Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Oh crap -- I've joined Second Life for yet a third time.

Okay, the saga so far...

In 2006 I got asked to be the COO for a new startup here in Chicago, and with the first $5,000 I made I was going to open an early version of my arts center, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, under a different plan than the plan I use now; and this all eventually became known as 'The Great Fucking Startup Disaster of 2006,' because it turned out the owner was a charlatan who had never planned to pay any of his employees, and in fact the company went out of business just a few weeks after I found this out and quit, not getting a dime of the $5,000 in pay I had already accrued at that point. And that meant I had to shut down the plans to open CCLaP as well, and I was so dejected by all this that I decided to put CCLaP's plans on hold for an entire year, just so I could recharge my batteries and be able to get excited about it again.

So instead I decided to throw all my attention into this new "virtual world" software I had just gotten persuaded to try, Second Life, which I was quickly becoming obsessed with; and I ended up opening a blog just for SL called "In The Grid," which specialized in long-form journalism about all the cutting-edge things that were being done there at the time in the arts and sexuality, luckily right in that fabled year when the virtual world went from a cult favorite to a legitimate mainstream phenomenon. (You remember, when news magazines were all doing articles about people making a million real dollars from virtual real estate, and when companies all decided they needed "virtual flagship stores" there, and musicians all decided to do a virtual concert there.) And it was a fascinating year, and my blog grew to what Google eventually ranked as the #7 most popular publication on the planet about Second Life; but the evermore complex software that Linden Labs was always updating was playing havoc on my little Mac Mini and my puny Virgin Mobile internet connection, right around the time that a year had finally elapsed and it was time for me to get serious about CCLaP again; so I ended up quitting Second Life in summer 2007, and concentrating full-time just on the center, which I've been doing ever since.

But, in 2011 I ended up getting a new laptop for the first time in a long time, and one of the reasons was so I could get involved with Second Life again, this time while leeching off fast internet connections at public places like cafes, very specifically so I could get serious about the prefabrication housing company I had been playing around with in 2006, Fabb, to see whether I could actually start making a little decent money through the virtual world. See, as I've talked about many times before, the key to SL is that it's a blank slate; there's no prescribed reason from the game's puppetmasters as to "why you're there," and the act of creating things is kept an open activity that all customers can do with the right set of tools and training, and a "micro-economy" is maintained there that lets people around the planet deposit and withdraw real cash and spend it as virtual currency; so one of the biggest things that's developed there over the years is a quite healthy market for things like clothes, customized skin or tattoos, cars, boats, spaceships, all the way up mansions. And while something that's not very challenging also doesn't net you much money there -- a new style of t-shirt, for example, which a designer can kick out in 20 minutes, can't be sold for much more than five cents -- something that does require a lot of labor and effort, like a mansion with scripted doors that open and close, windows that can be tinted by touching them, an animated fireplace, an animated waterfall, etc etc, actually can be sold for a pretty decent chunk of cash all at once, say between five and twenty bucks depending on the situation. And like ebooks, production costs are literally zero once you get the first one finished; so the key to making decent money there is the same key to a small publisher making decent money at Amazon, by having a "long tail" of as many digital items as possible, all just sitting there for no warehousing costs and making you each a little money per month on their own. This is not a crazy plan, despite what some of you undoubtedly think; with more than a million daily players there, there are literally thousands of creators who are making anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars there a month, and that kind of scratch could really come in handy in my life.

And in fact I got so serious about it that I went ahead and upgraded to a premium membership, and bought some land both as a place to build and a place to eventually create a retail store, which altogether was costing me $25 a month in membership fees and "property tax." But after just a few months, it became ridiculously clear that I was just not going to have the spare time to sit and put all the insane amount of moving parts together that needs to go into the kind of prefab home that can actually sell for ten American dollars; or at least, I was never going to find that time as long as I was restricted to the daytime and early evening hours that were needed in order to log in at cafes. When I had been in SL in 2006, frankly, it was usually right before bed that I was doing most of my virtual living, a nice 90 minutes for example between 10:30 and midnight and then rolling right over and going to sleep; my daytime and early evening hours are now packed full with CCLaP work, and so with great reluctance I ended up eventually acknowledging this in 2012 and shutting down my SL account for a second time.

But! Just last week I got a random email from Second Life, inviting me to come back and try things out again; and now of course I'm in my new apartment, which has free high-speed WiFi all throughout the building that works fantastically, and now with me being the owner of a huge and insanely fast 30-inch iMac that was designed specifically to render video graphics well, one of the several "life upgrades" I was able to give myself with the settlement money I got for the bad bicycle accident I was in in 2009 (along with the new apartment, the small loan needed to start CCLaP's paper publishing program, working vacations to New York and Los Angeles, and a few other really nice things). So sure, why not at least boot things up again and see how it goes? And wow, what a difference a screaming fast machine and screaming fast WiFi makes at a place like Second Life; now I'm experiencing the virtual world exactly like it's supposed to be experienced, plus I can go back to squeezing in random hours late at night right before bed. So yeah, I think I'm going to try to start visiting the Grid on a regular basis for the third time again, and see now if this time I can't finally get serious about getting some actual fucking houses finished and making a little fucking money!

There will be differences this time -- I'm staying at the free basic level this time, for example, so that I don't have to feel guilty about going long periods without logging in. And frankly, the one and only difference between basic and premium members is whether or not you're allowed to own land; so as long as you don't mind being homeless (which is not really that bad in a virtual world -- your suitcase is invisible and infinitely large, you can't be mugged, and you can instantly teleport to anywhere on the planet you want to be), otherwise there's not really any difference to your Second Life experience as a free basic member, a holdover from Linden's futurist-optimist early days when tech-hippie and legitimate genius Philip Rosedale was running things. Of course, this doesn't give me a private space in which to work; but I can always go to one of the numerous "public sandboxes" that dot the world, where I can build and then keep a copy of anything I want, as long as I don't mind other people milling around me; and this also doesn't give me a place for a retail store within the virtual world itself, but that's okay because Second Life also runs its own Amazon on the web, and so it's incredibly easy to just sell things there catalog-style and have them "delivered" to customers once they log back into the Grid itself. So, you know, no more fucking around this third time -- no more spending even a cent of money until I'm actually starting to make some money, which I plan on doing first by completing a series of simpler, smaller "starter homes" for just four or five dollars, stuff I can actually complete and kick out and start to have some literal actual money flowing in right away. I have the skills to build these structures (it's not much more than simplified in-game CAD/CAM software, an app type I've been using literally since I was in junior high and logging into McDonnell Douglas's mainframes in the early '80s), and I now have maybe half the individual components needed to bring a sophisticated home together (unless you're a guru, you need to buy from others things like Photoshopped textures to apply to your walls and floors, little Javascripts that automate animations like doors opening and water falling, etc), so now it's mostly a matter of actually sitting down and completing a few houses, and learning for the first time how to use the "derezzer" software that lets these homes be opened by the customer. (Since these homes consist of a lot of small parts, you put them all together in basically a compressor file, like you would put a bunch of MP3s into a ZIP file; then the customer gets that looking like a wrapped present, and they click the box while on their property to have the house "pop out" and build itself in front of their eyes.)  

Anyway, so here's how I looked when I logged in the other night for the first time in almost two years; just the same as I did before, the pixie-girl avatar I play most of the time while there (I'm technically an "omnisexual" in Second Life, which means I exist in both male and female forms there, and can morph between one and the other at a moment's notice; although they're both biologically dedicated to their particular gender, both of them are bisexual in orientation, and they tend to do things like wear the same collective set of androgynous clothing.) Back in 2006, I confess that I was a bit of a clothes horse, in a way that I've never been in the real world (there's just something about all those fancy outfits that only cost a quarter or whatever); but as you see in these photos, for both my second and third incarnations, for now I'm sticking to just one basic outfit until I start making some money from what I'm doing there, and only then will I be able to justify becoming a fashion maven again. (I mean, sure, I ended up paying something like ten bucks for the one full outfit you see here, including the specialized hair, skin and tattoos; you've got to at least look decent while you're in the Grid, or otherwise you literally look like a newbie who no one else takes seriously.) And interestingly enough, after logging in again for the first time in two years, I ended up getting ported straight into the land parcel that I used to own in 2011 as a premium member, although now of course I don't, although luckily for me no one else does either. That should be interesting, to see what the owner/abandoned ratio now is for land within the Grid here in 2014; that turned out to be a huge bubble in 2006 when I was first visiting, a "virtual scarcity" because of too many new players that a few smart entrepreneurs literally made millions from, but a market whose bottom immediately fell out once the amount of new land (new servers) caught up with the post-trendy slowdown of customer demand.

Once I got everything reviewed and my avatar's details a little tweaked out the other night, I didn't really have much time left before bedtime, but I did decide to at least go visit a nightclub for a short visit while I was there, which is the paradigm off which almost all social interaction takes place within Second Life; or not just danceclubs specifically, but virtual versions of any kind of public gathering place, whether that's a coffeehouse, sex club, live-music venue, corporate conference center or whathaveyou, which you can basically think of as really fancy chat rooms. (Players gather at these spaces mostly to talk back and forth to each other, either through text or via live microphones on all their home computers, sometimes with a live DJ or musician somewhere in the real world who is literally doing a live real-time set of music at the time, which everyone there is hearing in real time; and so this makes it freaky when that person might make a real-time reference on their mic to something an avatar in the virtual club might be doing at that moment, and adds to the sometimes overwhelming sense of "immersion" that one is always trying to go for when hanging out in a virtual world [that is, the sense that you are literally there in that cartoon room, not sitting in your pajamas in front of your computer screen].)

So in this case, for example, I went to a privately owned commercial complex simply called "Metropolis City," which as you can see here is the kind of visually gorgeous experience I'm now FINALLY experiencing in Second Life because of my screaming fast computer and internet connection, the kind of overwhelming sense of real space and flabbergasting graphics that are always touted as the best thing about being there. Although this is kind of a cheat, to be truthful -- the vast majority of buildings you're seeing in these photos are just big empty boxes that you can't actually go inside of, with in reality only a handful of smaller buildings on ground level that actually have stuff on their insides that you can go and explore. And this nicely shows off what is far and away the most common means of conducting a business within the Grid when an entrepreneur gets serious about making decent money; namely, for a thousand-dollar setup fee and $200 a month you can rent out an entire server from Linden, which gives you a "private island" that is 64,000 square meters in virtual size, but because of bandwidth restrictions only lets you build a certain amount of "prims" upon it (a "prim" being any basic shape that exists in Second Life, which can only be 10 meters cubed at its absolute largest -- so a 10-meter-high wall is one prim, and an ashtray is one prim, and a tabletop is one prim, and a car tire is one prim, etc etc etc). I forget what the specific number is, but it's certainly not enough to create detailed interior hallways and rooms in all these giant skyscrapers you're seeing here; so what a business owner will typically do with a private island is create a series of more detailed commercial buildings in the center of the space (a danceclub for hanging out, a store for selling stuff, maybe a casino, etc), then will decorate the rest of the island with a series of basic but pretty-looking things that are there just for show, just for ambiance. (I mean, obviously I can walk through this entire structure, as you're seeing in the photos; it's just that this is more like a movie set than a real place. And of course this ratio between decoration and useable space changes from one island to the next, depending on the attitude of the owner and what that space is being used for.)

And then one final surprise before logging out; it turns out that I'm not homeless after all, but that I still own the crappy suburban ranch house that Second Life now gives all basic members, whether or not they ever end up upgrading to premium. (This is a new development since I was originally there in 2006, and basically consists of these entire continents there containing nothing but endless fields of generic suburban houses, which basic members are able to decorate but not to alter in any fundamental way.) It's a strange experience to be in SuburbiaWorld, kind of like Kafka-meets-Douglas-Coupland; but it'll do for now, as at least a space for me to chill when going through other things like my inventory or scanning the map, so I'll take it.

So anyway, so long for now from the newly reactivated Grid, and here's hoping that things finally start becoming financially worthwhile soon from my time being spent there. Just IM "Zad Cornell" if you're a virtual citizen too, and ever want to hang out there!

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