I’ve been around SL for a while now, and whilst it’s true to say that the virtual world has changed enormously over the years from a technical, performance, and capability perspective, the SL userbase – residents, to me and you – has also changed significantly and that in itself is also, in many ways, inextricably linked to those technical improvements.
When I first joined SL, the world I experienced was extremely adept at democratising creativity. Anyone, and everyone, with any sort of creative leaning had the tools and resources at their fingerstips to design, build and craft whatever they wished. Building, clothing, jewellery and almost anything else you could imagine was within the grasp of whoever fancied turning their hand to content creation – from the day-old noob, through to those more experienced old-timers – and we all used the same inworld creation tools and the same basic building blocks. Some may have had the advantage of a natural aptitude for the task at at hand, some may have had experience, whilst some may just have had an eye for what might work, but essentially, we were all on a level playing field.
Quality wasn’t a huge consideration – creativity was far more important – not that it really mattered anyway, such was the limited technical capability of SL back then, pre-mesh, no materials and few of the the bells and whistles that we take for granted today, the standard of any content was pretty much consistent, and a talented amateur could easily compete with those more experienced as a result.
That type of content creation also lent itself to a particular type of community-based creativity too. Being strictly an inworld process, it encouraged communal working in sandboxes, where like-minded individuals could try out their work and had the opportunity to pick up hints and tips from others, or even, simply spy on them to see what the opposition was up to! Collaborative working wasn’t uncommon, and organised building competitions were a chance to show off your skills in a competetive environment. Groups like Builder’s Brewery flourished, encouraging sharing of knowledge and building a sense of cooperation amongst the creative community.
Then, along came mesh.
The effect of mesh is multi-faceted, and whilst nobody would argue that it hasn’t been responsible for revolutionising the look and feel of SL, it’s also responsible for far-reaching effects that have fundamentally changed the face of SL creativity, and – in my opinion – not always for the better.
No-one would dispute that mesh, combined with effective use of materials, makes far prettier, much more realistic, and often lower-impact creations than the old-fashioned inworld prim method. However, there are number of downsides to this: First, creating with prims is now seen as quaint, uneconomical, and the country redneck hillbilly throwback to the way we used to do things. It’s not fashionable, it’s not cool, and it just doesn’t look as good as mesh, particularly when it comes to clothing. Whilst mesh is a Tesla, prims are considered a Model-T Ford. That means we no longer want or wish to wear system or prim clothing, we want our homes to be low LI, high-fashion statements, and we sneer at anything that even remotely hints at being old school.
At a stroke, mesh – and our attitude towards things made from it – effectively put thousands of content creators out of business, ended an inworld industry, and sent a message to anyone thinking about making content inworld to simply not bother, because it’s just not good enough.
Secondly, that democratisation of creativity I mentioned earlier has gone down the toilet. Making mesh content is hard, time-consuming, labour-intensive and – if you really want to make your mark – can be damn expensive too. So, whereas before, anybody could be a content creator, now it’s only the few that can really aspire to that goal. Content creation, whether it’s buildings, clothing, accessories, vehicles or body parts, has been monopolised by just a very few brands who use their influence to dominate the market and effectively out-compete any talented and aspiring upcoming creators, who only have limited time and resources, through their all-comsuming market share. Many of the big brands aren’t just one person sat behind a laptop screen, but professional businesses, with ranks of skilled 3D designers behind the scenes who have never set foot in SL, churning out content on Maya. It’s like Starbucks moving into town, riding roughshod over the small, independant coffee shops that have been there for years. The small guy just can’t compete, and so you get the faceless corporations dominating the market, dictating trends and making a fortune with their formulaic, all-pervading approach to business.
Which bring us neatly to my third failing of mesh, and one that has changed the very nature of SL and its users. When I joined, the SL strapline was ‘Your world, your imagination’, but they quietly dumped that a few years ago, which is probably for the best because now it could very well be re-phrased, ‘A world you live in, somebody else’s imagination’. The aforementioned monopolistic approach to content creation has killed individualism and uniqueness stone-dead. The top-name content creators dictate taste and fashion, and because there’s hardly anything else to choose from, you’re stuck with it. This is particularly true of clothing, where unless you’re prepared to splash out on a shedload of different bodies, all at eye-watering prices, you’re stuck with a single creator’s idea of what looks good, and if ‘good’ is bare midriffs, plunging necklines and your knickers showing, well that’s just the way it is – good luck finding an alternative.
Whilst it may appear that there’s plenty of choice out there on Marketplace, if you’re looking for something uniquely different, that’s isn’t somebody else’s idea of style, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find anything. Back in the good old days, with hundreds, if not thousands of independant, thriving creators to choose from, there was a wealth of choice, particularly in the more eclectic and diverse designs – sadly today, unless you want to be laughed at and told you need to go shopping for new outfits, spoilt for choice you are not! The same is true for other content too – I can see the same mesh homes, landscaping and structures in thousands of places all over the Grid, and I can imagine a time to come when exploring is pointless, because everywhere you go will look and feel like everywhere else!
So, for my fourth point, what effect has all this had on the average SL resident? Has it made SL a more fulfilling, enjoyable and stimulating place to be? I’d argue that it hasn’t, what it has done is flipped the SL ethos from creativity to consumerism – the Grid now reminds me more of Brave New World than Bladerunner. Lack of choice, peer and retail pressure, combined with a disdain for the old, and the consequent deprecation of the tools that allow us to flourish as individuals, with our own unique take on virtual life, is turning us into a zombie nation.
We’ve all started to look the same, dress the same, act the same and behave the same – it’s as if we’re all linked to some massive, pan-dimensional HUD that dictates our actions and behaviours! And if we dare to be different, or happen to slip outside the acceptable norm, we get challenged, called out and laughed at. It’s indicative of the erosion of that collaborative community ethos I mentioned from back in the day, and there’s an enormous amount of peer pressure to fit in and subscribe to what our virtual society considers normal. I don’t blame mesh entirely for that, but without the need to work together and support one-another, and the recognition that being different and oddball is cool, it’s certainly a contributing factor. SL residents are more interested today in dressing-up and tweaking their look, so that they stay fashionable and fit in, than in disappearing off to a sandbox and building their own fairytale castle… And why should they, when they can buy one ready-made, that looks way better; and all in a couple of clicks?
We’ve started to become more interested in what we can get, than what we can do, and that – to me, at least – is miles apart from the SL I bought into.
So, we come to my final onservation, which is perhaps the most disturbing of all. Linden Lab is taking an approach that will not only perpetuate all of the negative points I’ve made above, but will eventually lead to a virtual world with no soul, and controlled by market forces dictated by those with the greatest material influence, rather than with the aim of creating a fulfilling user experience.
This is most evident from the recent rash of ‘Second Life University’ videos that the Lab has been promoting on the dashboard. These, of course, are not a new idea – way back in the dim mists of time we had Torley telling us the basics of building and how to use Media on a Prim, and so on; but for me, the recent videos have taken a sinister and cynical slant. We’re seeing tutorials teaching us how to wear specific, branded, mesh bodies and heads, and that sets a whole carillon of alarm bells ringing in my head. To begin with, I can’t help wondering if these brands are paying the Lab to promote them, in which case I would expect them to come clean and make that crystal clear. If that’s not the case, then on what basis are the Lab choosing these labels they’re promoting? By request? Popularity? Sales? Guesswork? Randomly? Whichever it is, it’s a flawed approach. By picking on the most popular, for example, they’re once again driving a wedge between the top brands and those less popular, effectively endorsing one over the other. That sort of decision can cripple an upcoming business, devalue the product and de-motivate those behind it, whilst the big concerns getting video promotions are rubbing their hands in glee and counting the cash as it rolls in.
Favoring certain brands also gives the illusion that they are better than the others, influencing the end-users’ perception, and ultimately creating bias. Again, choice is the victim… Who’s going to choose a product not endorsed by the Lab, over one that is?
Perhaps the worst of it though, is that these videos are clear evidence that the Lab has lost its grip on its own product. To me, it’s a plain admission by the Lindens that either they don’t have the ability or can’t be bothered to invest in creating avatars and content that is anything like as good as the major creators are hawking, and that they aren’t even going to try any more. Linden Lab are still living in the realms of trying to sell SL on the basis you can look like a second rate vampire or other fantasy avatar – which would be fine if they were decent quality, but are instead, a little embarrassing. However what people really appear to want right now, are either avatars that look like people, or grossly misshapen people, and that’s the market the current crop of branded creators have latched onto, and now it appears that the Lab is letting them call the shots.
It’s a clear case of the tail wagging the dog, and the only outcome that I can see is SL becoming more boring and homegenous, with its userbase entirely at the beck and call of a few elite creators, who – with no competition or alternatives, and the Lindens’ support – will make enormous profits that we certainly won’t see making their way back inworld to sustain the virtual economy.
Not all improvements are for the best.
My mind is searching for reasons why
A time to live or die
If we had now what we had then
Lost horizons might return again
Michael Schenker Group – Lost Horizons