Some time in 2010, the “web” profiles were introduced and the official viewer was more or less connected to something that tries to look like a social network. This something is what we know as the “SL feeds”, a component of Second Life’s web services that we love to hate or ignore.
A little history
For those who don’t know what the SL feeds are, they are the product of the unification of parts of a gaming-oriented social network that was being developed by Avatars United, a web community that was absorbed by Linden Lab and shut down in September 2010. Avatars United’s social network, unlike Facebook and Google+, did not – as the community’s focus was on gaming and virtual world – impose an idiotic and often downright dangerous “real names only” policy, but went to the other extreme: it prohibited any real life content: it was a place where users would connect their gaming avatars with each other.
When LL absorbed the community, it duly shut it down and incorporated (sort of) its underlying technology into Second Life. The product of this union are the “web profiles” that are the official viewer’s default and the “feeds” that most users shun – and I can’t blame them. The way the feeds are implemented, what we get is a poorly integrated and unreliable social network (I’ll explain below why) that’s not really inviting at all.
Why are the feeds necessary in the first place?
Let us begin, first of all, with admitting that the people who use a virtual world will, at one point or another, want to make friends in there and stay connected to these friends (and also remain capable of communicating with other users) even when they are not in-world. Of course, there are perfectly valid social network platforms out there that don’t impose Facebook’s and Google+’s “real names only” policy (which, as Will Burns points out, may very well be in violation of US Federal Law): Twitter, Flickr, Plurk, Diaspora, etc. At least the first three have already become quite popular with many users of SL and other virtual world platforms. And there are also other social networks, whose target group seems to be specifically the users of virtual worlds. And then, we also have our blogs. And there are also forums – either Linden Lab’s official SL forums, or unofficial, or even forums created by groups of SL residents for them and their friends only. It is quite clear that there’s no shortage of social networking and off-world communication options for SL’s residents.
This raises the question: WHY? Why did SL need to have a dedicated social network?
I’m not sure it makes a lot of financial sense to dedicate resources for the development and maintenance of a dedicated social network. I’m not privy to LL’s financial data, but I guess they believe it’s worth spending money on. This still doesn’t answer why SL needs its own social network. I’ll try to explore some reasons, but, before that, I’ll need to point out something that should be quite obvious to the reader:
One of the most important social aspects of Second Life is communication; messaging. SL is a platform that allows the creation and exploration of virtual worlds and enables its users to communicate with one another.
The idea of integrating instant messaging with profiles, feeds and groups is not new at all. Yahoo! had done it years ago, with considerable aplomb, and they were not the only ones. This concept was already quite popular in the early days of Web 2.0. So, really, it made sense to enable SL residents to stay in touch even when they were offline, without needing to exchange email addresses or other such information.
Another reason why it makes sense for SL to have its own social network is that SL’s residents are quite comfortable with the privacy given to them by LL’s policy. Try comparing this to what has been revealed about Facebook and Google’s disgraceful collaboration with the NSA. To put it simply: I know of many people that feel a lot safer within LL’s networks than on Facebook.
Finally, one may want to keep their SL-related internet presence to remain isolated from other, non-SL networks.
What ingredients should a successful social network for a virtual world have?
In my opinion, besides reliability and availability, these are:
- Communication and content-sharing capabilities
- User protection
In the following paragraphs, I’ll examine each one of these four ingredients.
Communication and content-sharing capabilities
To put it simply, users need to be able to send messages to other users. Three “traditional” kinds of messages that are already implemented in the feeds are:
- Instant messages (the ones we know from in-world)
- Private messages (through the feeds’ own messaging system)
- Profile comments
When it comes to content-sharing, the feeds already allow people to share snapshots from in-world, but this is not enough, as I’ll explain later on in this article.
A social network that is attached to a specific virtual world needs to be seamlessly and completely integrated with this virtual world’s other web services. In SL’s case, it needs to incorporate the Dashboard. This would enable the user to control both their account and their connection to other users from one browser tab/window. Also, it should allow the user to see the online/offline status of their friends.
Within a virtual world – in our case, Second Life – we expect that our privacy will be respected and protected. This, however, should not be translated merely as a “promise” by LL to not give people’s information out. It requires a strong, zero-tolerance policy not only towards idiots with boorish, Community Standards-violating disclaimers that say “by IMing me, you agree that I can share my communication with you however I want”, but also towards developers of “security” systems that record users’ data and use them in arbitrary and non-transparent ways “because Copybot”. It also requires giving users comprehensive, powerful and easy-to-use tools to determine who sees what part of our content (profiles, feed posts, snapshots etc).
A negative aspect of the web that reared its ugly head in an increasingly offensive manner in the Web 2.0 era (from which Second Life also came) is trolling and cyberbullying. In Second Life, we mostly deal with griefers and their prim and particle spam. But trolling, cyberbullying and harassment are very real within Second Life as well. One of the keys for a virtual world’s success is making the users feel safe. This feeling of safety can be strengthened by a zero-tolerance policy towards these activities in which lower, misanthropic forms of life engage. Such a policy could easily be enforced in a social network by a well-organised moderating team that would promptly handle abuse reports – and reporting of abuse should not be a convoluted procedure. As for the disciplinary measures against offenders, I believe they should not only include termination of the offender’s account(s), but also, if the victim of abuse is forced to take legal action against the offender, LL should facilitate the legal procedure.
Now, with these things in mind, let’s see how well SL’s feeds fare. Do they have the aforementioned “ingredients”?
Please use the numbers below to navigate between the article’s pages