Big Bird is watching you

Two nuggets of Twitter news caught my eye this week. First off, contact management firm Salesforce.com have added Twitter to their “Service Cloud”. For a fee, they will monitor all the Tweets in the feed, looking out for a specified keyword, then pass the details of Twitterers who have used that word on to the client, in real-time. The idea is that a company can be alerted when someone tweets an interest in their product, allowing a sales person to intervene in the conversation with useful advice.

It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to think of this being used in a sinister way. I’m sure the FBI already look out for certain keywords, and the technology could easily be set to pick up tweets on any subject your boss, or your spouse, or the government doesn’t approve of.

Think I’m being paranoid? Read this story about how an indiscreet tweet got some poor cubicle-dweller in trouble before she’d even started the job. Then ask yourself if you really want everyone in the world to know what you’re doing right now.

History is a random aggregation of opinion

ArminasX Saiman over at Second Effects has compiled a list of the top 585 Second Life-related blogs, and Second Life Shrink fails to appear anywhere on it. I know that this really shouldn’t annoy me – we’re way too cool to care about being on some lame list, obviously – but it is somewhat irksome to be told that our intellectual endeavour is less significant than a virtual hair blog. At least I’m not the only one who doubts the veracity of the rankings.

More positive feedback has come from the unlikely source of the Thoughts about notes* blog, whose author, the imaginatively-named “Blogga”, ripped off one of my posts in its entirety last week. I was alerted to this by Sheila Bastard, an Australian blogger who had one of her posts plagiarised too, and who is mightily pissed-off about it.

I can see where Sheila’s coming from, but I actually quite like the mash-up effect of Blogga’s creation. He or she is like the blogosphere personified, a mass of contradictory opinions that the author just can’t keep inside, despite the world’s indifference. I’d like to think that my post was carefully selected for inclusion in Blogga’s project, though I suspect it was probably plucked at random from an RSS feed in some automated process. He/she should keep going with this for a couple of months, then print the whole blog as a book; it would make interesting reading, a snapshot of the preoccupations of the blogging population at what might just turn out to be a pivotal moment in history.

Bad reputation

Reports revealed this week that the UK government is maintaining an island in Second Life, at a cost of £12000 a year, for the purpose of allowing private companies to showcase new technology.

I would show you some pictures of the sim, but of course we mere taxpayers are not permitted to visit; only government officials and the firms taking part can gain access. The story has created a minor scandal, with opposition politicians seizing the opportunity to accuse the ruling party of “living in a fantasy world”, while the scheme’s defenders have claimed that holding meetings and events on the grid will greatly increase government efficiency.

My first reaction to this story was to think that £12000 a year was not a great deal of money, as government expenditure goes – it’s the equivalent of one very junior civil servant. Compared to the amount that, say, defence contractors gouge, it doesn’t seem to be the basis for a particularly lucrative business, even if the project is expanded when the pilot phase ends in 2011.

It also makes me wonder why government departments, or corporations, or educational establishments need to be connected to the main grid at all. Why don’t they run mini-grids on their own servers? That would be sufficient for meetings, presentations and teaching, without the risk of participants wandering out of the building and coming across something scary; it would also maximise control over access and security, and would presumably run faster and be more reliable. Most importantly perhaps, it would create some distance between the client’s business and the potentially toxic Second Life brand.

For the one thing that the man in the street knows, or thinks he knows, about SL is that it is a haven for sexual perversity of the worst kind, and while Linden Labs may insist that they have solved the problem by quarantining questionable content in its own continent, all they are doing is drawing more attention to the fact that the problem exists in the first place.

The potential customers that L-Labs are courting with their new U-rated strategy are probably not particularly worried that they personally will be exposed to anything untoward; they will be more concerned that association with Second Life will be a hostage to fortune. Political opponents, disgruntled shareholders or disaffected employees will be able to search Google images for something suitably salacious to take to the media; the result will probably be transient embarrassment rather than lasting damage, but why take a chance?

Real-life locations can reinvent themselves of course; I remember Times Square being pretty sleazy when I visited New York years ago, but I hear it is now thoroughly Disneyfied. I guess time will tell if Second Life will be able to undergo a similar process of rehabilitation.

I’m sure Joan would agree with me that Times Square was better the old way.

Command-X, Command-C, Command-V

On a more positive note, Cut and Paste has come to the iPhone! So now I can post all those interesting links in my blog without having to resort to writing them down on a piece of paper! Maybe this new media world isn’t so bad after all.

Intelligence Failure

I can still remember the story on the front page of the only copy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that I ever bought – it was a report on the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi, which means I must have purchased the paper on the 22nd of May 1991, when I was travelling up the Pacific coast on my way to the Cascade Mountains.

If if I ever make it back to Seattle (which I hope I do one day, because it is probably the nicest city I have ever visited) I won’t be able to buy the paper again, because, as of today, the S P-I has become an online-only operation, after 146 years in business.

The print newspaper model – where investigative reporting was subsidised by advertising sales – has collapsed, as ad revenue has migrated to the web. What will fill the news-gathering vacuum left behind? The idea that an army of bloggers will ever replace the likes of Woodward and Bernstein is patently ridiculous.

Information may seem to be more freely available then ever, thanks to the ubiquity of the internet (in the developed world at least), but the real knowledge, the stuff the Man doesn’t want us to know, will be buried even deeper in the mass of celebrity trivia and idle speculation that passes for news in the blogosphere. We are doomed to a new age of ignorance. Only musicians can save us now.

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).

Paranoid

Shortly after publishing my last post I tried to log on to Second Life, to meet up with Olivia, but I kept getting knocked back, with a message saying there was some unspecified “problem” with my log-in. Then Olivia emailed me to say that she wasn’t able to sign in either.

Suddenly it all became clear to me. The Lindens had been so badly stung by my criticism of their “adult content” proposals (and all my other subversive posts) that they had kicked both of us off the grid in retaliation. They were obviously logging all the traffic on this IP address. They probably had my phone bugged as well, and, come to think of it, the postman who delivered the mail this morning wasn’t the regular guy either – he must be working for them too…

I enjoyed my status as Linden Enemy #1, The Blogger They Could Not Silence, for five minutes, before reluctantly checking out the grid status page, and confirming that it was a universal glitch that was keeping everyone out.

Oh well, I can dream. At least it gives me an excuse to link to some vintage Black Sabb.

Brave New World

As readers will no doubt be aware by now, in an almost unbelievable development Linden Labs have announced the creation of a new “adult-themed” continent, to which all mainland businesses dealing in such merchandise will be required to relocate in the very near future. As it is worded the proposal seems to indicate that all adult-orientated activity will be confined to the new landmass, though various Lindens, contributing to the debate on the SL forums, have sought to reassure residents that the regulations will be interpreted in a way that will not affect what individuals do in the privacy of their own homes.

To say that reaction to this announcement has been negative would be somewhat of an understatement. I gave up reading the comments on the forum after 15 pages, but the feeling among residents was unmistakable – almost universally this is regarded as a terrible idea. Objections range from opposition in principle to the limitation of free expression, through doubts about the workability of the scheme (particularly the age verification element), to concerns from retailers worried that they will be forced to exchange their established prime locations for undesirable plots on the new continent. Just about everyone expects in-world trade to take a hammering, mainland land prices to collapse and a mass exodus of disaffected residents.

Linden Labs seem to be taking a massive risk with this move. At the moment they have a solid if limited business model – collecting subscriptions from a core of residents for whom the freedom to do what they want in SL is the main attraction. They may or may not actually engage in “adult” activity, but they like the idea that they could if they so desired – it’s a transgressive edge that is missing from their real lives. The Lindens are betting that the income they will lose as a result of alienating part of their current user base will be more than compensated for by new money from corporate and educational customers who are currently, so the theory goes, scared off by the reports of Second Life’s rampant perversity. I guess they have done some sort of research to back this up, but even so it’s a brave enterprise that will forego a proven revenue stream in pursuit of what may turn out to be an non-existent market.

On the margins

I don’t expect that my last post, in which I proposed that the value of virtual objects is effectively zero, will have caused a great deal of consternation in the SL commercial community, since I’m guessing that not many of them are overly impressed by Marxist economic analysis.

What if we take a look at the question from a more capitalism-friendly economic viewpoint? In general, non-Marxist analysis tends to reject the idea that commodities have intrinsic value (as is proposed by the labour theory of value) in favour of a more subjective formulation; the exchange-value of an object is what it will fetch in a free market, which in turn is dependent on the level of demand and supply.

This kind of theory is popular in financial circles, since it implies that value can be generated purely by the process of exchange, and that bankers and their ilk are actually wealth-creators, rather than parasites who have grown fat on the the toil of the labouring classes. (Though we’ve been hearing less of such triumphalist talk recently).

That aside, does a supply/demand model of value give us hope that Second Life commerce can be viable in the long-term? Sadly, no. The problem lies in the concept of marginal value. According to the theory, exchange-value is determined dynamically by the balance between the prospective buyer’s desire for an item and the level of supply. That desire is not constant though – it decreases as the buyer’s stock of an object increases. A man who has no oranges might be willing to buy them for a dollar each, but by the time he has bought ten he will probably be thinking of spending his next dollar on something else, though he may be persuaded to buy another if the price drops. The marginal value of an item is what a customer is willing to pay to get one more than he has already, and always trends towards zero. It may even go into negative territory if there is a cost associated with having too many items, such as storage charges.

The marginal value of most real-world items is maintained by their perishable nature. In Second Life though items last forever, so as residents age, and accumulate more stuff, their willingness to buy new things tends to decline. Even the most fanatical fashion-victims will eventually have enough clothes, shoes, or whatever, and retailers will have to drop their prices to tempt them into further purchases.

New avatars will still need to buy things of course, but since the percentage of people trying SL who go on to become long-term residents is quite small, it seems likely that the demographic will gradually mature, and the economy will stagnate. (There will be a subsection of the population for whom shopping is an end in itself, and for them the marginal value of new items will remain consistent, but I don’t think there are enough of them to maintain a growing economy).

So there you have it. Communists and Capitalists agree: the Second Life economy is doomed. People should stop wasting time trying to run businesses that have no future, and concentrate on exploiting the real potential of virtual worlds; the chance to create new kinds of art and entertainment, and to experience the myriad different forms of interaction that the grid gives us access to.

Less than zero

What determines the value of an object in Second Life? I’ve been thinking about that since reading this article a few weeks ago. The answer given in that post – the market strikes a balance between what a vendor wants to charge and what buyers are willing to pay, based on the perceived utility – has face validity, but also a number of problems. There are often glaring inconsistencies between price and usefulness (I got my house for free; Olivia paid L$600 for her boots), objects that are practically identical can have wildly different prices (she could have got a similar pair for L$200), and there is little price stability (this week they’re down to L$50). There are factors that partially explain these anomalies; the SL market is fragmented and inefficient, there are big differences in the usefulness of virtual objects and their real-life counterparts, and the low value of the Linden dollar compared with that of user time discourages shopping around for the best deal. Even so, the model seems rather unsatisfactory.

Is there a more objective method for calculating the intrinsic worth of virtual objects? Old Bolshevik that I am, I tend to fall back on the labour theory of value. We are interested in those objects that are produced for the purpose of exchange, that is those objects which are commodities; according to the theory the exchange-value of such items will be proportional to the socially necessary labour-time involved in their production. (Socially necessary meaning the time taken for the worker of average skill labouring under average conditions, rather than the time taken by any particular worker, who may be more or less efficient than average).

So far, so good. The value of an object appears to depend on how much work its creator puts into it, assuming they are of at least average skill, which seems fair. Virtual items are different from those in the real world in one crucial respect though – they may be copied with practically no effort. (By this I mean copied by their creator for sale, rather than pirated). However many hours of work go into making the prototype, the value of that labour is diluted, potentially infinitely, by reproduction. Thus the value of any one copy will trend towards zero.

To get around this a content creator could produce unique items, or at least very limited editions, which in theory could command premium prices. There are a couple of problems with this though; unless you are a virtual Yves Saint Laurent no one is going to pay significant sums for your work, and even if you do have exceptional prim-sculpting talent the market for such work is going to be so restricted that you are unlikely to be able to earn a living. (In the real-life fashion industry the top designers make relatively little from their haute couture collections, since the volumes they shift are tiny; the real money is in the diffusion lines). If your design skills are no better than average then you’re in an even worse spot; even if you don’t go down the mass-production route, as long as a few other producers of comparable goods do they will reduce the socially necessary labour-time for the creation of your product, and its value will inexorably decline.

Is there any empirical evidence that this theory is correct? It’s difficult to get hold of meaningful economic statistics regarding Second Life commerce, but anecdotally there does seem to be a feeling that the volume of low-price and free items available is increasing, and that the quality of the free stuff is much better than it used to be; it’s certainly significant enough to support a whole SL Freebie” blogging subculture.

Second Life is copying real life, at a characteristically accelerated pace; the declining rate of profit is on the verge of producing a crisis of over-production. In the real world the point of crisis can be postponed by expansion of credit, though when this comes unstuck, as it has done recently, things tend to go spectacularly wrong, and capitalism is forced to fall back on the traditional remedy of economic depression and/or global war, to destroy unproductive capital and create the conditions for a new round of accumulation.

I don’t think that the Second Life economy will actually collapse though; owners of chronically unprofitable virtual businesses are likely to subsidise them indefinitely, just so they can hold on to their dreams of escaping the real-life rat-race, and this constant inflow of capital should be enough to prevent a crisis. (So long as the non-virtual crisis doesn’t consume Linden Labs).

Is there a better way to solve things? My ideal would be Second Life (and real life too) operating as a cooperative, collectively owned by its residents, who would each receive a social wage, and would freely contribute their talents for the betterment of the whole virtual society. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” as the saying goes. I’m sure there are a few sims running on this principle, but my feeling is that the prevailing political tendency in SL is Libertarianism rather than Communism, so it may be some time before the virtual proletarians throw off their chains.