Waking from the virtual dream

Towards the end of 2011 I wrote a post about the different strands of my online life; back then this blog, and my associated Second Life persona, were by far the most time-consuming portion of my virtual existence.

Fast-forward to today, and we find SLS almost moribund, and my avatar utilised only sporadically. The total time I spend online is about half what it was, and my most active presence is the Facebook account which carries my real name.

Does this shift away from anonymity and virtuality have any deeper meaning? Probably not. My retreat from the (relative) depth of blogging into the shallows of social media seems to be in line with general trends, and there are various personal factors that have kept my focus on reality of late. I’m not sure whether these are good developments; the time I spend consuming mindless click-bait on Facebook probably would be better employed in composing thoughtful posts on this space, but I can’t say that eschewing SL interaction in favour of seeing my real friends a bit more has been an entirely bad thing. I am a bit sad that the liberation from corporeal limitations that Second Life seemed to promise never really materialised though.

I guess these things go in cycles. Perhaps come 2017 I’ll be be re-immersed in whatever iteration of virtual life is fashionable, and boring the world with my pseudo-philosophical pieces on the significance of it all. In the meantime I am going to keep on blogging – I’ve managed at least one post in each of the last 89 months, which seems too good a streak to break…

Always hopeful, yet discontent

Second Life made a rare appearance in the mainstream media this week, when the Guardian picked up the story of new Linden Lab head honcho Ebbe Altberg’s interview with TheNextWeb.

It’s been a while since I’ve had the energy to get interested in the internal world of the Lab, but one thing in the piece did catch my eye; Altberg’s announcement that SL will be relaunched on a new technological footing in the next year or two. Presumably they’ll be throwing out proprietary standards like prims and LSL, and replacing them with mesh and C, or whatever the rest of the industry is using these days. “We’re not going to constrain ourselves with backwards compatibility,” says Altberg, worryingly.

I guess this means that I’ll be waving goodbye to my little virtual house, and all my virtual possessions, and starting afresh in a virtual Year Zero. I’ve not paid attention to TOS developments for ages, but I vaguely remember “ownership” of land and objects in SL being redefined as a revocable licence to use the service, so when they take my stuff I’ll be due precisely no compensation. (Of course, as a hardcore communist who doesn’t believe in private property, I can’t really complain about this, but still, it’s a bit annoying).

I’m all for progress, but the fact is that it’s been the comforting stasis of Second Life, the calming respite from the uncertainties of reality, that has kept me paying my subscription over the last few years. If that goes I’m not sure that I’ll have a reason to stick around.

Oh well, as they say, changes aren’t permanent, but change is. I suppose I’ll adapt…

The Spy in the Cab

As if we denizens of Second Life were not paranoid enough already, we learned today that US and UK intelligence agencies have been covertly recording our in-world activity over the last few years.

In reports published in the Guardian and the New York Times, drawing on files provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, it was revealed that the spooks viewed virtual worlds like SL and World of Warcraft as a “target-rich communication network”, which could be used by terrorists and subversives as a tool to plot the overthrow of Western civilisation. At one point “so many C.I.A., F.B.I. and Pentagon spies were hunting around in Second Life … that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions”, and “while GCHQ was testing its ability to spy on Second Life in real time, British intelligence officers vacuumed up three days’ worth of Second Life chat, instant message and financial transaction data, totaling 176,677 lines of data, which included the content of the communications”.

Interestingly, while Blizzard have denied they were aware of the WoW snooping, both Philip Rosedale and the current Linden Lab management declined to do likewise when invited to comment by the NYT, which also reported that Cory Ondrejka, then Chief Technology Officer at LL (and also apparently “a former Navy officer who had worked at the N.S.A. with a top-secret security clearance”) had “visited the [NSA's] headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., in May 2007 to speak to staff members”.

I used to believe that no one would ever bother to trawl through the minutiae of SL interaction looking for subversion, but it seems that my faith in the anonymity of the virtual crowd has been badly misplaced. It’s certainly made me think about some of the political conversations I’ve had with people in SL over the years, which, for all I know, may have triggered all sorts of automated warning bells, and landed me on some agency’s watch list. Scary stuff. I’ll certainly be more circumspect in the future.

Once more unto the breach

Back at the start of the month I renewed my SL premium membership, for about $80 (though it didn’t actually cost me any real money, since I never spend any of my monthly stipend, so I had accumulated enough Linden dollars to cover it), and for the last few weeks I’ve been wandering around the grid again, trying to get back into my virtual life after an absence of nearly two years.

I’d love to say that I’ve been as excited as I was when I first ventured into Second Life, over six years ago now, but sadly it’s all been somewhat underwhelming. This may partly be due to technical factors; I’m using the Lumiya viewer on a particularly cheap Android tablet, and the short draw distances and sluggish movement don’t make for a terribly immersive experience. Also, just about all the places I used to hang out seem to have disappeared, and the few friends I had are all long gone, so there’s no sense of familiarity.

I suspect though that the main problem is that, without the novelty and the hype of the early days, I’m coming face to face with the fact that virtual reality is actually fairly dull. I think that I’ve always sort of known that, but have been reluctant to admit it to myself, since it implies that this whole blogging project has been a complete waste of time.

Still, SLS is hardly the most egregious example of inefficiency in my life, so I guess I’ll keep plugging away. Who knows, I may stumble across something interesting again, and rediscover my joie de vivre virtuelle

CD

So here we are at post number 400. Looking back over the six and a half years it has taken us to get this far, I can’t avoid noticing that we have strayed somewhat from the purpose we outlined in our very first post:

My intention is … to wander around the likes of Second Life and report back on what I find, enlightening readers with erudite comments on the interaction that occurs there.

Regular readers will recall that the main reason for our recent lack of SL-related content is that my desktop computer is far too ancient to run the current iteration of the viewer. It’s about 18 months since I resolved to get a new(er) box, but I haven’t got around to it yet, partly because I’m too cheap to buy a brand new machine, and too lazy to order and fit the parts to upgrade my old one, but mostly because I never actually use my desktop these days, as my IT needs are all satisfied by my smartphone, from the comfort of my couch.

I had been waiting for Linden Lab to release an iPhone viewer, but there were no signs that was ever going to happen, so last week I finally lost patience, bought myself a cheap Android tablet, installed TPV Lumiya, and got myself back on the grid:

image

This set up is less than perfect; although Lumiya does have a fairly decent 3D mode the draw distance isn’t great, and it tends to slow down alarmingly if there are more than a couple of other people about. It’s hard to go to specific places too, since it isn’t possible to type in coordinates directly; instead one has to acquire and click on an SLURL via the web, which is a bit of a hassle. (Of course I haven’t bothered to RTFM, so there might be an easier way to get around; if anyone knows, please enlighten me.)

Nevertheless we are, potentially, back in the virtual world business; look out for some SL updates in the weeks ahead, before my attention inevitably wanders…

The Griefing Games

Internet addicts in China have a mixed time; while government-run centres provide some of the most up-to-date treatment in the world, patients who check into the wrong clinic might find themselves getting electroshock therapy, or being beaten to death.

In a new twist, it was reported this week that a Mr Feng, exasperated by his son spending hours online in preference to getting a job, had hired assassins to kill his slacker offspring. OK, these were virtual hitmen, who repeatedly offed the boy as he tried to play World of Warcraft, but still, that’s tough love. (If you believe the story; there is some scepticism.)

I doubt that this approach would work with Second Life addiction (if one accepts that such a thing exists), since anyone who puts up with the frustration of SL long enough to develop a problem is unlikely to be deterred by a bit of low-level griefing. In fact I’m not sure that having a couple of hired killers tracking me, like I was in some sort of exciting spy story or something, wouldn’t make me more likely to log on, though I guess it might get a little irritating after a while.

There might be a business opportunity here – for a fee operatives could stalk a resident around the grid, befriending them and winning their trust, before unexpectedly delivering a virtual whacking, a bit like the CRS Corporation did to Michael Douglas in The Game.

I think there could be quite a bit of demand for such a service, playing as it does on the paranoia and narcissism that are such prominent features of the Second Life experience. On the other hand, the revenue model might be undercut somewhat by the fact that there are plenty people in SL who are willing to provide unsolicited harassment free of charge.

2012: The Year in Review – Part 2: Blogging

2012 saw a landmark in the history of Second Life Shrink, as we celebrated our fifth anniversary back in May. Despite that it has been far from a vintage year, and our post rate and traffic have been well down, partly due to the myriad distractions of life, but mainly because, I must admit, I have rather lost interest in the whole concept of virtual worlds.

I don’t seem to be alone in my ennui; many of the Second Life blogs that were active when we started up are now defunct, and even the mighty Alphaville Herald is but a shadow of its former self. Hamlet Au, to his credit, keeps plugging away at New World Notes (even if he showed terrible judgement by leaving us off his list of influential SL blogs), and there is still a constant froth of SL fashion blogs, but the days when Second Life promised a new intellectual frontier seem to long gone.

Anyway, here are our top ten posts by traffic over the last 12 months:

  1. Second Life demographics – a brief review
  2. Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
  3. On Second Life and addiction
  4. The Social Network
  5. Guess I’ll go eat worms
  6. All Stars
  7. Zombie epidemiology
  8. What’s up
  9. Virtual alchemy
  10. Plunging Necklines

All but two of these are pre-2012, reflecting our low output this year. Of the posts we did manage, these are my personal picks:

WordPress introduced a new statistical feature this year allowing us to trace where our readers live; here are the top ten countries:

  1. United States
  2. United Kingdom
  3. Canada
  4. Germany
  5. Australia
  6. India
  7. Brazil
  8. Netherlands
  9. New Zealand
  10. Italy

Unsurprisingly we’re most popular in the English-speaking world, but we have had visitors from 103 countries, on every continent except Antarctica. The most notable exception is China, where I can only assume we are censored as a threat to state security.

So what of 2013? Will we have a creative renaissance, and delight the world with our incisive commentary on culture and the metaverse? Or will we coast along, content to bask in the fading glow of our past glories? Watch this space…

The Lay of the Last Avatar

So the world didn’t end last week after all, which is a good outcome, I guess, not least because it means that the $80 I spent last month on renewing my Second Life premium membership for another year hasn’t been completely wasted.

It has been almost completely wasted though, since I don’t currently possess a computer capable of running the viewer, and I have no plans to purchase one in the immediate future, which will obviously limit my enjoyment of the service a bit (unless the Lindens get their act together and release some sort of mobile client). I did hesitate a little before handing over the cash, but in the end my sentimental attachment to my virtual land was strong enough to convince me that the relatively modest investment was worthwhile.

Sir Walter Scott, in his narrative poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel, wrote:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!

There are a few places I have stayed in the real world that have seemed like home, for a while, but that feeling invariably faded, as time moved on and people and places changed. I have occasionally tried to recapture it, but without success – you can revisit a physical location, but you can never really go back, because the person you used to be exists only in your fading memory.

So I find it comforting to think that there is some corner of a virtual field that will be forever the same, a home for my eternally youthful avatar. I can only hope that there are enough other people who feel the same to keep Linden Lab in business…

Post-viral fatigue

So, I was looking at our traffic statistics today, and I noticed that this had happened last week:

That’s right, one of our posts had gone viral. Sort of. For a couple of days. How exciting! Unfortunately, the piece in question was this one, which is whiny and narcissistic, even by our standards. (Though if you ask me I will, of course, claim it was obviously meant ironically.) Also, all the extra traffic came via Plurk; it’s just about possible to imagine that someone was saying something nice about us, but probably not.

Anyway… another week, another list of Second Life blogs that we’re not on, this time over at New World Notes. I guess our omission can be rationally explained by reference to our obscurity, lack of recent SL content, and general rubbishness, but irrational theories are much more satisfying, so I can’t help suspecting that Hamlet is still pissed that we called him a Stalinist that time. (Though, now I’ve looked at it with eyes unclouded by paranoid jealousy, I see that this is actually a list of those blogs which fell outside the top ten, which Hamlet is going to reveal next week, so we might yet make it. If so, please disregard the above.)

Guess I’ll go eat worms

Second Life Shrink has been going for well over five years now, and in that time we’ve racked up nearly 400 posts. Our Second Life coverage may have waned a little recently, for one reason and another, but we do have an extensive archive of articles on the topic, and our pieces on SL demographics and SL addiction are still highly ranked on Google. We have a Facebook profile and a Twitter feed, not to mention our associated Tumblr and Pinterest sites. We featured in the last big survey of the SL-blogosphere, just outside the top 100.

So if you heard that someone had set out to compile a new list of SL-related blogs, and had managed to identify over two thousand examples of the genre, then you might think that we would be in there somewhere. Well, you would be wrong. Honestly, sometimes I don’t know why we bother…

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