As is pretty much always the case, I’m the last to arrive at the party when it comes to providing an analysis related to Second Life. This is intentional. When it comes to making sense of Second Life’s progress within a certain timeframe, I prefer to sit back and examine SL and its progress within the broader context, i.e. its direct and indirect competition, and the Real Life (RL) economic, social, and even societal factors that affect people’s willingness and ability to join SL, to stay in it, and invest in it. Sadly, far too much of the commentary fails (often willingly) to take these factors into account, and, by choosing a platform-centric perspective over a user-centric one, ends up painting a picture that’s either alarmist or unjustifiably flattering.

Tulum Reserve (Rated Adult)

During the annus horribilis that was 2020, Tyche Shepherd released a number of summaries related to Second Life’s metrics, offering some interesting insights as to how Second Life fared in terms of usage and popularity. The last one was this tweet from October, which had to do with concurrency (how many users are in-world at the same time) and new user signups. The outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic coincided with a significant increase of the platform’s usage by its users, and increase also coincided with a spike in new user signups.

Second Life concurrency between 10 March 2020 and 20 October 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd
New user signups between 10 March 2020 and 20 October 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd

It is clear that, compared to 2019, daily concurrency remained consistently higher throughout 2020, although it trailed off after May. The big “hump” in the 2020 daily concurrency graph coincides with a significant spike in daily signups (new users joining SL). However, the increase in new signups didn’t last; by mid-May, 2020 signups fell down to the maximum number of 2019 daily signups and they remained consistently below SL’s 2019 performance in this area for the rest of the year.

As Tyche tweeted, this [c]oncurrency growth [was] driven by returning users or longer online sessions, rather than new users. It makes sense. When the pandemic hit, many of SL’s major markets went into a lockdown. Since existing SL users in those countries stayed at home, it made sense for them to get back into SL and start using it for longer sessions – some content creators even started being more active than before. In March and April there was even a significant increase in new signups. Again, it makes (sort-of) sense. Although SL is a seriously old virtual world platform that uses a rendering engine that’s inferior compared to just about any current competing platform’s, it has a dedicated user base that signs in regularly and creates some interesting virtual locales that someone can visit.

Also, SL’s user base is one that consumes like there’s no tomorrow, and they’re practically driven by each other to do so: shopping event upon shopping event and within shopping event, gachas, more fashion bloggers than you can shake a stick at, etc. It’s a veritable consumerist Mecca: consumo, ergo sum. I consume, therefore I am. With that in mind, I can understand why a skilled 3D content creator would want to join SL and start selling virtual goods to diversify their portfolio and increase their sales. Literally, to use the disgraceful term that Tribeflame’s horrible CEO Torulf Jenström coined, SL’s user base consists mostly of whales. Or, more aptly, mega-whales. Below, you can watch YongYea’s excellent commentary on Jenström’s disgustingly cynical keynote to understand what the term really means. At 25 minutes and 23 seconds, it’s pretty long, but it’s a must-watch.

And this brings us back to discussing the RL – ahem – realities that affect SL users’ behaviour and the platform’s ability to attract and keep new users. No, I’m not going to get into the same old tired arguments about the UI, the tier, the perks for premium users, the default camera offsets, or anything like that; I’ve spoken and written about them quite a few times in the past, and they’re rather irrelevant here. After all, I’m planning to revisit them in the future, in light of recent (non-)developments in the gaming industry.

Where most SL commentators’ narrative falls apart

I’m one of those people who’ve been in SL long enough to remember both the time when it was the mainstream media’s darling and its fall from grace. I was on my first SL account, which I had opened way back in 2006, when His Holy Philipness of Rosedale kept overhyping SL as the 3D web which would replace the web as we know it, even though everything had already started to point to the exact opposite direction. In fact, I still remember the noise my eyes made as they rolled inside their sockets. Ever since then, I’ve seen every controversy and every “crisis” that SL has weathered, and I’ve read all the analyses of all the (strangely) popular pundits. Throughout SL’s remarkably – and, perhaps, surprisingly – long life, the vast majority of said pundits have consistently and surprisingly, given that several of them fancy themselves as market analysts or what have you, failed to take into account the RL realities that influence potential, new, and existing users’ behaviour and stance towards SL.

Cost of Entry

When his Holy Philipness was making his bold claims, he appeared to be blissfully unaware of all the cost-related factors that determine whether people will join SL or not, and if, once they’ve joined it, they’ll stay or not. Even way back in 2006, when SL was down every Wednesday and half of the viewer updates made it crash more than a computer running Windows ME, you simply couldn’t have a half-decent experience if your computer didn’t have a dedicated graphics card with 3D acceleration and at least midrange capabilities. Such computers (desktops or laptops) were expensive back then; more expensive than their counterparts that didn’t have such hardware. They remained expensive.

The grid is down while we bang on things
I’ve been in SL long enough to remember this image that would show up every Wednesday or at any other time SL was down because of technical problems or (un)scheduled maintenance. Even then, you needed a machine with a decent 3D graphics card. Credit: Linden Lab

Let’s face it: to have a relatively decent SL experience, you always needed a machine that cost at least USD 800 (for a desktop) or USD 1,000 (for a laptop of similar performance). And, due to the recent shortage of GPUs on the market and the price-gouging that “free” market gives us, this cost has doubled (at least), proving that all technological forecasts that predicted we’d be enjoying wonderful graphics and excellent performance at bargain basement prices were pure hogwash. Care to compare that to ordinary web surfing and casual gaming through Facebook, which can easily be done on a USD 250 laptop?

I know some people will say “oh, but you can run SL on a machine that has an integrated graphics circuitry,” but I have no time for this nonsense; I tell them to shut the fuck up before they finish the word “integrated”, because I’m talking about your SL experience being characterised by a decent frame rate at a relatively decent graphics level (at least Mid-High), rather than a slide show on “Low”. Seriously, this “integrated graphics” shit needs to be euthanised. SL is no different than any other 3D open-world platform in requiring a powerful machine. These things cost money. End of story. How exactly has it eluded all SL and general computer industry pundits that the cost to meet SL’s hardware requirements for a decent experience is an inhibiting factor?

Cost of (Second) Living

Your existence in Second Life is NOT free. Yeah, joining SL is free. You can also move about for free, visit most places for free, you can talk to others for free, most in-world groups are free to join, and there are also free houses, pieces of furniture and general decor, garments, and avatar accessories for you to pick up. But that’s pretty much where “free” ends. Of course, I’m not saying that Linden Lab acts in the deplorable and unethical manner that Tribeflame does (see YongYea’s video above, if you haven’t already done so). I’m stating a fact.

Let’s say you run into a bunch of freebies of acceptable quality and among these you find a house (a tiki hut, for instance) and some furniture. Where exactly are you going to put them? You’ll have to rent virtual land. Last time I checked, there’s no such thing as free land in SL, because virtual land rentals are a major source of income for LL. Depending on how much land you rent, your minimum monthly expenditure is going to be the equivalent of USD 5, and it can end up being as high as USD 300, or even much more.

Then comes the fashion and styling concern. To avoid being saddled with the crap default animations for standing around, walking, running, flying, and swimming, you’ll need to purchase a decent animation overrider that includes a bunch of relatively nice animations. Most cost about USD 10 each, although there are some cheaper alternatives. If you want to have options w.r.t. your avatar’s garments and accessories, you need to abandon the default “classic” avatar or the mesh avatar you chose when you joined, even if it looks nice (and some do look rather nice), because no SL fashion designer supports them. You’ll have to buy a mesh body, and this can set you back some USD 10 or more.

Also, the recent shift to the costly (sometimes exorbitantly so) mesh heads adds an extra expense, usually well north of USD 20. And then, you’ll eventually get bored of the freebie hairstyles, garments, shoes, and accessories you got. You’ll want to make your avatar more “you”; or you’ll want to imitate a certain style that’s popular among SL fashionistas or within the particular community you decided to associate with. Pretty soon, you’ll find you’ve spent at least USD 150 on avatar styling just to have something that’s beginning to satisfy you aesthetically. And you’ll keep spending. I know, because I’ve been there and still am. I do spend to satisfy my fashion, styling, and fetish whims and desires; I’ve accepted that spending RL money on SL is something I have to do to get some goodies, and hire people to do stuff for me.

To get some extra perks (such as a weekly L$ stipend, the right to own land on the Mainland or rent a region directly from Linden Lab instead of a virtual estate agency, a Linden home, and access to several sandboxes and areas reserved for “premium users”), you have the option to become a paid subscriber, paying a minimum of USD 99 / year. And then there’s the “SL civil partnership tax”; you can get “married” to someone else in SL for L$10, and the “divorce” costs the person who requested it L$25.

And let me dispel another myth for you: no, it doesn’t matter that we spend Linden dollars in-world and not “real” dollars or euros; this is digital currency we either bought by exchanging RL currency, and / or we’ve earned by being hired by someone who’s already bought this money and / or earned it.

Cost of Content Creation

Second Life styles itself as a creative platform. However, LL forces you to pay for your creative expression within it. First of all, the in-world Build Tools suck. They’re extremely basic, they don’t help you create complex shapes, you can’t optimise the stuff you’re making by creating custom Levels of Detail (LOD), and don’t even get me started on advanced stuff like, say, a bill of materials. It won’t be long before you realise that, if you’re going to create anything that looks relatively good, you’ll have to use some application outside SL.

Even if you choose external tools that can be had for free (like Blender and GIMP), there’s this niggling issue. To bring this stuff into SL, you have to pay. L$10 per image (texture) or sound or animation / pose. And at least L$11 per mesh object. So, if you want to be a content creator in SL, you have to accept that, even if you describe yourself as an amateur, it’s a business and it costs money. And if you decide to sell your goods on the SL marketplace, there’s a sales tax, which is admittedly low.

SL is a non-essential expenditure

I think it’s already been established that SL is costly. To look pretty, you need to spend money. RL money. To have a place you can call your own in SL, you need to spend money. RL money. To upload your stuff into SL, either for your own enjoyment or to share with others for free, or to sell it to others, you need to spend money. RL money. Even to be able to decently enjoy SL, you need decent hardware and a good internet connection. And these things cost RL money. Even if we take into account the fact that a good computer and a good internet connection represent an investment that can have other uses besides SL, there’s still no escaping the fact that our activities in SL cost the average SL user a non-trivial amount of money. RL money.

This weakens SL’s case for any potential user, and practically all pundits (never mind starry-eyed evangelists) so far seem to be oblivious of the fact that people, be they existing SL users or outsiders, are largely aware of the fact that SL is anything but free (as in gratis) and is, in fact, quite costly. Another fact that has historically eluded practically every pundit so far is that SL is non-essential to people and that people are aware of this. So, they yap endlessly and pointlessly about “user retention” and whatnot, ignoring the elephant in the room: that people can live perfectly well and happily without being in Second Life.

Let’s face it, the harshest and most cynical critics and detractors of SL and its user base are right when they say SL is a pretend world where we create “happy places” as an escape from our everyday lives (which can be pretty miserable). We’re playing house in here. Let’s own up to it. There’s nothing wrong with escapism, with living out our fantasies and whims, with role-playing, with recreating or re-imagining our world. It’s a valid pastime, every bit as valid as, and no more or less nerdy than being avid sports fans, fiddling about with model trains, playing Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, “mainstream” video games, paintball, spending our money and time on comic books (including manga), or on being passionate movie buffs, or whatever. It’s every bit as costly as these pastimes, though. There’s every bit as much peer pressure to spend more and more on it as you can find in these hobbies, and it’s just about as non-essential as they are, however much we may enjoy the time we spend in-world.

Then again, His Holy Philipness of Rosedale has proven, way back in 2014, when he made a complete fool out of himself at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference, that he’s either blissfully oblivious to the fact that SL and virtual worlds in general are non-essential to people, or that he’s just shamelessly downplaying facts to make a pitch and hopefully attract investors. But this is no excuse for anyone who fancies themselves as a journalist or a serious commentator; they should take him to task and ask hard questions instead of sucking up to him. But hey, what do I know?

So, there you have it: SL is both costly and non-essential. Its clientele, at least as far as I’m aware of, seems to be mostly middle-class people, ranging from the lower-middle class whose jobs and financial security were destroyed (abruptly or slowly and agonisingly, in true lingchi-style) in the consecutive financial crises since 2008, all the way to the upper-middle class who can afford to own and run multiple sims. However, as is always the case in every society, the higher income echelons are far more sparsely populated than the lower ones.

Ignored Precariousness

So, there you have three crucial, but inexplicably ignored in all SL-related commentary, Achilles’ heels that SL has been saddled with from its inception: it’s a non-essential expenditure, it’s costly, and too many of its users are in employment and / or income situations that make them vulnerable to the next financial crisis, whether it’s caused by the white-collar criminals of Wall Street and other stock exchanges or by the next fancy virus that crosses the divide between other animals and the homo sapiens species. When faced with the spectres of massive pay cuts (been there, fuck you very much Dr. Schäuble), fuel poverty (I’ve also met this one, fuck you again Dr. Schäuble), unemployment, loss of healthcare because the government decided to throw its taxpayers under the bus to save the profligant, tax-dodging, stock exchange gamblers’ arses, what exactly do you think these people will do? I mean, besides skipping “luxuries” like their annual visits to the doctor, their car’s maintenance, keeping their home warm in the winter, or taking their prescription drugs whose price some fuckhead decided to send to the fucking stratosphere to make a quick buck. Will they continue spending USD 100 / month to play house on that Tuscany-themed homestead and USD 100 / month on virtual clothing? I don’t think so.

Back when I had commented on the two ridiculous keynotes His Holy Philipness of Rosedale gave at SVVR 2014, I had written he based them on several false assumptions:

  1. That the world is full of people that are literally chomping on the bit to join a virtual world;
  2. That people are eager to purchase user input devices (like the Razer Hydra or the Leap Motion) and special displays (like the Oculus Rift) which will have limited (if any) use outside of very specific applications;
  3. That the markets for computer peripherals and virtual worlds exist in a vacuum and are unaffected by the ongoing global financial crisis;
  4. That, in the middle of the global financial crisis, people would eagerly spend the money for the Oculus Rift, the Razer Hydra, the Leap Motion, or whatever other similar device is “necessary” for these virtual worlds to be enjoyed in all their glory;
  5. That the only things that keep people out of virtual worlds are lag and the complexity of the user interface.

Nothing’s changed since then. His Holy Philipness is still as delusional as he was back then, and so are most pundits pontificating on SL and other virtual worlds. I’ve already said that SL is a non-essential expenditure. You won’t die if you don’t have your SL. You’ll die if you don’t have access to food, water, shelter, warmth through the winter and protection from the summer heat, healthcare. Not if SL one day closes its doors and LL goes out of business. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s not somehow protected from the ebb and flow of our employment and income status, and, as a consequence, it’s not exempt from being put on the chopping block if we have to choose between SL and really essential expenditures. How these realities keep eluding all those famous pundits boggles my mind. It’s not rocket surgery. It’s common fucking sense. And I have news for everyone – pundits, LL’s owners and top brass: there’s no amount of tech that LL can throw at SL can make it essential or lift the majority of its users from the precariat class and put them in actually decent jobs.

But is it really so?

Yes. It is. Private estate ownership in SL peaked sometime in November 2008 (see the graph below) and has been in decline ever since. A partial recovery started in the summer of 2009, and it lasted one year. Ever since then, SL’s been steadily losing regions. Is it a coincidence that this protracted region loss started at the same time the world was being rocked by one financial crisis after the other (financial crisis of 2007-2008, European debt crisis, 2009 global financial crisis, and so many others – I’ve lost count) that obliterated millions of jobs, deprived millions of people of their savings and earnings, left millions homeless, cost hundreds of thousands of lives due to financial crisis-triggered suicide or health damages that were related to the impoverishment of vast numbers of people?

Second Life main grid estates owned by users (not Linden Lab-owned) from 31 October 2006 to 16 February 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd

Slow Decay

I already wrote about the inexplicably overlooked socioeconomic factors that make it hard for people to justify joining SL and staying in it. There are also other factors that the pundits fail to understand. First of all, as the years go by, SL users’ interests change. Their priorities change. People lose interest and sometimes change their hobbies. They can be frustrated – either because an entrepreneurial attempt in SL didn’t go well, or because their SL-based romantic relationships went wrong, or perhaps they were driven out by the bully gangs that previous LL administrations failed to confront and tackle. Perhaps they had a child or two and decided they could no longer dedicate time to SL. Others simply passed away. Others moved on to different platforms, and as for new users… Well, while there was the aforementioned spike in new user signups between March and April 2020, there’s literally no telling what these new users are. Remember, as of last October, SL had nearly 64.5 million registered users (source: gridsurvey.com). How many of these users are alts and throwaway accounts (including users who signed up once to see something or attend an event, never to come back) is anyone’s guess.

SL and the Competition

I was asked why SL keeps losing regions and performs so badly when it comes to new user signups compared to newer open-world platforms like the GTA series or Roblox or World of Warcraft or this or that or the other. Seriously now? First of all, it’s impossible to compare SL to Roblox: SL is a sandbox, where you basically play house, explore other people’s places, even have some digital nookie, whereas Roblox is a game platform and a game creation system. Not to mention that Roblox was never burdened with idiot pundits who piled up and doubled down to reinforce the “SL is for perverts” smear. Apples and oranges. The GTA series is an open world, but at its heart it’s a series of action adventure games, with missions, goals, and a competitive element that attracts people, and especially the male of our species. Apples and oranges again. Same goes for World of Warcraft. It’s a massively multi-player online RPG, which has a storyline, missions, quests, goals. In SL, you have no mission or goal whatsoever.

Regarding the “mission” and “goal” thing: as I’ve said time and time again, in SL you’re mostly playing house. That doesn’t sound particularly attractive or rewarding to potential users. Also, SL is old. Its engine comes from the 1990s. Its graphical capabilities are mediocre compared to most current game engines’ (except, of course, Clusterfuck 2077’s), its ability to simulate anything is pathetic, its active user base is about the size of a relatively big European city, so its appeal is limited. And it’s just not getting any younger. Not to mention that, unlike CD Projekt RED, LL doesn’t have the power and the connections of a major European government throwing EU taxpayers’ money its way, and it’s no longer a media darling that can do no wrong.

Now let’s get back to the cost thing. Nowadays, all game studios milk their games’ players like cows, with microtransactions, lootboxes, pay-to-win crap, etc. SL makes its money from micro-transactions, digital currency sales, virtual land rentals, marketplace sales taxation, etc. But here’s the deal: in a mobile game, you’re led to think you’re playing “for free” and are given the “option” to pay in order to win an otherwise unwinnable stage, and you’re given some imaginary bragging rights about how “cool” your player looks compared to others, which makes it easier for you to be chosen to join a team of players. In SL, you immediately see the costs incurred, and you don’t really have much of an incentive to fork over the dough; if you start plonking USD 300 / month on a full region, you’re not getting the “oooh, I finally beat this stage” rush you get in Candy Crush or what have you. You just get an empty piece of land that you have to work to make it look good. And even if you make the most stunningly beautiful avatar in SL, you’re not getting much of a reward for it or validation from others.

But really, given the fact that all of the aforementioned platforms and games are entirely different from what SL is, I wonder how exactly we can say they’re SL’s competition and keep a straight face. If we can compare it to something, it has to be something like Active Worlds or maybe Minecraft.

In A Nutshell

Besides the appallingly shoddy punditry that surrounds SL, there are a few conclusions a rational reader can draw. For starters, SL still has dedicated long-time users, and even returning users. It still manages to engage its audience. However, this audience isn’t growing. New signups are on the decline, as SL and platforms similar to it fail to capture people’s imagination. Furthermore, contrary to common myth, our disposable RL time and dime do dictate our attitudes to SL. And finally, there’s no simple answer to the question “how can SL compete with X or Y?”. Are there lessons to be learnt from other, more successful, offerings? Yes. But this will require another diatribe.

Click on the image for the full-size version.

Yes, I’m talking about you. You fancy yourself as a perfectly well-meaning person. You’re a Bible-thumping, God-fearing, church-going, pro-lifeanti-choice, family values paragon of our society’s oh-so-WASPish moral standards. You’re a garbage-separating, recycling, vegan-and-proud-of-it, organic-eating, Tesla-driving hipster, acting all woke and shit, riding every bandwagon that you think’ll make you look more progressive. And there you are, on Plurk, on Twitter, on various forums “for those in the know”, regurgitating (sorry, did I offend you by not calling it “sharing”?) every morsel of mean-spirited, malicious, sexist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, prudish, racist, oftentimes even libelous gossip you’ve found on the already well-known cesspools and voraciously devoured less than an hour ago.

You’re a close friend of the owners and managers of said cesspools. “They’re cool people,” you say. “It’s not their fault that people post smack about others,” you say. “This sort of crap would be posted somewhere anyway,” you say. “Who are we to mess with freedom of speech?”, you say. That’s the party line of the cesspool management, which you choose to parrot.

Why wouldn’t you? After all, they’re your buddies. And they’re your buddies, because you want them to be your buddies. Even if you weren’t buddies before they got the cesspool running, you want to be buddies with them, because they’re kind-of a big deal in this little place you call a “community” – be it Second Life, your local blogosphere, or your social media echo chamber. They’re the “cool kids”, the Queen Bees, the Leaders. You want to be around them. You need to be around them. To be given some of their imaginary halo’s light and to have your existence validated by their popularity and influence. In exchange for the privilege of validation through association, you defend their every action, whitewash it, turn your mind and yourself into a pretzel and perform all sorts of reasoning acrobatics and contortionist feats to justify it.

And there you are, idly chatting with the rest of the clique about how badly people misunderstand the cesspool and the well-meaning of its owners. After all, they do have a link to a suicide prevention hotline and urge the victims of their “contributors” to seek psychiatric help, so they’re really good people and can no longer be held to account for the cannibalisation they enable and encourage, for the harm they enable to get some ad-generated revenue. Yes, they’re making money out of all this. They’re making money out of dragging people’s names (or nicknames, it doesn’t matter) through the mud, out of stirring up strife, which can often have RL consequences. That’s BLOOD MONEY. And you – yes, you – are enabling them to profiteer from this, and you’re defending their practices.

Well, I have news for you: you’re fucking delusional. Yes, you read that right. You’re delusional. You think these people are your friends, but they’ll gladly allow their “contributors” to throw your spineless (I’ll get to that later) arse to the dogs. Oh yes, they will. After all, you’re old enough and big enough to defend yourself, it’s just anonymous gossip, it doesn’t really affect you, it’s harmless I tells ya and, if it affects you so much, why don’t you click on that suicide prevention hotline link? That’s what your cesspool-running friend will tell you, while (s)he’s laughing all the way to the bank. Remember, this traffic brings ads, and ads bring revenue.

And why am I calling you “spineless”? Because you are. Because you feel the sodding need to be in a clique, even though you know that your clique’s ringleaders run a business whose product is bullying and harassment – not that they’d be any better if they merely did it for the lulz. I’m calling you spineless, because you’ll sit your sorry excuse for an arse down and take the abuse, whenNOT if – you’re eventually targeted by your (alleged) friend’s clientele. And you’ll defend both your abuser’s God-given “right” to abuse, harass, libel, denigrate you and turn your existence into a living hell, and your friend’s right to make a buck from all this.

You’re spineless, because, in order to stay on your (alleged) friend’s good side, you’ve abandoned anything even remotely resembling human values and removed your vertebrae. Therefore, you have no means to stand up to them and say “I don’t want to be associated with someone who enables every lower form of life to maliciously target and harm others, and I can’t decide if doing this for fun or for profit makes you worse.” That’s what you’d have said if you had a spine and any semblance of principles. But you don’t, so enjoy being, and being seen as, a lackey, a lapdog, a tool for your leader. Your leader tells you to jump and you ask “how high?” – that’s what you are, like it or not; a lackey, a lapdog, a dogsbody of the lowest calibre. I don’t care how strong you might think you are when you’re jumping in with other invertebrates like you to attack whomever your leader tells you to. You’re pathetic and contemptible. And make no mistake: your turn will come. Sooner or later, your leader and your posse will turn on you, or your leader’s clients will target you. And that’s when you’ll be alone. There’ll be no sympathy or support for you. After all, you don’t deserve it.

And you’re complicit in all this, not only because you justify it, but also because you consume it, propagate it, and use the “input” that’s “contributed” to the gossip cesspools to inform your opinion of others. You’re giving these cesspools traffic and traction, not only by visiting them, but also by “innocently” passing their “knowledge” about. You are, willingly, enabling cowardly bullies and lapdogs of troll leaders destroy whatever social core Second Life claims to have – and to think you’re pretending to care about SL! You are the sort of person who enables the maggots to force people to resort to becoming recluses and virtual hermits in hopes that they’ll avoid being torn to bits by your clique and its clients. Even if you claim to read such sites out of “curiosity”, you’re enabling and empowering the filth-peddlers, and you’re no better than them (surprise, surprise!).

So, stop fooling yourself. You’re every bit as bad as the “contributors” of these sites. If you feel the need to consume and share this sort of shit, go see a psychiatrist – that’s not healthy at all. If you post there, you really need professional help so that you’ll learn to mind your own sodding business. And if you feel the need to befriend and make up excuses for those who provide platforms for bullying and harassment, then – again – you really need professional help.

Black and white photograph of two wooden beach chairs on an Aegean patio.
Slatan Dryke’s exhibition My Greece, My Cats – at the Kultivate Loft Gallery

I’ve always considered travel photography to be one of the most demanding and interesting genres, as it forces the photographer to harness several different genres – landscape, street photography, portraiture, reportage, even abstract – in order to convey the atmosphere and essence of a certain place, the culture, habits, and customs of its people, and so on. It’s also difficult, because the photographer must avoid reducing the message to the kind of stereotype-laden tripe that so often passes as “tourist photography”.

Being Greek, I’m no stranger to stereotypes and clichés about my home country, its people, or what a visitor from the “core” countries should expect to encounter. In fact, many parties are guilty of perpetuating, encouraging, and exploiting them – among them Greek governments, Greek and foreign travel agencies, Greek and foreign publishers of postcards and calendars. It often seems to me that people outside Greece are instructed by the tourist industry to view it as some sort of semi-exotic theme park, with a population that’s about as single-dimensional and shallow as the animatronics figures at Disneyland resorts. But what really irks me most in the way Greece is typically depicted is the prevailing narrative that mixes self-pity, superiority and inferiority complexes, nationalism, an unhealthy worship and idealisation of a romanticised view of a largely misinterpreted and overglorified ancient heritage, along with a “benign” colonialist mix of condescension and sympathy for the not-quite-as-advanced, too-brown-to-be-considered-true-Europeans-yet-not-brown-enough-to-be-considered-barbaric-Middle-Easterner natives.

Windmills and cats
Slatan Dryke’s exhibition My Greece, My Cats – at the Kultivate Loft Gallery

This is one of the reasons why I’ve avoided blogging about Greek-themed in-world builds and regions in the past; efforts to recreate Greek-inspired builds have not only been plagued by the same nuisances that plague most SL prefabs, but have focused on the same old tired clichés. Mykonos, Santorini, maybe some churches with Byzantine religious icons, some sub-par attempts at recreating ancient temples – and all this, with the SL architects not bothering to put aside even ten minutes of their time to study what they’re trying to depict. With such materials, and with the stereotype-riddled view I mentioned above, it came as no surprise to me that the few Greek-themed SL regions are the sort of thing one would reject in RL as tourist traps. Mind you, I’m not railing against foreigners; Greek SL users have been every bit as guilty of this; they could have driven things forward, but they chose not to.

So, when I read in Kultivate Magazine that an SL photographer was having an exhibition of his travels in Greece, I was more than a bit leery. Prior experiences had taught me to expect the same old photos of Santorini, with the obligatory cute cats thrown in – always on Kodachrome or Fujichrome Velvia 50, or with colours tweaked in Photoshop for that Kodachrome or Velvia feel. Luckily, my fears weren’t justified. Slatan Dryke’s My Greece, My Cats exhibition at the Kultivate Loft Gallery, which opened on 21 March and will run through most of this month, is nothing of the sort.

Slatan is mostly known as a 3D and digital artist, whose works are displayed in various places across SL and featured in many collaborative efforts; he’s also noted for employing vibrant, rich colours in his works. This small exhibition here, however, is a departure not only from the boring clichés about Greece, but also from his own style. The images shown here are black & white, most of them grainy, some of them with sepia toning. Although all of the images started out as photographs, not all of them were post-processed to end up looking like traditional photographs; those that have a more photographic feel wouldn’t be out of place in the portfolio of someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Capa.

Slatan Dryke’s exhibition My Greece, My Cats – at the Kultivate Loft Gallery

His love for Greece began more than forty years ago, when he first travelled to these parts. He counts his own country’s proximity to Greece as a very good turn of luck, because this gave him the opportunity to visit so many islands where what he calls the marrow of its culture and traditions has remained unchanged in centuries.

In his exhibition, Slatan chose not to introduce us to yet another bunch of quasi-quaint photos of blindingly-white churches or images of contrived magnificence from the “usual suspects”, with sunsets enhanced by Cokin or Lee graduated filters, or breath-taking drone-assisted photographs of beaches accessible only by boat, awaiting their “development”. That’s not what he stands for. As he writes in the exhibition’s introductory notecard,

[don’t] ask me about the most fashionable locations, because I have never been there. Ask me about a bunch of those small islands where the time runs slowly under the shade of a tamarisk tree.

There are so many tiny jewels, often unknown to the touristic chains, where you can find your nook of joy, coming from the simplest daily things but overall from the feeling that you become part of the local community, that in some cases is not larger than 500 inhabitants.

With this mindset, it should come as no surprise that he chose to introduce us to Astypalaia, an island of the Dodecanese archipelago, in the southeastern Aegean Sea. It’s not one of the major tourist destinations. In fact, it’s off the beaten track and has fewer than 1,500 residents. Of the twelve images Slatan selected to present here, two are dominated by the main village of Astypalea, which is also referred to as “Chora” (the “ch” is pronounced like “h” in “Harry”) – the capital, the main settlement, as it straddles a rocky hill crowned by an imposing castle. In the others, we see various vignettes of village life, such as the chalk-written menu of a café, a carved wooden sign showing the way to the church of Panagia Portaitissa, the island’s windmills, and – of course – the island’s stray cats that are cared for by the community; one of these images is especially cheeky and playful. To quote Slatan again,

[e]very Greek island has a colony of stray cats, and Astypalaia is no exception. They are the genuine freeholders, the custodians of the old city and the harbour, looking at you with that glance of indifference and mercy for that poor hooman, who wishes for the freedom that they will never have. Maybe this is the reason why everyone loves and cares for them!

But why Astypalaia, of all places? It does seem that he doesn’t care for the obvious, well-worn and ruined by the mass tourist industry, destinations. He said so in the notecard. But it goes deeper than that. In his travels, he was seeking his core, his heart of hearts if you wish – and he found it in Astypalaia:

My long path to find what the Greeks call “Pyrinas” (Core) is finally ended some years ago when I visited for the first time the isle of Astypalaia.

The Rascal and the windmills
Slatan Dryke’s exhibition My Greece, My Cats – at the Kultivate Loft Gallery

At a mere twelve images in the Kultivate Loft Gallery’s confined space, Slatan’s exhibition may be small, but it’s rich in substance, charm, and artistic merit; the images are evocative, sincere, and unpretentious, with framing that draws you right in and makes you part of the scene at hand rather than a mere observer. The choice for monochrome is another attraction: the lack of colour enhances the space / negative space counterpoint, and it gives the images an aura of timelessness and intimacy. In all, I highly recommend a visit to this exhibition.

SLurl: Kultivate Loft Gallery (Rated: Moderate)

Flickr: https://flic.kr/s/aHsmVb5xHp

NOTICE: This post’s subject matter is fetish accessories. If you are offended by fetish attire and accessories, I suggest you leave right now.

In general, I rarely post reviews of in-world products or services on my blog. However, from time to time there comes a moment when something catches my eye and I want to share it with my readers. The NGW Round Buns I’m reviewing here have given me such an occasion. On 1 April, Diane (xXnarayaXx Resident) announced on her Flickr account the launch of three accessories for latex hoods (either her own or others’). These are the Round Buns I’m reviewing here, and then there are the Pigtails and the Horns Buns.

NGW Round Buns
The NGW Round Buns.

In all honesty, not reviewing all three items is a conscious choice I’ve made, based on my personal aesthetic tastes. I’m not a fan of pigtails; I do like twin ponytails in lieu of pigtails – flowing, rich, and long, all the way down to the waist, or even going further down. But pigtails that only go to one’s shoulders have never been my thing; they’re a bit too Pippi Longstocking for me. The Horns Buns didn’t really do much for me, either. But I do love buns, and they’ve been an integral part of my outfits that don’t have me fully encased in latex for at least a year now. So, as soon as I saw the buns at the NGW mainstore, I went and bought them.

NGW Round Buns on me (front view)
Me, wearing the NGW Round Buns (seen from the front)

At L$350, they’re not exactly cheap, especially if you keep in mind that they’re an accessory that doesn’t have any complex RLV scripting. But let’s see how they measure up. For starters, as is the case with most of NGW’s products, they come with copy and modify permissions (only the scripts are unmodifiable), which is always a plus. They are unrigged, and this makes it make them easier to match different hoods. In NGW’s pictures, they are shown with the Helene hood, but I was able to match them perfectly with the Danaide hood that’s been an indispensable part of my look since late January.

Me, wearing the NGW Round Buns (side view)
Seen from the side…

As you can see from the official commercial picture, they feature a wide round base, upon which a stem is formed by a tube through which your hair passes. This tube is fastened by a locking strap that has spikes around it, and then your hair, which is presumably wrapped in a bun, is covered in a ball that’s supported by two crossed straps, and adorned by a highly suggestive, wide ring on the top of each bun. A tag is also hanging from each of the stems. What can’t be seen is a bow tie-shaped ribbon, which I honestly didn’t bother checking out. Some people may like such accoutrements, some may not care for them. I know that, in RL, there are catsuits and hoods with bow ties, ribbons, even frilly parts, but these features don’t do push my buttons. They’re nice to have, though, for those who want them. I wasn’t too keen on the tag, either. However, I really liked the basic shape, the ring, the carefully-designed geometry that makes matching them to your hood easier, and the locking strap. What I appreciated even more was the fact that I could unlink and delete the parts I didn’t want.

NGW Round Buns HUD
The HUD that controls the key parameters of the NGW Round Buns

To control the colour, shininess, and visibility of these different parts, they employ NGW’s new HUD, which is adequate, although I do think it’s a bit of a step back from the older one, which was more streamlined, and allowed you to dial in the desired glossiness and environment values; the new one uses bars for these parameters, pretty much like the ones used by the HUD for the Maitreya Lara body. This doesn’t really help you to set the values precisely enough; you have to eyeball things. What makes things harder with NGW’s new HUD is that, when you click on the parameter bars to set their values, the bars’ length don’t change. Another niggle is that the root part for each of the two buns (left and right) that are included in the box is not the same. So, should you choose to unlink the hanging strap, the ribbon, and the spikes in order to cut down on complexity (like I did), matching the positioning and orientation of the right bun to those of the left will be a bit more complicated.

Me, wearing the NGW Round Buns (rear view)
And seen from the rear…

Texture-wise, there’s nothing to mention – literally. They only feature the standard 32×32 blank texture, tinted accordingly, and all the shininess comes from the materials settings (glossiness and environment values), with the same blank texture being used as a specular map. Even the metal parts don’t use a metallic texture. You might find this surprising, but it does work pretty well from most angles. Obviously, this helps cut down on texture-induced lag. However, I do think it’d be a good idea to at least have some sort of AO map on the metal parts to enhance their edges’ definition.

As for what I did, I suppose what I wrote earlier makes it pretty obvious: I unlinked the bits I didn’t care about, removed the scripts, coloured the buns and adjusted their specular values to taste, aligned the two buns, and I was done! After all, they’re easy to edit, even when you’re wearing them.

All in all, these buns are a delightful accessory that can enhance your latex outfits and give you many more options than you already had. They’re easy to edit, for those among us who prefer to roll up our sleeves and tinker with our stuff; their geometry is fine, and the HUD works pretty well, although it gives you less control than you’d have by editing the buns yourself. Would I make them part of my main look? I don’t know. I like them; several people who’ve seen me wear them liked them. I’ll use them every now and then. but what I really wish I could find is a pair of long, flowing, Bento-animated, ponytails based on these buns.

Style credits for this post:

  • Mesh Body:  Maitreya Mesh Body – Lara v5.0 Tattoo Layer by Onyx LeShelle
  • Latex Hood:  NGW Danaide Hood v1.02 (rigged) 3.05 by Diane (xXnarayaXx Resident)
  • Collar: NGW Danaide Collar v1.01
  • Corset: NGW Andromede Corset S3
  • Boots: NGW Hera boots classic v1 (strappy)
  • Buns: NGW Round Buns (reviewed in this post)
  • Gloves: [DHB] Latex Gloves by haojie86 Resident
  • Catsuit: .:B1:. Latex Classic Catsuit Solid Maitreya (tattoo layer) by Allison Black (theoriginalblackone Resident)
  • Gag: chainZ – HoodPlug (Long) by Sunachamon Xue
  • Skin: LAQ ~ Lina BOM skin (No brows) – tone 3.0 by Mallory Cowen (it’s really irrelevant here, though)
  • Eyes: IKON Perspective Eyes – Coffee (S) by Ikon Innovia (again, they’re irrelevant here)
  • Communication Implant: ER IconTalk by Honey Puddles (Winter Ventura)
  • Reflections / Lights: [Daemon115] Shiny Latex Lights – Full Perm by Raelyn Beatty

Second Life remains one of the most successful sandbox-style virtual worlds and offers a great outlet for the creativity of its users, despite its well-documented technical limitations. By “creativity”, I mean literally anything a user may do in-world: from taking selfie-style snapshots to making machinima and from building a small hovel to creating an entire virtual city. Of course, not everyone invests time, effort, and money, into creating something that only they’ll enjoy all by themselves. People generally want to share their creative efforts.

In the early years of the platform, people shared their in-world creativity using a disjointed set of tools and platforms: their SL profiles, which come with limitations aplenty, their blogs (at least those who bothered setting up one), Flickr, Yahoo! Groups (which, by 2005, were already on their last legs and are now just a barren wasteland taken over by spambots), DeviantArt, and all manner of SL-related forums, official or otherwise. As time went by, it became clear, at least to those who weren’t groupies, cheerleaders, investor-baiters, or downright delusional evangelists, that Philip Rosedale’s claim that Second Life would become “the 3D web”, which would supposedly replace the web as we knew it, was pure horseshit. There was so much that was the “vanilla” web could offer that SL simply couldn’t – and still can’t. Plus, the “vanilla” web doesn’t require a graphics workstation for you to enjoy it; SL’s cost of entry has always been very palpable. And, quite frankly, SL’s built-in tools for 3D content creation still kind-of suck, even compared to something like SketchUp sans plug-ins.

The rise of Facebook put the final nail in Philip’s bullshit. By 2007, SL was deep in the dregs: besides moral panics like the Copybot scare, its creative facilities were horribly lagging behind every 3D content creation application, relying on badly-written, inefficient hacks. Its governance team interpreted and applied the company’s ToS arbitrarily, and the platform lacked any meaningful kind of nexus for social networking. One may say I’m ignoring SL’s in-world groups. I’m not ignoring them; I’m dismissing them. They’ve always been terribly problematic: group chat has always been highly unreliable; notice management capabilities are only rudimentary; as for dealing with spammers and abusive members, only in June 2014 were group managers given the ability to ban people from them (Second Life Project Viewer version 3.7.8.290887) – that’s eleven years after Second Life was launched.

I’m not ignoring SL’s official forums either. They’re useful, but the general discussion section has historically been a cesspool where abuse, harassment, and bullying were, for far too long, the order of the day. People there were literally at the mercy of sadistic gossip / troll gangs that acted with complete immunity and impunity, courtesy of their connections with certain governance team members. Thankfully, Ebbe Altberg (LL’s current, and, if I’m not mistaken, its longest-serving CEO) put an end to this and kicked the most powerful, poisonous, and influential of these people out for good. Even if this was his only achievement (and he’s achieved a lot), it’s helped SL and its users far more than anything all of the other CEOs combined ever did.

By acquiring (and closing) Avatars United in 2010, LL gave SL something resembling an official social network, though: the SL feeds (My Second Life), which, if you’re lenient enough, resemble a cut-price action figure of the result of a drunken one-night stand between Facebook and Twitter. Unfortunately, users were exposed to exactly the same kind of abuse and emotional duress as on the official forums. As if that wasn’t enough, the feeds aren’t without technical issues and shortcomings: they only allow picture uploads from within the viewer, thus allowing only unedited in-world snapshots, and upload has historically been iffy. To top it all off, we must also note that very little of the content shared on the SL feeds is actually visible by outsiders, and I’d really like to have a rather stern talk with whoever developed the algorithm that chooses what’s seen by the general public (i.e. people who are not SL users).

What an outsider sees when visiting the Second Life Feeds' page
This is what you see when you visit Second Life’s official social network.

There are four main roles that a social network needs to serve:

  1. Having a user profile that allows you to maintain and manage your contact list(s), and share thoughts, images, videos, links, audio, and other media (such as PDF files) with the audience(s) you’ve chosen;
  2. Building, managing and promoting communities for discussion and media sharing;
  3. Promoting your brand, whether your brand is a blog or a commercial presence;
  4. Fostering a safe, welcoming, adequately-moderated environment for users;

As I’ve already explained, SL’s in-world groups fail at the second role. Managing your group’s notices is a pain. Group bans arrived late in the day. Group chat is still unreliable. And, finally, the only group-related accompanying material you can really have is the text on your group’s profile, and the group’s picture – and that’s about it. At best, they’re just a combination of a newsfeed and a seriously buggy chatroom.

For the first role, in-world profiles are very limited, and I’ve never understood the reasoning behind the three different aspect ratios for the front page, the picks tab, and the RL info tab. Even with the “web” tab, which is connected to your SL feed, their feature set is seriously lacking compared to just about everything out there. Plus, their target audience is mostly SL users who are logged in.

As far as the third role is concerned, SL has its Classifieds and its Destination Guide, but I’m not entirely sure how useful people actually find them. The main issue with them is that, for users who have chosen to access “adult” content on LL’s SL-related services (in-world and web-based), the classifieds are typically flooded with ads for SL’s sex industry; these usually drown out other content that users may be more interested in. As for the destination guide, its suggestions rarely make me say “oh, this sounds really interesting, let’s go have a look”; then again, I’m somewhat specific in my interests, and I’m terribly picky and critical about the quality and aesthetics of each build, so you may not want to use my preferences as a yardstick.

Finally, as I’ve already explained, both the forums and the feeds were tainted by years of deliberate failure, as certain Linden Lab employees were far too cozy with certain abusive users whose raison d’être is to disrupt any kind of discussion and abuse – to the point of chronic, targeted harassment – other users, either for the fun of it, or to silence those their ringleaders chose to target. As I said earlier, Ebbe Altberg brought this to an abrupt end. He cleaned up the cesspool that his predecessors (Rosedale, Kingdon, and Humble) allowed to be created and continue to infect SL’s community, but the damage has already been done, and restoring faith in LL’s community management will take at least twice as many years as it took for Rosedale, Kingdon, and Humble and their troll-friendly forum and feed “moderators” to destroy it.

I think that, from the above, it’s pretty clear that LL’s own social tools are lagging behind third-party alternatives, and this is yet another serious blow to the Lab. As if losing the other three crucial races (creative tools, rendering engine, game engine), wasn’t bad enough, the Lab lost the social media race too. This has left the San Francisco-based virtual world developer and its customers depending on other platforms for interacting on the ordinary web and for showcasing their in-world creativity to both Second Life users and people outside of it.

Third-Party alternatives to LL’s official social infrastructure

Blogs

Historically, the most obvious choice for SL users have been the two major blogging platforms: Blogspot / Blogger and WordPress. Tumblr also used to be popular, especially for image and video sharing, but Verizon’s Apple Store- and conservative nutjob-appeasing 2018 ban on adult content and its subsequent conservative content moderation policy made it friendly only to the far right fringe lunatics. Even after Automattic (i.e. WordPress) acquired it, the ban was upheld, perhaps to protect WordPress from something that once might have been somewhat able to compete with it. Blogger / Blogspot and WordPress offer rather comprehensive editing and analytics tools, with WordPress charging more for more advanced options. Another contender is Wix, which is now connected to DeviantArt (more on that later), but I’ve no experience with it.

Micro-blogging

For micro-blogging, Twitter seems to be everyone’s first choice, and it’s got really good analytics tools. However, it’s very easy for the user to end up having a mixed and unfocused RL / SL audience, and it’s also very easy to get caught up in non-SL discussions. Choosing each tweet’s audience is basically out of the question, and it’s also very hard both for you and for others to search for older tweets of yours. It also offers no way whatsoever for you to build and manage a community.

Plurk had gained some traction a few years ago, but nowadays it seems to have been abandoned by many of its adopters. I must also say that its “incentive” scheme (“Karma” and badges for posting and replying) is quite annoying, and its privacy controls are rudimentary – at best.

Google+ tried to offer something between a micro-blogging service and a more traditional social network (like Yahoo! Groups or the now-discontinued Pathfinder social networking platform that was popular in Greece); it even allowed people to create groups and cross-post to them. However, it’s now dead. Pity, because it could have been pretty good. About.com is not really a social network; it’s nothing more than a calling card of sorts, so it’s not worth talking about. I’m not even sure its owners remember it exists.

I gave Ello a shot for a while, but abandoned it shortly thereafter. It doesn’t have a “real names only” policy, and it seems to be suited well for photographers and pictorial artists, however its functionality was best described as rudimentary, and its reach is still very limited. I might give it another go soon, but I don’t expect much.

Tumblr used to be a somewhat valid micro-blogging option, but, as I mentioned before, Verizon ruined it overnight in its drive to make it “family-friendly” and host its companion app on the prudish Apple Store, whose Mary Whitehouse-pleasing “moral” standards make Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas and his skirt length-measuring goons look like Anaïs Nin.

The way I see things now, the only Twitter-like social platform that can be friendly enough to SL users is Mastodon, but it’s woefully underused by SL users, and getting set up, discovering others, and getting discovered is not so easy, especially given the differences in community standards across the various federated networks. Plus, there’s very little support for sharing to it from the major blogging platforms, and you have to do it manually.

Image hosting services

For years, Flickr has been the platform of choice for SL users and brands to share their images – and it still is, actually. It still has some legacy Yahoo! code that doesn’t seem to be state of the art today; its private messaging system is rudimentary, its groups management tools are nothing special, but it has pretty good image hosting and management capabilities, that are quite fine-grained; you can organise your images and videos in albums and galleries, you can fave others’ work, you can tag your work, mention people who are depicted in it, choose the licence that governs your work, and even host adult-themed images and videos, provided you rate them accordingly. However, it’s changed hands quite a few times and along with the changes of ownership came changes in what you get with a free account and what you get as a paying member.

The most notorious change was the removal of the perks that, under Yahoo!’s ownership, Flickr offered to free accounts (one terabyte of storage and some basic analytics tools). SmugMug (the new owners) proceeded, in a highly controversial move, whose legality is somewhat dubious, to roll it back, limiting free accounts to 1,000 pictures and no analytics at all; if you want analytics and unlimited storage, that’s USD50/year. Several commentators and bloggers have expressed doubts over the years regarding the direction the platform will take, i.e. whether it’ll continue to accept digital art (3D art, screenshots – post-processed or raw – captured in video games and virtual worlds, computer and mobile UI themes) or not. However, for the time being, it remains SL-friendly and its managers and curators don’t seem to stigmatise SL users and brands. Its popularity remains quite remarkable. At the time of writing, its owners claim it has over 60 million monthly users, and over 100 million registered photographers.

DeviantArt is another image hosting platform that enjoys a certain degree of popularity with SL users. It offers free and paid (Core) plans, group management tools, messaging, even some basic blogging and micro-blogging facilities, while user profiles are more detailed and fine-grained than Flickr’s. As is the case with Flickr, paid members get to have stats and insights (analytics) for their work. However, Flickr’s upload and image managing tools are more intuitive to use. In recent years, DeviantArt’s popularity among SL users has declined, as many SL photographers have migrated to Flickr. This is a bit strange, as DeviantArt caters to many of the same communities that SL users identify with, and it’s highly popular with creators focusing on fan art, comics, 3D art, sci-fi, game customisers, UI themes for pretty much every operating system under the sun. It’s even popular with several communities that are highly active in SL (furries, latex fetishists like yours truly), so it would make sense that SL users would prefer it; frankly, I think its clunky upload tools are the only real barrier to its adoption. Its user base remains large and active (61 million registered users, over 45 million unique visitors per month).

DeviantArt Core (paid) plans
DeviantArt’s “core” (paid) plans

Instagram is currently the undisputed king when it comes to popularity. With the power of Facebook behind it, it boasts over a billion monthly users and over half a billion active users. So, several commentators and bloggers already urge SL users and SL-based brands to switch from Flickr to Instagram. In fact, it’s already started to become quite popular among several SLebrities and brands, given that the #secondlife hashtag has started gaining noticeable traction there. However, judging from the comments I see under various models’ images and videos, it’s a creep’s paradise. Privacy-wise, it’s the absolute worst. If you want to access it, you must accept ALL manner of cookies, and you don’t have the option to choose what you’ll let it install. You’ll supposedly have a chance to opt out later. This flies right in the face of the General Data Protection Regulation (currently the most comprehensive privacy legislation on the planet), and Facebook / Instagram deserve to be slapped with a massive fine to the tune of a few hundred million dollars. Being owned by Facebook, the content / content moderation / user protection policies are the same crap – read the “One hell of a benchmark” section below for more details as to why Facebook’s universe is not suitable for SL users, or for anyone who wants to speak freely and be safe from harassment and arbitrary content “moderation” decisions.

Forums / Message boards

SL has its own official forums. Sadly, these still have a rather tainted reputation; in the pre-Altberg years, certain administrators and moderators had gotten too cozy with various users notorious for their abusive behaviour. So, they enjoyed preferential treatment, and their skill at dancing around LL’s ToS and CS enabled them to not only get away with it, but get their targets in trouble instead. Thankfully, Ebbe Altberg put an end to this crap by permabanning the leaders of these troll gangs. Perhaps a change of staff came about, I don’t know – I don’t have inside information privileges. What I do know is that the amounts of trollery that were dished out were reduced pretty fast, and some of the worst abusers, perhaps discouraged after their leaders were unceremoniously and permanently ousted from SL, either stopped posting altogether or grudgingly became far less toxic and obnoxious.

The state of affairs in the official forums (which also used to be a complete klutz, from a technical standpoint – the software used for many years wasn’t even a message board system). This led to the rise of the SL Universe forum (SLU for short), which has now evolved into the more inclusive (as discussions of OpenSim, IMVU, and other virtual worlds are included) VirtualVerse forums. The SLU forum had always been loathed by the trolls of the official forums, because its owner’s tolerance for their antics has always been zero. Because of several issues I was dealing with, I haven’t quite completed my migration to the new forums; that is to say, I haven’t gotten around to completing my VirtualVerse profile, and I haven’t posted there yet. Other forums have emerged over the years, too; most have now disappeared and others are still there, but remain largely inactive because perhaps their users lost interest in SL.

…And the kitchen sink

Now, let’s talk about the more full-fledged social networks; the ones whose feature sets include user profiles, comprehensive contact list management and categorisation capabilities, status update feeds, audience selection for each post, privacy controls, community creation and management tools, etc. Many years ago, Yahoo! Profiles, Briefcase, and Groups were one of the go-to solutions. The community management options of the Groups were very advanced for the time, and you could have quite rich content – for the time. Profiles were somewhat limited compared to what we’ve become accustomed to seeing today, but they were par for the course for the time. In fact, I do think SL profiles share many of the same features and principles. After all, this makes sense, as SL traces its roots to technologies and platforms that were state of the art as far back as 1996. Sadly, Yahoo!’s platform now isn’t worth bothering with. Pretty much everyone has migrated to Facebook.

This sort-of makes sense; on Facebook, you can have your profile, photo and video albums, a page, a group, there’s a marketplace, you can even run your own online store, and even pay Facebook to promote your posts and your presence within it. Its contact list management system, however clunky and slow, does allow you to create multiple lists that enable you to keep certain posts from being seen by certain people… Even Linden Lab’s former community manager, who went by the in-world name Amanda Linden, endorsed Facebook as “the best place to find out about cool things going on in Second Life, share ideas, and get the inside scoop on inworld events, contests, machinima releases, PR activities, fun discussions, and more.” High praise indeed – after all, Facebook does seem to offer everything and the kitchen sink, and it’s managed to become the benchmark to which all other social networks are compared.

One hell of a benchmark

It’s true that Facebook offers a wide variety of tools for you, although admittedly not all of them are intuitive to locate and / or use. I could deal with features that are ponderous to use; after all, I still use GIMP 2.8.14 for image editing, so I know a thing or two about dealing with poor workflow design. It’s also the most popular social network, by far. I can understand why someone would be attracted to it – who doesn’t want to maximise their outreach?

But is Facebook really the right platform for SL users, including content creators and bloggers? Well… No. It’s not, and there are a few reasons for this that, for me, are deal-breakers. The first is its “real names only” policy. This means that you can’t exist there using your chosen SL name. You will be either banned summarily and for good, or you’ll be given the option to continue existing there after disclosing your RL name to Facebook, verifying it with a scan of your RL ID card or driver’s licence – and from then on, Facebook will force you to go by your RL name. It’s happened to me and hundreds of other SL users. Yeah, I know the “oh, come on, you can create a page for your SL shop / persona / blog / whatever” advice, but that doesn’t solve much. When you set up a group, your RL name will be seen by its members, and perhaps even non-members, depending on the group’s visibility settings.

There are reasons why we keep our SL separate from our RL, with pseudonymity being the default for SL. Obviously, those of us who explore erotic fantasies in-world have every reason in the world to need pseudonymity; then, SL is a haven for all sorts of marginalised people. They need privacy. It protects them from reprisals (state, family, whatever), abuse, harassment. Yet, even with the privacy SL offers by default and by design, many of us have been stalked and harassed – some of us for years. Facebook demands that you open yourself to all sorts of harassment and abuse, and not because it wants to “hold you accountable for your actions.” That’s bullshit. Mark Zuckerberg, one of the biggest creeps in the world, wants your RL info so he can sell it.

Then there’s Facebook’s content moderation policy. If you thought the erratic, arbitrary, non-systematic way in which LL’s governance team enforced the ToS in the pre-Altberg years was bad, wait till you see Facebook’s content moderation contractors, who are entirely untransparent, unaccountable, and act as if they’re above any legislation. Besides the fact that Facebook’s ToS reek of Victorian-era puritanism, which is something that would normally be a red flag for any seasoned SL user, these “moderators” apply ToS in a manner that can only be described as vulgar and obscene: For instance, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic speech, (including death and rape threats) by far-righters and nazis gets a free pass. File as many reports as you want, Facebook’s response will be that they’ve “investigated” the matter and that they’ve found it “doesn’t violate any of [its] Community Standards”.

Yes, you read that right. If you’re a jack-booted neo-nazi, you can post death and rape threats, you can organise armed riots, and Mark’s censors will say you don’t violate any of their Community Standards. In a nutshell, if fascists decide to target you, you’re at their mercy, with Facebook not only looking the other way, but giving them its blessing. But if you speak sharply against nazis, if you criticise racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, then your Facebook account will be immediately hit time and time again (to the point where this “moderation” behaviour ends up looking like on-demand targeted harassment) with restrictions, links to your blog will be banned, etc. And there’s sweet fuck all you can do to appeal.

Lately, especially in Orbánana republics like Greece, journalists, comic artists, infographics designers etc. that are critical of the alt-right government and / or lash out at the multitude of the government-sponsored troll army are repeatedly hit with bans and arbitrary sanctions by Facebook’s content moderation contractors – sanctions that, as I’ve said, look like on-demand targeted harassment. That’s not incompetence; that’s how they roll, because it happens all the fucking time. What all this in mind, it boggles my mind that any SL-related blogger would recommend that SL users adopt Facebook and start playing hide-and-seek with its abusive policies. You can imagine how badly I eyerolled and facepalmed when I saw Amanda Linden recommend Facebook as a valid social network for SL users and SL-oriented businesses.

Drill this into your heads: you’re not safe on Facebook. You’re not safe from doxing (the vengeful and malicious disclosure and dissemination of sensitive or potentially sensitive private information), you’re not safe from harassment, stalking, or even RL violence. Your RL info is not safe on Facebook. Your SL business presence, and thus your livelihood, is not safe on Facebook. You can be banned, restricted, even deleted permanently, just because some lower form of life thought it’d be a good idea to destroy you, without any explanation or meaningful paths for appeal, much less legal action against those who targeted you. Considering all this, would / should you trust über-creepdouches Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg? Would / should you sacrifice your privacy, your peace of mind, and perhaps even your RL safety for the little conveniences that Facebook provides? It’s up to you – but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Alternatives to Facebook

We already established the four major roles that a social network needs to cover. o you actually have alternatives to Facebook if you want “everything and the kitchen sink”? It’s practically a monopoly, with an utterly captive audience that’s too heavily invested in it to say “sod it, I’m leaving”: people have their contacts and their audience there, they know Facebook isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and they just aren’t inclined to start over on a new platform. No one likes Facebook. In fact, everyone hates it. Everyone hates Zuckerberg and Sandberg. But people are kept captive because they’re afraid they’ll lose contact with the people they usually interact with.

That said, there have been attempts at creating Facebook-like options dedicated to users of virtual worlds, with a focus mostly on Second Life: Avatar Social Network and 2ndHub were two prime examples. Where are they now? Dead, buried, and forgotten. In fact, most references to them online have been drowned out by newer, unrelated entries, so there’s little that a quick search will return. From this, we can understand that a dedicated social network for SL outside the SL feeds isn’t economically viable in the long run. But if we can’t have an independent social network for SL users, or in general for users of virtual worlds and virtual reality technologies, what are our options? The way I see it, the best option is to adopt an existing, reasonably well-supported, inclusive, supportive platform / system, and set up our community (and sub-communities) in there, while accepting what it can’t do.

Of course, like it or not, if you abandon the major platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, what have you), you’ll have to deal with one major consequence: you’ll lose a sizeable part of your audience. At best, you’ll have to wait a bit until the new platform becomes more popular and your friends and customers migrate there, fed up with all the nonsense. At worst, you’ll have to return to Facebook and try to rebuild your audience and walk on eggshells to stay on its content moderation contractors’ good side.

First of all, one must come to terms that other social networks don’t offer a marketplace. While this may be a concern for some, an SL brand really shouldn’t care. Facebook – the one “and the kitchen sink” social network that offers a marketplace facility doesn’t support selling to SL accounts. Not only because its policies are completely against the most basic privacy-protecting principles of SL, but also because LL has its own exclusive marketplace. Plus, since Facebook is supposedly trying to develop its own virtual world (which I’m not going to ever bother with), why would it support a competitor? Beyond that, if you’re making your own meshes and aren’t using 3D models purchased from other sources outside of SL or 3D models made for you by someone else, you can easily start selling them on 3D asset marketplaces like CG Trader, Daz 3D, SketchFab, even the ridiculous Turbosquid.

Second, putting all your eggs in one basket is never a good idea. Let’s say Facebook supported the sale of SL goods and you abandoned your in-world shop, neglected your SL Marketplace presence (or even deleted it), and threw everything you had at Facebook. Obviously, you wouldn’t be able to exist in Facebook with your SL account; you’d need to connect your SL store with your RL account, exposing your RL identity to whomever. One day, you’d say something that’d incur the wrath of a racist fuck, which would result in a fraudulent abuse report campaign against you, and everything you’ve worked hard for would disappear – as I’ve already explained earlier. No meaningful way of appealing, no nothing. You’d be shit out of luck. Are you sure that’s what you want for your business and livelihood? To be at the mercy of every thin-skinned prude and / or fascist and Facebook’s fash-friendly content moderation contractors? If the answer is “yes”, then you can ignore everything else you’ve read here so far and everything that follows – just don’t say I didn’t warn you. But if the answer is “no”, then read on…

Diaspora

My profile on Diaspora
My profile on Diaspora

Built on the GNU Social base (so, it’s free – as in free speech – and open source), Diaspora puts you in control of your privacy and your data. It aims to provide some of the core functionality of Facebook, and it does; you can have your profile, your status updates (posts and images), you can comment on others’ posts, and you can categorise your contacts so that you have fine-grained control over who sees what. Of course, it doesn’t have a “real names only” policy. You can choose your own nickname. To order your posts and find posts by others, you use hashtags. You can also link Diaspora to your Facebook profile, and there’s also a chat function. One of the main selling points of Diaspora is that it’s decentralised. The platform consists of several different networks called pods. The provider does NOT collect or store user data centrally; instead, the infrastructure is distributed by the users, and the transfer of data is done via the pods. If you’re a skilled programmer, you can set up your own pod, which functions as a server – this way, your private data stays private and in your own hands. If you’re not technically proficient, you can choose a pod with open sign-ups.

However, despite its security and privacy, it’s not without drawbacks. First of all, finding a pod with open sign-ups can be a bit confusing. Second, not all pods are free to use. Some require payment to cover their costs. Third, if you want to set up your own pod, you need to be a relatively decent programmer. Fourth, you can’t create “groups”; instead, you create categories of contacts that are called “aspects” – at least from what I’ve gathered – and you share the desired posts with them. This has, of course, the disadvantage that sorting and managing posts shared with any “aspect” can be cumbersome. And finally, its user base is tiny compared to Facebook; only about 750,000 users – about as many as SL’s own, actually.

Vero

Vero is ad-free, like Diaspora. It started out in 2015 and its user base has been significantly increased lately, aided by several influencers and a limited-time offer of free, lifetime user accounts. It is reported as being similar to Facebook an Instagram, in that it offers profile, timeline, and news feed management tools. Rather than using algorithms to pre-filter posts on your timeline, it presents posts chronologically. Contact and post audience management is reportedly simplified, supporting only four categories: “followers”, “acquaintances”, “friends”, and “close friends”. Also, it won’t be always free to use, though; vendors who implement is shop feature will be charged a fee for their sales, and an annual subscription is considered as a future option. Unlike Facebook, it doesn’t seem to have a “real names only” policy. The major disadvantage, though, is that, in order to register and verify an account, you need to give your private telephone number.

My suggestions

I’m sure you all understand that there’s no single choice that’ll satisfy all your SL-related social networking need, so you really shouldn’t seek or attempt to put all of your eggs in one basket. Obviously, I don’t recommend Facebook and Instagram. Instead, I recommend that you steer well clear of both. You don’t need to put up with this particular company and the way it abuses its user base. Here are my recommendations:

  1. Start a blog and learn how to manage it. It’s always worth to have a blog. It doesn’t matter if it’s on WordPress, Blogger, or Wix – try all of them on for size and see what’s easier for you to use. Blogs are a versatile tool that you can use to share your musings (esp. long-form ones), detailed product updates, and it can even evolve into an e-shop if you want (but not an e-shop for SL).
  2. “Traditional” social media: Don’t be swayed by promises of “billions of users” before you decide which social networks are best for you. Remember, there’s more than 8 billion people on the planet, and SL’s active users are less than a million – roughly a relatively big city in a country like the United States. Instead, opt for a platform that will respect your right to pseudonymity, your privacy, is economically viable, treats you as a customer and not as merchandise to sell to others, and will not wipe out your account “just because”. Also, keep in mind that, if your primary audience is SL users, then you need to choose your platform accordingly. Does this automatically exclude Facebook and Instagram? Yes. But if you absolutely must have a presence on Facebook, make sure it’s a page. Not a group, not a profile.
  3. Image hosting: although Flickr is by far, right now, the most popular choice, there are many people for you to network with on DeviantArt. My recommendation is that you maintain a well-managed presence on both platforms, in order to maximise both your audience and the diversity of your connections.
  4. Forums: VirtualVerse is the way to go.
  5. Micro-blogging: Stick with Twitter, for now. I highly recommend having two accounts: one for RL, one for SL. Even if you end up commenting on RL matters with the account you’ll have for your SL avatar, the divide between RL and SL is always very useful. Forget Plurk, it’s dead in the water.
  6. Commercial presence: Have a decent in-world mainstore and a well-managed marketplace presence. Facebook and Instagram can’t help you. If you want to expand beyond SL (or even move beyond SL), go with Daz 3D, CG Trader, SketchFab, and any other 3D asset store that provides you the audience you want.
  7. Alternative platforms:
    • For microblogging, Mastodon is the choice that best suits SL’s ideals of privacy and freedom of expression.
    • For more “traditional” use cases, go with Diaspora. Even though very few SLers are there, starting a small community there without having to put up with Facebook’s crap is always a good idea.
  8. Bringing it all together: This is where you’ll have to put in some elbow grease. Sadly, I don’t know of any tool that’ll simultaneously and automatically post updates to every possible social network, but it really doesn’t take too much time (normally). The most tedious I usually have to do is add my Flickr images to various groups, to be completely honest.