Of storms in teacups and dear diary articles

For what was a fairly minor piece on Second Life, Karyne Levy’s August 1st piece for Business Insider, Second Life Has Devolved Into A Post-Apocalyptic Virtual World, And The Weirdest Thing Is How Many People Still Use It, created quite a storm in a teacup, ripples from which continue to spread with accusations it is “negative” and “poorly researched”.

Yes, it is a tad lightweight, has a ridiculous title which has no bearing on the content, and gives every indication of being written in a hurry. It also gets a couple of things wrong: sex has always been a part of SL, rather than something that filled the void left by big business; and it isn’t actually as easy to see adult themed items in search as is suggested (not without setting the right Maturity ratings first).

But “negative”? Not really. Sure, it quotes William Reed Seal-Foss saying that SL stagnated (a view actually shared by many in SL); however Ms Levy counters this herself, pointing out the platform is pretty much still as popular among its users as it ever was. She also references the fact that it is embracing new technology like the Oculus Rift and she references Chris Stokel-Walker’s excellent 2013 article on SL for The Verge (which I reviewed when it first appeared).

Nor is any failure to mention the likes of the LEA or live performances or any of the hundreds of photogenic regions in SL evidence of a lack of research on Ms. Levy’s part. The reason such places aren’t mentioned is simple: they’re not the focus of the article.

Karyne Levy: "Dear diary" article (image via Business Insider)
Karyne Levy: “Dear diary” article (image via Business Insider)

The bottom line is that the article isn’t supposed to be any kind of analysis or examination of Second Life; nor is it an exploration of the creative opportunities within the platform. It is simply this: a “dear diary” account of one person’s venture back into Second Life and her experiences in doing so, and to judge it as anything else is to entirely miss the point.

As it is, and given the way the piece demonstrates just how shoddy the new user experience is, with its sink-or-swim approach to new users, I’d suggest Ms. Levy is to be commended for not sitting down and dashing-off an article along the lines of “after ignoring it for X years, I tried SL again. It still sucks”.

Let’s face it, she comes in-world, apparently negotiates the Learning and Social Islands (both of which are anything but), and gets herself to a role-play region only to find herself summarily ignored. As experiences go, it’s hardly great, and I suspect there are more than a few who can attest to having a similar experience when coming into SL for the first time.

Fortunately, rather than running off never to be seen again, Ms. Levy uses the assistance of an acquaintance – Judy – to help her on her way. How and where Ms. Levy may have contacted Judy isn’t that important given the nature of the piece; the fact that she at least had someone willing to help her is.

Ms. Levy met-up with Judy at the Caledon Oxbridge new user orientation centre, where she was able to acquaint herself with the rudiments of Viewer 3.x
Ms. Levy met-up with Judy at the Caledon Oxbridge new user orientation centre, where she was able to acquaint herself with the rudiments of Viewer 3.x

Nor does it particularly matter whether or not Judy took Ms. Levy to the “right” places in SL or that her personal view of SL seems oddly slanted. What matters is that she was able to provide help, and enabled her to have a little fun whilst in-world.

That last part is actually quite important, hence the emphasis. Having fun is what is likely to bring newcomers back to Second Life. Probably more so than bashing them for writing something which fails to measure up to some preconception of what their article “should” be about.

At the end of the day, there is nothing intrinsically negative about the Business Insider. It doesn’t malign the platform, or cast judgement on the initial experience the writer had when in-world. It doesn’t poke an accusatory finger at anyone or mock Judy’s SL / RL relationship. The most that can really be said about it is that it overplays the adult / sex element; but that’s not bad research, that’s unfortunate titillation.

Would I have preferred something with more meat on it? Yes; I’m not about to deny that. But by the same standard, I’m also not about to start clubbing Ms. Levy about the head with a rolled-up version of her article because it doesn’t meet my expectations. As strategies go, that’s probably going to be a lot less successful in getting her to write something more considered in the future  than, say, inviting her back in-world and showing her the things she might enjoy writing about.