Sunday, October 29, 2006

Skirmishes on Second Life Shores

The tension between the Professional and the Amateur, the Commercial and the Personal, the Pradmatic and the Uncompromising pervade today's Internet. I've written about this conflict before--both in the context of the current imbroglio over the GPLv3 draft and more generally.

Now this very real world conflict is arriving at the shores of the  Second Life virtual world--with the same intensity and emotion with which it has been fought and is being fought elsewhere. Take this reaction by Urizenus Sklar to the launch of Crayon, a new marketing company, within Second Life.

For two and a half years I watched Second Life residents work like dogs, often without remuneration to build the wonderful mind-blowing place that it is today. All forms of fantastic structures and vehicles emerged in the space, from psychedelic cities to dark medieval fortresses to delicate gravity-defying elven castles. Artificial life forms appeared, reproduced and evolved in gorgeous gardens, while the skies were dotted by magnificent and elegant otherworldly flying machines. Virtual sporting events ranged from elven archery tournaments to giant snail races.

 In Februrary of 2006, I took a sabbatical from Second Life to pursue other projects. When I returned eight months later I was flabbergasted by what I saw. Second Life, now with 1 million subscribers, was being invaded by an army of old world meat-space corporations, ranging from Reebok and American Apparel to GM and Nissan. The traditional newsmedia was hyperventilating in its awe of the old meat-space corporations and the "innovative" things they were doing in second life, and could not stop writing about it...

 Most disgusting of all for me, however, was when the "new media" consulting firm Crayon announced, three years into the life of Second Life, that it was going to be the "first corporation to launch in Second Life." In a press release they claimed to be offering a "new way of thinking" and called their new corporation a "mash-up", a term that I found descriptive of their press release, which was a word salad jargon-fest. What was clear from the language of their announcement was that they had absolutely no idea about the history of Second Life, nor what it was about. No doubt the "launch" – in reality a public relations stunt to feed back to the meat-space world – was a great success; meat-space corporations would hire these posers to represent them because they must be on the bleeding edge: gosh golly, they "launched" in a video game!

 Incensed by these events, I unloaded on the PR firms in the Herald, accusing them of being "a bunch of desperate clueless fucktards trying to show how bleeding-edgy they are." Of course after my critical post came the defenders of Crayon etc. accusing me of being opposed to the future, and having a "potty mouth" and sounding "like a lunatic." But this wasn't the future calling: you don't blaze a path to the future by charging into a new space and ignoring what is happening around you, nor by recycling your old rust belt industrial design ideas in a new medium, and more importantly, if the discourse of cyberculture offends your delicate ears, then just keep the fuck away thank you very much.

For the whole thing and some additional commentary, see this post on the Strumpette PR blog.

I've little interest in choosing sides here. However, I think it's fair to say that the more successful communities almost inevitably go commercial at some level or, at least, (as in the case of Wikipedia) have to deal with the glare of some bright and probing lights. Given this, it's natural that we'll see ongoing splinters of counterculture splitting off from the Web 2.0 or Virtual World or whatever success stories as they inevitably go mainstream as a result.

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