Thursday, February 5, 2009

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (and Bots!) For All!

The other evening I'm trying to help out new Second Life resident and he's asking where to find nicer clothes and how to earn money. But while it's morning in his time zone it's late night for me, so I finally beg off, pleading fatigue. "One last thing," he asks. "Where can I find people, besides the place I started?"

The "place he started" happens to be Waterhead, an infohub assigned as a starting point for a certain proportion of Second Life residents. I was assigned to Memory Bazaar in Ross, and have had my share of ups and downs there. Waterhead, however, is notorious for playing host to a never-ending menagerie of Second Life's…well, let's just call them "colorful characters." Some are griefers (or friends of griefers) but others are just folks/kids who like to make their avatars as weird or oddball as possible and have a good time playing never ending loops of farting noises. To each their own, but it's not a great place for someone to start off in Second Life…especially if English isn't their primary language.

So I explain how to use SL's search feature to find places that might be interesting, and how to use Second Life's Map to get an idea how many people might be there. A few minutes later we find ourselves in Liberta, one of a collection of sims that recreate some of France's famous landmarks. For instance, here I am at the base of Second Life's Eiffel Tower (where residents can virtually go hang gliding and base-jumping):


…and here I am making a particularly gruesome face while hovering in front of the Arc de Triumph on a virutal Champs Elysees:


What can I say…I was trying to look French and sophisticated?

But back at Liberta, my newbie wasn't having great luck. Turned out that all the "people" he saw on the map? They weren't there attending some event or concert or dance or something like I had hoped. They were "campers"—people that literally do nothing but sit around at particular Second Life locations to accumulate (very tiny) amounts of Linden dollars. It's true: camping is free money. All you have to do is be there—which can involve sitting in a particular spot, maybe running animations that appear to be be doing "work" like mopping floors or scrubbing windows, or something similar. In exchange, the owner of the land or location pays you a small token for your time. Why? Because having people popping in and out of there makes the place more visited, and that boosts the place's rankings in search results and popular place listings. In other words, land owners use camping as a way to game Second Life's search system.

Campers in Liberta


And it's probably cheaper than actually buying ads. The camping spot in Liberta pays 20 to 30 avatars $1L for every 22 minutes they spend within 30m of a particular spot. That's about $65L a day—roughly $0.30 CDN—if you were going to keep your avatar parked there for a full 24 hours. Not exactly a living wage. It's not even a decent wage in SL: at that rate, it'll take you several days to buy a not-very-expensive pair of shoes.

Of course, where there's one person giving away money in an attempt to game Second Life's search rankings, there's another person who's going to game the system for—you guessed it—free money. While some of the campers at Liberta are real SL residents (they chat amongst themselves), imagine my surprise when I see not one, not two, not three, but four "people" I know clustered around the Liberta camping spot. Except they aren't really people, and I don't really know them: they're just avatars who sometimes accumulate at the landing point of the Memory Bazaar infohub when Second Life is having problems or does a rolling restart of its systems. They're "bots," automated accounts that essentially do nothing but stay logged in 24 hours a day, sit in camping spots, and collect small amounts of money. Apparently, they stay at it until they get ejected or the sim restarts, at which case they log back in to Second Life and re-materialize back at their "home" in the Ross infohub…possibly because their creator isn't smart enough to script them to get back to the camping spot.

So, while the newbie is trying to figure out whether he wants to camp to earn money—and I'm trying to discourage him—I look at the map and notice a few others clusters of avatars nearby. I quickly teleport around, and what do I find? A concert? An event of some sort? A dance club? A game? No: I find groups of avatars huddled in (sorta) inaccessible underwater chambers beneath particular parcels of land. And they just stand there, presumably indefinitely. They aren't real people—they don't move they don't chat, and most of them are uncustomized "default" avatar types set up by Linden Labs. They're purely automated, represent a landowner gaming Second Life's search system, and they exist only to boost the visitor count of the land they occupy. Except, unlike campers, they don't have to be paid a thing.



Bots in hidden underwater chambers under parcels
in Second Life's Viva and World sims

One thing these parcels all had in common? They're owned by a group called WildFan Corporation, run by an avatar named Wildjack Winkler.

I have seen some clever uses of bots in Second Life: in-store mannequins that can model and try on clothes, automated greeters in stores that can answer basic questions and summon owners—heck, a friend of mine has talked about setting up bots as a "backing band" as part of a live music stage show in Second Life.

But underwater caverns? Filled with avatars? Really? I have no idea if using bots like this to boost traffic (and hence a location's placement in Second Life's search) is a violation of SL's terms of service, but it's sure strikes me as deceptive and unethical.

As for the newbie? I managed to get him somewhere a little more appropriate before calling it a night.

P.S.: And a funny thing about those underwater caverns that are sealed off from the world and ought to be pitch-black graves? Notice they get sunlight…just like everywhere else.

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