Going mainstream means letting in the weirdos

Second Life’s generally considered to be a bit of a weird place. A lot of virtual environments are. They go through two phases of weirdness.

The first phase covers the first few waves of users. They’re considered weird because they’re doing something that isn’t usual: using a virtual environment at all, or using one that isn’t particularly well-known.

The second phase is when mainstream users start to trickle or flood in (and depending on the press that the environment has had, that can take place pretty close to launch). That’s when people start really doing weird things with it. Because landing the much-vaunted mainstream audience means nothing less than letting in all the weirdos.

Prior to that, you generally have people experimenting with the platform and the technology, seeing how it fits, where the money is, evaluating it for business, leisure, training, education, or just creating to suit themselves.

There’s typically no organized cadres involved, these are folks who are checking out the ground floor and determining if it is worth getting in on it for a long haul.

Generally, they’re smart, sane, sober, sensible, foresighted and farsighted people. You know, not really what’s considered normal.

Even so, playing the percentages, you’ll find a very small number of griefers, louts, firebrands and locos among them. It’s hardly a large number. Prior to maturity many virtual environments require a good deal of work, and that keeps a lot of the bad elements away.

Later, though. Well, let me tell you a story.

So, there’s an event on, and one of the attendees (appearing as Captain America) sexually harasses one of the venue staff. An abuse report takes place, and governance comes to take care of it. Unfortunately, they’re faced with so many Captain Americas at the venue that there is a little bit of difficulty identifying the culprit.

Only in Second Life, right?

Well, wrong.

A fellow by the name of Adamcik was at a bit of a shindig dressed as Captain America, but it’s okay, pretty much everyone was dressed up as something – though apparently Captain America figured very prominently. He had a burrito and a joint stuffed into his crotch.

He pestered women at the event to touch his burrito. Whether he made comedic humping motions with his hips at the time is a bit unclear. Apparently tiring of these japes, he allegedly groped a barmaid. While his behavior wasn’t exceptionally out of place at the event, he’d crossed a line.

The police were called in, but were faced with so many Captain Americas … well, the police report said “there were so many cartoon characters in the bar at the time, all Captain America’s[sic] were asked to go outside for a possible identification.” Adamcik apparently tried to evade identification by removing the burrito from his tights and concealing it in his boot. Nevertheless, he was hauled off to the lockup.

There, he attempted to flush the joint that had been concealed in his tights, but it was recovered by a police officer.

Adamcik was laid with charges of battery, disorderly conduct, drug possession and trying to destroy evidence.

Some college hijinx was it? No. Adamcik is a 54 year old family physician and the whole event was an American Medical Association shindig out in the physical world.

Yep, that’s right. Adamcik is one of those “normal mainstream people”.

Hey, mainstream dudes? You’ve lost any moral high-ground to call us virtual-environment users ‘weird’. Seriously.

This sort of thing isn’t an isolated incident. This sort of human behavior (and quite a bit that makes this look unexceptional) happens in virtually every human community on earth, every day.

That’s the mainstream. Get a few hours of XBox Live voice communications some time, but have a suicide hotline on your speed-dial first.

Even if the percentage of weirdos in phase one and phase two users remains constant, essentially opening your doors to the mainstream means opening your doors to the weirdos, the locos, the louts, the griefers, conspiracy theorists and every other kind of oddball our modern society spawns.

Come one, come all.

Also, as Linden Lab has noted on a number of occasions and most corporate IT staff will tell you, the average mainstream computer user finds the download and installation of software to be an obstacle, and sometimes an insurmountable one (unless, inexplicably, it’s some 3D screen-saver that installs malware onto computer networks).

Are those really the sort of people who are going to get a major benefit from a virtual environment and a digital economy? Maybe, but per-user they’re going to be incredibly costly to support, and that cost multiplies as their numbers increase.

If you really want to try to court the mainstream markets, you need to be prepared, and you need to give up caring whether people think your virtual environments are weird or sad or filled with folks living in their parents’ basements. That’s the mainstream, and if you want that, you go big or go home.

Immersion and the Conceptual Hump

I’m obviously biased in my assessment of Tateru Nino: she is a contributing writer for this publication and I’m already convinced she’s one of the world’s best virtual worlds observers.

Articles like this one are why I believe that. It’s a superb piece on immersion and how that can be hard to achieve until those first few frustrating hours of getting to know a virtual environment are overcome: the Conceptual Hump. Take a few minutes to read the whole thing, and appreciate my frustration at not being able to command more of Tateru’s time 😉

Speaking of which – a book review from Tateru is incoming in the next few days. If there’s something you’d like her or I to review, do drop us a line.

Merged realities – events and issues for virtual worlds


1. Looking for alternative to the now Linden Lab-owned online shopping option? Slapt.me has launched and has a fair sized inventory already. Given the ever-improving integration of the incumbent in Second Life, it’ll be interesting to see how much support there is for a competitor.

2. Metaplace have been focusing in a big way on enhancing the community aspects of the platform – earning coins for visiting other users’ worlds was a big step in that direction. Founder Raph Koster talks about the introduction of the Golden Egg.

3. Tateru Nino has a superb summary of why media releases get passed over.

4. Camp Pete is a new kids world aimed at USA-based juniors given the use of the work ‘football’ all over the site in context of their version of the game. It may be quite a fun world, though i always get nervous with statements like this:

University of Southern California Head Football Coach Pete Carroll has been called the ‘coolest 57-year-old kid in Los Angeles.’ He’s more in touch with technology than most teenagers. He was one of the first head coaches with his own Web site, the first to embrace Facebook, the first on Twitter, and now, Coach Carroll is the first Coach to have his own Virtual World for Kids.

Obviously the proof will be in the experience itself as to how kid-centred it is.

The identity paradox

Who is Tatwoman?Last week, we spoke about anonymity and privacy, and in so doing we brushed past the concept of identity. The problem of identity has been with us for quite some time, as a species and as a set of societies. Newer technologies, such as the telephone and the Public Internet do not make the problem harder or more intractable, but they sure do make it a lot easier to actually see.

Actually, there are multiple issues of identity. Not the least of which that the word itself encompasses a number of conflicting meanings. In one sense, your identity is who you are without your age, name, gender, appearance, job, nationality, race, or home. What’s left is the core identity — the person that you are. For the process of identification however, that meaning is pretty useless. Identification focuses on what you are to determine who you are.

Unfortunately, as we’ve discovered over many generations, that really isn’t much good either. If it were, there wouldn’t be so many dead people casting votes in elections.

The usual standard of identification is to assemble a set of non-unique qualities. Your name is likely not unique, nor your address (there may be several people living there) or phone number or job or your date of birth, gender and so on. Put them all together, however, and they seem to do a pretty good job of distinguishing you from anyone else.

Unfortunately, that really only works one-way. This form of identification distinguishes a person from everyone else. It just doesn’t prove that you’re that person.

If it did, there’d be no such thing as an identity thief.

Identity theft goes back hundreds — some say thousands — of years. People have assumed the identity of others for all manner of nefarious purposes. Just because you’re in possession of identity documents, doesn’t mean that that is who you are, and that’s not even beginning to touch on the issue of faked documents.

Photo ID is supposed to help – but it doesn’t much. Do you really look all that much like the photo on your driver’s license or passport? Could there be dozens of other people who would resemble that photo just as closely? Probably, yes. Dozens or hundreds. With a little hair dye, maybe thousands would pass muster. Then they turn up for renewal, get their photo taken, and then the photo is of them, not of you.

Fingerprints have been suggested, but it has been shown that these are easily faked, not terribly unique, and frequently quite sloppily matched. Likewise even retina scans are of doubtful utility. They’re not as unique as they were once thought to be, and useless for roughly 30% of the general population.

How then can we even begin to identify users online, or in virtual environments? Do we even need to?

Well, yes. Users with their computers turned on tend to break laws no more nor less readily than people who don’t switch them on. In practice, however, it turns out that malefactors are easy to find, if people can be bothered to put any effort into it. Two Second Life copyright infringers were tracked down easily and relatively cheaply despite their having made every effort to conceal or fake their identities in dealings with others. The lack of a definitive atomic identity tied to their online identity proved to be no barrier.

That only leaves us with, for want of a better term, preventative identification. That would be things like, for example, age verification. Let’s start with the fact that age-verification in the atomic world doesn’t work, as a rule. Fake IDs abound, and it isn’t very hard to obtain one. As a result, minors routinely gain access to facilities that would otherwise be barred to them.

Having firmly violated the rules in person, we’re now going to trust that they can’t do the same thing online? That’s just daft. Because at the end of the day, we’re relying on them presenting documents to us (that may or may not belong to them) to prove that they are who they say they are, and that they are what age they say they are. Credit cards are available to all-ages now in many countries, and other forms of documentation are usually no harder to get than your mother’s handbag.

Linden Lab’s plans to move the most extreme Second Life content to an Adults-Only continent, available only to the age-verified potentially suffers from all of these flaws, while simultaneously clustering the content in a single set of locations, where it would be paradoxically easier to locate.

And this wouldn’t really be a problem, except that in many jurisdictions you are liable for exposing a minor to many things. Even if they lied to you (or to an age-verifier), and had the identity documents to back that up. You might be able to separately sue them for fraud, but frequently the law doesn’t care if they defrauded you.

And that’s ultimately the issue people are trying to solve, even though it seems there is no solution in sight.

Introducing: Tateru Nino

about_tat-smlIt’s an understatement to say I’m really pleased to announce a further addition to the writing team at The Metaverse Journal.

Tateru Nino is a significant addition too – she’s one of the first Second Life writers I read and she was incredibly supportive of our initial efforts when we started in 2006. It’s also worth reading our 2007 profile of Tateru to glean more of a picture of her.

Tateru will be providing stories most weeks and she has a totally open brief. If you’ve read her work on Massively or its predecessor Second Life Insider, you’ll know how thorough her research is.

No-one knows Second Life better and I for one am already excited about the stories she’ll be writing over coming weeks.

Welcome Tateru!

Australian classification of MMOGs

Massively’s Tateru Nino has written a fascinating piece on the issue of games classification in Australia. Specifically, she’s confirmed with the Federal Attorney General’s Department that:

“Where a sale is within the jurisdiction of the relevant State or Territory legislation,” Heffernan informed us, “it is a criminal offence under those laws to sell unclassified computer games. Enforcement of those laws is a matter for the States and Territories.”

There may be no surprise in that to many people, but Tateru’s discovery is that most MMOs have no displayed evidence of having applied for Australian classification. After doing some digging for the story, she believes it’s a case of oversight combined with governmental miscommunication.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that the major MMO publishers wouldn’t understand that Australia had a classification regime. The claim is that such publishers were advised in the past that MMOs didn’t need to comply, which is plausible given their nature in comparison to a standard 1-person game at the beginning. Now, MMOs are so widely used it’s a problematic argument to uphold. Behemoths like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and its expansion packs aren’t labeled with any Australian classification – an unusual thing unless historic advice has been provided to say local classification wasn’t required. WoW in particular has nothing to fear from classification given how innocuous its gameplay is and its well implemented moderation options.


It’s more an issue of principle: the government only assesses applications made to it, there’s no proactive work done on ensuring new releases are classified. There’s an obvious problem here – if a less responsible publisher arrives on the scene to release an MMO that would rate R18+ , it can still hit the shelves if that publisher doesn’t apply for classification rather than being refused classification if they did apply. As Tateru mentions in her piece, Australia has the farcical situation of having no R18+ or X18+ categories for games, so everything at that level is refused classification. Add to that the fact that State governments are responsible for enforcing the law and it’s not hard to see how this situation has arisen.

Essentially, the current voluntary application process combined with no ‘adult’ games ratings and the old Federal / State blameshifting actually fosters an environment where a non-ethical publisher would be mad not to release their MMO product unclassified. If they’re ever caught (which seems unlikely unless the MMO is beyond the pale), there’s a growing precedent of other MMOs selling tens or hundreds of thousands of locally unclassified copies. I’d have thought that would be one hell of a defense.

Hopefully the Australian Attorney General’s department has another look at the issue, particularly the lack of adult game classifications, because the status quo is becoming more untenable as MMOs continue their growth in popularity. The risk is that a crackdown will occur without an expansion of the classification options – that would be nearly as bad as the status quo.

Update: Tateru Nino has posted a follow-up story on the issue

Education Faire and School of the Air

At The Metaverse Journal we’ve repeatedly discussed specific education projects in virtual worlds and also argued that Australian educators are key drivers in the adoption of virtual worlds in a widespread way.

Tateru Nino at Massively asks the question: does virtual education have to get dreadful before there’s widespread adoption by those who determine budgets in the education community? She uses the well-known Aussie icon, the School of the Air to demonstrate how education funding can be used in innovative ways. It’s generated quite a bit of discussion and links to our prediction that there’s unlikely to be a mainstream adoption by the tertiary sector this year.

Monash University’s Virtual Learning Research Project

Whilst the budget and policy-makers drag their feet, Linden Lab are holding their Inaugural Education Support Faire. Aimed at educators and those who provide learning support, it’s being held on the 25th-30th January this year. Linden Lab are inviting educators to present / demonstrate at the event as well.

Over to you: if you’re an educator, how do you see the barriers being broken down at the higher levels so that the self-evident opportunities of virtual worlds become clear to those not at the coalface?

Tateru’s year in review

For those wanting a comprehensive overview of the past year in Second Life, then Tateru Nino’s year in review is hard to go past.

What have your highlights been over the past year?

Seventeen Unsung Songs wrap-up

Back in May we mentioned a mixed reality event in Melbourne called Seventeen Unsung Songs.

Tateru Nino has done a nice wrap of the event on Massively. Here’s to more engaging mixed reality events in the future!

Interview – Tateru Nino

Tateru Nino is arguably the best known Australian SL resident. Over the past year I’ve run into Tateru in-world regularly at events and we’ve shared anecdotes and information here and there. What has made an impression over that time is Tateru’s commitment to what she does and how well she does it. I finally got around to asking her for an interview and as always she gave graciously of her time.

Lowell: Tell us a little about your role within SL as it stands now.

Tateru: Catalyst. Journalist. Consultant. Developer. Handy person to blame for stuff.

Lowell: It’d be fair to say your own of Australia’s longest SL users – is it a badge you wear with honour?

Tateru: I hadn’t actually thought of it like that. I’d been aware of SL since it was in Beta, but hadn’t felt the urge to try it out. Then in August, 2005 – a friend of mine and her partner (both in the UK) convinced me to give it a try. I’ve been here ever since.


Lowell: You write for New World Notes, SL Insider (now Massively) and your own blog – how do you fit it all in?

Tateru: And consultancy, and a few other things. It’s what I do, and I do it seven days a week every day of the year. It keeps the bills paid, mortgage taken care of, and the family fed. I make a living doing it – though it /is/ tight sometimes. It’s my day job – a long day job.

Lowell: And will the new site, Massively, make you even busier?

Tateru: It already has – pleasantly so. Writing more, doing more research, visiting more worlds. It keeps the wolves from the door, and that’s a good thing.

Lowell: Would it be fair to say you’re an immersionist?

Tateru: I don’t hold with the immersionist/augmentationist division. I’ve got elements of both camps – most people do, in my experience. I don’t meet many immersionists who are not also augmentationists. I think the two spectra intersect, rather than existing at opposite poles.

Lowell: You’ve written regularly about mainstream media coverage of Second Life and how they tend to get it wrong more often than not – are things improving in that respect?

Tateru: Sturgeon’s law. “90% of everything is crud” – there’s a lot of mediocrity out there. I don’t think that coverage of Second Life is actually any worse than mainstream media coverage of almost anything else. Most mainstream media pieces on nearly any topic are littered with inaccuracies. Out of the remaining ten percent? There’s some great reporting out there, but it’s balanced by an increase in truly shocking reporting. I think things are trending upwards, but I won’t bet money on it – not today.

Lowell: How often do you get SL developers lobbying you to cover a build or to alter your opinion on one you’ve already written about?

Tateru: Weekly. Store and product reviews? I only review places where I or a friend actually spent our own money. I tend to shy away from covering places that send me freebies to review. It’s hard enough to tell when you’re being unbiased. Having free swag in your inventory doesn’t make it any easier to make that distinction, so I avoid the folks who send me free samples.

Lowell: We’ve had discussions before where you’ve talked about your ability to ‘see’ the grid numerically / via the data feeds. Can you elaborate on this?

Tateru: It’s tricky to describe. I see almost everything in … non-visual pictures. Abstracts. Senses of shapes and colours, relationships in any number of dimensions. I can look at a machine or a process and ‘see’ (or sense) how it all fits together. It’s a kind of synesthesia, I suppose. When I actually look at something, I’m almost never seeing the visual part of it. I’m ‘seeing’ the qualities of it that aren’t strictly visual. It makes it awfully hard to recognise people visually from photos and such, I can tell you. Graphs and numbers have trends, curves, shapes. I’ve no particular skill at math, but I can sense trends in data- as long as there’s enough data to actually work with. Give me too little and I have to shrug my shoulders. If there’s not enough, I can’t even venture a guess.

Lowell: If you had to describe the impact on SL since population explosion in late 2006, how would you do it?

Tateru: Chaotic. Second Life as a society (and I can’t think of any other word that fits all of us in aggregate) is something of a lost generation. A bit like Japan, in a way. We have our traditionalists who remember ‘the old ways’. We’ve got our progressives who look to what it could be. The rest are trying to figure out what it is now, and how to get along. Second Life society is a society that doesn’t know what it is, or what it is becoming. In a sense, it’s a grand adventure.

Lowell: How likely is the adventure to have a happy ending?

Tateru: Ultimately people are people. There’s nothing wrong with self-interest, so long as self-interest is not at the expense of others. Most of the problems we have in RL and in SL is a result of self-serving decisions that are made at the expense of other people. Just as we’ve never solved this problem in RL, we’re unlikely to solve it in SL either. But it’s something we can live with. Most people are reasonable, honest folks most of the time. That said, there’s always a balance – and sometimes a precarious one. SL is not so solid at this time that the balance cannot be tipped, and SL would vanish fairly quickly if it did. It’s still got some growing to do before it can toddle around the house on its own.


Lowell: What’s an amusing experience you’ve had in SL in recent memory?

Tateru: Your mileage may vary on recent. I was standing with Torley Linden, and another Linden staffer at the tail end of a public meeting. A relatively new (two weeks) SL user came up to us, and tried to sell us freebies from his Library folder. The name Linden had no impact on his consciousness. He didn’t know, or didn’t remember ever hearing of the name Linden or of Linden Lab. He was very keen to sell us some things to ‘make some ellz’.

Lowell: Who inspires you in SL?

Tateru: Tough question. I’m not exactly prone to a lot of that kind of inspiration at all. I suppose I’d have to say Robin Harper. She’s got a tough job with a lot to live up to. Harper, like all of us, makes mistakes and takes a lot of extra flak for hers, but keeps on pushing. At the end of the day, it’s not success or failure that’s really so important as it is that we don’t stop trying to do our best.

Lowell: Speaking of flak, Linden Lab cops plenty. Are there specific areas you believe they need to work on?

Tateru: Communication is a big one – and I don’t think a lot of people would argue about that. They’ve been looking for a resident communications manager/community manager for months and no sign of one yet. Also, I honestly think Linden Lab as a whole presents a very timid image, as if they’re afraid of speaking honestly and openly, of lawsuits, and of the appearance of favoritism. They may not be, but they give the strong impression that they are in their methods, timing and style of communication.

Lowell: What’s your take on the Aussie contingent in SL – just part of the pack or a sub-culture?

Tateru: Depends on the people. In a group, we can be quite a pack of yahoos at times. Get a whole bunch of us together and we’re pretty distinctive. Alone, we’re just part of the pack.

Lowell: If you had to provide a new user with three must-see places in SL, what would they be?

Tateru: NCI, The Shelter, Caledon, Metabirds (that’s four, yes).

Lowell: Would you like to get the crystal ball out and make any predictions about SL in the coming year?

Tateru: Well, we’re not quite through my last lot of predictions for 2007 yet.

Previous Posts