Two weeks ago, I had my first experience of griefing. Somebody entered my home unasked (and we are talking of a skybox over 500 m up, with closed privacy drapes at that); I hit ‘eject and ban’ in reflex, and after some fruitless IM exchange my ‘visitor’ started some silly scripted device flooding my screen in green chat. I then did what a good
SL citizen is meant to do: I filed an Abuse Report in world, complete with the required screenshot, location and situation resume. Shortly afterwards, I got a polite if obviously boilerplate mail from the abuse report team telling me my report had been received, would be investigated and that I would be notified of the results.
That was two weeks ago.
Now, I could wave this off and tell myself I have learned the hard way never to forget re-enabling my alarm system after a visitor left. The fact is that I do use a scripted alarm and ejection system since I built my skybox – I never relied on the Linden’s enforcement of the ToS, my co-
Second Lifers’ respect for other resident’s privacy and what should be common sense and good manners enough to believe I could leave my home unsecured.
But the Lindens’ complete failure to react rankles. All right, I can hear the old hands hooting with laughter at the thought of anybody in
SL below concierge level expecting any kind of reaction to what was, ultimately, ‘only’ a breach of privacy and some minor harassment. It still sucks. So much, actually, that it begs for some thought what kind of environment we live in.
If you ask around, besides the word ‘game’ that seems so entirely inappropriate, I think what you will most often hear or read
Second Life and / or its residents referred to is a community. A quick peek at the Wikipedia definition of community tells you that, whatever the die hard old times savy resident of Second Life might think, this is not a correct perception, unless reduced to the narrow bounds of a strictly virtual community. The ‘good old days’ of just one early adopter community of virtual worlders are long gone. The loose comingling of residents on the grid lacks the necessary cohesion to be defined as any kind of unified community. To me, it seems far more accurate to state there is a plethora of communities in Second Life, many of them approximating lifestyles, some of them similar to First Life, others unthinkable there (Goreans or furries come to mind).
And then there is the question of the
grid itself. Obviously, it is more than a mere infrastructure which the communities use, as they are dependent on the grid’s continued existence: no Second Life community can exist without the server system provided by Linden Lab. Which makes the grid more something like the world in which the Second Life communities reside. This might sound trite, but there is a huge difference between a world and some arbitrary technical infrastructure. It is the difference between planet Earth and the utilities system of, say, Paris. We are talking scope, scale, and significance.
SL is a world, there are lessons to be learned from other worlds. It is very handy there is at least one other close at hand, with striking similarities when we look at its communities: the physical one, the one we jokingly refer to as First or Real Life. The history of that world can teach us a lot about what happens in the new one, because it has the advantage of a long track record of trial and (mainly) error.
A lesson that strikes me looking at the human physical world is that its history as such is intricately linked to communities organizing themselves over space and time in structures able to handle conflict and change without resorting to primary violence. What evolved there were societies. The distinctive marks of society as I perceive them are that cohesion is lower than in a community, but that an abstract set of rules enforced by external or internalized disciplinary measures ensure an amount of peace and stability over time. Out of society develop political systems, the rule of law, the notion of justice, governement. And thinking about this, I am pretty sure that what Second Life lacks most is the recognition it needs to be a society, not a mere business venture more or less randomly latched on by diverse communities – which it is right now. In a functioning society, we would have a way to create rules of interaction (laws), people and institutions enforcing these rules (justice, police), due protection against abuse of the power to enforce these rules (habeas corpus), a process to review and revise them (parliamentary procedure). Right now,
Second Life has none of these. And it is sorely lacking them.
Now of course there is in fact an entity decreting rules and trying to enforce them, albeit with too little personel and no consistent approach. Protection against arbitrary decisions and a review process or democratic participation are conspicuously absent in world, at best delegated to the justice system of the physical world, a strange jump in paradigm to say the least. It would be easy to brand Linden Lab as a dictatorship, a bumbling and benign one maybe rather than the nightmarish thing one nowadays associate with the word, but this would not be true. Linden Lab dearly needs its citizens and commercial partners, and no amount of force will keep them in if they do not want to. The Lindens might be able to disown or pull the plug on individual citizens, but their only disciplinary power resides in the fact we actually want to stay in
Second Life. You can’t build a Berlin Wall around it to keep the citizens from leaving.
Which means? Well, I’d say we
Second Lifers do not live in the wrong society – we do not live in a society at all. Because what we have now is not the arbitrariness of a dictatorship, but rather the complete cluelessness of a commercial venture when it comes to coping with the emerging society its endeavour has unexpectedly created. No commercial entity is equipped to handle that, lest of all an online startup type one. The Lindens, I suspect, mostly simply do not realize what is happening, and those who do have no clue how to react, because this would entail seeing Second Life as more than the business venture it is to them. And while they struggle with the realization of having been outscaled, we citizens (to be) of Second Life have to live in world that is, in effect, as random and lawless as the American West was when the cattle barons reigned supreme (though we can count ourselves happy not to have commited genocide on the natives to get there). It’s everywoman to her own gun, uh, scripted weapon or security orb of her choice, and hope the occasional visit by the marshal keeps things in check.
Our First World’s history tells us a non-society like this not viable, and as such not a sound commercial venture. One day, the Lindens will have to accept they have created something that is greater than what they intended, and either allow society to affirm itself democratically on their grid, stepping back to provide commercial services… or fail. Let us hope they will be wise.