far as I can tell from the reviews, the key tip the book imparts for clicking with the chicks is “Pay attention to them when they are talking about stuff they like”, which is actually pretty sound advice. I wish I had known that when I was nineteen, never mind nine.

Cargo cult consciousness

There was once a time when I was a regular reader of the Second Life Herald, but these days I look at it only rarely. Founded by noted metaverse pioneer Peter Ludlow, aka Urizenus Sklar, the Herald, with its mission statement “to record, observe and study the legal, social and economic implications of life in the virtual world” promises some serious commentary on Second Life culture, a window into what is going on in the minds of the grid’s most interesting residents.

In reality the Herald is a strange brew; part superficial yet impenetrable gossip, part breathless exposé . I have never been able to decide if one is meant to take it seriously, or if it is in fact some sort of elaborate joke, a parody of our shallow, celebrity-obsessed culture and insatiably sensationalist media.

The overall impression, for me anyhow, is rather exclusive; to extend William Gibson’s high-school simile, it’s like the class newspaper edited by the popular kids; the geeks, dweebs and other losers can look but only dream about joining in. Just like any non-virtual celebrity-gossip publication in fact, but with one crucial difference; while real-life celebs, at least on the A-list, are objectively attractive, and their lifestyles glamorous, their Second Life counterparts are generally not much more aesthetically pleasing than the average avatar, and the accounts of their activities are seldom other than dull. The element that gives an edge to our culture’s worship of its secular idols – aspirational envy – is missing, and in its absence there is nothing to hold the reader’s attention.

For me the Herald is a good example of cargo cult culture; the idea that, by reproducing the form of a real-life phenomenon in the virtual universe, one can appropriate its significance. This theme seems to underlie a lot of what goes on in Second Life, and its essential fallacy is why life on the grid so often seems unfulfilling.

I think that it is mistake to see the potential of the metaverse as lying in the ability to mould a more perfect version of the real world. What is created by such an effort is but a shadow of reality; instead of emerging into the sunlight we retreat further into the cave. The real promise is contained in the possibility of experiencing something that augments our perception of reality rather than trying to reproduce elements of it. I don’t know if that is going on somewhere on the grid, and I’m not sure that I would be able to recognise it if it was, let alone articulate its meaning.

The problem is that everyone who comes to SL, myself included, brings with them the baggage of conscious and unconscious expectation. I am self-aware enough to know that in visiting the grid, and especially in writing about it in this blog, I am chasing after something that is missing in my real life. Put like that it sounds a bit dysfunctional, but I think that for most people a little wish-fulfillment is a healthy thing, and reflecting on experience in Second Life can provide useful insight into what is going on in one’s life outside the metaverse. Perhaps if Freud were living now he would ditch the interpretation of dreams in favour of avatar analysis as a royal road to the unconscious. It is of course possible to overdo this, and use one’s virtual life as a way of hiding from, rather than illuminating, the problems of real life. This desire to evade harsh reality is certainly one of the factors underlying internet addiction, or indeed any sort of addiction, but even for the non-addicted majority of SL residents, in whose number I count myself, there is a downside to the escapism – by using SL as a way of relieving my frustration with the limitations of my current existence I am locking myself into a real-world paradigm, and thus missing out on the what the grid really has to offer. If I was perfectly happy with my life I could perhaps approach SL with an open mind and experience its full potential, but then if I was perfectly happy with my life I wouldn’t be wasting hours sitting in front of a computer screen.

It’s the Second Life paradox; the people who will visit regularly do so because they are, more or less consciously, trying to fill some gap in their lives; as a consequence of this they are the least likely to be able to make the most of the opportunities SL affords. Meanwhile the people whose lives are fully realised, the very ones who would be best suited to exploring the possibilities of this new virtual world, will never feel the need to come anywhere near it.

Space Oddity

I was thinking that I had gone a bit far with my praise of Second Life the other day (“occasionally everything will come together to produce a brief moment of beauty” – what was I on?), so I thought that we should probably go out and try to find something vaguely intellectual to make my enthusiasm seem slightly less ridiculous.

We looked at the “Arts and Culture” section of the “Events” search, but our ideas about taking in a classical concert or a gallery opening were swiftly forgotten when we saw an ad for the “Star Trek Museum Starship Tour”, guided by “Klingon Warrior Klang” no less.

It turned out we had missed the tour, but the Star Trek Museum itself was interesting enough to keep us around for half an hour or so. They give out free Starfleet uniforms (“Voyager” and “Next Generation” versions, disappointingly, not the much cooler Kirk-era threads):

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and you can wander about a mock-up Enterprise, learning all sorts of facts about how the warp-drive works and the like, or hanging out on the bridge:

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firing the phasers, or launching photon torpedoes (though the visual effects that accompany this are somewhat underwhelming).

The sense of realism is undermined a bit by the curators’ decision to represent much-loved crew members with cabbage-patch dolls (this is Admiral Kirk):

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Our interest was waning a bit by this point, so we skipped the other attractions, which include shuttle flights, an alien buffet and a trip to the Vulcan sim at Eridani, guaranteed to fascinate more ardent Trekkies.

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I’m not sure that the museum will convince doubters that Second Life is anything more than a geeky waste of time, but it is a good illustration of how SL allows fans to create, for a relatively modest outlay, a tribute to their obsessions.

Here’s a track from way back in 1969, when Kirk and Spock were just coming to the end of their original adventures. Are the lyrics a metaphor for the Second Life experience?

R.I.P. Lux Interior

I hadn’t played anything by The Cramps for a while before I thought about them on New Year’s Eve, so this last month I have had “Off the Bone”, “Smell of Female” and the rest on fairly constant rotation on my stereo; I was listening to this track when I read the tragic news that Lux Interior had passed away.

I wouldn’t say that I knew Lux, though I did shake his hand once, and I must have seen The Cramps play live a dozen times. They were one of the key bands that provided a musical backdrop to my student years, and, as I’ve said before, the passing of one more of the stalwarts of that scene is another reminder of how long ago it all was.

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