Second Life has become boring!
Let me clarify that statement. I don’t mean that SL bores me, quite the contrary, in fact – even after over a decade inworld, I can still find plenty to keep me occupied, a wealth of places to explore and photograph, and a never-ending supply of activities to keep me busy. However, if I compare the SL I knew when I first signed up, with the SL I experience today, I have to conclude that much of what made virtual living exciting, edgy, weird, wonderful and wacky has either disappeared or been sidelined, to be replaced by a homogenised, bland and, yes – boring, environment.
If you hunt down an ‘old-timer’ in SL and ask them about the good old days, way back when SL was young and new, you’ll invariably see them become digitally misty-eyed, before rambling on for hours about the ‘Frontier Days’, when virtual life was more raw, wilder, wackier and smellier than anything else that had previously hit the internet, a bastion of political-incorrectness, opportunity and diversity.
Now, I’m not saying that it was all good, clean fun, and not without its downside: Whilst there was an element of excitement in never quite knowing what to expect around the next corner, you also had to grow a fairly thick skin and keep your wits about you if you wanted to survive unscathed – it was no place for millennial snowflakes, that’s for sure – and being acosted by vampires wishing to chow down on your neck, random naked people and griefers spewing flying penises around just for the hell of it, wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea.
SL wasn’t nearly so slick and reliable as we’re used to today, either. Yes, I know that most people will complain that SL is hardly cutting-edge in terms of performance, but back in the day, dealing with bugs, glitches and technical hassles was all part of the fun of virtual life. You haven’t experienced SL at its borky best until you’ve unexpectedly ended up with your head up your bum, been rubber-banded across a whole sim, or been forced to ‘Ruth’ yourself, clear cache, replace your eyeballs, scatter salt over your left shoulder and sacrifice your first-born just to become visible. All things that are pretty rare occurrences in today’s SL, but back then were likely to occur many times over the course of a session. Oh, and there were scheduled downtimes too… Just imagine not being able to log into SL on Thursday because the Grid was being updated?
Yet, despite all these obstacles, whimsies and tribulations – and, in many ways, because of them – SL managed to be a fun and engaging place to be. You never quite knew what to expect, and every day was surprising and ‘educational’!
So, what do I think has changed, and what has gone wrong along the way to prompt me to describe SL as boring? Surely I’m not saying that improved stability and performance, and the smoothing-out of some of the rougher edges of SLociety are bad things? No, of course not, but along with those visible changes, there are some cultural, aesthetic and policy changes that have diluted the vitality of SL and stripped it of some of the joy that the unexpected, the uninhibited and the unfettered can produce. What we have today is a more sanitised and standardised, McDonaldised version of SL, and as a consequence, it’s lost some of its va-va-voom!
Let’s consider each of those in turn, starting with sanitation…
Nobody can really argue that some sort of moderation in terms of acceptable behaviours is necessary in a virtual environment as open and inclusive as SL, and whilst everyone is free to pursue their latex reptilian biscuit stuffing fetish and enjoy themselves as they choose to inworld, it is equally important to recognise that others who don’t relish the thought of having biscuits stuffed into their underwear, shouldn’t be confronted by such behaviour if it can be reasonably avoided. Nobody should be concerned about accidentally stumbling across another avatar with their dangly bits hanging out if they’d prefer not to, and similarly, anyone who does enjoy wandering round in their birthday suit shouldn’t have to be concerned they might expose themselves (literally) to someone who is going to take offence and fire off a complaint ticket to the Lab. That’s a good thing, but it does mean that those on the fringes can become marginalised – those who perhaps like to dabble in a bit of naughtiness, from time to time, now find themselves in a position where they can’t just retire to somewhere discrete, but instead have to head out to the wholesale debauchery of Zindra; it’s either famine or feast, with no middle ground, and whilst it does mean that those of fragile sensibilities are insulated from any carnal contact, I think that everyday SL has become a good deal less interesting as a result.
Which brings us to standardisation…
Back in the Frontier Days, people took a very relaxed approach to their appearance and activities. Hanging out at a teleport hub, or an arrivals area, provided an often rude awakening to the wide variety of characters and types that inhabited the virtual world. Certainly, some were unsavory, but all were interesting, sometimes intriguing and often confusing. It was a lot of fun!
Somewhere along the line though, partly because of mesh clothing, and then mesh bodies, and partly because of the Lab focussing less on ‘Your world – Your imagination’ and more on ‘Let’s make everything glossy and cool’, we saw the evolution of the ‘standard’ avatar. We’ve gone from 90% weird, wacky and wonderful, to 90% humanoid, toned body, (made by one of maybe six creators), all displaying the same standard expressions, wearing the same standard clothing, as featured on the latest slew of fashion ‘blogs’, and spending an inordinate amount of time in the standard pursuits of shopping for, and trying-on said clothing, rather than travelling the Grid and marvelling at its wonders.
Once again, this ethos tends to marginalise those who don’t fit the standard model. There was a time you couldn’t go for a walk inworld without stepping in furry poop, being bitten by a vampire, or getting accosted by a noob in a badly-fitting body wanting to do teh sex. These days, you’d be lucky to find anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the norm, without actively seeking them out… Actually, in some locations, you’d be lucky to find anyone at all – they’re all out shopping, or furnishing their standardised Linden homes. So many of the various subcultures have been relegated to their own little corners of the Grid: Furries, littles, roleplayers, nekos, tinies, Goreans… All seeking the company of their own kind, because they just don’t fit into the standard cookie-cutter template that SL culture now deems to be ‘normal’. But, surely SL is nothing to do with being normal, and everything to do with being long-haired, freaky, cyber-monkeys?
Finally, we come to McDonaldisation – maybe not a term you’re familiar with, but basically, it’s the McDonalds’ effect: Fast, standardised pap that looks and tastes the same, is presented and executed in exactly the same way, no matter where you are, and is gradually taking over the world. It’s bland, it’s boring, it’s all-encompassing.
SL is fast becoming McDonaldised. People can log in, slot into their respective template for the day, and pretty much spend hours inworld without thinking, interacting or otherwise having to bother – essentially just plugging into the hive mind and becoming a drone. It’s becoming a lot like Facebook, where you see your ‘friends’ and spend the next few hours scrolling through your feed, barely noticing what’s going on around you, and absorbing next to nothing of what you’re looking at. You move from club to club, knowing exactly what to expect, doing the same dance as everyone else, go shopping to the same stores, buy the same clothes, then log out and wonder what on earth you’ve been doing for the last three hours.
So much inworld now looks and feels like everywhere else, and once again, I believe it’s down to that loss of vision. It’s no longer ‘Your world – Your imagination’, it’s more a case of the imagination of a corporate, privileged few who control the land, the fashion, the trends and the parties, with everybody else tagging-along, caught up in the net and the misguided belief that they’re doing something unique, when actually they’re doing exactly the same as everybody else is doing.
And that’s boring!
Thankfully, not everybody toes the corporate line, myself included – I guess it makes us misfits to some extent, but personally, I always side with the misfits and the underdogs, and give me character, charisma and creativity over bland and boring any day!
This one’s for the freaks
For you’re so beautiful
For all the devotion
Written in your soul
Manic Street Preachers – Underdogs