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  My Second Life, Part 3  
Posted 2004-04-16 by Tony Walsh
My first few forays into the strange and wonderful world of Second Life were totally eye-opening. Chaos and order are constantly at war in this otherwise peaceful virtual world, making each visit completely unique and intriguing. In my 20-plus years of video-gaming, I've certainly never seen anything so interesting and captivating.

The first and second installments of "My Second Life" covered some basic surface details such as sightseeing, as well as touched upon some more significant issues such as intellectual property and control versus freedom. In this third installment, I'll be discussing slightly more abstract concepts.

What is Second Life?

There is no easy answer to this question. Not only do long-term residents have difficulty articulating Second Life's purpose and identity, but even its developers have struggled. It's understandably difficult to define Second Life, since it serves each of its users in different and multiple ways: Second Life is entertainment. It's a town hall. It's a store. It's a peepshow booth.

In my estimation, Second Life could very well become the new World Wide Web: The "world" of Second Life is merely a blank canvas, and aside from a few basic rules, it's an anything-goes publishing platform, arguably with less barrier to entry than the WWW was in its infancy. Users need a decent computer, a good Internet connection, and a few bucks a month to access Second Life. Unlike the early days of the Web, however, basic content publishing in Second Life is very easy, with in-system Help and other resources to guide newcomers along. Second Life supports literal hyperlinking to in-world content as well as "bookmarks" in the form of user-placed Landmarks denoting a specific location of interest. Second Life has Instant Messaging. It has Social Networking support and other great community-building hooks. It's got e-commerce, and the potential for real-world advertising. All Second Life needs is to expand support to different platforms (mobile devices, consoles) and facilitate content originating from outside it's "gates." If the latter is implemented properly, users would be able to browse the "old" Web, read news-feeds, maybe even send and receive email. I noticed that Instant Messages get sent to my email address when I am not in-world. If Second Life allowed one to specify an alternate mail-to address, it would be possible to post blog entries on the Web from within Second Life itself. Gives Embedded Journalism a whole new twist, doesn't it?

Where is the Narrative?

Following my identification of Second Life as a next-generation World Wide Web, the simplest answer to the question "Where is the narrative?" is "There isn't any." A more cryptic, but still accurate answer would be "It doesn't exist, and you can find it everywhere." Second Life is a venue, and although I believe there are efforts being made to weave a story into this venue (I suppose to explain things like flying avatars), it doesn't on its own convey a story. Like the Web, Second Life's story is told in endless threads, some woven together into a cohesive fabric, and some intersecting at various angles. Most of Second Life's pockets of narrative take place between users. Like the proverbial tree in the forest, if nobody is around to witness it, it's like it never happened. Other pockets are found attached to in-world objects--lasting testimony of a story, either deliberately constructed as such, or evidence that *something* is going on. In my travels I have discovered journals, mandates, by-laws, signboards, and charters. There is a story to be found if you want to look for one.

Some Second Lifers are always role-playing to a degree (usually a characterization of their current avatar), but there are games within the world itself where role-playing is a little more "serious." These include adult-oriented play (yes, I'm talking about sex and fetish scenarios) and virtual versions of Live-Action Roleplaying games such as Vampire: The Masquerade. I'm too new to know for certain, but I believe there are continuous storylines (or "campaigns") being carried out with some of these games. Second Life does facilitate appearance-changes extremely well, so as a vehicle for role-play, it's excellent. It could go one step further, however, and offer a way to mask one's identity. As a veteran role-player, it would ruin the immersion for me to interact with a wise old magician named "Poopypants Zaius" in a "serious" game.

What Second Life sorely lacks are individual or group "Creative Directors" who can be given control of their own island at a reasonable price (I believe it's currently $200US/month for island rental). With a good creative team behind it, an area can project enough atmosphere and contain enough harmonic elements to convey a story all on its own. Add hand-picked citizens, and you've got users working in conjunction with a solid setting to provide a "realistic" environment or sub-world.

Control Versus Freedom

Being a seasoned producer of content-based projects, it became apparent almost immediately that Second Life suffers from the same thing that makes it great: Its users are the simultaneously its greatest asset and biggest liability. There are users who undoubtedly enjoy the circus-like environment of Second Life, and then there are users who just want the noise to stop. Figuratively and literally. "As much as I think your bubbling spa or sizzling grill is neat, I don't want to hear it half a sim away," writes Chromal Brodsky on the SL Forum. This is a major breaking point in my insistence that Second Life is a next-gen Web. With a few exceptions (advertising) a Web user isn't forced to consume any content that they didn't expressly ask for. Nobody is making a Web user "travel through" other Web pages to get to the one they want--you've got your bookmarks, and you click your hyperlinks, and POOF, you're where you want to be. With Second Life, unless you're using Landmarks to teleport to desired locations, you need to actually travel (fly, walk or run) to where you want to go. If you can find it. And along the way, you're witness to a plethora of largely whacky, inconsistent user-created objects. In this sense, Second Life is more like a vintage television set without a remote--to get from channel two to channel ten, you'd have to flip through every channel in between. Some people have no problem with this. Personally, wandering around Second Life tires me out due to stimulus overload. My perfect world would be like a really well-done theme park, where entire areas are devoted to one subject at a time. I wouldn't be nearly so bothered having to walk through West World to get to Dinosaur Park--in fact, I might find the experience rewarding.

The control verus freedom issue is going to plague Second Life until someone finds a solution. It's obviously nearly impossible to cater to everyone's tastes. Imposing creative control annoys as many people as it pleases. I'll be following this issue closely as it continues to be discussed among Second Lifers.

What Good is Second Life?

Don't take this the wrong way: I often measure new technology developments by their ability to do something for me. Sometimes, the function or purpose is not immediately obvious--the early Internet and Web are examples of this (I guess they weren't "fads" after all), although I personally have had trouble with some more recent Internet-based tools (such as Delicious or Flickr) in terms of answering the question "Why does this exist?" So, what good is Second Life?

On a personal level, it's proven to be fodder for three articles. Which means it's noteworthy enough to explore, research, and become intimate with. I am convinced there are some very important social ripples that are coming down the pipe as a result of Second Life, and I intend to keep my eyes peeled in-world for any evidence of this. Academic and journalistic reasons aside, I have always hoped for something like Second Life to come along. As an kid in the early 1980s I used to imagine what it would be like to visit a computer world where I wouldn't be restricted to platforms, ladders, mazes and screen borders--where, if I spotted something of interest, I could actually zoom in and examine it in near-infinite detail. Second Life is that environment. It's not perfect, and will never be, but it's the process of evolution that is exciting.

On a group level, Second Life is obviously a very important system for community relationships. As mentioned earlier, it replicates many aspects of the Internet and Web--to the degree that leaving Second Life isn't really all that necessary for some people. So, it's a social network, a playground, a creative venue and even a means to do business. I haven't yet met a single dispassionate Second Life citizen. There is an energy here that goes beyond the 3D flame-belching tailpipes of a 25-primitive spacecraft--it's the palpable human factor of Second Life; the emotion, the willingness to socialize; basically all the things that are sadly often missing from Real Life.

I've decided to subscribe to a year's worth of Second living, and I look forward to more discoveries as time slips by. Occasional insights will be posted on for you regular folks, and notifications posted in the Second Life forums for the SL community.

[list all My Second Life entries]
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Comment posted by Grimmy Moonflower
April 16, 2004 @ 2:45 pm
Enjoy your time socializing with the whining nerdfolk debutantes of the internet, you whack-job! And remember--to get to the bonus round lure a Linden's Alt AV into a humiliating fetish party and snap a few pictures! Ding! Ding! Ding!
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
April 16, 2004 @ 3:05 pm
Good to know griefers exist in SL. I haven't met any until today, thanks for the introduction Grimmy! I think it's hilarious that you spend time in SL but call "everyone else" nerds. You'll have to show me where SL's cool kids hang out, I'd love to see the Princess Leia posters in your "no girls allowed" tree fort.
Comment posted by Andrew Burton
April 16, 2004 @ 5:50 pm
Not sure if email works here, so I'll just post the address to my reply "Where Todd Is Wrong" over on my blog:
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
April 16, 2004 @ 6:15 pm
How delightfully mean-spirited of you. What an enjoyable life you must lead, screaming "fuck off and die" at strangers who make mistakes.

Don't come back here to crap on my porch, dude. This isn't the place for that. If you're looking for a reporter, go buy a newspaper.
Comment posted by ChromalBrodsky
April 16, 2004 @ 6:22 pm
Once again, a nice article. A lot of things popped out at me, but I'm going to try to filter it down to a few of the bigger points.

You may be interested to learn that you can already both send and receive e-mail from SecondLife and interaction with offsite services via XML-RPC should be possible via an extension whose scheduled deployment is literally just around the corner. All of this is achieved through the scripting mechanism, the same thing that allows guns to fire, cars to drive, and pretty much anything else that is dynamic in-world. A variety of projects have already started up; somebody is toying with the idea of creating a "virtual avatar" so they can still chat in Welcome from an innocuous looking text window while at work. There's been talk of implementing things like gateways to IRC, telnet clients, chess games involving heavy AI computation off-site, and the like. I created a simple utility to graph sim FPS loads on the web via data e-mailed from objects in-world.

A blog updating script that could read from a notecard and send to some address where it could be posted as a blog entry would be relatively trivial to script.

And this gets into one of the really appealing aspects of SecondLife... if you know how to program, know how to create art, and have some ideas-- you're given the ability to do almost anything. It's there, latent, waiting for somebody with the knowledge and will to make it happen. That hidden potential remains one of the big attractions for me.

In the context of my own quote, I'd be quick to argue: "Courtesy, not control!" In terms of creative coordination, I think you've already hinted at the solution-- like-minded builders certainly have the ability to band together and control large contigous lots of land build according to some internally cohesive theme or motif.

I think, long term, it's portant that we seem both extremes of chaos and control, as well as the full spectrum in-between exist. To me, the only build-related atrocity bad enough to beg censure is one that overshadows a large area around it in some obnoxious manner. The noise pollution examples you quoted me as pointing out are related to this, as are builds that use an disproportionately large amount of client or sim resources in order to exist. Unsolicited advertising (e.g.: billboards, rotating signs, sounds and textual shouts, etc.) would be pretty high up on my personal list, but you will quickly find that the desire to keep FirstLife advertising out of SecondLife is perhaps one of the bigger community schisms you'll see, and a lot of the people who come here would just as soon not see exploitation follow them.

I guess I feel that way, too. I'd rather see people pour themselves into creativity and contributing to their virtual community rather than becoming primarily concerned with money-making.

Fortunately, on Second Life, there's room for most every viewpoint. . .
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
April 16, 2004 @ 6:48 pm

Thank you so much for that awesome post, all that info on the back-end stuff is really interesting. The more I/O hooks between SL and the `net, the better. By broadening access across multiple software and hardware platforms, it could be possible to offer different types of Second Life experiences, varying pricing schemes, etc. I don't know how the developers see SL, but I wouldn't limit it to the current client arrangement if I was them. I'd have some way of interacting with SL on as many devices as possible.

I think that notecard/blogging scheme you mentioned is already in place from what I gather on based on recent replies to my SL thread. If the scripters had an idiot-friendly explanation, I'd be able to understand how it works, but I think it's a script that prints output from SL onto a Web page. That's all good, but what would be even better is to interface with Moveable Type, Livejournal, etc. A lot of popular blog systems are able to accept posts made by email, so that's what got me thinking it'd be cool to hook in via the IM tool (not really knowing what other options there are).

I'm totally stoked on watching for new developments, both in-world and behind the scenes. It's just really intriguing.
Comment posted by Hyakugei
April 16, 2004 @ 7:27 pm
Funny that you use the term "embedded journalism" - did you know that there is a guy doing blog posts that calls himself that? You can check it out here:

I've got more to say, but i'll save it for a post at my site - great work so far Tony, looking forward to reading more about your experiences!


Comment posted by Tony Walsh
April 16, 2004 @ 7:31 pm
Yeah the Embedded Journalism quip was a tip of the hat to SL's blogger. Will check for your posting :)
Comment posted by liam
April 17, 2004 @ 11:32 pm
Great set of articles, Tony. I had heard about SL before but I just didn't get it. After reading your posts, it's all starting to make sense. Very interesting. Keep us updated on your first year with a second life, it'll make good reading.

(full points for the princess leia/treehouse burn - i fell off my chair laughing)

Comment posted by avaD
August 7, 2004 @ 2:16 am
Wonderful post, Tony! SO glad I found this blog. Your thoughts on SL in this entry are so in tune with what's been stirring about in my head that to read this post is a RELIEF, as if I feel I'm off the hook for trying to verbalize certain things now!;)*whew*
*sigh* Now Here's where I ruin it all by making you think I'm crazy..:(...but honestly, the reason I just recently joined SL is that for years now I've been following this incredibly vivid dream that I had before I even touched computers for email (yes I was a technophobe). And that dream (1999)showed me amazingly detailed images and ideas of what I think is probably SL in a year, with high emphasis on its possible social and philanthropic impacts on RL. So I've become this weird girl 'on a secret mission', which has been fun and fine and undercover in the mixed-media artwork I make, but now that SL is here, and Vertu within it, I'm often found babbling 'This is it- it's real, it's coming!' like a loon and I don't feel I know how to convey how important it is. maybe I don't have to. We'll all flow with it anyway (I hope).
I'll just try to keep figuring out my itty part in it all and do it as best I can.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
August 8, 2004 @ 11:23 am
Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments, sounds like you were destined to discover Second Life :) I hope to be able to continue this article series soon (been on hiatus for a month or so). For those bystanders curious about avaD's reference to VERTU, here some info on the non-profit-friendly group.
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