Opinion

Strawberry Linden (left) with Brad Oberwager (Oberwolf Linden) at June 21st’s Lab Gab SL18B Special

On Monday, June 21st, I attended the airing of the Lab Gab SL18B Special show with Strawberry Linden (née Singh). It was a lengthy, much-anticipated, and newsworthy show, as it’s only been less than three weeks after the passing of esteemed LL CEO Ebbe Altberg. The show was divided into two sections: in the first, Strawberry interviewed Linden Lab Board member and Executive Chairman Brad Oberwager (in-world name: Oberwolf Linden); in the second, she interviewed the Lab’s Leadership Team, which consists of VP of Product Anya Kanevsky (in-world name: Grumpity Linden), VP of Product Operations Eric Nix (in-world name: Patch Linden), and VP of Marketing Brett Atwood (in-world name: Brett Linden).

In accordance to the structure of the show, I’m dividing my summary and my thoughts into two separate posts; in the current post, I’m focusing on Mr. Oberwager’s answers to Strawberry, which of my own questions about the future of the company and the Second Life platform, which is celebrating its 18th year, were answered, and what questions I still have. Of course, I didn’t expect Strawberry to raise the topic of Ebbe’s succession; it’s way too soon, and I don’t think it would be proper, after all. I’ve decided to summarise what Mr. Oberwager said and – where appropriate or necessary – comment on what was said, organising the post in sections in accordance to the flow of the interview. At the end of the post, you can watch the video in its entirety.

Contents:

Brad Oberwager’s interview:

Brad Oberwager and Philip Rosedale

Mr. Oberwager said he’s a “very, very good friend” of LL founder Philip Rosedale, to whom he was introduced via Mr. Rosedale’s wife; Mr. Oberwager said he regards her as his closest friend. He has also divulged that the two families live close to each other (three blocks away), and that he and Mr. Rosedale meet about once a week. Also, Mr. Oberwager said he considers Mr. Rosedale to be an unofficial advisor of sorts w.r.t. decisions concerning Second Life.

I believe this particular section merits a fair bit of commentary on my behalf. Regular readers of this blog will know there’s little love lost between me and Mr. Rosedale, for a number of reasons that I’ll lay down below.

For starters, he overhyped Second Life so much that it was obvious to just about everyone that he was trying to make it look like it could / would be something it could never possibly be – he even tried to rewrite the history of virtual worlds with a narrative that implied SL was the first virtual world of its kind, a narrative that has been keeping back SL’s technical side ever since. On the creative side, he overpromised and underdelivered: the content creation tools needed to really make it stand out just weren’t there for far too long. Some are still not there. Also, SL could never possibly replace the regular, low-cost, web browsing and social networking provided by the “ordinary” web: why pay for what amounts to an upper-midrange gaming rig just so you can read a news outlet’s website? Not to mention the learning curve, which has always been quite steep, and the intimidating – to say the least – crowds of the Infohubs and the “Welcome” areas.

It must also be noted that, regardless of what Mr. Rosedale promised, his tenure underdelivered on another important goal / promise: SL hasn’t exactly been a “safe haven” for people to express themselves and explore their personalities and creativity. The reason is that, very early on, certain extremely abusive cliques formed around certain unsavoury individuals. Their members made a hobby out of going through the official forums and people’s blogs so that they would single out their targets and subject them to years of harassment – sexist, racist, misogynist, rape-apologist, homophobic, transphobic harassment. And the people who were being harassed could do nothing about it, because the cliques knew how to dance around the ToS and Community Standards, and they had already made sure there would be very little backlash against them – besides, they were the “cool”, “edgy” ones who provided “entertainment” to others. Mr. Rosedale failed the users on this front, and so did his successors Mark Kingdon and Rod Humble. The only LL CEO who took swift and proper action on this front was Ebbe Altberg, and this is one of the main reasons why he’s the only LL CEO who has earned my respect so far.

Finally, despite Mr. Rosedale’s “let’s overhype SL into something it can never be” marketing drive from the early years, he’s never understood, as he palpably demonstrated at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality (SVVR) Conference & Expo 2014, that it’s the job of the seller to convince potential buyers to, erm, buy.

On the second day (Tuesday, May 21st) of the conference, the “Creating the VR Metaverse” panel was hosted – other participants in the panel were the late Ebbe Altberg (who had already joined LL as its CEO), Stefano Corazza and Tony Parisi. Near the end of the panel, moderator Bernhard Drax (in-world username: Draxtor Despres) played a segment from one of the episodes of The Drax Files Radio Hour podcast (titled “the BIG picture“). In that segment, Pamela, a lady who worked at a sheet music store, negated and rejected all of his arguments for the use of a virtual world: she saw no reason for her to join and use a virtual world; she saw no intersection of it with her hobbies, interests, and activities, and saw no way in which she could benefit from its use. In other words, virtual reality failed to capture her attention and imagination, and didn’t present her with something interesting enough.

Mr. Rosedale’s reaction to the video was awkward laughter and a dismissive attitude. Back then, I summed up his attitude as “well, it’s not us that have failed to make virtual reality attractive to the public, it’s the public that doesn’t understand how cool virtual reality is”, and I still stand by my assessment. This is precisely where the approach employed by Mr. Rosedale and far too many others so far falls flat on its face. As I wrote back then, instead of accepting the burden of showing potential users that virtual worlds are worthwhile, they expect potential users to do the hard work and figure out what virtual worlds can do for them. This is not how marketing works. Mr. Rosedale’s attitude, as I figured from his keynotes, was (again, quoting from my older post):

Why do you, the “outsider”, think you don’t need to use a virtual world, when it is a FACT that virtual worlds are super-cool, tremendous fun, very beneficial to whomever uses them and, to cut a long story short, the best thing since sliced bread?

You don’t attract customers this way, especially when you’re trying to sell them something that’s non-essential for their livelihood, health, or whatever. Virtual worlds – including Second Life – are not food, water, electricity, or telephony. In general, you don’t need a virtual world to survive. For most of us, virtual worlds are a pastime – and a rather expensive one, given the cost of a reasonably capable gaming rig, especially in today’s environment where graphics cards have become extortionately expensive, courtesy of rabid cryptocurrency miners, a “self-regulating free market” that “magically” maintains a balance between supply and demand, and scalpers.

I must say here, however, that I do understand why Mr. Oberwager would want to ask Mr. Rosedale about the rationale behind SL and about his account of what was done right and what wasn’t done right back then, what they were trying to achieve, what they achieved, and what they didn’t achieve. I personally wouldn’t rely on his advice on promoting SL, especially in today’s context, his view of what it can be and what it can’t be, or on his understanding of what keeps us in SL and what drives us away from it. Likewise, I don’t think I’d rely on Mr. Rosedale for advice on which circumstances, internal and external, kept SL from achieving the goals he’d set.

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Brad Oberwager and Ebbe Altberg

He said he respected and liked Ebbe very much, and that he admired him for his engaging, “lead from the front” leadership style and his dedication to being inclusive. Mr. Oberwager went on to say that he viewed Ebbe as a fiercely loyal and open person, and a gifted mentor. Regarding Ebbe’s legacy, he said he believes that the way Ebbe approached and led the Lab did a lot to shape the company and, as his ethos and philosophy have become part of the company’s culture, will continue to do so.

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Acquisition of Linden Lab

Linden Lab’s acquisition was met with a fair bit of trepidation by Second Life users. In his appearance on the SL18B Lab Gab Special, Mr. Oberwager addressed this issue, almost certainly with a view to easing people’s worries. He explained that there are basically four types of acquisition of a company by another entity:

  • Acquisition by venture capitalists who are willing to spend significant amounts of money on the company they’ve acquired, expecting significant returns, but are just as willing to cut their losses and let the company go if their goals are not met;
  • Acquisition by a private equity firm, which aims to turn it around (usually by cutting costs) so that it will then resell the company to somebody else at a profit;
  • Acquisition by another company, where the company that is purchased, along with its brand, identity, product portfolio, and culture, is absorbed by the entity that has acquired it;
  • Acquisition by private investors, who are driven by a variety of motives; although financial gain is among them, it’s not necessarily the main reason for their interest in the company.

From what was said, LL’s acquisition falls in the fourth case: private investors, who obviously want to have some financial return, but also have other reasons that drive their investment. He found the way SL extends someone’s life (into the virtual realm), and the creative and social freedoms it affords people to be very interesting. As for his involvement with the Lab and its core product, he said that it made him understand the meaning of the phrase “it’s not just work, it’s fun” for the first time, and that he enjoys being part of SL and LL, and that he regards his involvement with the company and the platform as a passion and an investment, in equal parts.

It’s fortunate that Mr. Oberwager seems to understand that he needs to be patient and stay in for the long haul. SL has existed for eighteen years, long after the Press turned against it and then forgot about it, has remained profitable, even though it’s been under the radar since 2008 or 2009. I would also advise Mr. Oberwager and Mr. Waterfield against settting high short-term growth goals, because of the many peculiarities of SL and because of how it’s perceived by the general public. What remains unknown, though, is the investors’ capability to pump significant amounts money into the development of certain crucial parts of the server and viewer codebase that need to be brought up to date, such as the rendering engine, the woefully behind-the-times Build Tools, etc.

In my post where I discussed the speculation on who could / would / should succeed Ebbe, I mentioned the Victor Gauntlett era in the history of famous British sports car manufacturer Aston Martin: the troubled company’s CEO (Victor Gauntlett) secured investment by three Greek shipping tycoons: Peter Livanos, who was also the company’s US importer, and brothers John and Nick Papanicolaou. However, it turned out that the three shipping magnates simply weren’t financially strong enough to take the company forward: besides a move (in 1986) from carburettors to electronic fuel injection, their core product (the V8) still used – with modifications, of course – the already obsolete DBS chassis, and they still raided other car manufacturers’ parts bins for things like door handles, tail lights, switchgear, and whatnot. Even the V8 Zagato wasn’t enough. Eventually, the company was sold off to Ford in 1987.

I never write a single line in this blog without reason; I view Aston Martin’s case as a cautionary tale of a group of entrepreneurs who invested in a brand, believing their considerable wealth was sufficient to help it grow, but things didn’t turn out exactly as was hoped and / or promised. Just because LL is a relatively small company, it doesn’t mean that its core product doesn’t need serious investment to stay relevant (at least on the technical front) – and relevance is precisely one of the topics Mr. Oberwager touched upon, as we’ll see further on in this post.

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Current Ownership Status of Linden Lab – Decision Making

Linden Research, Inc. (Linden Lab) is now owned by a limited liability company (LLC) that was formed by Brad Oberwager and Randy Waterfield. Mr. Oberwager brings in the entrepreneurial skills that Second Life and Tilia will need for their practical growth, while Mr. Waterfield is the one with the financial expertise and experience. I find it rather odd that this company is still not named and that no information on it can be found anywhere. UPDATE: It’s the Waterfield Group.

Now, LL decision making is divided into two parts: business and product.

Business decisions, which encompass corporate management, partnerships, marketing, and any outward-facing decisions, are handled by the Management Team. One of the factors that are taken into account is whether a partnership with an entity outside LL is compatible with LL’s values and culture.

Product-related decisions, on the other hand, are handled by the Leadership Team Office of Second Life, which is a triumvirate consisting of VP of Product Anya Kanevsky (in-world name: Grumpity Linden), VP of Product Operations Eric Nix (in-world name: Patch Linden), and VP of Marketing Brett Atwood (in-world name: Brett Linden).

Mr. Oberwager’s position gives him a role both in decisions related to the business direction of the company and in product-related ones, mainly on “really big things”, and he also participates in brainstorming sessions. He specifically mentioned that, regardless of any business- or product-related decisions made by the Management and Leadership Teams, the real decision makers are the residents (users in SL speak). He explained that, if certain decisions of the company bring it in conflict with the users’ desires, goals, and aspirations, they will cease using SL, or at least use it less than they did before. Understanding this, he seeks feedback from residents – ideas, suggestions, etc. – to further improve their experience.

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Brad Oberwager In-world

I was pleased to learn that Mr. Oberwager does go in-world, and that he does so relatively often. He has at least two accounts; one is Oberwolf Linden, which is his professional account that he uses for his work duties. He also has several alts, which he uses when he wants to take in the virtual world as a regular user – these are his incognito accounts; when using them, he’s always “in character” and he stated he won’t “break character” while using them. He made a point of going through the entire new user sign-up / avatar creation process all by himself, to identify its problem areas and find out what needs to be addressed to help new users stick around. I’m actually pleased that Mr. Oberwager chose to take on SL’s learning curve alone. It shows willingness to understand a new user’s experience first-hand, without being guided through the first steps by a seasoned developer or support assistant. Perhaps it also gave him the opportunity to experience what the various “welcome” areas are like – it wasn’t mentioned.

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Second Life in The Future – Potential Changes

Mr. Oberwager stated that he wants the community (a term I prefer to shy away from using, for reasons I’ve explained before) to be part of Second Life’s future and success – he doesn’t want to impose unpalatable changes upon the users; instead, he wants to identify the communal goals for SL, and build a cooperative relationship with the users to bring the platform forward. While he acknowledged that SL has been around for a long time, he said it’s not a good idea to avoid moving forward because “we used to do it this way.”

I’m glad he said this, and I’m glad he characterised the “that’s the way it’s always been” mentality as shackles, because the Lab has historically been plagued by a reluctance to move forward technologically, citing all sorts of pretexts. I’m not talking about radical technological advances. Most of the proposals that are not acted upon are actually small steps that are trivially easy: for instance, the Lab could align itself with modern industry standards regarding the default camera offsets (I’ve discussed this topic several times on this blog), but it hasn’t, citing a non-existent risk of “content breakage”; content doesn’t “break” when you realise it’s ugly – it breaks when it stops functioning. At least now we have a UI to set our own, but new users are still stuck with the ancient, sub-par defaults, and who knows when – or if – they’ll get to know better. This leads to the proliferation of disproportionate and oversized avatars and builds, and works against immersion, as I and others have explained many times before.

Also, SL is missing some features that are ubiquitous in the modern gaming industry and are actually in its IP arsenal and within the capabilities of the Lab’s engineers: for instance, we still don’t have weather, even though it’s part of the Windlight technology that LL had acquired from Windward Mark Interactive way back in 2007. A common reason cited for this is that “it would rain indoors.” This, however, could be very easily avoided: SL has primitives, and it would be trivial to allow the user to set a prim (or a set – linked or unlinked – of prims) as phantom and as a zone that weather particles can neither enter nor exit. Yet, even though it’s common practice in current virtual worlds and games, and even though it’s been done before (by companies with far smaller teams and budgets, no less), LL’s answer is that weather and using prims as zones to facilitate the full use of Windlight’s features is “unactionable.”

Similar pretexts have been cited for the Lab’s resistance to implementing mirrors, which, again, are a common feature in many games today, and have been implemented by several competitors of SL, one of them much older and smaller than SL. This, of course, leads me to ponder whether this resistance to changes and advancements should be attributed to the users or the Lab itself. Or are we faced with a situation where both sides are set in certain ways and are unwilling to see that there’s room for further improvement and that this improvement is absolutely feasible?

I particularly liked the part where he said “if you don’t embrace change, I promise you you will like irrelevance a lot less.” SL and LL must not become irrelevant – that would be, in Mr. Oberwager’s own words, the worst outcome. I completely agree with his words, but I’m afraid I’ll have to say here that, at least on the technical front, LL has often given users, content creators, the Press, and the rest of the industry plenty of reasons to view it and its core product as irrelevant or near-irrelevant; remember, the underpinnings of SL date back to the late ’90s. Of course, Mr. Oberwager doesn’t advocate change for its own sake; he didn’t strike me as someone who believes in “absolutum obsoletum” (if it works, it’s out of date), the words with which Stafford Beer dedicated his 1972 book The Brain of the Firm to his colleagues. Instead, he prefers changes that will come over time as part of SL’s natural evolution, and will help attract people to the platform and make it engaging for them.

Interestingly enough, he compared SL to a party, where people are having fun, want it to keep going, and want more people to join it. So, work needs to be done, and action must be taken to attract and encourage people to join SL, get involved in it, and stay. I found his reference to “interesting people” to be a bit curious. How can it be decided whether someone is “interesting” for SL users? SL has so many different groups, communities, cliques, and subcultures, with vastly different interests, so choosing a certain individual, or a certain type of personality, as “interesting” is going to be difficult. Or is he implying that he’d like to try and get people popular outside of SL join it and become some sort of ambassadors? I find this a bit baffling, because I can’t help wondering what someone who’s a celebrity outside of SL can expect to find in SL: a bigger audience? They already have Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook for that, whose user bases and reach make SL’s pale in comparison. Furthermore, there are two additional problems with this goal – if it’s a goal, and if celebrities outside of SL are what Mr. Oberwager has in mind, of course:

First of all, the RL social media / SL intersection. An SL fan of celebrity X or Y already follows the celebrity’s non-SL website and social media presences. So, there’s no incentive for the celebrity to join SL, as the potential gain in popularity is minimal. Second, a celebrity would have to invest time (to learn how to use the platform and to engage with it and its users) and money (shopping, styling, land, builds, representatives) to establish and maintain a presence in SL. Given the low expectation for getting more fans, why would a celebrity join SL? I’d really rather not revisit the overhyping days of old, with the much-publicised, but short-lived corporate and celebrity presences in SL, although I’m pretty sure these days are unlikely to ever return. If anything, nowadays I’d expect a celebrity to demand that their in-world presence be subsidised by the Lab, an idea that I really don’t like.

Having established that RL celebrities aren’t particularly likely to get into SL, what could possibly be an “interesting” person for SLers in general? A sculptor? A painter? A photographer? A 3D artist? There’s already a sizeable number of such artists who use SL as a creative toolkit and as a space to exhibit their work, although I have the impression that nowadays it’s more a case of SL-based artists who present their work mostly to SL residents and less a case of RL-based artists who extend their presence into SL or add SL to their toolbox. This would make sense, as SL’s in-world content creation tools can’t hold a candle to applications like Blender, Maya, or ZBrush: artists nowadays tend to create outside of SL and then import their creations in-world. Even in-world snapshots are typically post-processed in applications like Photoshop or GIMP; then, they are typically exhibited primarily on external platforms like Flickr, blogs, and occasionally displayed in in-world galleries (where they may also be sold to residents for L$).

What else could be interesting for SL residents? More fashion designers? The market’s practically saturated, and only a few niches are still left uncatered for. I’d be tempted to go with decor designers – the ones you see making their wares available on sites like SketchFab or CGTrader. More often than not, 3D models from these sites are imported and sold on the SL marketplace by people who take advantage of the Creative Commons licences that govern many of these models – although few merchants actually honour these licences by providing proper attribution. I don’t see why the original creators couldn’t team up with SL-based scripters to start selling them directly as interactive objects (furniture with opening drawers, working light fixtures, trees and shrubs with animated foliage, and so on). Perhaps the Lab could collaborate with indie game studios and offer games suited to SL? There are several options, some more meaningful, some less so.

As for the move to the cloud (Amazon Web Services – AWS), Mr. Oberwager said it was done for the sake of the residents and not to cut costs. Having attended many Server / Scripting User Group meetings, I can confirm that LL decided to move to AWS to offset, as much as possible, the scalability, reliability, and performance issues that had been plaguing SL from the beginning. The move has paid dividends, at least on the performance, stability, and reliability fronts.

Did the Lab manage to cut costs by moving to AWS, though? Mr. Oberwager denied this and said that the move increased the Lab’s running costs. I honestly hoped the Lab had saved money with this move. As a user, I understand that saving money in a manner that doesn’t negatively affect performance and user experience can free up funds to recruit skilled engineers or purchase technologies for further improvements. But let’s pause for a moment. Why should Mr. Oberwager feel obliged to say “oh, we made this improvement, and it was costlier, it didn’t save us money”? What’s so wrong with enhancing performance and reliability and saving money? What does that tell us about the quality of the discourse around SL?

We must also keep in mind some facts that are very well-known to the Lab and to anyone who’s been watching Second Life closely: SL had reached the peak of its popularity many years ago and has been in slow decline ever since. In fact, even when SL’s popularity had peaked, its active user base was small compared to what’s been achieved before and since by the competition, direct or indirect. Second, neither the company itself nor SL is the media and the public’s darling anymore. Third, the Lab doesn’t have friends in the government generously funnelling taxpayers’ money into it. When you’re in such a position, you don’t get to keep the lights on, much less remain profitable for so many years, providing jobs to so many people, if you don’t know how to keep your running costs in check.

I’ve already mentioned that Mr. Oberwager stated he believes in users’ participation in SL’s success. He said that the real driver for the platform’s long-term success will be to grow the user base and to keep new users involved, so he welcomes feedback and suggestions on how these goals can be achieved.

As to the decision-making process in the Lab, he said it revolves around “four pillars”:

  • What will bring new users to the platform?
  • What will make the existing users happier?
  • What will lead to more engagement?
  • What will make the personnel happier?

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Tilia and Second Life

Mr. Oberwager drew a parallel between Second Life and an RL country, and proceeded to give some characteristics that he believes are similar between the two types of entities. An RL country, he said, has natural borders, and SL has its islands. I found this a bit baffling at first. On second thought, perhaps he’s referring to the fact that, in general, you can’t sail, fly, walk, or drive from one privately-owned region to the other, as they’re typically not contiguous and you need to teleport from one region to the other – provided, of course, you’re permitted to do so by its owner(s). The second parallel he drew was that both countries and SL have infrastructure, which enables residents to go about their day-to-day activities. The third analogy was the existence of a Rule of Law, which governs residents’ in-world interactions and behaviour to one another. He specifically mentioned that the Rule of Law is there to protect the weak – obviously from bullying and harassment. Finally, he spoke of the existence of a financial system, and this is where he turned his focus to Tilia, which serves as Second Life’s financial system.

Tilia / Tilia Pay is a subsidiary (wholly-owned) of Linden Lab. Contrary to common misconception, it doesn’t compete in any way whatsoever with Second Life, but complements and serves it. One of the key features of SL is that its economy relies on transactions pertaining not only to the rental of virtual land, but also to the sale of user-generated content.

One of SL’s peculiarities is that, unlike what’s happening in other virtual world and game platforms (such as Roblox), user-generated content sales are of a direct seller-buyer nature. They don’t pass through the company’s books. Yes, there is a transaction fee for using SL’s web-based marketplace, but that’s all – and if you buy something in-world, all the in-world tokens (the Linden dollars) you pay go directly to the seller, which can then be converted to RL fiat money. In this sense, SL is like eBay: it doesn’t touch the money you pay.

He also said that eBay doesn’t touch the goods; however, SL’s virtual goods need to be “touched” by LL, because that’s how data transmission on the internet works, especially when you’re dealing with “walled gardens“: to give or sell your stuff to another resident, LL’s infrastructure (servers and viewer) needs to make a copy of the item, transmit it to wherever the recipient’s computer is, place the copy in their inventory, and then LL’s infrastructure needs to rez it in-world so that the recipient can enjoy it. So, in this particular respect, SL differs from eBay.

But the two services – SL and eBay – share another, more crucial, similarity: they both need to use a money transmitter, a formally accredited and licensed service that handles transactions, especially w.r.t. the conversion between in-world tokens and RL fiat money. This is a necessity because of RL legislation against money laundering and tax evasion. For eBay, the money transfer task is handled by PayPal; for Second Life, this task is handled by Tilia.

As was the case with PayPal, which was spun off from eBay in 2014, so Tilia is now a separate company that can offer its services to customers besides Linden Lab, thus opening up the opportunity to provide an additional stream of revenue to its parent company and, as a consequence, Second Life’s continued development. Currently, Tilia has two such customers: one is Wookey Technologies, the company that has purchased Sansar from Linden Lab, and the other is the virtual property trading game Upland.

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Wrapping it Up

In his closing remarks, Mr. Oberwager acknowledged that a corporate move as big as an ownership change can lead to fear, anxiety, and even anger. He obviously doesn’t want to have angry residents; when your customers are angry at you, that’s when you should know you’re doing something wrong. Here, I must point out that one may do the right thing, but implement it and / or communicate it in the wrong manner. As for anxiety, he interprets it as fear of the unknown: people are afraid of what they don’t know, and, once they get to know it, they can proceed to other emotions and, unless they’re really dreading what was until then unknown, their anxiety subsides.

Moving from the general and abstract to the specific, he stated that he recognises that LL’s change of ownership has caused anxiety and concern among SL users, and that he is devoted to reducing this anxiety, to avoiding any anger, and to moving people to an emotion he prefers: joy – not merely happiness. He identifies happiness with satisfaction, whereas joy, in his own words, is beyond that and comes from within – an “explosive connection”, a state when relationships are working, and cloudy days become sunny. Although the part about residents’ emotions sounded a bit like a TEDx talk, I believe it’s best to focus on Mr. Oberwager’s statement that he recognises that this goal won’t be achieved with a top-down management approach, but through an extensive and deep collaboration with the users.

In a nutshell, I believe Mr. Oberwager spoke in a manner expected of a modern manager. He showed a good degree of familiarity with the company and its core product; he spoke with respect about the late, esteemed Ebbe Altberg; he stressed the need to make sure Second Life will remain relevant; finally, he declared that he’s committed to working with the user base to move Second Life and Linden Lab forward, instead of imposing his personal views and desires on the users.

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My Final Thoughts and Concerns

I must note again that I’m surprised by the fact that we are not given the name of the LLC that has acquired Linden Lab (UPDATE: the investment company is the Waterfield Group – for acknowledgments etc., see the end of this post). This is the first time I’ve encountered something like this, and I really don’t know what to make of this. No information on LL’s own web presence, no information outside of it… Why? And why is it that the SL blogosphere, with one exception, hasn’t noticed this lack of transparency or felt questions need to be asked? Beyond that, Mr. Oberwager seems to be quite capable and in touch with both the realities and challenges faced by the Lab and its core product (at least in the United States) and the sensibilities and aspirations of its users. However, I must say it won’t be all smooth sailing. We all know that Second Life has lagged behind current creative alternatives on the technical front – both in terms of its built-in creative toolkit and its “eye candy”.

The real threat, though, not only to Second Life, but to every sandbox-style virtual world and to every platform that relies on allowing users to upload their creations and exchange and sell them, comes from the European Commission and the lobbies it has chosen to serve. This august body inflicted, through a misinformation and libel campaign, the disastrous Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, formally known as the Directive (EU) 2019/790, upon anyone who uses the internet for any purpose. The Directive’s disastrous Article 17 (formerly 13) dictates the implementation of upload filters to automatically “prevent” copyright infringement, without any real protections for fair use, users’ privacy, or communications confidentiality – placing an insurmountable burden on online content-sharing service providers (OCSSPs). Linden Lab is a prime example of such a service.

In previous posts, I have explained why this law represents an existential threat to any platform that relies on user-generated content, and has even been heavily criticised as a threat to privacy, journalism, and creativity by top legal experts and human rights groups, from Germany’s Data Privacy Commissioner to David Kaye, United Nations’ Rapporteur For Human Rights. And now, the Commission, doing yet another favour to the Big Content and Big Censorship lobbies, has reneged on its promise to provide fair use protections for parody / satire, critique, commentary, journalism, and derivative works. It decided to allow copyright holders to choose some “high-value” content they own and earmark it for unconditional takedown, regardless of context, every time it appears on line.

Schematic overview of the mechanism proposed in the guidance, with the new earmarking mechanism highlighted in red. Image credit: COMMUNIA (Image is in the Public Domain)

Sadly, too many in SL’s user base are copyright maximalists, although they don’t even know how copyright works and ignore that they themselves “infringe” upon others’ copyrights and trademarks merely by depicting items they know from RL; they don’t realise how badly this is going to burn them and everyone else.

How will the Lab respond? Will it apply a heavy-handed blanket filtering policy to comply with the strictest, most draconian, national implementations of this new law? Will it geo-block EU users to avoid the extortionate rates of the Big Censorship (Alphabet – Audible Magic – Facebook) monopoly that the Commission single-handedly created? Will it try to negotiate getting licences from every single publisher, industry, or group of publishers, on the planet to stay on the filters’ good side, which might be so costly that reduced tier will remain wishful thinking? Will it unite with other companies that rely on providing user-generated content, and with organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), European Digital Rights (EDRi), and Homo Digitalis, organisations dedicated to the defence of the very ideals SL represents, to push for the abolition of the totalitarian Article 17? This is precisely what I’ve been seeking answers to since the Directive was still being negotiated, and I still haven’t seen them.

This post has been updated twice: First, on June 27, 2021, as I was still quite concerned by the fact that almost a year has passed since LL has been acquired, and there’s still no information whatsoever on the investment company that now owns Linden Lab, and by the fact that this has slipped under most SL bloggers’ radars. The second update was on July 2, 2021, after I found out, via Huckleberry Hax, about Hamlet Au’s January 6, 2021 post where it was revealed that the investment group is indeed the Waterfield Group. A separate post will follow.

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.

Tulum Reserve (Rated Adult)

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.

Second Life concurrency between 10 March 2020 and 20 October 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd
New user signups between 10 March 2020 and 20 October 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd

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.

The grid is down while we bang on things
I’ve been in SL long enough to remember this image that would show up every Wednesday or at any other time SL was down because of technical problems or (un)scheduled maintenance. Even then, you needed a machine with a decent 3D graphics card. Credit: Linden Lab

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.

Ignored Precariousness

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:

  1. That the world is full of people that are literally chomping on the bit to join a virtual world;
  2. 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;
  3. That the markets for computer peripherals and virtual worlds exist in a vacuum and are unaffected by the ongoing global financial crisis;
  4. 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;
  5. 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?

Second Life main grid estates owned by users (not Linden Lab-owned) from 31 October 2006 to 16 February 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd

Slow Decay

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.

Click on the image for the full-size version.

Yes, I’m talking about you. You fancy yourself as a perfectly well-meaning person. You’re a Bible-thumping, God-fearing, church-going, pro-lifeanti-choice, family values paragon of our society’s oh-so-WASPish moral standards. You’re a garbage-separating, recycling, vegan-and-proud-of-it, organic-eating, Tesla-driving hipster, acting all woke and shit, riding every bandwagon that you think’ll make you look more progressive. And there you are, on Plurk, on Twitter, on various forums “for those in the know”, regurgitating (sorry, did I offend you by not calling it “sharing”?) every morsel of mean-spirited, malicious, sexist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, prudish, racist, oftentimes even libelous gossip you’ve found on the already well-known cesspools and voraciously devoured less than an hour ago.

You’re a close friend of the owners and managers of said cesspools. “They’re cool people,” you say. “It’s not their fault that people post smack about others,” you say. “This sort of crap would be posted somewhere anyway,” you say. “Who are we to mess with freedom of speech?”, you say. That’s the party line of the cesspool management, which you choose to parrot.

Why wouldn’t you? After all, they’re your buddies. And they’re your buddies, because you want them to be your buddies. Even if you weren’t buddies before they got the cesspool running, you want to be buddies with them, because they’re kind-of a big deal in this little place you call a “community” – be it Second Life, your local blogosphere, or your social media echo chamber. They’re the “cool kids”, the Queen Bees, the Leaders. You want to be around them. You need to be around them. To be given some of their imaginary halo’s light and to have your existence validated by their popularity and influence. In exchange for the privilege of validation through association, you defend their every action, whitewash it, turn your mind and yourself into a pretzel and perform all sorts of reasoning acrobatics and contortionist feats to justify it.

And there you are, idly chatting with the rest of the clique about how badly people misunderstand the cesspool and the well-meaning of its owners. After all, they do have a link to a suicide prevention hotline and urge the victims of their “contributors” to seek psychiatric help, so they’re really good people and can no longer be held to account for the cannibalisation they enable and encourage, for the harm they enable to get some ad-generated revenue. Yes, they’re making money out of all this. They’re making money out of dragging people’s names (or nicknames, it doesn’t matter) through the mud, out of stirring up strife, which can often have RL consequences. That’s BLOOD MONEY. And you – yes, you – are enabling them to profiteer from this, and you’re defending their practices.

Well, I have news for you: you’re fucking delusional. Yes, you read that right. You’re delusional. You think these people are your friends, but they’ll gladly allow their “contributors” to throw your spineless (I’ll get to that later) arse to the dogs. Oh yes, they will. After all, you’re old enough and big enough to defend yourself, it’s just anonymous gossip, it doesn’t really affect you, it’s harmless I tells ya and, if it affects you so much, why don’t you click on that suicide prevention hotline link? That’s what your cesspool-running friend will tell you, while (s)he’s laughing all the way to the bank. Remember, this traffic brings ads, and ads bring revenue.

And why am I calling you “spineless”? Because you are. Because you feel the sodding need to be in a clique, even though you know that your clique’s ringleaders run a business whose product is bullying and harassment – not that they’d be any better if they merely did it for the lulz. I’m calling you spineless, because you’ll sit your sorry excuse for an arse down and take the abuse, whenNOT if – you’re eventually targeted by your (alleged) friend’s clientele. And you’ll defend both your abuser’s God-given “right” to abuse, harass, libel, denigrate you and turn your existence into a living hell, and your friend’s right to make a buck from all this.

You’re spineless, because, in order to stay on your (alleged) friend’s good side, you’ve abandoned anything even remotely resembling human values and removed your vertebrae. Therefore, you have no means to stand up to them and say “I don’t want to be associated with someone who enables every lower form of life to maliciously target and harm others, and I can’t decide if doing this for fun or for profit makes you worse.” That’s what you’d have said if you had a spine and any semblance of principles. But you don’t, so enjoy being, and being seen as, a lackey, a lapdog, a tool for your leader. Your leader tells you to jump and you ask “how high?” – that’s what you are, like it or not; a lackey, a lapdog, a dogsbody of the lowest calibre. I don’t care how strong you might think you are when you’re jumping in with other invertebrates like you to attack whomever your leader tells you to. You’re pathetic and contemptible. And make no mistake: your turn will come. Sooner or later, your leader and your posse will turn on you, or your leader’s clients will target you. And that’s when you’ll be alone. There’ll be no sympathy or support for you. After all, you don’t deserve it.

And you’re complicit in all this, not only because you justify it, but also because you consume it, propagate it, and use the “input” that’s “contributed” to the gossip cesspools to inform your opinion of others. You’re giving these cesspools traffic and traction, not only by visiting them, but also by “innocently” passing their “knowledge” about. You are, willingly, enabling cowardly bullies and lapdogs of troll leaders destroy whatever social core Second Life claims to have – and to think you’re pretending to care about SL! You are the sort of person who enables the maggots to force people to resort to becoming recluses and virtual hermits in hopes that they’ll avoid being torn to bits by your clique and its clients. Even if you claim to read such sites out of “curiosity”, you’re enabling and empowering the filth-peddlers, and you’re no better than them (surprise, surprise!).

So, stop fooling yourself. You’re every bit as bad as the “contributors” of these sites. If you feel the need to consume and share this sort of shit, go see a psychiatrist – that’s not healthy at all. If you post there, you really need professional help so that you’ll learn to mind your own sodding business. And if you feel the need to befriend and make up excuses for those who provide platforms for bullying and harassment, then – again – you really need professional help.

Second Life remains one of the most successful sandbox-style virtual worlds and offers a great outlet for the creativity of its users, despite its well-documented technical limitations. By “creativity”, I mean literally anything a user may do in-world: from taking selfie-style snapshots to making machinima and from building a small hovel to creating an entire virtual city. Of course, not everyone invests time, effort, and money, into creating something that only they’ll enjoy all by themselves. People generally want to share their creative efforts.

In the early years of the platform, people shared their in-world creativity using a disjointed set of tools and platforms: their SL profiles, which come with limitations aplenty, their blogs (at least those who bothered setting up one), Flickr, Yahoo! Groups (which, by 2005, were already on their last legs and are now just a barren wasteland taken over by spambots), DeviantArt, and all manner of SL-related forums, official or otherwise. As time went by, it became clear, at least to those who weren’t groupies, cheerleaders, investor-baiters, or downright delusional evangelists, that Philip Rosedale’s claim that Second Life would become “the 3D web”, which would supposedly replace the web as we knew it, was pure horseshit. There was so much that was the “vanilla” web could offer that SL simply couldn’t – and still can’t. Plus, the “vanilla” web doesn’t require a graphics workstation for you to enjoy it; SL’s cost of entry has always been very palpable. And, quite frankly, SL’s built-in tools for 3D content creation still kind-of suck, even compared to something like SketchUp sans plug-ins.

The rise of Facebook put the final nail in Philip’s bullshit. By 2007, SL was deep in the dregs: besides moral panics like the Copybot scare, its creative facilities were horribly lagging behind every 3D content creation application, relying on badly-written, inefficient hacks. Its governance team interpreted and applied the company’s ToS arbitrarily, and the platform lacked any meaningful kind of nexus for social networking. One may say I’m ignoring SL’s in-world groups. I’m not ignoring them; I’m dismissing them. They’ve always been terribly problematic: group chat has always been highly unreliable; notice management capabilities are only rudimentary; as for dealing with spammers and abusive members, only in June 2014 were group managers given the ability to ban people from them (Second Life Project Viewer version 3.7.8.290887) – that’s eleven years after Second Life was launched.

I’m not ignoring SL’s official forums either. They’re useful, but the general discussion section has historically been a cesspool where abuse, harassment, and bullying were, for far too long, the order of the day. People there were literally at the mercy of sadistic gossip / troll gangs that acted with complete immunity and impunity, courtesy of their connections with certain governance team members. Thankfully, Ebbe Altberg (LL’s current, and, if I’m not mistaken, its longest-serving CEO) put an end to this and kicked the most powerful, poisonous, and influential of these people out for good. Even if this was his only achievement (and he’s achieved a lot), it’s helped SL and its users far more than anything all of the other CEOs combined ever did.

By acquiring (and closing) Avatars United in 2010, LL gave SL something resembling an official social network, though: the SL feeds (My Second Life), which, if you’re lenient enough, resemble a cut-price action figure of the result of a drunken one-night stand between Facebook and Twitter. Unfortunately, users were exposed to exactly the same kind of abuse and emotional duress as on the official forums. As if that wasn’t enough, the feeds aren’t without technical issues and shortcomings: they only allow picture uploads from within the viewer, thus allowing only unedited in-world snapshots, and upload has historically been iffy. To top it all off, we must also note that very little of the content shared on the SL feeds is actually visible by outsiders, and I’d really like to have a rather stern talk with whoever developed the algorithm that chooses what’s seen by the general public (i.e. people who are not SL users).

What an outsider sees when visiting the Second Life Feeds' page
This is what you see when you visit Second Life’s official social network.

There are four main roles that a social network needs to serve:

  1. Having a user profile that allows you to maintain and manage your contact list(s), and share thoughts, images, videos, links, audio, and other media (such as PDF files) with the audience(s) you’ve chosen;
  2. Building, managing and promoting communities for discussion and media sharing;
  3. Promoting your brand, whether your brand is a blog or a commercial presence;
  4. Fostering a safe, welcoming, adequately-moderated environment for users;

As I’ve already explained, SL’s in-world groups fail at the second role. Managing your group’s notices is a pain. Group bans arrived late in the day. Group chat is still unreliable. And, finally, the only group-related accompanying material you can really have is the text on your group’s profile, and the group’s picture – and that’s about it. At best, they’re just a combination of a newsfeed and a seriously buggy chatroom.

For the first role, in-world profiles are very limited, and I’ve never understood the reasoning behind the three different aspect ratios for the front page, the picks tab, and the RL info tab. Even with the “web” tab, which is connected to your SL feed, their feature set is seriously lacking compared to just about everything out there. Plus, their target audience is mostly SL users who are logged in.

As far as the third role is concerned, SL has its Classifieds and its Destination Guide, but I’m not entirely sure how useful people actually find them. The main issue with them is that, for users who have chosen to access “adult” content on LL’s SL-related services (in-world and web-based), the classifieds are typically flooded with ads for SL’s sex industry; these usually drown out other content that users may be more interested in. As for the destination guide, its suggestions rarely make me say “oh, this sounds really interesting, let’s go have a look”; then again, I’m somewhat specific in my interests, and I’m terribly picky and critical about the quality and aesthetics of each build, so you may not want to use my preferences as a yardstick.

Finally, as I’ve already explained, both the forums and the feeds were tainted by years of deliberate failure, as certain Linden Lab employees were far too cozy with certain abusive users whose raison d’être is to disrupt any kind of discussion and abuse – to the point of chronic, targeted harassment – other users, either for the fun of it, or to silence those their ringleaders chose to target. As I said earlier, Ebbe Altberg brought this to an abrupt end. He cleaned up the cesspool that his predecessors (Rosedale, Kingdon, and Humble) allowed to be created and continue to infect SL’s community, but the damage has already been done, and restoring faith in LL’s community management will take at least twice as many years as it took for Rosedale, Kingdon, and Humble and their troll-friendly forum and feed “moderators” to destroy it.

I think that, from the above, it’s pretty clear that LL’s own social tools are lagging behind third-party alternatives, and this is yet another serious blow to the Lab. As if losing the other three crucial races (creative tools, rendering engine, game engine), wasn’t bad enough, the Lab lost the social media race too. This has left the San Francisco-based virtual world developer and its customers depending on other platforms for interacting on the ordinary web and for showcasing their in-world creativity to both Second Life users and people outside of it.

Third-Party alternatives to LL’s official social infrastructure

Blogs

Historically, the most obvious choice for SL users have been the two major blogging platforms: Blogspot / Blogger and WordPress. Tumblr also used to be popular, especially for image and video sharing, but Verizon’s Apple Store- and conservative nutjob-appeasing 2018 ban on adult content and its subsequent conservative content moderation policy made it friendly only to the far right fringe lunatics. Even after Automattic (i.e. WordPress) acquired it, the ban was upheld, perhaps to protect WordPress from something that once might have been somewhat able to compete with it. Blogger / Blogspot and WordPress offer rather comprehensive editing and analytics tools, with WordPress charging more for more advanced options. Another contender is Wix, which is now connected to DeviantArt (more on that later), but I’ve no experience with it.

Micro-blogging

For micro-blogging, Twitter seems to be everyone’s first choice, and it’s got really good analytics tools. However, it’s very easy for the user to end up having a mixed and unfocused RL / SL audience, and it’s also very easy to get caught up in non-SL discussions. Choosing each tweet’s audience is basically out of the question, and it’s also very hard both for you and for others to search for older tweets of yours. It also offers no way whatsoever for you to build and manage a community.

Plurk had gained some traction a few years ago, but nowadays it seems to have been abandoned by many of its adopters. I must also say that its “incentive” scheme (“Karma” and badges for posting and replying) is quite annoying, and its privacy controls are rudimentary – at best.

Google+ tried to offer something between a micro-blogging service and a more traditional social network (like Yahoo! Groups or the now-discontinued Pathfinder social networking platform that was popular in Greece); it even allowed people to create groups and cross-post to them. However, it’s now dead. Pity, because it could have been pretty good. About.com is not really a social network; it’s nothing more than a calling card of sorts, so it’s not worth talking about. I’m not even sure its owners remember it exists.

I gave Ello a shot for a while, but abandoned it shortly thereafter. It doesn’t have a “real names only” policy, and it seems to be suited well for photographers and pictorial artists, however its functionality was best described as rudimentary, and its reach is still very limited. I might give it another go soon, but I don’t expect much.

Tumblr used to be a somewhat valid micro-blogging option, but, as I mentioned before, Verizon ruined it overnight in its drive to make it “family-friendly” and host its companion app on the prudish Apple Store, whose Mary Whitehouse-pleasing “moral” standards make Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas and his skirt length-measuring goons look like Anaïs Nin.

The way I see things now, the only Twitter-like social platform that can be friendly enough to SL users is Mastodon, but it’s woefully underused by SL users, and getting set up, discovering others, and getting discovered is not so easy, especially given the differences in community standards across the various federated networks. Plus, there’s very little support for sharing to it from the major blogging platforms, and you have to do it manually.

Image hosting services

For years, Flickr has been the platform of choice for SL users and brands to share their images – and it still is, actually. It still has some legacy Yahoo! code that doesn’t seem to be state of the art today; its private messaging system is rudimentary, its groups management tools are nothing special, but it has pretty good image hosting and management capabilities, that are quite fine-grained; you can organise your images and videos in albums and galleries, you can fave others’ work, you can tag your work, mention people who are depicted in it, choose the licence that governs your work, and even host adult-themed images and videos, provided you rate them accordingly. However, it’s changed hands quite a few times and along with the changes of ownership came changes in what you get with a free account and what you get as a paying member.

The most notorious change was the removal of the perks that, under Yahoo!’s ownership, Flickr offered to free accounts (one terabyte of storage and some basic analytics tools). SmugMug (the new owners) proceeded, in a highly controversial move, whose legality is somewhat dubious, to roll it back, limiting free accounts to 1,000 pictures and no analytics at all; if you want analytics and unlimited storage, that’s USD50/year. Several commentators and bloggers have expressed doubts over the years regarding the direction the platform will take, i.e. whether it’ll continue to accept digital art (3D art, screenshots – post-processed or raw – captured in video games and virtual worlds, computer and mobile UI themes) or not. However, for the time being, it remains SL-friendly and its managers and curators don’t seem to stigmatise SL users and brands. Its popularity remains quite remarkable. At the time of writing, its owners claim it has over 60 million monthly users, and over 100 million registered photographers.

DeviantArt is another image hosting platform that enjoys a certain degree of popularity with SL users. It offers free and paid (Core) plans, group management tools, messaging, even some basic blogging and micro-blogging facilities, while user profiles are more detailed and fine-grained than Flickr’s. As is the case with Flickr, paid members get to have stats and insights (analytics) for their work. However, Flickr’s upload and image managing tools are more intuitive to use. In recent years, DeviantArt’s popularity among SL users has declined, as many SL photographers have migrated to Flickr. This is a bit strange, as DeviantArt caters to many of the same communities that SL users identify with, and it’s highly popular with creators focusing on fan art, comics, 3D art, sci-fi, game customisers, UI themes for pretty much every operating system under the sun. It’s even popular with several communities that are highly active in SL (furries, latex fetishists like yours truly), so it would make sense that SL users would prefer it; frankly, I think its clunky upload tools are the only real barrier to its adoption. Its user base remains large and active (61 million registered users, over 45 million unique visitors per month).

DeviantArt Core (paid) plans
DeviantArt’s “core” (paid) plans

Instagram is currently the undisputed king when it comes to popularity. With the power of Facebook behind it, it boasts over a billion monthly users and over half a billion active users. So, several commentators and bloggers already urge SL users and SL-based brands to switch from Flickr to Instagram. In fact, it’s already started to become quite popular among several SLebrities and brands, given that the #secondlife hashtag has started gaining noticeable traction there. However, judging from the comments I see under various models’ images and videos, it’s a creep’s paradise. Privacy-wise, it’s the absolute worst. If you want to access it, you must accept ALL manner of cookies, and you don’t have the option to choose what you’ll let it install. You’ll supposedly have a chance to opt out later. This flies right in the face of the General Data Protection Regulation (currently the most comprehensive privacy legislation on the planet), and Facebook / Instagram deserve to be slapped with a massive fine to the tune of a few hundred million dollars. Being owned by Facebook, the content / content moderation / user protection policies are the same crap – read the “One hell of a benchmark” section below for more details as to why Facebook’s universe is not suitable for SL users, or for anyone who wants to speak freely and be safe from harassment and arbitrary content “moderation” decisions.

Forums / Message boards

SL has its own official forums. Sadly, these still have a rather tainted reputation; in the pre-Altberg years, certain administrators and moderators had gotten too cozy with various users notorious for their abusive behaviour. So, they enjoyed preferential treatment, and their skill at dancing around LL’s ToS and CS enabled them to not only get away with it, but get their targets in trouble instead. Thankfully, Ebbe Altberg put an end to this crap by permabanning the leaders of these troll gangs. Perhaps a change of staff came about, I don’t know – I don’t have inside information privileges. What I do know is that the amounts of trollery that were dished out were reduced pretty fast, and some of the worst abusers, perhaps discouraged after their leaders were unceremoniously and permanently ousted from SL, either stopped posting altogether or grudgingly became far less toxic and obnoxious.

The state of affairs in the official forums (which also used to be a complete klutz, from a technical standpoint – the software used for many years wasn’t even a message board system). This led to the rise of the SL Universe forum (SLU for short), which has now evolved into the more inclusive (as discussions of OpenSim, IMVU, and other virtual worlds are included) VirtualVerse forums. The SLU forum had always been loathed by the trolls of the official forums, because its owner’s tolerance for their antics has always been zero. Because of several issues I was dealing with, I haven’t quite completed my migration to the new forums; that is to say, I haven’t gotten around to completing my VirtualVerse profile, and I haven’t posted there yet. Other forums have emerged over the years, too; most have now disappeared and others are still there, but remain largely inactive because perhaps their users lost interest in SL.

…And the kitchen sink

Now, let’s talk about the more full-fledged social networks; the ones whose feature sets include user profiles, comprehensive contact list management and categorisation capabilities, status update feeds, audience selection for each post, privacy controls, community creation and management tools, etc. Many years ago, Yahoo! Profiles, Briefcase, and Groups were one of the go-to solutions. The community management options of the Groups were very advanced for the time, and you could have quite rich content – for the time. Profiles were somewhat limited compared to what we’ve become accustomed to seeing today, but they were par for the course for the time. In fact, I do think SL profiles share many of the same features and principles. After all, this makes sense, as SL traces its roots to technologies and platforms that were state of the art as far back as 1996. Sadly, Yahoo!’s platform now isn’t worth bothering with. Pretty much everyone has migrated to Facebook.

This sort-of makes sense; on Facebook, you can have your profile, photo and video albums, a page, a group, there’s a marketplace, you can even run your own online store, and even pay Facebook to promote your posts and your presence within it. Its contact list management system, however clunky and slow, does allow you to create multiple lists that enable you to keep certain posts from being seen by certain people… Even Linden Lab’s former community manager, who went by the in-world name Amanda Linden, endorsed Facebook as “the best place to find out about cool things going on in Second Life, share ideas, and get the inside scoop on inworld events, contests, machinima releases, PR activities, fun discussions, and more.” High praise indeed – after all, Facebook does seem to offer everything and the kitchen sink, and it’s managed to become the benchmark to which all other social networks are compared.

One hell of a benchmark

It’s true that Facebook offers a wide variety of tools for you, although admittedly not all of them are intuitive to locate and / or use. I could deal with features that are ponderous to use; after all, I still use GIMP 2.8.14 for image editing, so I know a thing or two about dealing with poor workflow design. It’s also the most popular social network, by far. I can understand why someone would be attracted to it – who doesn’t want to maximise their outreach?

But is Facebook really the right platform for SL users, including content creators and bloggers? Well… No. It’s not, and there are a few reasons for this that, for me, are deal-breakers. The first is its “real names only” policy. This means that you can’t exist there using your chosen SL name. You will be either banned summarily and for good, or you’ll be given the option to continue existing there after disclosing your RL name to Facebook, verifying it with a scan of your RL ID card or driver’s licence – and from then on, Facebook will force you to go by your RL name. It’s happened to me and hundreds of other SL users. Yeah, I know the “oh, come on, you can create a page for your SL shop / persona / blog / whatever” advice, but that doesn’t solve much. When you set up a group, your RL name will be seen by its members, and perhaps even non-members, depending on the group’s visibility settings.

There are reasons why we keep our SL separate from our RL, with pseudonymity being the default for SL. Obviously, those of us who explore erotic fantasies in-world have every reason in the world to need pseudonymity; then, SL is a haven for all sorts of marginalised people. They need privacy. It protects them from reprisals (state, family, whatever), abuse, harassment. Yet, even with the privacy SL offers by default and by design, many of us have been stalked and harassed – some of us for years. Facebook demands that you open yourself to all sorts of harassment and abuse, and not because it wants to “hold you accountable for your actions.” That’s bullshit. Mark Zuckerberg, one of the biggest creeps in the world, wants your RL info so he can sell it.

Then there’s Facebook’s content moderation policy. If you thought the erratic, arbitrary, non-systematic way in which LL’s governance team enforced the ToS in the pre-Altberg years was bad, wait till you see Facebook’s content moderation contractors, who are entirely untransparent, unaccountable, and act as if they’re above any legislation. Besides the fact that Facebook’s ToS reek of Victorian-era puritanism, which is something that would normally be a red flag for any seasoned SL user, these “moderators” apply ToS in a manner that can only be described as vulgar and obscene: For instance, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic speech, (including death and rape threats) by far-righters and nazis gets a free pass. File as many reports as you want, Facebook’s response will be that they’ve “investigated” the matter and that they’ve found it “doesn’t violate any of [its] Community Standards”.

Yes, you read that right. If you’re a jack-booted neo-nazi, you can post death and rape threats, you can organise armed riots, and Mark’s censors will say you don’t violate any of their Community Standards. In a nutshell, if fascists decide to target you, you’re at their mercy, with Facebook not only looking the other way, but giving them its blessing. But if you speak sharply against nazis, if you criticise racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, then your Facebook account will be immediately hit time and time again (to the point where this “moderation” behaviour ends up looking like on-demand targeted harassment) with restrictions, links to your blog will be banned, etc. And there’s sweet fuck all you can do to appeal.

Lately, especially in Orbánana republics like Greece, journalists, comic artists, infographics designers etc. that are critical of the alt-right government and / or lash out at the multitude of the government-sponsored troll army are repeatedly hit with bans and arbitrary sanctions by Facebook’s content moderation contractors – sanctions that, as I’ve said, look like on-demand targeted harassment. That’s not incompetence; that’s how they roll, because it happens all the fucking time. What all this in mind, it boggles my mind that any SL-related blogger would recommend that SL users adopt Facebook and start playing hide-and-seek with its abusive policies. You can imagine how badly I eyerolled and facepalmed when I saw Amanda Linden recommend Facebook as a valid social network for SL users and SL-oriented businesses.

Drill this into your heads: you’re not safe on Facebook. You’re not safe from doxing (the vengeful and malicious disclosure and dissemination of sensitive or potentially sensitive private information), you’re not safe from harassment, stalking, or even RL violence. Your RL info is not safe on Facebook. Your SL business presence, and thus your livelihood, is not safe on Facebook. You can be banned, restricted, even deleted permanently, just because some lower form of life thought it’d be a good idea to destroy you, without any explanation or meaningful paths for appeal, much less legal action against those who targeted you. Considering all this, would / should you trust über-creepdouches Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg? Would / should you sacrifice your privacy, your peace of mind, and perhaps even your RL safety for the little conveniences that Facebook provides? It’s up to you – but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Alternatives to Facebook

We already established the four major roles that a social network needs to cover. o you actually have alternatives to Facebook if you want “everything and the kitchen sink”? It’s practically a monopoly, with an utterly captive audience that’s too heavily invested in it to say “sod it, I’m leaving”: people have their contacts and their audience there, they know Facebook isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and they just aren’t inclined to start over on a new platform. No one likes Facebook. In fact, everyone hates it. Everyone hates Zuckerberg and Sandberg. But people are kept captive because they’re afraid they’ll lose contact with the people they usually interact with.

That said, there have been attempts at creating Facebook-like options dedicated to users of virtual worlds, with a focus mostly on Second Life: Avatar Social Network and 2ndHub were two prime examples. Where are they now? Dead, buried, and forgotten. In fact, most references to them online have been drowned out by newer, unrelated entries, so there’s little that a quick search will return. From this, we can understand that a dedicated social network for SL outside the SL feeds isn’t economically viable in the long run. But if we can’t have an independent social network for SL users, or in general for users of virtual worlds and virtual reality technologies, what are our options? The way I see it, the best option is to adopt an existing, reasonably well-supported, inclusive, supportive platform / system, and set up our community (and sub-communities) in there, while accepting what it can’t do.

Of course, like it or not, if you abandon the major platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, what have you), you’ll have to deal with one major consequence: you’ll lose a sizeable part of your audience. At best, you’ll have to wait a bit until the new platform becomes more popular and your friends and customers migrate there, fed up with all the nonsense. At worst, you’ll have to return to Facebook and try to rebuild your audience and walk on eggshells to stay on its content moderation contractors’ good side.

First of all, one must come to terms that other social networks don’t offer a marketplace. While this may be a concern for some, an SL brand really shouldn’t care. Facebook – the one “and the kitchen sink” social network that offers a marketplace facility doesn’t support selling to SL accounts. Not only because its policies are completely against the most basic privacy-protecting principles of SL, but also because LL has its own exclusive marketplace. Plus, since Facebook is supposedly trying to develop its own virtual world (which I’m not going to ever bother with), why would it support a competitor? Beyond that, if you’re making your own meshes and aren’t using 3D models purchased from other sources outside of SL or 3D models made for you by someone else, you can easily start selling them on 3D asset marketplaces like CG Trader, Daz 3D, SketchFab, even the ridiculous Turbosquid.

Second, putting all your eggs in one basket is never a good idea. Let’s say Facebook supported the sale of SL goods and you abandoned your in-world shop, neglected your SL Marketplace presence (or even deleted it), and threw everything you had at Facebook. Obviously, you wouldn’t be able to exist in Facebook with your SL account; you’d need to connect your SL store with your RL account, exposing your RL identity to whomever. One day, you’d say something that’d incur the wrath of a racist fuck, which would result in a fraudulent abuse report campaign against you, and everything you’ve worked hard for would disappear – as I’ve already explained earlier. No meaningful way of appealing, no nothing. You’d be shit out of luck. Are you sure that’s what you want for your business and livelihood? To be at the mercy of every thin-skinned prude and / or fascist and Facebook’s fash-friendly content moderation contractors? If the answer is “yes”, then you can ignore everything else you’ve read here so far and everything that follows – just don’t say I didn’t warn you. But if the answer is “no”, then read on…

Diaspora

My profile on Diaspora
My profile on Diaspora

Built on the GNU Social base (so, it’s free – as in free speech – and open source), Diaspora puts you in control of your privacy and your data. It aims to provide some of the core functionality of Facebook, and it does; you can have your profile, your status updates (posts and images), you can comment on others’ posts, and you can categorise your contacts so that you have fine-grained control over who sees what. Of course, it doesn’t have a “real names only” policy. You can choose your own nickname. To order your posts and find posts by others, you use hashtags. You can also link Diaspora to your Facebook profile, and there’s also a chat function. One of the main selling points of Diaspora is that it’s decentralised. The platform consists of several different networks called pods. The provider does NOT collect or store user data centrally; instead, the infrastructure is distributed by the users, and the transfer of data is done via the pods. If you’re a skilled programmer, you can set up your own pod, which functions as a server – this way, your private data stays private and in your own hands. If you’re not technically proficient, you can choose a pod with open sign-ups.

However, despite its security and privacy, it’s not without drawbacks. First of all, finding a pod with open sign-ups can be a bit confusing. Second, not all pods are free to use. Some require payment to cover their costs. Third, if you want to set up your own pod, you need to be a relatively decent programmer. Fourth, you can’t create “groups”; instead, you create categories of contacts that are called “aspects” – at least from what I’ve gathered – and you share the desired posts with them. This has, of course, the disadvantage that sorting and managing posts shared with any “aspect” can be cumbersome. And finally, its user base is tiny compared to Facebook; only about 750,000 users – about as many as SL’s own, actually.

Vero

Vero is ad-free, like Diaspora. It started out in 2015 and its user base has been significantly increased lately, aided by several influencers and a limited-time offer of free, lifetime user accounts. It is reported as being similar to Facebook an Instagram, in that it offers profile, timeline, and news feed management tools. Rather than using algorithms to pre-filter posts on your timeline, it presents posts chronologically. Contact and post audience management is reportedly simplified, supporting only four categories: “followers”, “acquaintances”, “friends”, and “close friends”. Also, it won’t be always free to use, though; vendors who implement is shop feature will be charged a fee for their sales, and an annual subscription is considered as a future option. Unlike Facebook, it doesn’t seem to have a “real names only” policy. The major disadvantage, though, is that, in order to register and verify an account, you need to give your private telephone number.

My suggestions

I’m sure you all understand that there’s no single choice that’ll satisfy all your SL-related social networking need, so you really shouldn’t seek or attempt to put all of your eggs in one basket. Obviously, I don’t recommend Facebook and Instagram. Instead, I recommend that you steer well clear of both. You don’t need to put up with this particular company and the way it abuses its user base. Here are my recommendations:

  1. Start a blog and learn how to manage it. It’s always worth to have a blog. It doesn’t matter if it’s on WordPress, Blogger, or Wix – try all of them on for size and see what’s easier for you to use. Blogs are a versatile tool that you can use to share your musings (esp. long-form ones), detailed product updates, and it can even evolve into an e-shop if you want (but not an e-shop for SL).
  2. “Traditional” social media: Don’t be swayed by promises of “billions of users” before you decide which social networks are best for you. Remember, there’s more than 8 billion people on the planet, and SL’s active users are less than a million – roughly a relatively big city in a country like the United States. Instead, opt for a platform that will respect your right to pseudonymity, your privacy, is economically viable, treats you as a customer and not as merchandise to sell to others, and will not wipe out your account “just because”. Also, keep in mind that, if your primary audience is SL users, then you need to choose your platform accordingly. Does this automatically exclude Facebook and Instagram? Yes. But if you absolutely must have a presence on Facebook, make sure it’s a page. Not a group, not a profile.
  3. Image hosting: although Flickr is by far, right now, the most popular choice, there are many people for you to network with on DeviantArt. My recommendation is that you maintain a well-managed presence on both platforms, in order to maximise both your audience and the diversity of your connections.
  4. Forums: VirtualVerse is the way to go.
  5. Micro-blogging: Stick with Twitter, for now. I highly recommend having two accounts: one for RL, one for SL. Even if you end up commenting on RL matters with the account you’ll have for your SL avatar, the divide between RL and SL is always very useful. Forget Plurk, it’s dead in the water.
  6. Commercial presence: Have a decent in-world mainstore and a well-managed marketplace presence. Facebook and Instagram can’t help you. If you want to expand beyond SL (or even move beyond SL), go with Daz 3D, CG Trader, SketchFab, and any other 3D asset store that provides you the audience you want.
  7. Alternative platforms:
    • For microblogging, Mastodon is the choice that best suits SL’s ideals of privacy and freedom of expression.
    • For more “traditional” use cases, go with Diaspora. Even though very few SLers are there, starting a small community there without having to put up with Facebook’s crap is always a good idea.
  8. Bringing it all together: This is where you’ll have to put in some elbow grease. Sadly, I don’t know of any tool that’ll simultaneously and automatically post updates to every possible social network, but it really doesn’t take too much time (normally). The most tedious I usually have to do is add my Flickr images to various groups, to be completely honest.

NOTICE: The subject of this post is of an erotic, fetishistic and outright sexual nature. If you are not legally allowed to read such material, and / or if such topics and imagery offend you, I suggest you leave right now.

I’ve always been amused by the way most people in Second Life, especially those in the BDSM etc. communities, tend to position their “naughty” attachments – and by “naughty” I mean such attachments as anal and vaginal sheaths (usually for latex outfits), butt plugs, and the like. It’s just anatomically off. I’ll admit that those designers who make rigged mesh genitals and anuses are more diligent. But this is not usually the case with sex toys (especially anal ones), and it most certainly isn’t with BDSM-related avatar accessories: all too often, I see commercial photos on the SL marketplace with the anal toys inserted in the wrong place (i.e. where a human body doesn’t even have a cavity) and at the wrong angle. The same goes for vaginal toys that are attached to the avatar; wrong place, wrong angle. And I see these errors in photos on platforms like Flickr and DeviantArt, and I can’t help wondering if the people who make these toys and / or take these photos have ever actually seen a female body in the flesh.

Now, let’s have a look at the female anatomy, as shown in the picture below.

The basic parts of a woman’s nether region; the tract in front of the vagina is, of course, the urethra. The image here is a derivative work, based on an original image by Tsaitgaist on Wikimedia.

And where do SL content creators and even SL users place their “naughty” accessories? Hmmmm, let’s see. Nah, I think I’ll let a picture do the talking.

A typical SL placement of a dildo (left) and a butt plug (right) in a female avatar’s body. Again, the image is a derivative work, based on Tsaitgaist’s original.

As you can see, this is a tad ridiculous. I understand that many SL photographers think this helps with the conspicuousness of the attachments, but no. It only makes the resulting photo look just plain ridiculous and ruins the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.

For illustration purposes, I whipped up a composite image for comparison where I’m wearing a butt plug. On the left, you can see the typical for SL, but anatomically wrong, placement. It’s not as jarring as some other placements I’ve seen, and it certainly does make the plug and its jewel more visible, but it’s still quite wrong. On the right, you see the anatomically correct placement. As you can see, the plug is indeed somewhat obscured by my right buttock. This is, sadly, expected: in RL, the rigid metal plug would push the soft flesh back, but we all know there’s no consideration for this in SL. To counteract this in a photo, I suppose you could resort to measures like taking two shots, one with the body and (if you’re not using a Bakes on Mesh version) the layer on which the catsuit is applied removed, one with the body attached, and then work in your photo editor of choice post-capture. I didn’t do this here, though, as my aim was to show and explain things.

On the left, you see the typical, but anatomically wrong, way most people place items like butt plugs on the SL avatar body. On the right, you see the anatomically correct placement. A pose with somewhat spread legs was chosen in the right-hand picture for the sake of visibility.

It is obvious, of course, that the anatomically correct placement doesn’t make the attachment as prominent as the anatomically wrong one. But still, it’s the realistic one.

The situation is even worse in the fetish realm. In an attempt to mimic the vaginal and anal sheaths featured on several (really, really expensive) RL latex catsuits, some SL content creators have come up with some tube-like contraptions; some of them even feature lockable lids shaped like drain plugs. These are invariably unrigged, are typically made from prims or sculpts, and are designed to be put in the wrong place – look at the picture with the dildo and the butt plug and imagine two tubes in their place. I know there are capable designers out there who make really good rigged mesh fetish gear: corsets, boots, hoods, gloves, and the like. I’m sure someone could come up with a set of similar items that will not only be comprehensively scripted, but also properly designed, conforming to the mesh of the popular mesh bodies, and with anatomically correct placing.

As for SL photographers, please, please, please, acquaint yourselves with anatomy before you attach and adjust any avatar’s “naughty” attachments for your photoshoots. You may sacrifice some visibility; you may have to do some extra work to make things appear more real; you may need to adjust the placement of your camera. But the end result will be more rewarding, because you’ll have created a far more believable image – and it’ll be sexier for it.

The poses I used for this post’s accompanying composite photo are from the “Rosalia” set by STUN Poses.

Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/monaeberhardt/50999476673/in/dateposted-public/