Avatar-based caricaturist Christophe Hugo was wandering the world recently, when he came across a stranger kind of caricature: buried in a chamber beneath the waves of B&B Skins, a fashion island that usually ranks at the very top of SL's popularity index for Traffic, were dozens of "enslaved avatars", as Hugo puts it.
The Traffic metric is based on the number of avatars to visit a given location, and the time they spend there, which yielded the infamous "camping chairs" that landowners pay Residents to sit in, to boost that number. These are used by Residents controlled by actual people, but the latest iteration uses various versions of SL's open source client to log in zombie avatars, sometimes unleashed by landowners for marketing purposes. "Without knowing Linden Lab's algorithm for calculating Traffic, I assume that if I had put 70 'dummied' avatars on my land all day like B&B Skins does," Hugo speculates, "My traffic would have jumped to around 60,000." This boost in turn attracts genuine visits by Residents who assume the place is legitimately popular. (The Grid Live reported this hack last month, I should add; also, I tried contacting the owner of B&B, but received no reply.)
In any case, this is not the only application of bot or zombie avatars; I noticed another recently, when I went in search of BioShock avatars. Visiting a store that carried them, I went to chat with the blue-gray woman in a silver bikini who was there, assuming she was the owner. Only to realize (as her profile indicated), she was a mannequin avatar, "usually logged in with the SLeek" client. I spotted another mannequin avatar nearby, encased in a small robot costume; on a hunch, I clicked the dynamic Map, which indicates in-world Residents with green dots. And saw this:
There was just one Resident controlled by an actual Resident in this location (i.e., me), but the map indicated that there were three. The dynamic map, in other words, doesn't discriminate between the living and the undead. And an awful thought occurred to me: given all the landowners who used avatar bots to boost Traffic, or search for available land, or simply act as mannequins or NPCs, how deeply had zombies penetrated the population?
So I asked the Lindens: on the homepage, there's an "Online Now" meter tracking the number of Residents in-world. Last Sunday, that number peaked at 61,000+. But how many of them, I wondered, were simply undead pawns in a larger game?
The first two Lindens I asked didn't know. The third, webmaster Jim Linden, gave me this answer, relayed through the Lindens' PR rep:
"When calculating the online now number," Jim told me, "we do not filter out users/bots who are logged in through thin clients like libsecondlife, but we know through closely monitoring the user data, that they represent a very small percentage of the overall number."
"By design," studio director Jeff Linden added, "the exact version of the viewer is not integral to the login process, just as different web browsers should still allow you to login to your bank¹s online site. Viewers do voluntarily self-identify (like browsers do), but this is not authoritative, so we can¹t be 100% sure which versions are connecting. Because of this, it¹s difficult to provide an estimate of what percentage of the 'online now¹ number may be bots logged in... That said, anecdotally, we¹ve noted that connections made with clients that self-ID as libsecondlife are generally very brief, and very few of these clients are logged in at any given time."
Jeff took the topic to a broader perspective, noting that this is a problem with measuring general Internet usage. "It seems the bigger question is: how do we know that Second Life isn¹t filled with bots and devoid of real human activity?" As he puts it. "Turns out this is a statistic problem that's well solved by the web world-- we can determine this in much the same way that a website would determine that visitors are real users rather than automated webcrawlers. Visitor numbers provide only part of the picture; usage hours, content creation and other forms of interaction also factor in. Anecdotally, we haven't observed a rise in connection metrics that don't correspond to a rise in meaningful usage metrics. This is one good way to understand that these connections aren't just bots, but rather real people sending real IMs, having real chats, making real objects, making real purchases, etc."
Of course, this assumes the bots aren't engaged in human-like activity. But as I noted last year, sometimes they are.
Update, 1/18, 3:05pm: Almost forgot to mention this-- Rebecca Proudhon created an excellent and psychedelic machinima about this subject, accompanied by music from Velvet Underground, of all things.