[W]e cannot play the role of arbitrating personal grievances or defining behavioral standards. This is particularly important as Linden Lab becomes more international. We don’t want to force a California-centric set of rules on the virtual world. – Linden Lab, December 2006
Linden Lab seems to have got its knickers in a twist regarding sexuality in Second Life. While seeking to improve the ‘user experience’ by segregating residents based on their sexual preferences, LL’s proposed policy changes have instead opened Pandora’s Box. The blogs and forums groan under the weight of hair-splitting detail concerning the best method of classifying sexuality within Second Life, but Linden Lab asked the wrong question.
The establishment of anonymous accounts in June 2006 opened the doors to underage players. This resulted in international legal scrutiny, increased exposure to legal liability and damaging media coverage. Linden Lab responded by intruding into residents’ sexual relationships and expelling two consenting adults for underage roleplay – even though no underage players were involved. Refusal to close the anonymous accounts and dogged insistence on an ineffective and unsound ID-based age verification system cost Linden Lab considerable political capital with no benefit.
Many of us who came into SL in 2006 (and brought money with us) were horrified by the policy changes of 2007. The deal was that LL would provide a basic property rights structure and act solely as a referee in property disputes. We sighed with relief when LL reassured us that they had no intention of applying overarching codes of morality on the community. I also vividly recall LL announcing that we there would be no change in gambling policy. Then came 2007 and bitter disappointment. All the reassurances given only weeks before were abandoned as Linden Lab slammed the gearshift into reverse. For thousands of people, the trust and faith they had in Linden Lab was badly damaged.
During 2008, the company’s reputation slowly began to recover. Yes, the Openspace pricing model was flawed and, yes, there was a second round of mainland supply problems, but at least LL were not bungling policy anymore. The micro-parcel issue was resolved within reason. LL seemed to be developing the ability to handle complex issues…then bang! We are back to square one with a crude policy on social behavior.
The Right Question
The right question, then, is a) how best to prevent underage players from mingling with adults and b) how best to zone the mainland in a tolerant and efficient manner? Needless to say, eliminating anonymous accounts solves the first part of the problem. Instead of creating a complicated system of filters to prevent kids accessing adult content, keep them out of SL altogether.
As for the second part, when constructing the mainland, Linden Lab established a patchwork of Mature and PG sims such that a loud BDSM club can open next to a quiet, residential home. The introduction of a third sim type, ‘Adult’, though badly named (all SL is adult by definition) – let us call it ‘Xtreme’ instead – makes sense. Constructing an ‘Xtreme’ continent and allowing residents to migrate there – at their own choosing, at their own pace – also makes sense. It may take a year or two, but I believe most ‘Xtreme’ players will prefer to be free of the moral harassment they receive from PG residents.
The New Problem
As has been known since the dawn of time – articulated again recently by the US Supreme Court – one man’s obscenity is another man’s beauty. To attempt to codify the wide range of human social norms into a regulatory system is counterproductive. At best, it will generate high monitoring and enforcement costs; at worst, it will lead to confusion and conflict within the SL community.
Context and Perspective
1. Second Life is VIRTUAL, VOLUNTARY and ADULT
Seeking to apply RL standards to a virtual world is silly. There is no safer place on Earth than the privacy of your RL home. It is voluntary in that one must sign up for an account and it is adult in that everyone in SL is an adult (or should be). That means one has passed through puberty, has learned to relate to people and become responsible for one’s decisions – including the decision to be in a virtual world with other adults. As an adult, one recognizes and accepts that people have different styles and tastes and that rudeness or harassment should not be confused with sexuality.
2. Creativity needs VARIETY, COMPLEXITY and SYNERGY
Second Life is unique in catering to a broad, international population of adults. Because of its richness and diversity, SL attracts a wide range of entrepreneurs who provide a wide range of services to a wide range of residents. The organic nature of this mix is itself creative. The functionality of a BDSM collar may benefit another entrepreneur making improvements to a PG hugger; Gorean silks may generate new ideas in traditional fashion design; techniques learned to make vampire animations are transferable to dance animations. As for ‘deviant’ behavior, Penicillin was the result of dirty dishes. Post-It notes were a mistake. Lord Byron was a scoundrel. Virginia Woolf was a manic-depressive. Alan Turing was a homosexual. History is littered with the corpses of the brilliant heretics.
The founders of Second Life understood this. They recognized the organic nature of the IT industry and that ‘creative destruction’ had to be embraced rather than shunned. They were amazed by the fall of IBM and inspired by the Burning Man festival in the desert of Nevada. They built Second Life – against all the odds – and it was hugely successful. Sadly, in 2007, the regulators, lawyers and bureaucrats arrived. All this organic stuff had to go, they said. The time had come to strip away risk and uncertainty, to seek the lowest common denominator and penetrate the mass market. I summarized the spirit of this new direction in my profile: “In the name of safety and security and to protect residents from themselves, all activities requiring intelligence and maturity will be banned.”
3. Don’t micromanage the rainforest
Getting rid of snakes may seem like a good idea, but they play a vital role in the natural ecology/economy. Without the snakes, there are too many rodents. Importing hawks to solve the rodent problem disrupts other birds, causing a new problem. Soon, like a vast cascade of dominoes, the whole ecosystem goes out of balance. Hiring 1000 managers and forming new committees to provide more control only makes things worse. In an ever-descending spiral, the managers scramble to repair the ever-increasing damage until the rainforest is finally paved in concrete. Problem solved.
While my criticisms may seem harsh, I feel it imperative to warn Linden Lab of the long-term consequences of ‘cleaning up’ Second Life. Yes, improvements can be made in the property rights structure to give residents greater privacy and control – I am very much in favor of this – but Linden Lab does not seem to realize that the lowest common denominator is poison for any creative enterprise.
I implore Linden Lab to note the howls of protest against this new [Adult Content] policy drowning out those voices raised surreptitiously beforehand in its favor. Please reflect on the nature of the world you have created – that became a wonder before you began meddling with it. Please remember that Second Life is virtual, voluntary and adult and understand that Disneyfication will buy you at best a temporary advantage before the whole edifice slides gently into banality.