On Christmas Eve 2013, Ciaran Laval reported that the direct messaging capability of the Second Life profile feeds (Linden Lab’s own attempt at providing a social network for SL users) was apparently discontinued, with no announcement having been made by the Lab whatsoever. Much like the way direct messaging was introduced way back in October 2011.
For non-SL users who may not be familiar with this virtual world, when viewing someone’s web profile you could contact them either via “Instant Message”, which would prompt you to log in to the Second Life viewer and message the other user from in-world or via “Direct Message”; to do this, you didn’t need to log in to the virtual world; you could message them from your web browser, using a rudimentary email-like system. The recipient would be notified with an appropriate in-world notification (if they were online) or, if they were offline, they’d receive a notification in their email, depending on their account’s settings. Inara’s coverage of this capability’s arrival also doubled as a tutorial on how to use it.
Ever since then, this capability has been used by many SL residents as another way of keeping in touch with friends, collaborators and clients without ever having to disclose their email address – even a dedicated, SL-only email address. It’s been a tremendously useful feature, especially in the quick coordination of collaborative projects.
But, as reported by Sonja Smedley on the official SL forums on the 22nd of December, this capability has ceased to be. Bondboy Dagger filed a ticket and mentioned on the forum thread that he filed a support ticket and was told that the capability was indeed discontinued. Since then, it has been postulated that this was due to abuse of the system by scammers that fraudulently offered cheap rates for L$.
Inara Pey contacted Peter Gray (Linden), the Lab’s Director of Global Communications inquiring about the issue. He got back to Her and below is his reply:
On this inquiry, I can confirm that yes, as a result of a rise in abuse of the system, we have turned off the direct message function on My.SecondLife.com profiles.
This confirms that this capability has indeed been switched off and this measure is indeed a response to widespread abuse of the facility. I don’t know if it’s a temporary measure; Inara Pey believes it’s the easiest way to stop the problem without having to hunt for each individual abuser (scammer, spammer or otherwise). Remember how easy it is for anyone to make a veritable army of throwaway accounts in Second Life only to cause trouble, inconvenience and annoyance to others (at best) or downright harass others – and this is one of the many reasons why I think the retrospective infographic LL issued for SL’s ten years was worthless, especially the 36 million account figure.
Below, I’m going to give some of my own thoughts, stemming from recent events and from an older article I had written as an assessment of the profile feeds. I believe people now are aware that, fairly recently (i.e. during the past thirty days), Second Life’s IM-handling server has been classified as a spam-sending server by Gmail’s spam filters. This caused offline IMs to end up in people’s spam bins instead of their email accounts’ inbox – much to their chagrin. In my coverage of this development, I had pointed out that this shouldn’t have happened, as receiving offline IMs in your inbox is entirely opt-in and not activated by default. At least, that was the case last time I checked. In the comments that followed Prim Perfect’s article on this matter, which is the one that led me to cover it too, Ghosty pointed out – correctly – that Gmail’s spam filters adapt to user input: “Either enough people have marked SL email as spam, or enough spammers are using SL’s email domain as a forgery, or unrelated spam is being identified as spam because of similarities in text or layout or subject matter.” This explanation works much better than notions about Google deliberately blocking SL-related web services and is consistent with Peter Gray’s reply to Inara Pey.
To be honest, before I saw Peter Gray’s statement, I thought it was yet another occasion of people choosing to receive a certain type of notification and then proceeding to routinely mark these notifications as spam or phishing. Now that we know the profile feed DM system was routinely and extensively abused by scammers, it becomes evident why Gmail’s spam filters identified many such messages’ content as spam and phishing.
Still, though, the Lab should have communicated things in a much better way. No announcement was made – so we don’t know if or when the profile feed DM system will come back. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised: We all know the Lab has a rather mediocre track record when it comes to communicating with the user base. What bugs me more is that the feeds are implemented and conceived half-heartedly (at best), as I had written before. They are poorly integrated with the platform itself, their reliability leaves an awful lot to be desired, and they’re not even a particularly good collaborative creative space.
But what really makes things worse is the lack of privacy management tools, the loopholes that make your comments an easy target for bullies and trolls even though you had blocked them in-world and the fact that reporting abuse on the feeds is not straightforward at all – you have to jump through hoops made of barbed wire and I don’t think any action is ever taken. Also, because no concept like the master account has been implemented, an abusive person can make an army of alt accounts to use as sockpuppets (and is often backed and aided by like-minded lower forms of life) in lynch campaigns against others or in spamming others with scams. Even if LL’s personnel bans someone’s alt, the main account is still there and so are the other alts. And he can make even more alts. There’s precisely zero accountability. This makes the feeds a rather unhospitable place for legitimate users and a potential haven and playground for spammers, scammers, cyberbullies, trolls and other vermin that need to be eradicated.
At any rate, I believe that now is as good a time as any for the Lab to sit down and rethink the design, architecture, rules, moderation and implementation of the feeds from the ground up and that Gmail filtering SL’s offline IMs as spam should serve as an eye-opener. Question is, will the lab decide to get things right or will they continue kicking the can down the road, taking stopgap half-measures?
- A Christmas Mystery – Whatever Happened to MySecondLife Private Messaging? – by Ciaran Laval
- my.secondlife.com – Second Life profile feeds (SL’s social network)
- Direct Messaging comes to my.secondlife.com – by Inara Pey
- ….no more private messages? – Thread by Sonja Smedley on Second Life’s official forums
- Profile feed direct messaging: Lab confirms “turned off” – by Inara Pey
- Infographic: 10 Years of Second Life – Linden Lab
- A long hard look on the SL feeds (this blog)
- Fixing Second Life’s Gmail woes (this blog)
- Are you missing out on important Second Life news and communications? – Prim Perfect
- Phishing – Wikipedia
- The Master Account proposal revisited (this blog)
- Sockpuppet (Internet) – Wikipedia