In this post, I’ll share why I think it’s important to know our history – even if it’s virtual – my impressions of the new Second Life history exhibition at LEA17, my suggestions on improving and enhancing the exhibition, and my hopes for the future of exhibits like these.
Why is Second Life history important?
I’m fascinated by history. I see it in everything, everywhere, and all the time. I’m even interested in the history of Second Life. What? Second Life has a history? Sure it does, and it’s a very interesting history too! But why should we care? Why do we have to remember all those facts years after they happened. It’s not like there’s a test is there? After all, what difference does yesterday’s news make?
In the introduction to his YouTube video series on Crash Course: World History, John Green answers the question that nearly every teacher has heard at least a bazillion times: “Is this gonna be on the test?” In response, he delivers one of the simplest yet most convincing answers that should explain why studying history matters:
Yeah, about the test. The test will measure whether you are an informed, engaged, and productive citizen of the world, and it will take place in schools and bars and hospitals and dorm-rooms and in places of worship. You will be tested on first dates; in job interviews; while watching football; and while scrolling through your Twitter feed.
The test will judge your ability to think about things other than celebrity marriages; whether you’ll be easily persuaded by empty political rhetoric; and whether you’ll be able to place your life and your community in a broader context.
The test will last your entire life, and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that, when taken together, make your life yours. And everything — everything — will be on it. I know, right? So pay attention.
[As an aside, if you even have the slightest inkling that you might want to become more aware of the world, then I urge you to subscribe to CrashCourse and look at their fun and education videos on everything you might have slept through in high school.]
Right! Enough about world history! Let’s get back to Second Life! This past weekend, Sniper Siemens opened a Second Life History exhibition at LEA17 called “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. The exhibition asks you to invest a couple of hours of your time to fully absorb. It is a chronological path through the woods, winding through the sometimes very twisty history of Second Life. This, my friends, is a very special opportunity you shouldn’t miss. In fact, I think this little trip down memory lane might just be the most important LEA installation I’ve had the pleasure to experience.
Will people visit and walk through it? Only time will tell. The numbers look pretty good so far and I hope it continues. But, why should you spend two hours doing this when you could be taking pictures, shopping , dancing or playing Gachas?
If you care about Second Life enough to comment on it in blogs, forums, social media, or even in idle chat with friends and strangers, then you really owe it to everyone within earshot to know your history. Fortunately for you, Siemens has done an admirable job of carving out a path for you. Doing this yourself might have you spending days digging through multiple sources – many of them dubious.
I was so surprised by what I learned there, that I wrote a Second Life History quiz from my notes. I feel this quiz highlights the important and fun elements of the story that spans over 16 years. It can act as a companion to the exhibition and is available to visitors at the end of their journey. It’s not an easy quiz – in fact, only 65% of respondents have passed it so far – but you will find nearly every answer to the questions at the exhibition.
Impressions from the exhibition
I won’t bore you with a step-by-step walk through the exhibition, because like so many things in Second Life, it deserves to be experienced more than simply read about. I will however share some of my impressions as I experienced it.
As I walked through the exhibition, I couldn’t help but think of all the times that I hear people moan and complain about Second Life and Linden Lab. I remembered Strawberry Singh’s recent tongue-in-cheek meme Second Life Problems, which did a good job of helping many of us make a little fun of ourselves for thinking this way.
How lucky we are
If you consider the odds that Second Life exists at all, we should all thank our lucky stars every time we log in, that a shaggy handful of geeks thought it would be super-cool to show investors a live demonstration of a giant snowman surrounded by a small horde of snowman worshippers. And even more lucky that Mitch Kapor (the founder of Lotus) was fascinated by what he saw!
Back in 2002, who could have imagined what this thing could become (except for Philip Rosedale, I guess he might have imagined it), let alone plot an efficient pathway towards realising it? Having been involved in start-ups in the past, I know the unknowns, pitfalls and challenges one faces in just scraping by enough to get to the next day, let alone entertain grand visionary plans. The many challenges you face often compel you to change your mind about important things. I saw, in the early stages of Second Life’s history, many examples of this kind of decision-making (e.g, the naming, the business models, the survival tactics). To many, their chops and changes might have seemed erratic, but let’s give them some credit for successfully blazing a trail over slippery stones that might as well have shifted with every step of the journey. It’s not an easy road the trailblazer takes, and we should be thankful they did.
How little we know
I thought of about all the times I’ve heard people throw out opinions that are often without benefit of the facts. This not only applies to Second Life, but to so much else we create half-baked opinions about. I find that if there is one thing that makes it hard for me to relate to others, it’s when we don’t agree on fundamental knowns. When I am engaged in a conversation with someone, and they say something to which I ask myself “where do I even start?”; that’s a sign that our shared knowledge is so different; and the hill to climb towards a mutual understanding is so steep, that continuing the conversation becomes fruitless. Author Patrick Moynihan summed this up perfectly in the oft-quoted phrase: ”
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Even when we do know the facts, our interpretation of them may differ. This is great. Differing perspectives on the same facts are the stuff of which great conversations are made.
Similarly, understanding what’s been tried before – what’s failed, what’s succeeded – is critical to suggesting ideas for improvement. This is not to say that whatever someone has tried before will have the same results if they try it again. The environment is forever shifting, and what might have been yesterday’s lead balloon might be tomorrow’s big idea.
The upshot is: If we’re to speak intelligently about the present; if we hope to project our ideas into the future; we need to be mindful of our past. This applies to the virtual world in every way as much as it applies to the real world.
How far we’ve come
I thought about the cascade of innovations that we’ve seen over the last decade. There are so many things that we take for granted today. Today we might fret about a little neck seam between our mesh body and our system heads, but who among would enjoy walking around avatars made of prims? Imagine a time when all we had to build were cubes, which was the case before Linden Lab introduced differently shaped prims. I can’t even imagine what we might have done without the build interface tools. There was a time when we didn’t have a currency system? How did the world go ’round then?
Can you even imagine a time without audio streaming? Think of all the DJs and performers that we would have never heard in the clubs that today are ubiquitously spread across the Second Life grid. I remember the day I upgraded my viewer so that I could see windlight. I was standing on the top of a lighthouse somewhere, looking at the sky above me, and the water below, thinking “Wow, this is amazing!”
Imagine a world without open-source viewer code; for all of us that don’t use the Second Life viewer – it’s almost unthinkable. Firestorm is today the viewer of choice for most Second Life residents, and I’ve heard many threaten they’d leave Second Life if forced to use the official viewer (which I don’t believe for a second).
There was a time when – annoying as it sometimes sounds – we didn’t even have the option to communicate in voice. These days, the Vivox voice service now supports over 1 billion minutes of voice communications per month. There was a time when the Marketplace – slow and clunky as it sometimes feels – wasn’t run by Linden Lab. Since these changes, we’ve been given easier and more ways to communicate – from the basic viewer for new residents, to social web profiles, and the community platform with its blogs, answers, forums, and the knowledge base. Every day we benefit from the under-the-hood improvements rendered by Project Shining – like SSB, interest lists, and object caching.
Today can share our world on social media using Facebook Share. We can resuscitate our old hardware, or even take Second Life on the road using SL Go. Soon, we’ll be able to enjoy the many immersive benefits of Experience Keys. And today, we can even imagine an entirely new virtual world experience, as alluded to by Ebbe Altberg’s announcement of the next generation virtual world that Linden Lab is developing.
It’s all pretty amazing if you think about it. Second Life has come a massively long way since 2002, and we’d do well to be somewhat more patient with the old girl. Like a jenny that just won’t quit, she’s tread many, many miles whilst supporting us all on her back.
Suggestions for improvement
The exhibition has weaknesses (what doesn’t?) Most of these weaknesses are related to the labelling and scope of the exhibition. Critiquing someone’s selfless contributions should always be done with sensitivity to the limits and challenges of time and access to expertise in virtual worlds. Regardless, I believe it’s important to make constructive suggestions, and anyone serious about their work would appreciate criticism made in this way. I’ll be the first to note the weaknesses in my own work, and am always open to hear how I can improve it. With that said, I hope these criticisms are taken as constructive, with the hope that future exhibitors attempting equally challenging projects might benefit from their consideration.
Labelling of museum exhibits is usually done with placards or other types of signage. In regards to the labelling used in this exhibition, I’ll make the following suggestions:
- Information Architecture. Differentiate (with colour or shape) between the placards that introduce the key events of the year, and the placards that describe the context of these events in more depth. I can think of many examples of times when I didn’t know whether I was reading the content for “year at a glance” or the content for the “event in detail”, which led to me to wonder if I was losing the plot.
- Comprehensiveness. Include more placards that describe the images or installations on display. Many placards refer to installations or images (e.g. Viewer 2 was released in 2010), but do not explain their relevance, or the context of this event in the greater theme (that when Viewer 2 was introduced many responded negatively defending the virtues of Viewer 1; despite responding just as negatively to the introduction of Viewer 1).
- References. Paraphrase the long paragraph excerpts, quoting only things that are worth quoting, and including sources for these quotes. There were some instances where the writing style changed a lot, and where I’d noticed I had read certain perspectives elsewhere, word for word.
- Order. Keep events chronological if that is the way you are organising information – there were some instances where I was reading the placards, and would find references to events that happened before the event I was reading about.
- Mutual exclusivity. Avoid joining paragraphs that were unrelated to each other on the same placard
- Typography and design. Lay out the text on the placards more narrowly to enhance readability and so that it doesn’t run into the margins. The description of the events of the teen grid, for instance, exceeded the space of the placard, making the text very small to read.
- Language. Get a native English speaker to write the opening placards in English, if you are going to choose English as the language for the exhibition.
- Pitch. Avoid jargon, and do not assume that every resident has a level of knowledge similar to a veteran resident. On one occasion, I visited the exhibition with a friend that has very limited experience in Second Life, and found that she was at a loss for the context for many of the more technical aspects the exhibition described.
In terms of scope, Siemens does an admirable job of including the most important events in Second Life history (which is itself a big challenge). However, I feel she excluded key events, aspects and trends from the narrative that I believe deserve a place. These include:
- The arts in Second Life. I know this is itself an LEA sim, but I think many people may not be aware of when and why the LEA came into being, and the impact it has had on the arts in Second Life. Similarly, no artists or their works were mentioned at all.
- Social history. This is a difficult aspect, as there is little written on the subject in comparison to the more technical aspects, but it’s important to note that history doesn’t just happen from the outside in (what Linden Lab does to Second Life) but also from the inside out (how residents affect Second Life)
- Entrepreneurship, and specifically, fashion. I know that Second Life fashion is greatly influenced by fashion in the real world. Still, I’d have loved to see examples of the quality of our clothes and avatar shapes over the years. It’s such an important aspect of Second Life, I believe it needs to be an important topic in our history.
- The introduction of Private islands. Many residents now make their homes and businesses on private islands and there is little on how this option came into being or how it influenced social patterns.
- A current map of Second Life, or even yearly maps at the start of every year, to show the changes that have occurred in its 11 year lifespan
- The contributions of Linden Lab CEOs other than Philip Rosedale and Ebbe Altberg. Rod Humble, as an example, was omitted completely, yet he did have a measurable and recent impact on Second Life.
- How the media has viewed Second Life. While we would rather avoid it, Second Life’s reality has been shaped by the media in many ways.
- Population figures and trends. It would have been good to have something about population, beyond the date of the millionth resident registering in Second Life. Further, I would have liked to have seen where the population comes from (i.e. countries).
- Third-Party Viewers. No attention is paid to how most of us use Second Life, through third-party viewers like Firestorm and Phoenix.
- Charitable giving within Second Life. There is a proud history of charitable giving that would be useful for new residents to aware of (e.g. Relay for Life)
- Subcultures in Second Life. In some ways, human avatars are like white people in the West. To ignore subcultures in Second Life is tantamount to ignoring the role of multiple ethnicities in real life western countries.
- Money. The financial aspects of Second Life are surprising and deserve inclusion. Further, it would be good to have an exhibit about how the current business model actually works, and the impact of real life economics in our virtual lives.
- Lifestyles. Very little mention of what residents actually did in the eleven years they have spent here (e.g. social activities, dancing, sex, role-play, education, creating, building, performance, machinima)
- Real Life. I would have liked to have seen more real life illustrations of what I was seeing, where applicable. For example, what does the real Linden Lab look like today? What are the faces behind these famous Lindens we’ve all heard about? What does a data centre look like? How does it all work?
Lastly, the exhibition gave a large amount of attention and space to Burning Life. Too much, in my opinion. Whilst I have nothing against Burning Life, I don’t see how this event deserves as much attention and space as it gets, or why it would be presented separately to the Second Life historical narrative. At first glance, a new resident might imagine that Burning Life was another virtual world comparable with Second Life. Better to have spent the energy of presenting the history of Burning Life separately, and spend more time on expanding the scope of the main exhibition – sometimes less is more.
Despite everything, I applaud Siemens for her efforts, and would happily offer my help with all the areas I’ve suggested above, with an aim to improving this exhibition (or future iterations) in the future.
What happens when it’s over?
“The Greatest Story Ever Told” will end on May 31st, 2015. Then, Siemens will either need to take it all back into her inventory where it will sit, or find a new home to rez it and continuously improve it. It’s common and understandable for most LEA exhibits to come and go. In this case however, I think we need a place where we can continue to learn about Second Life History, as it happens. We need a place where newbies can go to learn about what’s come before they’ve arrived, so that they appreciate the context in which they live.
Should the curator wish it, I hope someone comes forward with the vision (and the region) to place this exhibition in a more permanent setting. I’d hate for it to evaporate into the ether, like so many of the memories it seeks to keep.