Some thinky-thoughts about SL and its cult of self

We’ve just endured the 75th [source] ‘famous death’ of 2016, with the sudden and devastating loss of Prince. And I, like many others, felt the need to commemorate the impact he’d had on me, by using Second Life to create a tribute.

Most of the time, when I do this, I’m of the opinion that Simple is Best. Here is my Prince tribute, as posted on Flickr:

A purple guitar, a dove (to reference one of his most famous songs) and a lyric of his that I felt was perfect for the moment.

I do the ‘guitar thing’ quite a lot when it comes to tributes. Or, rather, I think about something the person was known for, and then I try to create my tribute image around that. Here are two more SL-based tributes showing that.

First, a tribute to Les Paul, the creator of one of the world’s most iconic guitars. There was really only one way to remember him, and that was to find a Les Paul instrument in SL.

And John Lennon, on the anniversary of his death. The setting is an approximation of the white room and piano from the Imagine video, and – of course – those iconic glasses.

A more recent loss – and one that hit me very hard, considering how much I adore his books – was that of Terry Pratchett. (I adore him so much that I have the ‘clacks overhead +GNU Terry Pratchett‘ plugin installed on this blog. If you have the clacks browser plugin installed, you’ll have noticed that already.) Considering the incredible array of characters he created, I could have gone in any direction with this tribute, but my favourite Pterry character has always been Death, who loves his curries and rides a white horse called Binky. So my tribute featured them.

So where does this ‘cult of self’ come in? Well, so much of SL is about the avatar. Shopping and making our pixel dollies look nice is a large part of Second Life, as well as its economy. It’s only natural that, when we create a tribute, our avatar will possibly feature in that tribute. I don’t do it so much these days, as I prefer to pay tribute by using association, but some like to pay tribute by mimicry. We love our idols, and we want to be like them. From our teens, when we develop our first pop/film/sports star crushes, we emulate them. We get the haircuts, we buy the clothes (both the fashion style they have, and their branded merchandise), we band together in groups of like-minded people, we build our identities around the things – and the people – we admire.

So it’s perfectly natural to pay tribute to a deceased celebrity in Second Life with the thing that is closest to us: our avatars. But… does dressing up exactly as that celebrity risk making our tribute all about us, rather than about them? I’m on the fence about this, for those admiration-via-emulation reasons given in the previous paragraph (imitation = sincerest form of flattery, etc), but I still feel a teensy bit… I dunno, weirded out when someone’s tribute runs more along the lines of “I’m going to BE them” rather than “I’m going to be INSPIRED BY them”. It seems to become more about accuracy, about scouring Marketplace for hours to put together the best and most spot-on [insert celebrity name here] look, rather than about capturing the spirit of why they meant so much to you.

Does that make sense?

I mean, hell, I’ve paid tribute by featuring my avatar more times than I’ve not. But each time, I’ve tried to be inspired by the person I’m honouring with the tribute, rather than actually trying to be that person.

Dressing up in partial-drag to honour Holly from Lou Reed’s A Walk on the Wild Side.

Strutting down a catwalk to honour my fashion icon, Alexander ‘Lee’ McQueen. (I’ll admit that, if I did this tribute again now, I would have taken the spirit of that quote and created a McQueen-inspired outfit to walk that runway in. However, at the time, I was still fairly new to the whole online tribute thing, and I thought it more respectful to pay tribute with a stylish, but sombre, suit.)

Only days before he died, I’d received Steve Strange’s iconic makeup in a blogger pack. It was only fitting that I honoured the man who pretty much created the whole New Romantic style with the makeup from his most well-known song (also referenced in the chiaroscuro of the image itself) – Fade to Grey.

A boy in fur and makeup, protecting the glitter ball until it starts sparkling again, after Donna Summer had died. This one, while on the surface not being particularly much, was all about the spirit of disco, embodied by that glitter ball.

And, finally, the hardest loss of all. How does one encapsulate the loss of Bowie? Many did it by recreating his album covers (notably Aladdin Sane, since the lightning bolt makeup is readily available in SL), and that’s probably – for me – the only “I’m going to be them” tribute that I don’t get weirded-out by, because you’re paying tribute to the iconography that represents  a celebrity, regardless of the fact that you’re being  that celebrity on the album cover). Many of us have already done tributes to Bowie in the past, so we reblogged or re-uploaded those, because hellfire, doing a tribute can be an expensive and time-consuming business, especially if the items are one-offs that you’ll never use again. (Case in point: the Prince tribute cost me L$2000 for the guitar and dove, and I doubt they’ll leave my inventory again.)

But for me Bowie was all about his differentness, and how he made it okay to be different. It was about the stardust he sprinkled over everyone who wasn’t quite like everyone else, no matter in what way. You don’t have to be queer or freaky to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb in a crowd and draw unwanted, negative attention for it. Hell, I was bullied at school because I was bookish and quiet, and I enjoyed classical music as well as the pop that everyone else liked. But Bowie was well-read, he narrated Peter and the Wolf, he sang Brecht, and – without taking into account any other shared differentnesses (is that even a word?) that I had with him – I was drawn to him.

So, for me, my tribute was all about the bright star, and the boy eagerly reaching up to catch the stardust. You can barely see the boy, because he often felt like he wasn’t visible, but he’s there, just yearning for that sparkle.

So, back to that cult of self. Of course, our Flickr accounts, our Tumblrs, our blogs, and everywhere else we share pictures from inworld, are all about us and our avatars. One glance at the front page of my Flickr right now will show you I’m all about the fashion thing, and you kinda need to show fashion on an avatar. So I get that, I really do.

But I’m noticing it elsewhere, too, and where I’ve noticed it most is on Strawberry Singh’s Monday Memes. She’s recently started them up again, and that prompted me to go back through some of the older ones and take a look at them once more, remember how I interpreted them (especially the earlier ones, before I had this blog) and so forth. And I noticed something rather interesting.

I didn’t actually number-crunch or anything, but the memes where people got to post a picture of thair avatar tended to get more responses than the text-only memes. This surprised me a bit, since text-only responses are much easier and quicker to make. The difference was even more noticable when it came to posting videos of their avatar. In fact, it was the latest video meme – Dancing in Second Life – that sowed the seed for this post, with almost 60 responses, compared to the 13 responses to the question-only Social Media Meme that followed it*. Yes, social media is something that many people don’t like, so the scientist in me has to say the results were probably skewed by that, and looking back through older memes (before Berry stopped doing them for a year or so) they did garner more responses than they tend to do now, but that’s probably a result of the fact that people comment less on blogs these days (something else I’ve noticed) and prefer to click ‘like’ instead, rather than any lessening in interest.

*The ‘Never Have I Ever’ challenge also garnered 50 responses, but it was the first meme that Berry had done since stopping them, and I would expect the return of something so popular to be greeted with a lot of comments, so I didn’t count that one in my brief look back.

Now, it could just be the cynic in me noticing that (just as the same cynic notices that, when Berry does her big yearly giveaway post, suddenly she gets hundreds of comments more than she usually does) but it doesn’t surprise me. Our avatar is something we identify with, and in most cases it’s our idealised and perfect self. Yes, there are some people who want their avatar to look as much like them as possible, but for the vast majority our avatars are younger, prettier, skinnier, etc. than we are in Real Life. So it’s no wonder that we want to present (and, frankly, show off) this perfect self, this side of us that Real Life doesn’t see.

I don’t really know where this post is going, to be honest. In my rare posts for this tag I usually ramble on a subject and what gets posted is my train of thought as it hits the keyboard. So, I guess, I’ve got in a few of my thoughts about the Second Life cult of self, alongside some other stuff. I’d be interested to hear/read what others have to say about it.

The bare-faced cheek of it!

Argh! Nose triangles! *runs around, screaming*

There is an SL-based challenge – started by Genkai Tesla – currently doing the rounds on Flickr, called the SL Bare Face Challenge. It seems to take its inspiration from the recent RL ‘no makeup selfie’ challenge for cancer awareness, and – since the world (and the virtual world) is obsessed with looks it’s providing an interesting insight into how people present their avatars to others.

The rules are simple: post an unedited shot of your avatar, bare-faced. No lashes. No makeup. No enhancements. No Photoshop.

Some guys are taking the bare face idea to the point of removing facial hair, but – to me – if that’s something you normally wear then you may as well leave it on (either that or you’d have to remove your eyebrows, too!). Most of the time these days, when I’m not doing the fashion thing, Skell’s got some face fuzz going on. However, since I do  also do the fashion thing, there’s a second side to him: the smoother and more boyish andro-look. Hence I took two shots and combined them (click here to view that on Flickr).

This is everyday Skell:

Skin: Æros
Hair: Exile
Eyes: IKON

You have to agree, that is a fucking amazing skin. I practically live in it these days. But yeah, like every other skin that I wear, I have nose triangles. Those are one of the very few things that I edit in Photoshop for this blog, because they’re a flaw in the base LL avatar mesh. Normally, I would also smooth out the lumps and bumps where the side of the torso meets the arms, and I’d ease out (as best I could; I only have an ancient version of Photoshop with no liquify option) the worst of the angles on the shoulders.

Here, for comparison, is fashionisto Skell:

Skin: Swallow
Hair: Exile
Eyes: IKON

Exactly the same pose and the same shape (although, interestingly, his face looks rounder and his shoulders look slightly narrower; interesting, isn’t it, how the illusion of youth transfers from face to body?). This skin provides a much better base for layering makeup, as do many of my other more andro skins.

Now, the rules for this challenge state ‘no Photoshop’, and people are getting very  creative with all kinds of ways to show their avatar in a good light. This intrigues me. We all squirm a little uncomfortably at not being seen at our best (you have no idea how hard it was for me to let those nose triangles go!) and I can’t help but wonder if that’s not a companion to the fact that in Second Life we can be  the perfect creatures that we are not in real life. Letting go of that perfection feels like being the real ‘us’ rather than escaping to the place where we’re (very likely) a lot happier with our looks.

I’m going to go through some of the entries in the Flickr group and make a few notes about them. Please be aware that, if the original images are removed from Flickr by the people posting them, they won’t show up here.

Firstly, a stunning example of ‘bare face’ from Maya Reyes. This, for me, is the standout of the entire group at the time of writing this post.

That is taking the challenge as-is. An incredible avatar wearing a gorgeous skin (I’m reminded of the beauty of Alek Wek here). Yes, those do look like mesh ears; in fact that could also be a mesh head, since the crown of the SL head isn’t that smooth! But, if a mesh head (or mesh body) is something that you always  wear, then – shorn of makeup, lashes, piercings, etc – that is the ‘basic’ you. I think mesh heads are in keeping with the spirit of the challenge, as long as they are a permanent part of the avatar taking part.

Another lovely entry (and one which makes use of Windlight to minimise flaws in the avatar – more on that in a moment) is this shot by Alana Roses:

Very much the ‘English rose’ look, but take a closer peek around the nose. Yes, I see nose triangles! That’s a genuine bare face without Photoshop, but hmm. Don’t you think that choosing a Windlight preset that minimises the avatar’s natural flaws is actually enhancing  the avatar? While it’s not a physical enhancement, it’s still an attempt to improve on what is seen by the viewer. I’m not knocking this shot by any means; it may be that Alana always uses this kind of Windlight, so it’s in keeping with her usual style. I’m just fascinated by how people are both getting creative with ways to ensure they look their best, and why  they want to look their best.

I used a basic, full-lighting preset because, for me, this challenge was supposed to represent my avatar looking blearily in the bathroom mirror at 6am. No lovely soft light to make him look great; just full-on daylight.

And then we have the jokers. There are always one or two ;-) This one from Miss Yoon, subtitled, “not much left of me, sorry” gave me a giggle:

And then, of course, we have the ones in full makeup. I’m sorry, Talija, but this isn’t ‘bare face’:

I’m not bitchin’; just going by the rules, which state “no makeup”, and you very clearly have full makeup on: eyeshadow, mascara, eyeliner, blusher, and lipstick.

Finally, of course, we have the people who post ALL of their shots to EVERY group they’re in. There are already two full-body fashion shots in the Bare Face Challenge group, and I wonder why people do this? Is it because their finger slipped when ‘adding to group’? Is it because they use a script of some kind to save time by adding every shot they take to every group they’re in (like the people whose ‘following’ count you can watch rise by about 200 people if you refresh their profile every ten seconds; you know the ones – they’re following around 1500 SL avatars)? Is it because they know that group is likely to grow into a huge and popular one (like the “What’s your digits?” group did a few years back) and they see it as a great way to promote their fashion blog?

I really don’t understand this. I see images of fashionistas in the Pretty Boys Flickr Group (here is an example of that. Note the end of the URL: in/pool-sl_pretty_boys. What on earth does this sexypose pic of a female avatar have to do with pretty boys? Scroll through that group and you’ll see loads of female fashion shots). Not a male in sight in those pics. Why post your female fashion shots there? Pure mistake? Trying to catch someone’s eye? (And yeah, that latter is cynical of me, but I’ve been  in large menswear stores and watched as female avatars twirl and pirouette in front of solo males, giving up and moving on to the next solo male when no interest was shown. When they got to me, I’d usually just ask them to stop blocking my view of the vendors, because I was trying to shop.) I really dunno. Makes me scratch my head and shrug.

You can find the Bare Face Challenge Flickr group here. Why not take off the slap and have a go yourself?

Namaste

Soon, silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation.
– Jean Arp

The quote at the top of this post is, I’ll admit, somewhat ironic, given that I’m writing this on one of said distracting devices: a computer. However, there is much to be said for the immersiveness of Second Life (which, of course, needs a computer to access it) and how, even when sitting on a beach in SL one can feel a sense of the same relaxation one achieves on a real life vacation.

We’re a quirky bunch, us avatars. Many of us dress in SL according to the RL seasons. If I’m chilly sitting here at the computer, I’ll pull on a sweater, but then… so will Skell. Daros prefers open spaces inworld, whereas I would rather be surrounded in some way, be it in a house or a forest etc. We decorate our SL homes for various holidays (for us that would be Halloween and Christmas).

Inworld is a mirror of Outworld… or is it the other way around? Let me tell you about something that just happened…

Roughly half an hour ago, I found myself on one of our platforms with a rising and rather intense urge to DO something. But I didn’t know what. I quizzed myself: do I want to build? No. Do I want to put together a fashion plate? No. Do I want to read a book IRL? No. Housework? Hell, no! Sleep? Already had a nap.

I was getting frustrated and feeling pretty restless. ‘Caged tiger’ comes to mind, and it was getting worse. I rarely feel like that, but it’s horrible when I do.

And, just like that, I realised what it was that I needed to do. I needed to breathe. So I went to my beautiful reBourne Bali  skybox, sat down in my meditation room, and did just that.

Back just before Christmas 2012, a friend introduced me to meditation. She patiently guided me as I sometimes IM’d her wondering if I needed to sit a certain way, or breathe a certain way. The answer was no; there’s no right way to meditate. You find your  way to do it. The only thing that’s important is to be calm and still, and not berate yourself or get frustrated if your mind wanders (as it inevitably will). Her method of finding stillness (becoming a lake) didn’t work for me. Every time I tried to become a still lake, I found myself rising, until I realised my stillness was a slow-drifting cloud in the sky.

I meditate twice daily, both for very short periods (just 5 minutes as soon as I wake up and 10 minutes right before I go to sleep), for which I use a simple meditation bell app on my phone. It can be incredibly difficult to still your mind on first waking (all those sleep thoughts still being sorted!) but when mine wanders I just gently bring it back and carry on. Dispelling tension is also hard (I carry mine in my shoulders, facial muscles, and scalp) and I’ll sometimes focus a full meditation session on simply doing that.

The method that I use is a simple one: I focus on my breath at the point where it enters my body (just inside the tip of my nose). I feel the coolness as it enters, and the warmth as it leaves. Simple as that. This YouTube video was the one that eventually gave me that method, and it works perfectly for me.

I remained sitting at my computer desk for today’s extra meditation, simply cupping my hands in my lap with thumbtips touching, and placing the soles of my feet together on the floor (closing the circuit, as it were). With the big mindfulness bell at this website set to ring every minute, I sat and breathed for 20 minutes while Skell did the same in SL. As well as the sound of the bell, I also had the ambient sounds of the forest and birds that come with the Bali skybox.

And the caged feeling melted away :-)

So yes, there’s a hell of a lot to be said about the immersiveness of Second Life. Even though I was sitting in a desk chair behind a computer, I was also sitting in a beautiful house in Bali with birds chirping in a dense, distant forest and a sonorous bell chiming as I became air.

Thank you, Æble, for showing me the way :-)

Some thinky-thoughts on SL and the slippery sky of social interaction

The next time you’re having lunch in the restaurant/canteen/cafeteria at work, take a look around you. It may not be the same everywhere around the world, but here in the UK things have definitely changed in communal dining areas in the past three-to-four years. Whereas once the average workplace canteen buzzed with the low-grade hum of chat and banter, lately they’ve grown quieter.

Why? Everyone is focused on a smartphone. Eating with one hand, scrolling down Facebook posts with the other hand, followed by the occasional rub over the phone’s screen with a paper napkin when grubby fingerprints make it too annoying to read. It’s grown so prevalent that there’s now even a name for it: Phubbing – that is, snubbing someone you’re in a face-to-face social situation with by paying attention to your phone instead of to social interaction with them.

I do it, too, but mainly because my work colleagues are all doing it and the table I sit at is silent. I get fed up of watching the tops of people’s heads, and of any attempts at conversation being met with a distracted, “Mmm,” as the scrolling and replying continues. So, I pick up my phone and check my usual online places, too. What else is there to do in the space where social interaction used to be?

So, what does this have to do with Second Life, Skell? If you just want to whine about being Billy No-Mates, go outside and get some sunshine while you eat!

Right. Actually, I was thinking the other day about the Chicken Littles that claim the Windlight sky is falling every time Linden Lab introduces something new to the grid. I don’t much frequent the SL forums these days (not since the destruction of the original ones, where dissent was still allowed) but I do glance over them now and then, as well as keep an eye on several blogs.

Windlight. Homesteads. Tier increases. The buyout of SL Exchange. LL taking commission from Marketplace purchases. Pathfinding. Mesh. Materials. Server-Side Baking*. Linden Lab’s focus on other things as well as SL (Creatorverse, etc). You name it, it’s been cited as a ‘reason why SL is dying’. And, cropping up most frequently of all, the continuing decline in the number of private regions.

(*I will admit that I’m a tad leery of logging on while wearing anything I’d hate to get accidentally corrupted, either in my inventory or on the asset server until this code is clearly okay. I still haven’t forgotten what happened the last time LL rolled out some big code to Le Tigre regions – two of which are mine and Daros’s home locations – every single ‘stitching type = none’ sculpt turned irrerversibly into torii overnight. Even a rollback didn’t fix it; they were fucked up for good. I’m certain that LL wouldn’t roll out the SSB code without having fixed the potential asset server corruption issue discovered a few weeks back, and I am running a compatible viewer, but…)

So, is Second Life dying? Only in the way that we’re all dying: slowly, one day at a time. Yes, of course Linden Lab could pull the plug at any time (and I’d be screaming along with the rest of you), but in the end? Second Life is a business, and it has to make money somehow. That’s what seems to be behind the Chicken Little claims.

If LL appear on the outside to be losing money or ‘clawing it back’ somehow (Marketplace commissions/not lowering tier costs/losing private regions) then clearly there’s trouble at Battery St!

Let me ask you something: What are you, as a resident of this virtual world, doing to help keep Second Life living? I’m not talking about your financial donations to LL, in the form of tier; I’m talking about keeping the non-‘real world business’ bits of it going. The personal stuff.

Are you visiting those costly private regions, donating a few L$ to their tipjars after you’ve spent hours enjoying their lovingly-created spaces (or using them as background for your fashion blog posts), and buying their items inworld? Are you encouraging creators by leaving Marketplace reviews or sending them a ‘thank you’ notecard for an enjoyable inworld experience or great service on an item you purchased?  Or are you sitting in your skybox or on your platform, chatting on Plurk with your SL friends and purchasing only from Marketplace (where, remember, LL takes a cut from the creators’ profits on everything but the lowest-priced item. Even a L$5 item loses L$1 to the Linden Gods) and expecting the world to just keep on going around you without you doing anything whatsoever?

Stop howling. No, it isn’t all down to Linden Lab to keep your virtual world running smoothly, just as it isn’t all down to your country’s government and local authorities to keep your real world running smoothly. YOU have a part to play, too, even if you only exercise the bit of it that means voting out the government because they’re fucking things up. What use is it having a recycling scheme in place in your hometown, to help safeguard the future of the planet, if you can’t be arsed to spend five minutes in your busy day sorting out your plastics from your paper? One person’s efforts won’t make a difference? Lazy thinking. Go tell that to every individual fighting for freedom or democracy around the world: that they may as well each give up because it’s not worth their individual effort.

If (god forbid) you had a heart attack in Real Life, would you continue eating fatty food, smoking 20 a day, and boozing it up every night down your local? Unless you had a death wish, most likely not. You’d eat healthily, give up smoking, and limit your alcohol intake to an occasional glass of red wine with an evening meal.

The RL social interaction I mentioned at the beginning of this post is also happening in SL. Yes, there’s still group chat (when it works!) but try stalking a lucky chair or hanging around a riotvend to bring the price down. Tens of people, all standing in one place… in complete silence. Now, try typing something in chat. It doesn’t have to be witty; just be sociable. Make a joke, complain that your avatar’s feet are hurting because of standing around in heels all day. See what happens.

Does anyone respond? Sure, many of the people around you might not speak your language. But keep trying it, in different places. Occasionally you’ll get a response, more often you won’t.

Why the hell don’t people TALK inworld anymore? Second Life is as much a shared social space as the workplace canteen, and what do we do? We’re chatting in IM, we’re messing around on Plurk/Twitter/Facebook. We’re sorting our inventory and have two giant windows open, blocking the view of everything except the lucky chair letters (okay, that one is at least productive in an SL sense!)

Fuck knows, I’m not the most sociable person in real life. It may surprise you to discover that I’m something of an introvert, and in new-to-me locations where I have a lot of people around me, the social mask has to slide down over my face so that I can be the perfect chatty and witty guest… and then I need to go home and be alone for a few hours to recover my internal and emotional equilibrium.

In Second Life we have (among others) four amazing things:

1 – The distance of actual, physical miles and a computer screen between us and other people. This is our social safety net, because we can press a button and we’ve clicked our heels three times. We’re home, alone, safe.

2 – An avatar through which we can project ourselves. Some of us have multiple avatars, through which we project multiple aspects of ourselves.

3 – In contrast to #1, we also have the closing of distance. My beloved Daros lives thousands of miles away from me, but when we’re logged on together and cuddling on a couch, I can practically feel the warmth of his love around me.

4 – We can be our true selves here. Not the selves that the world expects of us, but the selves we know we are inside. The real world demands that we wear masks, but this virtual world lets us pull that mask off and recover our internal and emotional equilibrium.

Look, I’m not a business analyst, although observational and analytical skills are key to my RL line of work. But, the way I see it is this:

In the beginning, Philip made Avatar. And he saw that it was good. He let Avatar fly and throw grenades to change the world around him. And that was good. He gave Avatar creatures to watch over, that ate each other and grew bigger. And that, too, was good. But something was missing.

So, Philip made Woman, and she called herself Steller Sunshine. And, when Philip left Steller alone while he slept, she forged a world with her hands, by the simple expedience of creating a home for herself.

In those few hours, the future of Second Life changed into what we have now. It went from a world where its creators didn’t quite know what to do with it, into an expansive, explosive, utterly fucking WONDERFUL creative space, where Avatar would learn and build and make and hack (white hat, of course) the creators’ own tools to make even better things.

So, while the Linden Gods could just power down Battery Street before we’ve had a chance to build our mesh arks and sail away for the lands of OpenSim (and the “I told you so!” of the OSGrid), in the end it is down to us – Avatar – to keep this prim-n-pixel world going.

Explore. Thank people for wonderful builds. Encourage creators. Shop inworld. Leave your platform. TALK. Put on the mask, if you have to, but recognise YOUR responsibility to this world we inhabit.

We are Second Life’s heartbeat. Get out there and administer a little CPR.