All Stars

My new Chucks arrived in the post this weekend, marking, for me at least, the official beginning of the summer.

I’ve spent the summer months wearing the same style of sneakers – unimaginatively paired with skinny jeans and a t-shirt – for upwards of two decades now, but it’s only relatively recently that I started treating myself to a new pair every year. This isn’t because they’re wearing out any quicker – in fact I’m sure the build quality has improved since they started making them in China – but rather due to an age-related decline in my willingness to walk around in beat-up old shoes. Shiny new ones don’t look too cool either though, so I guess I’ll have to spend the next few days splashing through mud to obtain just the right degree of shabbiness.

Rubber Soul

I was thinking the other day about this article, published on Salon around a year ago. It concerned the waning fortunes of the company behind Crocs, the aesthetically-challenged footwear brand. At the time the piece was written the firm looked in serious danger of going under, and its stock price had plummeted from a high of $70 to around $3. Worse was to come; at one point the shares traded for 79c, though today they are back up to $13.50, and it it looks like the hopes of discerning fashion-lovers everywhere that Crocs might disappear altogether are likely to remain unfulfilled.

What went wrong? Crocs were wildly popular in the middle of the last decade, and the company expanded massively to meet demand that they expected to keep on growing. In fact though, by 2009 everyone in the world who wanted a pair of Crocs had one already, and, since their indestructibility means that no one ever needs a second pair, sales dropped precipitously.

Crocs have managed to come back from the dead by refocussing on their core niche market – people who stand around all day at work – and forgetting about chasing mass appeal. Their advertising now emphasises comfort over fashionableness, which seems pretty obvious in retrospect.

How does this relate to virtual worlds? Well, I think the main lesson is that it’s important not to mistake enthusiastic take up of a product by a particular subsection of the market for a sign that said product will be equally attractive to other sections of that market. With enough media buzz it may be possible to whip up a short-term fad, but long term survival depends on looking after the core demographic, those who find enough genuine value in the product to keep them coming back for more once the initial novelty has faded.

Are there signs that Linden Lab is heeding this message? Yes and no, judging by what Philip Rosedale has had to say recently. He does seem to be alert to the fact that long-term residents need to be taken care of, but he still comes out with hyperbolic comments like “It is all going to happen, and we are going to get everyone in here eventually“, and “The fundamental belief that I have is that Second Life and virtual worlds are going to profoundly affect the human experience, profoundly, and in a positive way“. It may be that Philip doesn’t really believe this, and is just talking up the platform’s potential appeal to draw in new investors, but I fear that it’s more likely that he has so much invested in the idea of Second Life as a truly world-changing technology that he can’t bear to let it go.

Philip should relax, and embrace SL‘s cult status – even niche products can have a lasting cultural impact.

The Kid With The Replaceable Head

People who know how I dress would probably refuse to believe this, but I am a regular reader of the fashion pages in the newspaper, especially when there is some big event like London Fashion Week on. I don’t update my own style, such as it is, with any great frequency – an observer with only my wardrobe to go by would conclude that there had been no major developments in male couture since Richard Hell started wearing ripped T-shirts in 1976 – but I do like to keep in touch with the latest trends, so that when I meet someone new I can judge how much of a fashion victim they are.

LFW has of course been overshadowed this year by the death of Alexander McQueen. Fashion is by its nature ephemeral, but there is no doubt that McQueen was one of those designers who deserves to be thought of as a serious artist, and whose influence on popular culture went far beyond the catwalk. The tragic circumstances of his passing, with so much of his career still in front of him, only adds to the feeling that the world has lost a major talent.

Anyway, I mention this because I was reading an article about Swedish designer Ann-Sofie Back’s new collection, which apparently has been inspired by her experience working as a stripper in Second Life. Interestingly, she doesn’t seem to rate SL, or the virtual fashion industry, very highly, describing it thus: β€œSecond Life is quite a shitty, slow game where nothing much happens, but people do make an effort with clothes, hair and make-up. The weird thing is, you have the chance to really create something fantastic – you know, with rabbit ears or you could be green. But most people want to look like Katie Price and Peter Andre, and wear clothes like people on Big Brother. It’s even more conformist than real life.”

I won’t pretend that I know enough about the SL fashion scene to say whether or not Ms Back’s opinion is accurate, though my limited observation has made me think that there is quite a degree of conservatism operating, with most of the items available being a variation on a few themes, so she may well be on to something.

The assertion that SL in general is essentially conventional does seem more counter-intuitive, when one thinks of the myriad of character types one meets around the grid. Sometimes outward rebelliousness masks inner conformity though, and the rules governing a subculture can be as rigid as any in more mainstream society. Someone needs to do some anthropological work among SL‘s Furries or Tinys or Vampires or whatever to see if this is the case.

Considering all this has led me to reflect on the way I have been leading my virtual existence, on the grid and in this blog, and how much I have used SL to break with convention and explore facets of my personality that I normally keep hidden. Sadly, I must admit that I haven’t really taken up the opportunity to reinvent myself to any great extent. My avatar looks pretty much like I do (or did 20 years ago at least), and my activity is a similarly unadventurous echo of the ineffectual political agitation and low-powered cultural and psychological rumination that passes for my day to day intellectual life.

You may think that the fact that, faced with the limitless possiblities for self-expression offered by Second Life, I have chosen to create an alter-ego that is at most a slightly polished version of my real self, is a sign that I have a dreadful lack of imagination, and you may well be right. I however prefer to recall the research in this area which suggests that it is the people with the lowest self-esteem who are most likely to idealise their virtual existence, and to conclude that my rather boring cyber-identity proves that I must be supremely well-actualised in real life, and that my personality has only a little room for improvement.

And talking of Richard Hell

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