Understandably, long-term residents that invest time, energy, money & hopes into the Second Life platform don’t like it when the media associate Second Life with negativity or fringe interests that might misrepresent how they see the virtual world. Our umbrage escalates to outrage, when this negativity – and the misconceptions that breed it – are seemingly perpetuated (and some might say “regurgitated”) by Second Life residents themselves – who ‘should know better’.
If you’re concerned about Second Life’s reputation, my aim in writing this post is to assuage your anxieties. I’ll do this by showing that the world at large does not share the view that many Second Life residents assume is held by outsiders. Furthermore, I’ll offer some reasons why we think it does have this perception.
Perceived negative associations dampen word of mouth
Why does this matter? Because I believe that one of the things that dampens the growth of Second Life (and there are several – mainly to do with user acquisition and new user engagement), is the lack of word of mouth.
According to Forbes Magazine, Word of mouth is the most powerful form of social media: “According to Nielsen, 92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising.” No other form of marketing comes close.
At the end of the day, Second Life is a social networking service. An avatar-represented, three-dimensional, pseudonymous, user-created, incredibly unique social networking service, but a social network service nonetheless. The primary driver of growth for social networking services is word of mouth, not advertising. Ask yourself, did you join Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Google+ or Reddit because you saw an advertisement? Unlikely. You joined it because someone told you about it. I remember the early days when I gave Facebook access to my email address book to help them market to my friends. Would you ever do that with Second Life? Again, unlikely. Why not? Because many of us worry about what others might think.
Let’s talk about sex
Lightning-rod issues of misrepresentation typically revolve around a misconception that Second Life is either closely associated with adult content, populated by perverted losers, or is a failure. In fact, there is scant evidence to suggest that most outsiders closely associate Second Life with any of these things.
For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on the whether outsiders associate Second Life with adult content, or not.
Over the past couple of months we’ve seen a debate arise (in the blogs at least) with regards to the media represents Second Life. On one side, some argued that a journalist that didn’t cover the totality of Second Life when reporting on it was misrepresenting it. On the other side argued some that we should not help perpetuate the negative stereotype that Second Life is all about the sexual activities of some of its members.
This debate then took a tangent into either proving or disproving the degree to which sex is practiced in Second Life or not, the consequences of which are predictable: One camp says sex is everywhere, the other will argue that it’s nowhere. More moderate commentators accept that adult content is available in Second Life, while sharing evidence to suggest that it is a sideline activity, despite it being practiced by many. When that line of argument fails, these people then admit sex happens, but recommend that we should not talk about it.
When the opposing sides of this debate are unable to convince the other of the error in their positions with logic or fact, some turn to ad hominem attacks in an attempt to discredit the opposing side’s position. Others wag their fingers saying “I told you so” when further news arises that puts Second Life in a negative light. Others fret that Second Life has a bad reputation because the media associate it with adult content, and some even blame that association for why Second Life might not be as successful it could be. The recent Twitch ban has been used as an example for this.
Those of us with concerns about the bigger picture fret that Second Life is miscategorised as a den of perversion and weird sex. We might even cite this as a possible reason for being “in the SL closet”, and not sharing our experiences with regards to Second Life with our friends.
I can appreciate both sides of the story. Very few people want to be boxed in categories that do not align with their values, attitudes and lifestyles, and will vocally call foul when they are associated with what they do not believe or practice. The last thing many people want to do is look creepy and weird in front of their friends. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s fair to censor ourselves when talking about what is essentially a human universal – having sex – simply because it engaged in on a virtual platform. This drives the issue underground, as if it were to be kept a dirty secret. Needless to say, I don’t at all agree with this position.
These lines of argument miss the point on several counts
First, it doesn’t matter whether people practice sex in Second Life or not (although there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that people do). While we’re debating whether Adult regions are synonymous with sexual activity, we’re debating technicalities. What really matters when it comes to the media and how Second Life is publicly perceived is not how Second Life residents perceive Second Life, but rather how non-Second Life residents (outsiders, which include the media) perceive Second Life.
Second, I have reasonable doubt that Second Life outsiders closely associate Second Life with adult content as much as many of us fear they do. The truth is, there is no evidence to suggest that the public at large associates Second Life with adult content beyond hearsay and isolated personal experience. At least, I can’t find it, and I would welcome anyone to show me a brand perception, consumer awareness study or any piece of research that shows that it is. If I see it, then I might believe it. In the meantime, I will doubt it.
What do we think the media think of Second Life?
Yet, many journalists, bloggers and commentators assume that this link between Second Life and adult content exists. On a whim, I asked Plurkers what words they associated with Second Life. This hardly scientific approach to free association resulted in the following responses:
- creativity (x2)
- sink (as in timesink)
Notice that not one of the words Second Life residents gave associated Second Life with adult content. Then, I asked them what words they thought the media associated with Second Life, and they said:
- sex (x7)
- perverted (x2)
- dying (x2)
I might be interpreting liberally, but to my eyes, 70% of the free-associated words residents gave relate to adult content – and all the words given might be considered as ‘negative’ – a stark contrast to how residents themselves said they perceive Second Life.
But, where is the evidence?
Jo Yardley, for example, whose opinions are based on her “personal interaction with friends, family and strangers on the internet and on what I read in articles and stories written by journalists” asserts that people think Second Life is “a strange place where perverts hang out and do weird things” among other things.
Even the author of the much celebrated Atlas Obscura article that was the impetus for the most recent kerfuffle said: “Thanks in part to a growing reputation as a haven for trolls looking to assault open regions with Dadaist perversity like flying penises, or as a playground for cybersexual weirdness…SL fell from the cultural consciousness, with the height of its popularity peaking around the mid-2000s.”
Again, I ask: Where is the evidence?
In an undedited recorded conversation between Draxtor Despres, Jo Yardley and Hamlet Au, Mr Despres questioned whether the media is responsible for creating the perception that Second Life is about sex [0:08:40].
Mr Au argued that social media has spread that perception citing virtual birthing and trolling videos on YouTube.
Mr Au claims [0:09:30]: “The perception (that Second Life is associated with sex) exists, and is being created outside the traditional media channels through a certain extent, really because nobody really covers Second Life that much anymore in the mainstream media.”
[0:14:20] Mr Despres again asks: “Is it useful, is it helpful, to consistently point out the prevalence of sex and devious things in Second Life in every other article or is it titivation that the mainstream media does to get clicks?”
Later in the interview [0:18:08], Mr Despres worries that Second Life residents that might have been offended by Mr Au’s argument: “I think of these people as extremely shy, and some of them are ashamed that they are in Second Life… because of the negative press.”
Mr Depres says that do so is “perpetuating a meme that is counterproductive… if we have a media platform, if we have an audience, we have a responsibility… to change the narrative but they choose not to do that”.
Mr Au: Sex is a large part of the experience for a large part of the user base”
Mr Depres: “I know you’re citing graphs and stuff but to me this is very anecdotal, I worked on a documentary about Stroker Serpentine, and I was at all these sims but beyond that I never went back there because it doesn’t follow my interests. I don’t have those types of experiences, and nobody that I talked to has.” (my emphasis)
At this point, I have to ask – is any of this really an issue?
I’d answer no, and that it is only as much of an issue as we choose to make it.
I asked Peter Gray, Linden Lab’s Global Communications Director, whether he thought the media associates Second Life with adult content. He said:
As some background, a significant part of my full-time job since 2006 has been speaking to the media about Second Life and monitoring press coverage related to it. I can’t think of any other individual who has spoken to more journalists about SL, nor closely evaluated as many pieces of press coverage about it.
Today, when we speak to journalists about Second Life (and when they write about it), the topic of adult content and activity inworld comes up rarely. When it does, it’s generally in the context of the enormous variety of things people are creating and doing inworld – alongside music, art, education, fashion, entrepreneurship, gaming, and of course much more – and a discussion around the creative freedom Second Life supports, rather than as some singularly defining aspect of the platform.
There are of course those who do have some impression that connects SL with adult content (for example, the Atlas Obscura writer mentioned what he “half-expected” to find inworld), usually informed by some old stories. Similarly, some remember graphics and performance from circa 2007. However, far more commonly we encounter people who are either entirely unfamiliar with SL or assume it went away years ago. Those people tend to be very impressed by the sustained success of the platform and the range of interesting things people are creating and doing inworld, like the stories highlighted in The Drax Files video series.
Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Lab, echoed Pete’s statement in his SL12B interview when asked if he is annoyed by all the bad press Second Life gets:
[0:08:15] Well, it’s not that much that annoys me … I’ve only had the opportunity to hear negativity for about a year … but I hear very little of it. whomever I talk to, it’s mostly … surprise that it’s still around, or more neutral. It’s very rarely that I’ll run into people that start off with the negative. So that’s a very small percentage of the population. Usually the negative people tend to be quite loud, but it’s not something I stress about.
I guess my biggest annoyance is people intolerance for various types of content. and when you look at the content in the real world, and people’s tolerance for that content in the real world. Then suddenly, when it’s in a virtual space, then it’s, “Oh my God!” Then there’s like a different level of acceptance for all kinds of content for some reason.
And that annoys me. So whatever the subject matter is, I can always draw a parallel to how it’s always “so much worse”, or it has just as much interesting stuff going on in the real world as in Second Life, whether it’s art, whether it’s sex, whether it’s whatever it is, all of this stuff is all around us in the real world, so why would it not be completely reasonable and acceptable to also have it in a virtual world. That’s maybe the most annoying part; when people don’t get that.
Their experience makes sense to me. But you might say: Well, of course they’d say that, and I’d not blame you for being cynical.
Being in the internet marketing business, I’m often charged with reviewing a brand’s reputation online, before putting together a search strategy that leverages positive brand associations, while leaving negative ones aside. If a client tells me their brand is associated with something (whether it is positive or negative), I don’t take their word for it, I check it out.
There are many ways to search a brand’s online reputation, and some companies have made specific products that help brands evaluate and manage their reputations online. The first port of call, however, to even get a hint if there is a reputation problem, is the abundance of free tools available to everyone – most of them provided by Google.
Google, the world’s largest internet search engine is on “a mission to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” With data on over a trillion search queries per year, have confidence that if Google thinks your brand relates to certain keywords, they’ll reflect that in your search results.
On June 9th, I searched 9 Google properties to see if the words “Second Life” was associated with “sex” (who is going to search for “adult content”, right?) I found very little association. So little, in fact, that if Linden Lab was my client and showed anywhere near the same concern many Second Life bloggers and journalists do, I’d tell them not to worry about this particular association at all.
For the unfamiliar, this video explains how Google works – you don’t need to see it to understand my post, but it might help you see how Google works to serve up the most relevant documents on the web to match your search query.
1. Google Web Search
Using an incognito browser, I pulled up the first 10 Google search engine results for the exact keyword phrase “Second Life”. A lot of screenshots follow, so please click them if you want to inspect them further.
It’s important to note, that when doing a search query, on average 71.33% of searches result in a page one Google organic click. Page two and three get 5.59% of the clicks, and it only gets smaller from there. Being on page 2 and beyond is all but irrelevant. This is what I found I searched for “Second Life”:
If Google associated Second Life with “sex”, one of the top 10 Google search engine results might relate to sex. None do.
This holds true for other brand associations. For example, FedEx is associated with “shipping”, and the word shipping appears 7 times in the first page of results for FedEx. Apple is associated with the “phone”, and you get 7 instances of that word in Apple’s first Search Engine Result Page on Google (SERP).
2. Google Videos
1/10 of the videos (“Second Life: PERVERTS PARADISE (Trolling)” on Google’s Videos SERP might be considered related to sex (but does not show any sexual acts).
YouTube search results are very similar:
4. Google News
I had to narrow the search a bit here by including the term “virtual world’ in my search query, because the phrase “second life” is used in many contexts that are not related to the brand. Many bloggers, journalists, and commentators that talk about Second Life consider the media rife with stories about sex in Second Life. Google’s fastest changing SERP (at least on Jun 9th, 2015) displayed none.
5. Google Images
The first page of Google Images shows a lot of outdated representations of Second Life. However, only 1 of the 26 images in my screenshot show anything approximating a sex act. 2 images do show male genitalia, which isn’t exactly limited to adults.
6. Google Books
The Google Books SERP is the last place I’d expect to find sexual themes or images, and as expected, the 1st SERP shows no listings related to sex.
7. Google Keyword Tool
Among other things, Google’s Keyword Tool helps advertisers see search volumes for terms associated with their branded products. Google shows that the average monthly searches (globally) for “second life” is 550,000. The average monthly searches for “second life sex” is 6,600 – just over 1%.
What keywords does Google think are relevant to the keyword phrase “second life”?
Again, sex, nor any adult oriented term appears in the top 10.
8. Google Autocomplete
You’ve all seen it. Autocomplete predictions are automatically generated by an algorithm without any human involvement. The algorithm is based on a number of objective factors, including how often others have searched for a word.
The algorithm is designed to reflect the range of info on the web. So just like the web, the search terms you see might seem strange or surprising.
It’s hard to show this on a blog post, but a site called Ubersuggest shows the same data, only for every letter following the search term. If you try entering “second life” like I did, and have a look at the suggestions, you won’t find the word “sex” anywhere. I didn’t do an exhaustive search for synonyms or words that might relate to sex, but a quick scan reveals a tiny minority (e.g. I did see the words “escort”, “open collar”, “rlv”, “yiff”, among the 379 suggestions).
9. Google Trends
Google Trends is a public web facility of Google Inc., based on GoogleSearch, that shows how often a particular search-term is entered relative to the total search-volume across various regions of the world, and in various languages.
Here is the trend line for “second life”
One of the interesting things the Google Trends does is overlay the news stories that were saw a lot of traffic at various inflection points along the trend line. In Google Trends, you can hover over them and you can see what they are. Of the nine biggest stories related to Second Life, 2/9 related to adult activities: one Forbes story about adult content filtering (and that page comes up 404 – no longer available) and an earlier story that appears in CNN about a British couple that divorced over one man’s affair in Second Life. While seen widely, they were not the most popular stories, and hardly recent (2009).
The trend line for “second life sex” follows a familiar pattern.
They look similar, but one is much bigger than the other. Below are the two trend lines overlayed. See that red line under the blue line? The red line is “second life sex”. It’s miniscule.
Now, let’s put this into context of the greater world. Here, in yellow, is the trend line for “sex”. The blue is “second life” and the red is “second life sex”. Yes, even while interest in sex in general increases on the internet, it does not do so when related to Second Life.
It’s clear, Google does not associate Second Life with sex. But what about the other way around. Does Google serve up results related to Second Life when people are searching for virtual sex (searched 74,000 times a month)?
No, it doesn’t. I could show you the screenshots, but I think I’ve sufficiently made the point. You’re of course free to look up these terms yourself (e.g. virtual sex, online sex, sex chat, , and you’ll see that Second Life isn’t anywhere the top of the lists or saturating the image results. If you check, make sure you use an incognito browser (private mode) that does not allow your past search history to affect your results.
But what about all the bad news in the press about Second Life?
Just because the Google results don’t reflect that negative associations, surely we can find negative stories everywhere? Well, I looked, and again, found no real evidence for the wide-sweeping prejudice towards Second Life that Second Life residents associate with the media.
This table below shows every news story that Google News serves as a result for “Second Life’ “virtual world” (up to June 9th when I compiled it). I’ve read them, identified the context that Second Life was mentioned, and found only two (coloured in red) that associate Second Life with adult content.
Some say “seek and you shall find”, so in my attempt to disprove my doubts, I did a search for “Second Life” and “sex” together. I looked and looked, and found three citations from 2015 in the second tab labelled – Second Life Sex Stories 2015.
In the 3 articles I found that mentioned sex; one of them discussing an upcoming movie called ‘Second Life’ that involves online sex – which some could argue might not help. The other article is all about sex and Second Life. But that’s it. I’m sure I missed one or two (even after looking for them), but in light of the underwhelming evidence, this list isn’t very persuasive.
So why do we worry that outsiders have a negative opinion about Second Life?
I’m sorry to say it, but psychological research would suggest that it’s all in our heads. Psychologists might give three main reasons for why this illusory correlation exists:
- The confirmation bias
- We remember bad news more than we remember good news
- We have a tendency to worry about bad news more, and make it bigger than it is
We more easily notice and interpret information that agrees with our preconceptions
Confirmation bias, also called myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses. People show this bias when they gather or remember information selectively (e.g. instances when they noticed Second Life as associated with adult content), and interpret it in a biased way (i.e. people think Second Life and adult content are related).
The more emotionally charged the issue, the stronger the effect. The confirmation bias is closely linked with illusory correlation ((when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations). The idea that Second Life is closely associated with adult content is an illusory correlation.
We remember what we think is bad, and forget what we think is good
We tend to remember negative events better than positive events. Research shows that whether an event is pleasurable or aversive seems to be a critical determinant of the accuracy with which the event is remembered, with negative events being remembered in greater detail than positive ones.
For example, you might strongly remember the strange look somebody gave you when you let it slip that you used a virtual world like Second Life. I remember one such instance, when I was on a Skype conversation with my brother and my parents. The subject of my involvement in Second Life came up, and my brother said “isn’t that were people go and have illicit sexual encounters with others online?” As you can imagine, I was, naturally, a little uncomfortable. One must immediately question however, why did my brother have that unaided association? One can never know, but one thing is for sure, I remembered his reaction vividly.
We have a tendency to worry about bad news more than good
In 1997, researchers conducted a study looking at the psychological effects of viewing negative news items. They constructed three different 14 minute news bulletins. One was made up entirely of negative news items, the second was made up of entirely positive news items, and the third was emotionally neutral. They showed these news bulletins to three different groups of people and then rated their anxiety afterwards.
What do you think happened?
You might have guessed it: Those who watched the negative news bulletin all reported being significantly more anxious and sadder after watching the news bulletin than those people who watched either the positive or neutral news bulletin. Moreover, they found that those who had watched the negative news bulletin spent more time thinking and talking about their worry and were more likely to catastrophise their worry than people in the other two groups.
Catastrophising, by the way, is when you think about a worry so persistently that you begin to make it seem much worse than it was at the outset and much worse that it is in reality – in other words – this is what we do when we make mountains out of molehills.
With this post, I’ve attempted to challenge the prevailing notion that Second Life is associated with adult content – with the limitations of the tools I have. I’ve also tried to assert some reasons as to why people might consider these associations to be more prevalent than they are.
The missing link for me, however, is a proper study of what outsiders that have never used Second Life associate with the platform. Similar to the experience of those who talk about Second Life with outsiders more than I do (i.e. Peter Gray), I would suggest that most people either do not know it exists, are surprised that it’s still around, and those that are aware of it, are unlikely to freely associate sexual or adult themes with the platform.
Personally, I’d love the opportunity to test this more broadly, so we can finally put this illusory correlation to bed, where it rightly belongs. Then, perhaps, we might as a whole consider speaking more openly with our friends and family about Second Life. Just imagine what this platform would become with the aid of our word of mouth, as opposed its users’ reticence to speak about it.