Second reverence

Coming across the Church of the Animated Bunny the other day made me think of the Church of the SubGenius, and I figured that there was bound to be some manifestation of the Word of “Bob” somewhere in Second Life. I couldn’t find anything though, apart from the Fool O’Beans Coffee Shop, which promises “Coffee … cake … praise [of] “Bob””, and when I visited the location there was nothing there apart from a snowy field.

It’s hard to believe that there is nowhere on the grid dedicated to the SubGenius, because it’s exactly the sort of thing I’d expect SL-loving types to be into. The in-world search engine is notoriously poor, so maybe the locations are just not showing up.

Anyway, thus inspired, I set off on a pilgrimage around some of the other spiritually-themed places in Second Life.

Most of the mainstream religions are covered; there are Anglican, Orthodox, and Catholic churches, a whole island dedicated to Islam, a centre of Sufi thought, a Synagogue, a Mormon Tabernacle, a Hindu Temple, a Buddhist Retreat, a Shinto Shrine, and a Confucian Oracle. I was surprised not to find a Sikh Temple, and there was nothing specifically for Taoists or Zoroastrianists either. Apologies to anyone else I’ve missed out.

I was expecting to find a few venues for devil-worship, but all the places that came up on a search for “Satan” turned out to be shops aimed at Goths. The Church of Frog and the Black Church cater to those with Vampiric tendencies, while the Church of the Seven Deadly Sins ministers to the BDSM community. If you follow the Cthulhu Mythos, you might run into one of the Great Old Ones in Innsmouth.

Finally, there’s the Church of Enturbulation, an anti-scientology outfit. They have a website too, but it seems to be down at the moment, which may or may not be due to the nefarious actions of Tom Cruise. (For more anti-scientology stuff, check out Anonymous).

The Scientologists themselves deny that they have any designs on Second Life, but then they would say that wouldn’t they? I’m not a great fan of the followers of L. Ron, but then I’m both a psychiatrist and a communist, so I’m sure that the feeling is mutual.

[Postscript: The title of this post reminded me of this.]

Lost in MySpace

The jury in the Megan Meier cyber-bullying case has found Lori Drew guilty of gaining unauthorised access to MySpace accounts, but cleared her on the more serious charge that she did so with the intention of causing emotional distress to Meier.

The verdict leaves open the question of who or what was primarily to blame for the tragic outcome of the affair. The jury obviously felt that Drew was culpable to some extent, but perhaps didn’t think that she could have foreseen the consequences of her actions.

This raises the possibility that the operators of social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook carry some responsibility for the actions of their users. On one level this seems ridiculous, like blaming the postal service for abusive letters. On the other hand it is well recognised now that there are aspects of computer-mediated communication that are potentially toxic, and it can be argued that the networking sites should be aware of this, and take steps to protect their subscribers from malicious users, and also from their own bad impulses.

My view is that, on the internet as in the rest of life, it is impossible to guarantee a risk-free environment, and probably harmful to try to do so. There should be some technical safeguards, like reliable age-verification, but the most effective protection will come from equipping people to look after themselves when they are surfing the net. Maybe a tutorial on what constitutes functional (and dysfunctional) online behaviour, and the potential for emotional damage, should be compulsory for everyone who signs up for a social networking site.

SLart attack

I remember being a bit worried when Linden Labs announced their crackdown on unauthorised use of their trademarks. Since then though I’ve observed numerous other blogs brazenly flouting the regulations, some, like Your2ndPlace, breaking several rules at once without suffering any consequences, so I figured that LLabs weren’t going to be stupid enough to alienate their user base by suing the very people who were publicising their product.

Once the trademark issue had been raised though, it was only a matter of time before lawyers got involved. I hope that this case will establish that LLabs’ attempt to appropriate two of the commonest word in the English language is doomed to failure.

Bunny worship

Not before time, I’ve worked out how to embed slurl’s in this page, so you can click on places I mention, which will take you to a map of the area at slurl.com, and from there you can teleport into SL, assuming you have your browser set up correctly. (There’s a guide to enabling this in Firefox here).

Continuing my peregrination around the Zygaena Crater, I came across the Church of the Animated Bunny:

animated_bunny02

I can completely understand why someone would go to the bother of creating something like this; it’s not something you would ever see in real life, it’s quite amusing, you can ask your SL friends over to hang out, and people like me might feature it in their blogs.

What puzzles me more is why anyone would take the trouble to recreate a nondescript business plaza like this:

metro_plaza

This is apparently the headquarters of the Metro Corporation, who seem to have some sort of advertising business, though not a terribly successful one, judging by the complete absence of anyone other than me. I did wander around for a while, and I came across a poster that let me teleport to a couple of clothes stores, but there were also a lot of posters that had yet to be rented. Whoever owns this place must be paying quite a bit in land fees (it’s 35008 square metres, which would be $195 a month), and, unless I just happened to be there at an unusually quiet time, making no return at all. (Or maybe a little; I did end up spending L$100 at one of the clothes shops, so I guess Metro will get a cut of that).

Metro do have a plan to drum up some more business; they were advertising for “Personal Assistants to the C-Executives” (plural), to liaise with customers. If it was anything like a real-life sales post that would be a pretty intensive job. I doubt they’ll get many applicants with the salary they are offering of $100 a month (US$, but still).

Virtual misbehaviour

Three stories have caught my attention this week; two tragic, one less so, but still a bit sad.

First, the story of Dave Barmy and Laura Skye, two av’s who met and married in Second Life, before their real-life counterparts did the same. Now they’re getting divorced (in RL), after Laura caught Dave cheating on her in SL. I saw a TV documentary about SL around a year ago which featured the couple, and I remember thinking back then that the marriage looked a bit precarious, based as it was on projections of their idealised partners. Dave apparently can’t see what he did wrong, since there was no real-life infidelity. That would fit with research that shows that women tend to take a dimmer view of such activity than their male partners.

Much darker is the story behind the trial of Lori Drew on charges of conspiracy and computer fraud, which opened on Thursday. These bland charges conceal what Drew is really alleged to have done; driven Megen Meier, a 13 year-old classmate of Drew’s daughter, to suicide, by bullying her via a fake MySpace account. Strip away the new technology and it’s a sadly familiar story; a vulnerable adolescent is overwhelmed by sudden exposure to the reality of just how unpleasantly people can behave towards one another in the adult world, but, if the allegations are upheld, the case will illustrate how computer-mediated communication, stripped as it is of humanising context, can be extraordinarily powerful. The medium disconnects a cyber-bully almost completely from any possibility of empathy with the victim, thus increasing the risk of abusive behaviour. In turn the victim can experience the bully’s aggression in almost pure form, amplifying the damage caused.

To round off a depressing post I’ll note that a Florida teenager has killed himself live on the internet. Reports say that up to 1000 viewers of the website Justin.tv watched as Abraham Biggs lay dying. I have no idea why Abraham felt he had to do what he did, but it may be significant that his death has become noteworthy in a way that, in his mind (we can speculate), his life never could. It raises the question of whether the ease with which private pain can be made public via online outlets like Justin.tv, or YouTube, or indeed WordPress, is a good or a bad thing. I’m sure that for some people it can be a relief to think that someone out there may be able to understand what they are going through, but for others the opportunity to seek validation for what feels like a meaningless existence might push them into extreme behaviour. As for the people who just watched him die without doing anything to help, again the distancing effect of the medium must have transformed what should have struck them as a human tragedy into something that was just another sensation to be consumed.

In the neighbourhood

In another sign, if one were needed, that I am some way away from being sufficiently immersed in Second Life to make this project a success, I completely missed my av’s first birthday at the end of last month. I only noticed when I saw the $72 charge on my credit card statement. I think that’s about the same as I paid last year, though the sterling price has gone up by around 50%, on account of the deteriorating exchange rate. Even so, $6 a month is pretty cheap, and I get $1.20 of it back as my monthly L$ stipend. Not that I ever spend any of it; my current balance is about L$12000

I’ve managed to spend a few hours on the grid this week, and I’ve concentrated on exploring the locality. I hadn’t previously paid any attention to where my land actually was on the SL map, but a little research has shown that it’s on the north-facing slopes of the mountain at the centre of Heterocera Atoll, the second-oldest of the SL mainland continents. The landmass is misnamed, since it’s obvious from the topography that Heterocera is not a coral island, but rather a volcanic formation. The central peak rises to a considerable height, and the rocks that are visible above the tree line appear igneous in nature.¬† The mountain is topped by a large bowl-shaped¬† feature, the Zygaena Crater, partially filled by a deep, still lake.

An old stone-paved road runs on the edge of this central lake, and I took a walk around it, stopping now and again to look in at some of the buildings that line the waterfront. The whole place was completely deserted, and the empty stores and houses had an eerie, post-apocalyptic air. In a huge railway terminus rows of clocks counted down the minutes to the arrival of trains that never appeared. A roaring fire burned in the grate of a log cabin that had no other sign of habitation. Neon signs called out to non-existent window-shoppers.

Night fell eventually, and as I stood on the shore looking up at the stars I began to see how people could feel that Second Life might have some sort of reality beyond the monitor screen. I should have more time to spend online over the next month or so, so I’ll try to do my best to get properly obsessed.

I’m waiting for my lich

It’s only been out for a few days, but the latest instalment of World of Warcraft is already proving its addictive potential – some kid in Sweden reportedly had a seizure after 24 hours of uninterrupted play.

I can just about imagine spending a whole day wandering around the pretty, but largely uninhabited, Second Life landscape, but I doubt I’d come across anything that was convulsion-inducingly exciting.

Even so, it seems that my gloomy prognosis for the future of the metaverse was unjustified – virtual worlds like WoW and SL are still making profits, for their owners if not their residents.

The Bedlam factor

I wrote ages ago about the freak-show nature of the auditions for reality shows like X-Factor. I’ve since discovered that those who appear on what purports to be the first round of filtering have actually already been through a selection process, so there is no doubt that the hopeless losers have been deliberately included by the producers for some comic relief.

I was thinking about this after reading the tragic story of Paula Goodspeed, who was found dead in a car parked near American Idol judge Paula Abdul’s home in Los Angeles, apparently a victim of suicide. Ms Goodspeed had reportedly auditioned for the US talent contest in 2006, and had not gone down well with the panel, to put it mildly. (No doubt the clip is a favourite on YouTube right now, but I don’t feel like searching for it).

It is of course folly to speculate on someone’s state of mind when all one has to go on are reports in the popular media which vary greatly in detail and luridness, and I suspect that there were other, more personal, reasons for Ms Goodspeed’s actions that were more significant than what happened on a TV show years ago, but even so it does raise questions about the exploitative nature of some of what passes for entertainment these days, and the potential human cost for those who submit themselves to the reality TV industry.

Re-tagged

A few weeks ago I started tagging my posts, and added a tag cloud to the left-hand column. This initially gave a rather misleading impression of what this blog is about, since only a minority of the total posts were indexed; for a while it looked as if I was completely obsessed with Sarah Palin.

So over the last week or so I’ve been back through 19 months’ worth of posts, adding tags to each one, and now you can see which are the topics that really interest me. “US Presidential Election” is still big right now, but will fade away with time, “Politics” will probably persist in an attenuated state, and hopefully “Psychology” and “Culture” will begin to grow in stature. I’m guessing that “Blogging” and “Second Life” will remain the top tags though.

Yes he could

I had been planning to go to bed early on election night, since I had a busy day ahead, and I was, after all, completely confident that Obama would win, but in the event I couldn’t bring myself to retire without seeing at least some of the returns. I ended up staying up until about 1.30, when the result from Pennsylvania came in.

McCain’s fading hopes of victory had rested on the idea that the white working-class voters who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries would, faced with an Obama candidacy, switch to the GOP, or at least stay at home. If this was going to happen anywhere it would have happened in Pennsylvania, and when even Fox News called the state blue within a minute of the polls closing it was clear that the game was up.

The theory that Obama was going to turn off the Democrat base was based on a complete misunderstanding of what happened in the primary campaign. Those voters who favoured Clinton over Obama did so because they were worried about his electability, not because they thought he was too radical. There was never any significant policy difference between the candidates; if anything Clinton is further to the left. Once Obama was the candidate the party was always going to be behind him, united by a desire to defeat McCain.

Could McCain have done anything to stem the tide? Probably not, given the state of the economy and the electorate’s determination to hold the Republicans responsible for the mess. He must be thinking that he could have played a bad hand a little better though. As McCain gave a valedictory speech to the press on his campaign plane, Joe Lieberman could be seen at his shoulder, like Banquo’s ghost. Might a McCain/Lieberman ticket have prevailed? We’ll never know.

Anyway, that’s all the excitement over for four years at least, and probably for eight. I can get back to blogging about important stuff like Second Life