Linden Lab en route to Hell, at last

The road to hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions. The same might be true of other destinations held akin to hell by individuals and organizations, though it is a matter of debate if these destinations would be considered such by anyone but the traveller. Take Linden Lab and governance for instance. One could argue the point that for the bunch of laid back coders and start-up entrepreneurs that constitute LL’s core, the notion of governance is by its very nature indeed hell. If it is, LL has taken a big step down that road, the biggest to date, and — of course — out of good intentions.

Hell ? Governance ? Girl, what are you gabbing about ?

Well, you will not have missed the fact that, with its New Policy Regarding In-World “Banks”, effective from January 22nd, Linden Lab has decreed what amounts to a total ban of in-world banking activities. This has been hailed, or at least acknowledged as inevitable, by observers as diverse as Benjamin Duranske, Prokofy Neva, Nobody Fugazi, Tateru Nino and Dusan Writer; dissenters have been few and in between, easily dismissed as either obvious lobbyists (for instance Arbitrage Wise, « CEO » of JT Financial) or as missing the point (see Lillie Yifu’s angry retort to Robert Bloomfield’s plea for a continuation of SL Y-K-W banking activities as a sandbox for RL studies). Not surprisingly, the decision sat far less well with depositors, who, on hearing the news, panically flocked to the ATMs to withdraw their deposits en masse before the impending closure of their « bank » (see Prokofy Neva’s superb on the spot reportage ; also the articles on Your2ndPlace and Massively), as well as being accompanied by cries of « despotism » on the comments everywhere. The whole thing simply reeks of RL déjà-vu.

Now I’m not going to discuss the pros and cons of the banking ban, nor of its implementation (try aforementioned Arbitrage Wise on Your2ndPlace, or Aldon Hynes on SLNN, a man also on record for saying it needed Colgate to bring smiling to SL Y-K-W avatars, for criticism of that). There is little my gut feeling and homebrew reasoning can contribute to what brighter minds have written. Neither am I going to ponder the question what the balance between scammers and little boys playing bank might have been ; being neither a lawyer, nor a theologian, I find the degree of inherent malice pretty irrelevant to my opinion of the impact of people’s actions.

What I do find interesting is why Linden Lab felt necessary to step in — and what this means for the future of Second Life as a society, a topic I hold dear since the spectacular failure of my first and only recurrence to in-world policing.

Gwyneth Llevelyn has summarized the three current theories about LL’s motivations. In a nutshell, these are : Continue reading

Pardon me, but you lost an U back there

I recently read Hamlet Au’s Is Second Life’s User Interface Cursed by Knowledge? post on new World Notes, where he tries to put the finger on the failure of Second Life You-Know-Where’s user interface to make the world and its usage accessible to newcomers. I even commented, a quick shot and rant that failed to relieve me, instead simmering inside my mind since, eventually to take the shape of the following post.

Hamlet Au’s argument hinges on the theory of « the curse of knowledge » as propounded in a New York Times article he quotes. The gist of it seems to be that woeful interface design is the result of people deciding which features should be exposed in the interface, and how, on the basis of too much technical knowledge. He concludes :

So how do you fix the Second Life You-Know-Where user interface? In all honesty, I probably can’t say. Then again, the Lindens can’t say. Metaverse developers can’t say. Longtime Residents can’t say. And if you read this blog on a regular basis, you likely can’t say, either. Thanks to the curse of knowledge, the very people who know Second Life You-Know-Where most are also the least qualified to introduce it to a mass audience. (This is probably why the open source initiative and heads-up displays have failed to improve user retention– most of the improvements and features to come out of them are made not for new users, but for established Residents.)

Now I think there is little doubt the interface of Second Life You-Know-Where could be tremendously improved to flatten the notoriously steep learning curve of new residents. Honestly, those of us who did not have an excellent background in 3D / FPS gaming had great difficulties mastering even the most elementary parts of Second Life (moving, interacting with objects, camera controls — more about these later) on the first go — I know I had. As to more advanced functions, I’m ready to bet that even long term residents are unaware of many tweaks, tricks and minor but useful functions.

As a moderately long term SL Y-K-W resident (my first rezzday approaches fast), I am eminently not qualified to comment on the improvement of SL Y-K-W’s interface according to the « curse of knowledge » theory. I cannot help feeling, though, that hands on experience as the (mostly unwilling) user and victim of a plethora of interface concepts and implementations both in hardware and in software form does count — in your case as in mine, for that matter : just look at the small ecosystem of remotes that probably has evolved in your living room as it has in mine, never mind the applications and underlying operating system of your computer —, and that some understanding of what you actually can do with an item (be it hardware of software) is necessary to ponder the best way to use it, though, obviously, this might often not be the one chosen by the manufacturer or propounded by current thinking (anybody remember the Office Assistant ?). Which is why I will count the fact that I never designed a complex technical system (software or other) in my life, and that I am happily and utterly oblivious of all theories of interface design as a big plus.

One thing that struck me in the comments that followed Hamlet’s post is that what most people discussed was the graphical interface to SL Y-K-W. The talk was of better and more appealing graphic widgets and of adding more « intuitive » interface elements as well as introducing the web metaphor into the client (a teleport back button, for instance), besides the odd call for splitting the monolithic viewer into smaller tools (*nix geek syndrome, I think this one is called). Basically, the commenters seem to agree that what sucks about the GUI of Second Life You-Know-Where is the « G(raphical) » part.

I disagree. To me, the user interface is far more than the window system, widget set, or « skin » as it is fashionably called these days, used by an application. I don’t think the main problem of SL Y-K-W‘s interface is graphical in its nature.

Just have a short look at it Continue reading

Age and Treachery

On the set of « A Fish Called Wanda » then 77-year old director John Crichton was given a t-shirt by his co-director John Cleese. It read

Age and Treachery Will Always Overcome Youth and Skill

Though this was meant as a joke about the significant age difference between the director and the rest of his crew, there is a moment of philosophical truth in this. Faced with a world ruled mainly by elder people with an entirely different background and set of interests, youthful talent is doomed to fail. Witness the departure from the Second Life Teen Grid You-Know-Where-for-Underagers of its whizz kid Katharine Berry, as announced in her blog.

For those of you who have never heard the name before, Katharine Berry is probably best known as the developer of AjaxLife, a web based Second Life You-Know-Where client which has allowed many people to maintain their social network on SL Y-K-W even when unable to install the SL Y-K-W client on a machine. I have been using AjaxLife on and off, myself, and have been full of admiration for the work of one single dedicated developer, a female one at that, always a sure way to win my sympathy. What I was not aware of before the announcement of Katharine’s withdrawal and the accompanying media coverage is that she is « only » 15 years old (an ageist reaction I will come back to later).

As befits to her being underage, Katharine has religiously stuck to using the Teen Grid you know where alone, gaining a track record there as a forum moderator, volunteer and provider of web services (all of these by now defunct). Exemplary one would say, were it not for the fact that it must have been a very disheartening experience. As she explains in more detail here, her main reason for leaving Second Life You-Know-Where is the complete state of neglect Linden Lab seems to leave the Teen Grid you know where in, and the low resident count which follows from this sorry state of affairs.

Now, like most Main Grid Second Lifers You-Know-Where denizens I presume, I have been entirely oblivious of what goes on on the Teen Grid you know where. Judging from Katharine’s comments on her departure, it hardly looks like an interesting offering for bright young minds. In fact, it looks suspiciously like an excuse everybody can agree on when it comes to excluding teens from Second Life You-Know-Where in general. By everybody, I do mean that Linden Lab aren’t the only ones at fault here, though they are obviously responsible for the sorry state of the thing, but that all of us Grid Second Lifers You-Know-Where denizens share a part of this. After all, we always point to the Teen Grid you know where as the place for underage Second Lifers You-Know-Where denizens to go whenever we squabble with the Lindens and each other over the value and founding of age verification. It is such a convenient fig leaf when we basically agree that everybody under legal age (and that means anybody below the age of 21, in some cases) should be excluded from participating in Second Life You-Know-Where. They have their own grid you know where, haven’t they ?

Katharine’s withdrawal alerts us to the fact Continue reading

Wild, wild west 2.0

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 Y-K-W 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’ You-Know-Where denizens 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 Y-K-W 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. Continue reading


Have you ever wondered if the boundary between what we so easily call the real and what we call the virtual world is as clear-cut as it seems ? Now this might sound like an academic question at best, but, if you are an Second Life You-Know-Where addict like myself (and I presume you are, if you are reading this), I think you have been there. Usually, when someone confronts you with your own attitude and feelings towards the virtual world by wailing « But it’s just a game ! ». Remember how the tiny voice of ratio supplying « yes, it is » is drowned out by the roar that says « it isn’t! » ? I have been there. I have been called a psychotic loser for taking the virtual seriously at least once. And I have been arguing and wondering about it, interminently, for quite some time.

Even if you are not with me in this, humour me for a moment. Take recent discussions of an alleged case of SL Y-K-W rape on Virtually Blind for instance. In this matter, SL and RL oddly clash on the question of wether rape is possible at all in a virtual environment, of what should be defined as such, and of how it is to be reacted to in-world and / or out of world should it exist. I won’t delve into the matter itself (the jury is still out), but interestingly, the discussion as such is far from new. More interestingly even, others have come to conclusions which eerily echo what disorganized misgivings about the clear separation of the worlds I have.

Read the fascinating, if somewhat lengthy article first published in Village Voice in 1993 by Julian Dibbell. Dibbbell, then known as Dr. Bombay, recounts a series of events centered on a virtual universe called LambdaMOO. LambdaMOO was a text-only virtual world, an early internet geek playground oddly reminiscent of today’s SL Y-K-W, minus the graphical bells and whistles. Characteristically for the community and era it belongs to, Dibbell’s main focus is what impact the events had on the social fabric of that metaverse. To me, however, the applicability of his thoughts to today’s debate goes far beyond even the fact that, back in a time I was still at school, the question of virtual rape was a matter of debate already in the virtual community. Embedded in Dibbell’s narrative is a gem which I simply must quote here :

[W]hile the facts attached to any event born of a MUD’s [Multi-User Dimension, an early form of VR environment] strange, ethereal universe may march in straight, tandem lines separated neatly into the virtual and the real, its meaning lies always in that gap. You learn this axiom early in your life as a player, and it’s of no small relevance to the [discussed] case that you often learn it between the sheets, so to speak. Netsex, tinysex, virtual sex — however you name it, in real-life reality it’s nothing more than a 900-line encounter stripped of even the vestigial physicality of the voice. And yet, as many a wide-eyed newbie can tell you, it’s possibly the headiest experience the very heady world of MUDs has to offer. Amid flurries of even the most cursorily described caresses, sighs, or penetrations, the glands do engage, and often as throbbingly as they would in a real-life assignation — sometimes even more so, given the combined power of anonymity and textual suggestiveness to unshackle deep-seated fantasies. And if the virtual setting and the interplayer vibe are right, who knows? The heart may engage as well, stirring up passions as strong as many that bind lovers who observe the formality of trysting in the flesh.

He goes on to state that « what happens inside a MUD-made world is neither exactly real nor exactly make-believe, but nonetheless profoundly, compellingly, and emotionally true. ». Does that sound familiar ? To me, it certainly does. Has your pulse ever quickened at the laconic message telling you someone is online ? Has your heart ever fluttered at the sight of two rather cartoonish 3D renditions locked in embrace ? Has your breath ever caught at a line of text scrolling off your screen emoting love, hatred, or raw animal lust ? If it has, as it has for me, you should feel the truth of what Dibbell says.

Which eventually brings me to the cryptic title of my post. It alludes to a simple, yet complex idea along the lines of Dibbell’s thought : the idea that there might not be a single line separating the real and the virtual, RL and SL Y-K-W, and that all there is cannot necessarily be categorized as belonging to either the one or the other side. That we might have to accept that the two seemingly clear boundaries neither meet nor match perfectly, defining a space that is neither part of the one nor part of the other world. In this space, a reality emerges that belongs to both worlds it originates in, but is exclusive to neither, emotionally as true as it is physically non-existent. The truth, to paraphrase Dibbell, lies between the gaps ; what binds so many real persons to the virtual world might be the interstitial reality which they have discovered, often without being aware of it, or acknowledging it fully.

I intend to explore that reality. If you join me, mind the gap. Because the gap is what matters.