Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Back to Building a Country

The most famous of all of Philip Linden's pronouncements about Second Life is: "I'm not making a game, I'm building a country." This citation, which has been endlessly commented upon, in fact contains two separate parts.

The first part of the statement says that Second Life is not a game. While most 3D virtual worlds are combat games, Second Life is a simulation of the type of day-to-day activities we carry out in the real world, such as producing objects, selling them and socializing. There seems to be general acceptance of the truth of this statement that Second Life is not a game, at least not in the usual sense.

The second part of the statement says that Linden Lab is building a country. How this is to be interpreted - or whether it is valid at all - seems to be at the center of many of the past and present conflicts within the Second Life community.

Being new to Second Life, and ignorant of its history, I set out to review the evolution of this question of "building a country." Using Google I found so much relevant information on the blogs and forums that it made my head spin. But curiously I was unable to discover precisely when, where and why Philip Rosedale made the original declaration.

When did Philip Linden say he was "building a country"?

Gwyneth Llewelyn in a post from November 2005 says that Philip had repeatedly made the famous statement "early last year," which seems to mean early 2004, although with this wording she might have meant early 2005.

Prokofy Neva in a post from July 2005, mentioning Philip's vision of our "world-that's-not-supposed-to-be-a-game," refers back to the SL Herald's June 2004 interview with Philip Linden . In that interview Urizenus Sklar said to Philip: "It sounds like you aren't thinking of SL as a game at all but rather as a platform for different kinds of collaborative projects." But during the interview neither Urizenus nor Philip mentioned the word "country," which would be odd if Philip had already made the famous statement. This might suggest that the quote dates from early 2005, instead of early 2004. So the available evidence leaves the question open. It is strange that Google fails to turn up any precise information on the date and the circumstances of Philip's original declaration.

Robin Linden inspires Ulrika Zugzwang's Neualtenburg Democracy

However, in that June 2004 interview Philip did state the following:

"Also, I think that various structures for governance, etc can be tested here quite well. I think it is possible that as SL grows, we will learn better how future societies might best be governed."

Philip was therefore definitely thinking of "structures for governance" in June 2004. This obviously has something to do with the question that Robin Linden put to residents a short while later. In August 2004, when Ulrika Zugzwang and Darwin Appleby were competing for the title of "President of Second Life" in a mock forum-based election, Robin Linden asked publically if residents were interested in self-rule. The idea appealed to Ulrika Zugzwang, who promptly created the Social Democratic Faction (SDF), Second Life's first political organization. But the suggestion caused a near revolt among the general populace. As Hamlet Linden reported in a post from August 18, 2004 called Missing Conventions, the Second Life forums were flooded with debates on the desirability of representative self-governance in the world. While Ulrika did have supporters, the overwhelming response was opposition to any in-world government. A new group called Anarchism, which quickly gained over 240 members, stated in its charter: "We believe in maintaining freedom from all forms of resident governance … and a promotion of individual rights. Let those that wish to be governed, achieve this through Group membership-- we will walk our own path."

Hamlet Linden's post from that time gives links to Robin Linden's original statement and to some of the forum discussion threads. Unfortunately, all of the forum archives from this period now seem inaccessible, even to residents who are logged onto the forums.

Gwyneth Llewelyn shortly thereafter presented her analysis of the resident reactions. Gwyneth reported that an overwhelming majority of residents conceived of SL to be a sort of Utopia where they could "be whatever they want to be, without any interference," and where "no one has power over anyone else." In general, residents refused to trust their fellow Second Lifers with the exercise any kind of "authority" (they also tended to distrust all real-world governments), and preferred to let the Lindens manage their Utopia for them, which most felt the Lindens did pretty well most of the time.

So the idea of systematic in-world self-government was rejected by the residents. Ulrika Zugzwang however went ahead and initiated a small experiment in local democracy, her Neualtenburg Projekt (described in my Second Life Loudmouths post). On November 15th 2004 Ulrika opened a forum thread announcing "Government comes to SL." The forum thread, which is still accessible, begins as follows:

"On Sunday the 14th of November 2004 the city of Neualtenburg instituted a provisional government based on its first-draft constitution. That's right. Government has come to SL. It's time to dust off that 'no government' T-Shirt."

Ulrika's small local Neualternburg democracy took root and grew, surviving a painful transition about a year and a half later, which lead to the departure of Ulrika herself. Relocated and renamed Neufreistadt, and more recently expanded into the Confederation of Democratic Sims, this small democracy has hosted a succession of competing projects concerning in-world government. But let us return to the chronology.

Aimee Weber's Two-Axis Graph

More than a year after Robin Linden had raised the big self-government question, by late 2005 political discussion among Second Lifers had advanced to the point where Aimee Weber could produce her useful two-axis graph, charting the political tendencies that she observed in Second Life at that time. One axis ran from "SL is a country" to "SL is a company," and the other ran from "Less intervention" to "More intervention." Aimee Weber identified four separate parties, which she avoided distributing precisely to the four corners of her graph, the better to chart their relative positions. But for easy comprehension it will help to simplify the picture by placing one party in each of the four corners of the square, as follows:

* See SL as a company, want less intervention: Platform Party.
Believe that Second Life is a software platform privately owned by Linden Lab. The Lindens should intervene only to maintain order, not to influence economic conditions.

* See SL as a country, want less intervention: Freedom Party. Believe that Second Life should be a country, but with as little government as possible. The Lindens should stick to writing software and leave the community to us.

* See SL as a company, want more intervention: Gamer Party.
Believe that Linden Lab is a gaming company. The Lindens should exert any influence needed to make SL fun for all users, not just the high achievers.

* See SL as a country, want more intervention: Nation Party.
Believe that Second Life is a country and that Linden Lab is its government. The Lindens should intervene both to maintain order and to favor democratic economic conditions.

This four way split can be further simplified by collapsing it into a simple bipolar conflict. On one side, the "platformers" hold that SL just provides the platform, and should intervene as little as possible in what residents do with it. On the other side, those we might call "interventionists" hold that Linden Lab should intervene to regulate the in-world society.

Aimee Weber named Lordfly Digeridoo and Cubey Terra as example members of the Platform Party, and Ulrika Zugzwang and Prokofy Neva as example members of the Nation Party. Prokofy Neva had made a name for himself in mid-2005 with his denunciation of the Feted Inner Core, by which he denoted the Linden practice of giving business to an insider-group of favored content creators. Prokofy, who calls the platformers "tekki libertarians," has repeatedly called for Linden intervention to foster fair economic competition, to fight against griefing, to ban ad-farms and so on.

Within the Nation Party

In late 2005 the "interventionists" fought a losing battle to keep the telehubs, which were nodes which teleporting avatars were forced to land in. Linden Lab had introduced the telehubs in October 2003 under Version 1.1 of Second Life, as a constraint which aimed to structure the landscape (see my post about Funny Money for more details). Prokofy Neva thought that removing the telehubs would bring the Closing of an Open Society, and Gwyneth Llewelyn likewise suggested it would bring the demise of the It’s a Country epoch. Everyone soon got used to Point to Point Teleporting, but urban planning - or rather the lack thereof - remains a critical issue in Second Life.

In early 2006 the Neualtenberg democracy was racked by a conflict between founder Ulrika Zugzwang and a new majority. The upstarts accused Ulrika of being a cyber-terrorist, because she deleted Neualtenberg buildings which she now claimed to be her own intellectual property. The two groups split, the new democratically-elected majority creating Neufreistadt, and Ulrika going her own way, first to Port Neualtenberg, and then leaving Second Life for good.

Around the same time, Prokofy Neva published a curious post entitled King Philip Abandons Throne; Betrays Motherland, reacting to statements made by Philip Linden in a podcast. Prokofy begins his defense of the "Country" interpretation of Second Life by invoking the support that he might have expected to receive – but didn't - from the crowd in Neualtenberg:

"If Justice Soothsayer were a Righteous Man, he would issue a warrant for the arrest of this failed King on charges of treason; yet Democracy Island is silent, its traffic fallen to the lower double digits."

Prokofy seems to have been upset because Philip suggested that the laws that will regulate Second Life will be those of the various groups in Second Life, rather than uniform rules clearly established by the Lindens. Philip notably said in the podcast that Second Life would probably become:

"A place with a lot of different countries in it. The web kind of identity but mostly a big set of differing communities. Not like a country but a place that has its own laws. …its character and its law will be driven more by the groups that are in it than we as the creator of the country could do."

Note that Philip explicitly said "not like a country." Prokofy, in top form, concludes: "The King, the Sovereign, abdicates his responsibility, ceding all power to … various FlashMobs, SmartMobs, and just plain LynchMobs."

Enter the Lawyers

Shortly thereafter, the legal experts come upon the stage. There had already been, in late 2005, a short-lived legal experiment called the Second Life Supreme Court (SLSC). An article in the SL Herald described this as follows:

"The idea is that residents may take disputes to the court to be settled according to The SL Community Standards, Ralph Koster's 'Declaration of the Rights of Avatars', and general 'real world' principles of law and dispute resolution (e.g. international law, trademark law, international decisions that involve gaming, etc). What we especially like is that residents may also bring suit against Lindens!"

This proposal, which fizzled, was lightweight compared to Ashcroft Burnham's ambitious scheme. Ashcroft was part of a group that wanted to enhance the legal system of the Neufreistadt democracy. But Neufreistadt being a tiny backwater, Ashcroft soon set his sights wider. In November 2006 he started a thread called Bringing law to SecondLife. (Why is this thread found on Second Life Home Page, rather than on the official SL forum?) Ashcroft's thread begins:

"Last Saturday, in a quaint little medieval Bavarian-themed island sim somewhere in the West of the grid, a group of people met to discuss, and then agreed upon, a proposal. It had been discussed and debated for the previous two months, and, although had caused some controversy, had garnered considerable support. It was a proposal which many hope will revolutionise parts of SecondLife, and bring law to a hitherto unruly world. The place was Neufreistadt (formally Neualtenburg), and the proposal was the creation of a professional judiciary, and, separately, a means of bringing that judiciary to the wider echelons of SecondLife."

This proposal immediately drew volleys of hostile criticism, worsened by the maladroit presentation of the project. For example, the original post sounds like a job announcement: "We will soon be accepting applications from landowners, or those who wish to become landowners, on the mainland and other private islands to join our Confederation." And an extract from the detailed proposal document (for which the link is unfortunately broken) seems to suggest that landowners joining the group would be putting themselves under *someone else's* jurisdiction:

"People who hold land on the mainland would put their land under the jurisdiction of our government and then have title to that land granted to them by our government."

Ashcroft's proposal was thus vigorously rejected on the forum. The very first resident to add a comment to Ashcroft's thread was Prokofy Neva, who stated: "This is one landowner who will definitely not be joining this strong-armed fake 'democracy'".

Prokofy's position was that the Lindens should provide the missing Second Life government. Around that time, in late 2006, Prokofy wrote a SL Herald article called Resident Government?, reacting to an announcement on the Official Linden Blog, about a planned overhaul of the Abuse Report system. Prokofy noted that rather than adding staff to review the 2,000 abuse reports coming in per day, the Lindens proposed to devolve responsibility for policing the world and adjudicating disputes to residents themselves. Up until then, Linden Lab's main response to griefing had been to add to the menu of grief-fighting tools, such as refining bans by name or payment status, enabling individual responses such as prevention of object creation, muting of unwanted sights and ejection of trespassing avatars, and enabling avatars to hide their online status. Since these technical solutions proved insufficient to stop the griefing, the Lindens again brought up the idea of resident self-management, to deal with the problem. Prokofy noted: "Responses have predictably expressed fears of a resident government coming down the pike." Prokofy obviously shared these fears.

Resident government advanced in the form of Ashcroft Burnham's Local Government Study Group (LGSG). Prokofy Neva attended one of the early LGSG meetings, held on February 17, 2007 in Neufreistadt. Prokofy, who posted the transcript on his blog, noted that the meeting was run by Ashcroft, with the help of "his sidekick Michel Manen, about who I think we have to begin worrying, too." Poor Ashcroft tried to keep the meeting on track despite endless interruptions from a hostile day-old alt, an anarchist who jumped onto the meeting table to hold a demonstration, and a particle attack half-way through. Ashcroft explained that his project was to develop a set of "tools" that could be used by various in-world governments, which might have a range of different configurations. Everyone at the meeting was very concerned about democracy, many objecting to the suggestion that only land-owners in certain governments would be able to vote. As a lawyer Ashcroft brought up the question of how to enforce contracts, proposing that land could be taken away as a punishment for offenses. Prokofy stated that they should all start instead by asking the Lindens for a Magna Carta and a federal government which would establish rule of law throughout Second Life. Prokofy however seemed primarily interested in repeatedly accusing Ashcroft of proceeding in an undemocratic manner. This tried Ashcroft's patience to the point where he threatened to mute Prokofy. But when the meeting finally got to the discussion of naming officers for the group, no one present actually volunteered for the job, showing just how isolated Ashcroft actually was.

Most trying of all for Ashcroft's group was that they even failed to sell their ideas to their own Neufreistadt community. The majority of the elected local government found the proposed legal system entirely too complicated for the little Neufreistadt city-state, the active membership of which hardly surpassed more than a few dozen avatars. So Ashcroft packed his bags and founded instead the Metaverse Republic group, which is still trying to establish an independent virtual-world legal system "with real powers of enforcement originating in user-created tools, and a democratic parliament."

The Full Circle

Meanwhile, what kind of government were the Lindens providing? Up until mid-2007 the general tendency was a long-term evolution towards *less intervention* than they had exercised in the early days. This was well described by Gwyneth Llewelyn in her post From Welfare State To Laissez-Faire Capitalism, written in June 2007. When Gwyneth joined Second Life in 2004, Linden Lab had a policy of subsidizing content. After the introduction of the Linden Dollar and the establishment of the Second Life economy, to promote more content Linden Lab introduced weekly stipends, subsidies for hosting events, and "ratings" whereby stipends were increased for parcels that attracted crowds. These practices were eventually abused and had to be stopped, but they were symptomatic of what Gwyneth calls the "welfare state" approach to stimulating the economy. This approach remained feasible even in the period of the telehubs, when Second Life still felt like one large community.

But Second Life continued to grow, and the extraordinary growth in the number of sims and avatars lead to "balkanisation": the single community split into a multitude of different communities. The "welfare state" approach became infeasible, and Linden Lab abandoned most "regulatory" activities, backing away from any role of intervening in Second Life. Technical support was "tiered," giving only paying customers access to privileged support, which is expensive to maintain. An attempt was made to transfer responsibility for Abuse Reports to the "local authorities" (owners of private islands), who would deal with abuse locally, and to have adult content flagged by residents themselves.

As the population and economy developed, so did cases of fraud. In Second Life business had always been unregulated: there were no central regulatory authorities or abuse reports for fraud. With the growth of Second Life, the frequency and gravity of cases of fraud became alarming. The frequency and gravity of griefing attacks grew at the same pace. Just at the time when Linden Lab was withdrawing from "governmental" intervention, the need for such intervention was becoming more and more obvious. So eventually the balance began to swing back the other way, towards greater intervention.

The past year has seen a steady stream of new measures implemented by Linden Lab to regulate in-world activities. These different measures were recently summed up by Hamlet Au in a blog post entitled Lindens Limit Libertarianism. The first step was a ban on age play (avatars simulating pedophilic sex) and other "broadly offensive" behavior, in May 2007. Then in July 2007 gambling was prohibited (this was primarily for legal reasons, since Linden Lab is located in California, where such gambling is illegal). The biggest step in terms of economic intervention was the banning of unregulated banks in January of this year, in response to widespread fraud related to pyramid schemes with unsustainable interest rates. Then on February 8th of this year Jack Linden announced the creation of a Department of Public Works, aimed at "improving the experience for residents living on or visiting the Linden mainland." This constituted a public admission that the lack of zoning has created ugly urban blight throughout the continental land masses. And on February 13th, in response to an energetic campaign of protest on the part of Ordinal Malaprop, Prokofy Neva and others, the Lindens issued a measure banning flagrant ad farms.

Echoing Gwyneth's analysis, Hamlet proffers: "The Lindens are restructuring the mainland into a communitarian society it once was in 2003." And he predicts that more prohibitions will go into effect soon, such as measures concerning bot farms or camping chairs.

Linden Lab thus seems to have come full circle. After an early period of deliberate invention to stimulate and to structure the Second Life economy, in the spirit of Philip Linden's "building a country," they gradually pulled back from in-world intervention, as the number of avatars and sims exploded beyond their ability to cope. But the spectacular growth in Second Life was accompanied by a corresponding growth in fraud, griefing and other forms of abuse. So Linden Lab has been obliged to resuscitate the policy of active intervention - including in areas where they have never intervened before.

The Lindens seem to have finally realised that they are indeed "building a country."

Friday, 15 February 2008

Blogger Beatitude

Following a recent problem I had with Blogger, I had planned to move this blog over to my usual web hosting service. I had already installed the WordPress software, and was just getting ready to configure it, when my website server suffered a massive service outage. I use a small French web service called Ouvaton, which is supposed to be cool because it is a cooperative. But when one of the hard disks in their RAID burned out, they screwed up the replacement process so badly that the service was out for more than 24 hours. Small is beautiful, but imposing an accidental Denial of Service on several hundred customers is ugly. Is it utopian to wish that cooperative endeavours could also actually be effective and efficient?

That outage made me reconsider my decision. At least I can count on Google to maintain Blogger in a permanent state of adequate service. And they fixed the bug that caused my firewall to give me intrusion messages each time I looked at my blog. So if they can manage to avoid getting into conflicts with my anti-virus software, I think I can put up with a small amount of snooping about my consumer behaviour patterns. I've suddenly transitioned from Blogger Blowout to Blogger Beatitude. In the rest of this post I think I'll leave aside the big issues for a while, and just tell about what I've been doing in Second Life lately.

I've been going in-world rather infrequently, and for relatively short periods. I did however manage to attend the first meeting of the recently-elected new Representative Assembly of the Confederation of Democratic Sims, held on February 3rd. The meeting room in Neufreistadt was packed with a large crowd of observers. The session began with the new RA members taking oath to serve the CDS, its Constitutions and Laws. The RA members taking the oath (with their party affiliations) were as follows:

* Patroklus Murakami (CSDF)
* ThePrincess Parisi (NuCARE)
* Brian Livingston (SP)
* Sonja Strom (DPU)
* Bjerkel Eerie (CSDF)
* MT Lundquist (NuCARE)
* Beathan Vale (SP)

The first task of the new RA members was then to select the next CDS Chancellor. The two candidates for this position, Alexicon Kurka and Jamie Palisades, each briefly presented their reasons for wanting to fill the function. The RA members then stated in turn their preferences. The votes were three for each, and the hinge vote was left to ThePrincess Parisi. She dramatically built up the suspense, chopping her announcement into slowly-posted chat fragments, as follows:

*The next Chancellor of CDS ....
*On behalf of the members of New United CARE I proudly
*cast my vote for
*Alexicon Kurka

So Alexicon became the new Chancellor of CSDF, and the meeting broke up. The avatars hurried off, some actually walking downstairs to fly somewhere, the majority just teleporting away or logging off. I teleported to my house in Colonia Nova, and found myself in a woman's body, and with only half of my hair. The condition seemed to last, so I finally just logged off.

Other than that, I've been spending time teleporting around Second Life to see other regions. After reading Sleazy Writer's guest post on my blog, about what he calls "Sausage Land," I went to check out the Southern Continent. I can only agree with what Tony Walsh said, about the continents looking like God swallowed a yard sale, a Goth castle, a suburban mall, and a carnival, and barfed it all back up (as quoted by Prokofy). For comparison, I went to visit some Island regions reputed for better zoning, such as Anshe Chung's Dreamland and Adam Zaius' Azure Islands. Curiously, I found these to be rather barren stretches of boring "paradise." But perhaps I need to explore them a bit longer to discover their charm.

Then I read Prokofy's Tiny Reporters post, about Julian Dibbell's in-world interview with Prokofy, when Julian was researching his now-infamous Article on Griefing for Wired magazine. Prokofy starts by taking Julian to see the famous giant Refrigerator that mars the landscape in Ravenglass, facing the huge Celtic tower built by Foolish Frost. So I went over there, and found everything that Prokofy describes, including the Tatoo Parlour at the foot of the Celtic Tower.

I also read Prokofy's On Being Done With the Lindens post, in which he describes an extortionist "ad farm" put up by Umnik Hax in Highcastle, which contains a winking Happy Face with a Star of David for an eye. Prokofy maintains that this use of a Star of David is racist, in that it seeks to arouse anti-Semitic feelings. I wanted to go see that too, but when I tried to use Search to find Highcastle, Search told me there was nothing that corresponded! I've since been told that there is another way to search for sims, using the map, but I have yet to do that. In the meanwhile the Lindens have announced their new anti-ad-farm policy, so when I finally do get to Highcastle, the Unmik Hax horror may be gone.

And so it goes. Between a bit of touring in-world, and a lot of reading of Second Life blogs, I'm getting familiar with the place, with its populace and its particular culture. I imagined that one day I might proudly remind my children that I was an early pioneer of virtual worlds. But when I tested this idea out with them, their reaction was disappointing. They think I'm just a misguided fart making a fool of himself playing at a children's game.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Blogger Blowout

I created this blog one day last December, on a whim. I had noticed several Second Life blogs that use Blogger, so I thought I'd try it out. I created the blog in about ten minutes, and was pleased with the result.

Blogger is blog software created by Pyra Labs, and bought by Google in 2003. The software runs on a free web hosting service, which is also provided by Google. Thus both the software and the web hosting are totally free. You just create an account, configure the blog, spread your wings, and fly.

By and large I've been satisfied with Blogger. The software is easy to use, the default page format is simple and elegant, and the support systems are pretty good. But lately, when I try to look at the blog, my anti-virus program warns me that Blogger is trying to suck confidential information out of my computer. So it's time to move on.

Chalk up another freebie that was just too good to be true. Prokofy Neva would exult over this, and use it to prove once again that anything given freely is just NOT SUSTAINABLE. One might have hoped that Google was maintaining the huge Blogger service merely to build up its own good name in the cybersphere. Wishful thinking. Apparently they can't resist using it as an additional way to spy on us, and to load their databases with sellable information.

So it is time to implement plan B. I've been fooling around with creating my own websites for more than a year now. Thus I know how to purchase a domain name, how to rent server space from a web hosting service, and how to connect a dynamic website to a MySQL database on the web server. I have a rudimentary knowledge of HTML, and as for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), well, at least I know what they are. The big remaining question is: what blog software will I use?

In the first place, I want to use a free software package with open-source code. I know that Prokofy Neva thinks that open source is communistic, because it seems to go against capitalistic principles. But in Danton's world view, Richard Stallman is a saint, and Microsoft is the Beast. To quote Saint Richard, the philosophy behind free software implies: "free as in free speech, not as in free beer."

Open source is one of those divisive subjects that it would be best to avoid arguing about. People like Prokofy Neva will go on confusing open source with the theft of copyright, and insisting that free software is unsustainable. In the meanwhile, free and open source software will just keep developing. One day Linux will outstrip Microsoft Windows, and some open source simulator or other will evolve into a new standard for virtual worlds. Also, by the way, Linden Lab will be overtaken by competitors who provide better customer service, rational land-use planning and effective in-world government. In real life, free-market capitalism will continue to flourish within the framework of some kind of welfare-state socialism. The earth will keep turning. Next question.

To select my new blog software, I started by looking at the list of free and open source packages listed in the Wikipedia article about blog software. I also did a bit of searching on Google, using key-words like "best blog software." My choice narrowed down to a duel between Movable Type and WordPress. I read the following in the Wikipedia article on WordPress:

"In 2004 the licensing terms for the competing Movable Type package was changed by Six Apart, and many of its users migrated to WordPress – causing a marked, and continuing, growth in WordPress's popularity."

In addition, I notice that Gwyneth Llewelyn uses WordPress for her blog. So WordPress it will be.

It will take me a while to implement the necessary steps. I have to purchase a domain name, create the directory on my web hosting service, create the database on the web server, install the software, configure the site, and transfer the blog contents. This is all going to take me a while.

In the meantime, whenever I connect to this blog from my home computer, I get distressing messages from my anti-virus firewall. I "authorize" the connection - and Blogger spies on me. Yuck.

Note added on February 12, 2008:
Blogger seems to have corrected the problem. I'm not getting messages from my firewall any more. But it's too late, the process of changing to WordPress is already underway....


Saturday, 2 February 2008

Linden Help Needs Help

Second Life journalist Wagner James Au recently wrote a blog post asking: Is Second Life's User Interface Cursed by Knowledge? He was referring to an inevitable Curse of Knowledge which affects experts in any field, preventing them from imagining what it is like to be a newcomer to that field. Wagner James Au suggests that the main reason Second Life loses so many new users is that the user interface is overly complex and confusing. But he doubts that either Linden Labs, or any developers working for them, will be able to improve the interface, because the curse of knowledge prevents them from understanding why the interface is hard for beginners to use.

As a beginner in Second Life, my initial reaction was somewhat different from what Wagner James Au describes. The interface struck me as being on a par with most software interfaces, neither better nor worse. What intimidated me more was to find myself suddenly immersed in a new public space, inhabited by other avatars, before I knew how to use the interface. I found Orientation Island poorly conceived, and struggled much longer than necessary "to get even minimally proficient," as Au puts it. But by far the greatest obstacle that I experienced had nothing to do with either the user interface or Orientation Island. What horrified me the most was to discover how useless the official Second Life tutorials and support systems are.

Consider the typical path a beginner might take in searching for written help. The natural place to start is the Second Life website. At the top of the main page are five headings, one of which is "support." The beginner thus clicks on "support" to open the Support Page.

This link takes a long time to open. When the support page finally comes up, one finds a central heading called "Locations for Support Information," under which is a promising link called "Knowledge Base and Solution Finder." Clicking on this link merely expands a paragraph that begins "We've created an extensive (and frequently updated) set of articles about Second Life," and ends with "You can log into this system by visiting the login form at the bottom of this page."

Wipe-out! Nothing drives a web surfer away like the requirement to login before you can read a page. Most surfers have to really, really want to read a page before they will take the time to fill out a login form. So you've lost most of them already.

Let us suppose that the user is sufficiently motivated to fill out this login form. Submitting the form opens a page which contains a number of links, including one called "Knowledge Base." Clicking on "Knowledge Base" opens a new window which is a marvel of poor design. I had to study this window for a long time before I discovered the drop-down menu hiding at the far left of the screen. When I finally got the knowledge base open, I found a sub-heading called "Controls and Getting Around," which seems aimed at beginners. Opening this sub-heading gives a three-page list of questions, of which the first ten questions are:

*Animation Guide
*Are you with CSI?
*Assorted Tips & Tricks - Video Tutorial
*How can I find a combat region?
*How do I change the time of day to something like sundown? It's a little too bright.
*How do I fly higher? I want to see what's on top of this building.
*How do I get the Near Me tab in the Communicate window to reappear if I delete it accidentally?
*How do I look at something from a different angle?
*How do I make it brighter? It's so dark I can't see anything.
*How do I open the Client (or Server) menu?

This is just a disorganized grab-bag of miscellaneous questions assembled in a haphazard fashion. I glanced at a few of them, and decided I was wasting my time. I moved off of the page in disgust, in search of something that might resemble a real tutorial.

Let's go back to the Second Life main page. At the bottom of this page there are numerous additional links. Those which seem possibly helpful to a beginner include: "FAQ," "Second Life Wiki," and "Tutorials." The FAQ are too short, and the Tutorials link goes to a set of videos. These videos may be of interest, but I skipped them as too time consuming. I'm looking for text I can navigate through quickly. So I went to the wiki.

The Main Page of the Official Second Life Wiki says nothing about tutorials. In boxes on the right-hand side of the page, however, the following two links caught my eye:

*LSL Portal - A (soon-to-be) complete reference guide to the LSL language.
*Creation Portal - Information about building and designing in Second Life.

It was too early for me to start building and designing: I just wanted basic information on using the interface. So I tried clicking on the LSL Portal. Fortunately I already knew that LSL means Linden Scripting Language - the LSL Portal page nowhere says what LSL means! The second paragraph on the LSL Portal page says:

"Want to learn LSL? Try one of the LSL Tutorials."

On the off-chance that I might find a beginner's guide there, I clicked on the link to open the LSL Tutorials page. On this page, at the top of the list of LSL tutorials, I finally found what seems to be a tutorial for beginning Second Life users, called Getting Ready to learn LSL. However, a quick glance reveals how inadequate this strange document is. Consider for example the text of section 3, "Learn how to really move around," which goes as follows:

"Learn how to really move around. We next learned how to 'walk', to 'sit', to 'stand up', to 'fly'. We learned how to 'search' for 'places' and how to 'teleport'. That was learning enough to begin exploring. We also learned how to use vehicles and drive around."

The above paragraph apparently describes the training that the new avatar goes through on Orientation Island. It thus makes no pretence to serve as an actual tutorial.

Let's go back once more to the Main Page of the Second Life Website. Looking again at the links at the top of the page, this time we will select the link called "Community." On the Community Page, in the vertical menu running down the left side of the page, is a link to the forum. The beginner clicks on the link to open the forum page, and finds this message: "You must log in to view the Second Life forums."

You must log in just to read the forums! Why is this? I can understand having to log in to contribute to the forums. But what sensitive confidential information do the forums contain that must be hidden from the public eye?

Oh well, the beginner says, let me log in so I can read the forums. But when I logged in to Second Life, and tried again to look at the forums, I still got the page with the following message:

"If you receive this error after successfully logging in to other parts of the Second Life website, please make sure that:
*You have logged in to Second Life at least once with your account.
*You have valid payment info on file for your account, if your account was created after August 20, 2006. You can update your payment information here. You don't need to have a Premium account."

In fact, to get permission to look at the forum, I had to send an email to the support team. I received from them a special password to open my access. A few days after launching the request, I was finally able to search the forums. But a forum is probably the least efficient of all possible ways to find a useful response to a specific question. People search through forums when all else has failed, because sometimes, after great expenditure of time and effort, you may finally find what you were looking for. But anyone who has ever searched for help on a forum knows that a forum is no substitute for a tutorial or an on-line help.

There remains In-World Help. The user interface includes a drop-down Help menu. The first item on this menu, "Second Life Help/F1," only sends you to the support website mentioned above. The second item, "In-World Help," opens a little window that says "For instant help on dozens of topics, simply press the F1 key!" It also suggests visiting Orientation Island and Help Island. But whenever you touch the F1 key, you just get sent back to the hopeless support website.

There is however a nifty feature in the In-World Help window. If you click on the "Home" button, you get - Google in an in-world window! I was thrilled to discover this way of consulting internet from within Second Life. But by sending us to Google, the Linden Labs Help function seems to be admitting that, to find help with Second Life, the best bet is - to look elsewhere.