Saturday, 29 December 2007

Second Life Loudmouths

In my first week on Second Life all I did was fly around the mainland, taking in the sights. I would connect to the SLURL website and teleport to the default entry point, which is the Ahern welcome area. Arriving there, I would leap up into the sky, zoom away from the crowd, and drop back down to explore nearby builds that looked interesting. I did this for about a week, gradually going farther and farther afield, across the continent.

I might have gone on touring aimlessly for a long while. But in the meantime I discovered another dimension of the Second Life experience, which is the world of blogs, forums and websites that have grown up around Second Life. I was using Google to search for maps of the places I had been visiting. I did find a few highly informative old maps of the grid at the website of Bino Arbuckle. But at Bino’s site I also found a link to the Second Life History Wiki, and that changed everything.

Through the SL History Wiki, I discovered the Confederation of Democratic Sims, which is now my home. I also discovered the story of how Ulrika Zugzwang created the first democratic sim, and then later attacked the fledging democracy that she herself had initiated. In search of more details about Ulrika’s story, I discovered the Second Life bloggers, such as Prokofy Neva, Hamlet Au, Gwyneth Llewelyn and Tateru Nino. These are the Second Life "loudmouths," as Gwyneth calls herself. Some of these loudmouths are obnoxious, pushing provocation to the limits. Prokofy has been banned from the official Second Life forums, and Ulrika was banned from the sim she helped create. The others are more diplomatic, but they are all consistently interesting. One could call them the intellectuals of Second Life.

The biggest loudmouth of them all is Prokofy Neva. Before Prokofy showed up on Second Life, he made waves on The Sims Online (TSO), under the name of Dyerbrook. Dyerbrook campaigned against the Sim Shadow Government (SSG), which was a group of TSO users acting as an informal police force, in response to articles about the sims underworld appearing on the Alphaville Herald blog. The articles were written by a user called Urizenus Sklar, in real life the philosophy professor Peter Ludlow, who interviewed TSO users to study the sociology of the online community. Urizenius found evidence suggesting that an adolescent was paying underage girls to participate in on-line sex chats. Dyerbook supported Urizenus but nonetheless set him a trap, leading Urizenus to publish a totally fake interview of a 16-year-old girl supposedly wooed into witchcraft by adults, thereby showing the dangers of “virtual” journalism. Dyerbrook claimed that the Sim Shadow Government was as much a mafia as the underworld it purported to combat, and he whimsically delivered lamps to SSG property in Alphaville in order to "disperse the shadows."

Urizenus later founded the Second Life Herald, and was thus on hand to salute the arrival of Prokofy in Second Life in December, 2004. Prokofy promptly began aggressively posting on the official Second Life forum, and also created a blog called Second Thoughts.

Prokofy criticized what he called the Feted Inner Core (FIC) on Second Life, which is reminiscent of Dyerbrook’s criticism of the Sims Shadow Government. As Prokofy explained in an interview, he saw the FIC as a group of highly-visible content-creators that is deliberately favoured by the Lindens, thereby establishing an elite, which then tends to oppose anyone seeking a more democratic and open process. Prokofy has also accused Linden Labs of favouring selected land barons with inside information.

Another aggressive loudmouth was Ulrika Zugzwang, who was born into Second Life in June 2004. Within a month, she had won first prize in a Second Life video contest, with a dance video of Michael Jackson’s "Thriller." From Prokofy’s point of view, Ulrika was part of the Feted Inner Core. However, like Prokofy, Ulrika purported to defend the smaller users against a privileged elite. She created a leftist Second Life group called the Social Democratic Faction (SDF), and protested against Linden Lab's regressive land-use fee, which she claimed unfairly placed the cost burden on small land owners.

In August 2004, when Haney Linden called for proposals to preserve the Snow Sims, Ulrika submitted a proposal for a Bavarian mountain town called Neualtenburg. The project was approved and construction began in September. In December Ulrika published the Neualtenburg Constitution and created an in-world voting machine, in time for the first Neualtenburg democratic elections to be successfully held in January 2005. The Neualternburg democracy thus got off to a good start, but participation declined rapidly thereafter. To attract new participants, it was proposed to move the city to a private sim, and to set it up as a nonprofit cooperative. The sim was moved in March 2005, and the first plots of land were put up for sale in June 2005.

The democratic process that Ulrika set up for Neualtenburg, with an elected Representative Assembly meeting once a week, proved to be an effective mechanism for self-government, tolerating political disputes and even political parties. But when Ulrika at one point found herself at odds with the elected government, she termed this upset a “coup”, and in January 2006 she announced her intention of abandoning SL. The established group therefore settled the pending accounts with her, as she requested, selling her land and electing a new official to replace her. But a few months later Ulrika reappeared, and claimed the rights to the name and concept of Neualtenburg, which she wanted to move to another place in Second Life. The existing city-state therefore entered into negotiations with her to purchase the rights to the name “Neualtenburg.” During the negotiations, however, Ulrika claimed that the negotiating group did not include the democratically elected officials of the city-state. She therefore banned certain members of the group from the Neualtenburg forum, which she still had control of, and filed with Linden Labs a rights infringement claim under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

In response, the group officially banned Ulrika from the Neualtenburg sim. With his typical brazen crudeness, Prokofy Neva openly rejoiced in Ulrika’s problems, and concluded that they only proved the dangers of socialism. In a comment to an article in the Second Life Herald, Prokofy stated:

"Ulrika of course is a loathsome creature. I wouldn't elect her as dog-catcher, let alone as head of my socialist theme park. Still, it's indicative of how socialism always breeds these closed societies that get brittle and can't cope with dissent."

The conflict was nonetheless resolved with help from Linden Labs, who changed the name of the sim from Neualtenburg to Neufreistadt. Ulrika kept the original name and created Port Neualtenburg, a small seaside village and artisans' cooperative, which still exists, although Ulrika herself seems to have completely disappeared from Second Life.

Both Prokofy and Ulrika were interviewed numerous times by the official loudmouth of Linden Labs, an in-world journalist called Hamlet Linden. As Hamlet explained in one of his blogs, he was hired by Linden Lab from April 2003 to February 2006 to cover the emerging Second Life society as an embedded journalist. Hamlet claimed that: “All published stories were chosen by me, without any oversight by Linden Lab, based only on my editorial judgement as being relevant to this mission.” When his contract ended, he changed his in-world name to Hamlet Au, and carried on his blog New World Notes under his real life name, Wagner James Au. His articles are the source of much of the information presented in this present post. He has also recently written a book called The Making of Second Life.

Another Second Life resident often interviewed by Hamlet Au is Gwyneth Llewelyn, whom Hamlet describes as "The Visionary." Since her birth in Second Life in July 2004, Gwyneth has played a major role in several in-world projects, notably steering the democratic sim through the transition from Neualtenburg to Neufreistadt, and driving the Thinkers Group, the foremost in-world intellectual salon. But as Gwyneth herself explains, her renown is primarily due to her blog. In early 2005 she already noted that: "google-wise, my SL pseudonym is more ‘famous’ than my RL self, which is weird, since my RL email address has been on the spammers’ lists since 1995." She recently expanded this reflection on the changing relationship between real-life celebrity and virtual-life celebrity into a guest post on Hamlet’s blog, comparing the emerging virtual celebrity to the "Idoru" concept of cyberpunk author William Gibson.

The articles on Gwyneth’s blog explore in depth many of the major tendencies underlying the evolution of Second Life, such as the drawbacks of the general absence of urban planning on Second Life, the possible future configuration of an Open Source Second Life, and the use of crowdsourcing by Linden Labs.

Recently her blog has hosted several guest posts by another Second Lifer called Extropia Dasilva, on subjects such as post-humanism. Some readers seem to have assumed that Extropia Dasilva is an alt of Gwyneth Llewelyn, but Extropia is British, whereas Gwyneth is Portuguese. Extropia was a fellow participant with Gwyneth in the Second Life Thinkers Group.

Another prominent Second Life blogger is Tateru Nino. She is the most discrete of the "loudmouths," as befits someone who started actively mentoring on her first day in-world in August 2005, and who devoted much time to improving the organisation of the volunteer teams. Tateru’s role in the creation and development of Help Island was such that a group of her fans placed shrines to her around the island, giving birth to the term Cult of Tateru, the symbol of which is a red rose inside the red outline of a heart.

For all of her low-keyed approached, however, Tateru is a highly influential blogger. In addition to running her own blog, called Dwell On It, Tateru writes a monthly column for Hamlet Au’s New World Notes, and was a staff writer on the Second Life Insider website. However, Tateru’s input to Second Life Insider has recently been shifted to the Massively website, where her Second Life material continues to appear alongside of articles by other contributors concerning the many other on-line worlds in the Metaverse. Tateru specialises in presenting detailed analyses of Second Life’s day-to-day activities, including use statistics, grid outage reports and bug issues. However, she also presents news about prominent residents. In addition to all the rest, Tateru produces a webcomic made with Second Life photos.

There are many other fascinating Second Life bloggers that deserve a mention here, such as Torley Linden. There is even a website that lists the top Second Life blogs, though many of those listed seem to have climbed high using all-too-familiar web marketing and search engine optimization strategies. And most of them lack a certain something when compared to the blogs mentioned in this post. The critical element would seem to be a clearly identifiable individual persona, however virtual that may be, with a wilful character and strongly vocalised opinions.

The most interesting Second Life blogs seem to be the work of loudmouths.


Gwyneth Llewelyn said...

Thank you so much for your kind words, I feel honoured... and a bit embarassed too!

I can only wish you a Happy new Year of 2008, with more interesting blog posts to entertain the whole of the SLogosphere :)

Danton Sideways said...

Thank you, Gwyneth, for your generous encouragement. And thank you for your wonderful blog, which has taught me such a lot about Second Life. Happy New Year!

dyerbrookME said...

I think it's good that you're trying to synthesize the history of Second Life's intellectual and social currents, and politics, such as it is.

You need to do a lot more reading on the SameOldSameOldberg, as I called "Neualtenberg" on the old forums, on the old Nberg forums, etc. And you'll find that there isn't anything I've ever said about Ulrika that comes even close to the hatred and viciousness that her own fellow socialists felt. They really came to blows there. Ulrika truly was a provocateur, and it was only because of her feted connection with Haney Linden, who set her up as the sole "winner" of this "contest" to make a winter-themed sim (rolls eyes), that she was able to hang on for so long.

The phrase "socialist theme park" isn't one I invented it; I've heard diplomats use it to describe, say, Belarus. I've heard it for years.

Frieswiththat, which is what I call the successor to SameOldSameOld, is marginally more democratic and has attracted various sincere and thoughtful types, but it has been racked by sectarian squabbles too. I call it that because it's not clear to me how this sim can make money to sustain itself, hence the job at McDonalds where one must say "Would you like fries with that?" which is what Neufreistadt whatsis sounds like.

As I said, the other day I had a spasm in Obscure when I bought out some land that a Sheep was liquidating, and I put out about 10 houses on about 8192 and said, why don't I start a government?! I had once done this before in Jubata. It was called Government-on-a-Prim. You rented a box, and as long as you paid the rent and kept your build tidy on your lot, you were in. The constitution was very brief, and required meetings of the state assembly for only 15 minutes a week.

I originally collected some random flybys and some refugees from SameOldSameOld during the waning days of the Ulrika terror, but then I forget why we didn't keep it going. Probably because there wasn't any industry to think up.

I've never understood how these socialist sims make any money. At least Kendra has a concept -- of course drawn from the Dark Ages -- about medieval apprenticeship and making people first pay to learn and rent from apprentices, then make stuff to sell off little pushcarts and whatnot.


dyerbrookME said...

P.S. I let my government idea sit about 48 hours with higher rental prices while I developed it, then I decided to dump it. I lowered the prices and just turned it into a newbies rental place.

I still think it would be interesting to make a government sim, but I don't wish to do it with leftist sectarians. They overwhelm everything.