Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Of Bots and Bits

I realize I'm behind the curve on these topics—real life has been keeping me far too entertained in recent weeks, leaving little time for Second Life or musings thereon.

In the last couple weeks, the owners of Second Life, Linden Lab, have rolled out a couple major new policies. One concerns bots—headless avatars driven by software programs—and the other introduces sweeping regulation of "adult content" in Second Life. In other words, naughty bits and anything related to them.

First the bots. Linden Labs has announced that any use of bots or other automated accounts to boost traffic figures for a parcel will be considered a violation, leading to warnings and/or account suspensions if offenders persist. Linden Labs plans to enforce the policy on both the Second Life mainland as well as private regions and estates, meaning that even folks who pay Linden Labs for their own private sims won't be able to use hordes of satellite accounts to boost traffic figures for their regions.

Most of the bots I've seen in-world—and I have seen some pretty big clusters—seem to exist solely for the purpose of making particular locations rank more highly in Second Life's in-world search feature. Every parcel has a "traffic" figure associated with it, which is supposed to have something to go with how many avatars visit a parcel and (I guess) stay for a little bit. I guess the idea is to rank searches using a primitive form of crowdsourcing: if lots of people go to a particular place, it's more likely to be a desired search result than somewhere no one ever visits, right? So Second Life's search ranks the more popular spot first.

Obviously, scammers latched on to this idea and created hordes of "bots"—Second Life avatars that they control with scripts and other tools, but which aren't being driven by people sitting in front of a computer. If a landowner wants their parcel to list higher in search, they can simply camp a bunch of these bots on their plot (usually underground or in a skybox, so they aren't in routine view of "real" visitors) and jack their search rankings.

Traffic bots are problematic. First, they're just gaming Second Life's search, skewing results towards places that are willing to spend the most time and resources faking their traffic figures. Second, those bots are usually scripted pretty poorly: if a sim reboots or SL suffers one of its very-frequent hiccups, the bots tend to accumulate around infohubs and other default home locations, often sticking around for days and degrading new users' first taste of Second Life. Imagine: new users pop into Second Life for the first time and appear to be surrounded by people (wow, look, Second Life is full of wonderful interesting people!) but they're all mute zombies (why won't anyone talke to me?! Second Life is full of assholes!). Third, bots take up resources that are intended for real people using real avatars: if a sim can support 40 avatars but 32 of them are bots, that means only 8 "real" people can visit a sim. Think that figure is exaggerated? That's the number of bots I counted in the Viva sim in Second France one day.

The Lindens aren't banning all bots: just ones used to boost traffic figures. Bots that act as models in stores, backup musicians at gigs, concierges, and other purposes (I ran into one recently that claimed to be an in-world agent for a search engine) are apparently all fine. The Lindens are also leaving land bots alone—I gather they basically sit around and wait for a particular parcels' prices to reach a certain point then snap them up near-instantaneously. I don't much care about that—don't own land, can't imagine getting into the virtual land game—but I bet landbots still take up avatar slots and crowd up at infohubs.

I'll be curious whether banning traffic bots will result in any improvement in Second Life's search feature. Maybe I've just been spoiled by the likes of Google, but I've personally found SL's in-world search to be well-nigh useless when it comes to looking for places (unless I already know the name) or items. I search, and I get a tiny, short, slow, unhelpful listing of things which, at first glance, rarely seems to have any relationship to what I wanted to find. I once spent over three hours looking for a simple pair of granny boots using Second Life's in-world search and I never found them or anything close.

The events listings and people search are basically functional, however, and they're about all I use.

Next up: naughty bits. Back in March the Lindens announced they were working on ways to segregate adult content in Second Life, and a couple weeks ago they (ahem) laid out their plans. Adult-only content will be physically separated to a new "adult continent." Anything on the Second Life mainland that includes expressly sexually-themed content, photorealistic nudity, or representations of illegal drug use or of intense violence will have to relocate to the adult continent or a private region designated as "adult." Access to adult regions will be restricted to "verified" accounts—that is, accounts that have jumped through hoops to prove to Linden Lab (through a third party) that the account holder is of adult age, or have verified payment information (credit card, PayPal, etc.) on file.

Search results will be similarly filtered: only verified accounts will be able to see search results from locations designated as "adult."

Under the new regime—expected to be in full force around the time I reach my first rez-day—everything in Second Life will be designated either PG, Mature, or Adult. PG areas aren't supposed to have anything that even mildly suggests drug use, or sexual or violent themes. Areas designated as Mature can have some content that's sexual or violent in nature (or, presumably, refers to drug use) so long as it doesn't "promote sexual conduct" or use adult search tags.

The idea behind the segregation of adult content—kind of creating a virtual Red Light District within Second Life—seems to really be an effort to make the Second Life mainland friendlier and potentially less offensive to educational institutions, organizations, corporations, and others who want to get into virtual worlds but don't necessarily want to expose their users to—well, everything.

Personally, I couldn't give a rat's ass about adult content in Second Life. If people really find some titillating value in watching cartoony people doing jaggy gyrations and putting on (then taking off) impossible-in-real-life lingerie or sex toys…OK, great, have at it. I'll be exploring some cool sim, listening to music, playing with prims, or (if I'm really bored) trying to get some stupid LSL script to work. But I'll happily watch paint dry and crack before checking out the "adult content" in Second Life. Maybe I'm a loser, but I just don't understand the appeal.

One thing that does concern me about the Linden's new adult content policy is that I suspect some of the places I frequent—trivia and music venues—may find they have to retool or relocate to adults-only areas. And at that point, I'll probably never turn up again. The risqué activity and content at some of these places already makes me uncomfortable and feel unwelcome—I just do my best to ignore it and leave each to their own. But if I have to teleport into the Continent of Dildos and Heaving Bazooms just to play trivia—I'm thinking I'll just log off instead.

And that leaves aside the whole issue of becoming a "verified" account. Various virtual pundits have repeatedly made the case that, eventually, almost every active Second Life account will get payment information associated with it—and thus become "verified" under the new scheme—because they will eventually want to buy Linden dollars to do things or buy things in SL. Maybe I'm the exception that proves the rule, but Lou Netizen is very active Second Life account, and I have never bought Lindens—hence, I am not verified. And unless something changes radically, I can't see why I would need to buy Lindens. I don't own or rent land, and I don't have some bizarre SL shopping habit to support. I earn (or win) more Lindens than I can spend in-world without even trying, just by making things for people, writing scripts, and even answering trivia questions. I give away probably 90 percent of the Linden dollars I pull in—either to in-world charities or as tips to venues, hosts, or performers—because, really, what am I going to do with it? Do I really need more virtual shoes?

So here's what really troubles me about Second Life's pending adult continent: by mandating that only verified avatars can go there, the adult continent is likely to be an almost entirely grief-free zone. Griefers—folks who get their kicks disrupting Second Life for others—typically use brand-new, anonymous, throwaway accounts. After all, the Lindens will eventually get around to disabling the accounts when enough abuse reports pile up, so why risk an established account when new ones are so easily obtainable?

The result may be that, despite being the Continent of Dildos and Bazooms, Second Life's adult continent is likely to become prime Second Life real estate simply because residents will be much less likely to be abused, harassed, and griefed if everyone there has a verified account. Which may leave the mainland—and those restricted to it, like me—dealing with griefers on an ever-more-regular basis.

As a girl who runs into griefers all too often, I can't say this prospect excites me.

How about, instead of an adult continent, maybe we can have a grown-ups continent in Second Life? Where residents don't have to put up with immature antics of /b/tards and script kiddies? Please?

4 comments:

  1. /me immediately searches for Heaving Bazooms, vowing to ONLY play trivia in such a magical place...

    Kidding. That's an excellent point about the griefers... and one I haven't heard yet in the various yowlings about this on other blogs. Meanwhile, will you buy a sim and name it Grown-Up Continent, please? Oh, nm, that would take verification. Probably a wasted effort anyway -- unfortunately, anonymity (which I know isn't Lou-style but which is something many if not most embrace) tends to devolve the grown-ups. Ah well. Everyone is hemming and hawing but I suspect very little will change -- of course, my ears are less innocent than yours. ;)

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  2. In theory isn't everyone supposed to be a grown-up who's in SL?

    -Chadd

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  3. Chadd, the Woodburries we chased out of Double Standards a couple weeks ago may have been technically adults (who knows?) but they sure weren't Grown-Ups. ;)

    Theoretically everyone on the Second Life main grid is supposed to be 18 years or older, but until an account is age-verified or has payment information associated with it, the Lindens (and the rest of us) have only their word on it. I've encountered avatars in SL who have admitted to being as young as 14 years old: in that particular case, the user also had an account on the Teen Grid: the account on the main grid was an "alt" he used to attend scripting and building classes he couldn't find on the Teen Grid. Or so he said. (But I *did* bump into him at a scripting class, where he did just fine.)

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  4. Your point about griefers is really interesting, and as Mako said, it hasn't been mentioned in any of the more-frequented blogs I peek at. I would suspect that the part about the Adult continent being low on griefing is probably more true than the part about the non-verified areas becoming more infested, though.

    The areas that are most heavily griefed are already unlikely to be shipped off to Bazoomland. We're talking sandboxes and infohubs. Sex-themed areas don't seem to have a reputation for being the griefer magnets that those other spots have. How much griefing would they really be leaving behind?

    I don't go to sandboxes or infohubs very much at all. In my year-plus in SL, I have only seen or experienced true griefing three times: once at Shiraz, once in Tableau, and once at the mall that SL dropped me into as a newborn. Unfortunately, I'm not in sex-themed places enough to provide a comparison, but it would be useful to hear from those who are, to see whether they even have much griefing that will be passed on to non-verified areas, since the difference in griefing frequency between sandboxes/infohubs and the rest seems to be so stark.

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