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!