Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

(Virtual) reality bites
March 11, 2007
Murray Whyte

On that fateful day in November, when the Elf King took his leave of the world, Urizenus Sklar could sense it: The beginning of the end. “It was a little like that,” Sklar chuckled. “It was a sad day. It seemed to mean something, somehow.”

What it means to you could, in fact, be very little. Unless you’re of the rapidly growing legions of people immersed in Second Life, the virtual universe running parallel to our own on the humming, overtaxed servers of San Francisco-based Linden Labs. In which case, you know the end of which Sklar speaks all too well.

As recently as a couple of years ago, Second Life – where players (or “residents,” as they much prefer) log using virtual identities, or avatars, into a world where they can teleport, fly and alter their appearance at whim – was a virgin land bound only by the wildest dreams.

“It was a fantastical place, a place where people’s imagination was the sole limitation,” said Sklar, who in the real world is Peter Ludlow, a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan. “Now, it’s looking like a simulacrum of the real world.”

Case in point: The same day the Elf King, head of the popular fantasy group the Elf Clan, retired his throne with regal flourish, sporting jeweled crown and scepter with his kingly robes, Second Life welcomed a brand-new resident: Sam Palmisano, the CEO of IBM, decked out in the significant regalia of corporate America: Navy blue suit, red tie, tortoise shell glasses.

“It made for a nice picture,” says Ludlow, whose Second Life job is editor of the Second Life Herald, one of that world’s more prominent newspapers.

The Elf Clan leader, known as Wayfinder Wishbringer, cited a lack of support by Second Life for the fantasy group even as SL seems to welcome large corporations with open arms.

In recent months, Second Life has seen a steady influx of new kings: Major corporations like IBM, Adidas, Nissan, Volkswagen, Toyota, American Apparel, Starwood Hotels and Telus, among many others, have set up shop in-world, to establish a presence amid the burgeoning population. Last month, media giant CBS bought into Electric Sheep, pumping $7 million into the small company that serves as a facilitator to brand introduction in-world, while Leo Burnett, an internationally known ad agency, recently took up residence as well.

The benefits are little more than theoretical at this point, but the implications are vast. Population estimates vary wildly, from 2 million residents to 4 million (up from about 100,000 two years ago); because of multiple registrations some peg the actual total at 300,000.

Second Life, with its capacity for organic growth and interaction, has been hailed as Web 2.0 – a revolution-in-waiting no less significant than the birth of the World Wide Web itself. And that’s where the Elf King’s departure, and the Elf Clan’s subsequent decision to dissolve its SL presence, has resonance far beyond the relatively small world of Second Life.

“If in five years, when many of us have migrated to these virtual worlds to work, is this what’s waiting for us?” Ludlow says. “We may have no choice.”

The seeds of that future have been sown. Even now, current users exchange about $1.5 million in real-world money in SL’s active in-world economy every day. It’s natural for a company to want to establish itself inside SL as it grows. But this has not been without significant pain.

“The presence of real world businesses was really offensive to residents,” said Tony Walsh, a Toronto developer and consultant who specializes in social media. “In the beginning, the attitude was; `This is an escape from real life. We don’t want any real life here.’ That was two years ago. Now it’s `Everyone in the pool,’” he says.

“The corporations come in and they don’t understand the delicate aesthetic that’s in place. And all of a sudden, all of the brand pollution we’re exposed to in real life exists now in SL,” says Douglas Gayeton, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who made a documentary on SL using footage captured in-world. “They’ve taken a beautiful place and made it quite ugly.”

Or as Polyester Partridge, a resident, was quoted as saying in the Herald: “Our second lives are as empty as our first.”

Protests have ranged from the gently defiant – residents accumulated a pile of random objects in the middle of a mostly abandoned American Apparel store – to mass destruction: A group calling themselves the Second Life Liberation Army vaporized Reebok and American Apparel stores using nuclear bombs, and have strafed residents caught shopping for other real-world brands (a virtual world benefit: Bullet wounds are annoying, but not fatal).

More recently, this week, the group demonstrated outside a mansion owned by Governor Linden, the world’s de facto ruler, demanding a meeting. They were refused.

The Liberation Amy demands “Democratic control of Second Life by its inhabitants, as well as an end to the corporate invasion of our world,” wrote Solidad Sugarbeet, a group member, in an email. Second Life’s main problem? “Greed.”

But as Second Life exerts a magnetic pull on real-world capitalists (Linden Labs is flush with about $20 million worth of hopeful investment), it’s wrestling with issues far beyond disgruntlement at the burgeoning corporate presence.

Phillip Rosedale, Linden’s libertarian founder, envisioned a world free of constraints. The idea was to give users the tools to create their own world, and leave them to do with it as they pleased. (Their slogan: “Your world, your imagination.”)

It hasn’t worked out that way. “When I started, Linden Labs always used to pride themselves on how everyone belonged in SL – the content creators, the sexual deviants, whatever,” said Patrick Sapinski, a Toronto SL resident known by his notorious in-game identity Plastic Duck.

“But what I saw was a small company trying to babysit thousands and thousands of adults. And I just thought, `What happens in three years, when there’s millions of SLers and they can’t babysit them all anymore? That’s not going to work.’”

“It’s been a huge scaling challenge, certainly,” said Catherine Smith, a company spokesperson. “There’s no way we can police it – and we don’t really have a desire to.”

It’s a solid strategy in social networking – step back and let it take care of itself. “Once you get to a certain scale, policing it is impossible,” says Gayeton, who has worked for years in social media, from virtual communities to interactive television. “To a certain degree, it has to be self-policing to survive.”

But so far, Linden Labs hasn’t quite let go. Users like Sapinski have been banned – that is, his user account has been deactivated – for bad behaviour several dozen times. “But I always find a way back in,” he says.

Most of his activities were benign, he says. “We would build crazy things, satirical things,” he says. Linden Labs doesn’t agree, of course. They blame Sapinski for a number of attacks, from the tasteless – recreating the Sept. 11 attacks in SL – to the lewd – a slew of self-replicating penises – to the comic chiding of SL’s growth spurt.

Sapinksi is part of a group that built a gleaming campaign headquarters for a fictional presidential candidate, John Edward – not to be confused with Senator John Edwards, a real-life candidate whose SL headquarters is next door. It earned Sapinski yet another slap on the wrist.

Such parochial policing is a far cry from the initial idea, he says. “(Linden Labs) said SL was for everyone. They said they weren’t going to ban anyone. And then 60 users got banned at the same time. And that was around the time they stopped advertising themselves as a welcoming community.”

It’s a path well-worn by SL’s online ancestors, from The Well, a proto-online bulletin board community founded in the ’80s through chatrooms, message boards and networking sites Friendster and MySpace. Early adopters shape the community as they wish, then have no choice but to stand by and watch it endlessly reshaped by the chaotic deluge of new users – some troublemakers, some commercial exploiters – that flood in as it gains popularity.

Tech mogul Mark Cuban, a persistent critic of YouTube, noted recently that the latter’s hit list of its most popular content, where all sorts of user-generated video could once be found, is becoming awash with clips provided by commercial networks and spam promising (fake) footage of accidental celebrity nudity.

“That’s how it’s always been with these spaces,” Walsh says. “The new come in, the old get disgruntled and move on.”

For now, there’s nowhere else to go. SL’s main competitor, There.com, with 750,000 registered users, is nowhere near as user-friendly. But competition is on the horizon: New virtual realms like Kaneva and Ogoglio are poised to launch, hopeful of impinging on SL’s territory.

Meanwhile, Linden Labs is grappling mightily with SL’s rapid growth and the chaos its endless adaptability creates. While some developers have learned how to make real world profit in SL – Anshe Chung, a virtual property developer, makes about 150,000 real world dollars a year selling property in-world – others simply make mayhem.

In the fall, the world fell prey to the notorious “grey goo” – a self-replicating program created by an apparent fan of Sonic the Hedgehog, a user calling himself Dr. Robotnik. The distinct two-tone ping of the Sonic game suddenly permeated the world, followed by a torrent of flying rings, speeding wildly in every direction.

Small-scale issues range from the harmless, such as a few dozen users adopting the appearance of mimes to confuse a gathering of new users, to the more serious issues of sexual harassment. And last summer, Second Life users in a region called Blumfeld awoke to find a bloodied corpse – SL’s first murder (in another virtual world benefit, the victim, Ava Arrow, made a full recovery).

Some of SL’s issues have bled into the real world as well. Edwards, for example, has been challenged by conservatives to take a stand on the astonishing breadth of X-rated material on SL, including a significant complement of child pornography simulations (”We’re working with the authorities on that,” Smith said. “If it’s illegal in the real world, it’s illegal in SL.”)

For Rosedale, Utopia was the goal, and anarchy the means. Libertarian in concept, Linden Labs is hardly that in practice, says Ludlow. “Their governance of the world is the Greek God model: They sit on Mount Olympus, people bring them disputes, and there’s no rhyme or reason as to how they’re solved.

“If in five years, when many of us have migrated to these virtual worlds to work, do we have to accept that their owners have the right to be despots?”

Which is what Solidad Sugarbeet and her crew are agitating against. “It is our feeling that such forms of cultural genocide and dictatorial control have no place in our world. Most people come to Second Life to build relationships, not have them coercively manifested into obedience by corporate hegemony.”

Growing pains, then. “SL is still very, very new. These kinds of issues are a normal part of it coming of age,” Gayeton said.

After all, Utopia is a very subjective concept – especially in virtual communities.

“Griping is usually about 90 percent of the content,” Ludlow says with a laugh. As to the explosive expansion of the world and the corporate invasion chasing it, he just shrugs. “It’s so totally not surprising, I can’t allow myself to get depressed about it. It’s how these things go.

“But that’s the beauty of virtual worlds: You never run out of land. The elves, and all the quirky, unique content that’s out there – it’ll still be there. You’ll just need to know where to look.”

Sun, March 11 2007 » Future Cinema, virtual reality

2 Responses

  1. Erin March 11 2007 @ 11:18 pm

    Thanks for posting that! I keep finding all kinds of neat articles about Second Life, but that was the first to give a more broad overview of how it has evolved and what’s at stake. I also wanted to add that I keep meaning to mention a book called “Snow Crash” by Neil Stephenson. It’s a scifi/cyberpunk novel that was written in 1992 and features a virtual world called the “Metaverse” that is eerily similar to SL. It’s a good read and well worth taking a look at if you’re interested in SL.

  2. Caitlin March 14 2007 @ 11:12 am

    yes, thanks for posting — very interesting. i was at a conference with a huge SL presence … they were giving out trading cards with pictures of virtual residents ‘telling their stories’, t-shirts, cool little cubes that glow in changing colours with the words ‘it all starts with a cube’ … i will be very interested to see where it all goes. does anyone have a place in second life we should visit? who in the class is actively engaged in second life?