Anatomy of a scandal

I know that the only thing sadder than blogging or tweeting about an inconsequential internet phenomenon is blogging about people who blog or tweet about an inconsequential internet phenomenon, especially one as five-minutes-ago as “Emeraldgate“, but this is exactly the sort of thing that we live for here at SLS, and I’m hardly going to pass up the chance get all pseudo-intellectual on the topic.

What was it about this issue that elevated it above the usual Second Life drama, and made it the talk of the virtual steamie for a day or two? I think it was down to a combination of the nature of the tale, and the characteristics of the audience.

The story itself was serious enough that people could be bothered commenting, but not so serious that they felt obliged to think much about their comments; the perfect recipe for a froth of instant opinion. The technical level was just right; the average reader understands enough about terms like emkdu and DDOS to grasp that something is amiss, but not enough to really quantify the risks involved, producing a haze of uncertain anxiety. Then there was the Woodbury sub-plot, and the allegations of Linden collusion, which added another layer of conspiracy theories (all that was missing was the JLU). Perhaps most importantly there were enough angles to allow people to use the story as a hook for their characteristic preoccupations; thus Pixeleen was able to reprise her Woodward & Bernstein act, and Prok could roll out another semi-coherent rant about… well, I’m not sure to be honest, the evils of opensource software I think. I of course am free to produce another batch of our trademark psychoanalytical posturing.

For the real secret of the story’s success lies buried in the collective unconscious of the Second Life blogosphere. We are suckers for this sort of paranoia-inducing narrative because it appeals to our narcissism, both on a personal level – how flattering to think that someone has gone to all this bother to track our virtual lives, or that the FBI will chase us for being accessories to cyber-terrorism – and in relation to Second Life itself, which we imagine is as important to the rest of the world as it is to us. The reality of the situation – that no one cares what our avatars get up to, or what our real-life identities are, and that this saga is of no interest to anyone outside of our obscure little garden – is rather less compelling.

Naming this episode “Emeraldgate” only emphasised the preposterousness. Most SL residents are probably too young to remember the Watergate scandal, which involved the President of the United States being forced to resign after being exposed as a crook who had subverted the Constitution, a notable affair by any standard. By contrast, these shenanigans have not, as far as I can tell, caused anyone anything more than mild inconvenience, and are unlikely to be the subject of an Oscar-winning film any time soon.

That said, the story has not been unamusing, and, as a piece of harmless entertainment, it has been quite diverting. Readers may recall that a couple of months ago I made the claim that, occasionally, the Second Life meta-narrative could “[come] together to produce an instant of dream-like clarity that makes the whole project seem worthwhile”. Well, the tale of the Emerald development team’s nefarious activities is just what I was thinking of. Only Second Life, with its unscripted nature and disparate cast, could produce a story like this, and if I were in charge of the Lab’s publicity department I would be using it as an example of the potential of the platform. Something tells me that’s not going to happen though, which is a shame, because without the storytelling element Second Life wouldn’t be half the fun it is.

Teenage Kicks

I’m aware that lately we have been rather remiss in our duty to provide you, our dear readers, with ill-informed opinion on what’s going in in the wonderful world of Second Life, so here’s my two cents on some recent events:

Philip Rosedale at SLCC – Philip delayed the start of his family holiday to show up in person, sending the clear message to potential corporate customers that virtual communication is OK for trivial stuff, but if you really want to impress your audience you had better appear in the flesh.

Teen Grid to close – Not much of a shock, given that some sources put the average TG concurrency as low as 300. What’s more surprising is the decision to open the main grid to 16 year olds. I can only imagine that this has been done to placate content creators who do business with the educational sector, or perhaps the educators themselves. It looks like a lawsuit waiting to happen though. It’s one thing to have kids sneaking into your adult establishment – as long as you make some token effort to exclude them you can claim that any bad things that happen are their own fault – quite another to invite them in, thus assuming the responsibility of keeping them free from harm. I predict traumatised teens will be signing up for the inevitable class action before the end of the year.

The Emerald Viewer controversy – Now this is really what Second Life blogging is all about – the chance to work oneself up into a lather of righteous indignation over some utterly trivial “outrage”. I know that clandestinely co-opting your customers into a DDOS attack against a rival developer, or secretly building a vast database of your users’ IP addresses, is thoroughly reprehensible behaviour, but, on a global scale, it’s hardly worth getting angry about (unlike this, for example).

But who am I to talk? This whole blog is just a way for me to relieve my frustration with the world by mouthing off on subjects I know little about. I can’t say that it’s not cathartic, and it’s always fun working out how I can shoehorn in a link to some classic music.

Upon the dismal shore of Acheron

While browsing at the AV Club the other day I came across a review of the film The Dungeon Masters, a documentary following the lives of three devoted D&D and LARP fans. It sounds fairly interesting, though the director’s main theme – “people in control of their fantasy lives aren’t in control of their real ones” – won’t win any prizes for originality.

More intriguing was a link I found in the comment section of the review, leading to this cautionary tale. Who knew that D&D could be so exciting? I played for years, and I never once got invited to join a coven of witches.

Looking around the Chick Publications site reminded me of when I was about 6 or 7. There was an old lady who stood outside the gate of our primary school at break time, handing out similar illustrated tracts. One story sticks in my mind to this day; a young boy has the temerity to question his pastor about the truth of the Bible, and the very next day he is hit by a speeding truck, sent to Hell and tortured by demons, all depicted in graphic detail. I guess she was sincere in her belief that it was necessary to put the fear of eternal damnation into the minds of young children in order to save them from evil doctrines like communism or evolution (not to mention Catholicism, Islam and, of course, homosexuality), but even at that tender age my reaction was to think that her religion was pretty messed up.

I sometimes wonder if this early experience was what put me off religion for life, but if memory serves (which it probably doesn’t) I was a confirmed unbeliever even before that. In fact I can’t remember a time when I ever had any sort of faith, which I’m not sure how to explain. I did grow up in a basically secular household, but my parents weren’t militant atheists or anything, and Christianity was part of the fabric of our community. I repeated the prayers at school assembly, went to church at Easter and Christmas and was generally exposed to the idea that being a Christian was the normal thing to do, but none of it ever clicked with me. In the years that have followed I have learned about many other religions and belief-systems, ancient and modern, but my interest has always been cultural rather than spiritual. I’ve never felt that there was any sort of void in me that yearned to be filled by religion, or that my lack of faith meant I was missing something. Perhaps I just don’t have the religious gene.

(I have been politically active most of my adult life, and pious types have often told me that I am sublimating my religious impulses in radicalism, that The Communist Manifesto is my bible, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. I don’t see politics as a moral issue, but more a technical question of how to efficiently organise society. I certainly don’t think that being a communist makes me a better person than anyone else, and I’m not expecting any eternal reward for my labours).

I don’t really have a point here; I’m just musing nostalgically. I’m definitely not suggesting that all Christians are hate-filled bigots; I’ve known plenty over the years and hardly any have been like Fred Phelps. Indeed one of the saving graces of the Christian faith is the fact that its adherents are mostly content to be fuzzy about the details of doctrine. Even the Pope thinks that non-believers can go to heaven, which, to my mind, seems hard to reconcile with John 14:6, but I guess that resolving such contradictions is what keeps theologians busy. (Personally, I’d probably pass on Paradise; I’ve always thought that the first circle of the Inferno sounded much more interesting). I imagine that the followers of other religions behave in a similar way; none of the Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists that I know are particularly devout, though I’d have to admit that my deadbeat friends may not be entirely representative examples of their respective faiths.

I used to be more actively anti-religious in my younger days, and I would argue with people about how clearly nonsensical their beliefs were, but with age I have mellowed into a position of liberal secularism; I don’t care what people think or do in their homes and places of worship (or where they build those places of worship), as long as they keep their dogma out of the schoolroom, and don’t try to tell me who I can or cannot marry.

I still think that, on balance, religion is a pernicious influence on society, but no amount of reasoned discourse is going to make it disappear as long as the material conditions that underpin it persist. Everyone knows Marx’s comment about religion being “the opium of the people”, but the full quote is more illuminating:

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.

Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

If we ever make it to a society that is free of inequality and injustice, the illusion of religion will no longer be necessary, and it will fade into history. We will look upon Christianity and other modern faiths in the same way we regard the pantheons of the Greeks and Romans; interesting cultural phenomena that have no direct significance in our everyday lives. Whether I’ll be around to see that day is another question, but I can always live in hope.

Rubber Soul

I was thinking the other day about this article, published on Salon around a year ago. It concerned the waning fortunes of the company behind Crocs, the aesthetically-challenged footwear brand. At the time the piece was written the firm looked in serious danger of going under, and its stock price had plummeted from a high of $70 to around $3. Worse was to come; at one point the shares traded for 79c, though today they are back up to $13.50, and it it looks like the hopes of discerning fashion-lovers everywhere that Crocs might disappear altogether are likely to remain unfulfilled.

What went wrong? Crocs were wildly popular in the middle of the last decade, and the company expanded massively to meet demand that they expected to keep on growing. In fact though, by 2009 everyone in the world who wanted a pair of Crocs had one already, and, since their indestructibility means that no one ever needs a second pair, sales dropped precipitously.

Crocs have managed to come back from the dead by refocussing on their core niche market – people who stand around all day at work – and forgetting about chasing mass appeal. Their advertising now emphasises comfort over fashionableness, which seems pretty obvious in retrospect.

How does this relate to virtual worlds? Well, I think the main lesson is that it’s important not to mistake enthusiastic take up of a product by a particular subsection of the market for a sign that said product will be equally attractive to other sections of that market. With enough media buzz it may be possible to whip up a short-term fad, but long term survival depends on looking after the core demographic, those who find enough genuine value in the product to keep them coming back for more once the initial novelty has faded.

Are there signs that Linden Lab is heeding this message? Yes and no, judging by what Philip Rosedale has had to say recently. He does seem to be alert to the fact that long-term residents need to be taken care of, but he still comes out with hyperbolic comments like “It is all going to happen, and we are going to get everyone in here eventually“, and “The fundamental belief that I have is that Second Life and virtual worlds are going to profoundly affect the human experience, profoundly, and in a positive way“. It may be that Philip doesn’t really believe this, and is just talking up the platform’s potential appeal to draw in new investors, but I fear that it’s more likely that he has so much invested in the idea of Second Life as a truly world-changing technology that he can’t bear to let it go.

Philip should relax, and embrace SL‘s cult status – even niche products can have a lasting cultural impact.

Virtual alchemy

When Second Life Shrink was in its planning stages a few years ago I checked out several different blog-hosting services before settling on WordPress. I liked that it was open-source, and a couple of people I knew had recommended it, but what sealed my decision was the amount of statistical information that the platform provides. As well seeing the raw visitor numbers I can analyse where they came from, which pages they have looked at, and which links they have followed, providing me with hours of pointless distraction.

Until fairly recently just about all our traffic came straight from search engines. We’re top on Google for “second life shrink” of course, and lately we’ve been doing well with “second life demographics” too. “Second life addiction” and “second life psychology” seem to come and go; we’ve been on the front page with both of those at various times, though currently we’re languishing down on page three, where only dedicated searchers will find us. We tend to do much better on Bing for some reason; I’m not sure whether that should be a source of pride or shame.

We used to get very few hits from direct links; unsurprisingly, with a couple of exceptions, no one has ever felt that any of our posts were worth drawing to the attention of a wider audience. Recently though we have been getting a steady stream of visitors from a whole host of unlikely sites. I won’t link to them for reasons that will become obvious; suffice to say that they are not the sort of places we would like to be associated with.

I figured that this was likely to be the result of some sort of traffic-generating scam; and a little research has proved that this is the case. The program in question promises to deliver hits by automatically visiting millions of blogs and spoofing an incoming link from the site that is being promoted; the theory is that bloggers, their curiosity piqued, will follow the link back, and then purchase diet pills, or click on Google ads, or otherwise participate in whatever shady e-commerce scheme the site owner is counting on to make back the $70 the package costs.

At least this sting only leaves the would-be web-entrepreneur out by the cost of the program; most of the get-rich-quick-with-Google/Twitter/Facebook offers that litter the web these days are potentially much more expensive. Victims are lured in by the promise of secret marketing tricks for a payment of only a couple of dollars, but after handing over their credit card details they find that they have subscribed to a “newsletter”, for which they are billed $50 or more a month. Of course they can cancel any time, by simply calling a premium-rate number in the Virgin Isles, staffed by operators who will put you on hold for 20 minutes before asking for your bank account number so that they can process the transaction. These sharp practices are not always confined to the murkier recesses of the internet; last year Facebook was awash with similar scams that tricked people into signing up for overpriced cellphone services, though these have been mostly purged now.

What’s interesting about these confidence tricks is not that they are new, but that they are ancient. Persuading people to suspend their disbelief by invoking some magical new paradigm must go back to the days when enterprising cavemen extracted shiny pebbles from their gullible fellows by promising to share the secrets of how to generate revenue using that new “fire” thing that everyone was talking about. From medieval alchemists tuning lead into gold, through Gregor MacGregor’s tales of colonial riches, to Charles Ponzi‘s arbitrage of the International Reply Coupon, today’s blog fraudsters stand in a proud line of grifters and shakedown-artists.

While I like to think that I can see through crude scams such as these, I have to admit that I am not immune to the subtler form of self-deception that keeps me handing money over to disreputable virtual-world-pedlars, not in the belief that it will enrich me materially (nothing so base), but in the hope that I might be able to reinvent myself as a better person (despite all the evidence to the contrary). The alchemists of old sought the Philosophers’ Stone, the mystical substance said to grant enlightenment and immortality; perhaps Second Life, which promises to allow one to transcend the limitations of corporeality, is its modern equivalent.