Everyone who grew up with/in the English language knows the phrase “rats deserting a sinking ship,” right? But do you know what it means?
Nobody likes rats. They got a bad reputation early on, as plague carriers — but hey, the rats didn’t do that deliberately. “Oh, let’s go get infested by plague-bearing fleas, so we can reduce Europe’s population by a quarter!” No, don’t think so. They were just doing what rats do, living off the leavings of human civilization, and got scapegoated for what really was poor hygiene by the humans.
But, just like what happened to wolves, rats became irrationally hated (outside of the biology lab) just for being rats. Epithets associated with them are 100% negative. When people invoke rats in a metaphor about other people, they don’t mean it kindly.
So, what about rats and sinking ships? That phrase is mistakenly used against people who might be having second thoughts about sticking with a questionable project or plan — worse yet, they might be acting on those second thoughts and actually leaving! In other words, it’s a euphemism for disloyalty. What’s implied is traitor.
In the days of wooden ships (which is when the phrase come from) real rats lived down in the hold, just doing what rats do: subsisting from the scraps, leavings and poor hygiene of the human crew… Naturally, they would be the first to realize the hull was filling with water. Rats jumping ship is a strong sign that the captain and his officers are clueless that it’s time to man the pumps.
Early warning signs… Like the miner’s canary, another misconstrued creature. It’s possible she has Sting and The Police to blame for her mistaken reputation:
First to fall over when the atmosphere is less than perfect
Your sensibilities are shaken by the slightest defect
You live you life like a canary in a coalmine
You get so dizzy even walking in a straight line
“Canary in a Coal Mine”, Sting, 1980
We all know at least one person like that — I’d even bet that a lot of us thought of the same person, if we read a lot of SL blogs and forums. And I suppose, if you had the job of miner’s canary, you might get a little jumpy after a few trips down the elevator. But it’s the wrong metaphor — the condition Sting was writing about, and we associate with that just-shy-of-panic behavior, is better tagged “Chicken Little” (with a big dollop of hypochondria tossed in).
A true miner’s canary, being a bird, had no knowledge of why she was taken so far underground; she just sang. It was bad news when she stopped singing: the atmosphere was a great deal less than perfect. Time for the miners to be thinking about self-preservation — kinda like those rats on that sinking ship, maybe?
I was in the middle of writing a blog about something else when the Twit-storm started about Microsoft tendering a purchase offer for Second Life. [Odd, that it wasn’t portrayed as an offer to buy Linden Lab, or Linden Research, Inc. — just SL — but most folks use those interchangeably, so who can tell?] The usual hijinks ensued: some of the Clippy Linden jokes were priceless. But there’s a serious undertone to it all.
The blog I was writing, before I ditched it in favor of this one, was about the increasing out-migration from SL to other grids — especially InWorldz, whose total signups have doubled in two months (~8500 on August 3, 17,000+ on October 1). It was being presented as a combination of: deep dissatisfaction with Linden Lab, merchants following expanding markets into new territories, and the simple human urge to explore and settle new lands, virtual though they may be. From my own experience, as well as reading the Inworldz forums, Ener Hax’s blog, and other sources, there seems to be a bit of all three operating in each of the folks who’ve chosen to leave “the old country” for greener, less complicated, and better-managed pastures. Mind you, not all of them have left SL completely; they’ve merely branched out.
In the midst of writing that, the canary choked. I don’t mean that any person was the miner’s canary this time. The situation was the canary, the early warning system, the unmistakeable reminder that it not only can happen here, it’s likely to, sooner or later (and more likely, sooner).
Just look at the steady flow of departing rats, who — because they’re down in the hold, making their living among the flotsam and the scraps — may realize more than the captain and crew of the SS Linden.