Welcome to SLAMsterdam: Second Life Creates Silos of Sin, Goal is to be More Real

Taking aim at Congressmen, corporations, and a hypothetical flood of future users, Linden Lab announced today that it was planning to force a large chunk of its customer base in Second Life to relocate, creating an ‘adult-oriented’ continent and tagging its databases so that users can be better assured that they can toggle all that smutty adult-type stuff on and off based on how puritanical they feel. The move opens the door to the merger of the Teen Grid with Second Life, a move hinted at by Philip Rosedale on a recent episode of Metanomics, and to the kind of mass cultural and economic change that maybe only the anthropologists and accountants would love.

If you’ve been looking in on Second Life from the outside this might not seem like such a bad thing – you’ve been thinking of jumping on the idea of virtual meetings or training or teaching classes or whatever, but you keep reading about virtual divorce and the last thing you need is for your students or employees to get distracted by the pole dancers in the club that popped up next to your virtual campus or office.

Hey – Second Life will soon be “safe enough for kids”, so maybe it will be safe enough to come on in, or to take a second look in any case, last time you logged in was years ago and all you remember are spinning mall signs and virtual escort services.

For residents? Well, we’ll get to that. Regardless, the world of Second Life as you know it is about to change forever.

Safety First? What’s Driving Decisions

Good clean fun wanted.

Linden Lab wants your feedback. They promise lots of discussion, and input, and to refine their definitions and their ‘system’ based on the insightful and, um, vocal commentary of its residents. But as with previous policy announcements, the Lab is hoisting itself into the dunking tank, yet again, by being opaque or, at the very least, vague about the process by which it arrived at its decision, how that decision aligns to strategy, and how it will know if it has achieved its goals.

OK…so before you comment that “a corporation has a right to keep some stuff secret”, I get that part. I’d argue, however, that on a platform where the owners (Linden Lab) continually claim that the world is without value if it doesn’t have the value created by its users, I’d argue that there’s a sort of social contract between the Lab and its users. Regardless – I’ll leave that for the next State of Play conference or something.

But I personally I’d like to understand the framework from which a policy decision like this is made. I mean, surely they don’t actually MEAN it when they say that the decision has been motivated by the fact that “it has become clear that some Residents are interested in pursuing certain “Adult” activities in Second Life that others would rather not casually encounter.”

I mean. Um. OK. That can’t be the WHOLE story can it? Segregation based on the distaste of “some Residents?” So the furries will have their own continent also, based on the idea that “Some Residents find non-human avatars disturbing”? Or is this a morality thing? In which case the discussions around “defining AO content” will be pretty interesting – I’m looking forward to tracking the differences in opinion between, say, the Japanese and the Europeans. A media thing? In which case, well…I guess we’ll see what the media has to say about it.

Over the coming weeks, as the Lab opens up channels of discussion, we can all play Kremlinologists again and try to figure out what the REAL motivating factors were….the “why now”, “who does this serve”, “what goal are you trying to achieve” kind of stuff.

The stated goal of the Lab has been stability, the first hour experience and overall usability. The stated mission is to improve the human condition – and I suppose if you’re American, improving the human condition means being kind of puritanical about, well, about sin.

It may well be that the Lab has been conducting surveys of those “first hour” people and have discovered to their shock and dismay that people are running, screaming to the hills because they teleported to an animation store or a night club with scantily clad pole dancers and off they went, never to return, Second Life a searing burning image of sin that they tell their friends about through their Facebook profiles.

And I’m sure the Lab didn’t make this decision lightly. I’m sure there were internal discussions and data was parsed and people were consulted and options pursued – but again, the Lab doesn’t really share this stuff, so it’s hard to gauge: how long has this been in the offing, why is it being done, which constituency are you trying to serve.

So it’s speculative stuff:

- Is there specific data that drove this decision, or validated it. Has the Lab conducted surveys of non-users, and what insight did this provide?
- Did legal or other pressures play a role in the decision process.
- Are there “deals” that were held up because of concerns over adult-oriented content? Is Disney waiting in the wings ready to open up a bunch of sims in PG land? Or National Geographic? (I remember Philip saying he was off to meet the NG people at last year’s Virtual World Conference). Or someone with deep pockets who can validate the platform as worth a second look as a consumer platform?
- Does the prospect of a future sale play a part on the decision? Has the Lab had tentative discussions in this direction, or is it longer-term?
- Will the Lab use data from XLStreet to ‘tag’ and find data that is adult-oriented? Did they analyze XLStreet for trends and metrics around AO versus PG content? How did this play into their decisions?

Who knows. Your guess is as good as mine. And with the way the Lab has historically communicated around this stuff, their guess may be as good as their own as well.

The Laws of Unintended Consequences

In fact, the Lab has a long history of having what seem like good reasons for doing things, in their own minds at least, and then being slightly baffled when stuff doesn’t quite turn out as planned.

Much of the follow-up discussion around this will certainly focus on the logistics, the definitions, and the process of change. We’ll get to analyze the whole age verification thing all over again – looks like credit cards are OK again, and maybe that Aristotle service can have the plug pulled?

How all that plays out is, again, anyone’s guess – I’m sure the Lab has tried to predict, but they’ve shown a stunning inability to actually do so. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: a platform as dynamic and fluid as Second Life deserves a good dose of serendipity.

The immediate list of potential consequences is pretty stunning. Again – it could be that open spaces was a picnic compared to what this will be. This isn’t a price hike, this is a fundamental reworking of Second Life’s culture, and may impact a significant majority of the residents, depending on how it’s handled.

I can think of a dozen ways in which CURRENT users will be impacted, but let’s take a few main user groups (outside of enterprise, education and the “clear” PG-type users):

- An influx of residents attracted to the new ‘red light district’ that got all the media coverage and a sudden land rush of bordello building. (OK, hey, someone has to benefit right?)
- A significant shift in land values as residents try to decide whether they want to lead a PG or a Mature Second Life and either sell their houses, buy a second (“for those special nights”), or decamp altogether.
- Content creators who will need to rethink their strategies: whether to discontinue the 10% of their product lines that are “adult-oriented” and who will need to decide whether to move locations to the AO continent or stay put, trying to guess whether traffic will migrate OUT of the PG Mainland or whether the AO continent will be a sort of creepy shadow zone which people prefer to visit as an alt
- Mall owners who have a mix of PG and ‘Mature’ tenants who will need to restructure their businesses, kick tenants out, try to find replacements, and make a decision at an estate level what side of the ‘red line’ they want to be on.
- Estate owners with a combination of adjoining mature and PG sims who will need to decide whether the “age verification ban lines” are an invitation to peeping teen Toms from the sim next door, or who otherwise decide that the changing ‘values-based geography’ is just bad for business.
- A new culture of abuse reporting and policing. Enough said.

Regardless of the process by which all this is managed – well, we’re talking here about a shift of land ownership that could very well make the open spaces controversy a minor blip.

More Like Real Life
In all of this, however, there’s something that’s even more striking than the potential dislocation, shifting land market, and new regime of governance.

The Lab says that its stated goal is “in some very elemental ways, to more closely mirror the real world.”

Wow. I mean, really. Wow.

That doesn’t strike me as a casual throw-away line. That line strikes me as a fundamental refashioning of the spirit of the Grid. Perhaps its meant to be narrowly interpreted. Perhaps they mean “mirror the real world (for the sake of the press understanding us, or enterprise wanting to come on board, but don’t worry, we all know *wink wink* that this is NOTHING like the real thing”.)

Now, I have no idea what they REALLY mean by “mirror the real world” – I mean, I thought that’s what Twinity was for.

But I’d propose that mirroring the ‘real world’ doesn’t mean mirroring the movie ratings system, and I’d also propose that, well, the real world is hardly a role model these days in the first place – I thought Second Life was supposed to make the impossible possible, and to provide a new frontier for explorations of human society, culture, connection and creation. Who needs to mirror what doesn’t work?

Second Life was inspired by Burning Man. It wasn’t inspired by Springfield, USA or even Amsterdam for that matter. There’s enough non-fiction to go around: some of us didn’t stay because it’s a nice clean place to visit, we stayed because it was a place to play.

Just prior to Philip stepping down (or is it up?) from his role as CEO I wrote:

“So here’s the vision: use code to enable a society built on the idea of collaborative creativity. Make the tools rich and robust, even if it means there’s a learning curve to using them – we’re man after all, evolved from our tools, surely another evolution in our toolset will empower change? Improve the tools over time. Improve the setting for the shared creative output – enhance the water or sky, improve the physics, and work hard to remove the things that prevent a suspension of belief – get rid of the glitches and lags if we can, scale the thing up. And while we’re at it, let people own their creations and choose to sell them to each other if they wish.

Not such a bad vision really. A sort of free-flowing, wacked-out carnival. Just like Burning Man, maybe the people who visit this place will go back to their home towns not just sun burnt, but enlightened. Wagner Au calls it Be Bop reality and Mirrored Flourishing, but whatever…it’s the idea that if you rewrite the world with the idea of the creative carnival it’s going to have a bit of anarchy, a lot of improv, and maybe we’ll all learn something and benefit from it.”

And I referenced Nicholas Negroponte’s 1996 book Being Digital:

Bits are not edible; in that sense they cannot stop hunger. Computers are not moral; they cannot resolve complex issues like the rights to life and to death. But being digital, nevertheless, does give much cause for optimism. Like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped. It has four very powerful qualities that will result in its ultimate triumph: decentralizing, globalizing, harmonizing, and empowering….

But more than anything, my optimism comes from the empowering nature of being digital. The access, the mobility, and the ability to effect change are what will make the future so different from the present. The information superhighway may be mostly hype today, but it is an understatement about tomorrow. It will exist beyond people’s wildest predictions. As children appropriate a global information resource, and as they discover that only adults need learner’s permits, we are bound to find new hope and dignity in places where very little existed before.

My optimism is not fueled by an anticipated invention or discovery. Finding a cure for cancer and AIDS, finding an acceptable way to control population, or inventing a machine that can breathe our air and drink our oceans and excrete unpolluted forms of each are dreams that may or may not come about. Being digital is different. We are not waiting on any invention. It is here. It is now. It is almost genetic in its nature, in that each generation will become more digital than the preceding one. The control bits of that digital future are more than ever before in the hands of the young. Nothing could make me happier.

Which is to say that being digital, being virtual isn’t just a technology, it’s not just about streaming bits around….it’s about being human, and perhaps about being human in new and different ways.

By referencing the decision to create a new continent on which sin can reside to a desire to ‘mirror reality’, the Lab is also indicating that this is all the same thing now. The frontier has run its course, the lessons have been learned from the experiment in libertarian, creative, burning man type anarchy and it’s time for the adults with their movie and game ratings systems, and their serious pursuits like education, and virtual meetings for enterprise and, hmmm, science projects or whatever to do their thing, to clean the Grid up even if it means the forcible relocation of big chunks of the world’s residents.

Now – the Lab is well intentioned. It’s all about choice. About letting the people who WANT Disney to GET Disney (or its equivalent, like the Princeton sims or Magic Bakery or whatever).

And we’ll see: the Lab has made tough choices before and often it’s the unintended consequences that are the most beneficial, and almost ALWAYS it’s the process of getting there that causes most of the pain.

Wagons ho.


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