The blogging dead

I should have known that our obsession with the undead would end up turning us into a zombie blog – devoid of fresh content, but lurching on, in a grotesque parody of life.

The funny thing is we still get a respectable amount of traffic – a steady background buzz, with occasional inexplicable spikes. If I sold out my principles and put some advertising on the site I could just sit back and watch the fractions of a cent roll in.

Anyway, I’m feeling sorry what whichever low-level NSA analyst has been assigned the thankless task of trawling through our output looking for subversion, so I’ll try to make things a bit more interesting in the weeks ahead. Unless of course the sun appears, in which case we’ll be staying out for the summer….

2011: The year in review

2011 was a year of two halves here at SLS; we were posting regularly up until about June, but never really got started again after the summer break. Embarrassingly, we only managed eight posts in the last quarter, and two of those were apologies for inactivity. Unsurprisingly our traffic has fallen off a cliff in the last few months, and is now sitting around half of what is was this time last year.

Anyway, here are our top ten posts by traffic for the last twelve months:

  1. The Social Network
  2. Second Life demographics – a brief review
  3. On Second Life and addiction
  4. What’s up
  5. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
  6. Virtual alchemy
  7. 2010: The year in review
  8. Second Life, with graphics, on the iPhone?
  9. Zombie Epidemiology
  10. Plunging Necklines

Only one of these, The Social Network, is from this year, but at least it is the top post, and one of our better ones too. I’d love to think its high ranking was due to the quality of the writing, but actually it’s because Google kindly chose to link it with the search term “Sean Parker Facebook” for a while over the summer. The addiction and demographics posts from last year continue to do well, probably because no one else can be bothered to write anything on those topics. There is always a steady interest in Second Life zombies, and Olivia’s 2009 Nosferatu-themed post Plunging Necklines made a welcome return to the chart, possibly on the back of the Lab’s promotion of SL as a platform for vampire role-play.

Of the other posts we managed to crank out this year my favourites were, in chronological order:

If I had pick one post of the year it would be The Solution, which I think encapsulates everything we try to do here at SLS; spare prose, literary and political allusion, self-conscious pretension, and all in the service of an utterly inconsequential point.

But what of the world beyond this blog? What of the Arab Spring, the war in Libya, the tsunami in Japan, the News International phone-hacking scandal, the death of Bin Laden, the UK riots, the Eurozone crisis, and everything else that has been going on this year? We did manage to comment on most of these events, but brief blog posts aren’t really the best medium for considering weighty issues, so it was all rather superficial. We might try to follow a couple of topics in more depth next year – perhaps the economy, and the US elections.

Back in January I promised that we would publish more book, film and music reviews, but this hasn’t really worked out. Part of the problem is that I’ve been trying to spread my output over too many projects; I have been doing a bit of critical writing, but I’ve published it in other places. (I could re-post some of my pieces here I guess, but I’m a bit paranoid that someone might Google a passage and link this blog with my other online identities.) The main thing though is that I’ve not been terribly well engaged with contemporary culture; I’ve been on a diet of classic literature and films from the 70s, and the world isn’t necessarily crying out for my belated impressions of The Mill on the Floss or McCabe and Mrs. Miller. At least I kept up with the music scene enough to be all excited ahead of the release of what turned out to be my favourite album of the year, the eponymous debut by Wild Flag, and I also liked Civilian by Wye Oak, Angles by The Strokes and Only in Dreams by The Dum Dum Girls; the latter record’s melancholy tone mirroring the slightly depressing arc of my personal life recently. Overall though I will have to try a bit harder on the cultural front next year.

Finally, what about our core task, the mission to, in the words of our very first post, “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”? We have been rather remiss in this too. I know why; just about everything interesting there is to say about the psychology of Second Life we have already said in previous years, and I haven’t had the energy to try to put a new gloss on it. The promise that virtual worlds would open up a new understanding of the human psyche has, sadly, turned out to be hollow. There was for a while some interest in watching the dynamics of the conflict between the corporate goals of Linden Lab and the aspirations of the more committed residents, but even that has turned dull since the boringly efficient Rodvik Humble took over at the top. It seems unlikely that this will change in the immediate future, but I will keep an eye on the academic literature in case anyone has any novel ideas.

What does this mean for the year ahead? Perhaps I should accept that this project has run its course, and let it bow out gracefully, but we have been going for nearly five years, an epoch in blog terms, so it would seem a shame to give up now just because things have been a little quiet of late. Politics, culture, psychology; I should be able to make something interesting out of that if I apply myself a little more.

So I guess I’ll be seeing you next year…

Live from East 3rd Street

Johnny stopped poring over the blog statistics just long enough to suggest that I do another piece about vampires, or Star Trek, or, ideally, vampires and Star Trek. So we beamed up to the Enterprise sick-bay to recreate this touching scene from “The Man Trap“, the first-ever episode of the original series:

trek_museum051

Johnny is Dr McCoy and I’m his long-lost love – or so he thinks. I’m actually an alien salt-vampire, who lures her victims to their doom by assuming the form of their deepest desire. It ends unhappily for one of us, you can probably guess who.

With that nonsense out of the way I was free to sample some rather higher culture with a visit to “@“, an exhibition curated by the Ars Virtua gallery, that I had read about a month or so ago. The preview on the gallery website promises an examination of “the nature of space, place and the observer, the interplay between the observer and the observed, and the way in which location and “placeness” define or conscribe experience”, which sounded interesting. The show is (or was) presented simultaneously in Second Life and in real life, at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, with visitors at each location able to see into the other gallery in real time:

art06

Or not as the case may be – by the time I visited the non-virtual part of the show had already closed, and I think the video feed from LA must have been frozen, since there was no sign of life.

I ended up spending about an hour at the show, but I came away a bit disappointed. As I have often found in Second Life, the concept outlined in the preview worked a lot better than the actual realisation. For example, here’s the description of one of the pieces: “Oberon Onmura creates, destroys, and re-creates a megalithic tower or beacon which hints visually at the works of Donald Judd. The work creates a rhythm for the space that is pleasing to watch from afar but possible to participate in from up close”, and here’s how it looks:

art05

To be fair, this picture doesn’t really give a sense of the impressive scale of the work, and you can’t see how it dynamically constructs and deconstructs itself, but even so I think that comparing it with the work of Donald Judd is a bit hyperbolic.

I didn’t feel my hour was totally wasted though, which isn’t something that I can always say after spending time in Second Life. Even if it didn’t fulfil all my expectations the show did, as it promised to, make me think about the nature of virtual space and its relationship with the real world.

After the exhibition I wandered around the neighbourhood, and right next door to the gallery was the House of Night, a vampire-themed dance club. There’s just no getting away from them.

Plunging Necklines

Nosferatu-fever seems to be everywhere these days, what with True Blood, and Twilight, and of course Bloodlines, so I thought I would try to try to secure my very own Interview with the Vampire.

I got myself a nice Mina Harker-style dress, dyed my hair jet-black and headed off in search of some blood-suckers:

vampire02

[Dress, boots and accessories from Crimson Shadow, graveyard at Vampire City.]

Typing “vampire” into the in-world search threw up a few leads. The first couple of places I visited turned out to be undead-themed combat sims (as far as I could tell, since the welcome notes I got were in Portuguese), and I also came across several gothic clothing stores, but I eventually got lucky and landed up at the home base of one of the larger Bloodlines clans.

Half a dozen or so tall, dark, caped figures were gathered in the courtyard of a Medieval-style castle. They seemed to be waiting for something to happen, so I went over to take a look. I wasn’t sure about vampire etiquette, so I didn’t say anything at first, but after five minutes of silent inactivity I decided to break the ice.

“Are they going to like, fight, or something?” I asked the man standing next to me, gesturing towards the two heavily-armed figures at the centre of the group, who appeared to be squaring-up to one another. “I don’t know,” he replied, turning to face me. He reminded me of Christopher Lambert in Highlander 3, his trench-coat accessorised with a samauri sword. We got chatting, and he told me he had been in the clan for just a few days, having previously been a Gorean slave-master. “I got bored with all the submissiveness” he said, making me wonder what his expectations of that role had been, “so I decided to get back to my vampire roots.” “You prefer the assertive vampire girls then?” I asked, trying to sound flirtatious, but he wanted to tell me about how far he’d progressed in the vampire fighting ranks, and we ended up talking about our experiences playing D&D, which killed the moment a bit.

I had been led to believe that these Bloodlines fanatics would leap at a girl’s throat at the drop of a hat, so I was a little offended that the crowd seemed more interested in the non-existent fight than me. The awkward silence was broken by the arrival of a junior member of the clan, accompanied by a girl in a decidedly non-gothic spotty dress, who was evidently a new recruit.

One of the combatants, who turned out to be the head of the clan, broke off from the staring contest, or whatever it was, to greet the newcomers. After some small talk it was decided that we should all head off to the Turning Chamber for the Initiation Ceremony. I asked the new girl if she minded me tagging along, and she was cool with that, so I followed the others into the castle.

Now I don’t know what springs to your mind when you hear the words “Vampire Initiation Ceremony”, but I think of vintage Dracula flicks, where louche ghouls overwhelm swooning maidens in scenes of barely repressed sensuality, or, if I’m feeling particularly excitable, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in The Hunger. At the very least I was expecting some sort of occult ritual, with a soundtrack of sinister Latin chanting.

You may imagine my disappointment then, when I discovered that the Turning Chamber resembled nothing more than a brightly-lit pub basement. The barrels that lined the walls were full of blood rather than beer, but the ambiance was definitely more functional than spooky. The focus of the room was not some unholy altar dripping with virginal blood, but a vending machine dispensing various Bloodlines products. After instructing the convert to buy several items (which cost about L$1000) the clan chief departed, leaving the actual biting to his minions. They didn’t seem to know what they were doing, and it took an age of searching in inventories and unpacking boxes, during which the poor girl had to log out and log in again twice, before her lifeblood finally began to drain away, very slowly. I asked Christopher Lambert how long this was going to take. “I don’t know, this is my first one” he said.

I chatted with the new vampire girl while we waited. What had attracted her to the blood-sucking lifestyle? The fashion sense and the romance it seemed. She was hoping it would get a bit better.

Christopher eventually got round to asking me if I would like to join the clan too, but I politely declined. If I ever give up my virtual soul I want it to be more meaningful than a cold transaction in a characterless cellar. The rich symbolism of the vampire myth deserves more respect.

(I know it’s unfair to dismiss Second Life Vampire culture based on a brief visit to one sim, so I’m open to suggestions of places I should visit for a more satisfying experience. Post them to mail@secondlifeshrink.com, and I’ll review them in a future post, if they’re any good).

Et in Arcadia ego

Back when I first started writing about Second Life I identified what I thought was the main factor limiting the potential for growth in the virtual economy, which was that residents could exist indefinitely without having to spend anything at all. Avatars never needed to eat or drink, clothes never wore out, and buying or renting a place to stay was entirely optional. Only two things were really driving commerce – discretionary purchase of fashion items and adult-themed entertainment – and this wasn’t broad enough to support more than a handful of businesses. The former suffered due to over-supply, poor quality and a limited customer base, and the latter had to compete with a large population of amateurs willing to give the product away for free.

I should perhaps have realised that this was a potentially valuable insight. Mars Braken, of Liquid Designs, the company behind SL vampire phenomenon “Bloodlines” was evidently thinking along the same lines, but unlike me he has figured out a way of turning the idea into cash.

Beneath all the pseudo-gothic jargon of the blood-sucking RPG lies a simple concept – players have a limited and decaying supply of a substance (“Sacred Blood” in this case, though it could be “hit points”, or “lifeforce”, or whatever) which they must constantly replenish, for if it falls to zero they will be expelled from the game. It’s possible to obtain free blood by soliciting donations from other residents, but this is slow and inefficient, thus creating a market in traded blood, over the supply of which Liquid Designs hold a monopoly (for the time being anyhow – no doubt we will soon be reading stories about how Chinese peasants are scraping a living collecting virtual blood to sell to western vampires).

The game has become popular enough to generate six-figure US$ revenues for Liquid Designs, according to New World Notes. It has also unleashed a plague of inconsiderate leeches, who are annoying the hell out of the normal population with their indiscriminate exsanguination.

There is probably an analogy to be drawn here with the operation of modern capitalism. Corporations play upon our insecurities to convince us that our social status depends on purchase of their products, and we fill their coffers trying to satisfy a need that we never even knew we had. I’ll just note the irony in the fact that “Bloodlines” players, in seeking to emulate creatures that never die, are voluntarily relenquishing the prelapsarian immortality that their avatars naturally possess.

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