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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

UNIMPEACHABLE OFFENSE, PART I

Being the final word (hopefully) on a curious (if butt-ugly) experiment that tested the boundaries of community values-- and the values of a community.

Just a few weeks ago, it seemed to be the most important thing in the world, but if I don't post something about it now, it'll probably be forgotten forever. So here goes:

THE GRIEF THAT KEPT ON GIVING

Last December or thereabouts, a guy started buying land. Lots of land. Not large parcels, mind, but tiny plots, on which he installed giant, looming, garish billboards emblazoned with a putative political statement-- "SUPPORT OUR TROOPS - End the Illegal War in Iraq - Restore US credibility - IMPEACH BUSH". In the eyes of many Residents, however, this wasn't the landowner's lobbying effort against the American President, but an outrageous extortion scheme against his neighbors. After all, he'd set this land for sale at exorbitant rates, and if they didn't want this eyesore hovering near their property, they'd have to buy the parcels off him, so they could take the signs down.

I covered all this here, including an interview with the man I dubbed "Jedidiah Profane", and had every intention of leaving it at that. But the outrage kept coming, partly because Linden Lab took a hands-off position on the signs. If they weren't overhanging Profane's property into another Resident's land, Daniel Linden, Director of Community Services, told me, then they weren't Linden Lab's problem.

In the official Second Life forums, Residents started topic after topic on the subject-- "Impeach Bush or Land Extortionists?", "Support for the 'Impeach Bush' Guy", "Is LL protecting Impeach Bush because they're thinking of bringing in billboards?", and so on-- until there were nearly ninety threads on the same subject. (We know this, because Nailati Elytis helpfully created a meta thread listing all the existing threads on the issue-- "'Impeach Bush Signs' - Handy Thread Index!")

At which point, I really had no choice but to revisit the controversy. And after all, the floating billboards are still in-world even now, and like barnacles, tend to attract still more signs, sometimes political, sometimes in protest of the original signs, sometimes advertisements and religious proselytizing.

But was there a real, substantial controversy, in the first place? Or was I just looking at a feedback loop of Forum drama which didn't represent a broader community perspective?

"Forums are great places for technical help," new Resident Clarrice Cinquetti warned me in a private message, "but when it comes to general discussions, you will find the same clique usually posting complaints..." And the small segment of total Residents most active in the Forums were doing just that-- the vast majority of them clamoring for the immediate banning of Jedidiah Profane.

But it's a huge world, and even for his hundreds of parcels, surely most of the community had little or no contact with Profane's signs, let alone an opinion on them. Instead of following the Forum's lead, Clarrice advised me, I should go into the world, to see what the average Resident was really thinking.

And so I did.

WORD ON THE STREET IS...

To get a sample, in mid-January I sent Instant Messages to ten Residents selected completely at random, and at different times of the day, asking what they thought of the "Impeach Bush" situation in Second Life.

As it turned out, seven in ten of them had heard of it. And all seven of them who did know about Profane's campaign were against it.

"Griefer, plain and simple," Bob Bravo, President and CFO of Globe Land Development, told me. He'd mostly heard about the controversy in the Forums, he said, "[H]owever, since I deal in land and fly around a lot you cannot miss his signs." Ginger Doctorow was of a similar mind, as was tattoo artist CaseyJo Giugiaro and JJ Koolhaas. ("Litter all over," Mr. Koolhaas pronounced. "An eyesore.")

Flynn Faulkland, a bisexual dragon skink (i.e., a hermaphrodite lizard) had a comporable view, more or less. "I have mixed feelings, really," said Faulkland. "I have no particular love for Bush, and I do support freedom of expression... to a point. Expression is one thing, clutter is another."

When asked, Snapple Sneerwell not only had a negative opinion, but a solution, too: "I have discussed this with Linden Lab 'til I am green," he told me. "[We need z]oning regulations, not only for political signs, but all signs. Each sim would have a Sim Council for establishing guidelines for that sim. All new landowners would have to agree to those guidleines before buying land in that sim.

Lallander Parvenu's opposition was not only against the signs, but to their content, as well. "Being a servicemember I found it highly offensive," he told me. Released from duty last summer, he had been stationed in Kuwait, and rejected the notion that Jedidiah Profane's sentiment was actually in support of troops like him.

"[I]t makes it feel like the troops themselves feel that way, which overwhelmingly is not the case," he told me. "When you're in [theater] that sort of thing rarely comes up, I mean he is Commander in Chief. You do your part and move on."

"No general annoyance about failure to find WMD, distraction from going directly after Al Qaeda, being out here under 'false pretenses', that kind of thing?" I asked.

"I don't feel that we were there under false pretenses, anywho," he replied. "The general consensus not only from the US side but also from Britain is that [Saddam] did have or was producing WMDs."

Then Lallander Parvenu grinned mysteriously. "I'm having to watch my words here, I hope you understand. I was with the intelligence branch."

On the other side of the ledger, Blueangel Kipling had not noticed the anti-Bush sign campaign, busy as he was hanging out with friends, and playing games like Greedy Greedy, Tringo, and Slingo. Reached at the base of her volcano, the flame-haired vampiress Susan Dangle (designated in her profile as "Mistress Tess' personal bodyguard sworn to protect her even in my death") said she hadn't noticed them, either.

"Too much time building stuff in Second Life to watch the news," she told me, smiling sweetly.

Nor, for that matter, did Mariah Ghia.

"What do you think of the 'Impeach Bush' situation in SL?" I asked her by Instant Message.

"I haven't heard of it frankly," she replied. "But I think he should be impeached. He lied, misled the people about this illegal 'war' of his."

"Actually, I meant the hundreds of giant 'Impeach Bush' cubes all over Second Life."

"Oh, I haven't seen any of them," Ms. Ghia said. "I rarely leave Ar. I am a Gorean slave, and we are not allowed to leave the city unescorted. If I do leave the city, it is to shop." Goreans retain a large private island in Second Life, known as Glorious Ar, and it is here that Mariah Ghia is a Red Silk kajira, "rented property of Master Aros Cyr".

"I have been real life submissive and online for four years," she explained, "and slave since November." She's read most of the John Norman novels that gave rise to the Gorean subculture.

"There is much honor in the books," she told me. "Plus I have an in-built need to serve. I love the freedom being a slave gives me."

"That's a paradoxical statement," I observed.

"I don't have to make decisions, for I am told what to do, I know what is expected of me. It is freeing to be able to be what you really are."

"If your Master told you to support Bush and the war in Iraq," I asked her, "would you?"

"I would respectfully beg not to, and explain my reasons... Please don't mis-understand." And Mariah Ghia began to unburden herself. "My husband was in the Navy, in Vietnam, and my son spent 10 years in the Navy," she said. "What I cannot stand about war is how our men and women are being killed, and for what? The babies, the innocent men and women who have done nothing to our country, being killed and maimed. The carnage, it just gets to me. Frankly, we had this conversation in church Sunday school for adults last week."

But, I pressed, what if her Master happened to insist that she support Bush?

"Then in all good conscience, I could not," Mariah Ghia answered after a pause. "And would be punished, probably."

So in the end, I had both a microcosm of real world opinion and the community of Second Life. It wasn't just a figment of Forum drama. Seven in ten had seen the signs, they didn't like them, and many of them seemed none too pleased that they were allowed to keep existing in their present state.

With that information in hand, I sent an e-mail to Second Life CEO Philip Linden, to see what he made of it.

Coming later: The Linden response, and the world's response to Profane.

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Comments

being from britain myself, the majority of people in britain know that there is/was no WMD. that land bloke is talking though his butt.

Posted by: coolkama at Feb 16, 2006 4:23:43 AM

I believe that the claims of extortion are exhaggerrated (sp?) -- if baseless.

People "claim" that Mr. Profane has literally extorted land owners with threats of more signs if they didn't buy his land near them. If said people had been the victim of extortion and filed abuse reports, that's how it should work. If LL found that there was no extortion found -- then why are we still hung up on this?

Perhaps in an extreme circumstance, LL might be purposely ignoring the reports of extortion -- but what benefit would they gain from that? They have a TOS and a CS and extortion is one of those things that is on the "no-list," and is on the "no-list," of many other real-world lists of "no-no's." I believe they would have nothing to gain by breaking their own rules on account of a single user whom they have no reason to go out of their way to support.

However, chance is a flighty thing -- and it could be possible. In such a scenario, I'd expect a certain level of civil disobedience by the users. Post transcripts of Mr. Profane's alleged extortion threats on a 3rd party website. Do it anonymously. Encourage people to link to it.

I for one though, don't believe that this is the case. However, I am a very strong skeptic and would require evidence to change my mind -- not heresay.

Think of it this way.. would everyone ignore the signs if the land weren't for sale? Would it still be mis-labelled as extortion? Or would there be some other hyperbole to describe it?

If you don't like them, just say you don't like them and don't look. Move on. Unless someone in a position of authority can be convinced that Mr. Profane had been making extortion threats -- he isn't extorting anyone. Don't go trampling on the rights of others (and our future selves) by putting up red tape and banning everything you don't like. A society of norms is not a good one. We need diversity, freedom of expression, and the freedom to be radical.

Sorry for the long rant... I just don't see many contrary or well-thought out arguments.

Posted by: Icon Serpentine at Feb 16, 2006 7:50:55 AM

My Second Life lot is right next door to an enormous, ugly billboard advertising sex. It's for sale for some ridiculous price that no one would or could ever pay. I wish the sign said "impeach Bush" because that's something I'd be happy to look at every day. Since I don't want to look at it, I've positioned my house, trees and other items to block my view of the sign.

As far as I'm concerned, everyone should be able do what he/she wants on his/her own property, and if others don't like it, tough luck. All these whiners are spoiled elitists.

Posted by: someone at Feb 16, 2006 12:59:38 PM

Hamlet, the Bush signs issue is not merely a forums drama, and I'm amazed you'd think it was such -- hopefully when you go um independent you will get out more in world and do more man-in-the-street interviews. The forums indeed are read by only a few, and contributed to by even less, but like a broken wristwatch, they are still right at least twice a day.

Indeed, the Bush guy extorts -- first and foremost by putting land to sale at an outrageous price. That IS extortion -- you have to buy the view. If you think it's just a creative piece of freedom of expression, why any for-sale status at all??? No one supporting these signs, claiming they aren't extortion, including the Bush Guy himself, can ever adequately explain them. Indeed, the silly little feint that he did after awhile, writing DO NOT BUY THIS LAND on the description while still keeping it for sale at an outrageous price was proof of that insincerity and desire to manipulate.

Indeed, he and his confreres often take action so as to extort -- they put a sign at a lower price, say, $500, to see if you'll "bite," then if you directly confront them and refuse, they will put it up to $8000 -- I have ample documentation of it, and have given it to LL. Those who criticize the sign extortionists often find themselves the victims of MORE signs -- that, too, is amply documented.

The Lindens think they are dealing with this larger issue of zoning and owning the view and such by working on group tools and covenants. Yet that will do nothing to address the issues of the tragedy of the commons that they could avoid with just a basic sense of the rule of law and its enforcement.

The issue didn't go away just because the 90 threads on the forums died out -- for many of us, the signs still cause us grief, they interfere with the enjoyment of Second Life, they constitute spamming (geez, why can the FIC scream about Tringo on the events calendar or land for sale on events listings, and not care about this far greater blight???), they are a form of verbal harassment, and they cause a loss of business income. Most of this is a direct violation of at least 3 TOS and CS terms, that especially taken together, and especially practiced in such volume, definitely should constitute a violation, and should be the subject of disciplinary action. The helplessness of the Lindens in the face of this menace is highly troubling. It doesn't bode well for the long-term viability of this civilization.

We've sent petitions to Philip, and talked to him and many other Lindens. He once answered me something like, "This is tough, we try so hard" or something like that.

Worst of all, one suspects that if the content and subject matter of the signs weren't dear to the heart of the minority of anarcho-liberal tekkie wikinistas at the heart of the game, if they said something like "Buy SUVs" or "Earth First! We'll Mine the Other Planets Later" or "Wear Fur," we'd probably have seen them long gone.

Posted by: Prokofy Neva at Feb 16, 2006 4:58:56 PM

I see it as a form of spam. There comes a point when theres so much stuff in your visual view that it becomes spam.

Amazingly LL's policy is far behind from the advance technology they may make. LL fails to see it as spam, because it's a new type of spam that has previously not been defined because there was no situation in which to give rise to it. Until now of course, with SL enabling people to "spam" the landscape, creating Landscape-Spam.

The same problem occurs with For Sale signs. Think of SL like a webpage, with the content of builds being the webpage and the signs being pop-ups. Except in SL it's worse because theres nothing to even block the spam.

Landscape spam will continue to be a problem and probably get even worse until LL actualy does something about it... if they ever do.

Posted by: Oz Spade at Feb 27, 2006 5:09:40 PM

The blue signs aren't the only ugly builds but I do find them annoying. It took me a while to find some land at a reasonable price where there were none of the blue signs. There's still a big billboard next door that I don't like and the owner never seems to be online to get messages. One suggestion I made on the forums was to allow people to have textures defined on their client replaced with some other texture they define. Then if someone puts up an ugly sign or build, you can just replace it with a transparent texture so YOU don't have to look at it but people still have the right to do what they will with their own property. The suggestion seems to have been ignored for the most part.

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