The Atlantic explores Second Life through users’ eyes

illustration only

The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future might sound a dismal title for an article on the subject of Second Life. But that is precisely the title Leslie Jamison chose for her in-depth piece on the platform.

However, before anyone starts reaching for pitchforks and looking to ignite torches, the article’s title believes an in-depth piece studying not so much Second Life itself, but the lives of some of us who use the platform. It is, in short, a rich study of the very humanity that for so many of us, makes Second Life a rich extension of our lives, rather than the encapsulation of an escapist fantasy environment so often portrayed within the media and by those with little practical exposure to Second Life.

Of course, there is the inevitable exploration of Second Life’s history, including its startling media rise, the plateauing of active user numbers and the media’s eventual disenchantment with the platform. There’s also a look and founder Philip Rosedale’s vision and ideals, Linden Lab’s own attempts to “correctly” define Second Life and more.

But these explorations are interwoven with the stories from those individual users – such as Gidge Uriza, Gentle Heron, Jadyn Firehawk, and more – in which their physical lives and their time in world is fused into a rounded picture of each, presenting what is perhaps the clearest means of truly appreciating the nature of Second Life and those who use it.

Within all of this as well, we get to see Leslie’s own engagement with the platform, from struggling newcomer with strong antipathy towards Second Life, through to a growing understanding of what makes it appealing to so many. In this she is equally honest in her self-examination, expressing the kind of conflicted views of Second Life many of us probably dealt with at one point or another.

Taken individually, each of the stories  – I refuse to call them case studies, as they are so much more – offers considerable insight into the appeal and rewards of active involvement in Second Life. Taken together they naturally weave together into a tapestry of life and activities which those who have not engaged in second Life cannot really fail to recognise as containing themes that mark our passage through the physical world:  how do we connect to one another; what brings meaning into our lives, what agencies do we use to express ourselves and find personal satisfaction? All of which, as noted, make this one of the most complete examinations of Second Life yet put into print.

The Digital Ruins offers a huge amount to read and digest – and to listen to as well: the entire article is available via SoundCloud, and I’ve embedded it below. In this respect, analysis of the piece would at best be convoluted – and as lengthy as the piece itself. As such, I thoroughly recommend taking the time to read the piece in full, or listen to the audio version (just under 58 minutes in length).

For now, I’ll leave you with Leslie’s closing comments on her explorations, discoveries and ruminations of and about Second Life – comments which serve as an insightful encapsulation of the article as a whole:

Some people call Second Life escapist, and often its residents argue against that. But for me, the question isn’t whether or not Second Life involves escape. The more important point is that the impulse to escape our lives is universal, and hardly worth vilifying. Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it—through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, or hard drugs, or adultery, or a smartphone screen. These forms of “leaving” aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms—the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.

 

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Ars Technica returns to Second Life

Khodovarikha; Inara Pey, October 2017, on Flickr Follow Your Bliss, Second Life

Writing for Ars Technica on Monday, October 23rd, Samuel Axon, the Senior Reviews Editor, tells of his time Returning to Second Life. It’s a lengthy, involved piece, and perhaps one of the most broadly integrated write-ups on Second Life to have appeared in a good while.

Mr. Axon is no stranger to SL, having been dipping in and out over a number of years up until around 2012. As such, he brings to the piece first-hand experience based on more than just random exposure to the platform. In addition, he spoke directly with Peter Grey, the Lab’s Global Director of Communications, and Bjørn Laurin, Vice President of Platform – who has responsibility for both Second Life and Sansar. But that’s not all, he also sought out a number of Second Life creators to gain their insights as well.

The opening paragraphs encapsulate Second Life on a number of levels: the early hype around it being the “Internet 2.0”, the media hysteria of 2006/7, and an attempt to explain, as quickly as possible, was SL “is” for those who might view it as some kind of MMORPG.

From there, the article weaves a fairly comprehensive tapestry of several aspects of Second Life: commerce, creativity (and their relationship), social interactions and the changing face of discovery in SL, and more.

Samuel Axon, writing for Ars Technica

For example, with commerce and creativity, he brings together several threads: how both have given rise to what might be regarded as “unusual” (to the outside world) markets – such as breedables; how creativity has changed thanks to mesh and (for many) the move away from prims to external tools; the influence this has had with commerce, the rise of the Marketplace, and its impact on land in in-world stores.

The article also doesn’t shy away from issues. It delves into the question of why Second Life failed to become as all-encompassing as the early days seemed to promised. Here the finger is pointed squarely at social media being a major reason (outside of the overall hype surrounding SL), and I wouldn’t dispute it’s validity. Back when SL was at the height of its hype (2006-early 2008), Twitter was just starting out, as was the iPhone, Android had yet to arrive, and even Facebook had yet to start its meteoric rise in user numbers (2008 onwards). Thus, there wasn’t really anything out there by which SL’s real potential could be measured and the hype around it countered.

Sex in Second Life is also dealt with head-on, with a very tidily written sidebar to the main article. In it, Mr. Axon offers one of the most considered and well-balanced ripostes to those who insist Second Life is, to its larger extent, “all (/just) about sex”.

There are one or two elements in the article which might have been tackled a little differently. The changing face of discovery – where to go and what to do in Second Life  – is examined, with a degree of lamentation that the kind of exploration possible when SL was more mainland / very large private estate oriented (i.e. pre Homestead) no longer seems to be the case, with the bias now towards “siloed” activities on isolated private islands or “big public” calendared events, with information on them effectively coming through word-of-mouth.

However, rather than lamenting the change, I’d perhaps liked to have seen it examined more along the lines of how we tend to imprint our physical world activities on Second Life. It’s fair to say our social activities in the latter are “siloed” between our homes and public venues / calendared events. We visit family and friends via the most direct means possible, rarely taking time to explore what lay between; we rely on specific “word of mouth” to get news on events of interest – websites, social media, clubs / organisations, etc. So is it really that surprising social activities have evolved in a similar manner in SL, particularly as some of the tools – like Groups – naturally lean in that direction, and are very effective in their reach?

Later in the article, Sansar enters the equation – as might be expected, given there is much concern about how it might impact Second Life. Here, those concerns are confined more to the technical / fiscal:  that Sansar will draw off resources / investment from Second Life to its detriment.

While these – and other – concerns are valid, right now none of them are coming into play. On the technical / fiscal front, for example, we know the Lab is still recruiting skills specific to Second Life, and we’re still seeing user-visible capabilities added to the platform, Animesh being the most recent (albeit on a test basis), with things like the Environmental Enhancement Project and Bakes on Mesh (see my CCUG updates) following it down the pipe. The Lab is also continuing its overhaul of the infrastructure underpinning Second Life, up to and including an attempt to move SL services to the cloud.  If nothing else, and providing other factors don’t come into play, all of this work should help towards SL’s continued longevity.

I could go into greater lengths, but really, suffice it to say that in Returning to Second Life we have an informed, balanced piece on the platform, which reasonably attempts to reconcile past with present and offer honest insight into why, fourteen years after its public opening, the platform still has appeal, as well as offering viewpoints from both the Lab’s and users’ perspectives. As such, it is more than worth a read in its own right, and if you haven’t done so already, I urge you to do so.

PC Gamer unboxes Second Life

Strawberry Singh, 2014, on FlickrOne of my favourite self-portraits by Berry, from 2014 (Flickr)

Second Life is a virtual world with an infamous reputation. If you’ve never played, you may only be familiar with the tales of kinky sex rooms and the YouTubers who troll the locals for a cheap laugh. But Second Life is so much more than that—a point driven home after I spent a whole evening reading a Second Life beauty blog.

So opens Second Life’s makeup unboxing videos are surreal and wonderful, by Steven Messner, writing for PC Gamer. It’s a refreshing look at the platform through the eyes of someone who may well have been aware of the SL’s reputation, but may not have spent much (if any) time in-world himself – and it makes for a pleasing read.

Steven Messner

The focus – as can be gleaned from the title of the piece – is Berry’s popular unboxing videos. These are actually a clever way of offering non-SL users an alternative point-of-view on the platform simply because, as Mr. Messner points out, unboxing events do permeate modern consumer culture. Hence, it’s a neat hook on which to hang a look at Second Life as seen through the eyes of a knowledgeable, empathic ambassador for the platform, and Mr Messner wisely allows Berry’s own words frame the important aspects of the exchange – the attraction of the platform as a social medium, as a mean for personal growth, and as a powerful means of personal and creative expression.

It is in the latter regard that the article particularly frames things, with Berry correctly pointing out that the pseudonymous nature of Second Life is a powerful enabler. Not only does it provide us with a means of being fully engaged in the platform and with one another whilst keeping whatever comfortable separation we feel we need between our digital and physical lives, it also allows us to enjoy a much wider canvas for creative expression if we so wish – video, photography, etc., utilising platforms such as YouTube and Flickr. It also allows use, if we wish to present our art and creativity to the physical world through our digital personas, as the likes of Toysoldier Thor and Bryn Oh have done.

As Berry also points out, this freedom can also something of a two-edged sword; frustration can be born out of a desire of wanting to more fully reveal oneself whilst knowing circumstance, the attitude of friends, the potential reaction (which is somewhat born out by some of the comments which follow the article), do much to push one away from doing so as much as any concerns vis career, etc.

The other attractive aspect of the article is Mr. Messner’s own approach. He writes frankly and openly, without any lean towards personal bias of the subject matter or need to add any snide pokes at the platform – a trait not always apparent in pieces about Second Life, even when well-intentioned. It’s also clear he’s come aware from his conversations with Berry with a new awareness and – dare I say – respect for the platform:

My conversation with Berry has given me a rare glimpse into a world that is often negatively branded as bizarre. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a community of artists and creators who have banded together to share and celebrate each other. It’s not something you see in other massively multi-player games, but it’s something I wish there is more of. It makes me a bit sad, then, that Second Life will always be labelled by its strip joints and sex clubs. As Berry tells me, “That’s just not what Second Life is about, there’s so much more you can do here.”

All told, a nicely written piece which makes a very worthwhile read – so do please follow the link at the top of this article and see for yourself, if you haven’t already. Kudos, Berry and Steven.

An adept look at Second Life

Virtual Ability Island, featuring in the Backchannel article
Virtual Ability Island, featuring in the Backchannel article

First They Got Sick, Then They Moved Into a Virtual Utopia appeared in Backchannel on February 13th, 2017. Written by Kristen French, it’s an adept examination of Second Life, with a focus on the help the platform has brought to disabled people around the globe.

The piece starts with Kristen spending time with Fran Serenade, perhaps best known through an early segment of The Drax Files World Makers in 2013 (I covered her story a few months prior to that, as a result of seeing a story about her in the San Diego Union-Tribune). Suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, Fran has found that her involvement in second Life has generated physical world benefits for herself, and she has been – among others – the subject of studies by Tom Boellstorff, a professor of anthropology at the University of California and Donna Z Davis, a professor at the University of Oregon (see my reports here and here).

Kristen French
Kristen French

From Fran’s story, the article broadens its canvas to explore the work of Virtual Ability Inc., touching on the story of Gentle Heron and how VAI came into being and the services it provides. Through this, the piece enfolds the fact that Second Life has been an enormous book to those with many disabilities, including illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, conditions such as autism and PTSD (See here for more on one way in which the platform has been used to help hose suffering from PTSD),  physical disabilities and more.

Much of this may not be especially new to SL users, particularly as a result of our being attuned to the likes of The Drax Files #22, which looked at Sl and health through the work of Virtual Health Adventures. However, for anyone who has not been exposed to Second Life, the piece offers a refreshing, clear-cut insight into one aspect of why the platform remains so popular and well-regarded among its users after 13 years.

It has long been shown that Second Life can have a range of benefits for all of us: it puts us in contact with people, and the ability to visit places and enjoy activities with them where otherwise we might be house bound and confined to little or no physical interaction with anyone of days at a time. It can help us stay healthy, physically and mentally;  it can help healthcare agencies reach their patients (see here and here), and it can be – as seems to very much be the case with Fran – physically and mentally therapeutic.

Fran Swenson (Fran Seranade) and her daughter Barbara Richard (Barbi Alchemi) - images courtesy of San Diego Union-Tribune / Bill Wechter
Fran Swenson (Fran Seranade) and her daughter Barbara Richard (Barbi Alchemi). Credit: San Diego Union-Tribune / Bill Wechter

This examination of Second Life and how it is used makes taking the time needed to read the article worthwhile, but there is more. Through a neatly-encapsulated piece on why Second Life perhaps isn’t as easy to update as extensively as some might believe, the piece moves on to a look at the potential of new worlds like Sansar and High Fidelity.

This is again a considered examination, laying out fairly the benefits more immerse VR environments might be for those with disabilities – and touching on some of the potential barriers. As a part of this exploration of the future, the piece offers a solid reassurance that Second Life isn’t – as yet – facing the end of the road. Instead, it underlines the point the Lab (and I) have often made: SL’s longevity lies as much with its users as it does with LL. So long as there are enough users engaged in the platform to keep it viable, there is little reason for it to be arbitrarily shut down.

There are a couple small misconceptions within the piece. For example, the origins of Radegast: while it is true it was conceived and developed by someone engaged in SL’s Adult / BDSM world, but that doesn’t actually mean it was primarily developed for that market.

However, these really are quite minor quibbles, when noticed. The fact is, First They Got Sick, Then They Moved Into a Virtual Utopia is an engaging, informed and informative piece adeptly written by someone who intrinsically “gets” Second Life. It’s a piece which should definitely be on your reading list if you’ve not come across it already.