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Friday, April 29, 2005

LINK OF THE WEEK!

A new world visionary ponders the future role of Second Life...

The irrepressible folks at Second Life Future Salon continue to bring an amazing group of people together to talk about Second Life, in-world and out. In a recent entry, member "Joschka Fischer" poses this provocative question:

"What [this] doesn't explain is how [Second Life] is any different from any other site focused on technology and non-substantive solutions fitting the narrow aperture of 'entertainment'. Reality need not apply?"

For a few crazy moments there, I thought Germany's Foreign Minister had popped up to weigh in on SL, but Future Salon host SNOOPYbrown Zamboni just e-mailed me to say it's likely just a pen name. (You never know, with these guys.)

What is certain, however, is that cyberpunk godfather, Austin bon vivant, and Wired blogger Bruce Sterling posted his own characteristically imagistic, sardonically optimistic speculation in reply:

"No bread? Let them eat prims.

"I would guess that the flashpoint comes when somebody designs something out of prims that actually enables Gappers* to eat... I have to wonder what the reaction to SECOND LIFE would be if somebody simply ported satellite links and laptops right into a starvation-riddled refugee camp. Learning to type would be no picnic, but really, given the utter boredom and cramped conditions in real-life refugee shelters, wouldn't SECOND LIFE be hugely popular? Who on earth would have more fun there than someone whose first life was utterly dysfunctional? How much would it cost to just try the experiment and see?"

Other fascinating thoughts precede and follow Bruce's post, so the entry is well-worth a full read, as is Salon Future co-host Csven's follow-up entry-- which is, in turn, a kind of follow-up to my recent entry on the arrival of a Chinese "sweat shop" worker into Second Life.

If I could crystallize this conversation into a single question, I guess it would be, "Can Second Life help alleviate poverty, bring global peace, foster democracy-- or is it just one more cool technology for the world's wealthy?" Lots of potential replies to that, so I'm tracking back to the original SL Future Salon entry, and encouraging their readers and mine to start a fruitful back and forth in the Comments section. With luck, it'll develop into a conservation that would even appeal to the real Joschka Fischer.

*The "Gap", in former Naval War College analyst Thomas Barnett's profoundly influential formulation, are impoverished, politically repressive regions of the world that are not integrated into the functioning "Core" of economically globalized, democratic nations. Absolutely recommended further reading here.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

THE FETED INNER CORE, REVEALED!

Many said Prokofy Neva was mad, and that his descriptions of a so-called "Feted Inner Core" (or FIC), a secret society of Second Life aristocrats, were little more than fevered rantings. How was it possible, after all, that a cabal of subscribers had become so powerful, they'd gained direct control over an entire world's future? There were intimations they existed, to be sure, but even those seemed like the glimmerings of a receding mirage, to most. Including, I confess, to me.

Until last sunset, that is, when someone quietly and anonymously slipped a series of annotated screenshots into my inventory. They depicted a well-known Resident (and suspected FIC grand council suzerain), caught in the act of unspeakable machinations. What follows, unabridged, is the journal of this unknown investigator's discovery:

SL Explorers Log 4.25.2005

We venture deep into Bragg (244,16) and find ourselves approaching a strange object 200 meters high. Rumors of secret FIC lairs have made us cautious, but truth, justice and the Prokovian way push us onwards.

We discover the abberation...

Approaching the madness...

We creep along the girders for stealth...

... and realize the scale of the horror.

As the machine continues its dirty transformations.

To my horror, the Monitor begins to turn toward me...

The last moment comes quick.

[WARNING: EXPLORER NOC DATA STREAM] . . . . . signal terminated . . . . . satellite check 1.A45c . . . . . re-acquisition failed . . . . . REPEAT re-acquisition failed . . . . . rescue operations cancelled . . . . . estimated probability for success: 0.05% . . . . . proceed SL evacuation operation OMEGA [WARNING: EXPLORER NOC DATA STREAM]

The transmission ends there. Fortunately, I was able to track down someone with intimate knowledge of the mystery behind it.

"I came up with the idea after one of the many Forum 'FIC' debates, and someone painted a very funny verbal image of Philip feeding Aimee newbies to munch on," Forseti Svarog explains.

These ever-recurring debates revolve around the accusation that an unacknowledged hierarchy of Residents exists. And from the commanding heights, the argument goes, an ultra-talented, financially successful aristocracy of Residents exerts undue influence on Linden Lab. Svarog's reaction to the image of Linden Lab's CEO tossing helpless new subscribers into the clutches of veteran fashion doyenne Aimee Weber was to turn it into a kind of 3D parody diorama, then convert that into a narrative told in screenshots. The end result is like an editorial cartoon satirizing excessive class warfare rhetoric-- except that here, the classes only exist in an online world. (Or, perhaps, only on the official forum of the online world.) Social satire of a virtual society, in other words.

"[R]ather than Photoshopping a single image," Forseti tells me, "I decided to built a 3D set and then take screenshots. Duping the many Aimees was actually very straightforward. It required catching her at the right moment [to take screenshots of her], removing the background of the image and alpha-channeling [i.e. making translucent] 'cutouts' of various Aimees." He did the same with the hapless victims lined up at the cloning device, all of them in the bowed, puppet-without-strings posture of avatars in away-from-keyboard mode. "[T]hose people were in on the gag," says Svarog, "since I needed shots of them in 'away' mode.

"The rest was simply doing what I love-- building and texturing."

Beyond the technical challenges, Forseti worried that people might wonder why he was suddenly obsessed with creating dozens and dozens of Aimee Weber cutout dolls.

"[S]ome friends came upon me and got very worried that I was building a love/cult shrine to Aimee," he says. "Which almost threw me off the idea, but they got into it when they realized the gag, so I went ahead."

Forseti acknowledges that Residents are likely to have differing reactions to the underlying satire, too. "Some people will find it funny, some strange," he says. "Either which way, it was my little humor-based protest to these FIC claims, which I consider nonsense. There will always be those who feel victimized at the drop of a hat, and there are those who get-up-and-go and tackle the challenges ahead with zest and positive determination.

"OK," Svarog concludes, grinning, "off the pulpit now."

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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

ART FOR ART'S SAKE

Or, Artemis for art's sake. An education in life drawing, in immersive real time...

When the students arrived to take Nylon Pinkney's inaugural life drawing class last week, they found the live model they were supposed to sketch had gone AWOL. Artemis Fate had come to draw with them, but when the model didn't show, the sleek catwoman with ebony skin stripped her clothes off, tossed them into inventory, and struck a pose on the stage herself.

In a life drawing class, art students bring their easels and their drawing implements, assemble around a small stage or platform, on which a model (usually nude) holds a pose, while the students try to capture the nuances of the human form. After some time, students usually get to go around and have a look at their classmates' sketches, and maybe the teacher has a few comments to offer, too. A Second Life drawing class is more or less the same thing, except for the digital upload that has to happen in the middle.

"The goal of these art classes is to bring art back into Second Life, like it used to be," teacher Judy Brodie explains to me. The studio where she teaches levitates on the snowy slopes of Cottonwood, a casual-funky place with couches and divans, so hipster art aficionados can lounge about while they watch the life sketches progress. "Plus Second Life needs more classes that are not just newb classes," she adds, referring to the introductory building/scripting tutorials, for new users.

The class itself was put together by Nylon, but Judy is filling in for her, this session. (Ms. Pinkney's Internet connection fritzed up at the worst possible moment, but Judy had volunteered to help out, a few days earlier.) "This is mostly for those who have been doing art for awhile but we have beginner classes also," says Judy. Herself an art student in real life, she now teaches very basic drawing skills to SL students with no previous experience ("I just train people to stop using stick figures"), so they can graduate into Nylon's more advanced classes.

Displaying their work on the gallery easels involves a new application of basic Second Life technology. Using whatever medium they prefer, students draw the live model offline, then convert the image to a digital file, and upload that in-world, right onto an available blank canvas in Nylon's studio. During the first session, one student uses a stylus hooked up to Photoshop, but most of them draw right from pencil and paper, scanning the finished product (or in one case, taking a photo of it with a digital camera.)

Once uploaded, it's there in Second Life for everyone in the studio to see.

Hensonian Pennyfeather laughs, peering at his own efforts. "Not bad for someone who never draws, but boy is mine full of flaws."

"Never discourage a flaw," Judy says, over his shoulder.

"You've encouraged me to draw, and I never draw," Pennyfeather says to her, grateful. "I'm acutally surprised that I got what I did out of it."

A few easels over, Baron Grayson is down on his sketch, too. "For art I always took classes like pottery because I like to work with my hands. But drawing..." he trails off, shuddering.

"I'm starting a beginner art class every Sunday starting May 1st," Judy tells me. "Then I'll give them over to Nylon in two months."

The original inspiration for Nylon Pinkney's in-world life drawing class came, she tells me later, from a 2D web-based version of the technology. "I use to go to a website forum where they posted pictures and you drew your own interpretation of the image," she says. "It was very cool, a lot of diverse artists and a lot of professional artists too, participated... The posters gave advice and criticism to each other and as a result, I think it helped me become a better artist." Largely on the strength of that, she's been able to carve out a semi-professional career for herself, "[L]ike making flyers for local bands and illustrations for websites and stuff, or online programs, anything to keep me busy. I mostly just draw for myself, but sometimes I get paid, which is awesome."

So she was looking for a similar learning/teaching experience in Second Life, but the closest she could find was an event called Art Ambush. "[W]hat basically happened was they give you one or two words and you come up with a drawing based on that in 30 minutes or so," says Nylon. "Usually the themes were simple like, 'cat and car', or 'pizza'. The majority of people who go to this event are furries, who basically all draw in anime style. Not that there's anything wrong with anime or furries, but it's not exactly my kind of crowd." Partnering up with her friend Toast Bard, Freestyle Art was launched.

Since holding a customized pose in Second Life is just a matter of taking it from your inventory and pressing Play, Artemis Fate was able to be both model and artist-- her own elegant, fine-lined sketch is depicted in the screenshot above right. But if self-portraits came easy to her, posing nude in-world had its own unique challenges.

"I usually don't mind running around nude [in SL]," she tells me, "but this feels slightly weird."

"How come?" I ask.

"Not sure," Artemis says. "Guess it's with the realization of the fact that I know people are looking, whereas that's a matter of debate otherwise." It's not because her avatar has any resemblance to her offline self ("not at all"), but for subtler reasons.

"I have a pretty surprising connection to the avatar," says Artemis Fate. "It's more of an extension of my psychological being then just an AV. It's pretty subconsciously ingrained, I don't even know if I could tell you."

I'd be the first to acknowledge that: trying to explain the odd relation of avatar to self is hard to put across in words. Then again, maybe it'd be better if an artist drew it out, instead.

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Friday, April 22, 2005

FACING FUTURE

I travel over to Los Angeles to meet them, and they follow me back in! The good folks who sponsored my talk at UCLA Future Salon last week, who also sponsor similar meetings in the Bay Area, Vegas, and beyond, just launched a branch within Second Life itself. I had a chance to stop by their inaugural in-world get together in Patagonia yesterday, and it was an impressive convocation of artists, filmmakers, academics, programmers, game developers, journalists, and other fascinating people with ambitious plans and amazing ideas. The group's official blog is here, the place to keep track of their upcoming events (future future salons?), like this one, next Thursday night.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

FURRY LIKE ME

One morning, Hamlet Linden woke from uneasy dreams to find himself changed into a giant hamster...

"I made it for you," Relee Baysklef tells me, giggling. "I know you're interested in us furries, and I thought you might like to look the part when you report on us."

The veteran squirrel has invited me into her Aerodrome lab (the palm-locks on her sliding doors are paw-shaped), and given me a mysterious envelope to drag over my avatar. And when I do, my human head goes bulbous, my body goes round, my torso shrivels.

"Ahh there you go," Relee says, watching approvingly. "Shrink shrink shrink. Since your name is Hamlet, I thought you might like being a hamster."

In seconds the transformation is complete. As is my urge to pun.

"UNFURGETTABLE!"

"It's got a little hamster tail," Ms. Baysklef points out, "and the head, but otherwise normal."

"FUR GOD'S SAKE!"

Relee just giggles more.

Then I notice the hirsute nub growing out of my backside.

"What's this thing sticking out my back? Looks like an extra vertebrae!"

"That's your tail! Hamsters have really little tails. Some folks have argued with me that Teddy Bear hamsters, which look like you do now, have pointy tails. I'm used to golden hamsters, which have rounded tails." She takes a photograph of me in full fur. "You look good with your suit on."

I stand there for awhile, trying to find the words to describe the experience of looking at this new avatar of mine.

"This feels totally bizarre, I have to say." And it is. "I don't, well, I don't feel like me." And I don't. I do feel like myself, so to speak, when I'm in my default Hamlet Linden avatar, who looks like me. (At game/high tech conventions, in fact, people often recognize me by my Second Life avatar.) I even feel like myself when I'm in my Hunter S. Thompson avatar. (Since that's someone I admire, and feel I understand.) But this, for me, well-- this feels like something else entirely.

"Yeah," Relee is saying, "most furries make their own avatars, it's a very personal experience."

I've known Relee as a Resident for well over a year now, and her scripting skills have been a subject for this space. But I've never asked her about the furry subculture, or the small but active sub-subculture of furry Residents in Second Life, that she belongs to. But now that I've temporarily taken on this form, she somehow feels more comfortable expressing who she is. So up there in the suborbital Aerodrome, far above Second Life's gravitational pull, in a room with an Internet radio channel streaming ambient downtempo breakbeats around them, a giant hamster and a giant squirrel hang out, and chat.

The reason most furry Residents make their own avatars, Relee tells me, it because there's "a spiritual connection to animals, or a specific animal. Sometimes it's just fascination. But usually it's confined to a few animals rather than just animals in general. For example, I'm a squirrel. Tiger Crossing is a Tiger. Some furries are more fluid though, like Arito Cotton who has been a dragon, a fox, and a bat."

"Do you feel a spiritual connection to squirrels, if I may ask?"

"Yes, in a fashion. For me, it's just the way I feel inside, something I'd like to be. But not necessarily a real squirrel. A popular definition of a furry is someone who has a special connection with an animal, real or imaginary... I'd really like to be a cartoon squirrel. Some furries would hate to be a cartoon, though."

I ask her when she began to feel that desire.

"Hmm..." She stands there awhile, thinking. "It's hard to describe. It's been years now, but I've been a furry longer than that. It takes a lot of time to really find yourself, and I'm always learning new things about myself. 'Why a Squirrel?' is a big mystery. I've always felt a sort of affection for them, and when I started looking like one in my fantasies, it just sort of clicked...

"I'm a furry in real life, though we have some limits as to what we can do in real life... I'm rather tall and overweight in real life. I like to be small and cute, when I can be. My real body feels awkward and strange compared to the body of my fantasy... Like most furries, I can't remember ever being different. I've always had a sort of connection with animals, since I was a kid playing animals with my friends. And 'anthropomorphic animals', as furries are sometimes called. Human-like animals."

"Cartoon animals, in other words," I suggest.

"Yeah, but not neccesarily cartoons. There are werewolves in the furry community. Otherkin..." A quick glance of publicly registered Second Life groups suggests that the in-world subculture is at least several hundred Residents strong. But as Relee tells it, this is not surprising. "[Real world] furry conventions often have over a thousand people visiting, and furries tend to be computer nerds... Well," she adds, "except for the Indian shaman types..."

"There are a lot of Indian shamans who are furries?"

"I don't know about a 'lot', but anyone who has a connection to animals can find themselves furry. Totemists included. They might not think of themselves as animals, or want to be like animals, but they respect and revere totem spirits."

I tell her that I'm having a hard time picturing, say, an actual American Indian shaman dressed up as a pink rabbit or whatever in the hotel lobby hosting a furry convention.

"Oh, some do," Relee insists. "Like my friend John-Racoon. [Not his real name. - HL] Of course, there are some stereotypes that you get when you think of American Indians. I know quite a few and they're mostly down-to-earth folks."

"Of course," I say.

Earlier I told her that I've been wanting to write about Second Life's furry Residents, and she has some advice if I were to go forward.

"Now that I think of it," she says, "there is one thing you'll want to avoid when talking with furries in general. A lot of furries consider themselves apart from the human race, and when someone says something like 'We're all human behind the keyboards' they take serious offense... Not many, but the ones who are offended at that will take it very serious. Particularly otherkin, who are also furries. Dragons especially."

"'Otherkin' are non-furry animals?"

"Otherkin are people who are not human, or have a non-human soul. Elves, Changelings, Dragons, that sort of thing. Not all furries are otherkin, and not all otherkin are furries."

"And dress up as such in real life?"

"Well they don't really need to dress up," Relee answers. "They really are those things. While it's debatable, most of them do have mutations or chemical allergies that match the myths and legends of their mythical connections."

"Like Dragons have scaly skin from eczema, for example?"

"Yeah." Relee Baysklef nods. "Things like that. It's a spiritual and religious thing for some people, and they aren't happy when it's questioned. Other people are happy to talk about it. If you go up to a bunch of different furries, you'll find they have a lot of differences. Like all people have differences."

I've been steering around a potentially sore subject, but build up the gumption to approach it square.

"You know," I begin, "one reason I haven't written about furries is because any article will inevitably open up the community for public ridicule." In fact, members of another Internet-based community recently came into Second Life en masse, and many of them declared open season on Second Life's furries.

"Well, it wasn't THAT bad really," Relee amends, "but a lot of furries are shy and can't handle the pressure of people teasing them. Most members of that goon squad were reported for abuse and banned from Second Life, of course." For my own part-- and I owe Reuben Linden for inspiring this point-- if it's a little odd that some people go in-world so they can be anthromorphic personae, it's even stranger when another group of people go in-world to make fun of them, for doing so. Since to do that, after all, they also have to go online and take on an alternate form, themselves. (Stranger still when the ridiculer's chosen avatar is much more physically attractive and far less imperfect than they really are, offline.)

"I doubt anything you write could be worse off than some of the publicity the furry community has gotten," Relee assures me. "Furries groan as they mention "CSI", Vanity Fair, and MTV's furry documentary."

"Can you understand why some people find it something mock-able?"

"Oh, of course. What we do is pretty silly, and different from the norm. It's natural for people to shy away from change. Us furries tend to be strange or exceptional people. In many ways not normal, for good or ill." Then again, she adds, "Not all furries find it silly, or understand how anyone could say that it is, even though it is. Most think it's just rude."

Relee had actually created my own personar hamster avatar for me a few weeks before she could pin me down online to try it on.

"Are you excited?" she asks.

I laugh a little awkwardly. "Well, it's different, that's for sure."

"Don't be too surprised if a lot of people start hugging you," Relee Baysklef warns me. "A lot of furries love to hug!"

No doubt they do, and more power, as they say, to them. But it's plausible that I'll politely refrain from any furry-based embracing, in the future.

Because if you want to know who you really are, one way to find out is to try on a role that is decidedly not you. Relee Baysklef takes on the form of a squirrel, and feels a connection to a form she's always wanted to be. Hamlet Linden takes on the form of a hamster, by contrast, and feels, for example, like he's walking around in public wearing a scuba diving suit made out of lime green sandpaper. And while there's really nothing wrong with publicly wearing a lime green sandpaper scuba suit, nothing wrong at all, I still wouldn't quite feel like myself inside it. I'd also worry that people would form their impression of me just from the scuba suit, and not on who I really am. I want Hamlet Linden, I decide right there and then, to keep on being a slightly idealized version of who I am in real life; I want people to see a version of how I see really myself, or want myself to be seen.

Valuable things to learn, if you can stand to have the nubbin of a tail sticking out your backside for a time.

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Monday, April 18, 2005

LINKS OF THE WEEK!

Welcome Aussie Resident Chage McCoy to the Second Life blogosphere. He begins his blog with a slew of posts, including this pugnacious one on the ever-debated Resident meritocracy that's come to be known as "the Feted Inner Core", or FIC:

[The term was coined] to describe the 'Inner Elite' of SL. However, the interesting twist is that being FIC is not something you choose, it is how others percieve you... Personally, my view is that FIC is a figment of the social caste's imagination. If they cannot get what they want, in the classic tradition of blaming someone but themselves, they look towards the only other people around-- the Content creators. If something goes wrong, its caused by the FIC. If a Linden does something that negatively impacts their experience, it's the FIC's fault...

Version 1.6 of the Second Life viewer included support for streaming Quicktime video into the world. This has launched several new kinds of social events, including short movie festivals and MST3K-style screenings of horrible government-produced films of the 40's and 50's. Meanwhile, the urge to export video produced from within the world continues. Master SL machinima maker Jack Digeridoo just announced plans to start video blogging:

[V]ery soon I will try streaming Jack's POV:TV to the public. This will be a channel dedicated to movies made of Second Life footage and when I'm [online].. I will run a live feed of me playing in world. A Second Life reality TV show if you will.

Meanwhile, over at the Second Life Herad, there's an interview with Icon Serpentine, who's already amidst production of an ambitious, episodic series of short movies that he plans to shoot before a live Second Life audience.

Gwennyth Llewelyn has another thought-provoking entry, which begins with this smart insight on the subterranean growth of Second Life:

[G]oogle-wise, my SL pseudonym is more "famous" than my real life self, which is weird, since my real life e-mail address has been on the Spammers' lists since 1995, I think. But weirdly enough, the tiny tiny community of Second Life® seems to attract much more attention than anything else in the Internet. I wonder how that can be. It's certainly an uncanny thought. Then again, I guess that you get much more hits by searching for "Marylin Monroe" (2,820,000) than for her real name, "Norma Jeane Mortenson" (only 3,210)...

After some thought, I've decided to start adding Resident-run Second Life wikis to the left column (scroll all the way down). I've mentioned Pirate Cotton's Game SLave resource wiki before; now comes Eggy Lippman's SL History Wiki a marvelous attempt to set the collective memory of the world into a collaboratively created form. There's already lovely nuggets of history, including some screenshots of Primitar, Linden Lab's first attempt at an avatar from the early early Alpha-era.

Closer to home (like, fifteen feet away from where I write this) veteran Internet guru/entrepeneur Reuben Steiger recently joined the Linden Lab staff, and started a blog of his own here. It joins the roster of Linden-published blogs on the left, and it's a fascinating mix of thoughts on technology and the future, and updates on the Second Life projects he's helping foster, such as Cristiano Midnight's wonderful Snapzilla.


Update, 4/20/05: I am compelled by incomprehensible subterranean powers to now include this link into this roster. I for one welcome our Feted overlords!

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Sunday, April 17, 2005

WELCOME, UK TIMES READERS...

If you've stumbled into this blog after reading Ben Hoyle's article "Honey trap for the web adulterer" published on the UK Times Online site yesterday, you may be interested in the New World Notes entry, "Watching the Detectives", which inspired it. Holye speaks also of being able to "engage in a philosophical discussion on the Iraq war" in Second Life, one of which was reported on here, and also of "charity fundraisers for the troops", one of which I reported on for the entry "The Soldier's Mistresses"; since he visited the popular Edge nightclub, you may be further piqued by my profile of the club's owner, "Jenna Fairplay and Maslow's Hierarchy of Booty". Enjoy, look around, stay awhile!

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Friday, April 15, 2005

"Virtual Worlds: Past, Present, and Future" (a talk for UCLA Future Salon)

"Highlights from a two year career as an embedded journalist in an online world, April 2003-April 2005"-- notes and illustrations for a talk I'm giving today at UCLA for the Acceleration Studies Foundation.

DEFINING SECOND LIFE
A persistent, streamed, fully 3D, user-created world. Using the building and scripting tools available to them, the paying subscribers (we call them Residents) create and own all the objects contained in it, and use them to build games, clothing, etc.

Examples:

- Creating an entire environment (as featured in "Dreams of Fields")

- Creating a game (as featured in "Shooting to Kill")

- Creating art installations (as featured in "Burning Man, Burning Life")

- Creating fashion (as featured in "On the Runway")

Instead of requiring Residents to a pay a subscription fee, SL has an official in-world currency called Linden Dollars, which can be bought and sold for real money on third party sites. Residents retain IP rights over their creations, which allows them to make money.

- Example: Kermitt Quirk's Tringo (as featured in "The Tragics of Tringo")

BECOMING HAMLET

My first introduction to Second Life was as a freelance technology journalist for Salon and Wired, in early 2003-- during the demo, however, Linden Lab offered me a contract to cover the development of Second Life as an emerging community for a blog called New World Notes. My in-world avatar is "Hamlet Linden", modeled after myself, but wearing a white suit in tribute to Tom Wolfe. (Alternate avatar inspired by Hunter S. Thompson.) My first entry was almost exactly two years ago-- April 22, 2003.

EMBRACING THE WORLD

In the beginning months, I struggled to find a tone for NWN, and a meta purpose. Was it "advertorial", or genuine journalism? But I was already familiar with Julian Dibbell's work, and my experience as a host on the online conferencing system the WELL (whose dramas were documented by Katie Hafner for Wired here), and my own personal experience with other MMORPGs (while playing Everquest, I witnessed a gang shooting right outside my house) made me suspect it could be latter. There's news to be found, in the interaction between online worlds and the real one.

Four early NWN stories convinced me that it was possible, too:

- "Home for the Homeless" (a young homeless woman comes to Second Life)

- "War of the Jessie Wall" (the war in Iraq comes to Second Life)

- "Riding Out the Debate" (3D political expression comes to Second Life)

- "Tax Revolt in Americana" (in-world political unrest comes to Second Life. This entry was picked by an academic at Yale Law School, which made me realize how seriously serious people took this medium, too.)

REPORTS FROM THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS

Because of this, reporting on the way Second Life interacts with the real world is a recurring theme, especially in a time of war and debate over war. Examples:

- "Quilt of Many Colors"

- "The Second Life of Baghdad"; see also "The Soldier's Mistress", "Living Memorial", and "In the Towers of No Shadow".

MONEY CHANGES EVERYTHING

The open exchange of Linden Dollars for US$ on third parties sites has also had a profound effect on the culture of Second Life-- and subsequently, on NWN. Examples:

- "The Soldier's Mistresses", "Taking it Off to Give it Away" (see also "Giving it Away", Part 1-3)

- "Post-War Reconstruction"

- "Anshe at the Gates"

- (See also "Market Forces" for a discussion of the "Donna Karan or Donald Trump" path to financial success.)

SOCIAL SCIENCE

Some Residents with scientific/medical backgrounds have used the building and scripting tools for research and therapeutic applications. Some examples:

- "The Nine Souls of Wilde Cunningham"

-"A Lever to Move the Mind"

RECENT STORIES, FUTURE TRENDS

Two years later, the possibilties of the world and the inventiveness of the Residents still seem inexhaustible, moreso as it becomes a truly global community. In some cases, this means personal exploration of the most intimate parts of real identity, love, and desire. And as the society grows, so too do broader desires for civil order, stability, and democratic input:

- "Man and Man on Woman on Woman"

- "Watching the Detectives"

Meanwhile, the world outside the conventional user base begins to make its own desires for it known, seeking to shape it ways that are difficult to predict:

- "Sweating the Details" and "The Flat World Dancers of China"

I can only be sure of my intent to be here reporting, as they happen, as chronicler and advocate of the people within it who make them possible.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

THE FLAT WORLD DANCERS OF CHINA

A hard luck survivor from the fringes of the global economic revolution finds a place with the outcast denizens of a sexy nightclub...

I wonder what Thomas Friedman would make of the girl with the giant blue butterfly wings dancing with the gray man from China who spews hearts and magic bunnies in the nightclub run by a guy whose day job is keeping a watchful eye for illegal immigrants and Al Qaeda infiltrators along the Southern border.

The New York Times columnist’s latest book, after all, is about how shifts in technology and international logistics have had a “flattening effect” on the global economy. (Excerpt here.) What with Google, UPS, and outsourcing coupled to a rising class of highly educated technical workers in the developing world, especially China and India, Friedman’s thesis goes, we’re barreling locomotive-fast into a new world we’re not ready for, where the old economic assumptions just don’t play.

That’s good, as far as it goes. But then, my guess is Tom Friedman still never dreamed of Hsiao-Tsing, the Chinese girl who came to Second Life on orders from her boss to make the Linden Dollar equivalent of two bucks a day, or be fired. When I profiled her a couple weeks ago, I left off wondering how much of the story she told me was true. (The reality behind the “virtual sweatshop” meme being so ephemeral, as it is.) I went so far as to seek out Lala Lumiere, officer of Second Life's Mandarin Chinese Club, and without quite explaining why, asked her to contact Hsiao-Tsing in pinyin Chinese. She did, and got more or less the same story Hsiao-Tsing gave me. (Lala’s hoping to bolster membership in the Club, so I asked her to write out her request for Chinese-literate readers; it’s featured in the screenshots here and here.)

At this point, then, I’ve decided to assume the story is true, that Hsiao-Tsing logs into Second Life from a Chinese Internet company for the sole purpose of harvesting Linden Dollars for her employer. (And to anticipate the question, “Why not just ask Linden Lab to run an IP trace on her account, to find out for sure where she's really from?”: my assignment is reporting on Second Life, from within Second Life. Peeking at Second Life server data would be like Bob Woodward suddenly getting to riffle through the mind of God.)

Hsiao-Tsing has contacted me several times since the profile, still looking for help to earn an income, and I've advised her as best I could. I took her to a Tringo match, and tried to explain how someone could make money off winning. I told her about fashion designers and real estate speculators, and how they sold their in-world currency for real cash on the third party exhanges sites. I even bought an image of the Great Wall of China which she’d uploaded into Second Life, to sell. (Taken on a family vacation, she told me.)

I was wondering how she’d been faring since then, when the manager of a Mature-themed nightclub contacted me one night at around 2AM, to let me know.

“[She] approached me two nights ago and asked me in broken English if I was hiring,” Dwight Roark tells me. “She was very excited when I paid her about L$125 for her dancing… [she] told me she needs more money, so I told her she can host.” (“Dwight Roark” isn’t the manager’s true in-world name, which I’ve changed on his request, concerned that the interview might somehow antagonize a competing nightclub owner, who, he says, might send "people to try to terrorize us, threaten us out of Second Life and then the sim we were in.")

In many Asian cities, the only work a young woman without evident job skills can get is performing for foreign tourists in a red light district. For now at least, Hsiao-Tsing's economic opportunities are constrained to running a dance script on her avatar, while acting as hostess to nightclub patrons. Which is what she's doing, when I visit Dwight's club. A visitor is standing at its edge, flatfooted.

"Welcome you Timmy," Hsiao-Tsing tells him. "Dance."

"Yes, we are working Hsiao-Tsing," Dwight tells me, "but she is getting fair pay, just like our other employees, and opportunity. We do not sweatshop our employees." To dance, he pays her L$25 an hour plus tips dancer, and L$100 an hour to host events.

"I'm not sure about the tips they make," Dwight adds. "At our old club, dancers could make several L$1000... [T]his club is slower, but it is very possible to make L$1000 a day with hosting and dancing. If that is what she is aiming for." Dwight initially contacted me because he'd found out Hsiao-Tsing's China story, after he'd hired her, and he wanted me to investigate further. ("Being forced to work for Linden Dollars at any cost or be fired, that is very unethical," he says.)

In any case, he's happy with her efforts on behalf of the nightclub. "The one and only problem is the mild to moderate language barrier," he allows, but "she is very polite and friendly. Well, there was a fight earlier, but due to the language barrier, Hsiao-Tsing did not realize it. But it's no big deal, there is often bickering or rowdiness in the clubs."

As Dwight tells it, adding Hsiao-Tsing to his roster is just one more hire to his already unconventional nightclub staff. "We are also equal employment opportunity, and have disabled employees, one of whom has fairly severe cerebral palsy and was fired by [another club]." That Resident has been working as a host for several months, Dwight says. "He types very slow because he has hemiplegia. So back when we had to report the events, we got special permission to assist him with that, but he does fine. A few spelling errors, but he is reliable, nice to guests, etc. He is trying his hardest to get the Bingo system down, too. He has 'hotkeys' he's trying to set up for the commands." (Dwight's club features Bingo and a few casino games.) "[I]f any special needs people approach you due to the article," he tells me, "feel free to send them to us... we [also] have a mall and other ventures they can work at. We have a Puerto Rican host/dancer but her language deficiency is not so profound as Hsiao-Tsing’s...

"Like I said," he finishes, laughing, "we take 'em all in... language barrier or physical/mental disability is not an issue, so long as they can serve some purpose for business, even if it is just as a 'door greeter'."

I talk to Hsiao-Tsing in Instant Message, as she whirls and twists with a few patrons around her. Streamed music booms through the room-- 50 Cent's "Candy Shop" ("I'll take you to the candy shop/I'll let you lick the lollypop"), at the moment-- as I approach.

I ask Hsiao-Tsing how she's been doing.

"Just so bad than you," she tells me, "for boss is add my task to be L$2000 per day. If can't finish, he will ask my money." But for now, she brings money in as a dancer and hostess-- and though Dwight's club is decidedly adult-oriented, she hasn't resorted to stripping or anything racier beyond dancing. (She'd expressed moral qualms over engaging in in-world sexual activity, and made that boundary plain to her boss, from the begining.)

"If you have interesting," she continues, "I'll show you my money tree in my new land. When you wanna? Tomorrow OK? Or after while?" If I understand her right, she's afraid she may have to leave Second Life soon, if she can't continue making a substantial income. "[B]ut I like here, like this Second Life and friends include you. So wish I can Surive. I can get money way."

Hsiao-Tsing's attention wanders over to jin Gupta, the gray man in short shorts dancing next to her.

"What do you think about jin that guy please?" she asks me in IM. "He looks so strange. But he maybe good forums here."

They strike up a conversation over the bunnies and hearts that occasionally emerge from him, while he dances.

"Hey jin," Hsiao-Tsing begins, "why you always do that?"

"I like it," say Gupte, and laughs. "Where are you from?"

"China, what about you?"

"Oh, me too."

"Really?" says Hsiao-Tsing. "What's your job?"

"Which? Second Life or real life?"

Hsiao-Tsing answers the former.

"I'm a teacher," says Gupte. "I like Second Life. Peoples here always very friendly."

Hsiao-Tsing affirms that. "I like teacher," she adds.

jin Gupte turns and notices me standing next to them.

"Hi lidens," he says, greeting me. "Why you don't dance?"

No particular reason not to, so I do. And while I dance, I ask him where he's from, in China. He names a coastal city within the country's fabled enterprise zone, where limited capitalism is state policy. He discovered Second Life, he says, through "my comrade. But my English is not good." I ask him if I can take a screenshot, and he nods.

"I'm dazzling," Gupte announces. "I'm dazzling."

I agree that he is dazzling.

"I feel it's unfair, the education in China," he tells us suddenly. "Do you agree with me?

"You mean the teachers?" Hsiao-Tsing asks him.

"For the children's parents always indulge students," jin continues, heedless. "The parents not allowed teacher rebuke the students... often students don't learn hard. They are often lazy. Although I try my best." So they go on talking and dancing, a Chinese tech worker paid scant wages to be here, and over in another, more developed province, a Chinese teacher with enough disposable income to afford entre to the same space-- a nightclub that really only exists as a configuration of electrons on a server in downtown San Francisco.

"We take in lots of the dancers and hosts other clubs kick out," Dwight Roark tells me earlier. "Seems they may have unrealistic standards or expectations. It makes an eclectic mix. But that is not a bad thing." In his first life, Dwight describes himself as a border patrol officer on America's Southern border, interdicting illegal immigrants and suspected terrorists attempting to cross into the United States through Mexico. The area of the border he patrols, he says, "is very much a weak point, and the problem is, the Mexican population is accustomed to open crossing. Even on 9-11, when we tried to lock down or tighten the border, they did not cooperate and we had riots and uprisings."

In here, however, he cares for his eclectic staff of the abandoned and the exiled and the people looking for another chance.

"Maybe now I will have to protect Second Life against communism and unethical labor practice?" he asks, laughing.

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Monday, April 11, 2005

ACCELERATING LOS ANGELES...

SoCal readers may be interested in the talk I'll be giving this Friday night at UCLA for the Acceleration Studies Foundation, along with USC's Dr. Lewis Johnson, Director of the Center for Advanced Research in Technology for Education (CARTE), and Nolan Bushnell, CEO of uWink, and, well, inventor of videogames. Details on my talk, "New World Notes: Highlights from a two year career as an embedded journalist in an online world, April 2003-April 2005" and attending this UCLA Future Salon talk here. If you stop by, please stay to say Hi.

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