Sex in Second Life and shoddy punditry

I’ll be blunt: The majority of the media coverage of Second Life has been sub-par for far too long. It’s been a combination of an overhyping and dismissal as a “failed project” rollercoaster, and gossipy sensationalism focusing on the virtual world’s sexual aspect in a scandal-mongering manner. Another problem with much of the coverage SL has seen in its eleven years of existence is the attitude of many journalists / pundits: they don’t let facts get in the way of their story.

Marlon McDonald
Marlon McDonald, prolific contributor for Moviepilot.com, wrote yet another scandal-mongering article on sex in Second Life.

One would probably expect something better after all these years. But, sadly, cut-throat clickbait competition for notoriety and / or ad-generated revenue makes the gossipy, sensationalist, scandal-mongering, stereotype-milking approach every bit as attractive for web-based outlets and columnists as it’s ever been for their “old media” counterparts. So, I’m not surprised to see the same old stories get regurgitated ad nauseam by pundits new and “established”. A recent example of such a pundit is Mr. Marlon McDonald, prolific contributor to Moviepilot.com. In his quest for page views and notoriety which will get him featured on the website’s homepage in his chosen category, he wrote yet another article (archived, as Moviepilot has bitten the dust long ago) in which he presented Second Life as little more than a cesspool of debauchery, pornography, virtual prostitution etc.

I’m not going to deny the existence of a sex industry in SL, or downplay its popularity and importance to both SL’s economy and the way SL’s users experience their SL. However, there are certain things Mr. McDonald and others like him consistently fail to tell their readers.

A typical IMVU ad. How's that for subtlety?
A typical IMVU ad. Yet, only Second Life gets a bad rap for being a “cesspool of debauchery”.

First (and most important) of all, to access “adult” (including sex-related) content in Second Life, you need to enable it yourself. Second Life has a system of maturity ratings for its in-world content (regions, virtual products, classified ads), which enables you to not be presented with “adult”-rated content in search and on SL’s marketplace, and also warns you when you are about to enter an “adult”-rated region or smaller piece of land (parcel). By default, viewing and accessing “adult” content in SL is disabled. Hence why I explained that you need to go out of your way to enable access to such content yourself. So far, none of the pundits who bash SL for its sexual content has mentioned this simple fact. I wonder why. Incompetence, dishonesty, or both?

Second, SL is not unique in having a thriving sex industry. IMVU has a thriving sex industry; in fact, it openly (and not very subtly) promoted itself on the “sex and romance” promise. Yet, oddly enough, it seems to be exempt from all the kink-bashing SL has received throughout the years. As a matter of fact, there’s a huge sex industry on the entire internet that dwarves SL’s own, and don’t even get me started on the commercial exploitation of sex in the “old media”. So, as I’ve explained in this and four previous articles on these pages, it’s hypocritical to single out Second Life and pigeonhole it as a den of iniquity, debauchery and (gasp!) sin.

As I had written before, in many people’s eyes, I lose credibility if I’m seen as a sexual person, with desires and fantasies. This is exactly the backwards mentality that Mr. McDonald chooses to pamper and exploit for page views and notoriety.
As I had written before, in many people’s eyes, I lose credibility if I’m seen as a sexual person, with desires, kinks and fantasies. This is exactly the backwards mentality that Mr. McDonald chooses to pamper and exploit for page views and notoriety.

Third… Sex is nothing to be ashamed of. It may come as a bit of a surprise to many, but it really isn’t. I know most of us have been raised in societies where sex for non-procreational reasons, or non-conforming to the hetero-normative “ideal”, is portrayed as something inherently salacious, sinful, and / or downright evil; something you must not indulge in or explore, because, if you are seen as a sexual person, you run the risk of not being viewed as a serious person – at best. Sadly, such prejudiced, sexist attitudes about sex are still the norm, and sensationalist, titillating stories about “sinners” and “dens of debauchery” sell. Mr. McDonald knows it very well, and chose to pamper these views and capitalise on them to serve his own vanity.

Content-wise, Mr. McDonald’s article is a poorly-written patchwork of old stories that were largely irrelevant to SL’s user base even when they were current. Actually, it’s worse than that: He doesn’t even know what he’s talking about. Let’s see why:

  • First of all, his article’s opening image is an IMVU screenshot. This immediately discredits both his article and him.
  • Second, he failed (like so many other SL-bashers before him) to tell his readers that you can’t access “adult” content by default.
  • Third, of the screenshots that were from SL (most of them having been sourced from the controversial Alphaville Herald), none of them represents, from a graphical standpoint, what SL looks like today. They’re a pile of old, scandal-mongering tosh that Mr. McDonald chose to exhume to make a straw man out of Second Life in order to gain more notoriety.
  • Fourth, the sex-related stories he recycled from the Alphaville Herald were largely irrelevant to the vast majority of SL’s user base, but he chose to present them as representing what all SL users get up to.
  • Fifth, he didn’t try SL out himself. Had he done so, he’d have his own screenshots from in-world locations he visited.

From all this, it becomes obvious that Mr. McDonald’s article doesn’t tell us anything new or of value about SL; instead, it speaks volumes about its author.

It goes without saying that, after years of such piss-poor coverage, SL’s user base is constantly on alert. Such was the case with Ms. Karyne Levy’s article titled “Second Life Has Devolved Into A Post-Apocalyptic Virtual World, And The Weirdest Thing Is How Many People Still Use It” for Business Insider.

The title was poorly chosen indeed, but the article in and of itself was not negative, and, contrary to Mr. McDonald, Ms. Levy bothered to experience Second Life for herself, so that she would express an informed opinion. She created an account, tried to see what SL is all about, and concluded that she had a bit of fun, but SL wasn’t for her. It’s her opinion, she’s entitled to it, and I fully acknowledge that SL really isn’t for everyone. But the difference between her article and Mr. McDonald’s is the difference between day and night. She also gets bonus points for referencing Chris Stokel-Walker’s excellent article titled “Second Life’s strange second life” for The Verge.

Why shoddy punditry should never be touted as a policy-shaping factor

One would expect that Mr. McDonald’s inanities would have been summarily dismissed by any SL blogger / commentator seeking to pass off as a credible source of commentary. Yet, we saw Hamlet Au cite Mr. McDonald’s article as a reason why the Lab’s next-generation virtual world platform (which is erroneously called by many “SL 2.0”, including Mr. Au himself) should be “sex-free”, at least in its early days. The idea is that, if Linden Lab wants its next-generation virtual world to not suffer the kink-bashing SL suffers, it must ban sexual content – at least in the beginning.

In his article, Mr. Au points out that SL’s user base dismisses the backlash against SL’s sexual side as a knee-jerk reaction of the conservative, puritan component of our societies. He proceeds to add:

But that response utterly misses the real problem:

While conservatives do tend to be uncomfortable or offended by depictions of virtual sex for moral reasons, liberals also tend to find virtual sex offensive (especially that which seems misogynist and/or violent), or failing that, ridiculous and worthy of mockery. (During the Second Life media backlash, much of the negative publicity over sex in SL came from left-leaning media outlets like Gawker.) So it’s a perfect storm of no-win bad publicity.

His phrasing is problematic, to say the least. It’s true that some people on the liberal side of the political spectrum are sex-negative. There are liberals who claim pornography is inherently degrading and sexist. There are liberals who claim D/s relationships are inherently degrading. There are liberals who believe prostitution is inherently evil, that it needs to remain outlawed, and that sex workers need to be “rehabilitated” in some institutions straight out of Eugène Sue’s “The Mysteries of Paris“, where they will be “purified”, but still not quite absolved, because their sin will still be a stigma on their foreheads, making them unable to gain acceptance and respect in our societies (Umberto Eco’s critique of Sue was spot-on here). While these opinions do exist, Mr. Au makes the false assumption that they represent most (if not all) liberals. Furthermore, Gawker is not exactly the best example Mr. Au could have chosen, because it rarely offers in-depth, thought-provoking analyses, usually opting for sensationalism and click-baiting instead.

So, what do I think of Mr. Au’s proposal? I think it’s daft, for a number of reasons.

A “no-sex” policy would be problematic to enforce

The very nature of SL-style virtual worlds, where users can design, create, script and upload whatever content they want makes this idea possible only through draconian (this is an appropriate use of this word, Mr. Au) Terms of Service and enforcement thereof. How LL, with its “hands off” stance, will enforce such a policy in a consistent and fair manner is something I’d like to see.

Sex isn’t really the problem

Besides the difficulty in enforcing such a draconian policy, to claim that the existence of an in-world sex industry has harmed SL’s popularity and reputation is factually wrong. As I explained earlier, IMVU has a thriving sex industry. It actually promotes itself on the sex & romance promise, and makes no apologies for it. Yet, no one in the media bashes it for its sexual side. Quite the contrary, actually. It gets praise heaped upon it (Mr. Au’s own analysis for The CMO Site, Inside Mobile Apps, VentureBeat, to name but three) even though its true raison d’être is providing a platform for chatting and having virtual nookie. I’ll dwell on a comparison between IMVU, which openly promotes itself on the sex & romance promise, and SL, which gets constantly bashed for its sexual side. This time with figures.

As Mr. Au mentions in his 2011 article for the CMO Site:

While Second Life’s growth has plateaued (and the marketers are long since departed), IMVU’s user numbers have kept growing, hugely. In 2008, SL and IMVU each had about 600,000 monthly active users. Three years later, while Second Life has managed to grow to a paltry 800,000 users, IMVU has 10 million monthly active uniques. Those numbers make IMVU larger than all but the very largest Facebook social games. The company reports that it’s profitable, with an annual run rate of $40 million, and a choice user base skewing to young adults 18 to 24 (though 7 percent are over 35).

How did IMVU grow while SL waned, and what lessons might its success impart to online marketers? I put those questions to David Fleck, IMVU’s VP of marketing, who joined the company in 2010. As it happens, he knows a lot about both platforms: During Second Life’s hype period, he was marketing VP at Linden Lab. (Disclosure: While at Linden, I briefly worked under Fleck but, as an independent contractor, had little direct interaction with him.)

Let’s go a bit further with this…

As Fleck tells it, IMVU user activity hit an inflection point in 2009, when its software client re-launched with an improved interface. To maintain momentum, the company added casual games to the client in 2010 and, notably, re-branded IMVU itself, away from the “virtual world” category for the more marketable “social entertainment platform.” Since IMVU is deployed as individual virtual chat rooms, and not a single contiguous place like Second Life, as Fleck puts it, “We’re not this quirky thing called ‘virtual worlds.’ “

So, here’s your proof, Mr. Au. The reason SL hasn’t gained “mainstream traction” is not its sexual side, but the fact that it’s defined as a very niche product / service / platform. SL is something most people out there can’t easily understand. They can’t understand what it is, what can be done with it, and why anyone would want to use it. Then one has to add the fact that LL itself spent a long time not understanding what it had made, and how it could market it. Don’t even get me started on Mr. Rosedale’s eyebrow-raising claims about how SL would be the next worldwide web, even though SL itself was not technically mature for it (and I still don’t think it is).

On Facebook, IMVU, which makes no apologies for its sexual side, has more than 3,700,000 people following its official page. SL, whose bloggers and users are constantly required (in a most obnoxious manner) to distance themselves from any sexual exploration being done in-world, has about 384,000 people following its official Facebook page. On Twitter, things are about equal (Second Life: 40.8K followers, IMVU: 41.1K). Once again, Mr. Au’s argument that the existence of sexual activities within SL has hurt its popularity and reputation is shot down in flames.

So, there you have it: In 2011, Mr. Au himself offered ample evidence that sex within an internet platform is not what makes or breaks its popularity and reputation, effectively ruining his current argument. If we’re to look for reasons why SL doesn’t have 10 or 30 million active unique users, we should look at LL’s own decisions, always bearing in mind that SL, and virtual worlds in general, doesn’t need to become “mainstream”. Yes, I know that the promise of “mainstream success” makes venture capitalists pause and listen, but a product (or line of products) can be niche and specialised and enjoy a long, successful career. If you want proof, have a look at the current, renewed success of Leica cameras.

I’ll reiterate my position that the potential for intimacy within a virtual world can be a huge attraction for many people. Exploring one’s sexuality in the unprecedented privacy and safety an environment like SL can provide can be truly liberating, therapeutic, and even beneficial for an RL couple’s relationship. Of course, you’re not going to see this side of the story on the sensationalist coverage SL has “enjoyed” so far.

It has also been established, and not only by yours truly, that Mr. McDonald doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and neither do other pundits like him. It has also been shown that his target audience is not SL’s target audience. Can anyone please explain to me why Linden Lab should pay any attention to him and his readers and how this would “protect” the company and its products?

Mr. Au’s proposal, which amounts to little more than “See? SL keeps being pigeonholed as a world of debauchery, so we must ban all ‘adult’ content in SL 2.0, to protect it from bad journalism” is bad advice. The facts, evidence and figures we have at hand don’t support his position at all. I’ll say it again: The reasons for the bad rap SL has been getting, and for its lack of market penetration, are not where Mr. Au looks.

Finally, I must express my frustration in:

  • Seeing that a prominent commentator like Mr. Au chooses to give credibility to the ignorant, scandal-mongering drivel “offered” by an opportunistic columnist like Mr. McDonald.
  • Seeing that Mr. Au hasn’t looked into his own past work to see if his argument is supported by facts.

Then again, I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Au’s aim was to offer a solid, sound argument, or if it was something else…

See also:

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12 thoughts on “Sex in Second Life and shoddy punditry

    1. Thank you so much! Truth be told, I’ve rewritten this post numerous times… And then I ran into that interview with Mr. Fleck, which gave me the extra information to support my argument.

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  1. I posted the link to this article at DeviantArt in to several of the SL groups there. I felt it was informative and well written. Hopefully you get all the credit due for such a comprehensive review of this journalistic abomination.

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