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While reading the comments on a friend’s blog post about Freebies, I came across the standard comment (and from a Second Life resident no less), which goes along the lines of “it’s all just play clothes on virtual dolls, why do you all give a crap?”. I was going to reply to it but realised what I had to say had wider application and goes to the heart of trying to understand why people bother with a virtual world at all. So it’s getting its very own blog post over here instead 🙂 .

The first thing to realise is that that style of argument can apply to every single element of Second Life, “it’s just pixel pieces, why do you care that this sim is being destroyed..” “it’s just fake water, why does a view of it matter”, “it’s just toy bodies, why do you care who they have virtual sex with”, etc. So as Second Life residents we should always be suspect of this argument from anyone else who is a resident too – surely we know better than that by now. We might find it easier to defend why we value whichever part of Second Life we take part in, but struggle to appreciate someone else’s interest in something like Second Life fashion.

It doesn’t take a lot of reflection to put together the arguments though – the way we dress our avatars expresses our own style; some people write poems, some sing songs, some do pictures, others dress up. They are just all ways to say “this is me, this is what I am, this is how I feel”. Then there’s all the arguments about the fact that people make real money from virtual clothes, and spend real money on virtual clothes, there is livelihood at stake here and that is always going to be important to the people involved in it. Throw in the points about the art-form itself of creating virtual clothes – the precision and expertise involved – and all up it’s really not that hard to understand why some people care so damn much about it.

However, you don’t have to go through those sorts of in-depth or reasoned arguments if you don’t want to – because this whole discussion just emulates the exact same arguments we throw at each other in real life about real life activities. For example, I have no idea why so many of the men I know spend money and time following and caring about sports. I’ve heard their arguments and none have convinced me I should suddenly take an interest in it myself. You can push the examples to the edge of reason as well and try to appreciate the money and time people like MTG players put into a small pieces of cardboard that the rest of us would just throw out as rubbish, or stamps, or whatever – the examples are unlimited. All that matters though is that they do value those things – whether they can make you value them too or not is going to be irrelevant to their own desire and possible obsession over them.

To the same extent it becomes pointless to constantly ridicule people about the things they value – in any world. We all take joy from different things, it’s part of the beauty of the diversity of humanity, why would anyone want to destroy that, and make us all like the same things? What an incredibly boring world that would be.

There is a line to be drawn of course: If someone is spending time or money on something to an extent that they are endangering their own or their family’s lives, then we say enough is enough. But we call that an obsession, or an addiction, and we generally understand that just about any imaginable (legal) activity becomes dangerous at those extremes. However most people don’t live at the extremes of addiction and obsession, and the chances of you being able to figure out if they do or not from some brief blog comments they make, seems very low. So even with this line of concern there is little ground to dismiss what someone else values as “stupid” or “unreasonable”.

What is considered “valuable” changes from individual to individual. And even when two individuals value something equally, the reasons for them ascribing it that value are likely to vastly differ – whether those reasons are monetary gain from on-selling the item later, emotional ties, rarity, beauty, or historical connections. Some people will mount arguments for “objective value” – but that’s usually at the fringes of philosophical debate, where we try to make the argument that everyone should value life, or happiness or other things which are rarely on the market anyway. The ways in which we achieve happiness or our versions of the good life are reflected in the rest of the items and activities we try to surround ourselves with; trying to tell someone they are “wrong” for valuing stamps or sports or pixels when in fact they help that person achieve one of these higher goals (of lets say, happiness), is to miss the point entirely.

Within certain communites we can have meaningful discussions about value. For example in the Second Life fashion community there can be meaningful discussions about the value of a well-made dress with fantastic unique textures. But if you don’t value Second Life fashion at all, trying to jump into that discussion and tell them they’re all morons for thinking it matters who designed a dress or the details of the texture, is a waste of your time and a waste of theirs; go get involved with discussions about things you do actually care about, instead of focusing so much effort on bringing down what makes other people happy.

There are a lot of thoughts I’m trying to get out here, that require more space than a single post rightly allows. But the point is an important one: Why we value Second Life at all – why we value what we do there, why one person values clothes and the other values snail races – is as much a discussion as to why one person values collectible playing cards and another spends their time drooling over Ferraris. Just accept that what makes you happy might not make your neighbour happy, but that as long as you’re not addicted or obsessed to the point of destroying lives, just live and let live. You’re not going to convince me to stop valuing everything Joss Whedon creates, and I’m not going to convince you that following sport is pointless (even though it is :p ).

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I have had Second Life friends who frequently suffer anxiety attacks – I can think of four people off the top of my head but there may be more. I always encouraged them to be open about the way they were feeling so I could reassure and comfort them. I did this primarily out of friendship, but I also did it because I understood what they were going through: I’ve suffered anxiety attacks during my life that would incapacitate me with bodily fear, shaking, my heart racing, and often without anything at all to have brought it on (well, nothing I was aware of anyway). The worst of these attacks occurred when I was on antidepressants about a decade ago – they put me on the wrong medication and it almost killed me.

The problem with virtual worlds is that they lend themselves to paranoia. Usually we use facial expressions, body language, eye contact etc, to figure out what people think of us and what’s going on around us. Without any of this in Second Life we look for other cues – eg long silences, unexplained disappearances. The number of times I’ve had perfectly calm rational people ask me if I had a problem with them just because I took a few minutes to reply to an IM or because I TPed away when they arrived somewhere, is more than I can count, but somedays would happen many times over from different people, reading unintended messages into my behaviour because they lacked other cues I’d normally provide in the real world – like a smile or eye contact to quickly let them know that we were all good.

As humans we naturally look for patterns in the behaviours of those around us – especially in the people we think we know well. We establish expectations and when behaviours and words from others start varying from those expectations we want to know why, and when it happens with a lot of people all at once we get rather paranoid. This looking for patterns and trying to understand them is a survival instinct and perfectly rational – we need to identify and respond to threats before they become something too big (or too “real”) for us to deal with.

When you try to verbalise what’s bothering you though you will more often than not get the response of “oh you’re just being paranoid”. Well, yeah. But that response doesn’t help, what is required is proper and meaningful reassurance or a possible explanation for the behaviours that are causing the concern. When people aren’t open about the reasons behind their actions, your mind will try to create an explanation in its place. And being only human we will often think the worst because we need to be prepared to deal with threats – both emotional and physical – as they arise. As you try to sort out in your head why things are changing around you, you start to doubt yourself, you start to wonder if you’re seeing patterns where there are none, you start to wonder if you’re going “mad”. And while those around you brush off your concerns as “paranoia” or refuse to communicate at all, the paranoia and anxiety feeds into itself and becomes a monster in its own right.

So do me a favour, next time someone says or does something that you think reveals they’re just being paranoid, sit them down and ask them what made them get the impression that someone or something was out to get them. And if there really is something that grounds the paranoia, help them cope with the situation and the threat. And if there isn’t, then reassure them, give them a big huggle and tell them you’re there if they need to talk. Sometimes paranoia is rational, sometimes it is a mental illness, but always it is something that you should care enough about to help your friends through it.

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A recent heart-breaking post about suicide, written by Prad over at Metaversally Speaking, lead to numerous comments of the predictable type: One grouping was “Prad you’re so kind and brave” (which he is), and the other line of comments was “suicidal people are evil ass-hats”. What I want to talk about is the dangerous idiocy of claiming expertise in the “type of people” who commit suicide. (I’ve discussed suicide at length before in a previous post here, so I will not repeat what I said there, go have a look though if you want my back-ground broader view on the issue of suicide and Second Life.)

We seem to know that we cannot put forward our understanding of serious physical ailments, as if they were medical truths, without proper training and research. And we understand that doing so would be stupid and dangerous. For example, if you tell me you have bowel cancer I would not assume your genetic or behavioural history that lead to it, even if I knew other people who had suffered and survived or died of it. I would not tell you what you must and must not do, and what it says about you as a person that you have the condition (any more than we can assume that every lung cancer victim was a smoker – a common error). Rather I would show my sympathy for your situation and try to support you, and rest on the expertise of your specialist with their recent and highly researched knowledge, to get you through. (If I did express any opinion on what they should or shouldn’t do I would be exceptionally careful to make it clear it was only my personal view and wouldn’t want to be responsible for them acting on my advice if it contradicted their assigned expert.)

And yet when we hear someone is suicidal – which is an extremely life-threatening mental condition – people are so very ready to put on their expert’s hat: “Oh you’re just attention seeking”, “oh, you’re genetically mentally ill”, “oh, you’re clearly a egomaniac”. What makes people think they are experts on this condition? Just because they’ve felt suicidal before? The reasons you were suicidal will very likely be different than this other person, plus you didn’t end up killing yourself did you so how much can you really claim to understand them? Maybe if you attempted and failed the suicide it might be a tad more believable that you truly understand. I’d also suggest that if you’re saying someone else is evil because they considered or achieved suicide, that you might be projecting yourself a bit there – maybe what you need is to think more about what you’re really admitting to.

The other thing that tends to make people think they’re such experts on suicide is that they know people who have succeeded in committing it. I know people who have died of all sorts of physical conditions, does that make me an expert in their deaths? Of course not. And the mind is an incredibly complicated thing – a bodily organ that is formed and effected as well by our daily experiences. What in god’s name would make you an expert in all suicides just because you knew one or two people who committed the act? Did you do a chemical break-down of their brains before and after the fact? Did you counsel them for years before the act was achieved – with a background of years of professional study in higher learning institutions, that qualify you to comment enmass about the cause of all suicides..? I doubt it.

The fact is the human mind is exceptionally complex in so many ways, and its chemical make-up can differ vastly from person to person. Just because you have a brain doesn’t make you an expert on the ones that kill themselves. In the same way that just because you have a body doesn’t make you an expert on the ones that die.

The extra danger of course with claiming such expertise about suicidal people is that your opinions of them can directly effect whether they follow through on the act or not, so you better be careful aye? And no it’s not so simple as saying “I told them I’d think they were selfish ass-hats if they killed themselves so now they won’t do it!” Cause guess what, if they really were selfish ass-hats that opinion of yours wouldn’t matter would it? You also can’t claim that telling them to stop using suicide to seek attention will make them stop it, cause guess what, if you’re right they still desperately want and need that attention and you choosing to ignore their cry for help will only make it worse.

I have seen suicidal people stop in their plans because someone simply hugged them. Or because someone told them they cared whether they lived or died. Or because someone gave them the right pills to fix their serotonin levels. How helpful have these other people been at stopping suicides, by putting them down both before and after the fact? You might be saying things to make yourself feel better or trying to make the people left behind feel a bit less upset, but wouldn’t it be better to have shown the understanding in the first place in the hope it could have stopped the act happening at all? Knowing you did all you could – like Prad did? Wouldn’t that make you a better person. Even if you didn’t succeed, and even though you know the failure isn’t your fault, at least you know you were there and you did what you could, when they felt that no-one else cared or could help.

It’s so easy to dismiss suicidal people cause they’re not around to defend themselves anymore are they. It’s so easy to label them to make yourself seem superior just for having not killed yourself. Next time someone asks you your opinion about why suicidal people kill themselves, just stop and admit first that it depends on the life experiences, on the brain chemistry and on so many other factors you don’t know enough about, before you label them all as stupid, evil or insane. Because frankly, labelling them that way makes you look stupid, evil, and – if you really think it will stop suicides – possibly insane too.

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Replies to my recent post about Virtual Illegalities, and reading this very entertaining item (“Vaginas with teeth and other sexual myths“), got me thinking about what we can learn from Second Life about sexual “perversions” and “deviance”. This post brings together a lot of thoughts I’ve expressed over previous blog entries, specifically as they relate to sexualities and adult freedoms in a virtual world. I find the more you write and get feedback on such topics, the more it helps you understand both the reality, and your own view of that reality, so as usual I’d love to get your feedback on what follows.

In Second Life adults find a safe outlet for experimenting with sexual acts and preferences they may have never followed through with in real life. In turn, it also provides a way to live out sexual preferences that you may have always had in real life but not been able to take part in due to your own or others fears and prejudices. Those may include acts which are still deemed illegal or immoral in the real world – the extremes being bestiality, paedophilia, and rape. What makes those the taboo extremes is the lack of meaningful consent by all parties involved. And that seems like a very reasonable and logical line to draw.

A world like Second Life though provides a way to overcome that moral and legal restriction, because the consent of the other party is either irrelevant (because it isn’t a sentient being playing the role of the dog etc), or because it is a consenting adult after-all who is going along with the act (the rape, for example).

The consideration that always feeds into this debate is whether allowing such things either encourages it in the real world, or stops the act being followed through in the real world. Beyond those interesting questions though, you have to be ready to ask if the answers even matters, since the virtual act itself is just that: virtual. And between consenting adults.

There are plenty of other sexual “perversions” though that people find sick and disturbing for reasons apart from missing consent – usually because they deem the act as degrading or mentally harmful. For example, the sub and dom culture that thrives in Second Life, is seen by many as a distasteful and disturbing pass-time that reveals either cruelty or deficient weakness in the participants. It is not surprising that those sexual cultures defend their activities, but at the end of the day it’s nothing to do with everyone else anyway since they are, after-all, consenting adults.

Another piece of the puzzle when trying to work out how we feel about and respond to such “deviances” is whether the people involved “chose” the preference. For example, the fact that many homosexuals didn’t choose to be attracted to their own sex, is seen by some as the “redeeming” feature that means we must learn to accept it. However this strikes me as completely the wrong focus. I have discussed in a previous post that whether you choose your sexuality is irrelevant – as long as the act is between consenting adults, everything else is people getting their sticky-beaks where they don’t belong. It is not up to us to criminalise or condemn people for doing what they want with their own bodies.

Which brings us to the question of harm. Most liberals ascribe to a theory of paternalism – trying to protect people from themselves. They either claim to know what is best for you and therefore deny you the right to choose it yourself (and that hardly requires me to point out how flawed it is, I hope!). Or they claim that the very fact you choose to do an act with is harmful (physically or mentally) means your consent is vitiated and deemed flawed in some essential way; that you have thereby already provided proof that you are not mentally sound or competent to make such decisions for yourself.

The beauty of Second Life is it degrades at least some of these paternalistic complaints – particularly in regards to physically hurting yourself (say through bondage). People will still try to tell you you are mentally damaging yourself but at least in-world  they can not stop you by physical force or by threatening your real world reputation. Second Life provides a haven from the do-goody paternalism which deems free consenting acts between adults as morally repugnant, which forces people in the real-world to live in denial and have unfulfilled sex-lives.

My hope is that through Second Life we can come to accept the huge variety of sexual acts and preferences, and realise that what matters is the consent between adults. That we can reflect on the really very large numbers of people who do what we have labeled perverse or deviant in the past (be it masturbation, sub-dom, scat-love, etc), and start to realise that it is too wide-spread to be given such labels, that in fact it is just part of our repertoire of sexual experiences that help us explore and enjoy our own and others bodies.

We’ve come a long way from seeing sex as something dirty, and masturbation as something that will make your palms hairy and make you go blind. The anonymity from our real world selves that we find in virtual worlds, helps us explore and discover not just our true selves, but others too. We don’t have to personally like and partake in the huge varieties of sexual acts out there – allowing such acts doesn’t mean anyone’s going to force you or your child to become or do something they don’t want to. Taking part in what we currently may still view and label as deviant acts, doesn’t make you different or evil or stupid, and as we interact and talk openly with such people who have different tastes than us, in the international adult universe of Second Life, that becomes clearer. One hopes.

Issues such as how we feel about Linden Labs cleaning up the adult world in Second Life – sanitising it to accord more with our dominant real world morals and laws – forces us to think about where we stand on these issues. So what about you, where do you stand on such issues, and how has Second Life changed your attitudes towards sexual perversions and deviances..? Has it perhaps cemented your hatred and intolerance of such deviance and perversion? And either way, why has that change in attitude happened..?

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Even after doing a fancy-pants law degree I still don’t read the fine-print on most on-line contracts – I scroll down to the “I agree” box just like most of you do. A single page contract is usually my limit for online stuff, beyond that I get impatient and my eyes go fuzzy so I just cross my fingers and hope for the best. I know, I’m setting a great example. In my defence I’m not an actual lawyer per se, just someone with a law degree who teaches law to future lawyers. OK, so I still suck, but this story is going somewhere.

I did a Google search for my Second Life name today in the same way I occasionally search my real life name – just to see if I need to be suing anyone for defamation or thanking anyone for calling me awesome. I was up to the fourth page of search results when I found an odd reference to myself on someone else’s blog. It went a little like this: “…Second Life and the inSL™ logo are trademarks of Linden Research®, Inc. Landsend Korobase is not affiliated with or sponsored by Linden Research®. This site is not owned or operated by Second Life® or Linden Lab®.” Spot the problem? It wasn’t my blog, it’s not someone I know or have ever heard of either, and yet their blog requires a notice that I am not affiliated with Linden Labs..?

They’d simply taken the legal warning from my blog and posted it in their own side-bar. I don’t know why they chose to take it from mine and not someone else’s (they weren’t enamoured enough with me to have me on their blog list), but there it was. So I very politely and with a smile pointed out in a comment on their latest blog entry that they might want to fix the name reference. I’m familiar with the typical wordpress settings so I expected (and was right) that the comment wouldn’t go public – so they can simply read and delete my comment without anyone else having to see it. Problem solved.

Have a look at my side bar and you’ll see the legal warning, it’s full of annoying trade mark symbols and such like but frankly it’s very short and doesn’t take a minute to read. I have no issues with people taking the legalise and using it on their own blog, cause I took it off someone else’s and just changed my name in it anyway – it’s not protected content in itself. But why would someone post on the front page of their blog – for every visitor to see – something they hadn’t read first? I don’t know how long it’s been up on their site but it makes them look a bit silly and careless.

Which brings me to a related point that has to be said: What’s the bet no one else has even read or noticed the mistake, since no one but the occasional geek like me even reads those things?

*sighs*

Here’s the thing: If the legal stuff is only a page long, just read the damn thing. Saying you didn’t read it later in a court of law isn’t a defence. If the contract you’re agreeing to is about money you should read the whole thing – you might not understand everything you read but at least you’ll know what to ask questions about and if anything is too confusing or smells dodgy, you’ll know to leave it alone or at least be cautious. But our lesson for the day: If you’re going to pin some legal junk to the front page of your own blog, spare a second to make sure it says what you need it to say and that you’re not making a fool of yourself.

It’s tempting to change my legal warning to say something that will make anyone who copies it without reading it look particularly silly…

But I’m a good girl… except when it comes to reading all the fine print in every online contract. I know I know, my rebellion is the stuff of legends 🙂

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blacked-outThis post is directly related to the one below it, but going a step further to try to raise awareness of the wider implications of this badly constructed law which effects New Zealander’s at this point in time, but could easily become a wider adopted policy that could hurt you directly too. Please help us. Join us in the Black-Out, save the Internet. Click the links below. Thanks.

The Black-Out Campaign

The Lights are going out all over Twitter

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Edit: Most recent news item about the protest and the offending Bill: “Copyright Protesters say Law ‘Stripping Rights'”

Cartoon: Pirating the Justice Sytem

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I’ve only recently come across a blog entry about a law that is meant to come into force here very soon – one that makes ISPs cut off Internet access once a customer has infringed copyright more than once, via their Internet service. It’s seen as a highly controversial move, mostly turning on the issue of proof of the infringement. The infringements (as the Bill currently stands) do not have to be proven in a court of law.

This is just one more effort to counter the intellectual property issues plaguing the Internet – the sort of issues that Second Life residents face every day. In my personal opinion this is a misguided approach to the issue that causes more problems than it will solve. A previous blog post of mine talked about the bad laws that often get implemented to try to cover new technology, and I think here we have a prime example of that typically haphazard and unprincipled approach. Part of the extended debate on this particular issue is whether other countries will follow our “bold lead”… one can only hope not.

This is an issue I intend to return to in more depth soon since the law is due to come into force at the end of this month, I will keep an eye on it’s progress and reception. I will also take a more in-depth look at the rest of the Act since it is entirely about “New Technologies” and copyright. If you’d like to have a look at the original Government press release about the Act, you’ll find it here.

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