The sheep in virtual wolf’s clothing

Karyne Levy’s article “Second Life Has Devolved Into A Post-Apocalyptic Virtual World, And The Weirdest Thing Is How Many People Still Use It” for Business Insider reminded me of James Thurber’s fable “The Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing“, whose moral was “don’t get it right, just get it written.” While this article has already been thoroughly lambasted for various reasons (some of which miss the point entirely) by various SL bloggers, prominent or not, I think it warrants some attention and close examination.

Beautiful regions like Kaelyn Alecto's (now sadly closed) "It All Starts With A Smile" are not spoken of in Mrs. Karyne Levy's article for Business Insider.

Beautiful regions like Kaelyn Alecto’s (now sadly closed) “It All Starts With A Smile” are not spoken of in Mrs. Karyne Levy’s article for Business Insider. Click on the image for full-size version.

To cut a long story short, Mrs. Levy decided to write about Second Life and so she created a new account (her first one was when SL was launched), logged in and spent some time there. After spending some time in the beginners’ areas and trying to make sense of the viewer, she went to a Game of Thrones-themed region, where she was shunned by everyone (being a “n00b” and all). After this, she went to Caledon Oxbridge, where she hung out with an oldbie who gave her a view of SL that corresponded to her own personal experience and understanding of the platform. This view consisted of clubbing, a few words about the existence of a virtual sex industry (Shock Horror), the fact that people in SL do flirt (Shock Horror II), that some of them even hit it off in RL (Shock Horror III: The Revenge, complete with deleted scenes from all three instalments of the trilogy), a few words about the virtual economy and the in-world content creation tools.

At any rate, the input you’ll get on any given topic depends on the persons you ask about it, and what you write about a certain topic depends on the research you do about it. And this is where the article shows some weaknesses that bring Thurber’s fable to mind. First of all, there was very little research as to what has been done so far with Second Life; just mention of a negative comment on the (blatantly prejudiced) MetaReality Podcast; there was passing mention of the corporations that came and went during the overhype period when LL, under the leadership of the very shrewd and charismatic Philip Rosedale, indulged in a corporate pipe dream. There was passing mention of academic presence in-world.

Kicca Igaly and Nessuno Myoo’s Danger in Evolution

Kicca Igaly and Nessuno Myoo’s Danger in Evolution LEA exhibit. Art was not mentioned in Mrs. Levy’s article for Business Insider. Click on the image for full-size version.

Second, there was no mention whatsoever of institutions like the Linden Endowment for the Arts (LEA). There was no mention whatsoever of any artistic work that is presented in-world – from impromptu live music shows to the incredibly ambitious (for SL’s known technical limitations) Paradise Lost in Second Life, and from galleries to virtual museums, all of those things were absent. Also absent was any mention of the beautiful in-world destinations that attract so many visitors every day. Or what about the very carefully designed in-world portrayals of RL cities (see the 1920s Berlin Project) and natural beauties? Calas Galadhon, with its gorgeous regions? No mention of them at all. None of these things were mentioned. It was like they didn’t exist at all; as a matter of fact, I don’t see Mrs. Levy’s guide mentioning any of these things to her, and this helped establish a very limited and narrow view of Second Life in Mrs. Levy’s mind. Given the image that was etched in her mind, was the title of her article a surprise? I think not.

Then again, Mrs. Levy had only a few hours to spend on SL, or maybe she had decided she’d only spend a few hours on it (after all, she had given SL a quick go many years ago, and had decided it wasn’t for her, so I believe there were some preconceptions in her mind from that previous stint). The very short time Mrs. Levy spent in-world in order to write this article is exactly where another similarity with Thurber’s fable becomes apparent; like the competitive sheep spies in the fable, she ended up publishing yet another run-of-the-mill article of the “My Five Hours In SecondLifeLand” type, which represents only a small part of what people do with(in) SL.

Cica Ghost's "Little Village" exhibit from March 2014. Another sample of in-world art that never made it to mainstream media coverage of Second Life.

Cica Ghost’s “Little Village” exhibit from March 2014. Another sample of in-world art that never made it to mainstream media coverage of Second Life. Click on the image for full-size version.

In all fairness though, there are aspects of this article that we should think about, and they have to do with the new user experience, along with the retention of new users. As pointed out in former Linden Lab CEO Rod Humble’s interview with Inara Pey, Second Life’s new user retention is a rather paltry 20%. Numerous people register, give it a try and then just quit. Their experience of Second Life is, whether we like it or not, very similar to what Mrs. Levy described:

A crowded beginners’ area, and from then on… What? She visited a Game of Thrones-themed region. She said “hi”, but no one bothered to talk to her. Maybe because she wasn’t dressed according to the region’s theme? Maybe because people looked at her profile and said “sod it, she’s a n00b”? The reasons are irrelevant. What matters is that, at exactly that stage, most newcomers to Second Life log off and don’t come back. There is prejudice against beginners in SL, and people who have already been using the platform aren’t always  known for their friendliness and patience with beginners who are trying to get to grips with an unfamiliar UI and with notions they have never encountered before.

One of SL's "Social Islands". Are they really the best introduction to this virtual world?

One of SL’s “Social Islands”. Are they really the best introduction to this virtual world? Click on the image for full-size version.

I’ll give her due credit. She persevered. Rather than say “sod it, I’m outta here” and quit, she found Caledon Oxbridge and went there. She actually did meet someone there. And that’s the person that bothered to show Mrs. Levy around. Yes, that person was not a Caledon Oxbridge mentor, that’s true. Yes, the picture she gave Mrs. Levy was very limited. But that’s what most of us see of SL for far too long; our view of SL is very limited, but this view is shared by many people. When we open the “Search” floater, we’re immediately hit by the classifieds that have been paid for the most, and these may not interest us at all. Following up from this, was Mrs. Levy helped in any way to see the diversity of what can be done and enjoyed in SL? No. Did she look for any different content? I don’t know. Can she be blamed for the fact that she didn’t see anything else? It depends; if she was just an ordinary beginner, I wouldn’t blame her. Beginners just look around and try to find something that attracts their attention. She’s a journalist, though, and her prior research, as is evident from her article, was scant. She could certainly have found more information, and she could have asked several of the better SL bloggers for help with her article.

Then again, without these failings in her reportage work, would we have a chance to see how SL itself fails to provide attractive guidance to beginners, make interesting content accessible, and how SL’s “community” fails to make newcomers feel welcome? That said, while Mrs. Levy’s article should perhaps have been titled “My Five Hours in SecondLifeLand” and certainly can’t win any prizes for insight on how SL has evolved over the years or how its creative potential has been harnessed by its users, it shows us in an extremely “in your face” manner what a beginner’s first hours in Second Life are like, which should act as a sobering reminder for both us and the Lab.

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12 thoughts on “The sheep in virtual wolf’s clothing

  1. Excellent analysis! And yes, for us SLers it has value in the sense that we again get reminded of the dreadful new user experience, but again – and I am repeating myself and what you put so eloquently – the real issue is that when someone calls him/herself a journalist we [as citizens of SL or any nation in RL] have to DEMAND a more thorough job when claims like the one in the headline is made. This article has wide reach and distorts what is really the status of SL at this time. To us: super annoying but even more at issue = this is NOT an isolated incident of parachute journalism [going in for a short time, writing up something after asking ONE random person & getting inaccurate second-hand quotes, then flying back home], it is unfortunately almost the norm in commercial media these days and therefore corrosive for democracy and civic literacy!

  2. Well 2 things annoy me the most in that story.
    firstly i start to be sick of all those creators who says that SL is dying because its not an Eldorado. Yes, indeed, making RL money from SL business is something really rare nowadays. But is it the purpose of Second Life ? It’s not why i came in Second Life, and it’s still not why i stay and still enjoy and love second life. Second life is not a promise to people they will come, create and become rich in RL. Second Life is a plateform where people can create indeed but creation doesnt always bring money and IMHO this is not a bad thing.
    Secondly, Im sick aswell with this bad habits nowadays that everything has to come easily without effort. Every single resident have a painful memory of their beguining in SL. Yes, Second Life is not easy to learn at first but then, once you know how to use it it’s amazing. And till now, no other virtual world reached to even equal SL. They all tried hard. None of them succeed till today. Things have to be deserved. They deserve efforts. And this is what is giving them their strenght. After so much effort any resident must do when they start SL, they will feel the value of what they accomplished really more powerfully.
    To make another analogy than your tale, Mona, im going to compare SL with the book of Stieg Larson, Millenium 1. The action doesn’t start before the page 250. During the whole 250 first pages, the author doesnt do anything but install his characters and situations. One can be discouraged and close the book before reaching the page 250 indeed. But when you persevere and reach that page, oh la la !!!! oh la la ! how much is that good !!!! it’s so good that you cant detach the book from your hand till you reach the last page. And why ? Because precisely the 250 first page made everything necesary for the second part of the book give you such reading delight (almost a reading orgasm) and without having had to persevere you cant feel such delight.
    Things that comes easily doesnt give the same amount of satisfaction, delight and pride that things that asked effort.
    our society is forgeting that and we see everyday the result.

    1. Indeed Trinity, there are several SL content creators, as well as “mere” users, who keep insisting SL is dying because it’s not exactly the way they want it to be. Reed’s comment on the MetaReality Podcast (from which Mrs. Levy started off) contains several factual errors, not least the “obsolete” version of the COLLADA format; as for his show (the MetaReality PodCast)… Well, ever since he decided a few years ago that SL is dead, this has been his show’s party line, and he simply doesn’t let facts ruin his story. He also has qarl by his side (who has demonstrated in the SLU forum discussions featuring LL’s current CEO Ebbe Altberg that he has some heavy-duty axes to grind and leverages his personality cult to the maximum in order to stir the feces), so there you have it.

      Mrs. Levy’s knowledge of SL and SL coverage seems to have been stuck in the years of SL’s infancy – there’s no other way I can explain how she couldn’t find other, more recent and better sources to get information.

      Now, let’s talk about the new user experience bit. I must admit I’m not impressed by it. I’ve gone on record for saying that the UI is NOT “too complicated”. SL is tremendously complex, it’s got numerous controls and options, and mastering them takes time. In an era where everything is a gigantic fast food, dedicating time and effort to understand anything is a no-no; people have been conditioned to have the attention span of a yogurt pot.

      As for the “welcome areas”, many of them are anything but that; littered by trolls and idiots that yell in voice chat, spewing racist and/or sexist insults left, right and centre… LL should have stepped in and forced the owners of these places to either get their acts together or stop claiming they run “welcome centres” – in fact, the Lab should have done so long ago.

      Regarding the various mentor groups now, some are good, some aren’t. And I’m not sure of the processes and safeguards some of the groups have in place in order to ensure that their mentors are actually people who won’t abuse their “elevated” status. I’m not even sure how many users actually get to the point where they can reach a mentor group; back in 2006 (on my first account), I had found TUi, which has closed its doors a few years ago. Now there are groups like NCI and Builder’s Brewery (which are both excellent). But how many people get to use these groups’ services?

      In all honesty, I think it’s most likely that a new user, regardless of whether s/he “sticks” or not, will not join any of the mentor groups. They’ll either get discouraged by seeing how different SL is from what they’re used to “playing”, or they’ll get creeped out by trolls, or they’ll get discouraged by the prejudiced behaviour a large number of users exhibits towards newbies, or they’ll persevere.

      Most new users never make it to the point Mrs. Levy reached. She persevered, but her experience of SL was – whether we like it or not – the experience of someone who either is only interested in clubbing and shopping, or only finds such venues and people to hang out with. And this is not only her problem; SL’s mechanisms (from classified ads that are promoted in search to LL’s web infrastructure) don’t make the more amazing content easy to spot.

  3. University of Western Australia made an excellent guide for anyone wants to start using SL and i think that was what SL missed for new arrivers. Now of course, this has to be told to the new users. if you dont have the link, i can find it for you.
    Another thing that annoy me in the “journalist” approach you pointed : what searches did she made before starting sl ? I mean she was here for the purpose of doing an article. So she didnt even checked the website where she could find the destination guide. She didnt even took 2 seconds to type “second life” in google so she could find plenty of blogs (yours among all them) and at least could contact one of the bloggers.
    I mean ok, she can prentend she wanted to have the experience of a simple new resident. But i dont buy it. Because on the other hand, she took information from the Metareality Podcast. So she wasnt virgin from any information. But she chose to keep only the infos about the bad side. How serious credibility is that for someone pretending informing people ?
    i’m wondering if im not going to comment her post, but well, it’s in english and im busy, so i dont really know if it worth my time and energy. ,)

    1. Many groups, institutions and individuals have tried their hand at providing SL beginners with a good introduction – yet, very few beginners find this information, and this means very few beginners manage to benefit from it. It just seems to be lost under a pile of noise. And yes, the link would be most welcome. 🙂

      As for the research Mrs. Levy conducted, I agree with you. I find it superficial and rudimentary, at best. Now, how did she know about the MetaReality Podcast? As she herself wrote in her article, she had joined SL way back when it was new. One of the major SL-related sources in the old days was that particular podcast, but personally I’d rather listen to The Drax Files Radio Hour or Designing Worlds – at least they don’t start from the false assumption that SL is dead.

      Is it shoddy journalism? In my eyes, yes. Is there an agenda behind it? No. Would I have done things (a lot) differently? Absolutely. Do I find this article representative of SL’s state of affaris? Not at all.

      But still, this article provides some food for thought, because it (inadvertently?) provides an accurate view of the new user experience, and this could be very useful.

  4. The biggest opportunity that SL offers
    is that to have the power to shape and to concretize
    the passions and dreams of each of us.
    This opportunity turns against with a terrible ferocity
    when these dreams and these passions
    are not sustained in the time with conviction and skill.
    It is impossible to understand all this
    in a few hours, a few days or a few weeks.
    Ty for this post Mona,
    really interesting.

    1. You’re welcome. I’ve reached the same conclusion myself, after all these years. However, many people stop exactly where Mrs. Levy stopped, for various reasons.

  5. Recalling the beginning of my experience in Second Life, I recognize how difficult must meet the new user to achieve a minimal level of survival in this virtual world. But at the same time, there arises almost immediately the question of whether or not you have all the time you need to deal with the learning and later use of the metaverse. Even make an estimate of how time necessary it is difficult because we do not know yet what we really want. Learn only the user interface is difficult. Also because little has been invested by the LL to make the self-explanatory Software. As in other articles on the same theme, although Karyne Levy’s article focuses only on the negative aspects of SL. Thanks to Mona Eberhardt to have shown, however, also the positive aspects citing, inter alia, a small contribution of Nessuno Myoo and my.

  6. Well said. As you said, the writer did very little research before logging in, and her informant painted a very narrow perspective which she unconditionally accepted. As someone who has been researching SL education for 5 years now, I would have given her a completely different perspective. As would a furry, Gorean RPer, artist, DJ, SL musician, real estate broker, etc. Let’s face it, the whole article was ill-conceived, especially considering the magazine she is writing for. If she were savvy, she would’ve spent a lot more time speculating about the ramifications of using the Oculus Rift in SL. But you’re right, she did provide a good example of the troubles new residents face.

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