inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #0 of 101: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 3 Mar 08 09:10
    
Our next guest, Wagner James Au, is the author of the recently released 
"The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World," a book that explores 
the remarkable virtual culture and real-world economy that's developed 
through this wildly popular online entity.

James has written about high-tech culture for more than ten years. He's 
been, at various times, a freelance reporter, a metaverse consultant, a 
game developer, a screenwriter, and since 2003, a white-suited avatar named 
"Hamlet Au," the first embedded journalist in a virtual world, a role he 
still plays on his blog, New World Notes (http://nwn.blogs.com). 

His work in Second Life has been cited or profiled in The New York Times, 
the BBC, CNN International, NPR, Wired, the Boston Globe, the Washington 
Post, and many other publications and television programs. He also covers
the game industry and online worlds for GigaOM.com. Originally from
Kailua, Hawaii, he now lives in San Francisco, California.

Jennifer Powell leads the conversation with James. Jennifer has been 
an inhabitant of the Internet for 15 years. She has a lifelong interest 
in community, both on the 'net and off, and has worked in hosting and 
management of online communities for many companies, including Netscape, 
ABC's Go.com, and AOL. Jennifer has also spent many happy hours - some 
might say too many happy hours - in multiplayer games such as Everquest 
and World of Warcraft, and in virtual worlds like Second Life.

Welcome, James and Jennifer! 
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #1 of 101: Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Mon 3 Mar 08 12:19
    
Thanks, Cynthia. And hello and welcome to my long-time online friend
James Au. I'm really looking forward to talking with you about virtual
worlds, which I know is a subject close to your heart as it is to mine.

So, since some of our readers and participants may not have visited
Second Life themselves, how about if we begin by having you introduce
us to this new place.  What will someone see and experience when they
step into Second Life for the first time?  What might a new person do
there?
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #2 of 101: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Mon 3 Mar 08 13:12
    
Thanks, Jen, great question to start out with.  The first step is the
hardest, because generally new users are teleported into an orientation
island called Prelude, which is where they learn the basics of
interacting in Second Life.  After which, they're teleported onto the
mainland to a beautiful courtyard Welcome Area, which is usually
populated by volunteer greeters, and it's almost always a menagerie of
longtime Residents in all their friendly strangeness: a vampire, a
robot, an elf, a supermodel, a talking squirrel, and so on (and on.) 
Many users give up at this point, because the user interface is
extremely difficult to learn, and the sensory overload coupled to a
lack of game-like goals is overwhelming.  New users ask, "What can I do
here?", and the greeters cheerfully respond with variations of,
"Pretty much whatever you'd like".  Ironically, the freedom is probably
the most daunting thing about Second Life.
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #3 of 101: Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Mon 3 Mar 08 16:07
    
A bit of jargon and info for our Hypothetical New User - the people
you see in-world are called "avatars", and you too will choose an
avatar, a graphical representation of yourself.  Though if I recall
correctly, the selection of avatars new people can choose is fairly
standard and not too outrageous. But because Second Life is a world
where people can learn to create their own graphical content, an avatar
can be pretty much anything.

When I first started in SL, I was very confused by the process of
keeping track of clothes and "looks" that I had access to. I know
there's at least one shirt/pants combo I used to have that I took off
and never found again.

But once you get past the organizational issues, I think that freedom
to look any way you want is one of the things members love most about
these kinds of virtual worlds.
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #4 of 101: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Mon 3 Mar 08 19:52
    
Most definitely.  I know a lot of Residents who keep dozens of
different looks in separate folders in their inventory window (that's
really the best way to organize things), so they can change their
look/identity in an instant.  (In inventory, you just click and drag a
folder onto your avatar, and all the clothing items/hair/body
characteristics "bind" themselves to your avatar.) 
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #5 of 101: Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Tue 4 Mar 08 07:53
    
So, you step into your avatar and you arrive at the Welcome Center
where there are lots of other people also walking around as avatars.
But unlike in multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft, no one is
there to give you a quest or a task like "Bring me 10 rat tails" or
whatever. It's open-ended and freeform and you can do anything you
want, well, within certain limits. Do you find that a lot of new people
are confused by that and have trouble adjusting or figuring out how to
fit into the world?
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #6 of 101: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 5 Mar 08 08:43
    

(Note: Offsite readers with questions or comments may send them to
 <inkwell@well.com> to have them added to this thread. Please be sure
to put "Second Life" in the subject line.)
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #7 of 101: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Wed 5 Mar 08 11:36
    
"Do you find that a lot of new people are confused by that and have
trouble adjusting or figuring out how to fit into the world?"

Absolutely, the Welcome Area is ironically where most people who try
Second Life leave, scratching their heads.  The people who stay tend to
be those who reach out and talk to the friendly robot or eight foot
dominatrix or whoever that's lingering there in the courtyard.  The
veterans know where the great content and communities are, and a new
user who wants a solo experience is bound to be frustrated.  What's
very interesting to me is that this Welcome Area experience has not
changed much for five years, even though Linden Lab can see the poor
retention rates caused by it.  My belief is that this is fundamentally
due to what inspired Second Life: Burning Man.  CEO/Founder Philip
Rosedale went there just as he was starting the company, and his big
insight (as he tells me in the book) was how people at Burning Man were
willing to go right up and talk with each other, no matter how strange
or intimidating they might seem.  Intentionally or not, the Welcome
Area replicates that dynamic: If you're willing to get past your
preconceptions and talk to Residents, you'll be shown Second Life as it
really is.  If you don't interact with the existing community, all
you'll see are apparently empty buildings and bare landscapes-- the
surface of the metaverse, the desert of the unreal.
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #8 of 101: Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Wed 5 Mar 08 13:32
    
I think one thing that might surprise someone who has never been in a
virtual world before is how immersive the experience is, how much you
in your real world respond to the virtual world as if it were happening
in the flesh. I know that I, for example, because I am very nervous of
heights, have a terrible time in any virtual world when I walk on
small ledges or climb up high, flinching as if I really were standing
over a canyon or the top of a building. It's extraordinary if you think
about it.

You mention this in your introduction, and say it's even been studied
scientifically and found to be true.
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #9 of 101: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Wed 5 Mar 08 16:20
    
Yeah, I referenced the studies mentioned in this Economist article. 
Though the scientists were using VR goggles, what's really interesting
is they were creating an image that exactly replicates what people see
when they use SL and most other MMOs-- looking over your avatar's
shoulder:

http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9682520

Dr Ehrsson and Dr Blanke wondered if they could design experiments
that would induce complete out-of-body experiences in healthy
volunteers. The answer, in both cases, was that they could.

Dr Ehrsson did it by making his volunteers look at themselves from
behind. He sat them in a chair and asked them to wear virtual-reality
goggles, which work by projecting a picture in front of each eye... The
subjects could thus see their own backs, in stereo, as though they
were sitting behind themselves.

Dr Ehrsson then tested how touch is combined with vision to locate the
self. When he tapped his volunteers on their chests at the same time
as he tapped the air at chest-height below the cameras, they reported
feeling that the core of their identity inhabited the camera's
position. They were, in other words, out of their own bodies, and they
considered their real selves—seen through the goggles—as another
person. 
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #10 of 101: Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 5 Mar 08 17:57
    

I haven't been to Second Life, in fact I've only recently heard about it 
and would really like to know more, so I am avidly reading along.

I wanted to address the issue of feeling what the avatar is experiencing.

I hang out in a virtual world called IMVU, which is essentially a 3D chat 
with avatars and graphics and all kinds of things you can buy, places, to 
go and things to do, although I'm sure it's not nearly as sophisticated as 
Second Life.

One time my avatar was visiting with someone else's avatar in a room with 
chairs in which we each were sitting.  The chair includes a "pose" that 
your avatar takes on, and in this case, it was kind of a dejected pose.  
The avatars were slumped, one arm had an elbow on the arm of the chair, 
and the head rested in the hand of that arm.  It felt kind of depressing 
and definitely boring.

So I suggested we go somewhere else, and my host suddenly moved us to a
world in outer space where we surfed on beams of light.  Immediately I
felt exhilarated, as if I were indeed experiencing the rush of surfing on
a beam of light in outer space, all feelings of dejection and boredom 
suddenly gone.
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #11 of 101: Public persona (jmcarlin) Wed 5 Mar 08 19:48
    

I wonder if you would care to comment on my experience:

A few months ago I wandered into second life just for grins. When I got to
the Welcome Island I did not realize where I was and what was going on and
assumed all the people there were old friends having a chat with each
other. I did not want to break into the conversation so I started
exploring other areas.

I found the search function and wandered into computer vendor places since
that's my work. In one place I got caught and had to crash my way out of
second life; some bug I assume. I also explored art galleries and various
structures some were quite good considering the limiting factor of a
computer screen. One annoying thing was that I kept running into barriers
that stopped me. I was and is not clear if that is just people having fun
by keeping out the newbees or from a desire to have an in group with
limited access or both.

I found the interface so slow and clunky that it got in my way. I'd sit
there and wait for the graphics to refresh. Maybe my machine is too
old/slow (it's a few years old Dell), but the performance wound up
annoying me.

After a while, I had not found an interesting discussion group and so
mostly lost interest. On the Well, I can have a rapid fire interaction
with a number of people including the ability to be offline and catch up
on the conversation when I return. Second life is or appears to be very
ephemeral. I have the sense that if I really got into it, I'd find too
often that the reality would be "it was a great party. Too bad you missed
it".
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #12 of 101: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Thu 6 Mar 08 15:03
    
That's a very typical experience.  Think of it this way: imagine
browsing the Web during the mid-90s, with no reference points, no
working guidebook, and more problematic, without asking anyone for
advice on sites to see.  Your experience would have been pretty much
the same, except in 2D. That's pretty much what dropping into Second
Life is like now (though recently adding Google to SL's search function
backend has greatly improved things.)  That's why I recommend going in
with a friend who's a longtime SLer, someone who can introduce you to
his or her groups, show you their favorite sites.  Even then, however,
you do need to make that Burning Man social leap, walk up and talk to
the supermodel with wings or the furry in powered robot armor or
whoever.  Generally they're fairly friendly if you're polite.
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #13 of 101: Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Thu 6 Mar 08 19:09
    
I've stepped into SL now and then, and wandered around, but not
knowing people I never ended up staying very long. Then last year the
folks from the DailyKos web site organized a virtual convention to
coincide with the YearlyKos gathering. They arranged live video of
various sessions and speeches, and had a go-between to relay our
questions back and forth to the live conference in Chicago. 

It was really fun, and very different to be there with people who
shared an interest. We'd sit around chatting (via keyboard) about the
discussions, and because we were in another world we didn't even
interrupt the real-time sessions going on. Then at night we'd go out
ballroom dancing. It definitely makes a huge difference to have some
kind of personal connection there.
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #14 of 101: Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Sat 8 Mar 08 09:07
    
When you think about how odd it can seem to step into an avatar and
walk around a virtual world, it clearly takes a special kind of person
to come up with the idea of creating that world in the first place. 

You describe Philip Rosedale, an original founder of Linden Labs, as
just that kind of visionary. The team he put together struggled with a
technology that was only beginning to be able to model their dreams.
You describe the first creation as being only an ocean, and you say "In
the beginning, all was without form and void."  Do you think there was
a touch of the god-like, almost messianic feeling at Linden Labs as
they began to create a world from scratch?
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #15 of 101: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Sat 8 Mar 08 11:45
    
Definitely with Philip, though not so much with the other top execs--
at the start, for example, VP Robin Harper saw it in line with Sim City
and its many spin-offs, which she used to market, when she ran
advertising for Maxis; Andrew Meadows and the other veteran programmers
are more interested in it as a simulation/3D development platform. I'd
say CTO Cory Ondrejka is in the middle of those two poles, idealistic
about SL's transformative potential, though much more process and
system focused than Philip.  (Notably, Cory just left and/or was pushed
out of Linden Lab a few months ago.) 

Also, far as "god-like", I don't think Philip himself wants to be the
god of Second Life, just that he sees it as a means for human
transcendence-- humans becoming godlike, by creating another world that
mirrors the atomistic one.  You see that at the end of the book, where
he starts telling me what he sees SL becoming in the next couple
decades, real visionary, transhumanist, escape-from-mortality kind of
stuff.  A lot of that I'm not sure I agree with personally, I'm
probably more in Cory's school, but I thought it was important to put
out there, so people get a sense Where This Is All Heading.
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #16 of 101: Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Sat 8 Mar 08 13:31
    
There are a number of things I had no idea about before reading your
story, about the early days of Linden. One was that Second Life in the
beginning was much more game-like, and more focused on sort of
destructive activities, with using grenades to dig the ground, and
having animal predators and so on. I guess that's not surprising since
most of the virtual worlds in existence, even from the days of text
MUDs and so on, were written as games. 

But as you describe the flowering of the creative side, the sandbox
aspect that is what we know of SL these days, there are really some
lovely images - like the staffer who built a giant, evil snowman and
then someone else created a bunch of tiny snowmen to follow him around
and worship him. It's such a perfectly human, whimsical reaction to
what they were making.
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #17 of 101: Rick Moffat (rickmoffat) Sat 8 Mar 08 17:48
    
James, I've got a list of questions from reading your book, but
they're unfortunately on my desk at work. I'll have some things to ask
on Monday, but in the mean time, here's something that stumps me about
SL (and about Entropia Universe, too).

I can't find a way to ask this without sounding mean to both VW's.
I've backspaced over a couple of attempts, but I guess what I'm
wondering is why their worlds seem so technically primitive, and why
they perform so poorly compared with mmorpg game worlds. 

I feel like I've just caught up technically with a machine that makes
SL run at a somewhat-acceptable framerate, and it's a machine that
could also play Crysis. It's not just a knock on SL, Entropia Universe
performs poorly as well.

I'll take a stab at some of the possible reasons, but I'm interested
in hearing your take on it as well, and interested if you think SL is
vulnerable to a competitor that can produce a polished VW sandbox.

Factors that I see contributing to poor performance: First, with users
able to build, the overall level of detail is much greater than an
mmorpg, where the designers have a pretty good idea what the object max
will be in a given area. Second, I'm wondering how extensible the SL
codebase is, and how much they're just band-aiding things as the world
continues to grow. Is there any talk of a SL 2.0? I'd be curious if the
programmers chose paths early on in development that make things
difficult to streamline now. It's not like you can just wipe out parts
of the world to try new things, since users have put so much time and
effort into building things.

I don't know many hardcore gamers who can take extended trips into SL,
so I also wonder about the denizens of SL. Clearly, the technical
drawbacks don't affect them enough to keep them away, so maybe they're
more oriented toward the social experience, chatting, building, things
that don't require high performance. And maybe a lot of SL citizens
aren't people who would enjoy an mmorpg, the structure of levels and
classes and competition. If I'm correct in thinking there's a
difference in what people want in a VW, between a mmorpg and SL or
Entropia, maybe it's similar to the old MUD/MUSH division. Gamers
played MUDS, social people played MUSH's. It's a generalization, but I
suspect that one reason SL has never sucked me in is because I'm
looking for an experience that isn't primarily social. I enjoy other
people in MMO's, but it's not my primary reason for logging in. I
suspect most people who stick around in SL are there for the community
interaction.

Hmm, sorry, there's a lot of thoughts in one post. I'm trying to get a
kid to bed, or I'd break it into a few posts. Feel free to address
things in pieces if it's easier!
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #18 of 101: Public persona (jmcarlin) Sat 8 Mar 08 18:04
    

> I feel like I've just caught up technically with a machine that makes
> SL run at a somewhat-acceptable framerate

I've been unable to find what level of machine I would need to have
decent client side performance. I find stories like this one about
performance but outside of the obvious "buy the fastest machine stuffed
with memory" there's no good advice I can find.

<http://secondlife.reuters.com/stories/2007/12/18/second-life-performance-impro
ves-but-residents-dont-feel-it/>
http://tinyurl.com/2vcaj3
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #19 of 101: Richard Evans (rje) Sun 9 Mar 08 04:20
    
Congrats on the book, James! I keep telling people that visting SL for
the first time is like wandering around a foreign city: there is a lot
to lok at there are people around but no-one is going to run up and
invite you home for tea. 

Someone may invitie you out once you get talking to them, but that is
an altogether different thing. 

Do you think people's expectations of immediate social contact in
envioronments like SL has been shaped by things like myspace and
facebook which not ony transfrom material contacts into virtual ones
but are explcitly designed to make it easy to connect to others?
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #20 of 101: Rick Moffat (rickmoffat) Sun 9 Mar 08 10:38
    
"buy the fastest machine stuffed with memory"

Yep, that's pretty much what I've got, <jmcarlin>. That's the only
thing that made SL run better, and I didn't make one config change to
the client this time. I just have enough CPU, RAM and video card memory
to make things smoother. Areas still take a while to load, but once
they've loaded, things are fairly smooth. I could race go-karts around
a track and the performance was fine. I wasn't crashing into walls
because of lag.

I also experienced the dearth of information regarding performance in
SL. The lack of configuration suggestions, or the lack of any real
difference in performance after applying config ideas from people in
SL, make me think that the average SL user isn't interested in
performance. They're more interested in the social, business, and
building opportunities than how quickly areas load, I'm guessing.
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #21 of 101: Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Sun 9 Mar 08 13:49
    
I wonder if it has to do with the fact that SL has to draw every
specific polygon on the fly, rendering everything in real time. In
games like WoW there are a lot of items that use the same models over
and over so you can cache a lot of that information.
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #22 of 101: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Mon 10 Mar 08 09:30
    
Yeah, everything in SL except your basic avatar is streamed, so
there's gonna be a slight delay (or a longer one, if your broadband
ain't great.)  I think that's probably the biggest leap for people used
to MMOs with all the graphic/audio assets stored on your hard drive. 
Generally if you wait a few seconds for a sim to entirely stream before
moving around, you'll save a lot of frustration.  I run it fine on my
laptop.

"I'm looking for an experience that isn't primarily social"

That's probably a good distinction, yeah-- it's gonna take the upgrade
to MONO and Havok 4 before SL really succeeds as a fully-outfitted
game platform per se.  There's some really interesting mini-MMOs in
Second Life with their own game engines, but they still depend heavily
on social gaming.  Here's a great one called Midian, basically an
interactive novel written on the fly by its 1800 members in chat:

http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2007/12/the-storyteller.html
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #23 of 101: Wagner James Au (wjamesau) Mon 10 Mar 08 10:09
    
"Do you think people's expectations of immediate social contact in
envioronments like SL has been shaped by things like myspace and
facebook which not ony transfrom material contacts into virtual ones
but are explcitly designed to make it easy to connect to others?"

That's a good question, thanks.  I think yeah, especially among the
social gamers who comprise about 40% of the active users (by my rough
estimate)-- the nightclubs, parties, etc., seem very much a virtual
extension of MySpace-style socialization.  They're the folks often
pejoratively called "Blingtards" by SLers who are more into content
creation/innovation.  (Sort of like that MySpace versus Facebook
socioeconomic rift danah boyd has talked about.)
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #24 of 101: Rick Moffat (rickmoffat) Mon 10 Mar 08 10:55
    
Could you define your "social gamer" for me? 

I'm trying to wrap my head around the differences between someone who
logs into SL a couple times a week versus someone who logs into Eve
Online or WoW, or more popular lightweight social/gaming spaces like
Habbo Hotel.

The only comparison that's working for me is the MUD/MUSH comparison,
and I feel that's a decade old and not really accurate.
  
inkwell.vue.322 : W. James Au, 'The Making of Second Life'
permalink #25 of 101: What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Mon 10 Mar 08 12:51
    
I don't have a specific question at the moment, James, but more of a talking
point, and maybe you have thoughts in this vein, too.

One of the things I value in your book is the in-world history. So much of
what happens online is ephemeral, but it still can have profound
consequences later for choices people make and for how they view new
experiences or environments. So the fact that you're documenting (more or
less) landmark events in SL stands to be important for understanding these
spaces more generally in the future.

Not very many people have done this sort of thing, it seems to me. (I can
think of Julian Dibbell right off, and it seems to me there's somebody else
who is just plain not coming to mind, and doubtless some I don't know.)

So, there's a bit of history of Point MOOt that can be tracked down online,
but nothing of MediaMOO, really. Morningstar and Farmer wrote some big
articles about Habitat, but there's no real history of it. A few people have
written about the Well, but there's no in-world history of CompuServ or AOL
forums or Usenet News. And that seems a shame.
  

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