Monetising SL 2.0

I feel that I should download the SL 2.0 viewer, just so that I can have an opinion about it, and join in the general excitement, but I’m finding it hard to get enthusiastic about what is, after all, just a gateway to the really interesting part of Second Life, that is the content and the community. When I first signed up to SL a couple of years ago I downloaded the alpha build of the Linux client, and I was happy with that until fairly recently, when the Lab started restricting which viewers you could log in with and it stopped working. I switched to the then-current version of Snowglobe, which I have had no major complaints about.

I’ve never been entirely convinced that making the viewer more user-friendly was the key to broadening SL‘s appeal. I guess the Lab did some consumer research that told them that the viewer’s rather steep learning-curve was contributing to SL‘s woeful retention rate, and I’m sure that the new version makes it a bit easier to get through the first hour, but I would have thought that keeping people on board for months and years would depend more on the nature of the virtual world and its residents than the bells and whistles of the client software.

Though maybe I’m overstating the importance of content. The BBC are currently running a series The Virtual Revolution (which you can watch online if you live in the UK), which is taking a look at the impact on society of the growth of the internet in the last 20 years. It’s necessarily broad, and there’s been nothing terribly surprising, but it’s still interesting, particularly the discussion of how Web 2.0 has been monetised. Services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter may get their user-generated content for free, but most of it is worthless junk. That doesn’t matter though, the theory goes, because as users post, search, rate and comment on all those videos, updates and tweets, they reveal a mass of valuable data about themselves and their social networks, information that can be profitably mined for targeted advertising.

One can’t help but wonder if the Lindens have some similar plan in mind. They have certainly been talking up the social-networking aspects of SL, with their purchase of Avatars United, and Wallace Linden’s suggestion that we should all link our real identities to our avatars. If they could find out all about us and our interests, they could turn that into a revenue stream, provided they could figure out how to serve up the ads in a way that wasn’t too annoying. Perhaps the much-touted URL-on-a-prim functionality of the 2.0 viewer is part of the Lab’s plan to sneak pop-up advertising into the virtual landscape.

The Kid With The Replaceable Head

People who know how I dress would probably refuse to believe this, but I am a regular reader of the fashion pages in the newspaper, especially when there is some big event like London Fashion Week on. I don’t update my own style, such as it is, with any great frequency – an observer with only my wardrobe to go by would conclude that there had been no major developments in male couture since Richard Hell started wearing ripped T-shirts in 1976 – but I do like to keep in touch with the latest trends, so that when I meet someone new I can judge how much of a fashion victim they are.

LFW has of course been overshadowed this year by the death of Alexander McQueen. Fashion is by its nature ephemeral, but there is no doubt that McQueen was one of those designers who deserves to be thought of as a serious artist, and whose influence on popular culture went far beyond the catwalk. The tragic circumstances of his passing, with so much of his career still in front of him, only adds to the feeling that the world has lost a major talent.

Anyway, I mention this because I was reading an article about Swedish designer Ann-Sofie Back’s new collection, which apparently has been inspired by her experience working as a stripper in Second Life. Interestingly, she doesn’t seem to rate SL, or the virtual fashion industry, very highly, describing it thus: “Second Life is quite a shitty, slow game where nothing much happens, but people do make an effort with clothes, hair and make-up. The weird thing is, you have the chance to really create something fantastic – you know, with rabbit ears or you could be green. But most people want to look like Katie Price and Peter Andre, and wear clothes like people on Big Brother. It’s even more conformist than real life.”

I won’t pretend that I know enough about the SL fashion scene to say whether or not Ms Back’s opinion is accurate, though my limited observation has made me think that there is quite a degree of conservatism operating, with most of the items available being a variation on a few themes, so she may well be on to something.

The assertion that SL in general is essentially conventional does seem more counter-intuitive, when one thinks of the myriad of character types one meets around the grid. Sometimes outward rebelliousness masks inner conformity though, and the rules governing a subculture can be as rigid as any in more mainstream society. Someone needs to do some anthropological work among SL‘s Furries or Tinys or Vampires or whatever to see if this is the case.

Considering all this has led me to reflect on the way I have been leading my virtual existence, on the grid and in this blog, and how much I have used SL to break with convention and explore facets of my personality that I normally keep hidden. Sadly, I must admit that I haven’t really taken up the opportunity to reinvent myself to any great extent. My avatar looks pretty much like I do (or did 20 years ago at least), and my activity is a similarly unadventurous echo of the ineffectual political agitation and low-powered cultural and psychological rumination that passes for my day to day intellectual life.

You may think that the fact that, faced with the limitless possiblities for self-expression offered by Second Life, I have chosen to create an alter-ego that is at most a slightly polished version of my real self, is a sign that I have a dreadful lack of imagination, and you may well be right. I however prefer to recall the research in this area which suggests that it is the people with the lowest self-esteem who are most likely to idealise their virtual existence, and to conclude that my rather boring cyber-identity proves that I must be supremely well-actualised in real life, and that my personality has only a little room for improvement.

And talking of Richard Hell

O Superman

The JLU saga rumbles on, and has jumped from Second Life into the real world, on the way losing much of its lustre.

I may have exaggerated a little when I implied that the wannabe superheroes were some sort of virtual Freikorps, but they do seem to be doing their best to make themselves look like a thoroughly sinister outfit. Their latest stunt is to try to censor the Herald’s exposé of the secret JLU database by threatening the paper’s web host with the DMCA. The Herald, to their credit, are not taking this lying down, and have counter-filed a complaint charging JLU supremo Kalel Venkman with intentionally lodging a false DMCA report, which, I understand, is not a trivial offence.

(A side-effect of this process has been to reveal the real-life identity of Herald editor Pixeleen Mistral, who, rather impressively, turns out to be internet legend Mark McCahill.)

The whole story was quite fun when it was confined to the grid and the SL blogosphere, but I suspect it is about to become rather less amusing for the participants now that everyone is getting lawyered-up. A well-connected academic like McCahill can probably look after himself – I’m sure he’ll be able to hit up Lawrence Lessig for some free legal advice – but Venkman, who, the internet tells me, is really a technical writer from Los Angeles, may be having second thoughts about the potentially expensive escalation of hostilities that he has initiated.

Why has Venkman done this? He had a perfectly good role-playing scenario set up, with heroes and villains, intrigue and espionage, skulduggery and back-stabbing, confidential dossiers and secret deals, topped off with open conflict between the forces of good and evil across hundreds of worlds – all the ingredients for a gripping narrative, with Venkman himself right at the centre. He’s trading that for a dull tale of dreary lawyers exchanging dismal arguments in dusty courtrooms, a story that seems likely to end in unhappiness for Venkman and his lycra-clad cohort.

This seems to me to be a case of incomplete immersion, or perhaps over-augmentation; either way Venkman appears to have lost sight of the boundary between the virtual world and the real. The role of “Venkman” has become so important to his self-image that he is unable to see the Herald‘s story for what it is –  a chance to build on the mythology he has already established, an opportunity he should welcome – and instead regards it as a threat to his real-life identity, one which must be countered with a real-life action, regardless of the fact that such action risks destroying his existence, both virtual and real.

The story reminds me of cases we’ve covered before – the tale of another virtual superhero, Twixt, and the Stroker v. Linden lawsuit. Both of these involved people acting in ways that made no sense when seen in the context of the virtual world alone, but became more comprehensible when one thought about the interaction between virtual and real identities, particularly the unconscious aspects of the latter.

Is it possible to be a complete immersionist, to live one’s virtual life in total isolation from the conscious and unconscious influences of one’s everyday personality? Would such a thing be desirable? Probably not, for what is interesting to me about living a Second Life, and recording my thoughts about it, is the way that it casts light on corners of my consciousness that I may have been only vaguely aware of. While projection of real-life neuroses into the metaverse may be illuminating, I’m much less convinced that allowing in-world dynamics to leak out and influence one’s external behaviour can be anything other than harmful. This may be a lesson that Kalel Venkman, or at least his mortal alter-ego, is about to learn the hard way.

Because when justice is gone, there’s always force.

Second Life, with graphics, on the iPhone?

I’ve had the Touch Life app on my iPhone for a while, though I tend not to use it much, since not being able to move around (apart from teleporting) or see what is around you (apart from a map view) means you don’t get anything like the full SL experience.

However when I read about the Peek360 service from Avatrian, which lets you view SL via a web interface, I figured that there might be a way of making the mobile SL experience a bit more satisfying.

Step 1: Log into Touch Life and teleport to where you want to go. Note the region and the coordinates. Log out.

Step 2: Launch Safari and go to the Peek360 page. Enter the coordinates noted above, and your email address. Note the estimate that is given for when your image will be ready (from 4 to 30 minutes the times I did it).

Step 3: Log back in to Touch Life (if you want to be in the picture), then wait for the period mentioned above. Log out.

Step 4: Check for the email from Peek360, and follow the link to the picture taken by the bot they sent to the coordinates you gave.

The rather disappointing result of this cumbersome process can be seen below:

(In the spirit of this experiment I posted this with the WordPress iPhone app, and I don’t know how to rotate the screenshot.)

Not quite a killer app then. It might work better on a device that allowed multiple processes, and ran flash.

If I was smart enough I could probably set my desktop to log in to SL, then feed screenshots to a web page that I could access with my iPhone, with some sort of remote-access facility to allow me to control the viewer. The frame rate would have to be pretty slow, but it should be playable.

[Update: someone already did this of course, two years ago in fact.]

Zombie Glamour

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As you can see I’m still trying to re-register SLS with Technorati – the process has dragged on for months, and now they seem to have lost my claim, so I’m having to start over. I wouldn’t bother, but I want to keep our place in the big list of Second Life blogs, and a Technorati rating was a condition of inclusion last year.

Anyhow, it gives me an excuse to link to a site I’ve been wanting to feature for a while; the rather wonderful, and only slightly disturbing, Zombie Pinups.

The Avatars United will never be defeated

I was busy with some real life issues over the last week or so, and hadn’t been paying attention to all the various SL-related blogs and tweets that I usually monitor in a sadly obsessive way, so when I finally got round to looking at them I thought I might have missed a big story. Everyone seemed to be going on about “Avatars United“, and for one terrible moment I feared that someone had stolen a march on my plans to start up a virtual revolutionary movement by launching their own grassroots organisation.

The truth turned out to be a bit less exciting; AU is a two-year old social networking site that had been more or less moribund until Linden Lab unexpectedly bought it over at the end of last month. This prompted a flurry of interest from the SL community and a rush to take advantage of the site’s USP; the ability to collect all your virtual identities in one place and associate them with one another and, if you want, with your real one (though not many people were taking that option up). Amusingly, they don’t seem to have any system to verify that users actually own the avatars they are claiming, which has led to a rash of virtual identity theft.

Why the Lab has bothered with this is not entirely clear, since I thought they were trying to promote SL itself as a social networking service with benefits, and I can’t see the advantage for them in encouraging people to take their chatting off the grid and on to some other site. I imagine that they are more interested in harnessing the development skills of the AU staff to improve the SL experience than running a virtual Facebook.

From a user’s point of view the appeal of AU is even more opaque; the main attraction (for me anyhow) of having multiple online identities is that they are separate, and thus able to reflect different aspects of my personality. (Shelly Turkle wrote about this years ago.) If I need to integrate my avatars for any purpose I already have a perfectly good place to do so; it’s called “inside my head”.

I’m not the only person to have doubts; in what must be one of the shortest hype-cycles ever the AU backlash has already started.

Two Galleries

I recently spent some time wandering around The Leominster Galleries, a new project from Sigmund Leominster, of SL on SL fame. The space exists to showcase Siggy’s personal art collection, with three floors of permanent exhibits and a room for temporary shows, all floating in the air high above the Root Squared sim.

Siggy’s taste seems to be firmly rooted in the 19th century, with the work of William Adolphe Bouguereau particularly well represented:

Bouguereau is an interesting choice; a stalwart of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts, he was acclaimed a genius in his day, but his reputation declined spectacularly in the 20th century, when his work was largely viewed as technically competent, but exemplifying the worst aspects of the ossified Academic style. He was entirely eclipsed by the Impressionists, a movement he had attempted to exclude from the Salon, and which he struggled to understand. More recently reviving the popularity of Bouguereau has become somewhat of a cause célèbre among conservative art critics, who see in his work an affirmation of traditional values tragically displaced (in their view) by modernism.

I don’t know if Siggy is making a political point with his picture selection, or if he just likes the sanitised eroticism that was popular in 19th century bourgeois circles. To be fair, the collection is not entirely composed of tasteful nudes in classical tableaux – there are some tasteful nudes in faux-Arthurian tableaux too, courtesy of the Pre-Raphaelites:

a fair representation of Symbolist works:

and a smattering of Surrealism:

The visit introduced me to several works I hadn’t seen before, since, I must admit, I usually hurry through the 19th century rooms when I visit the big galleries, so it was educational to a degree, but I do wonder what value was added by hosting the exhibition in Second Life, rather than, say, posting it in a blog. I suppose one could invite one’s friends around to make it a more social experience. The exhibits might perhaps be a little more interactive, with links to information about the artists and movements, and some explanation of the curatorial philosophy. The gallery design could be a bit less clinical too, since the modern aesthetic of the plain walls and light wood floor clashes somewhat with the cluttered hanging. A few chairs wouldn’t go amiss either. These are minor criticisms though, and the Leominster Galleries are well worth checking out.

A rather different artistic experience is on offer at The Primtings Museum, where they don’t hang the pictures on the walls, but build installations that allow visitors to place themselves into some iconic images:

(I’m pretty sure that I once sat in a real-life recreation of Van Gogh’s Room at Arles, but this was in Amsterdam, so it might just have been a drug-fuelled hallucination.)

There are dozens of works on display by various virtual artists, including our old friend AM Radio, who reworked David’s The Death of Marat, above. A full catalogue can be found on the Primtings website.

Surrealist paintings provide the inspiration for a large number of pieces, but, ironically, these are perhaps the least successful works in the gallery. The dream-like quality of Surrealism seems to be lost rather than enhanced by being lifted from the canvas and transformed into rather prosaic tangible objects:

I think for these sort of pieces to work they would have to be more immersive than just three dimensional representations of the paintings presented in a box. A sim-scale re-imagining of Un Chien Andalou perhaps, with the opportunity to slice up eyeballs and pull a piano full of dead donkeys around.

My favourite work at Primtings is this replica of Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living:

As befits conceptual art this works just as well in Second Life as it does in reality. The best part is that you can take away a free copy of the formaldehyde tank (though not the shark), and suspend yourself, or your loved ones, in it when you get home.

I did wonder a bit about the copyright status of these two galleries. I think Siggy should be all right, since the artists he features are all long dead, but Primtings might be on shakier ground if Hirst ever finds out they have been ripping him off, so you should probably take it in while you still can.

And finally – Johnny would have a fit if I mentioned Un Chien Andalou without linking to this.

The Death of Hope

OK Barack, I didn’t lose the faith when you bailed out the banks or escalated the war in Afghanistan. I had some doubts when you let Congress stall meaningful healthcare reform, and failed to provide any leadership on climate change, but I still believed that you were on the side of progress.

But cancelling the Moonbase? That’s the final straw…