Monday, January 09, 2006

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An online community of creative eccentrics absorbs the first big wave of pop cult attention (originally published here)...

The line that divides the first two epochs of Second Life is a catwalk made of metal, surrounded on all sides by mist, roving satellites, and spotlights of white and red. It's the runway for a fashion soundstage created by a team of SL Residents but commissioned by an employee of MTV, a division of Viacom, the multinational media empire with holdings in film, television, print, radio, music, and the Internet, and annual revenue in excess of $8 billion-- a half billion of that generated, according to a recent Hollywood Reporter story, through online sales. But the cultural impact of MTV eclipses anything else offered by its corporate parent, far beyond its name recognition as a cable television network, or the home of "Punk'd" and Carson Daly-- or even where you can still see a music video every now and again, if you watch long enough. MTV is why, when I recently dashed into the supply shed of a small hotel in a remote town in Vietnam, frantically asking for some ice to apply on the head of my girlfriend since she'd just bruised it against a door, the English-impaired staff worker looked at me gravely for a couple seconds then answered, brightly, "Ice ice baby?" Not just a cable channel, then, but a culture and a way of life, a psychic trademark that transcends every border of the world as the universally recognized totem of cool, sexy, and eternal youth. Say the name anywhere on the planet, and the faces of the young are bound to light up.

When MTV came calling in Second Life, via a staffer who goes by the Resident name of Glitchy Gumshoe, however, the initial response wasn't exactly glowing.



Nine minutes later, he had a reply. 

"Even though you're MTV," someone named Smileyrepublic Sachertorte informed him, "you still have to post your ads in the classified forums, you know."

More snark soon followed. "Do we have to be under 25 years of age and incredibly self-centered to take part in this?" David Valentino wondered aloud. Many of the objections were directed at Gumshoe's first request to borrow Residents’ avatars. It's possible to transfer all the features of an avatar, from gender and height to clothes and jewelry, from one Resident to another, as easily as one e-mails a folder of family photos. Doing that would give Glitchy Gumshoe full control of each avatar, and thus make it easier to use them in his video shoot. Since avatars often come with custom-made, no-copy textures, physical gestures, and so on, transferring them would be tantamount to giving up one's very identity. In a sense, then, MTV was asking for their souls, with only the chance to show up for a few seconds on one of the network's sister sites as payment.

"Obviously they have no idea on what makes an avie unique," Luth Brodie from London sniffed. But under that objection lurked a larger one, perhaps: feeling imposed upon by a media giant that didn't seem to appreciate the essence of Second Life culture. As Brodie put it, "MTV is about what is popular, not creativity." And why a fashion show, when there was so much more to the world? "I wouldn't want SL to get any more of a reputation as basically being computer dress-up," Ordinal Malaprop worried, "That's only a small part of what goes on, fun as it might be."

Gradually the outrage and expressions of too-cool-for-it blasé died down, especially after Gumshoe hastily dropped the avatar transfer request. But it all revealed a wariness that is, in SL's post-100,000 era, a hint of things to come: an obscure subculture had just been caught in the gravitational pull of popcult recognition, and was struggling to find its bearings as it twirled toward the sun.

And appropriately enough, this happened on a server called Supernova.


When I arrive last weekend by Glitchy’s invitation to the heart of Supernova, I’m just in time to catch the catwalk debut of Torrid Midnight, longtime fashionista, brunette and big-lipped and sashaying to the edge in an outfit of leather straps and torn lace that wouldn’t be out of place in a goth-industrial video. Gumshoe is there on a dais, capturing video of the fifty Residents who volunteered to show off their avatars for MTV. He’s a tall guy with fine features and dark hair that very much resemble his real life counterpart. (And by way of full disclosure, I should say I met him, during last year’s first Second Life Community Convention.)

“At first,” he tells me, “we had about a few dozen females and no males. We got a lot of females at first, a lot of robot cyborgs, and a handful of furries. I can’t even name them all, but they seemed to be from every walk of Second Life I’ve ever seen...”

He’s quick to acknowledge the flurry of protest his announcement first provoked. “I pushed the rules out there kinda quickly,” he admits. “Once the forum reacted as it did, I quickly figured out another way to do it.”

His solution was to shoot the fashion show on a private island totally separate from the main grid of Second Life, which his models would teleport to for their shoot, one at a time-- a kind of Platonic ideal of SL, free from the lag caused by any sudden crush of residents or their impromptu creations. If all goes well, the fashion show will wind up on a February segment of “G-Hole”, a videogame show on MTV’s broadband channel, Overdrive.

If he has his druthers, more SL-based productions will soon follow. “Nothing official yet, but I’ve started to get people [at MTV] interested in SL’s potentials. And I can almost guarantee that we'll be back in some way. Everyone seems to realize the potential of having a totally customizable, totally online, 3D video game. And if they don't,” he adds grinning, “I’ve got persuasive methods.” And while he’s asking his avatar models to appear for free, he thinks their reward for working with him will still be great. “I think that MTV's presence in SL will actually help the community,” he says. “There are some amazing people in here doing amazing things, and I think that all their hard work deserves to be recognized on a bigger scale.”


To create the fashion set, Glitchy enlisted the services of Spellbound, the SL event planners renowned for once creating virtual tributes to The Wizard of Oz and the works of Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie. The avatar showcase was built by Marak Coral and Fey Brightwillow, with production overseen by Spellbound Baccara founder Ms. Rhodes, in real life a mature woman who retired from the business of wedding and bah mitzvah planning to execute grand social events in an online world—and, by a remarkable turn of events, went from that to creating a virtual soundstage for MTV.

I ask Glitchy, in his early 20s, whether he found it odd for such a youth-obsessed network to depend on a woman perhaps twice his age to literally set their stage.

“Nope,” he says, “I’m certainly willing to work with anyone as long as they are professional and creative. No age-ism here.”

During our interview, Baccara happens to stop by to check on her client’s progress. She doesn’t watch MTV, but says her real life daughter is especially thrilled to see how far SL has come.

“How old is she, if I can ask?”


“Older than me!” Glitchy exclaims.

“I figured as much,” Baccara tells him.

To host the fashion show, Glitchy hired lilith Pendragon to create an avatar based on Coltrane, MTV’s fashion consultant. (The star himself will provide voiceover to the machinima video in post-production.) Lilith, who also brought Cory Doctorow and Thomas P.M. Barnett into SL last year, began work on the Coltrane avatar, she tells me, even without quite believing she now had the Viacom network as a client.

“I never read the Forums,” she says. “I finally read them after he said he wanted to call me… but I was still a bit apprehensive-- giving my phone number to some guy online who says he works for MTV?”

After their phonecall, she still wasn’t totally convinced. “I just went along with him thinking he was some 14 year old trying to act like a bigshot,” she says. Even after she’s finally seen enough to believe he is who he says he is, she’s not especially thrilled.

“I'm really not all that comfortable in the spotlight,” says lilith. “I don't like having a big deal made out of things I do.” She’s proud of her work, in other words, but doesn’t plan on shouting, “I’M ON MTV!”

“I think my nephew will be the one who says that,” she tells me, grinning.

After her modeling stint, I ask Torrid Midnight if she’s afraid MTV’s presence will cause Second Life to lose its creative uniqueness or eccentricity.

“I'm not sure really Hamlet,” Torrid answers, “I think we'll always have a large group of creative folk that thrive in SL.”

“100,000 fans of Carson Daly and ‘Punk’d’ won't change that, you think?”

Torrid laughs. “Well it might… [but] who is to say people among that group can't create some awesome things? As long as they don't flood the world with more bling it should be okay.”

Still, it’s hard to anticipate the changes that’ll obtain by sheer force of numbers, and the shape of desire, once it’s transmitted through the most pervasive communication channel humankind has ever known. Then again, maybe the influence will start flowing in the other direction, too-- desires shaped not just by what cool and sexy people are doing on television, but also by a world where cool and sexy are defined by acts of pure imagination.

After this show, I tell Baccara Rhodes, “Second Life ceases to be an obscure little online world with a tight-knit community; it becomes something bigger, something part of the global media conglomerate. What then?”

“Well, bigger and better all the time Hamlet,” she says, steadfastly unruffled.  “We have all worked hard for it.”


“To the metaverse and beyond!” Glitchy adds nearby.


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