Fifteen Years Ago

Second Life Shrink made its debut on May 26th 2007, an exciting time when technology promised a future of unlimited opportunity. The must-have communication gadget was a BlackBerry, all the cool kids were on MySpace, and it was still possible to dream of making a living by blogging.

A decade and a half later, after nearly 700 posts, we’re still going strong, or still going at least. This would seem like a good opportunity to reflect on how the dream of internet liberation degenerated into the post-truth social-media dystopia that we live in today, but that sounds like hard work, so in true SLS slacker style I’ll just do what I did on our fifth and tenth birthdays, and list my favourite posts from the past 5 years:

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

2022

Perhaps this review will inspire me to post a bit more frequently again; we’ll see. In the meantime I’ll revive a favourite feature that has lain dormant since 2012, the post-title-related music link.

Viral déjà vu revisited

I may find the unchanging nature of Second Life strangely comforting, but the fact that events in the real world seem to be stuck on infinite repeat is rather more unsettling. Almost exactly a year ago we were dealing with the disappointment of Christmas being cancelled due to the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus, and, well, here we are again.

Of course the outlook is not quite as gloomy as it was last December; the reasonably high rate of vaccination in the UK population does give some cause for optimism. Set against that however is the ever more obvious incompetence of the government, presided over by the increasingly ridiculous figure of Boris Johnson, lurching from scandal to scandal, his authority so diminished that he struggles to win the support of his own party for the measures necessary to head off the resurgent pandemic. In another echo of the recent past, a hazardous by-election this week, in what should be a safe Tory seat, seems likely to precipitate a fresh crisis for Johnson, potentially rendering him powerless at just the time the country needs decisive leadership.

It could be worse I guess; Brexit might be going badly

Rediscovered life

Around now is the time every year when I look at my credit card statement and realise that I have once again forgotten to cancel my Second Life premium membership plan. The annual cost went up to $99 a few years ago, though I do get the equivalent of a buck a week back in the form of a Linden dollar allowance, so it works out at a little under $4 a month, which I guess isn’t too bad compared with what I spend on other forms of entertainment.

Anyway, this inspired me to dig out the old android tablet I have that still has a copy of the now-unobtainable Lumiya viewer installed. I hadn’t tried to use this for ages, so I wasn’t really expecting it to work, but, rather surprisingly, it did, and I found myself back in the familiar surroundings of my virtual alpine cabin.

It’s been two years at least since I was last on the grid, so I was thinking that things might have changed a little, but everything looked just the same. Of course I was using an ancient viewer, which was never graphically pretty even when it was new, and certainly won’t support whatever upgrades might have been engineered in the interim, but the sense of sameness came from more than just the rather dated visuals. Wandering around, there was that old feeling of emptiness that I remembered from when I used to visit more regularly. The land surrounding my cabin, once heavily developed, is now completely abandoned, and there didn’t seem to be another living soul in the whole region.

The post-apocalyptic ambience was always part of the charm of SL for me, but the apparent lack of paying customers does make me wonder how it is still a sustainable business model. Perhaps there are just enough people like me who are prepared to maintain their subscriptions, for reasons they can’t quite articulate, to keep the show on the road. Linden Lab was bought over by a private investment group last year, which suggests that someone believes there is still money to be made from the virtual world, though Tilia, the money services part of the business, may have been more attractive than SL itself. They might be looking to profit from some crypto/NFT-related plan, which seems to be the way the broader video game industry is going.

I did think the new owners might prioritise the release of an official mobile client, but the plan to develop such a thing was apparently abandoned earlier this year. This mystifies me, since the need to buy the sort of computer that can run the desktop viewer must be a major barrier to growing the user base. Monetising those new residents would probably be a big challenge though; perhaps venture capitalists do know more about running tech companies than amateur bloggers.

Whatever; I’ve been in SL for nearly 15 years now, so I expect I’ll preserve my little patch there until the bitter end, even if my visits are few and far between.

Comfortably fungible

Exciting news from the world of non-fungible tokens, where a work by renowned digital artist Krista Kim sold this week for a cool 288 Ether, which is apparently equivalent to quite a lot of real money.

I’ll admit that I’ve only seen the piece in question, a futuristic virtual dwelling, on the tiny, cracked screen of my ageing phone, but to me it looks very like the sort of build one could pick up in Second Life for a few Linden dollars back in 2009. The big difference is that Ms Kim’s creation incorporates some kind of blockchain technology to make it non-replicable, though why that should imbue this otherwise unremarkable artefact with such value still escapes me. It’s not an isolated case though; NFTs are evidently the latest in fashionable investment.

The spectacle of huge sums being squandered on such fripperies is pretty depressing in itself, but what I find most unsatisfactory about the whole NFT phenomenon is the way it takes the democratic content of mass production – the idea that everyone can have their own copy of something, with no one instance having any more intrinsic worth than another – and twists it to suit the values of late-stage capitalism, with its insistence that some things must be more important than others.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how long NFT mania will last before it runs out of steam. Like all speculative bubbles, it is driven by the fact that, at this point in the boom-bust cycle, capital must seek out ever more exotic investment opportunities in order to secure a decent rate of return. The pandemic looks likely to cut some dead wood out of the economy though, creating the potential for a renewed round of accumulation, so venture capitalists might soon find that they have better things to do with their money than buy overpriced jpegs, leaving the people left holding the bitcoins in serious trouble.

That said, I’m sure there’s still a lot of money to be made in blockchain-related investment, for those with the brains and the nerve to try to predict when the market will peak. I am definitely not in that number though, so I’ll be watching from the sidelines, sipping espresso from my Alessi cup (mass-produced can still be classy), and waiting for the whole thing to come crashing down.

2020: The year in review – Part 2: Blogging

It would be somewhat of an understatement to say that 2020 was an eventful year; certainly there has been no shortage of topics to blog about, and we managed to keep up a fairly steady stream of posts throughout the year.

Most of our pieces focused on politics. We obviously couldn’t avoid touching on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic (once we finally noticed how serious it was), but the bulk of our commentary concerned the two areas we had identified as important back in January; the US Presidential election, and the Brexit endgame.

The result in the US was not quite as good as we had hoped – our prediction of a President Sanders was a little over-optimistic – but nowhere near as bad as we feared during the summer, as the threat of a Trump coup turned out to be nothing more than empty rhetoric. Whether the election of Joe Biden represents a return to some sort of normality, or just a pause in the downward spiral, remains to be seen.

Over here, the Brexit saga dragged on through countless missed deadlines, before culminating in a last-minute deal that promises to be merely semi-ruinous, rather than a complete disaster. There is a chance that, now the political heat has been taken out of the issue, the country will be able to start quietly rebuilding relations with our continental neighbours, but that was what we hoped for after the election last year, so I expect that this story has a few more unhappy chapters still to come.

We actually wrote surprisingly little specifically about the pandemic, considering that it is probably the most globally significant event since WWII. I think that this is mainly because I am aware that my personal experience of the lockdown has been far from typical. My job has changed a bit, my social life has been slightly less active, and I haven’t had a proper holiday, but apart from that it’s been more or less business as usual. I’ve managed to avoid contracting Covid-19, at least as far as I know, and nobody of my acquaintance has died, or even been particularly unwell with it. If anything I’m better off than I was last year; with the pubs and cinemas closed I’ve been exercising more, and I’ve been getting paid extra while having less to spend the money on, so I’m in pretty good shape, physically and financially, a fortunate position when half the country is facing a bleak winter of enforced idleness and financial precarity. In any case, the true significance of events like these often takes a while to become fully apparent, so it feels like it’s a bit soon to comment. We may have more reflections on all this, particularly the social and psychological effects, in the months ahead.

In between all that excitement we also found time for a bit of cultural commentary, and a couple of obituaries. We even gave a rare mention to Second Life, though only in the context of comparing it unfavourably to Animal Crossing. Despite otherwise completely ignoring virtual worlds in a year when, arguably, they have been more relevant than at any time in the last decade, I did keep my connection to SL alive by renewing my premium membership. This now costs a not-inconsiderable $99, so I’m hoping that 2021 will be the year that Linden Labs finally produce a mobile app that will let me get back on to the grid.

Anyway, on to the statistics; here are our top ten posts of 2020 by traffic:

  1. The Linden Principle
  2. There is no land beyond the Volga
  3. Second Life demographics – a brief review
  4. Watching the Okhrana
  5. Thoughts on La Peste in the time of Covid-19
  6. Six hundred
  7. Furry traversing
  8. One further message to my friends in the US of A
  9. Lost Christmas
  10. Get well Boris

The good news is that, after years of coasting on our past glories, over half of the top posts were published in the last 12 months, perhaps indicating that we are engaging more with a new audience. Less encouraging is that the most popular piece, by some distance, is one from 2010, which owes its hits to people searching for something else entirely, specifically the Linden Method, a rather costly repackaging of standard anxiety-management techniques. I could probably monetise this confusion by directing visitors to my own website, and overcharging them for some proprietary self-help therapy, but that seems a little unethical.

Other posts I was quite pleased with this year:

Of all of this year’s output, I think our Camus review was probably my favourite.

The US and the UK still provide the bulk of our traffic, but we did see a big jump in visitors from China this year. Our posts were read in a total of 49 countries, from American Samoa to Zimbabwe; the top ten were:

  1. United States
  2. United Kingdom
  3. China
  4. Germany
  5. Canada
  6. France
  7. India
  8. Australia
  9. Japan
  10. Brazil

So, 2020, with all its challenges, has come and gone, and we’re still here, which feels like some sort of triumph. 2021? Bring it on, we say…

Coup de tweet

In another sign that Animal Crossing is turning into the Second Life de nos jours, notable politicians have been spotted on the platform. Perhaps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visiting islands owned by her Twitter followers isn’t quite on the scale of Hillary Clinton setting up an SL campaign HQ back in 2008, but it does, rather depressingly, suggest that no corner of cyberspace will a haven from the upcoming Presidential election, which is shaping up to be even uglier than feared.

This shouldn’t be a surprise of course; with the stakes so high for Donald Trump there is no gutter he won’t stoop to. A couple of months ago it looked like he might be able to coast to victory on the strength of being the incumbent at a time of relative prosperity, but his disastrously inept response to the coronavirus crisis, and the subsequent economic implosion, have left him staring defeat in the face, with little option but to continue his steady erosion of democracy.

So we have been treated to the spectacle of the President of the United States of America using his Twitter account to traduce a dead woman’s reputation, as part of a ludicrous conspiracy theory aimed at one of his many critics in the media. This seems like lunacy, and perhaps it is, but it also fits in with his strategy of portraying himself as an outsider, battling the liberal establishment, which, predictably, has reacted with outrage to this latest transgression. The evidence of 2016 suggests that his core voters will lap this up, but it does risk alienating his more marginal support. To cover that angle, Trump has also been tweeting baseless allegations of potential electoral fraud, a move transparently designed to prepare the ground for him refusing to accept defeat if the vote goes against him in November.

This is all quite alarming. Since the fabled checks and balances of the US constitution have proven to be worthless in the face of Trump’s dictatorial ambitions, it might appear that the only thing that can prevent the most powerful nation on the planet falling completely under the control of an unstable despot is his own party turning against him. Given that the GOP refused to even look at the evidence for impeachment, that seems like a forlorn hope.

Fortunately though we don’t have to depend on the Republican Party to stop the putsch. For all his bombast, Trump’s support across the nation is very much a minority, and any attempt to steal the election will, I’m sure, provoke a popular uprising. As ever, when bourgeois democracy is under threat, and the liberals vacillate, it’s the proletariat who are called upon to save the day.

Furry traversing

As we enter another month of lockdown, with the majority of the population still sundered from friends and family, there comes news that increasing numbers of people have been signing up to a virtual world, where they can customise their avatar, decorate their homes, craft their own clothing, and experience the social contact that has been denied them in these difficult times, recreating all sorts of communal gatherings, including weddings. All this has drawn the attention of big brands, who are rushing to establish a presence in the metaverse.

This story might sound familiar to readers who have been around since the early days of this blog. However the virtual world in question is not Second Life, but New Horizons, the latest instalment of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing franchise.

ACNH does have some things in common with SL – a non-linear structure, user-generated content, and an emphasis on social interaction – but also some key features that have helped propel it beyond being a niche interest, like the easy-to-grasp user interface, the cute graphic design, and the highly-regulated family-friendly ambience. Its biggest advantage though is that it can be accessed on a relatively low-cost console, or on mobile devices using the NookLink app, instead of forcing would-be residents to shell out for a PC with a high-end graphics card.

Linden Labs’ persistent failure to produce an iPhone or Android app has always puzzled me. It’s clearly technically possible – there are plenty of graphically-intensive mobile games around, and a third-party viewer was available for Android for a while – and even if the smartphone client didn’t have all the bells and whistles of the desktop viewer it would still be enough to keep more casual residents engaged. I suspect it has something to do with the somewhat extortionate revenue-sharing terms that both Apple and Google apply to their respective app stores, but other developers seem to be able to make money in that market, so I don’t see why an SL app wouldn’t be viable. If one existed it might give ACNH a run for its money, particularly among more mature demographics.

Perhaps though the real problem has been one of timing. If current events had unfolded back in 2006, then SL might have been well-positioned to meet the demand for a virtual social hub, and could even have cornered the market for remote business meetings. As it is, a combination of the ubiquity of smartphones, the popularity of social media, and much-improved video-call technology has left the erstwhile pioneer nothing but a cautionary footnote in metaversal history. Sometimes it’s possible to be too far ahead of your time.

2020 vision

[I guess it bodes ill for my serious writing career that I have been unable to resist such a painfully obvious title for today’s post, but I was up late last night, so I think I can be excused.]

What lies ahead for SLS as we enter the new decade? I expect that we will feel compelled to continue commenting on the unfolding political situation, on both sides of the Atlantic. My prediction is that the Brexit question will actually calm down a bit now that Boris Johnson has a solid majority and, no longer beholden to the ultras in his own party, is able to negotiate a sensible trade deal with the EU. Things are likely to get more lively in the US though, since the long-awaited impeachment process has significantly raised the already-high stakes in the 2020 presidential election. Donald Trump will be going to jail if he loses, giving him the motivation to abandon the scant regard he has for constitutional niceties, assuming he allows the election to go ahead at all.

Away from politics, I would like to start posting longer, more considered, pieces on broader cultural topics, perhaps once a month or so, but that’s an ambition I’ve had for several years now and it’s never happened yet, so we’ll see.

And Second Life? I did renew my annual subscription back in October, which cost about $90, even though the only way I have of accessing the grid these days is via an old copy of the now-defunct Lumiya app on an elderly tablet, which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t produce a particularly satisfactory graphical experience. Theoretically that shouldn’t matter too much if I just wanted to interact with people, but the perennial SL underpopulation means that one has to wander around for ages before bumping into anyone, and it’s difficult to stay interested without something pretty to look at. I should try to get back into virtual living again, because I’m sure SL will just disappear one day, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone. It might be quite interesting to compare my thoughts about it now with my first impressions from back in 2007.

So, politics, culture, Second Life, that should keep me busy for the next twelve months. I may even find time to cover our other main neglected category, psychology. I could do something tomorrow on avoiding procrastination….

State of disappointment

It’s the evening after the morning after the night before, and I have to say I’m still feeling pretty bummed out. I’ve purposefully avoided reading any news today, because I know it would just have depressed the fuck out of me even more; instead I spent most of the day in bed, and the rest watching movies.

I guess I’ll pick myself up in time, and get back to the struggle, but for now I just need a bit of space away from reality . If only there was some sort of virtual world I could lose myself in…

Ten Years After

Rather remarkably, today is the 10th anniversary of the very first post on this blog, and, while I started out full of enthusiasm, I don’t think I would have predicted that I’d still be churning them out a decade later.

It’s not been a steady stream of course – when I did a retrospective on the occasion of our 5th birthday back in 2012 I had a lot of material to work with; the pickings this time around are somewhat slimmer. There have been a few highlights though; here are my favourites:

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

So there you have it, 16 worthwhile pieces in 5 years. Is that a good enough return to justify keeping this blog going? On balance, I think so, though I guess we can revisit the question in 2022. In the meantime I’ll revive one of our traditions, which had sadly fallen into abeyance, the contrived musical link.

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