Wednesday, December 28, 2005
BEST OF NEW WORLD NOTES 2005
My own personal selection, chronologically listed more or less:
- "Man and Man on Woman on Woman"
Exploring the possibility of romance beyond gender or sexual orientation. Or, boys who are girls who love girls who are boys.
- "Jenna Fairplay and Maslow's Hierarchy of Booty"
Converting the pyramid theory of human need into a pyramid-shaped nightclub of maximum profit.
- "The Soldier's Mistress"
During this year's State of Play panel of reporters who cover virtual worlds, the supremely talented Julian Dibble pointed out what a cliche it had become for mainstream press articles about computer games to open with some two-fisted rhetoric along the lines of, "Private Jenkins ran up the hill, taking fire from the enemy on all sides, desperately trying to rescue his stranded buddy... but actually, he was sitting comfortably in his office, playing 'Medal of Honor' on his PC." Afterwards it occured to me that I'm in the unique position of being able to open a story in exactly the opposite fashion. In this case, by describing the very real combat experiences of a Marine just back from Fallujah-- then learning how he took those haunting memories with him into a virtual world.
- "The Freeform Identity Bebop of Eboni Khan"
Insights on race in Second Life-- and America at large-- from the world's foremost black female Republican Buddhist Fortune 1000 executive. Like the profile of Jenna Fairplay above, Eboni was selected as an interview subject at random-- part of a "Five People You Meet in Second Life" series of interviews, which crapped out at three, after being bogged down by the growing backlog of stories. But it makes me wonder who else I'd also meet, after bringing up the People database and clicking blind.
- "Anshe at the Gates"
What began as an innocuous profile of an SL tribute to Christo's Central Park "Gates" installation quickly became something else, when a virtual capitalist from Communist China showed up at the artists commune it was built on and announced it was all about to be paved over to make way for a resort community for the French. And so that started things off...
- "The Tragics of Tringo"
A profile on the game that swallowed Second Life (and subsequently leaped over to the Game Boy Advance)-- and a report on the social impact it had in the process (and arguably to many more negative than positive.)
- "Watching the Detectives"
The newest wrinkle to temptation and infidelity in online worlds-- the third party contractor commissioned to keep you honest. Somewhere in the noir tale of dames done wrong is a discussion of de facto governance entailed by the emergence of private detectives, who also offer security and protection services, in addition to the adultery honey traps that are so far their bread and butter.
- "Furry Like Me"
Trying my hand (paw?) at understanding a unique (and uniquely Second Life) subculture.
- "Your Cheating Heart"
Sort of a companion piece to "Watching the Detectives". Some of the reader replies in Comments (many of them showing up furtively, months after the entry had run) are just as fascinating.
- "Evolving Nemo"
Artificial evolution under the digital sea.
- "Fated Inner Chomsky"
Creating the counter-narrative of a free society-- it was bound to happen eventually.
- "Making Love"
After months of circling the subject of Second Life sex warily-- not for any prudish hestitation, but simply because most stories about sex online are, frankly, pretty boring-- I found perfect subjects in Phil Murdock and Snow Hare. It's not news that people use SL as a medium for sexual fantasy. What's news to me is how it's incorporated into a real relationship. (Also: you can make as much money as a lawyer by creating and selling sex animations?)
- "Day of the Doctorow"
Cory Doctorow, the book he brought with him-- and the autographs he signed, when he came.
- "Two Storms for Frost and Caldera"
Though I've written several entries on Katrina relief in SL, this one, about how the hurricane brought four Residents together, is my favorite, because it's about the extension of trust and kinship beyond the virtual.
- "The Hiroshima Memorial of Snakekiss Noir"
Every now and again, I get the giddy sense that I've somehow passed over into a William Gibson novel. Interviewing a surgically-enhanced Japanese sex worker who creates interactive virtual world art installations that memorialize nuclear holocaust in her spare time-- well, that'd be one of them.
- "New World Mapmaker: The Second Life of Thomas P.M. Barnett"
At the moment, it may seem strange that a former advisor to Rumsfeld and Kerry would take the time to provide his brief of the world in avatar form. It won't, I suspect, after Lawrence Lessig, and one or two other unannounced VIP guests, make their way here next year in a similar guise.
- "Losing the Details"
A compilation of my stories on liangmj Coffee, the lovable Chinese "sweatshop worker" who made SL her business venture, and for a little awhile, a home away from the incessant demands of her job.
- "Impeachable Offense"
Playing games with the politics of property rights and the rights of political expression in property.
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
FROM KATRINA TO TALAMASCA
Which is how, by pure double-barreled happenstance, I ended up meeting a fashion entrepeneur who makes a real income from her virtual clothing sales-- when she's not studying, that is, to find a better cure for cancer.
"When I came into Second Life," Ginny tells me, "many of my friends told me 'I Wish I could find this or I wish I could find that', clothing that was a bit more wearable but that still had real-world detail to it." Her avatar is an impossibly slender blonde with emerald eyes and a jeweled crown, constantly arranging her slim limbs into provocative poses (she models the clothes she sells.)
Inventing a new way to use "prim" building blocks to enhance clothing designs, she launched her own fashion line, and in three months since inception, earns the L$ equivalent of $2000-3000 a month, she says. Her current bestseller is the Noel Holiday Ballgown, a lustrous affair of red silk and white feathery trim. "I think that the holidays bring about a lot of cheer and a lot of virtual 'retail therapy'," she says, speculating on its success. The secret to her general success is a real life background in retail.
"My father owns a couture jewelry store, so I was raised around retail/fashion retail... you have to know your products inside and out and the technical side of it too." With that in hand, "If you can create a brand loyalty you only have to do minimal marketing. This means less wasted rent, less heartache, and all-around reward for you and your customers."
Then there's the reward for helping find a better treatement for cancer. "I am a student, but I have finished my work for my honor's thesis-- biochemistry and biomechanics." She giggles. "A bit of an odd dichotomy no?"
"Oh yes. And I wasn't quite expecting 'dichotomy' to come out of your chat window."
Because up to then, her dialog has largely involved a lot of "LOL" and "you're too much fun!" and even the occasional "::winKZ::"
"A great many things come out of my chat window, Hamz!" she informs me.
And so they do, especially after I ask her to explain her graduate studies.
"My thesis treats potential alterations for chemotherapeutics identifying specific marker proteins on cancer cells and constructing auto-immune factors that attach to them," Ginny explains. "Those factors can then be chemically synthesized and put on chemotherapeutics making them direct-target interface drugs no more mass chemo-bombing the entire body. Only harmful tissue would or could be affected."
"Basically," I venture, after understanding a fourth of what she just said, "you're trying to help find a cure for cancer."
"There are all sorts of cures. I'm trying to better those treatments. Make them less invasive. Less harmful."
"OK, so you sell lingerie, ballroom gowns, and the latest fashions in an online world, so you can complete your studies to find a better cure for cancer?"
"Actually," she says, "all of the money I've made to date, other than paying various [land ownership] tier fees, I've donated to charity. I don't use it to live on, though I refer to it as my real life job. And as far as my plans after college? I'd love to go back into jewelry."
"What about the curing cancer stuff though?"
"I need a bit of that," she says agreeably. "I'd love to cure cancer. I feel like maybe one day I'll have been a part of it in some way. But I'm a bit too soft to do that sort of work for too long. Case studies ruin my psyche."
I wonder aloud if this means she's independently wealthy.
"A bit, yes. And I sell gemstones and jewelry. In a venture capital sort of way."
"This is starting to get a bit hard to believe. Curing cancer and selling jewelry and donating all her SL money to charity?"
Ginny just laughs. "You can believe it or not, Mr. Ripley. But that's the beauty of SL. You never know who you'll come across." She runs off a list of people she's met in-world, sometimes making their acquaintance later offline. "Famous makeup artists… using their trade to cash in virtually," she begins. "Real estate investors, of course… One of my dearest friends is a bored millionaire who spends his days in here. I've met people who couldn't disclose their military jobs, but who had to go away, for 2-3 weeks at a time.
"This is a game that touches many, many lives. It's why it intrigues me."
And that's how I came to Ginny Talamasca, and a small write-up and a screenshot became quite a bit more.
Monday, December 26, 2005
SURVEY'S FINAL STRETCH
Just a few more days to take the NWN Reader Survey! Data processed and demographic excerpts revealed after the New Year.
THE VIEW FROM 100,000
In retrospect, I shouldn't have bothered. That there are over 100,000 registered subscribers will have no immediate impact on the world itself. (Peak concurrency of Residents in-world is still around 4,500, most nights.) The number is really most meaningful to the world outside, and how SL is perceived by it. For the game industry, an MMO with over 100,000 subscribers immediately joins the handful of top tier persistent worlds that are not based in Asia and not World of Warcraft. For everyone else, I suspect-- technology analysts, developers, artists, academics, the media, government officials, and so on-- the psychological power of the term "six figures" confers legitimacy and significance.
For myself, this means even more challenges in writing this blog. My main assignment has always been to cover Second Life as an emerging society. So what tensions emerge when it's no longer an isolated microcosm, but an open playground that becomes, by sheer growth in numbers, an increasingly integral part of society as a whole?
Throughout 2005, even well before the final approach to 100,000, we've seen Second Life become a platform for government research, a place to prototype a handheld video game, and a tinkerer's shop for new interactive hardware. How many other real world-directed projects will we see at 100,000? At 200,000? And how will the community of most active Residents respond to them? (As it happens, at the very moment that I wrote this entry last Friday, a major media outlet was experiencing that phenomenon first hand.)
To a great extent, Second Life has already emerged as a society. In the coming year, I believe, the larger story will be what emerges, when the outside world pours in.
Friday, December 23, 2005
ARCHITECTURAL SLIGEST, PART V
The Place: Malmoe, Heaven and Shalimar's Estate.
We stand on an ice floe on the lake by a mansion festooned with holiday decorations, including a life-sized automated Santa, endlessly ice skating in circles by the front door.
Chip Poutine: One last place, and this is basically to fill out the spectrum. We've looked at the more modern design trends, which I'm partial to, "affordable" housing, the theme builds, and now... LIVIN' LARGE!
I thought this might be an interesting representation of what it seems most avatars in SL aspire to. This is the dream that many seem to have when they acquire first land, that they might end up here some day. The fact that this sim has been neatly carved up to give everyone a waterfront view as well as the access corridors afforded by roads and pathways elsewhere.
This to me, I think, would make your typical real life real estate guy with his face on the bus bench wet their pants. It's got all the gewgaws and neo-classical details that people in RL seem to want-- the reason why contemporary design isn't a part of mainstream culture and architects get dismissed as snobs dressed in black. This is it. I don't understand it, but here it is. Plus there's just so much freakin' stuff inside.
Hamlet Linden: But why do they want it here? Here, they could have a home in space, or in the stomach of a blue whale, or in Egypt 3000BC, or in a fever dream featuring walls that melt. So why a place that looks like any house in the ritzier part of town?
CP: My point exactly. This is the other definition of "trend" as I mentioned earlier-- as in prevalence. This is why Dwell magazine wrote that most SL citizens resort to "cliched design tropes". [Dwell featured Second Life architecture a few months ago-- HL.] To be honest, I was expecting everyday SL to be more like Burning Life-- the creativity, the surreality, Dada... instead, this is what it is. So far I haven't found a lot of whimsy, like people who live in a shoe, for one. For me it's a bit of a downer, and I'm not sure it's how you want to portray
SL to external media, but it just seems to be the "trend" as I see it.
Chip Poutine sighs.
The funnest place we went to was Whoville, by far. People could get together around the concept. Even Zed's place is really about a kind of solitary existence. Most of the houses I review, with the exception of Single Maltz's, are empty when I fly by.
The last image is from another home that we visited at the close of the tour-- as it happens to be the subject of Poutine's latest review. Which is probably the best place to end this series, as well-- entrusting you to the future architectural ruminations of Chip Poutine.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
ARCHITECTURAL SLIGEST, PART IV
THE PLACE: Miyajima, the collective work of creators in Lilyth's group.
Chip Poutine: Pratyeka Muromachi is a very skilled builder-- his pagodas are quite wonderful in terms of bridging the gap between a themed build and architecture. A lot of modern design was influenced by Japanese architecture. There seems to be an ever-present conflict between modernists and traditionalists. I see this as somewhere in the middle. In terms of real estate, for me it falls in the category of a "wild build", because it's so comprehensive, with so much skill involved, but without feeling like a theme park. It would be tough from a real estate perspective to move or acquire land like this without needing a very strong vision of what to do with it.
Hamlet Linden: I wonder what it's like to live in a place like this. Might feel like you're constricted to roleplaying Japanese medieval. Hard to have a gangster-style pool party here, for example.
CP: Exactly. Given that SL is a kind of platform, with many games within the game, there seems to be the theme areas, and then the rest of it, which is a mosaic of separate visions. The main complaint that a lot of Residents seem to put forth is regarding the lack of consistency or uniformity-- I'm generally looking for a logical consistency at the level of the build itself, and how the build integrates with its immediate environs, but less concerned about the homogeneity of the sim as a whole. The diversity and chaos is a good thing, methinks. When all the houses in Blumfeld get wiped and replaced with the low prim beach house or whatever, it will still have some firm planning principles to fall back upon. In a place like this, it's much more uncertain.
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
ARCHITECTURAL SLIGEST, PART III
THE PLACE: Above West Haven, like Blumfeld, a recent Linden-planned, affordable-housing suburban community.
Hamlet Linden: What do you think of Blumfeld?
Chip Poutine: There's been a lot of debate about it. To this point I haven't really weighed in on it, but here's what I think. In the process of creating affordable first land plots with houses on them, the Lindens seem to have created what could be some very valuable land at some point, because even though I'm not necessarily in agreement with the theme of a 50s suburb, the fact that none of the plots are landlocked-- that is to say, without some sort of public corridor adjoining them, either a road or a pathway-- makes them in my mind very desirable. My first land in Bhima is landlocked, and surrounded by the usual mega stores, plywood towers, and treehouses, making my little place pretty hard to access. So from that perspective this is quite nice. The only thing it's missing is a commercial area like in Boardman-- a town square, if you will, that is like what the telehubs were supposed to be, before they got outta hand. [Boardman is an early Linden-sponsored planned community with an open-air market area. - HL]
HL: You say the land is more valuable because it's not in the middle of a road/pathway/etc, but won't point-to-point teleporting make that irrelevant anyway?
CP: Yeah, but once you've been to the place you P2P'd to, what then? I discover most places through serendipity. Which is why I really miss some of the features in the old map. I like the fact that you could choose which sim to visit from an alphabetical list of all of the sims. I would usually pick one at random and go there. [Up until the last few months, sim regions were selected from the map interface from a list; now they can only be selected by name through entering keywords into the Map search function. - HL]
Now it's more cumbersome to do that. For me telehubs were kind of what made Napster so interesting when it came out. The fact that I could browse through people's entire collection and find bands and songs i'd never heard of before. Now, I have to know exactly what I'm looking for in advance. Teleports gave that chance to stumble upon things. Now, I can do that by clicking on a random point on the map, but it still doesn't seem quite the same. [Along with the re-introduction of point-to-point teleporting, telehubs were turned into community sites. - HL]
HL: So how do you think the death of hubs will affect real estate prices and urban planning (or lack thereof)?
CP: Getting back to Boardman again, what makes it interesting is that if you want to find shops and other commercial activity, you know where to go. Telehubs provided for a kind of cognitive organization, where you knew there would be a high concentration of commercial uses, fanning out to residential. Now, even more so than before, the commercial stuff could be anywhere, again, making it harder to find. The impact on the real estate market will likely be that land values will likely continue to be differentiated by other features, such as access to water or, public corridors, as we see here.
HL: On the other hand, you can now zap right into a given store, which makes advertising and word of mouth even more important than spatial location.
CP: Exactly. More dependence on Find [in-world search], the Forums, etc. It really is going to require that commercial builds to become more iconic to get noticed. Instead of having the 'noisy' builds concentrated at telehubs they'll become more decentralized.
HL: Well, that'd be a good thing aesthetically, yes?
CP: It could be. In real life we have buildings that are intended to be objects, and buildings intended to fade into the background. When every building wants to be an object, it can get a little cacophonous. And then how does one distinguish again... we're back to where we started.
HL: And there's a giant Max Case statue over there.
CP (grinning): Exactly.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
ARCHITECTURAL SLIGEST, PART II
THE PLACE: Maroon, a tribute to Dr. Seuss' Whoville by Lveran Koolhaas
During Poutine's pre-scheduled tour, I receive a random invitation to visit a place inspired by How the Grinch Stole Christmas. When we arrive, we are greeted by the brawny chief designer Lveran, his white-robed friend Zazas Oz, and KittenAnne Mousehold, a talking penguin in a Santa suit.
Hamlet Linden: Quick, Chip, impromptu review! GO!
Chip Poutine: Well, it's indicative of another general design thread… the theme/fantasy build-- where we depart from residential development in the traditional sense, but still in a manner that points back to a relationship with real life. Like the cartoony stuff in Taco. [Taco is a private island with buildings, clouds, and sculptures all cell-shaded to look like an animated movie. - HL]
And like a cartoon, the ground of the Whoville tribute is unsolid and bouncy, flipping us in the air like a trampoline.
HL (disoriented, bouncing): HORTON HEARS A WTF!
CP: Horton wears flubber on his shoes.
Zazas Oz: I was trying to find who I contact to come over about that problem.
HL[to Lveran]: Is this based on the movie more or the book more?
Lveran Koolhaas: Little of both, really. Za has me mostly convinced to build the Titanic next.
Monday, December 19, 2005
ARCHITECTURAL SLIGEST, PART I
THE PLACE: Oslo, at the home of Zed Aubret.
Zed Aubret: There was a feature in Chicago magazine on this house that was built in Wisconsin... I loved it and so I copied it. No blueprints or anything, just [from] photos.
Chip Poutine: It's Doug Garafolo.
Hamlet Linden: So Chip, what inspired you select this one as a "Second Life trend house"?
CP: A couple of reasons. In the sense that SL is a reflection of RL trends this one is very much reflective of contemporary design in real life. That said, a modern house like this one is very few and far between here in Second Life (just as in RL) but the fact that it is on a private, zoned sim also seemed to reflect a residential trend that is now making its way from the private sims to the mainland... Zed chose it because it is free of the casinos and various other cruft to be found on the mainland. And now it would appear that in sims like Blumfeld and Boardman that they are trying to reproduce the private sim model. [Blumfeld is a Linden Lab-sponsored planned suburb.]
I really like the way this house takes advantage of the views. It has clearly been influenced by the site. How many prefabs or Victorian style mansions could properly take advantage of this site and view? It just wouldn't go with the "style".
I was thinking about about what 'trend' means exactly... thinking from a real estate perspective it probably refers to prevalence-- reflecting the status quo. [smiles] If that's the case, then this house isn't it, thankfully.
HL: Then what is the trend, real estate wise?
CP: Well, it seems to be small/first land parcels on the mainland sims, big lots on the private sims, and Victorian/craftsman/Spanish-style homes everywhere. And the "low prim beachouse" everywhere. Even snow sims. Argh. I've seen them everywhere, and I've seen a snow cabin prefab in pastoral sims. Anything goes, for the most part; regard for context seems to be of lesser concern.
HL: Zed, do you have a design background in real life if I may ask?
ZA: Not particularly, I come from creative background, but in film, some graphic, Web. It's really been my dream to build houses. Since I was a kid I filled notebooks of designs...but when it came to study and career, it was not my thing.
HL: And here we are.
Zed Aubret laughs.
DANCING ABOUT ARCHITECTURE
Then there's the strong impression (and I've had it since I started reporting here) that with homes in SL, there is, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, no there there.
"Overall," I told the reporter, "I'd have to say most Residents don't use their homes as 'homes', in the sense that it's not where they sleep or spend their free time (since being in SL is their free time)... Many use them to socialize with friends, of course, though for the most part, I think they treat them as dollhouses, places to fill out with furniture and art... or for builders, places to create their own idea of a perfect home. I'm amazed at how many houses are almost always empty-- like the point is not to live in them, so much as it is to have their personal identity permanently represented in a 3D space. 'This is the stuff I like and what's important to me,' in other words-- real estate and home ownership as a kind of 3D personal homepage or blog."
But rather than make any more broad observations based on my daily fly-overs, last week I took a long in-depth tour of the world, with a singular focus on trends in architectural and land development. Luckily I was able to bring along an expert who's far more qualified to speak than me: Chip Poutine, in real life a recent graduate from a Canadian architectural college, now studying for his license to practice professionally. Chip's the author of "Virtual Suburbia", a profilic and eloquent blog exclusively devoted to reviewing the architecture of Second Life.
"Writing about music," Elvis Costello once argued, "is like dancing about architecture-- it's a really stupid thing to want to do." So in that spirit, over the next few days, I'll document the attempt by Mr. Poutine and myself to do something triply foolish: blogging about virtual architecture.