net.wars: My so-called second life

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 27 April 2007

It's a passing fad. It's all hype. They've got good PR. Only sad, pathetic people with no real lives would be interested.

Wendy M Grossman

All things that were said about the Internet 12 years ago. All things being said now about Second Life today. Wrong about the Internet. Wrong, too, about Second Life.

Hanging around a virtual world dressed as a cartoon character isn't normally my idea of a good time, but last weekend Wired News asked me to attend the virtual technology exposition going on inworld, and so I finally fired up Gwyndred Wuyts, whom I'd created some weeks back.

Second Life is of course a logical continuation of the virtual worlds that went before it. The vending machines, avatars, attachments (props such as fancy items of clothing, laptops, or, I am given to understand, quite detailed, anatomically correct genitals), and money all have direct ancestors in previous virtual worlds such as Worlds Away (Fujitsu), The Palace, and Habitat (Lucasfilm).

In fact, though, the prior art Second Life echoed most at first was CompuServe, which in 1990 had no graphics except ASCII art and little sense of humour - but was home to technology companies of all sizes, who spoke glowingly of the wonders of having direct contact with their customers. In 1990 every techie had a CompuServe ID.

Along came the Web, and those same companies gratefully retreated to the Web, where they could publish their view of the world and their support documents and edit out the abuse and backtalk. Now, in Second Life, the pendulum is swinging back it's flattened hierarchies all over again.

"You have to treat everyone equally because you can't tell who anyone is. They could be the CEO of a big company," Odin Liam Wright (SL: Liam Kanno) told me this week. " In SL, he says, what you see is "more the psyche than the economic class or vocation or stature."

Having to take people as they present themselves without the advantage of familiar cues and networked references was a theme frequently exploited by Agatha Christie. Britain was then newly mobile, and someone moving to a village no longer came endorsed by letters from mutual friends. People could be anybody, her characters frequently complain.

Americans are raised to love this kind of social mobility. But its downside was on display yesterday in a panel on professionalism at the Information Security conference, where several speakers complained that the informal networks they used to use to check out their prospective security hires no longer exist. International mobility has made it worse: how do you assess a CV when both the credentials and the organisations issuing them are unknown to you?

Well, great: if the information security professionals don't know whom to trust, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Nonetheless, the speaker was wrong. The informal networks exist, just not where he's looking for them. When informal networks get overrun by the mainstream, they move elsewhere. In the late 1980s, Usenet was such a haven; by 1994, when September stopped ending and AOL moved in, everyone had retreated to gated communities (private forums, mailing lists, and so on).

Right now, some of those informal networks are on Second Life, and the window is closing as the mainstream becomes more aware of the potential of the virtual world as a platform. Previous world were popular and still died. But Second Life is different, first and foremost because of timing. People have broadband. They have computers powerful enough to handle the graphics and multiple applications. Their movement around the virtual world is limited only by their manual dexterity and the capacity of the servers to handle so many interacting simulations at once.

Second: experimentation. At this week's show, I picked up a (beta) headset that plugs Skype into Second Life (Second Talk). People (Cattle Puppy Productions) are providing inworld TV displays (and extracted video clips for the rest of us). Reallusion, one of the show's main sponsors, does facial animation it hopes will transform Second Life from a world of text-typing avatars into one of talking characters. You can pick up a portable office including virtual laptop, unpack it in a park, and write and post real blog entries.

Why would you do this when you already have blogging software on your desktop? Because Second Life has the potential to roll everything - all the different forms of communication open on your desktop today - into a single platform. And if you grew up with computer games, it's a more familiar platform than the desktop metaphor generations of office workers required.

Third: advertising. The virtual show looked empty compared to a real-world show; it had 6,000-plus visitors over three days. The emptiness was by design to allow more visitors while minimizing lag. Nonetheless, Dell was there with a virtual configurator on which you could specify your new laptop. Elsewhere inworld, you can drive your new Toyota or Pontiac and read your Reuters news.

Moving into Second Life is a way for old, apparently stuffy companies to reinvent their image for the notoriously hard-to-reach younger crowd who are media-savvy and ad-cynical. There is real gold in them thar virtual hills.

Finally, a real reason to upgrade my desktop.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).