Monday, January 19, 2004

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WHAT WILL THE ISLAND BECOME?

Island_protest

PROLOGUE

"I don't agree with corporate hogs coming in and buying up Second Life," says Astarte Valentino. She's standing on an undeveloped island holding a sign with a group of fellow protesters. There were more gathered before, and hours after I speak with her, there will be more still.

Last week, a rollicking land auction secured an entire island for thousands of dollars. Not only was the amount of money bid unprecedented, so were the intents of its buyer, who works for an advertising/branding agency.

Some feared the worst.  Hence the signs.

"I left [Second Life] and came back to a much more restrictive world," Astarte tells me. "I think that many are worried that the sale of land will go towards deep pockets and corporate interests, and the game will become increasingly real life money-related. Or that it will be altered from interesting builds and amazing scripting to a Gap shirt and a cup of Starbucks java."

"The people who have been doomsayers and negative especially about corporate bombardment," the island's tenant wrote in the Second Life forum, defending the ambitions of his group, and what they intend to do with their property. "Why not channel that energy into something positive. I have some contacts at The Fair Trade Organisation. We could have a section on the island highlighting Globalisation fears and Corporate Responsibility."

Some were not impressed by that compromise.

 

WHAT WILL THE ISLAND BE? (OPTION ONE)

The first warning sign of encroaching capitalism and corporation influence

The story of the protest and the controversy begins January 7th, over an auction for an island simulator called, appropriately enough, Island.  Ever since version 1.2 went online in December, portions of virtual property in Second Life have been sold in a Linden Lab-run open auction, sometimes for Linden Dollars, sometimes for US dollars. 

Bidding for Island opened at US$5.  For the first two days, the competing bids didn’t jump over $100, but with 11 hours left until auction’s close, the bidding jumped to $250, then a few hours later, to $500, and with a little over 2 hours left, to $1000.  Toward the end, with all other competitors dropping out, the bidding came down to a test of wills between Fizik Baskerville and Obscuro Valkyrie.  Fizik’s final bid, at US$1200, was made 5 seconds before the auction’s closing.

At this point, it’s important to point out that this $1200 does not buy the island itself, but instead buys the right to pay a monthly rental fee on the island of near $200 per month.  Whoever this Fizik was, he wanted to rent that land badly, and he was willing to pay a lot just to have that right.

The next day, in Second Life’s General Discussion forum, Fizik announced who he was.  Or rather, “we”:

“We are a London and Chicago based Innovation and Branding agency.”

Occasionally using words like "revenue streams" and "real world anchor points", Fizik began describing the plans he and his colleagues had in mind.  “We are commercial-based, but we are fans and active participants.  We will be supporting a charity and promoting good causes.  We will need help.”

Help to do what, now?

And so Fizik described an island that would be divided into regions, some promoting culture, but one promoting commerce.  (In-world, and out.) Second Life residents would be invited as collaborators into the project, but creators from the real world would be showing off their work on the island, too.

Like who?

“One of Europe’s top fashion designers,” wrote Fizik.  He included a link to a fashion designer known as Mrs. Jones, whose website indeed seemed to belong to a world-famous designer, associated with the likes of Kylie Minogue and Duran Duran, and featured elegant line-drawn designs, and photos taken from a full-scale runway show.   “She has agreed in principle to allow us to convert her designs for online use,” Fizik continued.  “Again, before you ask, Free of Charge! The idea is to charge for them in Linden Dollars and use this money to reinvest in other Second Lifers projects and buy items for the island. Again, she is keen to help and work with people, imparting her industry knowledge in helping get the most from our fashion endeavours.”

And that’s about when the trouble started.  Accusations, suspicions, and intimations of impending doom.

“From the trend this starts,” Corwin Weber posted in the Second Life forum, in one of the several topics that Fizik’s island would spur, “we'll have the same problem making money in Second Life that we do real life.... we just can't compete with corporate interests. We don't have the backing, nor the resources.”

“So, we are not really expected to buy a bunch of stuff from Mrs. Jones or the T-shirt people,” someone else wrote.  (A small Welsh T-shirt company would also be showing off their wares, on the island.)  “Rather, we are expected to lend ‘coolness’ to their brands by their placement in our online world. I believe that what Fizik is trying to do is make online worlds like SL a viable marketing tool for people like him… I think Fizik is trying to be the first marketer to help MAKE a business more established using a MMOG.  How do I feel about this? First of all, it's somewhat flattering. Second of all, it's very threatening.”

To be sure, many counseled caution.  Nothing had developed yet, no real commerce had kicked in yet, so why panic, or blow things out of proportion?

“This commercialism in Second Life is ruining my game experience,” posted Catherine Cotton, in response to more neutral voices.  “If you cannot or are unwilling to understand, that then you certainly don’t have a right to tell me how to ‘control my emotions’.  Maybe this should be ‘blown out of proportion’ [now]-- maybe a year from now YOU may be wishing it had.” 

Corwin Weber again:  “What panic? People are concerned about corporate interests intruding where, let's face it, they aren't needed and simply aren't welcome.”

More conversation followed.  A lot more.  Long posts about capitalism and the ethics (or lack thereof) of capitalism.  Libertarianism, left and right.  Ayn Rand.  And so on.  It was heated, partly because so much money had been bid, partly because of Fizik’s jargon-laden posts, partly because this Fizik was a relative newcomer to the world.

And partly, as it turned out, because many people believed the island really belonged to a more deserving bidder, who was undercut at the last possible moment.

WHAT WILL THE ISLAND BE? (OPTION TWO)

A collaborative creative project for a group of friends

“A city,” says Obscuro Valkyrie.  That’s what Obscuro wanted the island for, and why he bid past $1100 to get it, before he was outbid by Fizik Baskerville.  I’m sitting in the castle of Valkyrie and his companion, Sukkubus Phaeton.

“M'Lord is a wonderful builder.” Sukkubus tells me.

“Somewhat medieval,” Obscuro continues, describing the project that was to be.  “I have a couple art students who wanted to work on it with us and allow some of my friend’s portions.”

“M'Lord,” says Sukkubus, as we continue talking, “may I be excused for a moment?”

“Yes pet,” Obscuro tells her. 

Before she goes, I ask Sukkubus why she keeps calling Obscuro “my lord”. 

“He is M'Lord,” she says, simply.

“No, I am not her Master,” Obscuro tells me, by way of explanation.  “She respects me.”

Oh.

Anyway, we keep talking about the auction.   “I am not bitter that I lost,” says Obscuro.
“It's the method in which I did.  Basically this fellow [Fizik] says ‘Hi, the bidding is really crazy.’  I said ‘uh huh’.  He kept on talking… so I leave for an hour, then return thirty minutes before closing.  He says he's tired and going to bed, then starts talking about himself and his business he owns… anyways, less than a minute before it closes, he says ‘congratulations’.  I say ‘Thank you.’  He bids [again].  I see that bid and I bid.  Then [the] clock stops.”

There’s no immediate way to verify Obscuro’s interpretation, except to confirm that in the last 38 seconds, after an hour-plus inactivity, Fizik bid, and then Obscuro, and then with 5 seconds remaining, Fizik made the winning $1200 bid. 

However it happened, Obscuro isn’t too pleased now:

“I should never have spoken to him,” he says.  “Was an underhanded thing to do.”

“Some might say, ‘Well, he's just being a shrewd businessman.’

“We call it something else, where I am from,” says Valkyrie. 

Despite that, he says he holds no grudges against Fizik now.  He wonders if he could just cut a check to the Lindens at the going rate, to buy his own island. “I'll gladly give them $1200,” he says.  “I am not here for confrontation.  To me this is an artistic outlet with friends. We are friendly people. Who just wanted a city.”

Others, however, had somehow got the impression he wanted it for something quite different. 

WHAT WILL THE ISLAND BE? (OPTION THREE)

An educational experiment

“Well,” says Catherine Cotton, after I sit down before the fireplace in her elf-sized home, “I will tell ya, Hamlet, I was really hurt when I found out the teacher and students I was defending ended up not to be a school teacher but a cult teacher who owns his own publishing company.”

“Cult?”

“When I was there speaking with Obscuro and his people one of them said ‘may I leave’, and to be honest, they were pretty creepy the whole time.  Obscuro said to me something like ‘And what is your business with me?’  It was odd, that is all I will say on that.”

But that isn’t why Catherine is angry.  She’s angry because somehow, she had gotten the impression that Obscuro was a teacher who was planning to develop the island with his students.  That was what fueled the flames against Fizik and his plans for branding and “revenue streams”. 

But the story of the teacher and his class didn’t quite turn out to true.  Through the in-world grapevine, Catherine came to believe that Obscuro owned a print shop, or a publishing company.  And that he wanted the island for his own commercial plans.

“I got tired, Hamlet, and I stood up and said ‘this is wrong’.  I got lambasted, that is for sure, but I thought I was doing the right thing.  I thought I was standing up for a teacher who was robbed of the bid by a jerk marketing guy.”

By this time, I had already talked with Obscuro.  “He says he was working with art students,” I tell her, “but didn't represent himself as a teacher-- rather, a guy who wanted the island to build stuff with his friends. (Some of whom are students.)”

“Yes,” she says, “that is what he told me when I was asked to come to their land but not on the island.”  (Where the story he told was purportedly different.) “Did he explain the government contract?  Told us he and his students were awarded a military contract something to do with cool weapons. I was honestly hurt when I found out I was just being used by one company vying for the island against another company vying for the island.”

After talking with Catherine, I go through the chat logs posted in the forums, which are supposed to validate her claims.  But for the life of me, I can’t quite find a smoking gun either way.  Near as I can make out, someone mistook recent news that the Army was investing in another MMOG to be Obscuro’s project, and further misunderstood talk of “art students” to mean that the island was intended as a school project.  And the in-world version of Post Office took off from there.  This is the trouble with chat logs, which create a full transcript of whole conversations, but are still subject to vastly different interpretation.  (And when they’re copied offline, they can be easily edited or amended, in any case.)

Whatever the case, the most interesting thing to me is not whether the rumors were true or false, or even who spread them in the first place.  What’s interesting is how quickly so many jumped into the fray, when the conflict seemed to be one of profit-versus-non-profit, community project-versus-private domain.   And with what moral fervor came the attacks.

“This mob court of public opinion is bad enough,” resident Mickey Roark wrote of it in the forums, “but compound that with the 'court' basing its whole set of arguments and condemnations on possible smoke when no real facts or actions or fire is found, is ludicrous. But when the (now seems false) accusation of a David (a teacher and twelve students) being slain by Goliath (Fizik and his business) over the outcome of the island auction, the mob was given the 'blood' it needed to go after the 'injustice'.”

“But it is human nature,” adds Phaylen Fairchild, in her own post, “a social necessity to need to hate someone, anyone, we need to create an antagonist, or at least we believe we do.”

“For the record,” Obscuro tells me earlier, “I own a publishing corporation and do fine art reproduction and we do play bills and event publishing…   I have solid contracts and don't cater to the public.”   And by implication, therefore, he had no reason to use the island for advertising purposes.

But I want to make sure I understand.  “Was the island plan going to have any relation to your publishing business?”

“No,” says Obscuro.

“Not unless we do live theater,” he adds.  “I do community theater.”

WHAT WILL THE ISLAND BE? (OPTION FOUR)

A synthesis of commercial and non-profit creativity that contributes to the overall community!

“Good to finally put the name to the fracas!” I tell Fizik Baskerville, when I finally meet him on the island he bought the rental rights to for US$1200.

“Yes,” says Fizik, “I seem have caused a fracas.  Were you around at the start of the explorative days the Internet?  Doesn't this remind you of that?”

He’s talking about the dot com boom of the late 90’s, and as a longtime San Francisco resident, I remember it well-- how it turned San Franciscans against each other, the artists and writers who were suddenly making exorbitant amounts of money, versus the rest who weren’t.  “It really tore the city up,” I tell him, “Caused a lot of anger and argument on both sides.”

“Yes,” says Fizik, “It’s very similiar here. I have been in the Brand/Design industry for about 15 years.  In that time I have watched and been part of the Web and the development of mobile communications.  I have also been a passionate gamer.  Secretly, of course,” he adds, smiling.  He’s played several MMOGs, he says, “but I have always felt let down.  If you like, cheated by the experience.  As the whole society was based on the pursuit of the magic 50 [levels].  Friends left behind, to dreaded level trap, etc.”

His plans for his island in this world seem like his own solution to that.  “Hamlet,” he says, showing me the layout, “this is going to be huge.  It’s designed as a social interaction area with four zones.  We are trying to get a mixture in that will compliment the entire community…  I have made the purchase with my own money, I am, though, using the companies resources in aiding me here-- I mean artists, filmmakers, sculptures, fashion designers, etc.-- I am talking about it to my creative team, as a great new place to express themselves.

“Well,” I say, “you've already mentioned in the Forum being in advertising.”

“Not advertising,” he says smiling, “That’s like saying, ‘Hamlet, you’re a gumshoe journalist.  Branding is very different.”

“Sorry, didn't mean any offense.”

”I know,” says Fizik, “it’s just a touchy subject around here.”

I ask him how many professional artists’ works he expects to bring into the world.  “I am not too sure, I am keen to keep it only to people who are keen to do workshop in world, or give items to the community.  I have in the wings a sculptor, a music producer, fine artists.  I will keep it the bounds of the agreement I have made with the [Second Life] forums, no hard sell, no advertising.  I will, though, have a small URL for them [in their booths].  I have no interest here commercially.”

“But there would be some kind of ancillary potential,” I ask, “like for example modeling Mrs. Jones’ stuff in-world and running that in prints ads or something?”

“Yes,” answers Fizik, “there is that potential, more for Linden Labs than for anyone else.  If was used that way, to help fund Second Life, then I would be all for it.”  He even envisions cooperation between his professional colleagues and the talented amateurs within Second Life.  For example, maybe the Mrs. Jones will come in-world to give fashion lessons to SL’s fashion designers.

He says his jargon-laden announcement on what the island would be did bring unnecessary controversy.  “I made a mistake on the first post of being too vague.  It left room for conjecture and whimsy.  I forget, sometimes it’s very easy to get a narrow view-- I forgot how some jargon can sound like 'soundbites'.  I was wrong, but it taught me a valuable lesson.” 

As for the fiercely competitive bid, which led to accusations of underhanded head-faking, Fizik says, “We were all competing for this sim.  In the end, whoever won was going to be seen as the 'bad avatar'.  Also, by the last 50 seconds you could tell all three of us wanted it.”  He attributes resentment against him as ‘sour grapes.’  “If anything,” he adds, “the auction system was wrong. It should have been a closed bid.  That way it would not have been so 'out in the open'…”  As he has it, the trouble was not so much auction itself, but “the amount of backstabbing, skullduggery that went into it afterwards. The person, whoever that was, who spread the rumour about a Teacher losing out, that in a way is social shilling.”

When I first visit Fizik, the map for the overall plan is the most prominent part of the island; his volunteer builders are scurrying around, occasionally flying past to check in with Baskerville.  Giant beams and platforms are going up all around us.

“I like the explorative nature of what we are doing here,” he says.  “It’s the most motivated I have been in ages.  It’s feeding a creative urge, that was kinda lost recently.”

When I come back, only a week later, it seems the main buildings have already gone up.  Darwin Appleby has built a theater with a seat layout that adjusts the camera angle to the stage.  Maxx Monde has constructed a 10 story glass and chrome apartment complex.  “Hamlet,” says Fizik, “everyday my jaw drops with the talent here.” 

For his own part, Baskerville has written out a story which will be told while walking through a forest that he plans to grow in one of the island’s open fields.  It’ll be based in part on Robert Holdstock’s award-winning fantasy novel Mythago Wood

“The idea is to make it into a wood with ebbing and flowing paths,” says Fizik.  “Secret areas… we want to make Myths in here.”

WHAT WILL THE ISLAND BE? (OPTION FIVE)

All of the above (option One through Four)

So construction on the island goes on; soon there will be a grand opening party, which Fizik hopes will soothe any still sore feelings among the community.  Meantime, residents continue to ponder what it means, and what the conflict over the island and everything that provoked it will mean, in the future.

“Now that I can put emotion aside,” TinaStar Dawn writes in my New World Notes forum, “I think my bottom line is that I'd like to see future auctions based only on in-world money, i.e. Linden Dollars.  There is still something really troubling about people, even if they are well-intentioned, using real life money to buy a huge chunk of our Second Life world.”

si Money, writing in the same forum, isn’t too worried about corporate influence, simply because due to the medium’s nature.  “Second Life gives you a perfectly level playing field from a business perspective. A commercial entity doesn't really have any advantage here, as you're not going to greatly benefit from millions of R&D, or cheap factories. The content which comes from them will be on par with the content we already have.”

“I am finding myself hoping that he does what he says he is going to do,” says Catherine Cotton.  Since attacking Fizik’s plans in the forum, then feeling like her attacks were driven by misunderstanding (intentional or otherwise), she’s apologized to him, and washed her hands of the conflict.  “I am not lending my full support to anything but [her home simulator] Slate these days… Like I said in the forum, I trust people a little less this week than I did last week. It’s a damn shame but if anyone out there benefited from my experience then it was worth every hellish second.”

Even before he bought the island, says Fizik Baskerville, “A lot of people have told me about how they are proposing to make money off this place, either in a small way, or by commission work based on their work in there-- also the 'temptation' for the bigger Linden Dollar owners to got out to the Gaming Open Market exchange < http://www.gamingopenmarket.com/ > and change up to US$.  So it’s an argument of scale-- not commercialism… we are part of a commercial venture.  The utopian attitude of 'I will not let this go commercial,’ has already happened.”

Through my long talks with Fizik, it comes out that one of the branding campaigns he’s worked on was for promoting the Lord of the Rings films. 

“You know,” I tell him on the island, “if you mentioned to people you worked on the LOTR campaign, I suspect 99% of negative feedback would go away. ‘Oh, you work on good commercial stuff!’ I know all kinds of very left-leaning geeks, totally anti-corporate, but all of them love LOTR, and they're not the slightest bit bothered that it was put out by a giant media corporation like AOL-Time Warner. In fact, Warner/New Line becomes their hero in regards to the film.”

“I know,” says Fizik, “It’s strange…”

“I think it illustrates the point that you actually need for-profit companies, sometimes, to bring cool stuff into being.”  Fizik agrees to that.

“Isn't this an amazing build?” says Bhodi Silverman.  She’s building an island annex to her Tree Gallery.  “Two hands, textured to create the idea of a tree... with an amazing amount of undistracted display space.”  Bhodi works as a civil rights advocate for the disabled of the Appalachians, but before that, she was a maven in New York City advertising world, during the dot com era.  So it surprises me that she’s here, volunteering to work with Fizik.

“I didn't drop out of the dot-com world because it was too ‘commercial’”, she tells me.  “I dropped out because it was too commercial to be fulfilling for ME.  On Fizik's Isle, I'll still be promoting art, which is what I want to do in Second Life.  Well, art and community.”

On a different part of the island, a few visiting residents are still debating what the island means.  Some worry that more land will be bought by other companies.

“So what?” says stampshady Grimm, in answer to that, “As Second Life grows, so will the land mass.”

“It may start with a small company,” Ryen Jade worries, “but it will progress into something bigger sooner or later.”  Someone mentions Starbucks™ coming into the world.  (And somehow, throughout this whole debate, Starbucks™ is almost always threatened.)

“If we have Starbucks™,” says Grimm, “cool.”

“What if,” I ask Stampshady, “Starbucks™ went and put billboards all over the place in Second Life?”

“At least they would be attractive and artistic instead of cheesy and cheap,” Faerie Muse interjects.

“Listen,” says Ryen, interrupting, “if I may ask one thing:  can we drop this before it gets out of hand?”

Originally published January 16 and 19, 2004 beginning here.  An avatar in first image was removed at demand of owner.

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