millay Freschi: studying our relationship with our digital selves

millay Freschi – studying the relationship between our physical and avatar selves

At the end of September, Gentle Heron sent me a note card concerning a study being carried out by millay Freschi focused on our relationships with our avatar, other SL users, the group we belong to, and so on. The survey is still open, and millay is still seeking people willing to participate (a link to the survey is at the end of this article). Also included in the note card was feedback from millay on her initial findings from the survey, which also offered me the chance to chat in more detail with millay about her work and plans for the study.

In the physical world, millay is Amy E. Cross, a PhD candidate in an Interdisciplinary Programme at the University of Maine, and the study forms a core part of her dissertation. “I’m compiling information and research on the components of the avatar and how they affect our lives,” she told me earlier in November. “Specifically, I’m looking at social movements as that’s been my experience in SL; but the avatar components are the brunt of the research.

“I believe that I had 500 or so respondents when I talked about my initial findings in September. That number has now risen to over 900, and my dream is to have 3,000 respondents by the time I close the survey. I would like to get an honest look at how we view ourselves, our interactions and the place itself. As a part of this, I’m also conducting interviews with people willing to talk about themselves.”

Amy E. Cross, millay’s alter ego

millay’s research is being overseen by Dr. Kristina Nielson of the University of Maine, and those participating in the study must be at least 18 years of age, and able to answer 47 questions on a range of subjects relation to their physical and digital selves. It should take around 30 minutes to complete.

“It really is an exploratory study,” millay says of it. “I want to use the information to provide a solid foundation – a baseline of experiences and responses – for researchers Second Life, so I tried to  create a survey that would convey a lot of information without overwhelming the respondents. I’ll be expanding on it through the interviews I mentioned, together with observations and my own experience within SL.”

And millay does have considerable Second Life experience herself. “I didn’t actually just come here as a researcher,” she says. “I first arrived in 2007 as a physics major with an eye on maybe becoming an astronaut, drawn to Second Life simply out of curiosity, but once in-world, I was hooked!

“In 2008, I started the Four Bridges Project after working with Amnesty USA, which convinced me that peace and reconciliation studies were more in line with what I want to do.” She chuckles and adds, “I realised as well that my chances of becoming an astronaut were pretty slim!”

She continues, “As I was deciding on my graduate studies focus, I thought about who we are in this community and how what we do here, in Second Life, matter out there. So my Masters focused on virtual technology in education with a slant towards civic engagement and peace studies. My dissertation focuses on how our avatar components might play a role in virtual social activism.”

Turning to her preliminary findings, millay said, “Even in September the results were interesting, and educational for me! For example, most of the respondents at that time said they came to Second Life out of curiosity; I actually wish I had worded that response differently, as I’d like to know what gave rise to that curiosity. I’ll be so much better at the next survey! Of the 500+ responses I’d had at that time, 25% said that they came in to meet people, and 70% said they had met an SL contact in the physical world.”

Given the number of avatar profiles which carry statements like “SL is SL and RL is RL, I don’t mix the two”, this latter statistic might seem surprising; but it also might indicate an interesting bias in the nature of those taking the survey. While entirely anonymous, the questions do delve into our physical world lives; this could make it more appealing to those willing to be more open about their off-line selves than those who see a clear demarcation between “real life” and Second Life. By extension, those completing the survey may be far more comfortable with physical world meetings than might otherwise be the case.

It is because of the risk of bias within the results that millay would like to a broader cross-section of Second Life residents participate in her research. “For example,” She says, “Around 80% of the respondents up to the end of September 2017, have been in-world for six years or longer, with 40% over 10 years. While I know this is meaningful because it gives the survey a picture of a history in a way,  I would dearly like to see more people who have been in-world for less than five years take the survey.”

She adds, “One of the more surprising results for me was on the subject of alts. I have several alts, probably seven or eight, which I use for money management, privacy, inventory management, and so on. But 44% of those responding up to the end of September say only have ONE avatar, I can’t even imagine! In fact, 88% are between 1 and 3. Of those with alts, 95% have a “main” avatar, and 55%, use their alt for privacy.

The survey is yielding a lot of information about people’s on-line and off-line selves and how they may (or may not) mutually inform one another, that it could lead to several additional investigations. “For example,” millay notes. “75% of respondents said that their avatars are helpful to others. That number went down to 60% with regard to their off-line personalities. I wonder why that is, and if this shouldn’t be examined more closely – The peaceful warrior in me says ‘yes!'”

Once she has completed her dissertation, millay plans to publicly share it and her findings. All things being equal I’ll be discussing her findings in a lot more details once she has published, and also exploring more about the Four Bridges Project in more detail.

Four Bridges Logo

“In short, Four Bridges is a virtual sustainable global community model founded on the four principles of respect for nature, universal human rights, economic and social justice, and a culture of peace,” millay told me as we briefly discussed the project. “Members, who include fifteen organisations from sectors such as education and non-profits as well as individuals, share resources: space, venues, media, technology, as well as knowledge and skills.

“We had two regions in-world, but I actually closed them so that I could focus on my dissertation,” millay notes. “But we’ll be reopening in 2018, probably February.”

millay is looking to close her survey on or around December 15th, although it will remain available through until the end of the year. So, I’d encourage anyone interested in helping millay in her research to hop over to the Four Bridges website sooner rather than later. There is a comprehensive lead-in providing additional information, together with a link to the survey itself – and remember, it is completely anonymous.

 

With thanks to millay Freschi for her time, and Gentle Heron for the heads-up, and apologies to both for the delay in getting this article to print.

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Sansar and Second Life in the cloud: LL speaks at AWS Re:Invent

Logos: copyright Linden Lab

It’s been a busy time at Amazon’s AWS Re:Invent conference, which closes in Las Vegas USA on December 1st. At the start of the event, Amazon announced the launch of their VR / AR development / publishing platform Sumerian (see: Sumerian: Amazon’s VR / AR app building platform for more).

Meanwhile, on November 28th, and potential of more interest to Second Life and Sansar users, the event saw Tara Hernandez, Senior Director of Systems and Build Engineering at Linden Lab, give a presentation covering Sansar and touching on plans for Second Life, entitled How Linden Lab Built a Virtual World on the AWS Cloud.

Most of the video delves into the intricacies of building a complex platform like Sansar and how Amazon’s products have empowered the Lab. As such, it does come across as quite a dry listen; however, within it there are some useful areas of focus which are worth noting.

For example, the early part of Tara’s presentation touches on some core truths about Second Life. Such as the fact it is a platform now 14+ years old, which started as an environment engineered almost down to the bare metal, taking advantage of what were, at the time, deep-seated optimisations in graphics and networking capabilities.

Over time, these have not only been layered upon almost organically over the years, but have also become – in Tara’s own words – “kinda ugly” in terms of trying to maintain and enhance. This monolithic, deeply rooted approach to the core elements of the platform is – along with the user-driven expectation than the user-generated content within the platform will not break as a result of changes to the platform – one of the major reasons  why “updating” Second Life isn’t simply a matter of JFDI, as might be thought.

Aspects such as compliance – another issue which is perhaps a lot more complicated than many might appreciate, given the complexities involved in running services like Second Life and Sansar, where the ability to cash out money adds a lot of additional regulatory overheads (visible and invisible from a user’s perspective) over platforms which only allow users to pay-in.

The video also reveals the depth of the relationship between Linden Lab and Amazon, which in the case of Second Life, stretches back to 2008, and which has encompassed the Lab’s other product, Blocksworld. In particular, it touches on Linden Lab using (and sometimes breaking!) Amazon’s more recent offerings, such as their ECS services, as a beta customer. This is something that Amazon has itself highlighted, featuring Linden Lab and Sansar in one of their own ECS use-case studies (see my article “Project Sansar”: an Amazon ECS case study, from January 2016).

ECS in fact drives almost all of the Sansar back-end, from the Atlas through to the store. In particular, the way in which the ECS application layer is used to present the Sansar Atlas, and manage the entire management of the experiences offered by the Atlas and their instancing, utilising Amazon containers (see 27:40-30:58).

How Sansar uses the Amazon ECA application layer to drive the Atlas & managing experience instancing (screen capture). Credit: Linden Lab / Amazon Web Services Inc.

What’s interesting here is not only the way in which Amazon’s services are being used, but in understanding what is going on from the moment a Sansar user clicks the Visit button in the Atlas, and the lessons the Lab are learning even now, as people use Sansar.

This latter point is itself of interest, as it helps to explain why Linden Lab opened Sansar up to wider audience in what seemed to many of us familiar with virtual space – myself included – to be a premature move. Simply put, they needed more of a flow of people moving through experiences to better judge how experiences can be more efficiently / effectively managed within the Amazon environment – spinning them up / down, instancing, optimising server use, etc.

In terms of Second Life, perhaps the most interesting part of the video can be found at 32:14-34:36, with a look at the recently announced attempts to move all of the Second Life service – including (eventually) the simulators, if possible – the cloud. Officially announced as a project in August 2017, but has been discussed at various in-world meetings such as the TPV Developer meetings.

Credit: Linden Lab / Amazon Web Services Inc.

In particular, the presentation touches on one of the major reasons for attempting the move: costs. Right now, Second Life is dependent upon hardware the Lab has to source and operate through a data centre. Updating this hardware, and the underpinning infrastructure  – network, fibre, rack space, etc., – requires continuous and high levels of expenditure (even allowing for re-purposing / write-down of old equipment).

There are also limits, as touched upon in the earlier part of the video, on what can be done within specific areas of Second Life support and maintenance. For example, Tara specifically mentions the core database services (which have been subject to numerous issues over the last year plus). While recovery times for these services has been halved – from three hours to 45 minutes – it is still a considerable outage period from the users’ perspective, and one difficult to bring down further.

Second Life in the cloud – challenges. Credit: Linden Lab / Amazon Web Services Inc.

Thus, an attempt to move Second Life to AWS could resolve a lot of issues for the Lab, and potentially allow them to leverage lessons learned with Sansar together with the capabilities of newer services – like ProxySQL – to further update and improve SL. It might also allow the Lab to move their database operations away from MySQL to more robust products, again following Sansar’s lead.

The shift of a platform from being data centre centric to cloud based is obviously non-trivial, and involves considerable challenges, some of which are outlined by Tara (above). However, from the comments she makes, she is anticipating possibly a dramatic level of progress over the next year. If so, it could be an interesting twelve months.

With thanks to Dassni – The Mesh Cloud for the Twitter pointer to the video.

Lab invites designers to sign-up for Holiday Shopping Event

As a part of the SL14B celebrations marking Second Life’s anniversary  in June 2017, Linden Lab hosted a special in-world shopping event, which proved to be a success among designers and consumers alike.

Given that success, the Lab is now planning a similar event for the Christmas / New Year holiday season, and has put out a call to designers interested in participating.

The announcement, posted by Xiola Linden on Tuesday, November 14th, indicates that the event will run from Friday, December 15th, 2017 through to Monday, January 1st, 2018, and states in part:

This event … is an opportunity to introduce new customers to  your brand. We are looking for merchants willing to offer a discount on some of their items (think Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals!) and possibly provide a little non-exclusive gift to holiday shoppers.

The SL14B Shopping Event, organised by Linden Lab in June – now the Lab is planning on a similar event over the Christmas / New Year 2017/18 holidays

Those designers interested in participating in the event are invited to complete the application form (embedded below, and also available here, for those preferring the direct link).  Note that submissions must be made no later that 23:59 SLT on Monday, November 27th, as the cut-off for applications will be 00:01 on Tuesday, November 28th.

 

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.