Sea Change

First,  I have to do a better job of introducing @empsar – you’ll see why in a bit…

She’s a little older (and, conveniently, a little smaller) than I am.  We’re from opposite corners of this, our native state of Indiana, but have both lived in other parts of the country for most of our lives: cosmopolitan, if, you’ll pardon the phrase. She’s an emerita professor of informatics, a consummate research librarian with more interests than can be counted, and as smart as any six regular people put together — a true “meta” thinker.

Our relationship is more than a year old, but it could well be decades long. It’s a little like Toxic and Paul’s was, before they moved in together and got married (i.e., we live separately on opposite sides of the city), and it’s also very like Ghosty and Elora/Sivyaleah’s: we’re constantly in touch, mostly through Twitter. We talk about anything and everything, and never lose interest. We are, to the point, partners.

We found each other online. Then the emails started… and long before we met face-to-face, she understood me as Lalo, and calls me nothing else when we’re alone. For personal reasons, she is not an avatar. But because I talk effusively about my other friends — that is, you folks — she knows how important you are, and follows many of your Tweets and blogs with respect and admiration.

Which is what this post is about…

I recently posted about advice given to people with cancer to help them through some of the psychological upset the news, and the changes, inevitably bring (scroll down to where it says “EXPRESS”). That led to this: a Twitter DM exchange from a couple of nights ago, wherein we went meta on the subject:

Me: There is a sea change going on among my SL Tweeps – most of us are “of an age”. RL becomes prevalent, but we talk about it.

Emspar: And I believe it’s essential! Please don’t get me wrong; not everyone is at the same point on the empathy spectrum. :P

Emspar: Some of you are writing very powerful stuff re: RL — including ls/cm — that’s as compelling as you were writing about virtuality. It gladdens the heart.

Background: Remember our noob days, when we all seemed to vow that “SL is SL, and RL is RL, and never the twain shall meet”? Maybe the younger avvies (in biological age as well as… um, closer to noob) still do that, but in my Twitter stream, blogroll, and SL friend list, there’s been a personal integration across worlds. Some of it is subtle, like Honour MacMillan… some of it is overt, like Whiskey Day, Chestnut Rau and Darkness (@Ryannetta) Tigerpaw, and some is blatant, like Crap. We get older — catastrophic or not, the vagaries of organic life become impossible to ignore. We are who we are, in pixels and flesh, and it shows.

And it should.

And my sweetie’s heart is as gladdened by it as my own… You see, this isn’t about her, or us: it’s about you.

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Raising the Walls

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…

The occasion was SL7B, June 2010, when Philip (Linden) Rosedale, founder and Chief Ineffectual Figurehead of Linden Lab, gave not one but two speeches — partially because Mark (M Linden) Kingdon was simultaneously being shown the door.

From the transcript of Speech #1:

Second Life is this wonderful, beautiful city — once you’re in it and you’re having this amazing immersive experience, you’re just totally blown away by it. But the city itself is surrounded by huge walls and a moat. It’s like a medieval city. To actually get into it you have to invest an enormous amount of time and energy getting across that moat, and over the walls, and into this amazing new world of people inside that are waiting inside. And I think that in our excitement about the success of Second Life — in its amazing initial growth and the amazing things that you guys have done and that we’ve done together — we were getting ahead of ourselves a bit as a company and this is what we really talked about in this restructuring. We were building these sort of rickety — we were in many cases building these bridges and scaffoldings that sought to get different types of people across that moat and over those walls, whether we’re talking about international Residents, or the community welcome areas, or enterprise or education users — we’ve been sort of building these little, thin bridges that try and quickly get everybody kind of over that wall and into Second Life. And of course, you can understand why we’d do that, because it’s just so fantastic an experience once we can get people there.

But I think what we have to do — what I know is the kind of thinking that’s informing our planning process going forward — is ask whether instead we can stop doing those many, many peripheral, highly usage-specific things to get people in here — and instead just take a step back, look at the basic problems that we are all faced by, and by fixing them, fill the moat. Tear down the walls.

[emphasis added]

Now, fast forward to February of this year, when the Lab changed the Third-Party Viewer (TPV) Policy; specifically, this addition:

2.k : You must not provide any feature that alters the shared experience of the virtual world in any way not provided by or accessible to users of the latest released Linden Lab viewer.

… which basically means, to TPV developers, “If the Linden Viewer can’t do it, yours isn’t allowed to.” It also means “If the Lab decides to discontinue a pre-existing function, you TPV’ers must also cease offering it.” The first, immediately noticeable effect of the change was the permanent breaking of viewer tags — i.e., in a gathering of avatars you can no longer see, either by text or color-code, how few people are using the Linden viewer versus how many are using which TPV.

Since they couldn’t make it better, they made it impossible to see how many avvies had voted with their pixel feet.

Finally, we come to the Lab’s decision this week to remove the “-loginURI” function from (currently) development versions (and eventually, official release versions) of the Linden viewer. As analyzed and explained in understandable terms by Maria Korolov of Hypergrid Business, this simply means that the common user who has a presence in SL and any of the OpenSimulator worlds will not be able to use the official Linden viewer to access both.

(According to Oz “Mr Personality” Linden, it has something to do with the sub-license(s?) that grants permission to SL to use the Havok physics engine, which permission is not transferable to other grids.)

BFD, right?

Chances are, if you’re one of those thousands of avatars who visit SL and OS worlds, you use a third-party viewer anyway. Perhaps you use the same TPV for both… or perhaps, as in my own limited case, you use something like Firestorm for SL and something like Imprudence for anywhere else (see the remarks from Christa Lopes quoted in Maria’s blog).

I, for one, would love to have a single viewer that I can use in all worlds I visit – but it seems now that my habit of keeping two different TPVs on my desktop is going to be “the wave of the future” for all Transworlders, because of that SL policy change quoted above. To put it another way: soon, TPV developers will have to address the same decision the Phoenix/Firestorm group already have made: fork the viewer code into one that works in SL only, and one that works everywhere else but SL.

What all this boils down to is what Feline Slade said last month in her blog: “We are not the Customers the Lab wants.”

The Lab wants customers who blithely spend way too much money for pixel land they don’t really own, and for the “limited licenses” called “Linden dollars” to obtain virtual goods that neither the buyers nor sellers really own; customers who remain blissfully unaware that there are other virtual worlds Out There. The Lab cannot best their competition, so they remove any possible mention of it, including the ability to use their in-house viewer to get there.

Granted, everyone stopped listening to Philip years ago — his own employees as well as “his” Residents — but its obvious no walls are being torn down. They’re being built ever higher.

Soon, you’ll attain the stability you strive for, in the only way that it’s granted: in a place among the fossils of our time.

— “Crown of Creation”, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick (after John Wyndham)

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Maintaining Illusion

InWorldz is having their first-ever conference this weekend; you could think of it like SLCC, except for the trust and admiration InWorldzers have for the Founders and Codemonkehs who have taken a fork of OpenSim code, still officially “in alpha”, cleaned it up and turned it into something far less “beta” than Second Life’s current Release version. The conference is in Las Vegas, of all places — a city I would not visit, for any reason, even if I could afford to.

[Compare that to SLCC itself, which has decided to restrict its annual venue to alternating between San Francisco and Boston, keeping it well out of reach of people who live in “flyover country”, to say nothing of the other continents Resi’s live on… While you’re at it, take note that the InWorldz conference was instigated by, and has the organization and support of, those same Founders, as opposed to the committee of volunteers who administer SLCC without any assistance from Teh Lab, and only piecemeal attendance by people who just happen to also be Lindens.]

Jim Tarber has been posting photos of the InWorldz meetup to Yfrog, and there probably are others; I just haven’t seen Tweets about them yet. Maybe there will be an aggregation somewhere on the Web soon, as there have been for photos and videos of past SLCCs. I replied, to one of Jim’s earliest group shots from Friday night, that it needed a caption naming who was in it…

Then, I remembered my reaction to some photos from SLCC 2010, and thought about it some more.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but bear with me: Back before the WWW, when most communication required either an analog telephone or a postage stamp and three days’ delivery, I used to attend science fiction conventions. All we fans had to go on for the appearance of the authors we went to meet were their dust-jacket photos, if  they had published in hard-cover.  For everyone else — artists, fellow fans from other cities, and such — we had nothing. Thus, we also had little in the way of preconception.

In the years since, I’ve learned that after subtracting the costume events, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between one fan convention and the next, whether it’s for SF, fantasy, comics, anime or furries. Just a bunch of regular folks of all shapes, sizes, ages, behaviors, styles of dress and modes of personal hygiene, out to have a good time and meet each other on the premise of a shared interest.

The difference, and the point of this post, is that meetups of virtual world avatars come freighted with preconceptions — illusions, if you will — regarding appearance, reinforced in most cases by the extension of avatarian identity into social networks, complete with profile photos to match. As an extreme example: I know that Botgirl is neither a bot nor a girl, but I interact with the avatar as if she were both. I know that Crap Mariner is not a chain-smoking robot with a female shape. I know that Zauber Paracelsus is not a dragon, nor are any of my furry friends any species other than human… but when I think about them, I see them as they choose to be seen in-world.

The illusion would be shattered upon meeting them face-to-organic-face… or by photographs with names assigned. It’s an illusion I’d rather keep. SLCC has located and priced themselves permanently out of my reach, but I don’t think you’ll ever find me at an InWorldz Conference, either — even if they site it somewhere I can drive to.

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