A skewed perspective on Second Life

There are probably very few of us active within the blogsphere, either as writers or readers, who are not aware of the brouhaha which boiled-up over the course of the last week in response to Hamlet Au’s take on a recent article published in Atlas Obscura.

The latter offers a broadly positive look at Second Life, and drew praise from many SL users, including myself. However, Mr. Au’s take on the matter was to largely dismiss the Atlas Obscura piece as a “distorted” piece of journalism because it didn’t delve into the more pornographic aspects of Second Life sufficiently enough to be to his liking. Understandably, his view drew a considerable amount of flak by those actively engaged with the platform.

Wagner James

Wagner James “Hamlet” Au: a stereotypical view of the SL outsider

As a consequence of this, Mr. Au was invited to participate in an interview on show #68 of The Drax Files Radio Hour, to discuss his point of view. What’s interesting about his original article and the subsequent Radio Hour podcast is the way in which Mr. Au appears content to perpetuate a number of misconceptions about Second Life.

The first of these misconceptions is that the Adult rating equates to a region having “pornographic” content.

However, as Honour McMillan correctly states, “If you do have Adult content, it does not automatically mean it’s pornographic. Sex exists in Second Life. Fact. Having a popular Adult sim does not make it pornographic. That is also a fact.”

The second fallacy evident in Mr. Au’s argument comes at the 14:27 mark in the Drax Files Interview, in his suggestion that anyone can be unwittingly re-directed to an Adult environment and encounter avatars engaged in sex – and thus, the world needs to be told this is the case.

Yet by default, the viewer is set to display / allow access only to material that is rated General or Moderate in nature. Therefore, the only way for anyone to access an Adult rated region under any circumstance whatsoever, would be because they took the conscious decision to set their viewer to access Adult material. And let’s be honest here; while all Adult rated regions may not be pornographic in nature, the label on the setting itself makes it fairly obvious as to the type of content one might encounter as a result of enabling it.

Therefore, it’s fair to say that Mr. Au’s presentation that anyone can somehow inadvertently finish-up in an Adult rated area and catch people in flagrante delicto, as a matter of pure happenstance and through no direct action of their own, borders on the nonsensical, and he does himself a disservice in presenting the matter in this way.

Contrary to believe in some quarters, one can only inadvertently wind-up at an Adult hub (or other Adult location in SL) if one has consciously decided to enable their viewer to access Adult content - the default is General and Moderate only

Contrary to belief in some quarters, one can only inadvertently wind-up at an Adult hub (or other Adult location in SL) if one has consciously decided to enable their viewer to access Adult content – the default is General and Moderate only

A further fallacy voiced is the idea that because the “main assumption” among people at large is that Second Life is all about “weird sex”, then articles providing insight into Second Life must include an exploration of that “weird sex”.

However, while many who have heard about SL do perhaps think of it as a place for “weird sex”, the huge volume and diversity of content, pursuits, interests, activities and events available in Second Life would suggest that it is in fact a misconception.

Misconceptions aren’t dealt with through reinforcement – which is essentially what Mr. Au is advocating.

Misconceptions are dealt with by presenting reasoned counterpoints which encourage those holding them to re-evaluate their position / attitude. This is precisely what the Atlas Obscura article does, intentionally or otherwise; while acknowledging there are sexual activities and content in SL, it seeks to offer a broader view of Second Life that doesn’t play to, or reinforce, the stereotypical view. This isn’t in any way being “dishonest” or “misleading” as Mr. Au states – and again, he does himself a disservice by suggesting it is.

Tyche Shepherds Grid survey summary for May 10th, 2015, from which the figures in this piece are taken

Tyche Shepherd’s Grid survey summary for May 10th, 2015, from which the figures below are taken

And just how prevalent is all this “weird sex” anyway? On May 10th, 2015, there were 7,031 Mainland regions in SL, of which 346 were rated Adult. Given these are all located on the Adult continent of Zindra, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the larger portion of them is devoted to sexual content to one degree or another. Even so, that still amounts to less than 5% of the total Mainland content; hardly a preponderance. When the grid as a whole is considered, the figures are 25,460 region, of which 4986 are rated adult – that’s just 19.6%  – or to put it in Mr. Au’s parlance: “less than one-fifth”.

And (again) leave us not forget Honour McMillan’s sage words: “If you do have Adult content, it does not automatically mean it’s pornographic. Sex exists in Second Life. Fact. Having a popular Adult sim does not make it pornographic. That is also a fact.” Therefore, the actual number of pornographic regions accessible to those who have chosen to view adult content is liable to be somewhat lower than that “one-fifth”.

So where, really, does all this leave us?

The bottom line is actually pretty straightforward:  yes, there is a fair degree of sexual content and activity in Second Life. Just as there is on the Internet as a whole and in the physical world. However, the degree to which anyone coming into Second Life might be exposed to it is really hard to judge; unlike a wander through the streets of San Francisco (a parallel Mr. Au draws), where it is possible to accidentally and unwittingly stumble upon the seedier side of life, the degree to which one chooses to be exposed to the more sexual side of Second Life can be  controlled, greatly reducing the risk of any accidental or unwanted exposure to it.

This being the case, the suggestion that an article such as Eric Grundhauser’s piece in Atlas Obscura is either “distorted” in its presentation of Second Life or somehow “misleading” simply because it doesn’t delve into the sexual side of SL or play to the stereotype that SL is “all about the sex”, is itself a skewed perspective on Second Life.

With due respect to Hamlet Au, the approach he advocates is not good journalistic practice – but it could easily be interpreted as encouraging continued salacious titillation.

Related Reading

I’ve added the two links above, as they also had an impact on my thinking during the gestation of this article.

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27 thoughts on “A skewed perspective on Second Life

  1. Trinity Dejavu

    I started SL with my offscreen partner who had been playing some time, my entry came with two simple warnings.

    – All sides of the human condition are represented somewhere SecondLife, ALL SIDES.
    – Careful removing stuff, you can drop things and never find them again.

    My first evening in SL was spent playing board games with a shared pot sat next to a weird blue dude, a kajira, a vampire, a demoness, a green fox with far too many tails, a couple of child avatars and a handful of others. In a few hours I had gone from blissful ignorance to gambling with a motely crew of the strangest characters I had ever seen gathered in one place. Mind blown – the fact this was my first experience playing dice games for money seemed suddenly insignificant.

    This is what brought me back the next day, the desire to see how deep this rabbit hole actually went, what and who there was.

    SL is not about weird sex, but the sex that does exist isn’t hidden behind closed doors. Avatars often represent their owners virtual interests, and those are varied in the extreme. It’s very easy to find something to get upset or judgemental over if that’s the intent.

    For some SL is vision of personal freedom, for others it’s wall to wall freak show TV. The media has always focused on the latter, it’s an easy source of shocking material. Even innocuous sounding pieces detailing couples who met in SL and then connected off screen has one foot in the salacious, these people played Second Life!

    This is not entirely dissimilar to visiting an LGBT pride event and only reporting on the most colourful, extreme, flamboyantly fabulous characters. Using the freak show angle to push a conservative viewpoint.

    Those who stay in SL find themselves in one of the most progressive online spaces, socially decades ahead of it’s time.

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    1. SuperGirl1970 Carver

      I am A very active Second Life player,I belong to the community call Tinies. we are creativeg community.. our society do not do such stuff as sexual roleplay. if you go into Second Life looking for sexual, you will find it. If you go to Second Life to purchase homes , you will find it. I think seen a lot of these article under the span of 3 years that I have been playing Second Life. they all are talking about the same thing but none of them would talk about the good things in second life.

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  3. Ricco Saenz

    I discussed on my blog what does “over a half” mean on a chart of 25 sims in which you cannot have half a sim counted (one counts on the chart: 1 sim, 2 sims, 5 sims, 10 sims, 12 sims, 13 sims, but they cannot count 12.5 sims). Also, I visited the 13 adult sims mentioned on Hamlet Au’s post and they all offered sex, but not to the same extent. Finally, it later occurred to me that by considering just the top 25 sims, one can have a misrepresentation of SL, because, to an escort club, it’s more important to appear on that chart than to an art exhibition, since the art exhibition will get SL-related media coverage and the escort club won’t. Since appearing on the top sims chart is the escort club’s way of being noticed, who knows what it will do for building traffic (artificially or not)? I think your innitiative of checking how many adult and non-adult regions exist on the grid completes the picture.

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      TBH, I owe you an apology, Ricco; I should have added your post under a heading of “related reading”. In fact, I’m of a mind to do that right now.

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      1. Ricco Saenz

        Oh, you owe me no apology, please 🙂 I think that the debate that the whole episode is generating is great and I have to thank you for adding to the theme. Also, thank you for linking to my blog, but, really, the debate and your observations are far more important.

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  4. Terry D.

    Playing devil’s advocate here for a moment in the desire to be accurate, a HUGE amount of sexual activity occurs elsewhere than the adult continent; I daresay MOST of it does. That, combined with the fact that most regions of ALL sorts are mostly dead and devoid of traffic (like the Internet at large, this adds up to making numeric comparisons like the chart above fairly meaningless.

    There’s nothing to prevent people from having pixel sex (or “slex” as a large number of practitioners call it) anywhere they like. What is (loosely) managed is BUSINESSES who ADVERTISE sexual content from being elsewhere than Zindra or private islands. “Avatar Privacy) (one of the few, recent great ideas by the Lab) keeps it hidden if you want it hidden.

    If you want to see just how prevalent slex is everywhere in SL, put up a skybox on mature mainland with an adult bed and leave it open and apparently abandoned, with a visitor counter to note its use by “slexpassers.” It’s truly astonishing.

    In closing, it’s good to bear in mind it’s all cartoons and pose balls anyway. It’s not THEIR hands on you, it’s your own. That said, one of the truest sayings in SL is, “There may be a real life and a second life, but there are no second feelings.” Slex without intimacy IS just cartoons and poses.

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      As noted, no-one is denying that sex happens in SL, nor is anyone saying it shouldn’t happen – well, not on this side of the debate at least!

      The degree to which sexual content is directly publicly accessible, however, is actually open to question. As noted in the article, it takes a deliberate effort to access such content within Adult-rated regions, such as by setting the viewer to enable Adult content, and often times through the additional step of having to join a specific group.

      As to anywhere else – you are right, sexual content can exist in private homes, etc., in Moderate regions, absolutely no disagreement there.

      However, just how much of that private content is readily available for public access can be strongly debated. For one thing, it requires pro-active searching for it, which is largely a a matter of blind chance, and I’d suggest it fair to say that those opting to do so are a relative minority in terms of SL’s overall active population.

      For another, it is fair to say that a good many people safeguard their homes through the use of privacy tools – such as restricting access to their land to group access, or by employing any one of the many security systems that are either built-into homes and skyboxes or available on the SL market (both in-world and on the web) etc. Therefore, even if they do have sexual content for their own use, it again doesn’t necessarily equate to that content being available for widespread public use.

      Sure, the scenario you describe can happen – but is it really as widespread and endemic as is sometimes portrayed? Or is it simply that the reports of the rare occasions it does happen tend to get repeated and embellished ad infinitum such that the impression gained is that it is a commonplace event?

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  5. Pussycat Catnap

    It should be noted that you do not have to end up on ‘Adult’ land to find ‘XXX’ or even sexual content.

    I once helped out a freaked out child avatar friend. She had just gone premium and bought her first piece of land. Then while building her little playhouse themed home, the neighbors in the nice little normal looking home next door ‘came online’ and began a BDSM sex session complete with rezzing props and for whatever reason, something involving a human female a furry dog…

    That was on M land, so they were within the TOS. They even had the nicety to keep it inside their walls. Which, unfortunately, were right up against the edge of her lot… and this was at a time either before the ‘limit avatar sound’ feature, or it wasn’t working that week, or our flipping it on for us didn’t block them (my memory is fuzzy here… this was 2010).

    So we went land shopping, after I showed her how to sell land ‘fast’ (as in, how to get a bot to buy you out).

    I myself once bought a water plot on M land, that was surrounded by G land. One neighbor ran and still runs a mall on the SE corner of the sim “torch” – with nude photos as the outside walls all positioned to be seen from the nearby G sims (I have not checked to see if the photos are still there).

    So… Hamlet is not fully clueless here. He may be over-reaching… but he is right that you can encounter this stuff without too much effort and even by accident.

    Not so much by going to A rated land, but just by ending up in the wrong G-rated sim.

    It is also worth noting that while A and nude-friendly M sims are small in number, the very top of popular sims has consistently been a handful of nude beaches on M land, and sex clubs on A land.
    – BUT where Hamlet seems inclined to think this means people will have this shoved in their face… I would instead say… people come to SL to seek it out… all of those venues are properly isolated away from G content, and you have to be looking for them to find them. It is true that many people do indeed do just that. But no one has to.

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      Yes, as noted in my reply above, sexual content can be found outside of Adult rated regions – and access to it can be controlled. However, Mr. Au expressly focused on Adult rated regions, and I opted to focus my reply on that basis.

      As to what happens in private homes is a matter for those occupying those homes – just as what happens inside the boundaries of your physical home is, by-and-large, a matter for you and not your neighbours. And leave us not forget there are tools to prevent us witnessing what our SL neighbours may get up to – such as the parcel privacy settings, which also protect us from the prying cameras of others.

      “It is also worth noting that while A and nude-friendly M sims are small in number, the very top of popular sims has consistently been a handful of nude beaches on M land” – but does a nude beach constitute “pornographic” content? In Mr. Au’s view it would appear so; I’m not sure I agree with that stance.

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      1. Pussycat Catnap

        On the homes issue… Cameras in SL being what they are – just moving about one’s own home in Sl, the camera will often pop through, and even into a neighbor’s house.

        While today many people do turn themselves invisible in their own lot – not all do, nor do they have to, nor should they be expected to. And my own story at least was before that feature existed.

        And it won’t hide their wall art or ‘erupting frenis fountains’… 🙂

        Firestorm users might be able to sit there and derender each and every thing a neighbor rezzes they don’t like… but one should not be required to use Firestorm. Nor can you expect the visitor to SL to even know about it. Nor should the expectation of what is ‘the user experience’ be based on all of the things one has to first hide…

        Not that I’m agreeing with Hamlet, just that I feel this is more of a nuanced issue in a gray area rather than cut and dry to either side.

        Hamlet is an American, and nude beaches are illegal almost everywhere in the USA (though in many places this is unenforced) – but it is not him who, to my knowledge, has lumped them in with pornographic. It is me… sort of. Its not that I see them that way – but that they are definitely NOT what a visitor would consider a ‘safe for work experience’.
        – But then again I part with Hamlet on the significance of them. Because you have to seek them out.

        As to them being pornographic or not… just show up on one nude, and see what ends up in your IMs…
        – Its hit or miss, you’ll get nothing much of the time. But there IS a notable population of people who visit them as the starting point of the XXX-journey.
        – And that also could be interpreted different ways depending on the bias one entered into it with…

        More important in the final portion of what I was typing, the sex clubs being in that top visitor list. To me it demonstrates that while SL does not have to be about porn – for a very active major section of the userbase, it is about porn.

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        1. Inara Pey Post author

          “On the homes issue… Cameras in SL being what they are – just moving about one’s own home in Sl, the camera will often pop through, and even into a neighbor’s house.”

          Not disputing you, but in all my time owning a property in SL – including 2 different Linden homes, I’ve never experienced that problem.

          “Hamlet is an American, and nude beaches are illegal almost everywhere in the USA (though in many places this is unenforced) – but it is not him who, to my knowledge, has lumped them in with pornographic.”

          No, it is Mr. Au. In his articles he states “over half of the most popular locations in SL are pornographic” whilst pointing to Skinny Dip Inn – a nudist beach – which he also labels as being of “extreme sexual and violent content”.

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  6. Bear Silvershade

    Excellent breakdown of some of the issues with Hamlet’s approach. I’m so tired of Hamlet presenting himself as a journalist (I’m a working newspaper journalist in RL) when all he does is publish opinion – his own and that of others that agree with him.

    His technique, however, is a time-worn and popular one. State your opinion authoritatively often enough, and people will start to accept it as fact. You called him on a couple of points, and Honour did a nice job of shooting down his list of popular “sex” sims, several of which appear to be peopled by bots.

    There are other points he likes to make that are equally groundless. Just ask yourself when you red one of his statements where he got that information and is that person any more authoritative than he is. Does it meet the two-source minimum?

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  7. Pingback: A pornographic tour | Second Sighting

  8. bronxelf

    (As usual,) Hamlet is spouting that which he knows little about. I _have_ one of those Adult regions he’s insisting equate to being pornographic(private, not mainland.). Got news, Hamlet- the reason my region was made adult was at the request of the people who live there. Why? because ADULTS live there and this way no one needed to worry abut TOS busybodies clutching their pearls over anything. It had _nothing_ to do with porn, and everything to do with not wanting to care about what socially conservative people think.

    As to the issue of camming? That’s why we have parcel privacy. You don’t see avatars inside houses AT ALL, no matter what they’re doing. It’s a non-issue.

    Amazingly I can manage to host major events several times a year on my Adult sim that don’t contain any sex at all. Imagine. There were 47 people on my sim yesterday… not having sex. Shocking, I know.

    Then again I can’t recall the last time I agreed with Hamlet about *anything*. It’s been many years.

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  9. Persephone Vlodovic

    I have to agree with the majority of commenters. I have absolutely no interest in pixel sex, whatsoever, and I do not encounter any sexually graphic material when I log onto Second Life. Yes, there are sexually graphic stuff, but honestly, now that I have no interest in such, I have not really encountered anything like that. The most I’ve encountered is some mild explicit language from a spin the bottle game at a club that I work at.

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  10. Pixel

    I agree with this article.
    There is also something I’m thinking: Atlas Obscura seems talking about SL as places and things to do (or what SL offers), while Hamlet is talking about SL as the residents and their virtual lives (or what people take).

    Indeed…
    [sarcasm mode on] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kV7ou6pl5wU
    “The Internet is for porn”, so why SL should be different? If you don’t count search engines (to find porn) and social networks (to cheat partners), porn websites are among the most populars (unless you live in Saudi Arabia or in some puritan place). [sarcasm mode off]. Sexual content in the Internet doesn’t make the Internet just a porn place anyway.

    Although Hamlet is misleading in stating those popular regions are rated A “for extreme sexual & violent content” (I agree with Ricco), they have sexual content or some sexual attraction. Not only that: it happens even in those he doesn’t circles in red, and they are rated M.
    With the exception of London, they are mostly beaches and clubs and they are all good places to meet people… for porn. lol (sorry, that video was too fun).

    Sexy Nude Beach is rated M and they have a sign that explicitly says it is not a sex sim. People don’t have sex there, but if you are a girl, you get many IMs from guys there. Some of them ask for sex directly, other guys flirt, then they are teasing, then they show what they want: sex. They just stand nearby the landing point, waiting for someone liking to have sex with them. Very few use the beach attractions.
    So the beach is in large part a meeting point for casual sex encounters, although you can ignore the guys (or the lesbian girls, or the guys pretending to be lesbian girls lol) and you can just experience and enjoy your nudist freedom, not sexual at all. Other beaches work in a similar fashion, as a meeting point for random sex encounters. SDI too, and the fun thing is that SDI is one of the most social beaches, as people there dance, say fun things in chat etc. but as in dance clubs, then someone will hit on you anyway.

    How many people visit Kowloon, Insilico and the other places that we see in that Atlas Obscura article? Kowloon traffic today is under 800… SDI beach over 90000.

    So if you want to meet someone (for flirt or sex) where you go in SL? Beaches and clubs, mostly (or sexual places directly). Or you go again to a dance club with your partner. And it looks like that’s what most people are looking for. Shocking? I think it’s just normal for human beings, unless there is cultural / religious / social repression. Should we be embarrassed?
    It happens more or less in real life too. The difference with sex in real life is that SL is safer, it’s essentially a shared fantasy scene and place, although you can really feel excitement (or love, with your partner) and other feelings. With that side of SL you can dream a little or you can explore and experience things that would be difficult or impossible in real life, and all the “weird sex”. And if you have rape fantasies, but you are an introspective person, eventually you could discover that it isn’t that you want to be raped, but those fantasies for your subconscious symbolize your wish to feel desired by someone, for example.

    Is that bad? I don’t think so.
    To me it would be bad if people are all about sex, missing the rest of the many regions and contents that SL offers. Honestly sometimes it feels a bit like that, when I explore SL by my own: amazing places with nobody there, elsewhere some dude hits on me when I less expect that, some dude pretends to be a friend just to hit on me, beaches that you can’t even enter because they are full… of people looking for sex.

    The Internet is for porn, but there are also science articles.
    In SL there is art, spiritual places, informative and useful places, airports, it is a pretty nice sailing simulator (besides the sim crossings), with a social plus and a whole world around it and the freedom to go anywhere, and you can create your own boats and yacht club, if you are skilled etc…
    there are less people in these places, but you can make friends with your same interests.
    That’s doesn’t mean they are sex free monasteries (and I’m not so sure about monasteries too lol). You make a new friend in an airport, he shows his collection of planes, then a bit later he wants you to join the mile high club. LOL Guys will use anything to “score”: planes, boats or they pretend to be spiritual advisers, anything. It’s more honest someone going to sex places then.

    So I think that SL and the creative people offer anything. On other hand, people do what they like most and they go where they feel more attracted. But some of them aren’t aware that there is much more…

    So it isn’t a “dying world of outsiders and bronies gleefully recreating pornographic impossibilities” as Eric Grundhauser as well as other people expected at first. Anything is recreated or invented new. If it’s dying, it’s at least 7 years they are saying so. What’s true is that SL is slowly losing users and the total region number is slowly shrinking. Compared to some years ago, it’s getting more and more noticeable.

    And prejudices and misconceptions don’t help. SL is still pretty alive, and it’s good to show what it really has to offer, to attract artist, virtual sailors, ideas as virtual ability and so on

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  11. Dirty Vegas

    Look at John 7:24. There, Jesus tells us to judge, but to do so righteously. Righteously means to use the Truth of the Word to discern sins and not by appearances only. In 1Cor. 6:2-3 Jesus authorizes us to judge. Judge we must else we could not discern good from bad, proper from improper, righteousness from evil. But judge behavior, not the individual; the deed not the doer; the choice not the chooser. The individual/doer/chooser is accountable for his/her deed/choice, but judge the deed/choice in your judgment. Jesus could see a king in a shepherd boy. And an Apostle in a murderer. So while we must judge one’s behavior we must we try to nurture the goodness in an individual: to separate the deed from the doer.

    Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged!
    and
    Let Him Who is Without Sin Cast the First Stone

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  12. maxwellgraf

    I do not imagine that Hamlet expected the responses he has gotten over all this, though there is a public relations lesson to be learned from it: It is ok to cast negative criticism upon Linden Lab and the problems with Second Life. It needs to and should be called out if it is warranted. Question. Investigate. Comment. Criticize.

    It is NEVER ok to cast that same negative criticism on the community, the residents and players whom you depend on, regardless of your opinion, unless you are willing to accept the backlash that inevitably results.

    Put in simpler, New Jersey parlance: Don’t shit where you eat.

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  13. Pingback: The Weekly Peek: May 18th Edition | Happily, Ever Afterr

  14. Latif Khalifa

    Hamlet doesn’t care about trurh. I’ve encoutered his “journalism” many years ago when he missatributed something I have done to someone else, and then refused to correct it because it didn’t fit his narative.

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