Rod Humble (and I) talk SL on Australian radio about Second Life

An interesting morning, with Linden Lab CEO Rod Humble and myself being invited to appear on the Kyle and Jackie O show.

For Australian readers, you’ve probably heard about Kyle Sandilands in particular, so I went into the interview with eyes wide open on how balanced the interview would be.

As expected it was a predictable angle, paraphrased as “Hey, look at those freaky people who give up their life to go into Second Life”. That said, Kyle Sandilands was the comparative voice of reason out of the two hosts, at least keeping an open mind.

It’s worth a listen to hear how Linden Lab’s CEO deals with a tabloid approach to Second Life. Not surprisingly the piece opens with Sissy, a self-proclaimed SL addict. Have a listen for yourself and here’s a link to 2Day FM’s podcast of 17th January. It did make the cut – as predicted, sex pose balls make for good listening in the tabloid world.

Surfing the virtual world hype

Riding the hype wave of a new technology with a “world-first” isn’t exactly unusual. We’ve seen this a lot with Second Life, right?

But there’s actually other, more interesting lessons to be learned.

Firstly, the newspapers and magazines don’t really check if you’re first, so if you want you can just copy what someone else is doing. This happened a whole heck of a lot. If anyone actually does ask, you just slice it more finely. “First by a Fortune 500 company”, “First by a West-coast marketing firm run by octogenarian teachers”. Slice it finely enough and you can pretty much always claim a world first – and by golly, they do.

There were, from memory, four national embassies that opened in Second Life. Each claimed to be the first one (presumably using the slicing technique above, or just not doing the research). That brings us to the second technique, the one that gives you the most PR bang for the least buck:

Don’t actually do it. Seriously, this is a proven strategy.

Write and issue your press-release, outlining what amazing world-first you’ll be performing – then don’t follow through. By the time that peak of the hype cycle wore off, nobody noticed that you actually didn’t. Instead it became a fait accompli. Everyone more or less assumes that you did do it.

Assorted media pieces still refer to pizza-deliveries, programmes and concerts by famed celebrities that never actually happened, but the writers just assume that they did.

There’s your return-on-investment right there. All the hype, and none of the work. All you have to do is hit the timing right on the cyclical hype.

There’s a whole lot of businesses and organizations using Second Life in various ways. Many of the ones that you can name from media-coverage though, never actually did. However it didn’t apparently actually harm their PR efforts at all.

Anyone want to bet that this won’t happen with future virtual environments?

Virtual sex brings ’em in

Over the past few days Second Life has reached a new peak concurrency of more than 76 thousand.

The reason being cited is recent stories on a divorce resulting from virtual adultery. It’s not suprising and it’s backed up by an Australian Second Life resident who spends a significant amount of time mentoring new users. In a brief discussion with him this afternoon he confirmed a surge in new users needing help and that the UK-driven story seems to be the catalyst.

Mainstream media rightly get pilloried at times for their sometimes uninformed coverage of the full gamut of the virtual world experience. There is an upside though: growth for the virtual worlds themselves. How ‘sticky’ these users will be in always uncertain. Wagner James Au sums it up nicely:

How many of these new users are interested in committing virtual adultery… and how many of them are real life partners of now-suspicious SL users, looking to catch them in the act?

A lot of people on their first glimpse of virtual sex will tend to react along the lines of ‘why would you bother?’. The reality is a significant proportion of these people go on to engage in virtual sex regularly and in forms arguably more varied than real-life.

What are your thoughts – are we about to see droves of new people looking for virtual options for sexual expression, followed closely by another group seeking to catch them out? I think it’s a little too simplistic an assumption but sometimes the simplest explanation comes in closest to the truth.

Shadows on the wall, mimes in the street

Feldspar - at my command?

“… their avatars were less coy. While flesh and blood reporters and photographers banged on the door of the couple’s homes, virtual ones were trying to doorstep …”

” … one of the South West staff who “controlled” Meggy, ” … our characters started chatting and it was different. … Amy’s character was much more confident in the game than she was in real life.””

” … his character got the run around from Barmy because he was a novice in the ways of Second Life, … “It was difficult sometimes because there was a blurring between reality and Second Life.”

All quotes above from How South West News got its divorce scoop in Second Life.

The above article is from the Guardian, Friday November 14 2008. Giving the impression that ‘characters’ (perhaps they mean ‘avatars’) have independent action, and perhaps a life separate from their creators, this article demonstrates a common fallacious idea. An avatar, whether as a component of a gaming or non-gaming digital environment, cannot be said to be controlled by a person, nor can it have its own actions.

An avatar, in digital terms, is a visual representation of the person behind the screen. As the person behind the screen, you do not have direct access to you avatar – as many a person has bemoaned on the Second Life development lists, there is no way even for programmers without access to the servers for a digital environment to move or otherwise interact with an avatar.

Instead, what we have access to is an ‘agent’. The agent – defined either as an entity capable of action, or as something that acts on behalf of a[nother] person – is the thing that acts on your behalf. When you create input through your keyboard or mouse, those instructions run through your agent to the server. When ‘you’ move, you are changing the location stored in your agent. Effectively, the agent is an invisible point in a virtual space which moves by proxy. The avatar then, is a visual representation of changes you have made, or actions you have taken, through your agent.

In a digital environment, the things you can typically do involve moving, communicating, and interacting with or editing objects. In each case, your input is sent from your input device to the servers via your client and through your agent. Some manner of response to that input is then sent back to your client. This response might lead to text being displayed on your screen, or you hearing some audio output, if you are communicating; if you moved, the response will involve visual output – you will see your avatar ‘walking’ or perhaps ‘flying’, moving with respect to the background. If you are interacting with an object, you may receive visual output or text-based output, depending on the type of interaction. In each case, the agent acts on your behalf – moves, communicates, or interacts – and you then receive a response based on your actions.

Your agent is not the only entity that can cause a reaction in your avatar. If in Second Life another person starts to type, your avatar will turn their head in the direction of their agent, independently of any action you might take, unless your camera is locked. The servers may also cause your avatar to react. You can send an action request to your avatar through your agent to allow your avatar to be animated, but your agent is still doing the work on your behalf. Your ability to get an avatar to do anything that does not reflect an action you took at the input level, then passed through an agent, is very, very limited indeed.

Finally, an avatar most certainly has no life of its own. It cannot do anything the agent has not done, since it is a visual representation of what the agent is doing. Avatars do not communicate; people communicate through their agents. A somewhat inadequate analogy might be this: think of your computer hardware as if it were your phone – would you say that phones talk to each other? Think of your agent as a person taking dictation and typing out Teletext for a deaf person – would you say that you are communicating with the person you called, or the person taking dictation? Think of your avatar as an annoying street mime, following you and reacting only to your actions. Better yet, think of your avatar as a shadow thrown against a cave wall – would you say that the shadows had a life of their own, and could wander off and communicate with other shadows?

It may seem like a purely semantic issue – does it matter whether avatars can do these things or not, or which terms are used to couch these ideas? Well, it matters very much to the people who design and code digital environments and it matters in legal terms. It should be of importance to you, whether you are a user of these environments, or a reporter of these environments, or an outsider. Why?  It means that many of these amazing and outlandish stories never even become an issue, and that people have a better understanding about how these things work, legally and socially. There’s less cause for confusion and less wiggle room for those gaming the system.

Wouldn’t you rather know where you stood on this issue concerning digital environments?

Second Life – on the wane for aussies?

Asher Moses from the Sydney Morning Herald has run a story titled ‘Few lives left for Second Life’. It’s based on research undertaken by the Queensland University of Technology’s Kim MacKenzie, who’s completing her honours thesis on Second Life and business.

The research findings aren’t surprising in a lot of respects – there are significant areas of Second Life that are ghost towns and yes the numbers of people on one sim are usually very low at any given time (something I’m quoted on in the article).

A point I did make that didn’t make the final cut was that businesses like Telstra and the ABC had been successful in Second Life because they were aware of the experimental nature of Second Life, particularly where business is involved. The notable failures occur when the business jumps in boots and all expecting true return on investment in the short to medium term. Telstra’s sucess in particular has been its ability to leverage its large presence to provide a breadth of activities including residential options.

The story overall is quite pessimistic but does accurately cite the challenges Linden Lab face. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now – 2008 is meant to be the year of bedding down stability for Second Life. Some gains have been made, but time and patience is running out for a lot of people.

What are your views – does Second Life have a few more lives left?

Want to be famous? Linden Lab want YOU

All the details here. Essentially, they’re after Second Life residents who are willing to speak with the media on their life in-world.

Jump on in!

Accessibility to virtual worlds in business

A post from Peter Abrahams on makes the claim that business cannot afford to block access to Second Life for their employees. The argument runs that the gains to be made in training, meetings and their associated cost savings makes it a no-brainer.

Abrahams takes the argument further, stating “A blue chip company will never want to be pulled through the courts or exposed in the media for excluding anyone with a disability from a real life meeting”. With the more traditional options like teleconference, I think it’s drawing a long bow to claim that discrimination is occurring if Second Life isn’t made available. For me, the real argument is the cost savings – compare teleconference costs to installing Second Life and the value proposition is obvious – there’s no need to even have premium accounts for your employees (though it’s not hard to imagine the grumbling around that).

So is it likely to be open slather for Second Life in business? Somehow I doubt it – like most applications there’ll be varying levels of access with procedures around their use. The more innovative businesses will allow more widespread use and even encourage it. The more conservative group will either avoid the issue until they start to lag their competition or allow access to a couple of product development people.

What are your thoughts? Can you imagine Second Life widely available in your workplace?

Time to take out the intellectual trash?

Malcolm King is a former media adviser to the ALP and Australian Democrats. He’s written a piece on virtual worlds and it’s fair to say he’s scathing of their potential.

Once you wade through the hyperbole King himself engages in while condemning the excesses of virtual worlds, there are some valid points made. However, one point that seems totally over the top is the claim that virtual worlds are “not the place for serious dialogue”. I doubt Mr King has ever had any involvement with some of the health and education projects in Second Life if he believes that. The fact he called Linden Lab ‘Linden Corp’ tells me direct familiarity with Second Life is limited at best.

Second Life property gets mainstream attention

Last Saturday, The Age ran a story on real estate in Second Life. I received a call from the journalist who wrote the article, Adam Turner, a few weeks back and it’s obvious he did some research. Aussie residents Juko Tempel and Earnest Candour are interviewed to name but two.


The striking thing for me is the fact that a mainstream newspaper’s real estate section is running stories on property in virtual worlds. It’s also a story that isn’t looking at the issue from just a novelty viewpoint. In small steps, virtual worlds are gaining mainstream credibility.

Australian Federal Police to establish Second Life presence?

The Australian ran a story last weekend alluding to the Australian Federal Police setting up shop in Second Life. AFP Assistant Commissioner Andrew Colvin is quoted as saying the organisation is “considering” Second Life as a base of operations for its High Tech Crime Centre.


I’m taking the whole story with a large grain of salt as it’s written by Natalie O’Brien, who has some serious bad form in reporting on Second Life. If the AFP do establish a presence, it’ll be interesting to see what they offer as a public face in-world.

We’ve contacted the AFP for confirmation of the claims made.

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