November 21st, 2006


Bubbling Up

The BBC News yesterday had a feature on Second Life. I dread to think why. Fortunately, the BBC isn't quite as bad as the Metro. The Metro is a free paper beloved of the dumber commuter, which has an article on space elevators every November. This article has the same content and quotes the same people when touting this "new revolutionary idea" every time, but this month's liberal arts graduate is given a chance to play with tattieshop for the graphics.

But anyway. The BBC having a feature on the 6 o'clock News isn't just proof that yesterday was a slow news day. It's also pointing towards Second Life being a smaller mirror of the web. There's a SL bubble that mirrors the web bubble (the second bubble hasn't started yet) — "People expect to come to Second Life and make money, they don't realise that it's a full-time job and we're putting in real effort". Add to that a sudden inflations in virtual property prices and large companies getting in on the whole thing... yeah. The parallels are there.

The problem is that people don't have a fucking clue when it comes to SL. The scary thing is, the furries are probably coming closest to getting it (unless the person behind the anthropomorphic penis avatar has a serious body-image disorder). People in SL now are making virtual artefacts with no physical presence. Some of these are online copies of creative works — artwork, novels, etc. for which the medium is entirely divorced from the message. Others aren't. People pay other people to design houses in SL, or to make "clothing", but unlike the creative works the SL equivalent of tangible goods don't have the physical element reinforcing them.

The problem comes from copybot, a small program that lets you clone other people's stuff without depriving them of their stuff. Creators are trying to draw a parallel between their stuff and designer labels, thus making the copies equivalent to the Camden Market ripoffs. There's one problem there: the copies are perfect, and unless each created item is entirely unique, the creator hasn't actually lost anything. This is perfect replication as applied to what people think of as a model of the physical world. We can't make perfect clones of chairs or tables or houses without consuming vast amounts of resources in analysing and building our own. We have no mental model for a world of infinite distribution.

Actually, the typical mental model is broken when it comes to Second Life. People build or buy houses with bedrooms, so they can watch idealised versions of themselves sleep or engage in simulated sexual activity. These avatars have kitchens. Kitchens! There's no point in watching a collection of polygons consuming food unless there was some challenge involved in getting that food[0]. And yet people ignore the interesting aspects, the ability to realise a world outwith general constraints. You can be anyone, make anything, but everything there is so fucking prosaic.

Nobody's thinking new, thinking different. Second Life is the Web in the early 90s all over again. Everyone who can jumping online in order to show off their funky designs, assuming that a web page is somehow a private publication and information is somehow "property". There's so much potential embedded in the format, but it's wasted on goatse and pictures other people's cats.

[0]: The most basic paradigm of video games, risk/reward. This applies even to things like The Sims, where neither side is immediately obvious.