This day marks a cumulative fifteen years in Second Life for me – around two years on my first account, and thirteen as Mona Eberhardt. However, my rezday isn’t the starting point for this post. I’m not interested in boring you with yet another “I’ve seen this development and the other in SL” retrospective. The main reason for the current post is my previous post, where I mentioned that I’ve spent a little over four of these years working in-world as an escort / exotic dancer. I think this is about as good a time as any to share my thoughts on that time in my SL.
The experiences I had in those years, the fantasies and desires I indulged in, and helped others indulge in, the friends I made, are all part of who I am now. The time I spent exploring that side of me helped me get in touch with my desires, fantasies, and fetishes. Furthermore, working in SL’s sex industry was my choice. Although I’ve moved on, I don’t look back upon that time with guilt, sadness, shame, or regret. So, I don’t hide it, and I don’t try to dress it up with daft euphemisms, such as “courtesan”.
Of course, being all too familiar with the fact that people have a surprisingly hard time minding their own fucking business, I prefer to keep my RL and SL identities as separate as possible, and be very picky as to who gets to know what. So, few of my Real Life friends, acquaintances and relatives know I use SL at all; fewer know that I have a relationship in SL. Only one knows I’ve worked as an escort in SL, and no one in my RL circle knows my SL nom de plume.
So, this one RL friend of mine to whom I revealed, way back in 2010, my in-world past employment asked me a question that had me stumped: “I don’t get it: in the real world, you’re ‘conventionally attractive,’ you have a decent job, and you can have your choice of men. Why did you choose to be a virtual hooker?” Back then, I shrugged and merely said “because,” which is a perfectly adequate answer. But still, this got me thinking: what was it that drew me to this particular in-world profession?
The Allure of Second Life
I believe the first step to answer this question is to identify what makes SL itself so attractive to me, and to others like me. Despite its hardware requirements, clunky interface (after all, it’s a very old platform), its lack of an endgame, and the overwhelming number of 3D graphics terms you find yourself having to understand, it offers quite a lot. For starters, you can find a decent choice of items you can use to shape your avatar at relatively low prices, a set of in-world creative tools, and a chance, by default, to keep your RL and SL identities as separate as you want. This last bit is liberating. These attributes allow you to explore your whims, desires, and fantasies (sexual or otherwise), without worrying about RL repercussions, and even reimagine and / or reinvent yourself, your background story, your entire existence. In this digital realm, you can do and be just about anything you wish.
Many people reinvent their childhoods in-world, seeking to heal the wounds their RL ones left them with. I’ve seen people do things that are physically impossible in RL – either subjectively (i.e. a person who’s disabled in RL enjoying a complex dance in SL) or objectively, such as growing wings and flying, or transforming into fairies, merfolk, elves, even cyborgs. I’ve seen people create stuff in SL that they could never possibly build in RL, because they could never hope to bear the cost it would incur, or because the laws of Physics get in the way. This, combined with Linden Lab’s “do whatever you want, just don’t be a dick” attitude and the fact that it steers well clear of employing creepy, Facebook-like, data collection methods, provides a liberatingly and therapeutically safe space for creativity, self-expression, and self-exploration, including people’s in-world experimentations with romance, sex, and gender.
On the other hand, RL societies, even “progressive” ones, employ all sorts of gender-based emotional, legislative, and physical violence (slut-shaming, kink-shaming, harassment, guilt trips, discrimination, ostracism, forced birth laws, beating, rape, murder) to “discipline” those who stray from the patriarchal, heteronormative, gender binary, monogamous, male-centric orthodoxy. In other words, if you’re a woman who leads an “exceedingly active” sex life, if you dress “too provocatively” or in a manner that doesn’t match your sex, if you’re a sex worker, or if you’re (gender)queer, RL society will go out of its way to make your existence unbearable.
In this, I’m not different from the scores of people who have embraced SL for this purpose. It gave me a chance to indulge in all those things societal norms and established perceptions about gender roles made it impossible for me to explore safely in RL. Thanks to SL’s extensive built-in safeguards, I’m practically always in control of what happens to my avatar, although several other users in the past thought my avatar’s state of (un)dress was a sexual invitation, and one addressed specifically to them, to boot.
Stopping unsavoury persons from continuing to interact with me in-world is just a mouse click away, and I don’t need to explain to them why I don’t want them in my SL. The same goes for getting out of a place where I don’t feel comfortable – even in the early years when griefing attacks were far more frequent than they are today. We can vew dating and sexual exploration in SL as a safer, at least physically, form of what we oldbies did on the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and other similar platforms.
How It All Started
So, in terms of sexual exploration, SL became my playground; I felt free and safe. I could do and be things that would make me “less respectable” if I did and became them in RL. But how did I start with in-world sex work? Well, in the beginning, I sought a job. I wasn’t a skilled builder yet, and I most certainly wasn’t a scripter. I also didn’t have the equipment and qualifications to be an in-world DJ or musician. So, my options were effectively limited to working at a club; I could be a hostess, a dancer (go-go or exotic), and / or an escort. I tried all three as a trainee and as a new professional, and found out that escorting was the job with the highest earning potential. So, I decided to go with a combination of escorting and exotic dancing. So, I guess you could say I was being pragmatic.
But this doesn’t tell the whole story. I actually enjoyed this profession, at least for the most part. I must say here that I was unaware of Brooke Magnanti‘s work. As for my knowledge of the RL strip club circuit before joining SL, my only contact with it was when my then-boyfriend dared me to visit such a club. There, he rather audaciously bought me a half-hour lap dance session in one of the club’s VIP rooms with two stunning dancers; a guy and a girl. If it sounds arousing, I must tell you I exited the room with the stupidest smile you can imagine. So, although this remained for quite some time my only RL strip club experience, not to mention my only RL same-sex experience, it was a bit of a light bulb moment for me: I realised that I wasn’t bi-curious, but actually bisexual. It also made me see the sensual and erotic side of working as an exotic dancer; so, working as one in SL sounded exciting and – why not? – transgressive.
I was going to defy RL societal norms. As an exotic dancer, arousing those around me and captivating them with my appearance, my flirting, and my sexually charged speech in chat and IM was no longer something I should be ashamed of, or something I should avoid for fear of sexual assault: it was something I’d be complimented and even paid for. And as an escort, I could be paid to have sex with others, on my own terms, and in an environment far safer than anything RL had ever provided me with.
Exploring Kinks and Fetishes as An SL Escort
It goes without saying that, even before I joined SL, I was already familiar with a wide variety of adult content: from “saucy” lifestyle mags to the usual suspects (Playboy, Penthouse) and all manner of cheesy porn magazines; from watered-down, flaccid softcore movies to moderately erotic (such as 9½ Weeks and La Leçon de Plaisir) ones, and then all the way to hardcore movies and websites. I became familiar with the works of photographers like Suze Randall or Eric Kroll, and I loved comic artists like Milo Manara, Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri, Sardax, John Willie, and Michael Manning. Much of what I’d seen and read there became part of my fantasies.
I know that, in RL, many of my fantasies will always remain fantasies. Some require costly attire and equipment that I can’t afford; some are physically impossible and / or dangerous; some others could expose me to the most venomous and vitriolic gossip imaginable. In SL, these barriers are largely removed: you can build your dream home, complete with the most well-equipped BDSM dungeon, for a fraction of the price of a couple of RL sex toys; your avatar can do, and be put through, utterly implausible things. Finding people to participate in some of your fantasies is far easier than it is in RL.
It’s true that, outside LL’s infrastructure and control, there are some gossip cesspools run by subhuman pieces of trash catering to the foul, cannibalistic appetites of even lower forms of life; LL can’t protect you from them. But, if certain long overdue and extensively commented upon permabans that were imposed during Ebbe Altberg’s tenure are anything to go by, they seem to be more than willing to show such people the door.
I wrote earlier that I’m just one of the many people who take advantage of SL to explore their fetishes and kinks. As a matter of fact, when I was an escort, many of my clients hired me to help them experience their non-vanilla fantasies. Some of them weren’t exactly my cup of tea; some others were fantasies I also had. Through my interaction with my clients, I was also given the opportunity to experiment, to see if what I fantasised about felt right when viewed on-screen while imagining myself being at the center of such scenes, and even discover new desires and kinks and, as a result, expand my horizons further.
One of the things I learned right from the start was that, if you want to make it as an SL escort, even the most stunning looks won’t help you much if all you do is click on whatever sexual attachments your client(s) and any other escort(s) that may be participating in the session are wearing. Sex in SL, being an extension of old-school chatroom / IM cybersex, relies greatly on text-based role-play, commonly referred to as emoting. In the context of an escort club, it refers both to chatting flirtatiously with your patrons – especially – after they’ve just tipped you and to your role-play with a client who’s hired you for a sex session.
To be good at it, you first need to have a good grasp of your partner’s (or client’s) language (I’m talking B2 on the CEFR’s scale or higher); you need to know how to use your partner’s (or client’s) attachments and yours; you need to be familiar with the furniture and / or custom animations you’re using. Most importantly, you need to be capable of putting together detailed, engaging descriptions of the scenes you and your partner(s) / client(s) are creating at the time, but also engage in a “call and response” manner with what your partner(s) / client(s) just sent in the chat / IM window, and type your text fast enough. You don’t want your session to read like two (or more) parallel, unrelated, and out-of-sync monologues.
So, Is Everything About SL Sex Work Great?
While my experience as an SL sex worker has been fun, not everything about it is good. First of all, there’s a huge supply of escorts and exotic dancers, and demand isn’t exactly infinite. So, getting hired can often be hard: even back then, there were extremely slow days at the club; there were days when people came to the club, but none of us got hired, and tips – if any – were insultingly low. Then again, there were days when I logged off having made upwards of L$5,000 within three hours of work, although that wasn’t very often. If you’re expecting to become a millionaire in SL by escorting, you need to reconsider.
But that’s not all: all those things I documented in my previous post were based on my experience as an escort: there were clients who were very difficult to communicate with. Others were really pushy and didn’t understand any part of “I’m not available right now.” Others didn’t know what they wanted and expected me to guess for them. Others had no respect for our boundaries, especially w.r.t. our RL. Others wanted us to satisfy kinks that were just plain against LL’s ToS and Community Standards. There have been times when I got booked by clients whose role-playing skills were pathetic, and working with them was tedious and exhausting. Other times, connection issues were so terrible that sessions were disrupted, and clients needed to be refunded. There were also occasions when we had really problematic people at the club: back in those days, griefing wasn’t an uncommon occurrence, and it could cause quite a headache; we’ve also had visitors who only came to pick a fight.
The advent of voice chat in SL didn’t help matters at all. Some girls and guys started offering voice chat, even cam sessions. This threatened the in-world sex industry with a race to the bottom w.r.t. escorts’ rates, but eventually it got sorted out. What took too long to get sorted, though, was the pressure exerted upon escorts by clients and some club managers. Club managers wanted to appear competitive; clients wanted an experience more akin to phone sex. However, many escorts, including yours truly, didn’t want to use voice chat in their sessions. Many were self-conscious about their accent, as English wasn’t their native language; others felt this would interfere with their RL; others simply weren’t of the same sex in RL as their SL avatars.
Personally, I’ve always felt my accent in English leaves a lot to be desired and I was worried it’d ruin the atmosphere and mood. Furthermore, even then, I wasn’t living alone in RL; I felt having my RL boyfriend hear me having – essentially – voice sex with other men was too invasive. Typing away was OK; I could take a short break if I had to, it was relatively quiet – my laptop’s keyboard was certainly no IBM Model M. Furthermore, at least in my eyes, offering my client a well-written narration, prompting him to not only read it, but also come up with something on par with it, made sessions more intriguing and rewarding.
Of course, not all patrons saw things this way. Among those patrons who demanded voice chat sessions, started heckling those of us who didn’t offer this service: they started haggling for lower rates, claiming we’re men in RL and threatening to expose us on the gossip cesspools I mentioned earlier, and so on. Many girls left the profession back then, because they didn’t want to put up with all this nonsense. I remember my income from escorting was seriously decreased at the time; all of my non-voice colleagues were dealt a similar blow. When some escorts started offering cam sessions and RL photos, things got even worse.
Why I Moved On From SL Escorting
Although I’ve always been an avid SL user, I come here to have a bit of fun, explore a bit if I can, meet my friends, and escape for a while from RL and its troubles and stress. By late 2010, the dust had settled, and I had already met Mistress Ani, who was then just starting out as an escort. She and I hit it off right away, and became best friends. However, I felt it was time for me to move on. I had quite a few good memories from my escorting days; during those days, I was able to indulge in several of my fantasies and fetishes, and I’d made some decent money.
But that’s not all there is to it: in my erotic explorations, I found out I had a really strong latex fetish, combined with a desire to immerse myself in the world of D/s (Dominance and submission). Due to the bizarre nature of the look I wanted to adopt, I quickly understood that, as provocative as it may be, it wasn’t what clients expected to be offered, and it wouldn’t be popular with them. So, some time in May 2011, I ceased being an escort.
I’m not nostalgic about those days. I don’t regret them, either. I had good times, I played around to my heart’s content, I made money. I had some unsatisfactory times, too – even rough ones: the voice / cam drama; the slow days; some frustrating clients. But the negative events and experiences don’t matter anymore, because, above all, I got to know Mistress Ani. She’s always been by my side, through thick and thin; She’s always been my rock, my confidante, my best friend. Now I know we’ve loved each other from the beginning. Now, She’s my Mistress; I belong to Her completely, and I couldn’t be happier; I’m Her permanently sealed submissive rubber doll; Her slut; Her toy; Her property. And this makes me look back on my escorting days, and all of my virtual existence, and smile.
On both my first Second Life account and my current one, I worked quite a few years (October 2006 to June 2008, on my first account, and September 2008 to May 2011, on this one) as an escort and exotic dancer to cover my in-world expenses, or part of them. However, even in those early, heady years, an SL escort’s job wasn’t easy.
It’s always been a job that requires pretty serious role-playing and emoting skills, and substantial, regular investment in your appearance and equipment: clothes, shoes, skins, hair, accessories, sex-related avatar components (genitals, nipples, and the like). An escort needs to look the part, and sound (or read, if s/he prefers to avoid using voice chat) the part, if s/he wants to get hired.
Getting hired isn’t easy. Escorts in SL spend much of their time waiting for a client to show up and hire them, dancing on the poles of the club they’re affiliated with, or standing around on the sidewalk as street prostitutes outside clubs and on the streets of sims or parcels dedicated to SL sex services. Of course, the abundance of in-world escort / strip clubs and SL’s small user base don’t do SL’s sex workers any favours.
Some escorts are fortunate enough to establish a fairly steady income, as they’ve become popular among their club’s patrons, have managed to establish a contact list that includes several regular clients who’ll book them on a more or less regular basis, and have a satisfactory stream of occasional clients (i.e. not regulars). Of course, there are always the tips for their pole dancing and strip-tease. Others are less fortunate.
As far as I’m concerned, over time, more people became aware of me and my work, and so there were days when I found myself logging in and being greeted by a flurry of notecards and IMs; most of them were from people who weren’t my regulars. Many of them led to successful and enjoyable sessions. My regulars were a delight to work with, and for.
Sadly, many other potential clients’ messages were of the “r u available” and “hey baby” (I’m intentionally keeping the spelling intact) variety. Rarely did these messages culminate in a session. Others were explicit to the point where red flags were raised all around me. I must say I’ve often turned potential clients down because it was nearly impossible to communicate with them, or because I didn’t feel comfortable to work with them.
The Importance of Communication
I mentioned before the difficulty SL escorts are having w.r.t. getting hired at all. This, however, is no excuse for anyone to treat them with disrespect for their work, their time, their personalities, their boundaries, and their safety. Unfortunately, sex is still surrounded by shame, guilt, stereotypes, taboos, and all sorts of sexist notions.
These factors poison gender relations and, if we add the stigma our societies attach to sex work, we can begin to understand the extra damage that’s inflicted upon client – escort communication and cooperation. In this post, since the vast majority of clients are men and the vast majority of escorts are women, I’ll focus on the male client – female escort dynamic.
Many potential clients, especially ones who have little or no experience with sex in RL and / or with RL sex workers, have insecurities and / or feelings of guilt about hiring an escort, so they’re really shy about it. Others act in a downright unpleasant, machismo-fuelled, manner and exhibit a complete lack of respect for the escort, her work, personality, boundaries, privacy, and safety. Others expect the escort to guess what they want / need.
Just as a potential client has the option to not hire this escort or the other, so does the escort have the option to turn a potential client down; I’ve already said I’ve declined to work with certain clients during my years as an SL sex worker. In this post, I’ll give you some pointers as to what will make an escort feel confident that it’s worth responding to your IM or notecard rather than ignoring it.
Sex Work Is Work, and Sex Workers Are Professionals
Whatever stereotypes you may have been raised with w.r.t. sex work, cast them aside – a sex worker, in RL or SL, is a worker; a service provider – the fact that she offers sexual services rather than, say, legal advice doesn’t matter at all.
When you’re looking to book an escort, remember that the exact same rules apply as when you’re looking to book a professional in any other business sector – RL or SL.
I know that drawing parallels between sex work and such pedestrian and unsexy jobs may be a bit of a buzzkill, but that’s the way it is. Booking an escort to please you sexually is no different than calling a technician to fix your computer or your fridge, or booking a sim landscaper to help you with the design of your virtual land. You must always have in mind that you’re booking someone who’s spent money to acquire a set of tools, time to learn and hone a set of skills, and is making their skills and talents available to you for a price.
Being Online Doesn’t Necessarily Mean “I’m Available Right Now”
Just because an escort’s in-world ad board indicates she’s online doesn’t mean she’s available to come to you right now. It may come as a bit of a surprise to many, but SL escorts do have a (second) life outside their line of work: much like everyone else, they occasionally do other things in-world. They might take time off work to explore, shop, enjoy some private time with friends and / or romantic partners, even attend in-world classes (scripting, building, pose making, 3D modelling, and so on). So, when you message an escort, don’t assume that she’s “on duty” and that the only thing keeping her from responding to your urges is her being busy with another client.
Does this mean you shouldn’t IM or send a notecard to an escort who is online right now? No. By all means, go ahead and send that IM or notecard. It’s perfectly OK for you to initiate contact with the escort even when she’s offline. Just keep a few things in mind:
If the escort is offline, it may be best to send a notecard rather than an IM, as her IMs may get capped;
If she’s online, she may very well be unavailable and unable to respond to you right away or meet you right now; you should accept and respect that, and not pester her to respond to you.
Do Your Homework Beforehand
Most SL escorts are quite open about their in-world profession, and provide information about it (time zone, experience, services offered, fantasies, desires, fetishes, and kinks they’re willing to cater for, their limits, rates). You’ll typically find this information on their SL profile in notecards provided by the ad boards in the club where they work; some have even signed up with websites dedicated to promoting SL escorts and maintain detailed profiles there.
Unfortunately, both I, and other escorts I know personally, have come across potential customers that don’t bother to read a sex worker’s notecard and / or profile. So, when they contact her, she has to spoon-feed them information that was right in front of them, but they didn’t bother to look at it. Not knowing the basics, such as the sex worker’s rates, when and where you want to meet them, and whether the services they offer can cover your personal desires, needs, fetishes, and kinks, is no way to initiate an intimate encounter. And no, you can’t say “oh, I’m a virgin and / or beginner, so I don’t know about anything like that,” because no one’s going to believe you.
Respect Their Boundaries and Limits
As I wrote, the information in an escort’s notecard typically contains information pertaining not only to her rates, time zone, services, the desires, fantasies, fetishes, and kinks she caters for, as well as the things she simply won’t do. Although most SL escorts are pretty flexible and open as to what they’ll accommodate, there are some activities that some of them find unappealing. Also, there’s a certain type of activity (i.e. sexual ageplay) that the overwhelming majority of SL escorts won’t even touch, as it’s considered downright criminal (and rightly so) in RL and, as far as Linden Lab is concerned, it’s prohibited outright by its Content Guidelines.
So, if what you want to include in your session is something that the escort doesn’t feel comfortable with, respect her boundaries and move on to someone else who’ll accommodate you willingly; don’t try to coerce anyone into satisfying a fetish they don’t feel comfortable with, because you can find yourself on the business end of an abuse report, plus you can get into legal trouble, and rightly so. Finally, just because a woman is an escort doesn’t mean she’s obliged to compromise her relationship (RL or SL) to accept you as a sexual partner. Yes, escorts do have relationships, and these are often long-term ones. You should accept and respect that.
Also, you should understand something that really should have become a no-brainer by now, but unfortunately it seems that too many people still haven’t gotten the memo: it is never a good idea to send unsolicited friend requests and / or teleport offers. Never. It’s invasive, it’s intrusive, it’s creepy, and it’s very likely to get you blocked by the escort and banned from the clubs she works at.
Respect Their Privacy
Until voice chat was successfully implemented in SL, in-world sexual roleplay involved avatar manipulation (i.e. selection, sequencing, and adjustment of animations, and control and manipulation of virtual genitalia and erogenous body parts), and text-based emoting. Rapidly-typed and well-written emoting was what really separated the best and most successful escorts from the lesser ones. Back then, sex work in SL was viewed as both a way to make some money and as a way to safely explore such fantasies: it was understood and accepted that there was a wall between RL and SL, protecting client and escort.
Although voice chat has been available in SL for many years now, many escorts choose to not offer voice or cam sessions, in order to protect their privacy and their RL. Many escorts have families in RL, so it should be quite obvious why they wouldn’t want to go on voice and cam. Then, there’s always the risk of revenge porn. In some other cases, the escort’s RL sexual / gender identity is indeed different from her avatar’s, and this could easily cause them to be subjected to transphobic bullying and “exposed” on SL’s infamous gossip cesspools. Finally, others aren’t native English speakers and fear, rightly or not, that their accent might be a disadvantage for them.
So, for many SL escorts, voice and cam sessions are unacceptably invasive. If you really want a voice or cam session, look for someone who does offer such a service and don’t pester those who don’t in any way; don’t question their reasons, don’t question their RL gender; don’t haggle for a lower rate, and absolutely don’t even think of threatening them with “exposure” on the gossip cesspools.
But even in your encounters with escorts that do offer voice and cam sessions, you must respect their privacy. Don’t ask about their RL details, don’t take screenshots or video recordings of their cam session with you, and don’t record your voice chat session. This is not just utterly creepy behaviour; it’s a violation of LL’s ToS and Community Standards worthy of getting you permanently banned from Second Life itself. It’s also a crime that can get you in very serious legal trouble, especially if you’re an EU citizen or the person you’re after is an EU citizen, as the General Data Protection Regulation (EU) 2016/679 (GDPR) is very strict regarding such matters – and rightly so.
Scrooge Never Got Laid
I know haggling has long been associated with sex work, especially with street prostitutes. You might feel tempted to act disappointed try to get a discount from an escort that doesn’t offer voice and / or cam sessions. Don’t do it. Don’t even think of doing it. For starters, it’s completely disrespectful to the sex worker. Would you try to haggle the price at a restaurant? Would you try to haggle with your lawyer? I think not. Second, many clubs have standard rates that all of their staff follow. Even freelance escorts don’t sell their services for less than their colleagues who work at clubs; escorts simply don’t do the “race to the bottom” thing. Third, given the L$ – USD / EUR / CAD / AUD / whatever other RL currency exchange rate, haggling will make you look like a miser and a tosser, and you’ll end up being ignored by all SL escorts – maybe even banned from many clubs; they do inform each other about bad clients, you know.
Now, let’s tackle the subject of tipping… Yes, you may wind up being a regular at a certain club, and becoming a regular client of one escort, or more. It’s understandable that, if you’re at the club where they work and they’re working their shift at that time, you’ll want to tip them more than others. However, it’s rude to systematically neglect the other escorts, dancers, hosts, and DJs. You don’t have to tip them all. Also, the tips you give to those staff members you do tip don’t need to be in the L$1,000 area, but they shouldn’t be insultingly low, either; as a rule of thumb, tips below L$50 are insultingly low.
Why “hey baby” and “r u available” Don’t Work
Two messages escorts receive very often from potential clients are “hey baby” and “r u available”; these are very poor conversation openers. I’ll examine “hey baby”, as it’s the worst of the two. There are people who think it’s a good, “friendly-flirty” way to start a conversation, and they often use it when trying to initiate a flirty chat with a woman they’ve never talked to before.
The truth, however, is that it’s not. It’s a tired, overused cliché that every woman online expects total strangers to send her at least twice a day in her IM window, often followed by a gratuitous dick pic. I’ve been online for more than twenty years now, and I can guarantee that no one out there appreciates receiving this message from a person they’ve never talked to before. Also, it gives the impression that you think there’s a level of intimacy that simply isn’t there and that you believe you can ignore that the woman may be in a relationship. Therefore, it can be perceived as creepy and disrespectful. So, unless the person you’re addressing it to is your baby, just don’t use it. It was never welcome in the first place, and it hasn’t aged well.
I’ve established it’s not a good way to start flirting with someone. Now let’s see if it’s any good for approaching an escort. Again, it’s not. It’s got baggage from its use in flirting, and it takes this baggage here too. In fact, it’s even worse in the context of a communication with an escort, because it implies that you believe you can ignore the escort’s possible relationship status, simply because she provides sexual services. Of course, this brings us back to the issue of respecting the escort’s boundaries.
Other than that, making “hey baby” your message to an escort shows that you don’t recognise the escort’s work as work, and her as a professional; that you’re not taking her and her work seriously. Of course, I know very well that sex, including cybersex, is typically confined to rather intimate settings and that it serves as a way for people to unwind. It’s perfectly understandable that the overall atmosphere is more casual and light-hearted than a consultation with your accountant. But still, the interaction between an escort and you is, at its heart, a business transaction. So, it should be treated like any other transaction with any service provider – if you were reaching out to a scripter, a builder, a sim landscaper, or an SL photographer, how would you talk to them?
It’s also completely devoid of any information that’ll help the escort determine whether she can work with you. Make no mistake: providing this information is your responsibility, not the escort’s. Don’t force the escort to guess. When the escort receives a “hey baby” message, the only information she gets is that it that you sent it; so, she’ll go have a look at your SL profile to see if she can glean any information as to what sort of person you are, and what you may want in a session.
Another reason why “hey baby” doesn’t work in your favour is that it shows you don’t understand something crucial about the nature of your interaction with an escort: although your session with her, once it’s under way, often resembles an actual date or sexual encounter with a sex partner or lover of yours, setting it up can’t resemble any conversation you’d have with someone on an online dating platform like Tinder, Grindr, or what have you.
You see, online dating and booking a sex worker are two entirely different things: when dating online, you’re trying to start a conversation and see if you and the other person can establish some sort of rapport before determining whether something emotional or sexual can develop between you and the other person. On the other hand, when you’re booking an escort you need to offer and collect very specific information.
On the other hand, “r u available” may not be as annoying and intrusive as “hey baby”, but it’s still not helpful. The reason is that it doesn’t give the escort any information to help her decide if she can work with you or not. It burdens the escort with undue guesswork, and that simply isn’t the way to kick things off.
Offer Sex Workers The Information They Need Upfront
I know I’m repeating myself, but I don’t care, because this basic principle can’t be stressed enough: no session between you and an escort can start, much less be successful and to your satisfaction, if the escort you’re trying to book can’t decide whether she can work safely and comfortably with you. To do so, she needs some basic information about you, something that messages of the “hey baby” and “r u available” variety don’t offer. In RL, they offer the escort precisely zero information about who’s sending them, when they want to meet the sex worker, how long they want the session to last, or what they want the session to involve.
Now, things in SL are a little different. When we receive an IM or a notecard, we obviously know which avatar sent it, and we can have a look at their profile. More often than not, however, we run into completely empty profiles. Of course, it’s your prerogative to keep your profile empty, and you have every right to write as much, or as little, about you on it as you want. However, the combination of a blank profile and a “hey baby” IM won’t make it more likely for us to respond to you.
If you want to communicate successfully with a sex worker, you need to let her know what sort of service(s) you’re looking for, how much of her time you need, and where and when you’d like to meet them: your SL home, some free sex area, one of the rooms offered by the club the sex worker works for, etc. In other words, scheduling your service by an SL sex worker shouldn’t be any different or less specific than scheduling any other work – however mundane and pedestrian this may sound.
Hold Your Horses With The Explicit Messages
Although SL provides a very welcome and liberating degree of anonymity and separation of one’s RL and SL, there are always ways in which any user’s RL privacy and safety can be compromised, from malware like the infamous RedZone and other “alt detection systems” to revenge porn and “exposure” on SL’s infamous gossip landfills. If this applies to ordinary romantic / sexual liaisons, things can become much worse in the field of SL sex work: as is the case with RL sex work, SL sex work can feel, or even become, unsafe for the escort.
Sex work may be ubiquitous in SL, but in RL it’s criminalised in many jurisdictions. Although SL by default allows you to keep your SL activity somewhat disconnected from your RL identity, escorts who reside in states and countries where being a sex worker and / or hiring one is illegal can be placed at risk, especially if national or state authorities decide to target SL-facilitated sex work. It goes without saying that, among escorts that live in such places, those offering voice and cam sessions face a greater risk.
So, it makes perfect sense for them to not want to have explicit conversations about sex or money, especially with these two combined. When I was still a sex worker, some SL escorts who live(d) in the US and were also escorts in RL had told me that mention of sex in a potential client’s first message was a deal-breaker for them, as it was too dangerous. I still remember one former colleague from the US who’d received a notecard from a guy, in which he wrote at length, in great detail, and in very graphic terms, how much he loved certain sexual practices. She chose to not respond to him at all. Initiating your communication with an escort with explicit messages shows that you’re not taking her safety seriously. Yes, your goal is to have sex with the escort you’re talking to. But, as I wrote earlier in this post, you must treat her as a professional, and you must not pose a safety risk for her, however unlikely you may think she might end up on the business end of an anti-prostitution crackdown.
While we’re at it, I want to point out that you really, really don’t need to go off bragging about your sculpted / mesh / animesh dick. Besides what I wrote about why explicit messages aren’t a great idea to initiate contact with an escort, either in RL or SL, there are other reasons that I’ll explain below:
For one, bragging too much about your dick, and endowing your avatar with an unrealistically huge schlong says things about you that you really wouldn’t like – besides the visual difficulties it poses when the time comes for you and the escort to have sex.
Second, escorts are sex workers; I was one myself. It’s their job, and it was mine, to have sex, so we’ve seen, sucked, and fucked numerous dicks in SL. We know all of them, and we know everything about them. Escorts aren’t extremely easy to impress, and – more importantly – they don’t care. An escort’s job is to give you a good time, not judge you for your age, body size, dick size, masculinity, whether your avatar’s attachments are state of the art or not, your RL social standing, or even your fashion sense. These things are entirely superficial, and you shouldn’t need to worry about them in your communication and sessions with an escort. But you also need to help her feel safe, comfortable and confident about working with you.
Back in 2018, I had the pleasure and honour to interview Will Burns (SL username: Aeonix Aeon, SL screen name: Will Burns), a published academic and former Vice Chair of the IEEE’s Virtual World Standards Group who also runs the Andromeda Media Group store in Second Life.
Judging from his published work that I’ve read, and from the discussions I’ve had with him, he’s one of the best tech analysts and experts when it comes to Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Virtual Worlds, bar none. I’ve always admired him for his down-to-earth approach which is based on facts, reason, and actual scientific and technical knowledge and experience rather than “common wisdom” and buzzword-riddled hype. Unfortunately, the SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) pandemic has taken a toll on just about everyone, wiping out jobs, slashing people’s income, and pushing health systems to their limits and beyond. Will is no exception to this sad rule.
I’m not going to beat about the bush here: he needs our help this time – like other distinguished members of SL’s user base did, at one point or another, and we all showed our solidarity. So, like I did in 2017, when I was one of the first to call upon my remaining readers to help Max Graf, and like I did in 2012, when I joined in the effort to aid Sway Dench, I’m sharing Will’s GoFundMe campaign with you. The situation is that, after his mother’s passing on August 6th, he needs help to cover several funeral and administrative costs for which her life insurance isn’t enough – the campaign’s description explains them to a significant degree.
If you can help him out by contributing some money and / or by sharing this campaign, it will be greatly appreciated.
This is not my only blog, nor is it my longest-running. That “honour” goes to one of my RL-related blogs, which I’ve been managing since 2006. I still write the occasional post there when I feel like it. In the fifteen years that I’ve been managing that blog, I’ve been able to befriend like-minded friends; we’ve exchanged links to each other’s blogs, we’ve had long-winded and often heated discussions, we’ve come to understand each other, and connect with each other. As blogs gradually gave way to the fast-paced detritus that is Facebook, we connected with each other there. And also on Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media that are more RL.
With some people, we got to meet in person, talk on the phone, on Skype, whatever. With others, our communication, heartfelt though it was, remained within the confines of text-only exchanges – that’s what they felt comfortable with, so that’s what it was. Some people drifted away and went their own way. Others made themselves sparser than before due to family and work obligations. Some others sadly passed away.
As might be gloomily obvious from the title, death is precisely what I’ll talk about this time. More specifically, the death of a person you only know from online, with whom you’ve connected on all sorts of levels, yet you haven’t talked on the phone with them and / or met them in person. You may have spent hours chatting, exchanging comments on each other’s blog, emailing back and forth, even helping each other out with various difficulties. Still, for some reason, your connection with them isn’t “normally” considered a friendship, however heartfelt and sincere it may be, for the sole reason that you haven’t crossed the meatspace / cyberspace divide.
Illness or Loss of An Online Friend
I’m no stranger to hearing that someone I’ve known or befriended from online has passed away. Typically, I receive such news second-hand: a post on the deceased’s profile or a tweet / plurk by one of their relatives; a post, tweet, or plurk by a colleague or a friend or acquaintance we have in common; a message from one of our common friends.
I must say here that news of an online friend’s passing rarely come out of the blue. Typically, if a friend becomes severely ill, they let their friends know. They do it out of courtesy for their friends, and because their friends’ psychological support helps them too. We’re given regular or semi-regular updates, either by our ailing friend or by a member of their family who’s been handed this task. If our friend recovers, we all celebrate together. If the unthinkable happens, we all mourn, and we give his family our condolences and whatever support we can. So far, twenty-six of my blogger friends have had health issues that made it necessary for them to be inactive on their blogs and / or social media presences. Some of them more than once, actually. Eight passed away and are greatly missed.
The Missing Online Friend
But what if someone goes suddenly missing? Well, when a friend goes missing, i.e. goes abruptly silent without letting us (their friends) that they’ll be absent for a while, alarm bells ring. We immediately start wondering if something happened to our friend: illness; accident; death; or some other misfortune. So, we try to find out what’s going on. We try to find out if someone has a phone number they can call; if someone is in touch with our friend’s family. We want to know if our friend is all right, if our help is needed, and what we can do to help.
On almost every occasion, a point of contact was found and we were able to keep in touch with our friend’s family and have regular or semi-regular updates on our friend’s health. More often than not, we were able to get in touch with our friend as well. Regrettably, this isn’t always the case, and this brings me to the point where I’ll relate some recent RL events.
There was a blogger I knew from online; I was introduced to him sometime in 2008 by another blogger. I immediately liked his progressive views, his witty humour, his puns, and his very well-written posts, which were also open-ended enough to encourage discussion in the comments section. When we migrated to Facebook, we ended up getting to know each other with our real names rather than our blogging nicknames due to the platform’s anti-privacy “real names only” policy. We stayed in touch for years.
Then, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic struck. Yes, the one many are still insane enough to say isn’t real. The pandemic turned our lives on their heads. We lost relatives, friends, colleagues, etc. to the new disease and its complications. Eventually, vaccines started becoming available, and we all know how the vaccination effort became hamstrung by both the alt-right’s nutjobs and the “woke” morons who think they’re fighting against some sort of dictatorship by not making it harder for the virus to infect them and others around them. Here, the vaccination policy was age-based: first the 85+ demographic, then the 80-84, then the 75-79, and so on. Of course, this delayed the vaccination of people aged between 25 and 55 years, who make up the majority of the workforce. These were thrown – quite literally – under the bus: packed like sardines in public transport vehicles, without access to vaccines, and with no strengthening of public health institutions whatsoever.
One such case was my blogger friend I started talking about earlier; he was supposed to celebrate his forty-fourth birthday next Tuesday. Sadly, this was not meant to be. I already knew he was immunocompromised, and that the pandemic was really dangerous for him. He was anxiously waiting to be vaccinated. Government policy didn’t prioritise him at all; the sole criterion for vaccination was age. One week before the online platform for vaccination appointments opened for our age group, he made his last post on his Facebook account. Ever since then, silence. No news, no nothing. Some friends posted on his wall, asking him to get in touch, but to no avail. None of us had his number, and none of us knew anyone from his family.
Three months after his last post, one of our mutual friends (also a blogger, albeit retired) contacted me to ask if I knew what had happened to him. Of course, I didn’t know. I went to our missing friend’s profile, and saw a multitude of posts from all sorts of people, asking him if he’s OK – and not a single post from a family member. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch.
An Awkward Phone Call
Eventually, one of our friends whose blogging and social media presence was extremely diverse (we’re talking WordPress, Blogger / Blogspot, Facebook, Twitter, Plurk, LinkedIn, Mastodon, Diaspora, and Tumblr) found our friend’s LinkedIn account. From there, she was able to find where he worked – something he’d never spoken of in all those years. She ascertained it using public records and the company’s website, and offered to get in touch with the company, to see what was happening.
So she did. When she got back to us, she described the phone call as “awkward, at best”. The person who answered the phone was our friend’s cousin; it’s a family-owned sort of business. It seemed like she couldn’t get her head around the notion that people knew her cousin from any kind of online presence – blogging platform, social media, etc. She told us she almost felt the need to apologise to her for knowing him as a blogger. It was, she said, as if she was letting her know that our friend was secretly leading some sort of sordid life that would bring shame to his family. What she found out was that our friend was seriously ill, in the ICU, but that he could communicate with his surroundings. She didn’t ask what was ailing our friend, to avoid being too nosey.
A bunch of other people called to ask how our friend was. This annoyed the family, so it was decided that only one person would call, once a week, for updates. No one from his family came to post on our friend’s profile anything. Not a single word. But we did get some updates: we found out he was suffering from SARS-CoV-2 complications and that his condition was stable. His family’s stance, however, put many people off. Would it have been so bad if someone came and handled this like pretty much everyone else does in such cases? This question was put forward in passing in some comments.
How Not To Announce The Unthinkable
Just as we’d received an update that made us believe our friend would make it, his cousin came to his profile for the first time and wrote the following (translation mine, name changed appropriately):
Good evening to all of Nick’s “friends”.
On behalf of his family, I’d like to thank all those who managed, despite their worry, to show their love and interest in his health in a discreet and sincere manner. To all the rest, who couldn’t manage this worry and thought it was good, in “good intentions” always, to publicly drag his family through the mud in such a difficult time, to post inaccuracies and inplausible thoughts on our relations, calling Nick’s relatives’ stance “inhuman”, “manipulative”, I only have to say you didn’t know him at all.
If he read what you wrote, he himself would have deleted many of the “friends” who disrespected him, and he would protect his family members, who were by his side all these years in his daily struggle that you most likely ignored behind the alienation and safety of your computer screens.
The deceased’s wish was to be cremated.
No questions on further details on the matter will be answered.
His page will remain open as a memorial for a short while.
Any private messages you have sent will not be read, for obvious reasons.
You are kindly requested to show due respect to him and his family.
Thank you for your understanding!
PS: Any improper post that will denigrate the deceased’s family will lead to the appropriate consequences.
Of course, we were all left with our jaws agape. Seriously now? Quotation marks? So, all of the people Nick had touched and befriended all these years were not considered true friends because he’d gotten to know them through his blog and not through his business? Quite a callous way to start the announcement of someone’s death. But anyway… The next two paragraphs were a tirade against a few people who criticised the family for keeping everyone in the dark. For crying out loud, he’d been missing since early March, we were all worried sick – and, when finally someone managed to get in touch with them, instead of appreciating the concern and designating someone to provide updates whenever possible, they kept acting in a most hostile manner, as if Nick’s online friends were some sort of low-lives whose presence in his life was an embarrassment to him, his family, and their business.
Instead of saying “unfortunately, Nick didn’t make it, and he passed away today / yesterday etc.,” she railed against the very people who, for a bunch of months, had no idea if their friend was dead or alive, with a speech about how we all disrespected our friend, followed by the same old boomer crap about how people are “safe” behind their computer screens and yadda yadda. What the actual fuck?
And then she threw the bomb: “the deceased.” No “Nick didn’t make it,” no. Just “the deceased.” Is that how you refer to a loved one who just fucking died? No mention of when he died? Of whether he passed away peacefully? Nothing? Of course, I shan’t dwell on her ignorance – she doesn’t know the difference between a Facebook profile and a page. But she slammed the door on all of us who may have wanted to attend his funeral, to pay our last respects. “No questions on further details on the matter will be answered.” And she closed her rant-announcement with a cringe-inducing thinly-veiled threat.
Personally, I’m fuming. I didn’t bother to respond to her rant, but what I do know is that this doesn’t reflect well on her, and it’s most disrespectful both towards her cousin and his friends. And all this, because we all weren’t people her cousin had met in meatspace, ergo – in her skewed view – we weren’t real people.
On Monday, June 21st, I attended the airing of the Lab Gab SL18B Special show with Strawberry Linden (née Singh). It was a lengthy, much-anticipated, and newsworthy show, as it’s only been less than three weeks after the passing of esteemed LL CEO Ebbe Altberg. The show was divided into two sections: in the first, Strawberry interviewed Linden Lab Board member and Executive Chairman Brad Oberwager (in-world name: Oberwolf Linden); in the second, she interviewed the Lab’s Leadership Team, which consists of VP of Product Anya Kanevsky (in-world name: Grumpity Linden), VP of Product Operations Eric Nix (in-world name: Patch Linden), and VP of Marketing Brett Atwood (in-world name: Brett Linden).
In accordance to the structure of the show, I’m dividing my summary and my thoughts into two separate posts; in the current post, I’m focusing on Mr. Oberwager’s answers to Strawberry, which of my own questions about the future of the company and the Second Life platform, which is celebrating its 18th year, were answered, and what questions I still have. Of course, I didn’t expect Strawberry to raise the topic of Ebbe’s succession; it’s way too soon, and I don’t think it would be proper, after all. I’ve decided to summarise what Mr. Oberwager said and – where appropriate or necessary – comment on what was said, organising the post in sections in accordance to the flow of the interview. At the end of the post, you can watch the video in its entirety.
Mr. Oberwager said he’s a “very, very good friend” of LL founder Philip Rosedale, to whom he was introduced via Mr. Rosedale’s wife; Mr. Oberwager said he regards her as his closest friend. He has also divulged that the two families live close to each other (three blocks away), and that he and Mr. Rosedale meet about once a week. Also, Mr. Oberwager said he considers Mr. Rosedale to be an unofficial advisor of sorts w.r.t. decisions concerning Second Life.
I believe this particular section merits a fair bit of commentary on my behalf. Regular readers of this blog will know there’s little love lost between me and Mr. Rosedale, for a number of reasons that I’ll lay down below.
For starters, he overhyped Second Life so much that it was obvious to just about everyone that he was trying to make it look like it could / would be something it could never possibly be – he even tried to rewrite the history of virtual worlds with a narrative that implied SL was the first virtual world of its kind, a narrative that has been keeping back SL’s technical side ever since. On the creative side, he overpromised and underdelivered: the content creation tools needed to really make it stand out just weren’t there for far too long. Some are still not there. Also, SL could never possibly replace the regular, low-cost, web browsing and social networking provided by the “ordinary” web: why pay for what amounts to an upper-midrange gaming rig just so you can read a news outlet’s website? Not to mention the learning curve, which has always been quite steep, and the intimidating – to say the least – crowds of the Infohubs and the “Welcome” areas.
It must also be noted that, regardless of what Mr. Rosedale promised, his tenure underdelivered on another important goal / promise: SL hasn’t exactly been a “safe haven” for people to express themselves and explore their personalities and creativity. The reason is that, very early on, certain extremely abusive cliques formed around certain unsavoury individuals. Their members made a hobby out of going through the official forums and people’s blogs so that they would single out their targets and subject them to years of harassment – sexist, racist, misogynist, rape-apologist, homophobic, transphobic harassment. And the people who were being harassed could do nothing about it, because the cliques knew how to dance around the ToS and Community Standards, and they had already made sure there would be very little backlash against them – besides, they were the “cool”, “edgy” ones who provided “entertainment” to others. Mr. Rosedale failed the users on this front, and so did his successors Mark Kingdon and Rod Humble. The only LL CEO who took swift and proper action on this front was Ebbe Altberg, and this is one of the main reasons why he’s the only LL CEO who has earned my respect so far.
Finally, despite Mr. Rosedale’s “let’s overhype SL into something it can never be” marketing drive from the early years, he’s never understood, as he palpably demonstrated at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality (SVVR) Conference & Expo 2014, that it’s the job of the seller to convince potential buyers to, erm, buy.
On the second day (Tuesday, May 21st) of the conference, the “Creating the VR Metaverse” panel was hosted – other participants in the panel were the late Ebbe Altberg (who had already joined LL as its CEO), Stefano Corazza and Tony Parisi. Near the end of the panel, moderator Bernhard Drax (in-world username: Draxtor Despres) played a segment from one of the episodes of The Drax Files Radio Hour podcast (titled “the BIG picture“). In that segment, Pamela, a lady who worked at a sheet music store, negated and rejected all of his arguments for the use of a virtual world: she saw no reason for her to join and use a virtual world; she saw no intersection of it with her hobbies, interests, and activities, and saw no way in which she could benefit from its use. In other words, virtual reality failed to capture her attention and imagination, and didn’t present her with something interesting enough.
Mr. Rosedale’s reaction to the video was awkward laughter and a dismissive attitude. Back then, I summed up his attitude as “well, it’s not us that have failed to make virtual reality attractive to the public, it’s the public that doesn’t understand how cool virtual reality is”, and I still stand by my assessment. This is precisely where the approach employed by Mr. Rosedale and far too many others so far falls flat on its face. As I wrote back then, instead of accepting the burden of showing potential users that virtual worlds are worthwhile, they expect potential users to do the hard work and figure out what virtual worlds can do for them. This is not how marketing works. Mr. Rosedale’s attitude, as I figured from his keynotes, was (again, quoting from my older post):
Why do you, the “outsider”, think you don’t need to use a virtual world, when it is a FACT that virtual worlds are super-cool, tremendous fun, very beneficial to whomever uses them and, to cut a long story short, the best thing since sliced bread?
You don’t attract customers this way, especially when you’re trying to sell them something that’s non-essential for their livelihood, health, or whatever. Virtual worlds – including Second Life – are not food, water, electricity, or telephony. In general, you don’t need a virtual world to survive. For most of us, virtual worlds are a pastime – and a rather expensive one, given the cost of a reasonably capable gaming rig, especially in today’s environment where graphics cards have become extortionately expensive, courtesy of rabid cryptocurrency miners, a “self-regulating free market” that “magically” maintains a balance between supply and demand, and scalpers.
I must say here, however, that I do understand why Mr. Oberwager would want to ask Mr. Rosedale about the rationale behind SL and about his account of what was done right and what wasn’t done right back then, what they were trying to achieve, what they achieved, and what they didn’t achieve. I personally wouldn’t rely on his advice on promoting SL, especially in today’s context, his view of what it can be and what it can’t be, or on his understanding of what keeps us in SL and what drives us away from it. Likewise, I don’t think I’d rely on Mr. Rosedale for advice on which circumstances, internal and external, kept SL from achieving the goals he’d set.
He said he respected and liked Ebbe very much, and that he admired him for his engaging, “lead from the front” leadership style and his dedication to being inclusive. Mr. Oberwager went on to say that he viewed Ebbe as a fiercely loyal and open person, and a gifted mentor. Regarding Ebbe’s legacy, he said he believes that the way Ebbe approached and led the Lab did a lot to shape the company and, as his ethos and philosophy have become part of the company’s culture, will continue to do so.
Linden Lab’s acquisition was met with a fair bit of trepidation by Second Life users. In his appearance on the SL18B Lab Gab Special, Mr. Oberwager addressed this issue, almost certainly with a view to easing people’s worries. He explained that there are basically four types of acquisition of a company by another entity:
Acquisition by venture capitalists who are willing to spend significant amounts of money on the company they’ve acquired, expecting significant returns, but are just as willing to cut their losses and let the company go if their goals are not met;
Acquisition by a private equity firm, which aims to turn it around (usually by cutting costs) so that it will then resell the company to somebody else at a profit;
Acquisition by another company, where the company that is purchased, along with its brand, identity, product portfolio, and culture, is absorbed by the entity that has acquired it;
Acquisition by private investors, who are driven by a variety of motives; although financial gain is among them, it’s not necessarily the main reason for their interest in the company.
From what was said, LL’s acquisition falls in the fourth case: private investors, who obviously want to have some financial return, but also have other reasons that drive their investment. He found the way SL extends someone’s life (into the virtual realm), and the creative and social freedoms it affords people to be very interesting. As for his involvement with the Lab and its core product, he said that it made him understand the meaning of the phrase “it’s not just work, it’s fun” for the first time, and that he enjoys being part of SL and LL, and that he regards his involvement with the company and the platform as a passion and an investment, in equal parts.
It’s fortunate that Mr. Oberwager seems to understand that he needs to be patient and stay in for the long haul. SL has existed for eighteen years, long after the Press turned against it and then forgot about it, has remained profitable, even though it’s been under the radar since 2008 or 2009. I would also advise Mr. Oberwager and Mr. Waterfield against settting high short-term growth goals, because of the many peculiarities of SL and because of how it’s perceived by the general public. What remains unknown, though, is the investors’ capability to pump significant amounts money into the development of certain crucial parts of the server and viewer codebase that need to be brought up to date, such as the rendering engine, the woefully behind-the-times Build Tools, etc.
In my post where I discussed the speculation on who could / would / should succeed Ebbe, I mentioned the Victor Gauntlett era in the history of famous British sports car manufacturer Aston Martin: the troubled company’s CEO (Victor Gauntlett) secured investment by three Greek shipping tycoons: Peter Livanos, who was also the company’s US importer, and brothers John and Nick Papanicolaou. However, it turned out that the three shipping magnates simply weren’t financially strong enough to take the company forward: besides a move (in 1986) from carburettors to electronic fuel injection, their core product (the V8) still used – with modifications, of course – the already obsolete DBS chassis, and they still raided other car manufacturers’ parts bins for things like door handles, tail lights, switchgear, and whatnot. Even the V8 Zagato wasn’t enough. Eventually, the company was sold off to Ford in 1987.
I never write a single line in this blog without reason; I view Aston Martin’s case as a cautionary tale of a group of entrepreneurs who invested in a brand, believing their considerable wealth was sufficient to help it grow, but things didn’t turn out exactly as was hoped and / or promised. Just because LL is a relatively small company, it doesn’t mean that its core product doesn’t need serious investment to stay relevant (at least on the technical front) – and relevance is precisely one of the topics Mr. Oberwager touched upon, as we’ll see further on in this post.
Current Ownership Status of Linden Lab – Decision Making
Linden Research, Inc. (Linden Lab) is now owned by a limited liability company (LLC) that was formed by Brad Oberwager and Randy Waterfield. Mr. Oberwager brings in the entrepreneurial skills that Second Life and Tilia will need for their practical growth, while Mr. Waterfield is the one with the financial expertise and experience. I find it rather odd that this company is still not named and that no information on it can be found anywhere. UPDATE: It’s the Waterfield Group.
Now, LL decision making is divided into two parts: business and product.
Business decisions, which encompass corporate management, partnerships, marketing, and any outward-facing decisions, are handled by the Management Team. One of the factors that are taken into account is whether a partnership with an entity outside LL is compatible with LL’s values and culture.
Product-related decisions, on the other hand, are handled by the Leadership Team Office of Second Life, which is a triumvirate consisting of VP of Product Anya Kanevsky (in-world name: Grumpity Linden), VP of Product Operations Eric Nix (in-world name: Patch Linden), and VP of Marketing Brett Atwood (in-world name: Brett Linden).
Mr. Oberwager’s position gives him a role both in decisions related to the business direction of the company and in product-related ones, mainly on “really big things”, and he also participates in brainstorming sessions. He specifically mentioned that, regardless of any business- or product-related decisions made by the Management and Leadership Teams, the real decision makers are the residents (users in SL speak). He explained that, if certain decisions of the company bring it in conflict with the users’ desires, goals, and aspirations, they will cease using SL, or at least use it less than they did before. Understanding this, he seeks feedback from residents – ideas, suggestions, etc. – to further improve their experience.
I was pleased to learn that Mr. Oberwager does go in-world, and that he does so relatively often. He has at least two accounts; one is Oberwolf Linden, which is his professional account that he uses for his work duties. He also has several alts, which he uses when he wants to take in the virtual world as a regular user – these are his incognito accounts; when using them, he’s always “in character” and he stated he won’t “break character” while using them. He made a point of going through the entire new user sign-up / avatar creation process all by himself, to identify its problem areas and find out what needs to be addressed to help new users stick around. I’m actually pleased that Mr. Oberwager chose to take on SL’s learning curve alone. It shows willingness to understand a new user’s experience first-hand, without being guided through the first steps by a seasoned developer or support assistant. Perhaps it also gave him the opportunity to experience what the various “welcome” areas are like – it wasn’t mentioned.
Mr. Oberwager stated that he wants the community (a term I prefer to shy away from using, for reasons I’ve explained before) to be part of Second Life’s future and success – he doesn’t want to impose unpalatable changes upon the users; instead, he wants to identify the communal goals for SL, and build a cooperative relationship with the users to bring the platform forward. While he acknowledged that SL has been around for a long time, he said it’s not a good idea to avoid moving forward because “we used to do it this way.”
I’m glad he said this, and I’m glad he characterised the “that’s the way it’s always been” mentality as shackles, because the Lab has historically been plagued by a reluctance to move forward technologically, citing all sorts of pretexts. I’m not talking about radical technological advances. Most of the proposals that are not acted upon are actually small steps that are trivially easy: for instance, the Lab could align itself with modern industry standards regarding the default camera offsets (I’ve discussed this topic several times on this blog), but it hasn’t, citing a non-existent risk of “content breakage”; content doesn’t “break” when you realise it’s ugly – it breaks when it stops functioning. At least now we have a UI to set our own, but new users are still stuck with the ancient, sub-par defaults, and who knows when – or if – they’ll get to know better. This leads to the proliferation of disproportionate and oversized avatars and builds, and works against immersion, as I and others have explained many times before.
Also, SL is missing some features that are ubiquitous in the modern gaming industry and are actually in its IP arsenal and within the capabilities of the Lab’s engineers: for instance, we still don’t have weather, even though it’s part of the Windlight technology that LL had acquired from Windward Mark Interactive way back in 2007. A common reason cited for this is that “it would rain indoors.” This, however, could be very easily avoided: SL has primitives, and it would be trivial to allow the user to set a prim (or a set – linked or unlinked – of prims) as phantom and as a zone that weather particles can neither enter nor exit. Yet, even though it’s common practice in current virtual worlds and games, and even though it’s been done before (by companies with far smaller teams and budgets, no less), LL’s answer is that weather and using prims as zones to facilitate the full use of Windlight’s features is “unactionable.”
Similar pretexts have been cited for the Lab’s resistance to implementing mirrors, which, again, are a common feature in many games today, and have been implemented by several competitors of SL, one of them much older and smaller than SL. This, of course, leads me to ponder whether this resistance to changes and advancements should be attributed to the users or the Lab itself. Or are we faced with a situation where both sides are set in certain ways and are unwilling to see that there’s room for further improvement and that this improvement is absolutely feasible?
I particularly liked the part where he said “if you don’t embrace change, I promise you you will like irrelevance a lot less.” SL and LL must not become irrelevant – that would be, in Mr. Oberwager’s own words, the worst outcome. I completely agree with his words, but I’m afraid I’ll have to say here that, at least on the technical front, LL has often given users, content creators, the Press, and the rest of the industry plenty of reasons to view it and its core product as irrelevant or near-irrelevant; remember, the underpinnings of SL date back to the late ’90s. Of course, Mr. Oberwager doesn’t advocate change for its own sake; he didn’t strike me as someone who believes in “absolutum obsoletum” (if it works, it’s out of date), the words with which Stafford Beer dedicated his 1972 book The Brain of the Firm to his colleagues. Instead, he prefers changes that will come over time as part of SL’s natural evolution, and will help attract people to the platform and make it engaging for them.
Interestingly enough, he compared SL to a party, where people are having fun, want it to keep going, and want more people to join it. So, work needs to be done, and action must be taken to attract and encourage people to join SL, get involved in it, and stay. I found his reference to “interesting people” to be a bit curious. How can it be decided whether someone is “interesting” for SL users? SL has so many different groups, communities, cliques, and subcultures, with vastly different interests, so choosing a certain individual, or a certain type of personality, as “interesting” is going to be difficult. Or is he implying that he’d like to try and get people popular outside of SL join it and become some sort of ambassadors? I find this a bit baffling, because I can’t help wondering what someone who’s a celebrity outside of SL can expect to find in SL: a bigger audience? They already have Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook for that, whose user bases and reach make SL’s pale in comparison. Furthermore, there are two additional problems with this goal – if it’s a goal, and if celebrities outside of SL are what Mr. Oberwager has in mind, of course:
First of all, the RL social media / SL intersection. An SL fan of celebrity X or Y already follows the celebrity’s non-SL website and social media presences. So, there’s no incentive for the celebrity to join SL, as the potential gain in popularity is minimal. Second, a celebrity would have to invest time (to learn how to use the platform and to engage with it and its users) and money (shopping, styling, land, builds, representatives) to establish and maintain a presence in SL. Given the low expectation for getting more fans, why would a celebrity join SL? I’d really rather not revisit the overhyping days of old, with the much-publicised, but short-lived corporate and celebrity presences in SL, although I’m pretty sure these days are unlikely to ever return. If anything, nowadays I’d expect a celebrity to demand that their in-world presence be subsidised by the Lab, an idea that I really don’t like.
Having established that RL celebrities aren’t particularly likely to get into SL, what could possibly be an “interesting” person for SLers in general? A sculptor? A painter? A photographer? A 3D artist? There’s already a sizeable number of such artists who use SL as a creative toolkit and as a space to exhibit their work, although I have the impression that nowadays it’s more a case of SL-based artists who present their work mostly to SL residents and less a case of RL-based artists who extend their presence into SL or add SL to their toolbox. This would make sense, as SL’s in-world content creation tools can’t hold a candle to applications like Blender, Maya, or ZBrush: artists nowadays tend to create outside of SL and then import their creations in-world. Even in-world snapshots are typically post-processed in applications like Photoshop or GIMP; then, they are typically exhibited primarily on external platforms like Flickr, blogs, and occasionally displayed in in-world galleries (where they may also be sold to residents for L$).
What else could be interesting for SL residents? More fashion designers? The market’s practically saturated, and only a few niches are still left uncatered for. I’d be tempted to go with decor designers – the ones you see making their wares available on sites like SketchFab or CGTrader. More often than not, 3D models from these sites are imported and sold on the SL marketplace by people who take advantage of the Creative Commons licences that govern many of these models – although few merchants actually honour these licences by providing proper attribution. I don’t see why the original creators couldn’t team up with SL-based scripters to start selling them directly as interactive objects (furniture with opening drawers, working light fixtures, trees and shrubs with animated foliage, and so on). Perhaps the Lab could collaborate with indie game studios and offer games suited to SL? There are several options, some more meaningful, some less so.
As for the move to the cloud (Amazon Web Services – AWS), Mr. Oberwager said it was done for the sake of the residents and not to cut costs. Having attended many Server / Scripting User Group meetings, I can confirm that LL decided to move to AWS to offset, as much as possible, the scalability, reliability, and performance issues that had been plaguing SL from the beginning. The move has paid dividends, at least on the performance, stability, and reliability fronts.
Did the Lab manage to cut costs by moving to AWS, though? Mr. Oberwager denied this and said that the move increased the Lab’s running costs. I honestly hoped the Lab had saved money with this move. As a user, I understand that saving money in a manner that doesn’t negatively affect performance and user experience can free up funds to recruit skilled engineers or purchase technologies for further improvements. But let’s pause for a moment. Why should Mr. Oberwager feel obliged to say “oh, we made this improvement, and it was costlier, it didn’t save us money”? What’s so wrong with enhancing performance and reliability and saving money? What does that tell us about the quality of the discourse around SL?
We must also keep in mind some facts that are very well-known to the Lab and to anyone who’s been watching Second Life closely: SL had reached the peak of its popularity many years ago and has been in slow decline ever since. In fact, even when SL’s popularity had peaked, its active user base was small compared to what’s been achieved before and since by the competition, direct or indirect. Second, neither the company itself nor SL is the media and the public’s darling anymore. Third, the Lab doesn’t have friends in the government generously funnelling taxpayers’ money into it. When you’re in such a position, you don’t get to keep the lights on, much less remain profitable for so many years, providing jobs to so many people, if you don’t know how to keep your running costs in check.
I’ve already mentioned that Mr. Oberwager stated he believes in users’ participation in SL’s success. He said that the real driver for the platform’s long-term success will be to grow the user base and to keep new users involved, so he welcomes feedback and suggestions on how these goals can be achieved.
As to the decision-making process in the Lab, he said it revolves around “four pillars”:
Mr. Oberwager drew a parallel between Second Life and an RL country, and proceeded to give some characteristics that he believes are similar between the two types of entities. An RL country, he said, has natural borders, and SL has its islands. I found this a bit baffling at first. On second thought, perhaps he’s referring to the fact that, in general, you can’t sail, fly, walk, or drive from one privately-owned region to the other, as they’re typically not contiguous and you need to teleport from one region to the other – provided, of course, you’re permitted to do so by its owner(s). The second parallel he drew was that both countries and SL have infrastructure, which enables residents to go about their day-to-day activities. The third analogy was the existence of a Rule of Law, which governs residents’ in-world interactions and behaviour to one another. He specifically mentioned that the Rule of Law is there to protect the weak – obviously from bullying and harassment. Finally, he spoke of the existence of a financial system, and this is where he turned his focus to Tilia, which serves as Second Life’s financial system.
Tilia / Tilia Pay is a subsidiary (wholly-owned) of Linden Lab. Contrary to common misconception, it doesn’t compete in any way whatsoever with Second Life, but complements and serves it. One of the key features of SL is that its economy relies on transactions pertaining not only to the rental of virtual land, but also to the sale of user-generated content.
One of SL’s peculiarities is that, unlike what’s happening in other virtual world and game platforms (such as Roblox), user-generated content sales are of a direct seller-buyer nature. They don’t pass through the company’s books. Yes, there is a transaction fee for using SL’s web-based marketplace, but that’s all – and if you buy something in-world, all the in-world tokens (the Linden dollars) you pay go directly to the seller, which can then be converted to RL fiat money. In this sense, SL is like eBay: it doesn’t touch the money you pay.
He also said that eBay doesn’t touch the goods; however, SL’s virtual goods need to be “touched” by LL, because that’s how data transmission on the internet works, especially when you’re dealing with “walled gardens“: to give or sell your stuff to another resident, LL’s infrastructure (servers and viewer) needs to make a copy of the item, transmit it to wherever the recipient’s computer is, place the copy in their inventory, and then LL’s infrastructure needs to rez it in-world so that the recipient can enjoy it. So, in this particular respect, SL differs from eBay.
But the two services – SL and eBay – share another, more crucial, similarity: they both need to use a money transmitter, a formally accredited and licensed service that handles transactions, especially w.r.t. the conversion between in-world tokens and RL fiat money. This is a necessity because of RL legislation against money laundering and tax evasion. For eBay, the money transfer task is handled by PayPal; for Second Life, this task is handled by Tilia.
As was the case with PayPal, which was spun off from eBay in 2014, so Tilia is now a separate company that can offer its services to customers besides Linden Lab, thus opening up the opportunity to provide an additional stream of revenue to its parent company and, as a consequence, Second Life’s continued development. Currently, Tilia has two such customers: one is Wookey Technologies, the company that has purchased Sansar from Linden Lab, and the other is the virtual property trading game Upland.
In his closing remarks, Mr. Oberwager acknowledged that a corporate move as big as an ownership change can lead to fear, anxiety, and even anger. He obviously doesn’t want to have angry residents; when your customers are angry at you, that’s when you should know you’re doing something wrong. Here, I must point out that one may do the right thing, but implement it and / or communicate it in the wrong manner. As for anxiety, he interprets it as fear of the unknown: people are afraid of what they don’t know, and, once they get to know it, they can proceed to other emotions and, unless they’re really dreading what was until then unknown, their anxiety subsides.
Moving from the general and abstract to the specific, he stated that he recognises that LL’s change of ownership has caused anxiety and concern among SL users, and that he is devoted to reducing this anxiety, to avoiding any anger, and to moving people to an emotion he prefers: joy – not merely happiness. He identifies happiness with satisfaction, whereas joy, in his own words, is beyond that and comes from within – an “explosive connection”, a state when relationships are working, and cloudy days become sunny. Although the part about residents’ emotions sounded a bit like a TEDx talk, I believe it’s best to focus on Mr. Oberwager’s statement that he recognises that this goal won’t be achieved with a top-down management approach, but through an extensive and deep collaboration with the users.
In a nutshell, I believe Mr. Oberwager spoke in a manner expected of a modern manager. He showed a good degree of familiarity with the company and its core product; he spoke with respect about the late, esteemed Ebbe Altberg; he stressed the need to make sure Second Life will remain relevant; finally, he declared that he’s committed to working with the user base to move Second Life and Linden Lab forward, instead of imposing his personal views and desires on the users.
I must note again that I’m surprised by the fact that we are not given the name of the LLC that has acquired Linden Lab (UPDATE: the investment company is the Waterfield Group – for acknowledgments etc., see the end of this post). This is the first time I’ve encountered something like this, and I really don’t know what to make of this. No information on LL’s own web presence, no information outside of it… Why? And why is it that the SL blogosphere, with one exception, hasn’t noticed this lack of transparency or felt questions need to be asked? Beyond that, Mr. Oberwager seems to be quite capable and in touch with both the realities and challenges faced by the Lab and its core product (at least in the United States) and the sensibilities and aspirations of its users. However, I must say it won’t be all smooth sailing. We all know that Second Life has lagged behind current creative alternatives on the technical front – both in terms of its built-in creative toolkit and its “eye candy”.
The real threat, though, not only to Second Life, but to every sandbox-style virtual world and to every platform that relies on allowing users to upload their creations and exchange and sell them, comes from the European Commission and the lobbies it has chosen to serve. This august body inflicted, through a misinformation and libel campaign, the disastrous Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, formally known as the Directive (EU) 2019/790, upon anyone who uses the internet for any purpose. The Directive’s disastrous Article 17 (formerly 13) dictates the implementation of upload filters to automatically “prevent” copyright infringement, without any real protections for fair use, users’ privacy, or communications confidentiality – placing an insurmountable burden on online content-sharing service providers (OCSSPs). Linden Lab is a prime example of such a service.
In previous posts, I have explained why this law represents an existential threat to any platform that relies on user-generated content, and has even been heavily criticised as a threat to privacy, journalism, and creativity by top legal experts and human rights groups, from Germany’s Data Privacy Commissioner to David Kaye, United Nations’ Rapporteur For Human Rights. And now, the Commission, doing yet another favour to the Big Content and Big Censorship lobbies, has reneged on its promise to provide fair use protections for parody / satire, critique, commentary, journalism, and derivative works. It decided to allow copyright holders to choose some “high-value” content they own and earmark it for unconditional takedown, regardless of context, every time it appears on line.
Sadly, too many in SL’s user base are copyright maximalists, although they don’t even know how copyright works and ignore that they themselves “infringe” upon others’ copyrights and trademarks merely by depicting items they know from RL; they don’t realise how badly this is going to burn them and everyone else.
How will the Lab respond? Will it apply a heavy-handed blanket filtering policy to comply with the strictest, most draconian, national implementations of this new law? Will it geo-block EU users to avoid the extortionate rates of the Big Censorship (Alphabet – Audible Magic – Facebook) monopoly that the Commission single-handedly created? Will it try to negotiate getting licences from every single publisher, industry, or group of publishers, on the planet to stay on the filters’ good side, which might be so costly that reduced tier will remain wishful thinking? Will it unite with other companies that rely on providing user-generated content, and with organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), European Digital Rights (EDRi), and Homo Digitalis, organisations dedicated to the defence of the very ideals SL represents, to push for the abolition of the totalitarian Article 17? This is precisely what I’ve been seeking answers to since the Directive was still being negotiated, and I still haven’t seen them.
This post has been updated twice: First, on June 27, 2021, as I was still quite concerned by the fact that almost a year has passed since LL has been acquired, and there’s still no information whatsoever on the investment company that now owns Linden Lab, and by the fact that this has slipped under most SL bloggers’ radars. The second update was on July 2, 2021, after I found out, via Huckleberry Hax, about Hamlet Au’s January 6, 2021 post where it was revealed that the investment group is indeed the Waterfield Group. A separate post will follow.