Another year

Second Life Shrink is two years old today. Blog years are like dog years; I reckon that surviving this long qualifies us as venerable old-timers.

Just to clarify…

Someone was moved enough by my last post to write a response on their own blog; I think that’s only the second time that that has ever happened. Unfortunately Lillie Yifu seems to have misinterpreted what I wrote to some extent; specifically she thinks that I was agreeing with Prokofy Neva’s take on the Rheta Shan gender question, leading her to accuse me, somewhat unfairly I think, of being a publicity-seeking sexist bigot.

Ms Yifu’s blog does not appear to have a comment facility, so I’m posting my reply here in the hope that she’ll read it:

Hi Lillie,

Thanks for you interest in my post. I’m sorry that it seems to have annoyed you so much. You may want to go back and read it again, specifically the part where I describe Prok’s position on Rheta’s gender as “flimsy”. Just to clarify; I don’t agree with Prok’s opinion, and I think the arguments he advances to support it are entirely specious. I only brought it up to emphasise what a incorrigible troll he was. The main point of my post is that people are exploiting the story of Rheta’ life and death to advance their own agendas, in Prok’s case his ongoing campaign to be the most disagreeable person in the SL blogosphere.

On the mortality numbers question, I chose that particular age range because I happened to have that data at hand. You’re right that the age profile of SL is probably a bit older; that actually strengthens my argument, since the annual death rate would be more like 1400, the point being that AFK deaths are quite commonplace, not rare events as Prok and the other sceptics suggest.

Anyway, I hope this will prompt you to revise your opinion of me.

Best wishes,

Johhny S

It’s my own fault; I should just write what I mean, instead of dressing it up in overblown pseudo-intellectual rhetoric that is just asking to be misconstrued.

No man is an island

A curious tale has been rippling across the surface of the Second Life blogosphere over the last few weeks; to some it is an awful tragedy, to others a monstrous hoax, but ultimately perhaps it serves best as an opportunity to reflect on the essentially solipsistic nature of life in the metaverse.

The facts, such as they are, concern Rheta Shan, a well-known name around the grid, well-known enough at least that even a semi-engaged observer like me had heard of her. I had come across her essay “The World Philip Made” last year, when I was trying to work out whether I was an immersionist or an augmentationist; it was often cited as an important contribution to that debate. I subsequently discovered that she was also celebrated for her coding skills, producing an award-winning alternative SL viewer, and she seems to have been well thought of by those who had regular contact with her.

Rheta stopped logging on to SL at the end of March; nothing was heard of her until mid-May, when a post on her blog, apparently authored by a friend, conveyed the news that Valérie, as she was known in real life, had been killed in a road accident a few weeks previously.

Such events, while undoubtedly tragic for the close associates of those involved, are sadly inevitable; if we take the population of regular SL users to be about one million, and assume that they are mostly aged 16-29 and living in developed countries, then we can expect around 700 deaths every year, or about 2 each day.

The announcement of Rheta’s death triggered a variety of responses; on the one hand there were heartfelt tributes from those who knew her, and more than a few who had never encountered her but were moved by the story; but there was also some scepticism, articulated most clearly in Prokofy Neva’sOpen Letter to Rheta Shan“, wherein, in his inimitable style, SL’s premier contrarian accuses Rheta not only of being alive, but of not being a woman, on the somewhat flimsy grounds that “women don’t code viewers like the one that [won the] contest”.

These reactions, of sympathy and hostility, may seem to be diametrically opposed, but they share a common thread; they are not concerned with the reality of Valérie’s life and death, but rather use “Rheta” as a screen upon which can be projected the preoccupations of the writer. For Thdast Schwarzman, Rheta’s SL partner, it is the opportunity to experience the intensity of love and loss, for Prok it is the chance to burnish his reputation as a controversial free-thinker, for the others it may be a more or less conscious desire to be part of something that appears to have an emotional depth not often encountered in day-to-day life, on or off the grid. For me, Valérie/Rheta is just a convenient peg that I can hang this post on, though in my defence I would say that I am aware enough of what is going on to feel some degree of guilt about it.

Ultimately all our relationships are exploitative in this way; even in real life we don’t truly interact with other people, but only with our internalised representations of them. Everyone you know is just an object in your private world, an actor in a drama that has meaning just for you, with a character that may or may not correspond to what they would see as their “real” selves. Second Life throws this process into sharp relief; however much we want to believe there is a living world out there in the ether, nearly everything of psychological significance happens on our own side of the screen. When someone from that world disappears we mourn; but what we are really mourning is the loss of the part of ourselves that was projected on to the departed. It’s not so obvious in the real world, but it is true nevertheless; in the final analysis all grief is despair at our own mortality. John Donne was right when he warned us to never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

[Update: read this clarification.]

Do boys make passes at avatars with glasses?

The papers this week have been reporting the results of a study done at King’s College in London, which apparently shows that intelligent women have more satisfying sexual relationships. The headlines, which have all been some variation on “Smart girls have better sex”, are actually misleading, since the measure in question is not global intelligence, but the rather different concept of emotional intelligence. The findings are not really very surprising; one would expect people who score highly on a scale designed to measure, among other things, the ability to manage the emotional aspects of interpersonal relationships to also do well in areas of life that benefit from such skills.

What I found more interesting was that many of the publications that carried this story chose to illustrate it in the same way; with a picture of an attractive young woman wearing glasses (though some were more subtle than others). The use of spectacles as a visual shorthand for cleverness is well established of course, but the image also conjures up another potent male fantasy; that of uninhibited sexuality lurking beneath a prim exterior. This owes its popularity to its ability to contain the threat to the male ego presented by articulate, confident, intelligent women by reducing them to objects of sexual desire – or, if you want to be a bit more analytical, it can be seen as a reaction to the feminising/emasculating effects of civilisation, as represented by, say, librarians. The use of this archetype, as well as the general tone of the reporting, turns the message of the study on its head; instead of worrying male readers by suggesting they are not the most important factor in their partners’ sexual pleasure, it reassures them that those scary brainy chicks are really just sex kittens at heart.

I haven’t seen a lot of girls with glasses in Second Life – but then “repressed sexuality” doesn’t inform too many avatars’ wardrobe choices, female or male. Olivia has a nice set of frames, but she tends only to wear them when she wants to look serious in a photograph. I’ll have to ask her if she gets more attention, and what kind of attention, when she’s got them on.

Is that a blog in your pocket?

Farhad Manjoo at Slate posted an interesting article a couple of weeks ago about the economics of social networking sites. Apparently Facebook spends US$1.5 million on electricity and bandwidth every month, and US$2 million a week on new hardware, all to store and display user-derived content that is proving hard to monetise. YouTube has similar problems; both sites are burning through capital like it is going out of fashion.

Does this mean Web 2.0 is going to be the next bubble? Probably not, but the multi-billion dollar valuation of social media firms is likely to be revised sharply downwards before too long.

Are the prospects for professional bloggers any brighter? If you believe Mark Penn at the Wall Street Journal, there are now more people in the US earning a living from blogging than there are lawyers. I was initially excited by this news, before I remembered that Penn was the genius behind Hillary Clinton’s “Big State” strategy in the Democratic primaries. Lane Hudson at the Huffington Post takes Penn’s blogging figures apart very efficiently; it remains depressingly true that the vast majority of bloggers will fail to emulate Mae West – they may keep e-diaries, but their e-diaries will never keep them.

Unrewarded talent

In a thread over at Metaversally Speaking headed (surely ironically) “Entitlement”, various luminaries of the SL fashion scene muse once again on the inexplicable reluctance of the public to pay more than token sums for their virtual creations. The problem is identified as an unwarranted sense of “entitlement” among consumers, who fail to recognise the importance of rewarding creative types handsomely, lest they take their talents elsewhere. Freebie culture is the villain of the piece; the remedies suggested include a price-fixing fashionista cartel, and state (or Linden) intervention to maintain price stability. (Regular readers will recall that I have my own theory about the determinants of value in SL; if you don’t like that one then I’ve got another).

I might find all this a little less ridiculous if I believed that the distressed designers were the sort to visit their local farmers’ market rather than Wal-Mart, drink nothing but fair-trade coffee, and make sure that their clothes don’t come from sweatshops. Maybe they are, but I can’t help thinking that the these virtual entrepreneurs are more likely to be the type who worship the free-market (except of course when it works against their interests).

There is also some irony in the fact that virtual worlds like Second Life could never have come into existence without the collapse in hardware costs over the last decade, which in turn has depended on wholesale exploitation of workers in developing countries. If the SL fashion crowd want to know about being inadequately rewarded for their labour they should talk to the people who inhale toxic fumes in Chinese factories while producing the cheap computers, routers and flat screens that we in the west feel “entitled” to.

It all raises the question of why people are getting so bothered about something that seems fairly inconsequential. The figures from the Lindens, backed up by a survey reported in the Herald last week, show that only a very few people are earning more than a pittance from virtual commerce, so it’s not as if anyone’s livelihood is at stake.

What is at stake is self-image. Are you really a fashion designer, or are you just playing the part of one in a game? If you’re happy to accept that it’s all just role-play, then the in-game pay-off of L$ and attention from other players will be reward enough. If however part of your real-life identity is invested in your virtual activity, then you will want something more tangible, like crisp US$ bills, that you can show to your friends to convince them, and of course yourself, that your Second Life status is actually worth something in the world beyond the SL blogosphere.

When the material recognition of your virtual talent is unforthcoming, as it generally is, you have two choices – you can get angry with the world for failing to give you due respect, or, more productively, you can reassess your goals, ask yourself if it’s really worth getting so bothered about a game, and redirect your energy into something that is more likely to make you happy.

Ferrisburg, Vermont

Award-winning Second Life artist AM Radio has a new work, “The Red and the Wild” on display at the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts.

An empty house and a steam locomotive float eerily on the surface of a shallow sea. A dynamic red mass surges out of, or perhaps into, the upper storey of the building, exploding over the landscape. Cables radiate out from the house, leading to boxes containing mysterious artefacts. In the distance stands a row of water towers, brooding over the horizon.


What does it all mean? In a Freudian analysis, a house would symbolise the human body, the open window suggesting a female form, while the locomotive and the water towers seem clearly phallic. The scarlet substance may be blood, or perhaps a representation of energy of some kind. Is it emanating from the building, or penetrating it? Are we witnessing an escape, or an intrusion?

I may be over-analysing this. Mr Radio, in the interviews he has given about the piece, says it was inspired in part by “Breakfast at Tiffany’s“, where Holly Golightly visualises her anxiety as a “mean red”. He also mentions that the house is based on one that he remembers from childhood. Looking inside the building reveals that the red has its origin in what looks like a crystal radio set. So maybe there is a message about containing anxiety by constructing your own reality/identity, something that Second Life is well suited to.

Or not. The ambiguity of the piece is a large part of its attraction. It’s like a Rorschach ink blot. My sexualised interpretation tells you more about me than it does about the artist or the work.

I’ve read a couple of pieces about AM Radio, but I haven’t heard him discuss his influences. I would say that his installations give more than a nod in the direction of surrealism, particularly the work of René Magritte. Doorways, windows, locomotives, are all recurring themes.

(As an aside, I vaguely remember seeing somewhere that someone had created an avatar with an apple for a face, after Magritte’s famous image. If I only imagined that, and no one has actually done it, I want to claim credit for the idea right now).

I like AM’s stuff, though I find it mostly intriguing rather than unsettling in the way that the best surrealist works are. I think the Second Life aesthetic is too clean to really invoke that dream/nightmare feeling that you get from someone like Max Ernst.

My favourite is probably the “Lost Highway” segment of “The Space Between these Trees“:


Doors again. The Doors of Perception perhaps. I should drop some mescaline next time I log on, I might get more of a nightmare thing going.