Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Lost to the Sandboxes of Time

Shortly after starting in Second Lifevery shortly, if I recall—my friend Geoff Novi showed me a sandbox in a sim called Hyperborea. For folks who aren't familiar, sandboxes are essentially empty spaces in Second Life where most (or, preferably, all) of SL's building capabilities are enabled. Although a lot of people use sandboxes as a quick place to unpack and sort through items they might have accumulated in stores or giveaways, most sandboxes are intended as a place where people can experiment with building and scripting and creating their own things, even if they don't own or rent any land of their own. Although nothing is permanent in a sandbox—they return any objects left in them to their owners after a fixed period, usually 2 to 12 hours, so you can't set up a house and "live" there—but sandboxes are extremely useful for learning how SL works, creating and editing objects, using textures, working on scripts, and much more.

Now, because sandboxes let people create anything they want—and have most of SL's capabilities enabled—they tend to be a little out of control. One minute you might be working on an exquisite little wire brooch you want to wear to an event next week, the next minute some overgrown Conan-type is driving tank over you while shooting you with a teddy bear-flinging bazooka and looping "I'm Too Sexy for My Shirt" in an endless loop. Stuff like that is usually reportable as abuse, but it's not an environment conducive to working or learning how SL works.

When I was first introduced to Hyperborea, I was kind of non-plussed about how quiet it was: there didn't seem to be much happening in the sandbox or in the surrounding sim. Nothing exciting. But, over time, I came to realize that tranquility was a tremendous virtue. Hyperborea was a quiet sandbox where people could actually work and get stuff done! Sure, the occasional miscreant would wander through and wreak a little havoc, but for the most part Hyperborea offered a quiet, reliable environment where I could puzzle through the odds and ends of creating and programming in Second Life. Hyperborea was also blessed with a small but savvy community of regular users, plus admins who actually cared what was happening in the sandbox and ran a surprisingly tidy and responsive operation. Hyperborea was a kind-of-old sim—going back to at least 2006—and several of the regulars had been there since its early days.

Now, Hyperborea is no more: the sim has been sold and is now an adjunct to an unrelated operation called Bliss Gardens. The sandbox, all the builds, even the office of the Alphaville née Second Life Herald are gone. Rumors of Hyperborea's imminent demise had been circulating since at least October—when Geoff and I were visited by one of the Woodbury University folks, who seemed to be scouting the sim whilst angling for a new home.

But now there's no longer a Hyperborea on the grid, and with it goes the closest thing I had to a "home" in Second Life. I don't know how many hours I spent on my little sky platform in Hyperborea, wrangling prims, fighting LSL scripts, and trying to get the things to work together in ways I actually intended. And that time would have been after I built my sky platform tools: those were all conceived, built, and tested in Hyperborea. So were all the scripts and props I use to host my Lou's Clues trivia game, all the commission jewelry work I've done, all the little scripting odds and ends and projects, all my experimenting, and all my little pranks and gewgaws like the immortal teacups and my silly little titler. They're all products of Hyperborea.

But probably more importantly, I learned an incredible amount from Hyperborea's regular users, especially the admins Tali Rosca (who made the fabulous mad scientist Victorian death ray I show off sometimes!) and Harpo Jedburgh, who were all very generous with their time and helping me wrap my head around how Second Life works. It's fair to say that without them I never would have stuck with building and trying to create my own stuff in Second Life…and if I couldn't do that, I probably wouldn't stick with Second Life itself.

Sadly, I seem to have no screenshots of Hyperborea. Many of the screenshots that have appeared in this blog (particularly jewelry stuff or things that use my avatar as an example) were taken there, but I don't seem to have any images of the basic ground level of the sim, or of many of the sandbox's regular users. I don't know why I didn't think to take any.

I have no idea where the Hyperborea diaspora will end up: I imagine most of us will wander off to other sandboxes in hopes of finding a comparable environment. Others will probably rent or buy land of their own so they can build in peace.

As for me…I'm kind of kicking the tires on a few other sandboxes, seeing if I can find somewhere quiet to work on my own without being bothered and without bothering anyone else. But in the back of my head, I know nothing's going to stack up to the sandbox where I grew up.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Little Virtual Music

I've been promising I would get around to writing about Second Life's music scene—and it's been hard to do. When forced to choose between writing about good music or listening to good music, I tend to pick the latter. The quality and variety of acts in Second Life makes things even more difficult: in-world venues are indeed peppered with some not-so-stellar performers and earnest amateurs just barely dipping their feet into the world of live music, but there are a number of seriously talented people playing music in-world. Although I have seen many solid musicians, I'm quite sure I've only scratched the surface, and I can't really put myself forward as any kind of authority on the in-world music scene.

Nonetheless, I'm still hoping this will be the first in an ongoing set of posts spotlighting some in-world music acts. I'm not going to feature artists in any particular order or with much rime or reason: for instance, the performers highlighted in this post were selected on the basic of my having usable screen shots! These aren't the only in-world artists I enjoy and whose work I've supported—there are many more, and I hope to mention them all. But I need to take small steps or I won't get started at all.

A quick primer on SL music

Performing live music in Second Life might seem simple…but the reality can be a little more complicated. Live musicians typically perform at their real-world location with a computer—which is often the same computer logged in to Second Life—using a digital audio interface to capture their voices and/or instruments, process the audio a bit, convert it to an MP3 stream, and send it out to the Internet. Although it's technically possible for Second Life users to tap into that stream directly, more often performers send that stream to a third party service outside Second Life (usually running ShoutCast or Icecast) that can handle a large number of users. These servers essentially rent out streaming services: sometimes performers rent their own, and sometimes in-world music venues have streaming servers performers can use. Either way, when you teleport your avatar to a music venue, you turn on that parcel's media stream to hear the live performance.

The types of performances vary a bit. In-world DJs essentially queue up playlists of pre-recorded songs in iTunes or WinAmp or similar programs, push them out to a streaming server so everyone can listen. Some in-world DJs have a live mic so they can speak in real time on the stream to introduce songs and talk to the crowd. Some live music performers use a very similar setup: they get pre-recorded backing tracks together (sometimes they're canned, sometimes the musicians create the tracks themselves) and sing or play along to the recordings karaoke-style. Some musicians are all-live, all-the-time, with every sound you hear being produced by the performer in real time.

The complicated mechanics of streaming live music to the Internet means the in-world music scene in Second Life is dominated by solo performers. Part of the reason is logistics: if you wanted to stream a band performance into Second Life, you've basically got to have the entire band in the same room. If you want the band to sound good, you've also got to have some decent audio gear and (hopefully) someone to keep an eye on things during the set. All that gets complicated and expensive. While a solo performer can essentially plug into their computer and get up and running for under a few hundred dollars, audio setups that handle 8 or 16 or 24 live channels at the same time are (considerably) more expensive: you can get a traditional mixer and push everything down to a stereo mix and push that into a computer, or use a studio-quality digital audio interface and take everyone digital. By the time you've done either—and set up everyone's mics, baffles, effects, feeds, mixes, and worked out all the buzzes and kinks—you've essentially set up your own recording space.

Since Second Life is a virtual world, some people wonder if virtual bands are possible: you know, a drummer in Brazil, a fiddler in Scotland, a guitarist in Australia, a singer in Tokyo, all collaborating in real time and streaming into Second Life. Second Life does feature a few virtual bands, but the answer is "kind of but not really." The most common way of doing this sort of things is "streamcatching:" one person (usually the drummer or rhythm section) starts playing, sending their MP3 stream to (say) a guitarist. The guitarist receives the stream then plays along with it, sending the combined stream to (say) a singer. The singer receives the stream, sings along to it, then sends the combined stream to a Shoutcast or Icecast server, which then sends it to Second Life audience members. That works, right? Well, not really. The downside of all this is that the drummer or rhythm section can't hear what anyone else is doing: they're just playing to themselves; similarly, in this scenario the guitarist can't hear the singer. You might think each of them could tap back into the final stream to hear what was going on, but it's just not practical: after all those hops and transitions, the "live" music stream is running many (many!) seconds behind what the performers are actually playing, so musicians can't hear what's happening in real time. The result with streamcatching is that most of the interaction between live performers is eliminated, and unless a show is tightly rehearsed, it mostly sounds like a bunch of half-deaf zombies. (Which, funny enough, is how many tightly rehearsed shows sound anyway!)

So, the best way to bring live group performance into Second Life is to have all the musicians in one place with a bunch of gear. Although that's feasible for some group performers, it does mean that most live music performers in Second Life are just one person.

That doesn't mean they sound like just one person, however. Most (perhaps all) in-world singers are essentially performing karaoke: they have pre-recorded backing tracks (usually without vocals, but sometimes with harmony backing vocals) to which they sing along, often applying a modicum of digital reverb and/or echo to their voices. So they sound a bit like they have a full band. Some of these folks are legitimately talented singers who know how to use a microphone, understand their material, and do a good job entertaining an in-world audience. Others…not so much. And it's not that someone needs a degree in vocal performance to be a good online entertainer this way: one of the funnest half hours I spent in SL was listening to an amateur singer do absolutely hysterical impressions of famous singers; another time a friend did what amounted to a house concert for a few friends and acquaintences, and while she won't be winning a Grammy anytime soon the entire event had a sweetness even some of the most polished SL performers can lack.

Other performers—and some of the most successful ones—approach Second Life shows as if they were real life performances: it's just their voice, their instrument, and sound they can make in real time. The most common example in this group is what I call a "singer-songwriter" show, usually just one person singing with a guitar or piano; a handful of real-life duos and trios also perform in Second Life this way. Again, the talent level varies widely, but there are folks in performing in Second Life who could easily hold their own at a music festival.

Still other performers use hybrids of these approaches: some play along with real instruments to pre-recorded backing tracks (sometimes ones they made themselves), while other perform "live" using samplers, loopers, and "live" automated tools and software to fill out their sound. Some of these folks are software and synthesizer people, using software instruments, drum machines, sequencers, and tools like Reason and Ableton to produce everything from ambient electronica to hip-hop and house; some are guitar shredmeisters playing their latest Yngvie-inspired magnum opus over their own backing tracks; some play jazz, some play blues, some play Latin…the variety can be tremendous.

So, the bottom line: if there's a way to make digitized sound, whether by playing an MP3, using a microphone, firing up some software, or turning on a whole heap of cranky, buzzy, cantankerous gear, someone in Second Life is doing it. And if you look around, odds are someone (or several someones) is doing it well.

Komuso Tokugawa

Second Life electric blues cyborg Komuso Tokugawa

First up, Komuso Tokugawa. I'm not quite sure how to describe Komuso: electric blues, for sure, but somewhat re-interpreted for the digital age. Appearing as a tall cyborg-ish bluesman with varying skins (some rusted, some hygenic, none particularly human) Komuso takes a bunch of well-worn blues tunes and couples them with sometimes-snarling vocals and often-growling slide guitar. One of the most interesting things about Komuso's shows is how much he varies his guitar tone: sometimes silky smooth, sometimes biting and jarring, sometimes rocking, sometimes so far behind the beat you wonder if he's still awake. And Komuso usually sounds like a full band thanks to Beato-san and Basso-san, his virtual rhythm section—instantiated in-world as animated devil-and-angel attachments that float around Komuso's head. Beato-san handles drums and Basso-san handles bass: I gather they're a software based rhythm section that Komuso cues and triggers while he's playing: the rhyhm section isn't a simple loop that backs him up, but shifts and changes as he's playing—and Komuso varies the rhythm instrumentation a bunch between songs.

But all that is technical stuff: Komuso brings straight-up electric blues to Second Life with considerable authority, taking on both classics and some unusual song choices with unique style. Most of the time the results are stunning, and while sometimes Komuso crawls out onto a branch that can't quite hold him, his playing is free and almost fearless—not being afraid to take chances is one of the only ways to make magic happen. Some of his renditions would be at home in a whiskey-and-beer-soaked dive bar; others venture into Middle Eastern and Asian tonal territory, while others can be almost be described as pop. And most of the time they're surprising.

The downside of a Komuso show is that he does draw a crowd—and with it, he draws lag. I've seen Komuso pack more than 80 people into a sim, and the load has brought down venues more than once. But don't use that as an excuse: if you like blues and can make it to a show, just find a seat, endure the lag, and enjoy it.

Von Johin

Von Johin brings home the acoustic blues

Speaking of blues, one of the champions of Second Life blues is Von Johin, who's reasonably "out" as Nashville musician and music industry writer Mike Lawson in real life, although Von Johin has a strong identity of his own—Von is generally credited as being the first Second Life avatar to land a record deal, although I have no idea what's up with that. Von is just his guitar and his voice, mainly doing acoustic and country blues along the lines of Willie Dixon, Sun House, and Sonny Boy Williamson…but also sometimes segue off into show tunes or even material that would fit right in at a Grateful Dead show—unsurprising since there are a few real life connections there. Von typically performs with just his acoustic guitar and voice, although he stomps some percussion and isn't above firing up a wah-wah pedal on that acoustic. Lately Von's discovered the dubious magic of vocal harmonizers–electronic gizmos that take a copy of a live vocal line and create electronically-generated harmony lines around it—so it sometimes sounds like three or four people are singing. In live music harmonizers are best used sparingly for effect rather than as a crutch, and after briefly over-using the gizmo to get a feel for it Von seems to have settled into a nice technique with it, using it to accent moments in a tune and showcase his voice, rather than using it as a cheap trick to great a bigger sound.

Von's shows are relaxed and pretty open-ended: songs flow into each other without any premeditated plan—sometimes taking amusing and amazing tangents—and if no one is going on after Von his sets often wander past their scheduled conclusions: I've popped into a venue nearly an hour after Von was supposed to wrap up and still found him going strong. As a musician, the vocabulary Von displays at most shows isn't terribly wide, but he plays it with the kind of conviction and confidence that only comes with years of performing experience, and he truly understands how to leverage his technique and sonic palette to serve his material. And as a player, Von is no slouch: when you perform solo you don't really get to take big extended guitar solos, but Von can manage to keep a tune rolicking all by himself while still throwing in a ton of hopping fretwork. The man has studied his Doc Watson and Chet Atkins.

Like Komuso, Von Johin can also be a sim-packer, but because his shows typically go on for a while, it's usually possible to catch part of almost any show he plays. Highly recommended.

Joaquin Gustav

Joaquin Gustav brings a touch of tango to Second Life

Another musician with a strong presence in the Second Life music scene is Joaquin Gustav, an Argentinian guitarist who eschews the tick-tackery of electric guitars for the elegance and romance of the nylon-string…and a hint of tango. Joaquin's setup is pretty simple: it's just a mic and his guitar, and he often plays to simple, single-take accompaniment tracks that afford him the opportunity to play heads and take a solo or two if he likes. Most of Joaquin's repertoire is jazz and pop standards—you'll hear Jobim, Gershwin, and Bill Evans alongside and The Beatles and maybe even a Cyndi Lauper tune. Joaquin plays many of his tunes instrumentally, hinting at a bit of tango in the arrangements, usually stating the head pretty clearly then rolling through a few verses of solo. The show is aimed at couples and dancing: it's about setting a mood rather than showing off. His guitar technique is oddly both flashy and understated: he's not afraid to simply outline bits of a melody and let the music speak for itself, but he also indulges in some flourishes that mainly serve to highlight the material. Since his backing tracks are pre-recorded, a few tunes sometimes feel a little canned, and I tend to prefer songs that are just Joaquin on his own—he'll take requests, sometimes with amusing results. Joaquin will occasionally sing a tune or two, but half the charm of Joaquin's performances can be his interaction with the crowd and his regular audience members…and, personally, his speaking accent is just delightful.

Joaquin is one of the hardest-working performers in Second Life: seems like he plays a dozen or more shows a week, often at consistent times in regular venues, so catching Joa is usually pretty easy. He also played my friend Lebn & Preston's third anniversary celebration, so you know he's a great guy!

The Odd Ball

Shava Suntzu and Tuna Oddfellow boogie down at The Odd Ball

So this isn't really a live music act so much as an experience: if you haven't done it, you've got to get yourself to an Odd Ball. They happen almost every week on Mondays at 7 PM SLT and Sundays at 11 AM SLT, with occasional irregular events happening at, well, odd times.

What is the Odd Ball? I really have no idea. It's a dance party, it's a rave, it's a psychedelic extravaganza, it's a visual feast, it's people-watching, it's the ultimate in lag. The Odd Ball seems to have been going on in Second Life for quite some time: the average age of avatars attending the events verges on the ancient and you'll even see some of Second Life's bigname glitterati in attendance. The Odd Balls aren't a concert: they're a virtual experience that I can only compare to standing inside a kaleidoscope. The shows take place in a custom build—give it several minutes to rez—that feature ever-shifting textures, particles, and images splattered on whirling and spinning megaprims and all controlled in real time by Tuna Oddfellow…who apparently won a million-Linden prize from NBC for being Second Life's "most talented avatar" at some point. In real life Tuna Oddfellow is a real-life magician named Matthew Fishman.

The Odd Balls are a visual spectacle: the only thing constant about the Odd Balls is a giant inverted top hat: most attendees stand or dance on apparent thin air (some of us park our virtual asses on a dance ring beneath the hat): from there, you turn up the music—usually some intelligent instrumental electronica—and just watch what Tuna rolls out, reveals, conceals, and explodes. It's like a 3D music visualizer…except it's not lame, and in my experience it is never, ever the same twice. Tuna runs the show while his partner Shava Suntzu handles the meet-and-greet and explanations and detailing what the Odd Ball is up to next in real life and Second Life—apparently they've put on live Odd Balls at SLCC (Second Life Community Convention) events in real life.

An overhead view of a moment of the Odd Ball—
the ever-shifting venue is immense; avatars are barely pixels in this image

Odd Balls typically run two hours—you don't have to attend the entire thing, but set aside at least half an hour for everything to rez and to get into the vibe of the event. The Odd Balls aren't for everyone—they don't demand a tremendous amount of interactivity, but they aren't the kind of thing that lets you multitask. You don't want to be trying to manage email, tap into Plurk, or write a blog entry at an Odd Ball. You might IM a bit with in-world friends, perhaps chat with other attendees. But mostly you'll want to soak in it. The Odd Balls have been one of the most relaxing things I've found in Second Life…and the only place in-world I've experienced anything akin to vertigo.

A word about tipping

I've written a bit about how I handle tipping at trivia events I attend—basically, I tip back a lot of what I win to trivia hosts and venues. Live music is diferent: I'm not earning anything from attending a live music event, so there's no way to realistically tip back a percentage of what I earn. Moreover, performing live music in Second Life has real costs. First, there's the cost of running the venue itself, in terms of paying rent to landlords or tier to Linden Labs for the land. Then there's the Shoutcast or Icecast server: depending on the number of people those need to support simultaneously, costs seem to run about $10–20 CAD per month. Finally, musicians have real costs too: getting music into SL isn't as simple as plugging into a computer's mic jack: musicians typically need a digital audio interface (which can run from a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars), plus any amount of other gear in order to make the music itself: that includes microphones, pre-amps, amplifiers, headphones, stands, strings, cables, direct boxes, effects, and more—plus, in all probability, software for managing your sound and outputting an MP3 stream in real time.

Point being: none of this is free. Musicians probably are leveraging gear they use to play or perform in real life, but very few are going to be able to step into Second Life performing at no cost…and then there's the time they have to put into creating and producing, well, a show.

So: if you enjoy an inworld performer, please tip both the performer and (if appropriate) the venue supporting them as generously as you can. Very few people are earning any sort of money performing music in Second Life: supportive audiences are the only things that will keep live music happening in the virtual world.

Monday, November 23, 2009

This Bowl Goes to Eleven

Second Life's monthly team trivia event, the Buccaneer Bowl, normally takes place towards the end of each month, but owing to a major U.S. holiday at the end of November, the eleventh Buccaneer Bowl took place in the middle of the month. And this time around, instead of cramming everyone on a ship somewhere, the fantabulous Jez Oh built a special purpose "marooned" venue for the event: picture Stonehenge coupled with a pirate camp and you get the idea. I loved the setting, in part because it provided opportunities for the teams to kinda gather in three dimensions instead of two: me and the rest of the Trivial Corsairs camped out on top on of the "henges" for the Bowl. After all, in SL everyone can fly! And if you can fly, wouldn't you park your butt on top of Stonehenge?

Trivia players assembled at the Buccaneer Bowl 11 venue by Jez Oh; photo by Lillian Shippe.

This also had the nifty effect of making me the tallest player at the entire game! See the super cool black spec standing on top of one of the henges? That's me!

Once again, the Bowl was ably conducted by Thornton Writer, Lillian Shippe, and Lette Ponnier. The last few months they've conducted a team-building session the hour before the game to get everyone matched up, and that seems to have paid off great dividends: the games start smoothly, run smoothly, and everyone seems to have a great time. The Bucky Crew have also introduced new bonus question formats, one modeled on Outburst( where an entire team has to come up with a certain number of correct answers within a time frame) and another called a "Lightning Bonus" where the team has to answer a series of eight rapidfire questions spaced 15 seconds apart—if the team gets five correct, they win the bonus.

Trivial Corsairs in November: Nia Jinx, me, Lebn Bucyk, and Captain Rain Ninetails

Sadly, the altitude of the "henge" probably got to my head: some days answers to trivia questions seem to fall into my lap, but during the Buccaneer Bowl they pretty much landed to the left and right of me: the Corsairs managed an eighth place finish this time around. I'd had high hopes for the game, since seasonal disruptions meant several of the teams were operating at reduced or altered capacity, and the Corsairs (for once!) had all our original crew: Rain, Nia, Lebn, and me. It didn't work out that we walked away with the game, but it was still a fun time and it was great to hang with the "original crew" for a while.

It's hard for me to believe the Buccaneer Bowl has been running for nearly a year; I'm pleased to have played even a very minor role by participating in the events, and I hope it becomes—continues to be—a long-running SL tradition.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Omega and the Alpha

I have occasionally lamented that vast swathes of Second Life seem to be little more than the virtual equivalent of stripmalls—often complete with strippers. But while the grid might be replete with oversized, boxy buildings painted with garish over-saturated textures and (seemingly) no thoughts for aesthetics, there are many places in Second Life that demonstrate tremendous imagination, creativity, and…well, vision. I'm pleased to report that one of my favorite builds in SL, Omega Point, has just completed a period of reconstruction—and it's seriously cooler than ever.

Clouds and mist and mystery at Omega Point

Omega Point is the work of the Japanese creator Sweetlemon Jewell; the sim was originally billed as a "dark cyberworld," and wow did it live up to that description with tentacles and monsters and robed hooded figures and even a chapel where lucky avatars could preach and (if I remember) dance in blood—all taking place in an environment where scifi technology has been grafted to edifices that seem to be millennia old. The new Omega Point is less dark, more baroque, perhaps more overtly digital, but an even more elegantly organic place than its ever been.

But but but! Hold off on all that. What immediately impresses about Omega Point isn't the theming of the build but the sheer scale of the place. Where most builders do a little terraforming and splat some prims around in the shapes of buildings or rocks or trees, Omega Point is massive like you've never seen. To appreciate the scale and design many visitors will probably have to increase the draw distance on their Second Life client software to see what's happening. The whole build seems to live in a massive crater, with elegant arcades and towers and walkways and staircases suspended over it like gothic lace…and over that, massive stone arches like the ribs of some long-dead leviathan. Like the old Omega Point there's a brand ballroom where, I imagine, exceedingly cool avatars shall engage in a little dancing. And below it all, a kind of sub-basement that's half church, half store, half digital, and half mystical. (Yes, that's four halves. I can add.)

Underneath it all…

Shadow of the valley of death?

Where the previous Omega Point was dark, broody, and vaguely menacing, the new Omega Point is golden and arcane and glorious. Sweetlemon embraces megaprims and sculpts and rich textures in ways unlike anything I've seen elsewhere in Second Life—and she's fast: speaking with her (via a machine translator; my Japanese is non-existant) the entire rebuild took her only a couple months. (For more gorgeous images of what she's been up to, check out her Japanese-language blog.) I've been working on one of my little tiny scripting projects almost as long, in calendar terms.

I did most of my reconnoitering of the new Omega Point while it was still under construction, so my images don't quite match up to the completed build. But Sweetlemon graciously left the sim open during the construction, relocating the sim's two stores into the stratosphere while she worked on the lower levels. I've been meaning to get back to the upper echelons of the sim to see if the temporary stores are still there—if you flew up into the balconies of one of them, there was quite a display.

In the rafters of one of Omega Point's temporary stores

Omega Point features two stores, one of clothes and cyber-goodies from Sweetlemon, and another of almost cyber-steam-baroque-abstract clothing and accessories by Kariwanz Felisimo. Both are highly recommended, but Omega Point is worth the full tour (check out the little pod crafts!) regardless of whether any of the virtual goods hold any appeal. There are also a few tip jars scattered about the sim…if you like it, drop a few Lindens in one.

Kariwanz Felisimo & Sweetlemon Jewell

I expect the story of Omega Point to continue evolving. For one thing—and I'll just drop a hint—there's something brand new developing in a sim next door: Alpha Point.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Another blog post where Lou is late to the party, but I would be seriously remiss if I didn't mention this last weekend featured Triviathon, a 24-hour all-trivia-all-the-time event benefiting Relay for Life. The brainchild of trivia hosts Cully Andel and Triain Kandr, the idea was to run 24 hours of continuous in-world trivia to benefit charity. Of course, the best time to throw an event like that is on the weekend, and that means running up against a lot of popular Second Life trivia games like (ahem!) Lou's Clues. So Cully and Triain had a great idea—invite the hosts of those games to be part of Triviathon. Thus, on Saturday instead of setting up my little chair and cheat sheet at [MonoChrome], I rezzed into Trivy Isle and followed Trivia Grandmaster Thornton Writer up on stage in an effort to raise some money to fight cancer—a very worthy cause that, in one way or another, I'm sure impacts everyone RL and SL.

I didn't get any screenshots of my set—I was too busy trying to cram my questions into a one-hour time slot!—but Lette Ponnier managed to get a picture of me and "my little friend" the Victorian Mad Science Death Ray Mk II (made by Tali Rosca)—pummeling trivia fans with questions and excess protons. I was also randomly giving away some Jez's Oh's fabulously cute small avatars (available at [Oblique]!) and I didn't completely fall on my face or have massive script glitches, so I'm going to count the gig a raging success!

Although not all of SL's trivia hosts were represented, aside from myself the event featured a bunch of SL's best and brightest showrunners, including AnaMaria Quintessa, Triain and Cully, Chadd & Shale (I got to do Zoo Bar trivia again!), Josh and Circe, Nelly & Lotus, Maggie, Billy2Times, Devin, and even event host Hummingbird Forster took at turn at the stage, along with former Armada host Mako Kungfu and Chaos mistress Lette Ponnier.

I wasn't able to attend all 24 hours of the event, but I popped in whenever I could and five folks managed to hold out for the entire event for special prizes! I don't know how they did it, but Rain Ninetails, Lette Ponnier, Juke Badger, Devin Velinov, and FlutterBye Skytower where there for the whole darn thing—and they were reasonably coherent at the end. I tried to get a shot of the winners, but Second Life wasn't cooperating—not everybody rendered fully. Perhaps they hadn't been changing their pixels often enough.

Left to right: Juke Badger, Cully Andel, Devin Velinov,
Lette Ponnier, Rain Ninetails, and Flutterbye Skytower

The conservative goal of the Triviathon was to raise $20,000L—and I'm pleased to report that the event raised far more than that. Last I heard, the total donated to Relay for Life was $65,056L. Yes, that amounts to about $260 CAN, which isn't a terribly huge amount in the grand scheme, but for a trial run in an online community that's never tried to put together an event on this scale, I think it represents a solid success.

Plus, as part of the deal, Juke Badger's avatar got a haircut. That may not benefit cancer research, but, wow, it's sure a tremendous social good.

(If you need me, I'll be in some remote sim hiding from Juke.)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Of Corn and Cabals

Halloween is a huge deal in Second Life, in part I think due to the holiday having become a month-long heavily-commercialized celebration of weirdness and debauchery in America over the last umpteen years. All October Second Life was replete with zombies, axe murderers, blood-splattered avatars and walking corpses…in addition to a number of very creative seasonal builds with jack o' lanterns, ghosts, leaves, spiderwebs, and other creepy things. As with real-life Halloween, some of it was horribly tacky, some of it was magical, and some of it was weird. At least in SL none of it smelled funny.

Ghost-ish Lou climbs a dead tree in The Corn Field:
no signs of civilization.

In celebration of Halloween, Linden Lab briefly opened up The Corn Field, a near-mythical area that's normally off limits to Second Life residents. Apparently, back in the early days of SL, the Lindens would send misbehaving avatars to The Corn Field, a region where it was always night and which was completely isolated from the rest of the grid. The Corn Field had a one-way teleporter that went nowhere, a tractor, a couple of dead televisions…and nothing else but rows of corn. Residents banished to the Corn Field couldn't go anywhere, talk to anyone, or do anything. I guess The Corn Field was supposed to be the equivalent of sending a misbehaving child to their room without supper—a harsh disciplinary measure, but short of an outright ban. The idea is based on the original Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life," where a mind-reading six-year-old demands everyone think happy thoughts or he will wish unhappy people away into an infinite cornfield. Or turn them into misshapen ghouls.

Lou staring at Philip Linden's glowing underwear-in-effigy

For Halloween the Lindens set up four creepily identical Corn Field sims, and dressed them up for the holiday with a sinister scarecrow, creepy things hidden in the rows of corn, along with graves, skulls, and the obligatory dead tree. At times, Linden Lab employees were wondering the fields, scaring people and occasionally handing out Linden teddy bears. There were also some mannequins of avatars "banished" to the Corn Field, including an all-black shadow of Linden Lab founder Philip Linden, for some reason wearing glowing briefs. I don't know what the point of the effigy was; it seemed to bear on the edge of tasteless given that Philip Rosedale—the typist behind Philip Linden—recently announced he was ending his day-to-day involvement with Linden Lab, having stepped down from the CEO role in April 2008.

The vertically-enabled: I pose in front of Juke Badger and Devin Velinov.
Bear in mind the camera angle makes me looks taller than I am!

But not everything has been creepiness and glowing underwear—some parts of Second Life are reassuringly normal. For instance, although my avatar is a bit taller than Real Life Lou, I continue to be abnormally short by SL standards, where anyone under about 2m is considered a bit petite. Here I am standing in front of friends Juke Badger and Devin Velinov, two of the tallest avatars I see regularly. The contrast makes me laugh—I barely come up to their hips, and Juke's hair is almost as long as I am tall!

The Not-At-All-Secret Secret Trivia Cabal meeting in Secret Primhenge:
Prim-mistress Jez Oh, me, Lette Ponnier, and Lillian Shippe.

And I'm happy that stepping back a little from some of my in-world work means I'm spending a little more time with friends: for instance, this was an impromptu gathering of [MonoChrome] (and [Oblique]!) creator and prim-mistress Jez Oh along with Buccaneer Bowl crew captains Lette Ponnier and Lillian Shippe…in Primhenge. Kinda sorta. Maybe more about that later. It might just turn out to be wicked cool.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Two Bucc Chuck

I've been remiss in keeping up with the Second Life trivia scene—partly because I'm spending less time in-world, but mostly because I'm spending that time wrapping up projects and "doing work" rather than hanging out with friends and having fun. But I definitely want to highlight the most recent Buccaneer Bowls, the team-based trivia events that are the highlight of the Second Life trivia scene every month.

For folks who don't know, the Buccaneer Bowls are played by up to ten teams of three to four players each, rather than being a free-for-all like most open-chat trivia games. There are five rounds of five questions each, with the first three correct answers scoring points for their teams. At the end of each round, the team that scored the most points is eligible for a bonus question: if they get the bonus, the team gets more money, but if they lose the money is distributed to other teams that placed in the round. And the money is pretty substantial in Second Life terms: $10,000L is up for grabs in the game. That's only about $40 CAN, but it's enough to ensure the top trivia players all show up if they can. (Plus, as teams, they can gang up on each other! Rumble!) But even with the fierce competition, no one has to go home empty-handed: in an effort to keep lag down, avatars with an Avatar Rendering Cost (ARC) under 500 get $100L just for showing up (ARCs under 1000 get $50L).

The Buccaneer Bowls have been running since January 2009, with Lette Ponnier, Lillian Shippe, and Thornton Writer ably running the ship, herding the cats, doing all the logistics, writing the questions, plus conducting and scoring the games. The ninth and tenth Bowls took place in September and October, respectively—and they took place at a location near and dear to my heart, Jez+Sinn+Mandy's club [MonoChrome], where I host my Lou's Clues trivia game most weeks. The September Bowl was held in the Club proper because of a last-minute snafu with the planned venue: Jez volunteered the club when the planned location turned out not to be available. And it worked out pretty well–lag didn't seem to be much of a problem, so the Bowl came back to [MonoChrome] in October…although for October there was time to roll out a schooner (supplied by Karmel Kips, I believe) for the Bowl's nautical theme.

The Frivolous Corsairs in September:
me, Olmstead Fanshaw, and Rain Ninetails

During October, the Frivolous Corsairs fielded a team of three: me, captain Rain Ninetails, and special guest star trivia giant Olmstead Fanshaw. Unfortunately, Olms wound up carrying the weight (I was almost useless with a migraine) but we still managed to tie for a fourth place finish out of eight teams. The almost-unstoppable (but very deserving) Triviators strode away with the month's crown.

Frivolous Corsairs in October:
me, Rain Ninetails, Glimmer Mattercaster, and Lebn Bucyk

In October, the Frivolous Corsairs fielded a team of four: me, captain Rain Ninetails, trivia titan (and original Corsair!) Lebn Bucyk, and rising star Glimmer Mattercaster. And we did pretty well, managing third place out of (I think) nine teams again—BoomFireCirceSchism managed to come out on top as the champions for the month. It sort of seems to be the Corsairs' fate to be second fiddle when we do well: I think we've landed in second place three or four times, and we actually had a real shot at coming in first this month…at least, until I biffed a tie-breaker for the last bonus question.

Nonetheless, a fabulous time was had by all, and I'm already looking forward the next (the 11th!) Buccaneer Bowl! What's sort of amazing about these things is now everyone is on their best behavior, and while there are lots of japes and jibes and snarky comments, they're all made in good humor and everyone works to make the events a success. And of course, a tremendous thank-you to Thorn, Lette, and Lillian for putting these events on every month, and keeping the bar for quality and fun so high. Huzzah!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Woodbury Stops By For Tea

So after Lebn Bucyk's Barefoot trivia on Sunday—sadly interrupted by a sim crash—my friend Geoff Novi (in-world! whoo!) popped to my favorite sandbox to talk scripting and maybe about handing off a couple of those jobs I mentioned earlier. He got there first so he spun out his totally antique work box 2000m up in the air, and we chatted about some script libraries and Perl code and I was threatening to pull out a weird prim I'd come across to see if Geoff could make any sense of it—typical, normal, minding-our-own-business stuff. Geoff noticed an avatar fly up to check us out and immediately commented it was someone's alt: the account was a week old and flying up to 2000m, and that's not something a new Second Life user is likely to do—or, if they do, they probably wouldn't leave immediately after all that flying.

A short while later we were joined by another avatar. EstaEs Sparta—"This Is Sparta," get it?—carrying a shield and outsized sword, and wearing a facemask. Above EstaEs's name was a group tag bearing an interesting word: Woodbury.

Right to left: Geoff Novi, me, and Woodbury sword-bearer EstaEs Sparta

Woodbury University is one of Second Life's more controversial groups: to some they're a bunch of kids out to have fun, to others the Woodies are marauders dedicated to griefing other users and disrupting Second Life to get their "lulz." Woodbury seriously predates my involvement in SL: far as I can tell, it was originally associated with the Media, Culture, & Design department at a real Woodbury University in California; no one seems to know if that's still true, but it's doubtful. What is well-known is that Woodbury attracted students of 4chan and /b/ (if you don't know what that means, trust me, don't go looking), and Woodbury regulars are widely known for just being out to push people's buttons: sometimes that means disrupting events with chat spam, scripted objects, obscene animations and images, etc.—the virtual equivalent of five-year-olds running around saying "poop!" and making farting noises—and sometimes it's flat-out attacks, as much as anyone can be attacked in SL.

Although Woodbury seems mostly about pranking, hate speech, and bumptious arrogance, there is some overlap with Second Life's genuine thugs and content thieves: Woodbury "students" have been involved in organized disruptions of inworld events, harassing residents, and crashing sims, and I've had Woodies literally steal the shirt off my back—well, copy it—and give it back to me for a laugh. Woodbury was enough of a problem that Linden Lab apparently pulled the plug on it about two years ago, deleting their region. But the Woodies came back, inking a deal with BNT Holdings—a laissez-faire inworld virtual real estate outfit—for three sims. By leasing from a tolerant landlord, the Woodies were basically free to do whatever they wanted until they stepped out into the rest of Second Life and started violating terms of service.

And that, in my experience, is basically the only time you see a Woodie—when they're out and about for "lulz." They particularly dislike "furries"—folks who use animal or anthropomorphic animal avatars—and anyone who they can goad into a response. (One of SL's most vocal and longest-standing land barons is a good example.) Several Woodbury alumni have apparently been "permabanned," which means having their accounts shut down and, in some cases, having their computers blocked from Second Life. However, these bans represent mere inconveniences: at a basic level, you can get around them just by creating a new account and maybe using a different computer. Lots of Woodies keep the noses on their primary accounts relatively clean, and create brand-new throwaway accounts for any activity that's likely to draw the Linden's ire.

I've filed my share of abuse reports against Woodies—undoubtedly more than a typical SL user—and maybe contributed to a few of their accounts being suspended. I've mentioned I've been targeted by a sustained bout of griefing the last month, and while a few Woodies are on my short list of possible perpetrators, there's no real way to know if they're behind it. I'd begun discounting Woodies because the grief is not their style—there's nothing to point at to get their lulz, and the effort involved exceeds my perceptions of their attention span. But there's no denying some folks associated with Woodbury are both clever and smart, so I can't rule them out either. I felt my hackles rise when EstaEs popped in for a chat.

So to what did we owe the pleasure? Turns out the Woodies' benefactor, BNT Holdings, has managed to run itself into the ground, and those three sims the Woodies occupied are now gone—along with dozens of other sims run by the outfit. So Woodbury is looking for new places to call home, and the sim with my favorite sandbox is on the short list. Apparently there's some sentimental value owing to the presence of an in-world "office" of the Alphaville Herald, née Second Life Herald—an office I've never seen used for anything but, hey, it's there. The Herald itself is a ridiculous-vapid-snarky site that purports to cover Second Life in a "fairly unbalanced" way. Their self-description seems accurate; I'm not a fan, but the site seems widely read and it has gleefully followed the antics of the Woodies and others.

To my surprise, EstaEs was civil—despite somehow disrupting all the prims on Geoff's seriously antique work cube to sit at the same origin, something that seemed to amuse Geoff but which struck me as damn odd. (Although Geoff did call in some reinforcements…something else that was damn odd.) Nonetheless, it's possibly the only time I've had direct contact with someone from Woodbury that didn't result in filing multiple abuse reports.

I have no stake in the sim that hosts my fave sandbox. Talking with some of the regulars, it seems more likely that the sim will go away altogether than be taken over by the Woodbury folks. Either way, I'll have to look for a new workshop: can't go somewhere that no longer exists, and I doubt I'd be welcome in the midst of New Soviet Woodburyland or whatever materialized—even if I wanted to be associated with the kinds of grief, disruption, and intolerace that orbits Woodbury. Even just for lulz.

So, EstaEs, thanks for the heads up.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Plus Ça Change…

During the last week my real life has asserted its ugly self, and I haven't been able to spend much (OK, essentially any) time Second Life. Although I hadn't planned it, taking a little time off has given me a few moments to think what Second Life is to me—and what it cannot be.

In a crow's nest, trying to decide
whether this ship has sailed.

As a few people have surmised, lately I've been having something of an Second Life identity crisis. I have always been cognizant (and still fully believe) that SL exists only in relation to real life; nonetheless, part of what appealed to me about SL was that I could participate and not disclose details of my identity. Without this possibility, I couldn't be in Second Life at all, but, even so, Second Life started off as just a cautious distraction and I was ready to bail at the first sign of weirdness.

However, the initial ease of keeping my real life out of Second Life eventually led me to consider SL somewhere I could just be, well, me, at least a little bit. I know it sounds weird, but I found this appealing because Just Being Lou isn't something I get to do much. Eventually this morphed from being interesting to me to being important to me…and it doesn't take a genius to see how my approach to Second Life then became fundamentally hypocritical and untenable.

Even still, as has been documented in this blog, I soldiered on: I got more deeply involved in the handful of SL communities that welcomed me, and I have even taken on paying work in Second Life. There have been a couple of hiccups, for the most part that's all gone fairly smoothly.

But it's also dug me a deeper hole. Investing greater amounts of time and energy in Second Life means taking SL more seriously, and there's only so much seriousness Second Life can tolerate without interfacing significantly with real life. For instance, I can't go to any parcels—or continents—that require age or payment verification. This is already a significant issue (aside from not being able to go to one of my favorite trivia games!) and seems like it will become a greater one going forward as Linden Labs tries to move virtual worlds into the mainstream. Sure, I could lie and use fake credentials to get around these issues…but apparently that's not something I'm willing to do.

I also can't convert Linden dollars to real money, so doing paid work in Second Life is rather pointless: I might as well be working for free. Rampant content theft is another concern, albeit mostly indirect since I don't sell content. However, unless something changes radically, it does mean the work I've been doing will dry up anyway. I can't see how there's any future in trying to earn money from creating content in Second Life.

But probably more significantly, a lot of Second Life is built around enabling people do become something (or several somethings) they are not, or become something which they are proscribed from being real life. I fall into that latter category; unfortunately, the thing I am proscribed from being is pretty much the one thing I cannot be in SL. I could be a turtle, a dude, a bird, a blowing ball of light, an exotic flower, a smoke-spewing ozone-destroying mecha traipsing through puny avatars. But I can't be me.

So, the short version: I'm not leaving SL, but I'll be stepping back a bit.

I'll keep doing my Lou's Clues trivia game as long as I can or as long as people are still interested, whichever comes first. I will also complete projects for existing paying clients—or transition them to other folks who can complete the work—so no one is left in a lurch. However, I will not be accepting any significant new paying work in-world. I will also be scaling back the amount of time I spend in SL, since that pesky real life needs attention and I can't continue to justify the real-world costs (time and financial) of significant involvement in Second Life.

An odd upshot of this is that I might actually be more visible to my friends in Second Life once I "scale back" than I was before, since I'll be spending less time locked in obscure locations staring into the (horrible) LSL script editor or combing through server and database logs.

And that's all to the good. Fundamentally, the people are the most important thing in SL. Even if I don't personally fit.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Heavy Weather

Sometimes Second Life is a place you can go to relax, hang out with friends, do some crazy things, and see some amazing places…in other words, SL can be fun. I've been trying to keep that in mind during the last week while enduring what's turned into a sustained bout of reasonably sophisticated griefing…and between filing abuse reports, little tiny bits of fun and whimsy have kinda kept me going.

I kind of randomly stumbled into a sim called Plastik, which is ostensibly a mall selling I imagine painfully-hip virtual goods that any self-respecting avatar needs. I don't really know anything about that, I just love the build—it's the kind of imaginative structure that makes me believe in the potential of Second Life all over again. At the center of the sim is an enormous tree that could lend shade and comfort to a creature the size of Godzilla; hanging from the tree are a series of paper lanterns…except these lanterns are literally the size of buildings and, in many cases, contain multi-level stores unto themselves. The idea is very well executed with lots of neat details—birds, particles, little monkeys holding lanterns—plus a lighthouse across the way which might be the creator's home (mind the giant bunny on the upstairs patio), a pier to nowhere, and a giant ferret at the base of the tree you can curl up with if you're needing one of those quiet-moments-to-yourself in SL.

Lou at the end of a pier to nowhere

Many of the lanterns hanging from the central tree appear to be stores or stores-in-waiting, but a few appear to be residences or residences-in-waiting…and, of course, I did manage to find myself a tea set among someone's book collection. If you happen to visit Plastik and find this library…check out the ceiling.

What is it with Second Life and delicate tea sets?

One of the neat things about a virtual world is that you get to do things that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. In real life, I adore cats but am almost furiously allergic to them. Although some don't set me off very badly, sometimes I can barely be in the same building as a cat without running a risk of going into anaphylactic shock. So one of the neat things about Second Life is that I can hang out with kitty cats—in fact, one of my best friends in Second Life (and captain of our Buccaneer Bowl team the Trivial Corsairs!) is Rain Ninetails, who's famously a kitty—she even has special seating set aside for her at several trivia venues!

So the other night I managed to get into [MonoChrome] (where Jez and Sinn graciously let me host Lou's Clues!) to see new-in-SL music performer Glitchy Homebuilder. And I was tickled to see Gray Keynes in the audience! Gray is another of my feline acquaintances in SL—I've run into Gray at a few of Tuna Oddfellow's famous Odd Balls, and it was neat to see him at what I pretty much consider my home in SL. And a few minutes later, I was surrounded by cute kitties—and my eyes weren't watering, my nose wasn't jammed shut, and I could breathe!

Gray Keynes, Rain Ninetails, and yours truly at [MonoChrome],
listening to the music of Glitchy Homebuilder

Sometimes it's the little things that keep you going. Or even the fuzzy things.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Alt Country

The other day I had an unusual private chat with someone I've been casually acquainted with in Second Life for the better part of a year. With little preamble—but not in an accusatory way—this person said s/he thought I was the alt account of another well-known trivia player because we both have used an I-guess-uncommon phrase in public chat.

A gaggle of trivia players at a recent Metal Shop game. Spot any alts?

On one hand I was kind of flattered, because this other player is someone I respect who wipes the floor with me, and I was thrilled to be considered remotely in the same league of triviosity.

On the other hand, I was mortified.

What's an Alt?

In Second Life, everyone has an avatar with a unique name, and only a single avatar can be associated with a particular account. However, plenty of folks have multiple Second Life accounts—which is easy to do, since basic accounts are free and take only a few minutes to set up. So far as I know, the use of alts is not specifically endorsed by Linden Lab, but nor is it explicitly prohibited and alts are widely acknowledged as a common practice in Second Life. While the Lindens might potentially frown on a user with hundreds of alt accounts, a small number of alts doesn't seem to get anybody in trouble.

Although Linden Labs can certainly determine if some accounts are used by the same person (identical billing info would be a solid indicator, inferences can be made if accounts always log in from the same IPs or MAC addresses, etc.) it shouldn't be difficult for a Second Life user to disguise their use of alt accounts, and there is no direct way for residents to determine if two accounts are driven by the same flesh-and-blood person. A user who can double-log into Second Life can have their alt can stand right next to the primary account avatar, and for all intents and purposes, they come across as two separate people. In a nutshell, the use of alt accounts raises a number of issues of identity and trust, both of which are hugely important commodities in a virtual world.

Alternate Views

As usual, I'm late to the party on this topic: Lette Ponnier wrote a thoughtful piece on alts a few months ago, and Luce Portland has recently opened a new discussion about alts. I'd recommend reading those posts for a broader perspective, particularly among my SL "peers." I have no idea to what degree we're representative of SL in general, but they're one of my few yardsticks for SL social norms and I respect both them and their opinions.

Instead, this post represents purely my own opinions about the use of alts in Second Life. I haven't discussed this with anybody, and that's probably just as well because I'm sure I'm going to piss some people off.

No, Tell Me What You Really Think

Bottom line, I think alts completely suck. Moreover, alts are sucktastic suckholes of sucky suckosity.

And, yes, I realize I'm saying this when (likely) the vast majority of people I know in Second Life—including many of my friends—have and use alts. So…string me up, pillory me, draw and quarter me, hit me with your avatar deformers. I'll still say it loud and proud: alts suck. Readers who want to proceed right to the angry should just skip ahead and post their comments. Nothing I say after this will matter.

But here it is: In my opinion, the use of alt accounts in Second Life derives in part from the identity-agnostic nature of many online services, and in parts from huge, glaring shortcomings in the Second Life client, service, and platform. But what sucks most about Second Life's lifestyle of alts is that anyone's mere presence may be violating basic social norms most people take for granted in their everyday real lives. Alts shatter the "immersive" promise of a virtual world and create a milieu of doubt, suspicion, miscommunication, and mistrust. Just as one should not take as gospel anything that might be published on a Web page, one cannot trust one's perceptions that an avatar in Second Life is anything approaching who or what he, she, or it appears or claims to be.

And I think that's a f-ing shame.

Yeah, I know!

Yes, I have caveats. First, I'm not saying people who use alts suck; however, my personal opinion is that it's a tremendous pity alts exist at all. Second, I completely understand that there are a myriad responsible and appropriate uses of alt accounts in Second Life. However, I contend most—perhaps all—those above-board uses of alts merely work around limitations in the Second Life world, client, and/or platform. Third, I heartily acknowledge that while there are many deceptive, duplicitous, and even criminal ways to use alts, use of an alt does not automatically imply or involve any sort of duplicity or violation of trust—it all depends on what the account holders actually do.

But I'm not taking it back: alts totally suck.

It's The Internet—Everything Is Anonymous!

I've heard (many) people say the ability to create anonymous alt accounts willy-nilly is just the fundamental nature of the online world—on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog, and an avatar shouldn't be considered any more concrete than a "From" address in an email or the "reliable source" cited in some fanboy blog. The meme goes that the relative trustworthiness of a Second Life avatar should be based on the community's assessment of his/her/its actions and behavior—effectively, their virtual whuffie—rather than tied to "meatspace" or the real life details of the typist behind the avatar.

On one hand, I agree wholeheartedly. Someone famous once said that people should not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, and I would certainly prefer people treated me based on my actions and my words rather than my virtual appearance. I try to take avatars as they come, and treat them with respect until they prove they don't deserve it.

But on the other hand, I call total bullshit on the "it has to be this way" thought. According to Linden Lab, most active avatars have identity information associated with them. Further, there is no technical reason anything on the Internet has to be anonymous and divorced from "meatspace"—tell that to a bank! Linden Lab has chose to let anyone create an account in Second Life without proof of identity, to enable users to create multiple accounts with the same identity information, and not to create or enable resident development of any tools which assist in associating avatars with individuals in the real world.

Some reasons for the Linden's business decisions are blindingly obvious—encouraging adoption of the platform and preventing abuses of resident privacy, for instance—but these are business decisions, not technical decisions. One far-reaching ramification is that users can create accounts without assuming any responsibility for actions using those accounts. This completely undercuts any notion of a social meritocracy or social capital in Second Life—leaving aside the many failure points with the "wisdom of crowds," whuffie only works if it can go up and down. In Second Life, alts let people escape downsides of actions others would find objectionable and commit those actions anonymously and with impunity.

But I Only Use My Alt for Good!

Why do the Lindens want alts? One reason alts are so common is that are a million legitimate, above-board, and even necessary uses for them. A great example is the separation of roles, whether real-world or in-world. An acquaintance of mine got his primary Second Life account through the educational institution where he works, and later set up an alt to perform live music in Second Life. There's nothing secret going on there, but he doesn't feel it would be appropriate for him to perform music while wearing the "uniform"—or in this case, the avatar—of his employer. And he's right. Most—perhaps all—Lindens have alts too; some pre-date a particular Linden's being hired by Linden Lab, but some don't.

Another example is one I've butted my virtual head against repeatedly: content creation, building, and script development. If I create an object that needs to behave differently for its owner than for anybody else, I can only test the functionality keyed to the owner since, well, I own it! I can't trigger the non-owner functionality on my own: I have to lasso a friend to help me out. Sometimes, if the non-owner functionality is complicated, this takes quite a lot of my friends' time: it would be far simpler if I could just log in another account and have two avatars—one owner, one non-owner—poking and prodding the object until I get it right. The same issues apply to creating objects or scripts that need to deal with group memberships, privileges to any particular parcel or object, or various avatar permissions. Can you imagine trying to develop and test things like rides or games that have to support groups of avatars?

(If you haven't guessed, this is the issue that is likely to drive me to create an alt account.)

I would argue the use of alts in cases like these represent workarounds to deficiencies in the Second Life platform. There's no reason the Lindens couldn't build a "Joe User" mode into the building tools so I could test scripts and objects from the perspective of a non-owner. Such functionality could be expanded to include simulating group memberships and roles, as well as other permissions. Not simple, but not rocket science either.

Similarly, there's no reason the Lindens couldn't build role and privacy management capabilities into the Second Life viewer—and I really wish they would. Roles could let avatars manage objects, property, communications, and other things the way real life people switch between employers or "wear different hats". Maybe one minute I'm wearing my trivia maven hat, and all my trivia friends can see me. Another minute I'm wearing my trivia host hat and I'm set up only to deal with folks at the event. But an hour later I'm in scripter mode and my clients (or even just one client) can ping me, I can manipulate group objects, but everyone outside that particular project gets a polite "I'm working now" message. Maybe sometimes I'm ambling around and just want to be a social butterfly and anyone can ping me. Point being: I'd love to be able to manage contacts, objects, and communication in SL by role, just like I screen my calls and refrain from checking personal email when I'm, I dunno, being paid to do something else. But in Second Life, I can't do that: I only have three states: fully present, Away, and Busy.

I would also like improved privacy features in Second Life—there are times I'd be perfectly happy to share my in-world location and activity information with all my friends, or even the entire SL world: when I'm hosting a trivia game, when I'm out on one of my jaunts to explore random sims, or when I'm skidoodling between music performances. Other times, no one needs to know I'm online or what I'm doing, like when I'm deep in the guts of a building project, helping folks organize an event, or just deep in conversation with someone. I'm sure there are a myriad other reasons people might want some privacy in SL.

I know a ton of people who use alts for exactly these role and privacy management purposes: their primary avatar is well-known, has a lot of responsibilities, performs, or just a lot to do. If these people want to attend a concert, play a game, or even just chat with a friend in peace they have to log into SL in cognito. It's utterly stupid, but that's the way it is.

Giving avatars tools to manage disparate groups of friends, roles, colleagues, property, co-workers, visibility, accessibility, and more is all doable. I'm not saying it'd be easy, but it is well within the realm of technical possibility. The Lindens just haven't done it. I also have little doubt the easy availability and widespread use of alt accounts as workarounds for these problems means solutions will not be forthcoming soon. In a like vein, other legitimate uses—such as needing to be in two places at once—will be probably dustbinned for the foreseeable future because of the easy availability of alts.

Several other uses of alts are tougher to solve: bots and interactive agents, "live" models in stores, musicians in backup bands, and more. I haven't had occasion to put too much thought into these, but I might posit that the Lindens could create a type of "non-interactive" account that could be openly "owned" by a primary avatar or group, and that these types of accounts would somehow be treated distinctly in the SL clients. These uses seem to be clearly separate from "real people."

Perfidy, Thy Name Is Avatar

But, as we all know, people also use alts as a way of masking their identity in Second Life. Some of these people are griefers, who just want to log in and wreak havoc for "lulz" until the Lindens get involved and suspend their accounts. Others use alts as a way to clandestinely monitor and interact with their friends, intimates, and others in Second Life without being recognized for who they "really" are.

Second Life is supposed to be "your world, your imagination," and for some people that means completely re-instantiating themselves. My avatar is analogous to my real life self—I suppose I lack imagination—but some of my best friends in Second Life parade arounds as animals, impossibly tall scarecrows, nekomata, glamour babes, Conan-types, stick figures, sketches, robots, and much more. Many people change form; some people change genders; some do it from moment to moment like putting on a new set of clothes.

But Second Life is also supposed to be an immersive virtual world that takes many of its cues from users' reality. Avatars are (by default) human and gendered. Although people can fly, Second Life has ground to walk on and a horizon so users can orient themselves, further, the vast majority of all in-world building and content emulates real life. We might not have poseballs out here in the real world, but we sure have homes, stores, malls, benches, trees, rocks, chairs, roads, concert halls, gardens, fields, and more. The vast majority of Second Life relies on users recognizing elements based on real life, and using that real-world knowledge to get around the virtual world.

As humans, a big chunk of our brain is wired around recognizing people, and another big part is wrapped around social customs involving appearance, dress, and behavior. Second Life is compelling in part because it taps to these predilections, encouraging users to express themselves by creating a unique recognizable avatar of their very own, moulding everything from height and spare tires to "breast buoyancy" and facial features. And, of course, one of the pillars of the Second Life economy is clothing and other avatar accessories, enabling users to craft their appearance and identity to a dizzying degree. Most people spend the majority of their time in Second Life crafting and promoting their individual identity, and our social brains latch onto these cues in the same way we recognize doors, chairs, windows, and trees in-world—in fact, we probably respond more strongly to these social cues than anything else.

One of the central social norms of human society is that individuals are unique. Sure, over the aeons humans have gotten good at clumping people into groups of "us" and "not us"—the ramifications of which are a whole 'nother discussion—but we all understand that while individuals change over time, they are persistent and unique unto themselves. Identity is one of the absolute pillars of all human societies, and our reliance on it is one reason tales of ghostly or demonic possession scare us: a body controlled by another consciousness—and the fear of not being in control of our own bodies—is one of those fundamental tropes that probably goes back as far as the origins of language.

And this is the fundamental reason why alts suck. Manipulating shape and appearance is a whole different thing than manipulating identity, and that's what alts let people do. In this way, the presence of alts in Second Life absolutely violates expectations of an immersive world based on real life, destroying the foundation of every person-to-person interaction, whether it be indirect, social, sexual, or merely commercial. In a world where anyone could literally be anyone else, the only rule to live by is the X-Files axiom: Trust No One.

And, yes, it pisses me off. Because Second Life doesn't have to be like this.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Prima Facie

Look at my face. Squint hard. Squint real hard. No, peer closer! See that little blip on my nostril that's just a few pixels across? That's my new nose stud! Isn't it the coolest? Squeee!

Lou looking very stud-ly.

Right about now, any Dear Readers remaining are thinking, "Lou has lost her marbles—she's excited about a bit of schmutz on her face." Well, first, pfft! Like I had marbles! And, second, isn't it the coolest? Squeeee!

So here's the dealio. The other evening I'm doing a little bit of scripting work for a client, and at some point I look out from behind the LSL editor and notice my client's actual avatar is sitting maybe 10m away playing with prims. Gasp. It's unusual for us to cross paths in Second Life—noon for him is 8pm for me, and most of our exchanges are via delayed instant messages or email. But we're both busy so we just sort of say hello to each and continue working.

Later as I'm watching debug output from scripts and hoping I may be done for the evening, I notice my cohort is playing with megaprims and sculptie textures, and combining seemingly-useless shapes in ways that seem oddly architectural and organic at the same time. I ask what he's trying to build; he says he's just experimenting with creating some sort of environment that looks like maybe it's made from living matter. Maybe there's some Halloween tie-in, I don't know. And watching him work…it's a bit like watching those folks who can carve a swan out of a giant block of ice: there's a lot of fussing and flurrying and activity-ing that doesn't seem to make any sense, then suddenly you look and there's a swan. Or, in this case, something that maybe looks like apartments set into a oozing multi-chambered heart from a creature the size of, I dunno, Hawaii. Some of these prims must be 100m long. But you get the idea. And then poof, its gone and he's moved on to another experiment.

A little later I begin wrapping up, satisfied my scripts are working. I say goodbye, noting I've enjoyed watching my client-I-guess-boss work and saying that I'd never seen anyone building so quickly on a truly architectural scale in Second Life before. He says thanks and then follows up the oddest thing: he thinks working doing big stuff is easy "because you can use ordinary prims" where with tiny little stuff like jewelry you can't use regular prims.

Imagine Lou raising a virtual eyebrow, since she has some small experience manipulating tiny prims and trying to build ridiculous things. Then imagine Lou saying something like, "Well, I could write your name on your eyeball using just regular prims." Or words to that effect. Because if I actually said that, I would be violating Second Life's terms of service by publishing something from an instant message. But, that sounds like something I would say, so maybe we can allow I used words to that effect? "In fact," I might have gone on, "I bet I can make regular prims so small you'd have to do real work just to get your camera close enough to render them on screen."

(In my defense, my client has a relatively short name. I wasn't offering to write "JonathanFrumpletastic Snufflenbooger" in prims on an avatar eyeball.)

My fellow avatar looked at me with a combination of skepticism and the expressionless botox-inpired face we all wear, and allowed that if I could make and manipulate "regular prims" so small they were almost impossible to zoom in on in the Second Life client, he would hire me to make a virtual gift for his real-life wife—who is also in Second Life. So Lou skidoodled her tiny pixellated ass off to her favorite sandbox and began making some tiny prims. Here's a closeup of the result after about half an hour of work, a nose stud I've been meaning to build for a while. Oh, the big blob of lard-like substance in the background? That's the tip of my nose.

Just try to zoom in this close, I dare you.

Here's the nose stud with an old friend from previous posts about my little builds, a 1cm×1cm×2cm cylinder for scale. (Oh, yeah, sorry: only the very top of the cylinder fits in the shot.) Normally, the smallest you can make a prim in Second Life is 1cm on its smallest dimension, so the top of the cylinder is 1cm across.

I think the entire stud is 14 or 15 prims, and it sends my ARC up 70-odd points just to wear it. If you look, you'll notice its in two parts: the shiny top/middle part is essentially a smaller version of the already-too-tiny-to-render not-as-shiny part. My favorite bits are the diamond-shaped framing around the gems: they're too thin to render unless viewers zoom in about as far as the Second Life client will permit.

No, these aren't the smallest prims I can make, and, yes, it appears I got the job. So…uh, that means Lou has more commitments and deadlines in SL—was this really a smart move? But now I have a new nose stud. Squee!