Or: “Make sure that bandwagon you’re jumping on isn’t actually a hearse.”
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There’s a lot of buzz buzzing around about the growth of virtual economies — that is, the amount of real-world cash converted into them — in spite of the global economic fiasco. [Here’s an example] To me, it seems exactly parallel to the near-cliché about the film industry during the Great Depression: people spend what they can on a chance to get their mind off their problems for an hour or three. But, to paraphrase a different cliché, that particular honey is attracting a lot of flies.
The latest of these announced its presence last week (13 January), through a press release that was quoted more or less verbatim in various places all over the web. This newcomer has the audacity to call itself “United Nations Citizen” (UNC, hereafter; not to be confused with the excellent institute of higher learning in Chapel Hill), and — in spite of the 5-part joint venture touted — appears to be the brainchild of one Anthony Loiacono, founder and CEO of “Heads & Tails TV”, an independent advertising agency.
I belong to a group called “Transworlders” (there’s a link in the sidebar here, please join if you’re inspired to). We’re intensely interested in — and generally encouraging of — any new entrants into the Metaverse. That, coupled with the potential of meaningful in-world employment, caused me to take a hard look at what information was available on the site.
Dio Kuhr, cantankerous author of The Ephemeral Frontier (sometimes I think she channels Sam Clemens), did what I agree is an accurate review of the textual content of UNC’s site in her post “Hell is Watching Other People Shop.” I haven’t a thing to add, except congratulations — you should click away from here and read it, and don’t forget the comments! Come back, of course — there’s lots more.
Dio’s blog also references a post by Botgirl on the same subject: “United We Consume: New Virtual World Sees Future as Giant Shopping Mall”. Also worth reading — including, as always, the comments, wherein it is revealed by your obedient
serpent leopard that the application for employment pretty much requires the applicant to have a Facebook account. We’ll get back to that… but there’s something even more important to consider. Three lines from the bottom is the (unpunctuated) question: “Do you agree to our terms and conditions set forth by United Nations Citizen“. More (and younger) eyes than mine have looked, to no avail: there are no terms and/or conditions posted on that site.
Now, about that Facebook thing… Anyone who cares, by this time, has probably read more than they need to about the evils thereof — and if you haven’t, I’ll put a handy reference list of links at the end of this. Suffice it to say here that their management all but proclaims “Privacy is dead”, and they’ve declared ethnic cleansing against pseudonymous accounts, particularly those in the names of SL avatars, branding them “fake” as if the people behind them didn’t exist.
Let us move past what I call The Fake War — an intentional double pun, since the culture war over being “fake” is itself fake, in a Wag the Dog sense — and examine the real reason behind the push to integrate social networks with virtual worlds in general, and the raison d’etre for UNC: Money.
Two important and revealing clues appear in UNC’s website. The first is the Flash video in the upper right corner of this page. The second is this text:
“EquiFax provides the backend geo-targeting real-time data mining to ensure that content distributed matches the consumer demographics, psychographics and profiling opportunities only available in-world.” [source] [emphasis added]
Can you say “captive audience for 24/7 advertising”? I knew you could…
Can you perceive the irony in using a few seconds’ worth of footage from Minority Report — a work of dystopian science fiction! — as a positive allusion to the putative advantages of this virtual world? Christ, I hope you can.
The motivation for integrating virtual worlds with social networks, and the push from some directions to link avatar identity to the one in your wallet, could not be more clear. It is to extend the reach of data mining about your private life in order to sell you stuff. Predictable? Unfortunately, yes. Ethical? Maybe. Orwellian? It’s got potential…
Now let’s get back to UNC specifically, and why the subtitle for this rant almost became “The Lame leading the Blind”. There’s a tagline you can find scattered here and there, including in that Flash video: “where faithful friends(R) unite”. Faithful Friends TV is also listed in the press release as one of the five members of the joint venture. When you look at the website of Heads & Tails TV (H&T) — the ad agency, remember? — you find that Faithful Friends is one of their clients. When you go to the Faithful Friends website, you learn that its Executive Producer is Tony Loiacono. Mr. Loiacono’s biography page at H&T also lists him as creator and writer.
I have no reason to doubt that Faithful Friends advocates responsible behavior about pet care, and animal care more generally, and they seem to be tackling ecological issues, too; all of which could be called Good Works. Look at the clips available on that embedded Flash on H&T’s entry page, and decide for yourself about the production qualities (and the writing…). It may just be the way the clips are grouped, but I was strongly reminded of Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. In other words: good works or not, Faithful Friends is a slick piece of showcasing for their sponsor, Drs. Foster & SmithTM pet care products. Guess whose client they are? Now, refer back either to Dio’s blog (where she quotes the promotional copy at length) or to the UNC website itself. Did you find the passage strongly reminiscent of NeoPets? Where do you suppose that came from, and whose virtual pet care products will be prominent?
Oh, and just in passing… One of the character voices in Faithful Friends — the dog “Racer” — is done by Jeff Gordon, the NASCAR driver. Guess whose client he is? And on this page, there’s a lot of talk about the in-world currency. It’s called the CONO. [caps in the original] Gee… I wonder whose idea that was…
By now, you probably see why the title of this rant is “Vaporworld”. I seriously doubt UNC will ever hit closed beta, let alone a full launch. I also have the impression that Mr. Loiacono has never been in a virtual world, let alone done the necessary homework… else he’d know that avatars don’t need food or drink, to say nothing of waitstaff to bring it to the table! And, as to Dio’s complaints about the copy? It has to have been approved, if not also written by…
[I think you can finish that sentence yourself ;) ]
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Blog-liography: Facebook, Privacy, and The Fake War
“Facebook’s Zuckerberg Says The Age of Privacy is Over” by Marshall Kirkpatrick, ReadWriteWeb, Jan. 9, 2010
“Is Facebook Killing Avatars Again?” by Senban Babii, The Alphaville Herald, Jan. 9, 2010
“Facebook’s move ain’t about changes in privacy norms” by Danah Boyd, apophenia, Jan. 16, 2010
“Dumbing down may actually work as a strategy for Second Life” and “Second Life stymied by the secrecy of its avatars?“, by Roland Legrand, MixedRealities, Jan. 14 & 16, 2010 respectively.
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