Mad? You call me mad?

I’ve spent this evening in a relatively sedate fashion; dinner with friends, a few drinks. I can still recall the days when New Year’s Eve called for copious drug ingestion and a visit to the Peppermint Lounge. Maybe I’ll do that again next year.

Happy New Year!

A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall

What is there to do on Boxing Day except sit around eating, drinking and randomly surfing the net? Lots of things probably, like spending quality time with my loved ones, or taking some exercise, or doing something socially useful by serving turkey to vagrants at the homeless shelter, but I fearlessly embraced the crisps/lager/web option, so that I would have something to post about.

I did try to stay on-topic by browsing through Second Life-themed blogs. Amongst the numerous posts on various pressing issues in the world of SL fashion, there were contrasting views on what the future holds for the grid.

There are definite signs that SL residents are feeling a chill from the cold financial winds that are blowing through the real world. “The Quiet”, an iconic piece of SL sculpture, is due to disappear next month, as its creators can’t keep up with the rent. More generally, hundreds of sims are being abandoned, after Linden Labs increased the tier fees and decreased the prim allowance on the class of land known as “Openspace”. The flight of corporate investment is an old story, though you don’t read about it so much now that Reuters have closed their SL bureau. Even The Electric Sheep Company, who pioneered SL marketing for RL companies, are talking gloomily about a virtual recession.

Not everyone is downbeat though. Dennis wants to convince us (and perhaps himself) that the virtual economy is likely to grow in 2009. Perhaps not coincidentally, Dennis is in the business of organising virtual trade shows.

My own view is that Second Life will survive, since there does seem to be a critical mass of users who are willing to pay a few dollars a month to play out their various fantasies, or at least watch whilst others do so, but nobody except L-Labs is going to be making any serious money.

I’ve got an iPhone and I’m gonna use it

There was a time, before I got myself a 3G phone, when posting a blog entry on Christmas Day would have made me feel like a terminally sad, internet-obsessed loser. But now, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I can post from the comfort of my fireside armchair, and I merely feel like a moderately sad, internet-obsessed loser.

Ton up

After just short of 20 months of work on this site I’ve reached post #100, prompting me to check on how I compare with the average blogger in terms of prolificness and longevity.

My posting rate of 5 per month is pretty poor, judging by Technorati’s State of the Blogosphere 2008 report, which says that the mean for active bloggers is 10 posts per month. I have got up to speed recently, managing 31 posts in the last three months, after a particularly fallow period in the summer. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a drop in my productivity over January though; I’m never particularly motivated about anything in the middle of the winter.

The same report gives the figure of 3 years for the average blogging tenure, though 51% of bloggers are onto at least their second blog, so the lifespan of individual blogs must be a bit less. I’d guess that the average is made up of a few long-standing examples, and many more brief experiments, so I feel I’ve done quite well to last this long.

Googling all this stuff has opened my eyes to the whole industry that exists just to write about blogging, producing articles in mainstream publications like Businessweek and Forbes, dedicated sites like The Blog Herald, and countless individual blogs on the subject, not to mention the blog indexing services like Technorati and Icerocket. It gives the impression that the business of blogging is thriving, but, much like the economic picture in Second Life, when you look at the actual figures it doesn’t appear so rosy. The Technorati report reveals that even the top 10% (by revenue) of blogs bring in an average of only $19000 a year, and even that figure is skewed by a few high earning sites.

Not that my traffic is anything like heavy enough to sustain any dreams I might have about becoming a professional blogger. It is up a lot since I started tagging my posts, but I’ve more or less accepted that Second Life Shrink will forever be a niche product.

iPhone therefore I am

I finally succumbed to temptation and bought myself an Apple iPhone as an early Christmas present. I had been wanting to get a 3G phone for ages, but I didn’t want to sell out my open-source principles by going for a model with a proprietary OS (even if OS X is really just BSD with a custom GUI). Unfortunately the Google G1, when it finally arrived, turned out to be rubbish, and the Blackberry Storm wasn’t much better, so there was nothing for it but to swallow my pride and lock myself into the Apple universe.

I don’t feel too bad though, since it’s an undeniably smart bit of kit. I’m glad that I’m old enough to remember a time when there were no such things as mobile phones, let alone mobile phones with internet access and GPS, so I can fully appreciate just what an amazing piece of technology the iPhone is. I have all the accumulated knowledge of the human race right here in my pocket, and, even better, it can tell me where the nearest pizza restaurant is. Kids today take this sort of thing for granted, so I don’t know what it will take to impress them when they are in their forties – some kind of time-travel functionality probably, so that they can flash back to laugh at us old timers with our phone-boxes and rotary dials.

It’s some way off being perfect though. I had thought that getting a 3G phone would mean I could update this blog more frequently, using the WordPress iPhone app, but the virtual keyboard is much too fiddly for my fat fingers, making typing anything more than a few lines a chore, and the lack of a cut and paste function means that if I want to include hyperlinks I have to revert to good old pen and paper to note the address. Still, it’s good for random browsing during quiet moments, which, in theory at least, means I should come across more things to blog about, even if, like now, I have to go back to my desktop to actually write it up.

Having mobile internet access will probably mean that I spend less time in Second Life though. At the moment most of my visits occur when I have turned on my desktop on the pretext of looking at the weather forecast or some such thing, before logging into the grid for a quick run around, which usually turns into a multi-hour virtual realathon. Now I can get the same information with a couple of taps on my phone there is no way that I’ll be motivated to get off the couch in the evenings.

Unreliable anonymity

A while ago now I purchased a door for my little house on the slopes of Heterocera, to preserve my virtual privacy. This was, as I noted at the time, completely illogical, and also somewhat hypocritical, since I am not entirely adverse to trespassing myself. At least my door is relatively polite, unlike the security systems that brusquely inform interlopers that they are on private property, before violently expelling them from the area.

The door is a scripted object that can only be opened by nominated avatars, and which also records unsuccessful attempts at ingress. This latter function had never previously been triggered, but when I logged on yesterday there was a message from the door waiting for me,  containing the name of my would-be visitor.

Curious, I searched for the profile of Ms X, as I shall call her, which contained a picture of her avatar, a photograph of her real self, and a link to her blog. A few clicks later and I was in possession of her real name, more photographs, the rough location of her house, the name of her workplace, and a link to her Facebook page, which no doubt would have provided me with more of her personal details.

I stopped at this point, aware that my actions were becoming more than a little creepy, but also surprised that anyone could so casually share such information about themselves with random strangers, especially on Second Life, which I’m sure has more than its fair share of potential stalkers. (I’ll admit I have no evidence to back that up, but it’s not much of a stretch, is it?)

It set me thinking about how easy it would be to link my avatar to my real-life identity. I don’t think it can be done directly, unless of course someone had access to the details of my user account, which contains my real name and address. I guess Linden Labs would have to reveal that to anyone with a court order – in fact I know they would, since they’ve done it before (to other people, not me, yet). It wouldn’t shock me to learn that the Government (which one? any one) has secretly passed a law giving the secret police all the SL user information too. An ordinary resident couldn’t make the connection though. What they could do is relate my av to this blog, or, more likely, associate this blog with my av, and there is just enough biographical information in these posts to identify me to someone who knows me quite well. It’s an unlikely enough scenario that I won’t be worrying too much.

Enough of my paranoia though. The really intriguing question is this: why was Ms X knocking on my door? I suppose I could IM her and ask, but the answer would most likely be something boring like “I was just passing”. Better that I keep it a mystery, and wait to see if she comes back.

Hot Chicks with lawyers

In my high-minded discussion of the ethics of blogging I overlooked one obvious hazard of casually appropriating the private details of other people’s lives; getting sued.

That truth has found Jay Louis though, now that he’s on the receiving end of a lawsuit in connection with the book of his blog “Hot Chicks with Douchebags“. It’s interesting that he wasn’t sued over the website itself, presumably because potential plaintiffs need a defendant with some serious money, like publisher Simon & Schuster, before they can persuade a lawyer to take on the case.

I can’t see the suit succeeding, since even someone like me, whose knowledge of the US legal system is entirely based on watching “LA Law” and “Ally McBeal“, knows that the First Amendment protects the right to shower ridicule on your fellow citizens. I guess the claimants – who allege that their appearance in the book has left them needing medical treatment and psychological therapy – are hoping that S&S will settle out of court to avoid the bad publicity. (Or perhaps not; I had it in my mind that Simon and Schuster were a classy operation, but they do publish literary gems like the “Douchebag” book and “Hooking up with Tila Tequila“, so I may be mistaken).

I don’t think anyone could seriously claim that their real-life reputation was damaged by their Second Life activities appearing online, and, even if they did, I believe that Linden Labs have been doing their best to establish that Second Life disputes fall under the jurisdiction of the US courts, so I’ll be able to assert my Constitutional rights. I’m sure that James Madison would approve.

Uncertain principles

Regular readers of this blog may wonder why I seldom make any mention of people I have met during my journeys around the Second Life archipelago. This is partly due to there just not being many other residents about, but I do go to busy places from time to time, and there are interesting stories to be told about the things that go on there.

What’s been holding me back are some ethical concerns; principally worries about privacy and deception.

To what extent can the Second Life grid be considered a public space? Do residents have any reasonable expectation of privacy as they go about their business? Even if you accept that your avatar’s actions may be observed by whoever happens to be around, would you be comfortable with the idea that what you do and say may be recorded, and relayed to the world in a manner over which you have no control?

It reminds of a movie that I’ve mentioned before: 1985’s “Perfect”, with John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s not a great film, it’s not even a good film, but it does sort of illustrate the point I’m making. Here’s the plot, as I remember (with spoilers, in case you haven’t got round to seeing it yet). Travolta plays a writer who has been commissioned by Rolling Stone magazine to do an expose of the LA gym scene, with the slant that “gyms are the new singles bars”. He starts going to this one place, where the quirky clientele take him to their hearts, convinced he is going to reveal to the world the humanity behind the gym-bunny stereotype. He repays their faith by penning a hatchet piece that portrays them all as sex-addicted losers, but along the way he has fallen for aerobics-instructor-with-a-dark-secret Curtis, under whose influence he revises his article to introduce a more sympathetic tone. His editor prints the original version however, exposing the essentially harmless health-freaks to nationwide ridicule. Travolta makes up for it somehow, I can’t recall how, and ends up with Curtis, but the bit-players’ humiliation is not assuaged.

Times have changed since the 80’s of course, and you could argue that, in our reality-entertainment-soaked age, everyone knows, or should know, that life is a performance, with potentially the whole world as an audience if you’re lucky, or unlucky, depending how you look at it. If you choose to create a new identity on the grid then you are implicitly accepting that your alter ego will be open to public scrutiny.

Anyway, privacy concerns can be dealt with on a technical level, by the anonymisation that is built in to Second Life , which I could enhance by never mentioning names or places, and keeping descriptions vague, though that would lessen the verisimilitude a bit.

Nevertheless I still feel a bit uncomfortable with the concept of appropriating others’ experience for my art (if that’s not too pretentious), though I guess it’s what storytellers have been doing since the first raconteur related the amusing tale of Ug and the sabre-tooth tiger. What anonymisation doesn’t deal with is the fact that it is largely impossible to be a passive observer in Second Life; to see what is really going on you have to be part of the action, and that raises the second ethical concern that I mentioned: deception.

I know that the concept of the neutral observer has been out of fashion since the days of Schrödinger and his cat, and practically every feature you read in a magazine these days is written by a would-be successor to Hunter S. Thompson, but the level of duplicity possible in SL completely blurs the distinction between reporting a story and creating it. Inducing someone to invest emotional energy in an interaction that is based on dishonesty – about my identity, and about my motivation – feels a bit exploitative, but the alternative – admitting up front that I’m only interested in meeting people so that I can blog about it – would, I suspect, make me a virtual pariah.

Does any of this really matter? It’s not like this project is a piece of serious research – it would never get past any reputable ethics committee – and I doubt anyone’s feelings will be terribly hurt if they happen to recognise themselves in my ramblings, in the unlikely event that they stumble across them. Maybe I can justify stretching my principles a little, so long as the end product is worth reading.