METANOMICS: HOLIDAY BOOK ROUNDUP
DECEMBER 8, 2008
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Good afternoon. I’m Ben Duranske sitting in for
Robert Bloomfield. It is my pleasure to welcome you to the 59th edition of Metanomics, our
Holiday Book Roundup show. Our guests today are Eddy Shah, who’s in-world as
Eddy Inkpen, author of the new novel Second World; Wagner James Au, who’s in-world as
Hamlet Au, author of Notes From The New World: the Making of Second Life; Mark Bell,
who’s in-world as Typewriter Tackleberry, coauthor of Second Life for Dummies, along with
Sarah Robbins; Tom Boellstorff, Tom Bukowski in-world, author of Coming of Age in
Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human; and Julian Dibbell, whose
avatar is also Julian Dibbell, author of My Tiny Life, Play Money and numerous articles for
Wired and other publications.
I’m honored to be guest-hosting Metanomics again. I’m the author of Virtual Law: Navigating
the Legal Landscape of Virtual Worlds, and, until last week, I ran the blog Virtually Blind,
about legal issues in Virtual Worlds and games. I stopped posting there a few days ago to
avoid conflicts of interest with my new position as an attorney with Pillsbury, a global law
firm with a long history of cutting edge technology work. I’ll be working in the firm’s Silicon
Valley office where I’ll be helping establish and build the firm’s new Virtual Worlds and video
Metanomics’ regular host, Robert Bloomfield, will return next Monday. Metanomics is filmed
from the virtual Sage Hall in Second Life, thanks to Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate
School of Management. Thanks also to our outside sponsors Kelly Services, InterSection
Unlimited, Language Lab and Learning Tree International. If you or your firm might be
interested in sponsoring Metanomics for the first quarter of 2009, please let us know as
soon as possible.
It’s been a long time since Metanomics has been able to fit our entire audience into one
region in Second Life so hello to our viewers at our event partners Orange Island, the
Confederation of Democratic Simulators, Meta Partners Conference Area, Rockliffe
University, the New Media Consortium and JenzZa Misfit’s historic Muse Isle. We’re using
InterSection Unlimited’s ChatBridge system to transmit local chat to our website and website
chat into our event partners. This is great technology that brings you in touch with people
around Second Life and on the web, wherever you are. So speak up, and let everyone know
your thoughts. Make sure that you register on the Metanomics website in order to tap into
this great resource.
We’ll be jumping right into our main program today. My first guest is Eddy Shah. Eddy is
probably the closest thing to a genuine Renaissance man who I’ve virtually met. He has a
deep technology background. He essentially brought desktop publishing to the United
Kingdom. He’s produced several prime time television series. He’s written a number of
popular novels. And, if that isn’t enough, he also has a company that builds eco-friendly
homes and that cool British accent that we Americans are so jealous of. He is the author of
the new novel called Second World published by Pan Books in 2008. It is a thriller that is
partially set in a popular Virtual World where users’ senses are directly stimulated. It starts
with the abduction of the President, and it reads a little like a hardboiled detective novel set
in cyberspace. I’m really enjoying it. Eddy, welcome to Metanomics.
EDDY SHAH: Welcome. Thank you.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: When did you first come up with the idea for Second World?
EDDY SHAH: Well, I sort of years ago--my full background also was, I owned 60
newspapers in England when I introduced the desktop publishing, so I got very interested in
the way technology was going. What really got me going was about 13 years ago, instead of
Second Life, there was a thing on the computer called Alpha World. I picked up Alpha
World, and it was a very simple version, naïve version almost, of Second Life. I wrote this
novel at the time because I could see that that’s the way we would go, that eventually, as
life got more difficult up here, I called it “up here” in Real World, that actually we would
manage to escape into our second world or Alpha World. We’d build houses. They had land
to sell. And just really we’re starting to ape what we do in Real World.
I went from that point on to then do Second--I wrote the book, and my publishers turned it
down because they said it was too advanced. So I said fine. I had published a number of
thrillers at that time so I just decided I’d wait because I knew the time would come. Last year
I went to Pan Macmillan again with the book. They liked it, and we went from that point on.
What I see is, everything from the Wii Read and [See/C?], everything’s science fictiony.
There’s always got to do with an alternative lifestyle in an alternative world, the parallel
world. And what I’ve tried to do very much in this book is show that actually the parallel
world is here and now. We haven’t taken it as far as we will take it, and what we do at the
moment is very simple in terms of computer-speak, in that we move around. Although we
can communicate with each other, we still have to send text to each other and things like
that. What I was trying to say was, in about 30, 40 years, when quantum computers and the
rest, of which I’m not an expert, but I’m a writer so I put my imagination to it. When all that
comes into play, we will actually be able to feel and touch the reality of Second Life. That we
will actually have a total different commercial world where we live in this world up here,
which we will find fairly boring, and actually when we go away for the weekend and we do
things like that or we want to go Ferrari World and race a Ferrari or we want to go and stay
in a hotel with our wife and we want to do things beyond where we are now, we will actually
be able to feel what’s actually happening in another World. So we will live our parallel life
through Second World. And all the senses that we have up here will apply down there. The
book really tries to bring together saying that government control will have come in by then
on Second Life. That we will be having a commercial control over it. And nations will split up
the cyberspace for themselves. And, from that point on, there will be laws, different types of
laws which will be cyberspace laws. And we will actually be able to live our parallel world
without, we think, harming anybody. The key thing is will we actually harm people.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: That intrigues me. Let me read a brief passage from the
beginning of the book that pertains directly what you were just talking about. You describe
current Virtual Worlds. You actually even mention Alpha World and Second Life directly, in
the book. But, in this book, these Worlds don’t gain widespread acceptance in their current
form. You write, this is from the opening of the book, “For most, it was just a giggle on the
net. Virtual reality changed all that. The ability for people to switch on their computers,
connect up their sensalinks, sit back in their chairs and just glide into a virtual reality parallel
World in the web. The sensalinks caress their sensory nerves: touch, feel, sight, sound,
hunger. Every sensation that ran through people’s bodies. A web meal was as enjoyable as
the real thing, often tasted better, except it left the users still hungry when they returned to
Real World. Every sensation, from sex to sadism to sentiment, was now catered for in the
I want to ask you a little bit about this progression. Does the possibility of this being the way
that we interact in 30 or 40 years scare you, or do you think it would be good for society if
this technology were developed?
EDDY SHAH: Did I really write that? It sounded quite good though. Yeah, I think technology
grows. A lot of people say that technology is not a good thing. I think technology is always a
good thing. It’s the people who use the technology that are good or bad. And this whole
thing, I can see this happening because, if you go back to where we were, let’s take flying,
the start of flying which was just the beginning of the last century. And when the Wright
Brothers went up and flew, I mean it was a few hundred yards, and that was then followed
by a, you know, few playboys learned how to fly. And then they had Lindbergh and people
who used to enjoy the danger in the flying. No different what we’re doing now over here.
But, within about 40 years, we had Concorde. So I’m just saying to you that we will grow.
Once people go down a specific road, the technology will grow at an alarming rate. There’s
a guy in Japan, who’s paralyzed from the neck down, and he sits there, he has a headset he
punts on, and he can live a normal life in a parallel World. He can do the things that he can’t
do with his body. I say that with--my own wife is partially disabled, so I understand how
important that sort of thing is. She can’t walk because she had cervical cancer many years
ago, and it affected her spine. But the beauty of it now is, if we could get to that stage, she’d
be actually able to do things in our parallel world, within a few years from now, which she
could never ever dream of doing anymore.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Eddy, the physical layout of the world that you create in this book
intrigues me. It’s called, at least this aspect of it, the brick, and, yeah, like Neal Stevenson’s
Metaverse, is laid out in a very long thin line, with side streets and the like, presumably due
to the configuration of the servers. But it’s essentially one long road that naturally forces
central meeting points. Second Life, of course, is a giant grid, and it’s fairly easy to find
yourself completely alone here. Why did you use the road model?
EDDY SHAH: It’s simple to write about. I called it the brick, after Yellow Brick Road. It’s
known as the brick. It is easy to divide and subdivide for governments when they start to
control it, for the big games people when they start to run it. It’s an easy way of explaining to
people how it works. One of my things you got to remember about my book, it was aimed
very much not at people in Second Life now, many who look at it and say, “Well, yeah,
we’ve seen all that. We’ve heard all that before,” but it was actually written to the majority of
people. I’m a great believer in mass communication. It’s written for the majority of people
who don’t actually understand what Second Life and that side of parallel world
communication is, so I did it in thriller form so they could follow a good story, enjoy the story,
but at the same time understand that this is all very possible, and it’s happening now.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Do you see Second World ever being made into a movie?
EDDY SHAH: If there’s any people out there--for the moment, we’ve only published in
England and India and places like that. I believe it’s coming out in America at some stage,
or you can order it on Amazon. But I think it’s the sort of thing which could be a movie. At
some stage, somebody’s got to move up from Second World and say it’s not just a question
of furries, all the sort of weird and wonderful characters we have in it, where imagination
takes over, and I think it’s got to become something which is real. And there will be a point
at which the parallel World will run an equal line in our lives as Real World. I think a movie’s
going to pick that up. Some people have compared it to The Matrix
Can I just say the difference between The Matrix and my book is, The Matrix you had a
nasty enemy who plugged everybody in, right, and made them into the characters, and then
they were taken into a Virtual World. My people are in control of what they do. So the bad
people, as here in Real World, they do what they want to do, and other people live their
normal lives. I’ve tried to show that technology is something that we control, and it’s not the
big dudes above us who are trying to control us as well.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Thank you, Eddy.
EDDY SHAH: And as just written, the dude furries are real. Yes, they are, at the moment.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Thank you, Eddy. Eddy Shah’s most recent book, again, is
Second World published by Pan Books earlier this year. Thanks for being on Metanomics.
Feel free to join into the conversation if we develop that going forward. Otherwise, again,
thanks for being on the show.
EDDY SHAH: Okay, well, just say yeah I’m happy to be here, and I’m enjoying listening to
the others who come at it from a much more technical point of view.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Oh, we have a very diverse panel. I’m actually really excited so
many different viewpoints. Wagner James Au is my next guest. He’s Hamlet Au in Second
Life. He probably needs no introduction to this audience. He writes and edits the popular
website New World Notes and has been involved in Second Life essentially from the
beginning. His most recent book is Notes From the New World: The Making of Second Life
published by Collins in 2008. Welcome, Hamlet.
WAGNER JAMES AU: Howdy, Benjamin, how are you doing?
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Great. Probably the most significant event in Second Life over the
last few months, at least for many people, is the price increase on Open Space Sims. This
struck me as particularly relevant when reading your book because you describe a tax revolt
there that happened back in 2003. Can you describe the revolt for all of us who weren’t here
then? And then discuss whether you think something like that would succeed today.
You might have a microphone muted.
WAGNER JAMES AU: Are you hearing me now?
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: I am.
WAGNER JAMES AU: Okay. So this is July of 2003 or so, and I was still a contractor for
Linden Lab and so occasionally coming into the company and watching what they’re doing
from behind the scenes, which is a lot of what the book’s about. It’s kind of parallel Worlds,
like we were talking about. So you have a parallel user-created World and people trying to
build a new society and a new economy and, at the same time, the company trying to figure
out how to make it work. And this happened before they had any of the pricing policies that
we’re familiar with, and what they did is, they had a monthly subscription fee, and they
would tax you. They would tax your Linden dollars based on how much stuff you created. Of
course, people who built a lot of stuff got more taxed, and that really impacted the people
who were building really large ambitious community-oriented projects.
One of the biggest groups hit by that was called Americana because they were recreating
kind of an American style theme park, like Fenway Park and the Washington Monument,
things like that. They were getting really taxed, and finally they said, “Well, forget this. We’re
going to have an American style tax revolt. We’re going to cover the World in giant tea
crates,” and started shooting muskets off. It just kind devolved or evolved into sort of a revolt
that took over the whole World.
So I try to track it in the book, from the company’s point of view and the residents’ point of
view. So it was sort of this big turning point, and that’s what led kind of indirectly but
definitely was a very strong force for the company changing their policies, where they said,
“Well, no, we’re not going to tax you. We’re going to charge you for land, and we’re also
going to let you retain the IP rights on it.”
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Do you think something like that could succeed today?
WAGNER JAMES AU: You talked about the Open Space kind of uprising, and when I wrote
about it and other people have written about it, it really does remind you of the tax revolt
because it’s just this very sharp pervasive thing. But, not only that, it’s just that I think it has
similar parallels in that the people who are most angry feel like they’re contributing to the
world of Second Life and basically benefiting the company by creating really great content.
Because all of the Open Space stuff is really beautiful, and then they’re getting penalized for
it by this kind of unexpected price hike.
To answer your question, it has worked at least to the extent where the company has sort of
had to back-peddle and rephrase what they are going to do. It’s still kind of an open
question whether they’ve changed their policies enough to settle people down and also to
settle the economy down. If you look at the World right now, it’s literally shrinking. Their land
is disappearing as people just get really either so pissed off or they can’t afford to pay for
their void Sims anymore. They just sell them off, give them up. It’s definitely having an
impact, and it’s really fascinating. Why I continue writing about Second Life is that it can’t
only be just a for-profit company. They also are managing a World, and they have to figure
out what is going to happen in the economy on any kind of policy decision they make.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Let me ask you this: Did you actually work in the Linden Lab
offices, in the early days? Were you onsite?
WAGNER JAMES AU: [NO AUDIBLE RESPONSE]
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: I think he may be muted again.
WAGNER JAMES AU: Okay. I would come in on occasion at the Linden Lab office, but
mainly would work at home.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: What do you think the future is of the Second Life Compatible
Open Source Worlds?
WAGNER JAMES AU: [NO AUDIBLE RESPONSE]
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: And, again, I think you’re muted.
WAGNER JAMES AU: How about now?
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Got you.
WAGNER JAMES AU: Weird. So I think we’re going to see a lot of forking happen with the
different OpenSim spinoffs and the whole idea of interoperability that’s the goal of Linden
Lab and IBM and some of these other companies involved in Second Life. They’re trying to
make it interoperable with all these other OpenSim spinoffs. I don’t know if that’s going to be
a surmountable problem. I mean what will happen maybe is, we’ll have sort of a minimal
interoperability where you can move your avatars back and forth, but maybe not content,
because that’s going to be a giant controversy. So it’s going to be very interesting the next
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Taking off on Eddy’s road model, do you think that Second Life
would be more popular or more fun if it were organized with four central meeting areas
rather than a dispersed grid?
WAGNER JAMES AU: [NO AUDIBLE RESPONSE]
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: And I think you’re muted again.
WAGNER JAMES AU: Are you hearing me now?
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: I am.
WAGNER JAMES AU: Okay. I think having a single road sort of metaphor would help to
some degree, but I think the larger question is, and just to add a note of skepticism, I’m not
sure how pervasive an immersive World like Second Life is going to be.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Can you explain a little bit?
WAGNER JAMES AU: I read about this at the end of the book where I was speculating
there’s many tracks Second Life can go. It can just keep on growing, and it’ll get larger than
World of Warcraft, and then more and more companies will come in, and it’ll become more
and more central to the internet experience. But we really haven’t seen that. Actually, when I
finished the book last year, it was really we saw the growth plateau happen, and I’m not
totally convinced it’s simply because the user interface sucks and because the first hour
experience sucks. I mean that’s definitely true, but you still have 300,000 people or so a
month coming in to Second Life and trying it out, and 90 percent of them leave. I think, at a
fundamental level, the immersive Virtual World experience has already hit kind of a barrier.
Improving the user experience is going to improve it somewhat, but, to me, the bigger
question is, is there actually a large audience for this. I mean if you look at the most popular
Virtual Worlds, they’re either games like World of Warcraft, or they’re 2D like Habbo Hotel or
Club Penguin or things like that. So I think we’re going to see that happen as a big
conversation of where Second Life goes, and it could be that Second Life will only start
growing if they do have a web component, which is more like a 2-1/2D, and you can point
and click and move your avatar around.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Right. Do you think the popularity of the 2D Worlds and the
games--I mean games, obviously, are sort of their own thing in terms of how they increase
their popularity. But particularly the 2D social Worlds, do you think the popularity of those is
partially due simply to the fact that most people’s computers can run them?
WAGNER JAMES AU: Yeah, it’s definitely that. Most of these Worlds are inhabited by kids,
teenagers, and they don’t have much money to spend, and their parents don’t necessarily
want them installing a giant program like World of Warcraft. So that’s definitely part of it. But,
again, the big question is: Well, where are all these kids going when they become 18, 19,
and they can afford to log into Second Life, and they’re not? So that’s the question I have,
and really I haven’t figured it out yet, and that’s kind of where I head towards saying I think
the Virtual World experience that’s immersive, that’s 3D, is going to hit a roadblock at least
for the next few years. A growth block let’s say.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Thank you, Hamlet. Hamlet Au, Wagner James Au’s most recent
book again is Notes From the New World: The Making of Second Life published by Collins
earlier this year. Thanks for being on Metanomics.
My next guest is Mark Bell. Mark started in the Ph.D. program at Indiana University in the
fall of 2007, after finishing his Masters degree in digital storytelling at Ball State University.
Previous to that, Mark had spent 15 years in the software development industry. He went to
Indiana to study social networks in Virtual Worlds, with Ted Castranova, at the Synthetic
Worlds Initiative. Mark plans on doing quantitative research into the mechanics and
connections inside these virtual spaces. Mark is one of the co-authors of Second Life for
Dummies, along with Sarah Robbins. Welcome to Metanomics, Mark.
MARK BELL: Thank you very much.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Let’s start with your work at Indiana. You’re interested in
quantitative research into the mechanics and connections inside Virtual Worlds. What
exactly is that? What are you doing?
MARK BELL: Essentially, at the very base level of what I’m looking at is, there’s an idea
that we have, which is interpersonal trust. I trust you, you trust me. That relationship which
exists, of course, outside of the Virtual World, I’m interested in when media is involved in
that equation, how is media affecting that equation. That goes from any sort of media in
terms of audio, video, video quality, things like that, down to the most advanced form of
mediation in that sort of situation right now, to me, which is the avatar. So for instance, very
simple things we’re looking at is there’s been lots of studies done in the psychology
departments about how people look and how trustworthy is that person. Well, does that
cross over into the Virtual World or do we have different metrics of trustworthiness in the
Virtual World? So that’s the kind of things that I’m interested in.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Are you setting up surveys, talking to residents? Is it anecdotal?
I’m not sure exactly what sort of research it is that you’re doing. I’m curious.
MARK BELL: Right now I’m actually doing, as most grad students do, work for other
people, namely Ted Castranova.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Well, at least you have good company there in the department.
MARK BELL: As I get done my coursework and the work for Ted, I will be doing both
surveys and, hopefully, experiments in Virtual Worlds related around these topics.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Your book Second Life for Dummies is actually really useful. I
have a copy, and I find myself looking things up in it with some regularity. It is essentially the
user manual that doesn’t come with this software. That said, it’s a dummy’s book, and
you’re working on a Ph.D. so I have to ask: How did you end up writing this?
MARK BELL: A number of circumstances. Certainly being married to Sarah Intelligirl
Robbins doesn’t hurt the situation. But Sarah actually was involved with the publishing
industry before she went back to school also. So she had friends in the industry, friends in
the industry contacted her saying, “We know you’re involved in this Second Life, thing.
Would you like to write a dummy’s book for us?” And so because of that, we decided to
write the book. The people who read it know they’re not dummies. The people who we wrote
it for know they’re not dummies, and, more importantly to me, the people who read it and
buy it know that I don’t think they’re dummies. So I didn’t think it would really be a big
problem. Academia is a business of getting your name out and marketing yourself, and it’s
assisted in that as well.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Second
Life yourself, in the course of putting Second Life for Dummies together?
MARK BELL: Still the thing that absolutely amazes me every time I come in-world is,
there’s always something new, and there’s always something creative that takes my breath
away just by randomly walking around on the maps. If I’m going to fit into one of Bartle’s
game types, I’m going to be an explorer. I like to just click on the mainland sometimes and
just walk around for hours, not even fly, just give a look at what’s going on. There’s just
always new things and always the way people use it is always interesting to me, and it’s
always different than I expect it, and I love those situations.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Was it difficult to write about a World that changes so quickly?
MARK BELL: Absolutely. The book came out just before voice was released to the general
public, and so basically almost a month after the book was released, it was basically out of
date in terms of things like voice, which certainly changed Second Life. It’s a running
situation now. Fifteen years in the software business, I worked part of that as a technical
developer, technical writer, and I know that that constantly happens. You have to draw a line
in the sand and just get out what you can get out. The Web 2.0 part of my brain says we
should make a Wiki and that the book should be a Wiki, and then it could be updated as
things change, but that’s not the way mass market publishing works.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Yeah. I feel that way about virtual law also, but it’s very difficult to
sell a Wiki, which makes publishers a little gun-shy. You have a new book coming out also
shortly. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
MARK BELL: Yes. My new book is coming out in January and is called Build a Website for
Free. It is a hands-on instructional book of how to use Open Source and free software to
build websites for free. The whole idea behind this is, I know most of the people here
probably know or use a lot of Open Source software, but my mom, the barber down the
street, people like that, Open Source is still a scary word for them, or they may even not
know it at all. I wanted to open their eyes to the world of software that’s available to work
specifically on web applications and websites that allows them to do that for free. The
barrier of cost to buy Dream Weaver and other products in the past just isn’t there anymore.
I think that, if more people are using those softwares, they also improve because they report
bugs and all sorts of things. So that’s the new book, and that comes out in January.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Do you think that the dominance of Open Source software on the
two dimensional web and the now existence and fairly rapid growth of Open Source
software targeting the 3D internet will lead to an integration of html and the 3D internet
faster than is likely to when a company is in charge?
MARK BELL: I really don’t know. It’s so tough to predict where the industry’s going to go,
and that huge block of millennials, the 12- to 18-year-olds, who are using Virtual Worlds in
many ways that we’re not even aware of, is going to become a major force soon. And a lot
of those people are interested in the best of all prices for things, which is: for free. I’m
thinking that, in a weird combination, something like World of Warcraft in the future might be
Open Sourced to allow people to integrate game worlds and things like that, as a possibility
in the future, to see a lot of development.
I talk about this when I do talks in academia, and I get chuckles from the back of the room.
But, Hello Kitty Online, which is coming out later this year, integrates Web 2.0, 3D of Virtual
Worlds in an environment where you can build and share things, as well as game-play with
Quests and Guilds and all sorts of things. And we think that is going to have a huge impact
on this particular sector. Hello Kitty is in every store in North America. It’s a known brand,
and it has a huge worldwide audience. So maybe something like that might be the thing that
brings everything together.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Thank you. Mark Bell’s most recent book, again, is Second Life
for Dummies published by Wiley earlier this year. He co-authored that book with his wife,
Sarah Robbins. His newest book Build a Website for Free will be out soon. Thanks again for
being on the show, Mark.
MARK BELL: Thank you.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: My next guest is Tom Boellstorff. Tom is an associate professor
of anthropology at the University of California at Irvine, the author of a number of books and
currently the editor-in-chief of the leading journal in this field American Anthropologist.
Tom’s most recent book is Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the
Virtually Human. Princeton Press published the book in 2008. The book was recently
reviewed very positively in the September edition of Nature. Tom, welcome to Metanomics.
TOM BOELLSTORFF: Hello. Thanks so much for having me.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Your book begins with this paragraph, “Imagine yourself suddenly
set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach, close to a native village,
while the launch or dinghy which has brought you sails away out of sight. You have nothing
to do but to start at once your ethnographic work. Imagine further that you are a beginner
without previous experience, with nothing to guide you and no one to help you. This exactly
describes my first initiation in the fieldwork in Second Life.” Can you explain the significance
of that paragraph and what it meant to your research?
TOM BOELLSTORFF: Well, as some folks may know, that’s basically taken word for word
from a very famous anthropology book Argonauts of the Pacific published in 1922, by
Bronislaw Malinowski. One of the basic ideas behind my book was, as someone who’s done
research in Indonesia and other parts of the physical world, what would happen if an
anthropologist goes into a Virtual World and tries using the same methods that we use in
the physical world, to see if we can learn about online culture. And that was the sort of
experiment that I began back in 2004.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Did you find that you were able to? Can you use the same
methods in Second Life that you were able to use in your previous writing on Indonesia?
TOM BOELLSTORFF: You really can. I was very surprised by how little that I had to
change, and I actually have to jump on something that you said earlier, Ben, when you
talked about something being anecdotal. There’s a real misunderstanding that qualitative
research is anecdotal and thus less generalizable than other kinds of research. But surveys
are also actually a kind of anecdote that you get from that kind of research. All methods
have certain kinds of utility. They tell us certain kinds of things, and they can’t tell us other
kinds of things. And so I really wanted to see if robust qualitative methods would work online
in a Virtual World, and they absolutely do. I’ve had so much fun doing the research, and it
worked very well.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: What was your very first day in Second Life, as an anthropologist,
TOM BOELLSTORFF: Oh, god. Well, I started out back in 2004, if I can think back that
long. I first owned land in Kane, K A N E, anyone knows where that Sim is, a shout out to
my friends from way back then. And actually my first week in Second Life, I spent about five
days flying over every square inch of Second Life. There were about 5,000 accounts and
maximum concurrency around 200 then, and I actually still have all of the landmarks in my
inventory from when I did that initial flyover over every square inch of Second Life. You
could never do that now, but that was really interesting just to see everything that was
around to explore. Sort of like what Mark was saying, just to explore the World.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Anthropologists study cultures. In your mind, is Second Life really
a culture, in a way that, say, a popular message board or a blog where readers interact in
the comments is not?
TOM BOELLSTORFF: In a certain sense, yes. Second Life definitely is a culture, and it
also has a lot of subcultures in it. And a culture is a place of human interaction, right, where
cultural norms emerge. I follow Richard Bartle, who is a pioneer in the work on Virtual
Worlds, that actually I believe it was that Mark mentioned earlier. I was just at a conference
with him last week, and one of the most important things that Richard Bartle says--he
created basically the first MUD--is that, if there’s one thing the Virtual Worlds are, they are
places. I think the thing that makes a Virtual World, like Second Life, different from an email,
let’s say, is that it is a place, and that allows new kinds of cultural things to happen inside of
Now you can absolutely also have cultural things that show up on Facebook or email as
well, so it’s a matter of degree. But there is something really interesting going on with Virtual
Worlds. One of the most important things that I’ve tried to do in my work is to talk about how
there’s two kinds of hype that often happen about Virtual Worlds, and both are wrong. One
is that everything is new, and it’s this totally new matrix whatever thing that has no
relationship to the physical world. That’s obviously wrong. The other is that there’s nothing
new. It’s all been done before. It’s all the same as whatever novels or whatever; there’s
nothing new. I think that’s also wrong.
There are some very fascinating new things about Virtual Worlds that aren’t just the same
as the internet more generally or as email or as websites. But not everything is new. And I
think one of the most interesting areas for us to keep pushing on in the next few years is to
try and specify and figure out what really is new and what isn’t actually so new, so
interesting that maybe has a clear historical precedent, and that’s something that’s always
been very interesting to me.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Going back to something I talked about with Hamlet a little bit
ago, how do you see issues of governance and control impacting the Second Life culture?
And I ask you wearing your anthropologist hat because I suspect that you have an
interesting take on this, having done anthropological research in Indonesia.
TOM BOELLSTORFF: Yeah, absolutely. And, yes, now you can create cultures here in
Second Life. I beg my forgiveness to Dusan and other people in the audience who’ve heard
me give talks recently because this is a great question that I’ve been asked recently by
other people as well. The issue I think that Hamlet hit on this very well is that those who
control Virtual Worlds have a kind of power that, let’s say, the Indonesian government,
where I also do research, can’t even dream of having over Indonesia, even when it was a
dictatorship. That the Indonesia government did, at one point, try and ban gambling. But
here in Second Life, if you wanted to, in theory, you could ban all random
number-generating scripts, right? Or you could ban all kinds of things. You have an
incredible amount of power. I think, even going back to the first speaker, these questions of
governance and control are really serious and important and sort of unchartered territory.
What counts is the jurisdiction. This is something obviously, Ben, that you know so much
about as well. These issues of governance and control are really important and interesting,
and I don’t have any magic answer, but I think it’s a great thing that we really stay aware on
these things because it is definitely an area where there’s a pretty big difference with the
physical world. States and governments can have a lot of power in the physical world, but
they don’t own and code the physical world in quite the same way. They can make laws.
They can put up fences. They can do a lot, but there is something different about the power
that the owners of Virtual Worlds have, that is absolutely worth deeper discussion. It’s a very
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: I’ll also ask you one question that I asked Mark, and that’s: In the
course of preparing this, particularly as an anthropologist, what was the most surprising
thing that you discovered or found in Second Life over the couple of years that you spent
TOM BOELLSTORFF: Oh, gosh. Good and hard question. I think what really surprised me
the most was how many things were the same and how many things that Virtual Worlds tell
us about the physical world, about how the physical world is actually already virtual in a
certain way. That we’ve been doing virtual before Virtual Worlds, in certain ways, and that’s
one thing that we can learn from Virtual Worlds. In my original research in Indonesia, that I
still do, I study gay Indonesians. They call themselves gay. And they often wear blue jeans,
and they listen to Madonna, and I go halfway around the world, and these people aren’t
being the sort of natives that they’re supposed to be for an anthropologist. Right? They’re
not living in huts. Like I said, they’re going to discos. They’re calling themselves gay. That,
at first, was a kind of crisis for me as an anthropologist because we’re supposed to look for
difference. I mean that’s what interesting is all that exotic difference. It took me a long time
to realize that, actually, when things appear to be the same, that can be very interesting as
well, and there’s a lot to learn from that.
So people often complain that you go to Second Life, you see so many tract homes, you
see green grass, you see blue skies. It’s not all this crazy different stuff that I came to
realize that that’s actually a legitimate and interesting part of Second Life as well. That
things that are, on first blush, appear the same, but there might be interesting differences as
well. So I think that was something that was really interesting for me to learn.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Tom Boellstorff’s most recent book is Coming of Age in Second
Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human published this year from Princeton
Press. Thank you for being on Metanomics, Tom.
TOM BOELLSTORFF: Thank you so much for doing this.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: My last guest is Julian Dibbell, who is truly one of the pioneer
authors in this space. He wrote what I believe is the first book-length exploration of the
cultures that exist in virtual spaces, about the then text-based World LambdaMOO, that
probably peaked in popularity in the mid to late ’90s before bandwidth could handle much
else. That book was My Tiny Life, and it remains one of my favorites. Julian also wrote Play
Money, about his experiences in the virtual item and currency trade and is currently a
contributing editor at Wired, most recently writing articles on griefers and on the virtual
property company IGE. Welcome to Metanomics, Julian.
JULIAN DIBBELL: Thanks. It’s good to be here.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Let’s start at the beginning, with My Tiny Life. It’s currently
available as a free download and also in printed form via lulu.com. That’s because it is, in
the publishing industry, really, really old. Which makes it even more interesting as far as I’m
concerned. The first story there is one that you graciously gave me permission to reprint
part of in Virtual Law. The story is A Rape in Cyberspace, and it involves somebody who’s
either a griefer, a stalker, a rapist or something else entirely, depending on your perspective.
Can you explain a little bit about that story and why you found that particular story from
LambdaMOO so compelling?
JULIAN DIBBELL: Well, obviously, it’s compelling because it’s got raw meat and drama at
the heart of it: a rape, which, in itself, is a striking event. But then it’s further complicated by
the fact of it being a virtual rape, and what is that. And then in 1993, that’s a really
provocative question to be asking, much more so than now. What really happened? Some
guy came in and wanted to mess with people’s heads that were hanging out in a particularly
cozy part of this Virtual World, and we’re all familiar with this pattern here. And, really, what
was more interesting to me and worth going on about, for 8,000 words, was the fact that this
provoked people to try to organize themselves socially to deal with the fact that they do
have norms as a community and need some way to argue about what those norms will be
and then enforce them, if need be. So that was really what drew me to it.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: You recently wrote a piece that was also fairly lengthy, about
griefers, in Wired Magazine. It was, of course, focused on organized griefers, as opposed to
an individual, as was the case in A Rape in Cyberspace. But I think that there’s a clear
relationship between those two pieces, and I’d be interested in knowing if you do, and, if so,
what you think that is.
JULIAN DIBBELL: Oh, absolutely. I approached that piece as kind of a bookend piece to
the Rape in Cyberspace story. I had written the Rape in Cyberspace story, the story of this
evil clown, Mr. Bungle, who raped people in LambdaMOO, but really it was the story of the
people who organized in response to this. I talked to all of them, and I gave their
perspectives as well as I could. But when I came to Mr. Bungle, it was sort of like, well, what
can you do? This guy is a sociopath, at least with respect to the local norms. There’s no
trying to understand him. As the years went by, and particularly as I had to field questions
about the Rape in Cyberspace piece, over and over gain, from, for instance, overseas
journalists or clueless researchers who said, “Well, tell me about this huge online rape
problem.” What I thought was most interesting at the heart of this story was the sense of
ambiguity of this event was that everybody participating was approaching it on two levels.
One being like this felt like a rape, like a violation. And the other, this is a World made of
words and bytes and images, and nobody actually was physically harmed. So there was a
kind of levity and seriousness at the same time that I thought really drove the dynamics of
the piece. Everyone that wanted to talk about that article subsequently, in much later years,
kept coming back to the seriousness of it and not the levity and not whatever fun Mr. Bungle
had actually had been having. And so I thought it was time, sort of heretically, to do an
article from Mr. Bungle’s perspective or sympathy for the griefer.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: I think that the topic is obviously compelling. It’s probably
quintupled the rate of comment in the backchat here, and there’s obviously huge debate
over what exactly virtual rape is or even if it exists. I had the same thing happen when I
wrote about this on my website. So I’m going to change gears. I don’t want to spend our
entire time talking about that piece. While the progression from a text-based LambdaMOO
to the graphical environment of Second Life seems largely inevitable to me, it’s just driven
by bandwidth and processing power, I’m interested, since you spent so much time in
LambdaMOO, which do you actually find more compelling and why?
JULIAN DIBBELL: Well, personally I found LambdaMOO more compelling because it was
new to me and because I had a project there. I had a writing project there that drew me into
it and engaged me in a lot of ways. Second Life I find is everything that LambdaMOO could
have been, I think. What’s striking is, is that it’s not that different. It’s just bigger. The
graphics sort of extend the possibility for creativity, but they don’t really, as far as I can tell,
substantially change the social issues around creativity and commerce. To some extent,
there are more issues of commerce and property going on here. But those were all implicit
in LambdaMOO. So it’s not that I find Second Life objectively less compelling. It’s just that I
feel like it’s just an extension, in a lot of ways, of what happened in LambdaMOO.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: I know that you’re not generally a predictive writer, but you had to
have been imagining some kind of future for these spaces when you wrote My Tiny Life.
What has surprised you most about the path that they’ve taken?
JULIAN DIBBELL: We talked about this a little bit before, Ben, and you’re right, while I don’t
tend to predict things, I did expect that we would be a lot closer to the kind of Metaverse
thing, the snow crash thing where virtual reality is a sort of universal interface. And, in
retrospect, I think that has to do with something else that I didn’t really get the first time
around, which was the extent to which all of these Worlds really are games. I mean what
has surprised me is, I wouldn’t have predicted that the particularly gamey Worlds, like World
of Warcraft and so on, would be the most popular ones.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: I’m interested in that. You don’t draw a clean distinction between
social Virtual Worlds, for lack of a better term, and games with points and tasks and leveling
and the like. Why not?
JULIAN DIBBELL: Obviously, there are clear and interesting differences to be drawn, but
what I cut against is the tendency, starting with the Linden Labbers and on, to say that this
is not a game at all; the World like Second Life is not a game. And that may be true in the
strict sense of not having levels and points and all that stuff. But, in the sense of, I think,
play, and a certain playfulness, being what primarily draws people to this World and a
certain sense of artificiality and contrivance as a delight, as a pleasure, I think that’s
underestimated in people’s understanding and analysis of social Worlds like Second Life.
And it leads them to predict crazy Worlds in which we’ll all want to do our shopping in
Second Life because it’s so much funner and easier than shopping Amazon, which turns out
not to be the case.
BENJAMIN DURANSKE: Julian Dibbell, thank you for being on the show. Julian is currently
contributing editor of Wired and is the author of My Tiny Life, available via lulu.com, and the
author of Play Money, available everywhere.
Thank you again to all of my guests. We have a couple of minutes left, and I’ve promised
the show’s producer that I would do a Connecting The Dots segment, as Robert does, and
so I’ve tried to keep it short because I wanted to spend as much time as possible talking
with our guests. However, this is Connecting The Dots.
Though I’m currently in the process of returning to the practice of law, I continue to write
about Virtual Worlds, both professionally and on my own. As my guests today will know,
writing about these spaces poses certain challenges that don’t exist or at least aren’t exactly
the same as the challenges that you face writing about the Real World. Since I suspect that
a fair number of writers are watching this show live or will come across this show in podcast
form or otherwise online, I thought it would be fitting to end with the five things that I’ve
learned about writing about Virtual Worlds over the last two years.
The first thing I learned is be there. And this is more targeted at journalists than people who
are working on books because people who are working on books generally are there. But
I’m consistently surprised, when I’m being interviewed, and the reporter asks something like,
“So how exactly do you paint shirts in Second Life?” And I ask, “Have you ever actually
logged on to Second Life? The most interesting stories and the best information comes
firsthand so be there.”
Second, don’t forget that your readers don’t have your perspective. This is particularly hard
for professionals who are exploring these spaces and writing about them from their
standpoint because we tend to think that everyone understands what we’re talking about. I
tried to write virtual law so that it would be accessible and interesting to a wide audience,
which meant keeping the legal jargon to an absolute minimum in explaining the terms I had
to use. The other writers here have all also done an admirable job at this, and I think that’s a
big part of the reason their books got published.
Third, be aware of the local customs. The first month I wrote about legal issues in Virtual
Worlds at Virtually Blind, I thought I’d follow the journalistic standard of always knowing the
real name of my source. I had to abandon that because it was simply impossible to write
most stories without referring to avatars who had no interesting in telling me or anyone else
their real name. My compromise was, always make it clear when a source was identifying
him or herself only as an avatar. And there are other local customs that you have to adjust
to too. The only way to understand them is to get immersed, and that goes back to the first
point: Be there.
Fourth, don’t drink the Kool-Aid or at least know how much Kool-Aid you’ve had. I suspect
that everyone of us up here is guilty of this to some degree. We’re involved in these spaces.
We want them to succeed. Personally, I feel that widespread adoption of 3D spaces is all
but inevitable, but I’m not sure that it would be through Second Life, one of the Open Source
projects or some startup like Meta Place that’s just emerging. You have to be open-minded
to write anything predictive fairly.
Finally, respect your subject. It’s one thing to be objective and critical and another to try to
carve out a niche by being an unabashed cynic. Headlines about sex are cheap and easy,
but they only tell a fraction of the story. While there are a lot of negatives about Virtual
Worlds, they tend to get the most press. There are a lot of negatives about the Real World
too, and they also attract most of the attention. Be aware of this. Finding a balance between
the sometimes dirty details that editors love and the reality of virtual reality is critical.
I want to thank all of my guests again for being part of this production of Metanomics.
Eddy Shah, his novel Second World is available now. Wagner James Au, his book notes
from The New World: The Making of Second Life published this year is also available.
Mark Bell, the co-author of Second Life for Dummies is currently available and has a new
book on making free websites using Open Source technology, coming out shortly.
Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually
Human is now available. And Julian Dibbell’s My Tiny Life is available via lulu.com. He’s
also the author of Play Money, which is widely available, and numerous articles for Wired
and other publications. Thanks for being with us.
Next week, Robert Bloomfield will be back and will be exploring the new immersive
workspaces environment created by Rivers Run Red. In the meantime, if you’ve missed a
Metanomics show or would like to share today’s show with a friend, all of our events are
available on iTunes. This show should be available tomorrow. Either go to iTunes and
search for Metanomics, or go to www.metanomics.net, and follow the podcast link to
subscribe from there. I’m Benjamin Duranske, and this has been Metanomics.
Transcribed by: http://www.hiredhand.com
Second Life Avatar: Transcriptionist Writer