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.

There isn’t much. 

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…

Distasteful? Absolutely.

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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I’ve been trying to resist joining the communal navel-gazing that attends the end of a calendar year. “After all,” to paraphrase Scarlet O’Hara, “Tomorrow is just another day.” The First of January is a legacy of the Roman Empire. There’s no more compelling reason to make its arrival special than there is for, say, Rosh Hashana, or Samhain, or the vernal equinox… or one’s own biological birthday or Second Life rezday.

Predictably (pun intended), the SLogosphere has been full of look-backs and looks ahead, and I would be remiss if I didn’t add my still small voice… wouldn’t I? I’ve only been publicly blogging since September ’09, and have no previous year’s predictions to review for their (lack of) prescience, so… here’s my prediction for Second Life in 2010:

Same Shit, Different Decade

Linden Lab will continue to stumble through yet another year of poorly conceived, haltingly communicated and inconsistently executed policies, procedures, public relations campaigns, and platform and GUI “improvements”. Those efforts will have the apparent intent of drawing more new Users, encouraging them to pay for Premium memberships, and perhaps even retaining them — and those efforts will, by their very nature, continue to dissatisfy, alienate, anger and (in the extreme case) drive off the core population of existing Residents.

Mark that distinction well: Users, as opposed to Residents.

While aware of the risk of becoming, as Botgirl put it, “a self-plagiarizing caricature”, I’m going to direct you to two previous posts of mine. The earlier one, written partially in parody of a Lee Iacocca-style CEO touting his cars, was a reaction to the first of what became a series of Hamlet Au’s New World Notes blogs advocating “mass adoption” of Second Life. Here are the relevant final paragraphs, with the names no longer changed:

Yes, friends, it’s true — all those nagging little problems still exist: lagging, crashing, hijacks, theft. So do the nagging little Residents who insist on reminding us of them. But, thanks to our buddy Hamlet Au, we have a brilliant idea! All we have to do is expand the number of accounts by 100-fold! Think of it, friends… instead of tens of thousands of concurrent avatars at any time, there’ll be millions! Just imagine how your Second Life experience will improve!

And… Those problems? Well, once we get a million or two new users of the same old SL, we promise, cross-our-hearts-and-hope-to-die, to get right on them. Honest, folks! Would we lie to you? Of course not! Would we change the subject, redirect the discussion, and pretend we hadn’t heard the criticism?

You betcha!

The more recent post of mine served two purposes: to counter-rant at Dusan Writer on the subject of “Entitlement”, and to emphasize that every financial entitlement Linden Lab has granted to the User of the Service (Second Life) is at the sole ultimate service of the Lab’s income. With no small sense of irony, I quoted Dusan’s subsequent reaction to the opening of the Linden Homes beta — and I do so again, in part, here:

While Linden Lab is clearly focused on changing the new user experience, this is also leading to a de facto re-engineering of the way that land and other goods are purchased and will change the culture of Second Life. With more consumer-focused branding and lots of “buy” buttons everywhere, the Grid is moving towards a more packaged and more purchase-oriented environment.

I doubt that a more succinct executive summary of the Lab’s “roadmap” could be found anywhere on the part of the Web that is SL-aware.

Marketing to the masses can only lead to mediocrity. The phrase “lowest common denominator” should be self-explanatory. And — if the Lab is successful — as the uncaring masses descend upon Second Life with their Facebook expectations and (lack of) mentality, the voices of those who care about how the world works will be overwhelmed.

That’s my prediction for SL in 2010: More of the same.

And the National Bank, at a profit, sells roadmaps for the soul
To the old-folk’s home, and the college.

— Bob Dylan, “Tombstone Blues”

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Entitlement and the Consumerization of Second Life

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OK, Dusan, I get it.

People who “buy” stuff — or obtain it as a freebie — from “content creators” don’t actually own it. What we obtain instead is a license to use what amounts to a few lines of code that tells Linden Lab’s servers and/or our (and everyone else’s) viewers to accurately render that item in the manner, and to the purpose, for which it was created. I also get that in-world Copy permission does not grant permission to copy out-of-world (onto one’s hard drive) and rez it into another world. (I never didn’t get that.)

The simple fact is: no one but Linden Lab owns anything in Second Life.

3.3 Linden Lab retains ownership of the account and related data, regardless of intellectual property rights you may have in content you create or otherwise own.

You agree that even though you may retain certain copyright or other intellectual property rights with respect to Content you create while using the Service, you do not own the account you use to access the Service, nor do you own any data Linden Lab stores on Linden Lab servers (including without limitation any data representing or embodying any or all of your Content). Your intellectual property rights do not confer any rights of access to the Service or any rights to data stored by or on behalf of Linden Lab.
— Second Life Terms of Service, emphasis added

So, let’s talk about “entitlement”, shall we?

Under the current rules, and conditions enabled by at least one third-party viewer (Emerald), anyone who creates content is entitled to create a backup copy of it. Rez a prim, and you’re listed as its Creator, and the “legal” Export function creates a .xml file that describes how to render that prim in Second Life.

Question #1 — ToS 3.3 clearly states that you do not own the prim. Do you own the .xml file?

So, let’s say you use some 3D rendering software on your computer to create an object, then upload it into Second Life. By the Terms of Service quoted above, rezzing the object in Second Life automatically and irrevocably relinquishes your claim of ownership to any instances of the object in Second Life.

Question #2 — Do you own that .xml file?

The Terms of Service were written when the only virtual world that used Second Life code was Second Life. Now there’s OpenSim. Content creators are entitled to export copies of objects they created for use in Second Life, none of which they own, and import them to an OpenSim grid.

Question #3 — Who owns the object now?

Under the current rules, content creators are entitled to share content with other users of the service, with or without copy, modify and transfer permission. They are entitled to give them away for free, and they are equally entitled to demand consideration in the form of “Linden dollars”.

1.4 Second Life “currency” is a limited license right available for purchase or free distribution at Linden Lab’s discretion, and is not redeemable for monetary value from Linden Lab.

You acknowledge that the Service presently includes a component of in-world fictional currency (“Currency” or “Linden Dollars” or “L$”), which constitutes a limited license right to use a feature of our product when, as, and if allowed by Linden Lab. Linden Lab may charge fees for the right to use Linden Dollars, or may distribute Linden Dollars without charge, in its sole discretion. Regardless of terminology used,
Linden Dollars represent a limited license right governed solely under the terms of this Agreement, and are not redeemable for any sum of money or monetary value from Linden Lab at any time. You agree that Linden Lab has the absolute right to manage, regulate, control, modify and/or eliminate such Currency as it sees fit in its sole discretion, in any general or specific case, and that Linden Lab will have no liability to you based on its exercise of such right.

1.5 Second Life offers an exchange, called LindeX, for the trading of Linden Dollars, which uses the terms “buy” and “sell” to indicate the transfer of license rights to use Linden Dollars. Use and regulation of LindeX is at Linden Lab’s sole discretion.

The Service currently includes a component called “Currency Exchange” or “LindeX,” which refers to an aspect of the Service through which Linden Lab administers transactions among users for the purchase and sale of the licensed right to use Currency. Notwithstanding any other language or context to the contrary, as used in this Agreement and throughout the Service in the context of Currency transfer:
(a) the term “sell” means “to transfer for consideration to another user the licensed right to use Currency in accordance with the Terms of Service,” (b) the term “buy” means “to receive for consideration from another user the licensed right to use Currency in accordance with the Terms of Service,” (c) the terms “buyer,” “seller”, “sale” and “purchase” and similar terms have corresponding meanings to the root terms “buy” and “sell,” (d) “sell order” and similar terms mean a request from a user to Linden Lab to list Currency for sale on the Currency Exchange at a requested sale price, and (e) “buy order” and similar terms mean a request from a user for Linden Lab to match open sale listings with a requested purchase price and facilitate completion of the sale of Currency.

You agree and acknowledge that Linden Lab may deny any sell order or buy order individually or with respect to general volume or price limitations set by Linden Lab for any reason. Linden Lab may limit sellers or buyers to any group of users at any time. Linden Lab may halt, suspend, discontinue, or reverse any Currency Exchange transaction (whether proposed, pending or past) in cases of actual or suspected fraud, violations of other laws or regulations, or deliberate disruptions to or interference with the Service.
— Second Life Terms of Service, emphasis added

In short: Linden dollars are worthless. They’re like grocery store coupons, which grant the store a license to deduct a specified amount from the “manufacturer’s suggested retail price”, but have no real cash value in and of themselves. Nevertheless, you — Sir or Madame Content Creator, DJ, Host, Stripper, Escort, or other recipient of Linden dollars — are entitled to “cash out” by placing a sell order on the LindeX and receiving the going price in real-world currency for that transaction, minus the Lab’s fees. The rest of us are entitled to place a buy order on the LindeX and receive the going amount of L$ per real-world currency, minus the Lab’s fees.

Let’s look at what I bolded in ToS 1.5 again. What we instinctively believe to equal a real-world purchase, because of the use of common terms like buy, sell, creator, and owner without their common meanings — but reinforced by how content is listed in the Inventory! — is nothing of the sort. It is an exchange of licenses. “I give you license to use this amount of Linden dollars (essentially, to pass that license on to someone else), and you in exchange give me license to a copy of that code which renders in Second Life as… clothing, accessories, vehicles, houses, furniture, plants, sex toys, whatever.” Not only do you not own anything, you haven’t bought (or sold) anything.

Let’s not forget what I call the UnReal Estate market, either. No matter how large or small the “purchase” price you paid, you — Sir or Madame Land Baron — do not own the virtual land you pay tier on. You are, however, entitled to carve it up, rent or re-sell pieces of it, control who comes and goes and who may or may not rez objects on it — and you are entitled to make a profit and use that in the continual stream of license exchange that pretends to be buying and selling (including paying the monthly tier), or you can cash out.

You’re entitled, in ways that the vast majority of people in Second Life who do not make all their own clothing, attachments, and other falsely-assumed “possessions” are not. You do not own any of it, but you are entitled to gain from its distribution.

Caught on yet?

Mr. Writer got bent way out of his usual thoughtful and considerate shape by considering that what Botgirl blogged about here was a demand for Entitlement… and an unjustified one, at that. Yet he failed to mention any of the Entitlements granted to the sainted classes of Content Creators Sellers and Landlords I’ve listed above. In short:

“Life isn’t fair. Neither is Second Life. Shut up and get over it.”

The problem is: to an increasing number of Residents, Second Life is becoming increasingly less fair, and it is doing so in ways which are destroying its original uniqueness and appeal. The symptoms became clear when Mark Kingdon dropped some hype comparing SL to other “social networks”, and bellwether (some would say “stalking horse”) Hamlet Au began his occasional series on bringing SL to the mass market, and vice versa, with this editorial.

All of those Entitlements that favor the Content Sellers and Landlords Manipulators over their “customers” don’t exist out of the goodness of Linden Lab’s collective heart, and their nod-and-wink to copyright protection is merely a lure to creators who think they’re going to be safe from ripping. (By the way, have you noticed that the only people who scream for the cops over the “copybot” issue are the sellers of content?) No, those entitlements exist for the sole purpose of Linden Lab’s income.

Case in point: Linden Homes. Since that latest Entitlement program was announced, and even more so since the sample sims were opened to public inspection, dozens of bloggers and forumites have opined about them. Ironically, the very same Dusan Writer had this to say about it:

While Linden Lab is clearly focused on changing the new user experience, this is also leading to a de facto re-engineering of the way that land and other goods are purchased and will change the culture of Second Life. With more consumer-focused branding and lots of “buy” buttons everywhere, the Grid is moving towards a more packaged and more purchase-oriented environment.

What users learn when they go through the pain of buying their first parcel of land and trying to rez their first house also created benefits: more deeply understanding how SL works, and more inter-connections between people, as they ask each other for help, create real estate businesses oriented to new users, generally creating a sense of collaboration and sharing. However, the attrition that ALSO results from this, from frustrated newcomers not knowing how to get ’situated’ in the world and a wide and varying number of practices for doing so may be mitigated by the Lab’s focus on the user experience (at the expense of the existing culture). Whether the possible increase in users and home owners outweighs these changes remains to be seen – Second Life is clearly becoming more of a ‘packaged good’ and is losing some of that frontier feel, the one where we all had to just kind of stumble along and figure it out.
(emphasis added)

I just returned from a quick reconnoiter of the Nascera continent. Even before I teleported, the World Map showed me that, within each themed area, every sim’s layout is exactly the same… aesthetically awful, but useful to my purpose, which was to count parcels. Each of those sims contains an average of 50 (give or take some inaccuracy on my part). Even if every resident of a sim paid their Premium account at the discounted annual rate of U$D 72, that’s $6 x 50 = $300/month income to the Lab. If they pay monthly, income jumps to $500 per sim. Result: anywhere from $5 to $205 per region over what they get for the same area of Private Island, and who knows what percentage of that is already profit?

That’s 50 empty homes per sim… the furniture and decor sellers must be happy, right? But there you have the latest symptom of the consumerization of Second Life, replacing a self-created experience with a purchased one. Meanwhile, the Lab stands to reap additional transaction fees from Residents buying and selling L$.

“Our World – Our Bottom Line”

Don’t like it? Well, you can always go to OpenSim now… but you have to go naked, and Ruthed.

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