An old steam locomotive which, quite oddly, isn’t pulling any cars behind it exits a tunnel in a mountain and proceeds, via a high, stone-built bridge, to a run-down rustic station located opposite an abandoned cottage with a thatched roof on a tall, yet very small, island where a river flowing between two mountains grows wider. Beyond the station, a stepped path leads to a pair of farmhouses atop the island’s highest plateau.
Welcome to La Vallée, a homestead region owned by Som (Sominel Edelman), with a sim design by Isha (Sablina), which serves as the showcase for his business, Landscapes Unlimited. This month, La Vallée showcases Som’s latest design, the off-sim surround named Alpine Valley MEGA, which will go on sale on the 1st of May.
Despite its relatively small footprint, La Vallée offers, thanks to cleverly planned paths, opportunities for the visitor to wander, adorned with numerous cute, tasteful vignettes. The placement of the various pieces of decor, from the aforementioned locomotive, which seems to be its mascot and trademark) to birds, has been carefully considered with the photographer in mind, making framing easy – truly an SL shutterbug’s delight!
The launch of Som’s new product is accompanied by the “50K Photo Contest”; this is actually a two-part photographic contest, with a jury contest and a popularity contest, and people may submit their entries (up to two photographs per contestant) from May 1st to May 31st. In the first contest, entries are judged by a jury and the first prize is L$50,000; in the second one, popularity is determined by the number of faves the entry gets on Flickr, and the first prize here is L$25,000. The rules for the contest are in the description of the relevant Flickr group (you’ll have to scroll down a bit).
Dalbergia Research’s official accounts on social media announced “with great sorrow” the death of Paige Mirabeau. She was known as Mistress Paige Mirabeau in older times, when she was the most popular and influential BDSM and D/s (Dominance & Submission) blogger for the community of Dalbergia’s MetaMondo virtual world – or MM for short.
Her blog, Mirabeau’s World, had started out as a personal – and often very intimate – journal of her D/s relationships, her experiences within the fetish community, and as an advice column for those who wanted to make the most of their fetish-centred relationships. At some point, though, it morphed into something far more mainstream, focusing on MM destinations, art reviews, and developments related to MM and virtual worlds in general. This greatly boosted her popularity and influence. She soon became the go-to source for all sorts of information for every user of the platform.
The news of her passing spread like wildfire. Hundreds of MM residents rushed to her social media profiles to tell themselves and others – as she was no longer around to read these comments – how much she would be missed, how great she was to the community. Even some people she didn’t get along with. Naturally, MM’s entire Inner Sanctum paid their respects, waxing lyrical about her contributions and her kindness, using verbiage of all shades of purple and of all degrees of insincerity.
But what is this Inner Sanctum? At a first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking of them as as MM’s equivalent of your high school’s “cool kids”; the popular ones, the ones whose opinion determines one’s place in the school’s food chain. In MM, the Inner Sanctum is a colloquial term for a loosely-knit group of extremely popular, and well-connected with Dalbergia staff, early adopters, content creators, artists, and bloggers; there were rumours of varying veracity that they get preferential treatment by the company. What is true, however, is that, in the eyes of far too many people, they could do no wrong and that they could ostracise you if they decided they didn’t like you.
Not everyone was as devastated by Mirabeau’s death; there was someone who had distanced herself from the Inner Sanctum, and chose to say nothing. Not at the time of her death, not a few days later, not a month later. Two years after Paige died, however, she posted on her personal blog the following poem:
A fountain of wisdom, a mentor, a paragon of virtue, the Lady of Lórien.
A dozen wreaths escorted you; five influencers’ speeches,
And thirty-six resolutions honouring your wonderful contributions.
Yet, only I knew what a scoundrel you truly were!
A counterfeit penny, a whole existence built on lies!
Rest in peace, o Lady; I shan’t come to disturb your serenity. After all,
When the time comes for me to redeem my life I’ve lived in silence,
It’ll fetch a price far higher than that your pathetic stiff’s.
Sleep in peace. As you were always in life:
A fountain of wisdom, a mentor, a paragon of virtue, the Lady of Lórien.
You shan’t be the first, you surely shan’t be the last.
That was all she wrote. Her somewhat cryptic post didn’t attract a lot of attention at first. After all, gone were the days when her blog gathered more than a hundred views per day. In the wake of her separation from Paige, she had effectively stopped writing for nearly four years, and the vast majority of her readers went away – ironically, mostly to Paige. Many of them never came back, even after Arianna resumed blogging.
Even so, only a handful of residents still remembered Paige’s post from seven years ago about how “humbled” she was when the owners of Lórien, a twenty-sim collection of highly photogenic in-world destinations, created her as Lady of Lórien, so the reference was lost on most. About three months later, Charles Moser, one of Lórien’s owners caught wind of Arianna’s post and visited her, demanding “explanations” and threatening to ban her from his sims.
“I have nothing to explain, Charlie,” said Arianna. “It’s none of your business anyway.”
“None of my business? You’re dragging Paige’s name through the mud and, by doing so, you’re also making me and Edward look like we’ve given a title to a despicable person!”
“For one, what I write is none of your business. Deal with it. After all, I know you had said the same when your beloved Paige pulled that fatal crosspost on me.”
“What do you mean?” he said defensively.
“Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about, Charlie,” said Arianna, glaring at him. He was taken aback; he was hoping to come in, guns blazing, to take down that insolent, latex-covered stray mutt. “You were there when it happened,” she continued.
“W-When…?” he asked.
“Valentine’s Day, 2015. At Candy Midnight’s party,” she said calmly, but sternly. “In public chat. Do you remember what she said?”
“I honestly don’t remember,” he responded, looking away as he frantically typed his answer.
“Yes, you do, Charlie. Otherwise, finding the ‘right’ answer wouldn’t have taken you so long, and you wouldn’t type it so quickly once you managed to find it. Would you like me to freshen up your memory a little? She said to her new plaything ‘oh, Arianna? She’s someone I’d once made the mistake of allowing her to think I’m her Mistress.’ Those were her exact words, Charlie. Ring a bell?”
“I think I remember. I don’t know what to say,” he said.
“That’s not my problem, Charlie,” she said, in a tone more ruthless than before. “That fatal crosspost, which I now, with the benefit of hindsight, have come to think was not accidental, was the final straw in a long series of emotional abuses on her behalf. Of course, to you and the rest of the Inner Sanctum she could do no wrong. After all, I’m just an outlier and she was one of your ilk. One of the ‘cool kids’. I had to go through all of her shit alone, while you all heaped praise and adoration at my abuser’s feet. So, since what happened between me and Paige then was none of your business, it’s none of your business now. As for your threats of banning me from your sims, go right ahead.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Absolutely,” she responded coldly. “First of all, your response to wasn’t what a dignified person would give. If you had dignity, you’d simply say ‘I’m sorry.’ Instead, you asked me if I’m sure I don’t care if you ban me from your sims, which shows you only care about ‘punishing’ me for speaking out about what I’ve been through. That doesn’t make you a host I care for, Charlie.”
“Fine, then,” he said angrily. “If that’s what you wish.”
“I’m not finished, Charlie. Learn how to listen. Second, knowing your ties with Paige, I’d chosen not to visit your sims, much less write about them, since 2014. What makes you think I’ll reverse my decision now? And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have better things to do than have you here, throwing around your privilege and weight, and trying to pull rank on me.”
“What would make you happy, then?”
“By this, you mean ‘what would it take to convince you to take down your post’, I suppose?”
“Yes. What would it take?”
“Nothing. I want you to leave me alone. And I’m not taking down my post, period. As for that title you gave her, it was entirely unimportant; all you did was give her a silly honorific that further inflated her already bloated ego.”
“Then why did you refer to her by it?”
“Do you want the short answer or the long answer?”
“The short will be fine.”
“Is that the short answer?” he asked in disbelief.
“Yes. Happy now? Anyway… I’ve got things to do, Charlie. If you’re upset that I referred to someone by a nickname you gave her, that’s not my problem, and there’s nothing you can do about it. At worst, you can ostracise me – oh wait. Paige had taken care of that after the fatal crosspost, to deflect blame from her. But that’ll work only with Inner Sanctum groupies.”
“Fine,” he said, clearly angered, and teleported out. Arianna never bothered to find out if he went through with his threat to ban her from his sims.
– – –
1 This poem was inspired by Greek poet Manolis Anagnostakis’ poem “Επιτύμβιον“.
Way back in 2015, I had tried my hand at story writing, mostly as part of a much-needed and protracted healing process. Truth be told, while I do enjoy writing, I wasn’t particularly satisfied by what I’d written, so I decided to start over from scratch. What I’ve kept from that earlier effort is the first name of the main character, Arianna. From now on, though, her full name will be Arianna Zenovka.
What are these new stories going to be, though? Well, I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from the work of Huckleberry Hax and my conversations with him, as well as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash novel. So, I opted this new start to consist of short stories, novellas, and maybe even the odd novel, all set in a virtual world, with a possible bleed between cyberspace and meatspace. After all, I never subscribed to the theory that our virtual existences aren’t influenced by our real life (RL) circumstances.
I chose to set my stories in a fictional virtual world named MetaMondo (MM for short), designed, developed, and run by a company named Dalbergia Research (DR for short). I’d be a liar if I claimed this fictional universe is devoid of analogies with Second Life. My inspiration for the stories comes from various sources: my experiences within Second Life, my Real Life experiences, stories I’ve heard, current events, even songs.
Of course, this won’t mean I’ll stop writing opinion pieces and analyses. I’m just adding another facet to my creative expressions. Furthermore, I’m not going to pretend that “adult” themes won’t be present in these works. If you’re looking for material “approved for all audiences”, go elsewhere. Then again, if you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know you could never possibly expect me to conform to such norms.
I really wonder how and why I missed SL-based author Huckleberry Hax’s post “Fatal Crosspost: Coming soon to a conversation near you” – and I can’t help wondering why it’s not considered a seminal post in internet culture. The gist of it is that, while we’re online, we often find ourselves multitasking, doing things both on our internet-capable device and beyond it: we browse, shop online, talk on the phone, write a text for work, watch videos, and chat. In chatrooms and / or in one, two, three, or more private conversations. And this can lead to “accidents” – and not of the “happy” variety.
Now, computers have made significant strides from the single-tasking days of CP/M and MS-DOS, and we take their multi-tasking capabilities for granted. Still, sometimes they fail. The occasional application or browser tab acts up, and things can go wrong, slightly, annoyingly, or even catastrophically. As far as we humans are concerned as internet users and, more specifically, as chat participants, the fatal crosspost is a prime example of a catastrophic event, which happens inadvertently and whose consequences are permanent.
We’ve all experienced the occasional accidental crosspost, either because it’s happened to us or because we witnessed it: we’re talking with X in one chat window and with Y in another, or we’re talking in open chat (or a chatroom, if you will), and with X in a private message. And we type and send Y something we intended to send X, or vice versa; or we type and send in open chat something we intended to say to X, or vice versa. Most of the time, such crossposts are benign. You wanted to ask X what time is convenient for them to meet you, and you said it in open chat; you wanted to ask about the syntax of a certain command in a certain programming language, and you asked the wrong person or group. That’s fine – you just say “sorry, wrong window,” others accept it, smile and shrug it off, no harm done.
The fatal crosspost, though, is an entirely different beast. As Huck says, “[f]or a fatal crosspost to occur, the thing accidentally typed has to be monumentally one of the worst possible things you could say to that person in that moment. For example, a comment about person X meant for person Y. An uncomplimentary comment.”
Of course, the online realm isn’t the only space where the fatal crosspost occurs; we’ve all seen it happen in meatspace, and, no matter what American sitcoms tell us for narrative purposes, its consequences aren’t any less dire. Both in meatspace and online, there’s an event horizon that separates the time before the fatal crosspost and the time after it – and once you cross this event horizon, there’s no turning back. Ever. Apologise all you want, grovel all you want, it’s no use, and – even worse – there’s no excuse whatsoever that can pull you out of the mess you’ve created for yourself. No second chance. No forgiveness.
In his post, Huck gave an example of what can constitute a fatal crosspost. Another type of fatal crosspost could be this: you’re romantically involved with X, and it is understood by both of you that your relationship is based on mutual dedication and sexual loyalty / faithfulness. Then, you hit it off with Y, and explore paths that differ significantly from the ones you and X have been walking. And you send X an erotic message meant for Y. Naturally, it’s such a message that X could never believe that they were the intended recipient. This is – usually – a fatal crosspost, depending on the content of the message and the history of your relationship with X. If, for example, you’ve been neglecting and gaslighting X, making them feel more and more miserable, making them beg you for a small fraction of the attention, affection, and time you once gave them, then you’re fucked (not in a good way), and you had it coming.
If you wanted to make X hate you and break off all communication with you, I must offer you my most enthusiastic contrafibularities. You’ve given them every reason and right to become your mortal enemy, to think of you as a bucket full of bovine diarrhoea, and to speak in the most unfavourable manner imaginable about you, whenever they’re given a chance, and to anyone who’ll listen. Even if what you said to Y to instill bias against X in them includes a grain of truth or two, you’re still fucked – again, not in a good way. You see, the one who talked smack about someone else behind their back and got busted is you.
But why is the fatal crosspost such a huge deal? Such comments constitute a major breach of trust and confidence. It’s because the person you’re targeting in your fatal crosspost is usually a person you’re supposedly a friend of, a person who trusts and respects you – even loves you. And you chose to disrespect that friendship and those feelings. Regardless of what you were trying to achieve with your behaviour, the fact that you either spoke ill of them to someone else behind their back or betrayed your romantic liaison shows that the feelings of trust and respect were not mutual.
Now, let me take Huck’s example a bit further: imagine that you’re in a public setting in SL with X and Y, and surrounded by people who know all three of you – you, X, and Y. And imagine that you instead of sending the ugly remark about X to Y, you send it to public chat, where everyone present can read it. Obviously, X has every reason to loathe you forever. What about the others? Well, those who were at the scene and witnessed your fatal crosspost won’t have much of an incentive to continue respecting you (if they did in the first place), especially if X is their friend. And if you had invested much in presenting yourself as a paragon of ethics, as the best specimen of the anti-drama species, then you’ve just shattered your entire marketing campaign.
If you do that, you’d best eat humble pie and apologise publicly and profusely, without expecting that X will ever forgive you, and without believing for a nanosecond that X will be obliged to not speak ill of you. Maybe the other people who witnessed the scene will someday forgive you. Maybe. But who cares? You should have known better. But now that you’ve gone and put your foot in your mouth, can you avoid losing face in such a shameful manner? Hmmm, let me think…
Actually, there’s only one way for you to avoid the consequences of a public fatal crosspost: you must be such a venerated “celebrity” in your community, so “irreplaceable”, so well-connected to the “right” people, so adept at providing hours of exquisite rimming to the “right” rectums, so completely above and beyond critique and scrutiny, that, in others’ eyes, you can do no wrong whatsoever and everyone’s quick to forgive you for literally everything. In other words, you must be a true high-functioning sociopath with no scruples or principles, who’s mastered the art of manipulating others and has elevated it to a science. In other words, you must be a total Karma Houdini and a world-class sycophant.
Then again, you might think I must be a complete hypocrite; surely I’ve made at least one fatal crosspost. Right? The answer is no. I have said things that angered others, but I’ve always said them to their faces, and not behind their backs. There are reasons why I’ve managed to avoid making fatal crossposts. For starters, it’s my principle to include in my friends list only people I can respect. Second, I detest gossip. I choose to not frequent gossip cesspools like the ones I talked about a while ago, and keep a safe distance from those who do. Third, I know how to respect my friends’ friendships. If both A and B are my friends, I choose to not speak ill of A to B, or vice versa.
That said, I reserve the right to say whatever I want, whenever I want, wherever I want, to whomever I choose, about someone who subjects me to a fatal crosspost or has done so in the past. Some may find it prudent to take this as fair warning.
As is pretty much always the case, I’m the last to arrive at the party when it comes to providing an analysis related to Second Life. This is intentional. When it comes to making sense of Second Life’s progress within a certain timeframe, I prefer to sit back and examine SL and its progress within the broader context, i.e. its direct and indirect competition, and the Real Life (RL) economic, social, and even societal factors that affect people’s willingness and ability to join SL, to stay in it, and invest in it. Sadly, far too much of the commentary fails (often willingly) to take these factors into account, and, by choosing a platform-centric perspective over a user-centric one, ends up painting a picture that’s either alarmist or unjustifiably flattering.
During the annus horribilis that was 2020, Tyche Shepherd released a number of summaries related to Second Life’s metrics, offering some interesting insights as to how Second Life fared in terms of usage and popularity. The last one was this tweet from October, which had to do with concurrency (how many users are in-world at the same time) and new user signups. The outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic coincided with a significant increase of the platform’s usage by its users, and increase also coincided with a spike in new user signups.
It is clear that, compared to 2019, daily concurrency remained consistently higher throughout 2020, although it trailed off after May. The big “hump” in the 2020 daily concurrency graph coincides with a significant spike in daily signups (new users joining SL). However, the increase in new signups didn’t last; by mid-May, 2020 signups fell down to the maximum number of 2019 daily signups and they remained consistently below SL’s 2019 performance in this area for the rest of the year.
As Tyche tweeted, this [c]oncurrency growth [was] driven by returning users or longer online sessions, rather than new users. It makes sense. When the pandemic hit, many of SL’s major markets went into a lockdown. Since existing SL users in those countries stayed at home, it made sense for them to get back into SL and start using it for longer sessions – some content creators even started being more active than before. In March and April there was even a significant increase in new signups. Again, it makes (sort-of) sense. Although SL is a seriously old virtual world platform that uses a rendering engine that’s inferior compared to just about any current competing platform’s, it has a dedicated user base that signs in regularly and creates some interesting virtual locales that someone can visit.
Also, SL’s user base is one that consumes like there’s no tomorrow, and they’re practically driven by each other to do so: shopping event upon shopping event and within shopping event, gachas, more fashion bloggers than you can shake a stick at, etc. It’s a veritable consumerist Mecca: consumo, ergo sum. I consume, therefore I am. With that in mind, I can understand why a skilled 3D content creator would want to join SL and start selling virtual goods to diversify their portfolio and increase their sales. Literally, to use the disgraceful term that Tribeflame’s horrible CEO Torulf Jenström coined, SL’s user base consists mostly of whales. Or, more aptly, mega-whales. Below, you can watch YongYea’s excellent commentary on Jenström’s disgustingly cynical keynote to understand what the term really means. At 25 minutes and 23 seconds, it’s pretty long, but it’s a must-watch.
And this brings us back to discussing the RL – ahem – realities that affect SL users’ behaviour and the platform’s ability to attract and keep new users. No, I’m not going to get into the same old tired arguments about the UI, the tier, the perks for premium users, the default camera offsets, or anything like that; I’ve spoken and written about them quite a few times in the past, and they’re rather irrelevant here. After all, I’m planning to revisit them in the future, in light of recent (non-)developments in the gaming industry.
Where most SL commentators’ narrative falls apart
I’m one of those people who’ve been in SL long enough to remember both the time when it was the mainstream media’s darling and its fall from grace. I was on my first SL account, which I had opened way back in 2006, when His Holy Philipness of Rosedale kept overhyping SL as the 3D web which would replace the web as we know it, even though everything had already started to point to the exact opposite direction. In fact, I still remember the noise my eyes made as they rolled inside their sockets. Ever since then, I’ve seen every controversy and every “crisis” that SL has weathered, and I’ve read all the analyses of all the (strangely) popular pundits. Throughout SL’s remarkably – and, perhaps, surprisingly – long life, the vast majority of said pundits have consistently and surprisingly, given that several of them fancy themselves as market analysts or what have you, failed to take into account the RL realities that influence potential, new, and existing users’ behaviour and stance towards SL.
Cost of Entry
When his Holy Philipness was making his bold claims, he appeared to be blissfully unaware of all the cost-related factors that determine whether people will join SL or not, and if, once they’ve joined it, they’ll stay or not. Even way back in 2006, when SL was down every Wednesday and half of the viewer updates made it crash more than a computer running Windows ME, you simply couldn’t have a half-decent experience if your computer didn’t have a dedicated graphics card with 3D acceleration and at least midrange capabilities. Such computers (desktops or laptops) were expensive back then; more expensive than their counterparts that didn’t have such hardware. They remained expensive.
Let’s face it: to have a relatively decent SL experience, you always needed a machine that cost at least USD 800 (for a desktop) or USD 1,000 (for a laptop of similar performance). And, due to the recent shortage of GPUs on the market and the price-gouging that “free” market gives us, this cost has doubled (at least), proving that all technological forecasts that predicted we’d be enjoying wonderful graphics and excellent performance at bargain basement prices were pure hogwash. Care to compare that to ordinary web surfing and casual gaming through Facebook, which can easily be done on a USD 250 laptop?
I know some people will say “oh, but you can run SL on a machine that has an integrated graphics circuitry,” but I have no time for this nonsense; I tell them to shut the fuck up before they finish the word “integrated”, because I’m talking about your SL experience being characterised by a decent frame rate at a relatively decent graphics level (at least Mid-High), rather than a slide show on “Low”. Seriously, this “integrated graphics” shit needs to be euthanised. SL is no different than any other 3D open-world platform in requiring a powerful machine. These things cost money. End of story. How exactly has it eluded all SL and general computer industry pundits that the cost to meet SL’s hardware requirements for a decent experience is an inhibiting factor?
Cost of (Second) Living
Your existence in Second Life is NOT free. Yeah, joining SL is free. You can also move about for free, visit most places for free, you can talk to others for free, most in-world groups are free to join, and there are also free houses, pieces of furniture and general decor, garments, and avatar accessories for you to pick up. But that’s pretty much where “free” ends. Of course, I’m not saying that Linden Lab acts in the deplorable and unethical manner that Tribeflame does (see YongYea’s video above, if you haven’t already done so). I’m stating a fact.
Let’s say you run into a bunch of freebies of acceptable quality and among these you find a house (a tiki hut, for instance) and some furniture. Where exactly are you going to put them? You’ll have to rent virtual land. Last time I checked, there’s no such thing as free land in SL, because virtual land rentals are a major source of income for LL. Depending on how much land you rent, your minimum monthly expenditure is going to be the equivalent of USD 5, and it can end up being as high as USD 300, or even much more.
Then comes the fashion and styling concern. To avoid being saddled with the crap default animations for standing around, walking, running, flying, and swimming, you’ll need to purchase a decent animation overrider that includes a bunch of relatively nice animations. Most cost about USD 10 each, although there are some cheaper alternatives. If you want to have options w.r.t. your avatar’s garments and accessories, you need to abandon the default “classic” avatar or the mesh avatar you chose when you joined, even if it looks nice (and some do look rather nice), because no SL fashion designer supports them. You’ll have to buy a mesh body, and this can set you back some USD 10 or more.
Also, the recent shift to the costly (sometimes exorbitantly so) mesh heads adds an extra expense, usually well north of USD 20. And then, you’ll eventually get bored of the freebie hairstyles, garments, shoes, and accessories you got. You’ll want to make your avatar more “you”; or you’ll want to imitate a certain style that’s popular among SL fashionistas or within the particular community you decided to associate with. Pretty soon, you’ll find you’ve spent at least USD 150 on avatar styling just to have something that’s beginning to satisfy you aesthetically. And you’ll keep spending. I know, because I’ve been there and still am. I do spend to satisfy my fashion, styling, and fetish whims and desires; I’ve accepted that spending RL money on SL is something I have to do to get some goodies, and hire people to do stuff for me.
To get some extra perks (such as a weekly L$ stipend, the right to own land on the Mainland or rent a region directly from Linden Lab instead of a virtual estate agency, a Linden home, and access to several sandboxes and areas reserved for “premium users”), you have the option to become a paid subscriber, paying a minimum of USD 99 / year. And then there’s the “SL civil partnership tax”; you can get “married” to someone else in SL for L$10, and the “divorce” costs the person who requested it L$25.
And let me dispel another myth for you: no, it doesn’t matter that we spend Linden dollars in-world and not “real” dollars or euros; this is digital currency we either bought by exchanging RL currency, and / or we’ve earned by being hired by someone who’s already bought this money and / or earned it.
Cost of Content Creation
Second Life styles itself as a creative platform. However, LL forces you to pay for your creative expression within it. First of all, the in-world Build Tools suck. They’re extremely basic, they don’t help you create complex shapes, you can’t optimise the stuff you’re making by creating custom Levels of Detail (LOD), and don’t even get me started on advanced stuff like, say, a bill of materials. It won’t be long before you realise that, if you’re going to create anything that looks relatively good, you’ll have to use some application outside SL.
Even if you choose external tools that can be had for free (like Blender and GIMP), there’s this niggling issue. To bring this stuff into SL, you have to pay. L$10 per image (texture) or sound or animation / pose. And at least L$11 per mesh object. So, if you want to be a content creator in SL, you have to accept that, even if you describe yourself as an amateur, it’s a business and it costs money. And if you decide to sell your goods on the SL marketplace, there’s a sales tax, which is admittedly low.
SL is a non-essential expenditure
I think it’s already been established that SL is costly. To look pretty, you need to spend money. RL money. To have a place you can call your own in SL, you need to spend money. RL money. To upload your stuff into SL, either for your own enjoyment or to share with others for free, or to sell it to others, you need to spend money. RL money. Even to be able to decently enjoy SL, you need decent hardware and a good internet connection. And these things cost RL money. Even if we take into account the fact that a good computer and a good internet connection represent an investment that can have other uses besides SL, there’s still no escaping the fact that our activities in SL cost the average SL user a non-trivial amount of money. RL money.
This weakens SL’s case for any potential user, and practically all pundits (never mind starry-eyed evangelists) so far seem to be oblivious of the fact that people, be they existing SL users or outsiders, are largely aware of the fact that SL is anything but free (as in gratis) and is, in fact, quite costly. Another fact that has historically eluded practically every pundit so far is that SL is non-essential to people and that people are aware of this. So, they yap endlessly and pointlessly about “user retention” and whatnot, ignoring the elephant in the room: that people can live perfectly well and happily without being in Second Life.
Let’s face it, the harshest and most cynical critics and detractors of SL and its user base are right when they say SL is a pretend world where we create “happy places” as an escape from our everyday lives (which can be pretty miserable). We’re playing house in here. Let’s own up to it. There’s nothing wrong with escapism, with living out our fantasies and whims, with role-playing, with recreating or re-imagining our world. It’s a valid pastime, every bit as valid as, and no more or less nerdy than being avid sports fans, fiddling about with model trains, playing Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, “mainstream” video games, paintball, spending our money and time on comic books (including manga), or on being passionate movie buffs, or whatever. It’s every bit as costly as these pastimes, though. There’s every bit as much peer pressure to spend more and more on it as you can find in these hobbies, and it’s just about as non-essential as they are, however much we may enjoy the time we spend in-world.
Then again, His Holy Philipness of Rosedale has proven, way back in 2014, when he made a complete fool out of himself at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference, that he’s either blissfully oblivious to the fact that SL and virtual worlds in general are non-essential to people, or that he’s just shamelessly downplaying facts to make a pitch and hopefully attract investors. But this is no excuse for anyone who fancies themselves as a journalist or a serious commentator; they should take him to task and ask hard questions instead of sucking up to him. But hey, what do I know?
So, there you have it: SL is both costly and non-essential. Its clientele, at least as far as I’m aware of, seems to be mostly middle-class people, ranging from the lower-middle class whose jobs and financial security were destroyed (abruptly or slowly and agonisingly, in true lingchi-style) in the consecutive financial crises since 2008, all the way to the upper-middle class who can afford to own and run multiple sims. However, as is always the case in every society, the higher income echelons are far more sparsely populated than the lower ones.
So, there you have three crucial, but inexplicably ignored in all SL-related commentary, Achilles’ heels that SL has been saddled with from its inception: it’s a non-essential expenditure, it’s costly, and too many of its users are in employment and / or income situations that make them vulnerable to the next financial crisis, whether it’s caused by the white-collar criminals of Wall Street and other stock exchanges or by the next fancy virus that crosses the divide between other animals and the homo sapiens species. When faced with the spectres of massive pay cuts (been there, fuck you very much Dr. Schäuble), fuel poverty (I’ve also met this one, fuck you again Dr. Schäuble), unemployment, loss of healthcare because the government decided to throw its taxpayers under the bus to save the profligant, tax-dodging, stock exchange gamblers’ arses, what exactly do you think these people will do? I mean, besides skipping “luxuries” like their annual visits to the doctor, their car’s maintenance, keeping their home warm in the winter, or taking their prescription drugs whose price some fuckhead decided to send to the fucking stratosphere to make a quick buck. Will they continue spending USD 100 / month to play house on that Tuscany-themed homestead and USD 100 / month on virtual clothing? I don’t think so.
Back when I had commented on the two ridiculous keynotes His Holy Philipness of Rosedale gave at SVVR 2014, I had written he based them on several false assumptions:
That the world is full of people that are literally chomping on the bit to join a virtual world;
That people are eager to purchase user input devices (like the Razer Hydra or the Leap Motion) and special displays (like the Oculus Rift) which will have limited (if any) use outside of very specific applications;
That the markets for computer peripherals and virtual worlds exist in a vacuum and are unaffected by the ongoing global financial crisis;
That, in the middle of the global financial crisis, people would eagerly spend the money for the Oculus Rift, the Razer Hydra, the Leap Motion, or whatever other similar device is “necessary” for these virtual worlds to be enjoyed in all their glory;
That the only things that keep people out of virtual worlds are lag and the complexity of the user interface.
Nothing’s changed since then. His Holy Philipness is still as delusional as he was back then, and so are most pundits pontificating on SL and other virtual worlds. I’ve already said that SL is a non-essential expenditure. You won’t die if you don’t have your SL. You’ll die if you don’t have access to food, water, shelter, warmth through the winter and protection from the summer heat, healthcare. Not if SL one day closes its doors and LL goes out of business. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s not somehow protected from the ebb and flow of our employment and income status, and, as a consequence, it’s not exempt from being put on the chopping block if we have to choose between SL and really essential expenditures. How these realities keep eluding all those famous pundits boggles my mind. It’s not rocket surgery. It’s common fucking sense. And I have news for everyone – pundits, LL’s owners and top brass: there’s no amount of tech that LL can throw at SL can make it essential or lift the majority of its users from the precariat class and put them in actually decent jobs.
But is it really so?
Yes. It is. Private estate ownership in SL peaked sometime in November 2008 (see the graph below) and has been in decline ever since. A partial recovery started in the summer of 2009, and it lasted one year. Ever since then, SL’s been steadily losing regions. Is it a coincidence that this protracted region loss started at the same time the world was being rocked by one financial crisis after the other (financial crisis of 2007-2008, European debt crisis, 2009 global financial crisis, and so many others – I’ve lost count) that obliterated millions of jobs, deprived millions of people of their savings and earnings, left millions homeless, cost hundreds of thousands of lives due to financial crisis-triggered suicide or health damages that were related to the impoverishment of vast numbers of people?
I already wrote about the inexplicably overlooked socioeconomic factors that make it hard for people to justify joining SL and staying in it. There are also other factors that the pundits fail to understand. First of all, as the years go by, SL users’ interests change. Their priorities change. People lose interest and sometimes change their hobbies. They can be frustrated – either because an entrepreneurial attempt in SL didn’t go well, or because their SL-based romantic relationships went wrong, or perhaps they were driven out by the bully gangs that previous LL administrations failed to confront and tackle. Perhaps they had a child or two and decided they could no longer dedicate time to SL. Others simply passed away. Others moved on to different platforms, and as for new users… Well, while there was the aforementioned spike in new user signups between March and April 2020, there’s literally no telling what these new users are. Remember, as of last October, SL had nearly 64.5 million registered users (source: gridsurvey.com). How many of these users are alts and throwaway accounts (including users who signed up once to see something or attend an event, never to come back) is anyone’s guess.
SL and the Competition
I was asked why SL keeps losing regions and performs so badly when it comes to new user signups compared to newer open-world platforms like the GTA series or Roblox or World of Warcraft or this or that or the other. Seriously now? First of all, it’s impossible to compare SL to Roblox: SL is a sandbox, where you basically play house, explore other people’s places, even have some digital nookie, whereas Roblox is a game platform and a game creation system. Not to mention that Roblox was never burdened with idiot pundits who piled up and doubled down to reinforce the “SL is for perverts” smear. Apples and oranges. The GTA series is an open world, but at its heart it’s a series of action adventure games, with missions, goals, and a competitive element that attracts people, and especially the male of our species. Apples and oranges again. Same goes for World of Warcraft. It’s a massively multi-player online RPG, which has a storyline, missions, quests, goals. In SL, you have no mission or goal whatsoever.
Regarding the “mission” and “goal” thing: as I’ve said time and time again, in SL you’re mostly playing house. That doesn’t sound particularly attractive or rewarding to potential users. Also, SL is old. Its engine comes from the 1990s. Its graphical capabilities are mediocre compared to most current game engines’ (except, of course, Clusterfuck 2077’s), its ability to simulate anything is pathetic, its active user base is about the size of a relatively big European city, so its appeal is limited. And it’s just not getting any younger. Not to mention that, unlike CD Projekt RED, LL doesn’t have the power and the connections of a major European government throwing EU taxpayers’ money its way, and it’s no longer a media darling that can do no wrong.
Now let’s get back to the cost thing. Nowadays, all game studios milk their games’ players like cows, with microtransactions, lootboxes, pay-to-win crap, etc. SL makes its money from micro-transactions, digital currency sales, virtual land rentals, marketplace sales taxation, etc. But here’s the deal: in a mobile game, you’re led to think you’re playing “for free” and are given the “option” to pay in order to win an otherwise unwinnable stage, and you’re given some imaginary bragging rights about how “cool” your player looks compared to others, which makes it easier for you to be chosen to join a team of players. In SL, you immediately see the costs incurred, and you don’t really have much of an incentive to fork over the dough; if you start plonking USD 300 / month on a full region, you’re not getting the “oooh, I finally beat this stage” rush you get in Candy Crush or what have you. You just get an empty piece of land that you have to work to make it look good. And even if you make the most stunningly beautiful avatar in SL, you’re not getting much of a reward for it or validation from others.
But really, given the fact that all of the aforementioned platforms and games are entirely different from what SL is, I wonder how exactly we can say they’re SL’s competition and keep a straight face. If we can compare it to something, it has to be something like Active Worlds or maybe Minecraft.
In A Nutshell
Besides the appallingly shoddy punditry that surrounds SL, there are a few conclusions a rational reader can draw. For starters, SL still has dedicated long-time users, and even returning users. It still manages to engage its audience. However, this audience isn’t growing. New signups are on the decline, as SL and platforms similar to it fail to capture people’s imagination. Furthermore, contrary to common myth, our disposable RL time and dime do dictate our attitudes to SL. And finally, there’s no simple answer to the question “how can SL compete with X or Y?”. Are there lessons to be learnt from other, more successful, offerings? Yes. But this will require another diatribe.