Saturday saw me largely confined to the house with my bad back, which meant I missed a party in London and was feeling particularly fed up. I decided, rather impulsively, to drink something and wander round the internet. Only at the time I considered it extending my experiences beyond the paradigm of normal partying.
Re-reading that paragraph, I picture a unique combination of pretentiousness, pointlessness and doom. But I did feel like it might be interesting to revisit a couple of the community technologies I’ve used in the past: if only because the technology is close enough to my own work that I really should know what the modern world can offer, to bluff convincingly in front of clients. Also, in keeping with my rather intangible “resolutions” for this year, it would mean exercising skills and resources I had long neglected. I wouldn’t invest too much time in any given pursuit, but I could at least scout around to see whether I ought to in the future.
First I took a brief trip through Internet Relay Chat, or IRC. A text-based medium, where people talk on “channels” belonging to servers, rather than on “rooms” belonging to, oh, Microsoft, sounds terribly outdated in 2008, but depending on your tastes you might still find a channel you’d want to subscribe to. More than ever, IRC is inhabited by coders, warez-phreaks and complicated sex combinations: I didn’t actually see #lesdomfilipinoh4x0rs but if I scrolled the list too quickly it read more or less like variations on that theme.
Over the years, most of IRC’s reputable stock has shifted gradually and quietly to other outlets. Instant messenger variants—jabber, MSN and AOL among others—provide one-to-one and one-to-few instantaneous chats. Dedicated forums host longer conversations, more detailed but also more delayed. The social networking sites, Twitter and the like permit people to essentially only connect to each other: “I’m doing this: what are you doing?” Most strikingly, instantaneous, random, free-for-all, themed chat can now be carried out in the far more futuristic Second Life.
Ah, Second Life. Butt of one of The Register’s longstanding jokes: calling it Sadville both diminishes it and ridicules its inhabitants, in some cases unfairly—but only some. In the three dimensions of SL one can find plenty of the bizarre excesses of human behaviour, perhaps mirroring real life, but certainly mirroring IRC: but only in a fantasy environment could you conceal the rather shocking truth of where baby unicorns come from.
Surprising as it might seem, I’ve tried SL once or twice before: I found it an entertaining if ultimately empty experience. Most islands are practically uninhabited (they have to be, as too many people in one place slows down the servers). In the end I tried a bit of skydiving and then made my formulaic way through a rather badly assembled “hilarious” haunted house. Even when you meet other people, most are (as you’d infer from real life) largely unwilling to talk to strangers. What would they talk about anyway?
I realised there was one obvious answer to this question on Saturday. Actually, I’d learned it the answer once before, in my undergraduate days: people seek out music. There’s an indie-music club in SL called alt7 which I’d wandered round in the past—it had been empty, naturally—which seemed on Saturday to be having a music night. I turned up and it was packed.
Well, packed for SL. Greater than thirty people is high for a SL island (and at its nineties nadir IMSoc was having trouble rustling up that many). The music was smashing, though, which explained the “crowds.” I chatted with a few people, including the DJ, about Nirvana, Joy Division and a few other bits and pieces, and even encountered a few new bands: each track’s artist and title was displayed prominently in the 3D club. On screen my avatar gyrated itself through a rather ungainly stock animation, and so did everyone else’s. If you liked you could look round at the trappings of a club altogether as badly put-together as an indie club should be, although possibly not wholly intentionally.
The experience, stripped of the visual aspects, was very much like having a sort of Last.fm radio station, with the ability to talk to other listeners attached. Someone else’s reasonably intelligent choice of music was piped to you, with a running commentary and occasional requests. Excellent, I thought: this is precisely what I want, to discover new sources of that luscious sonic honey that flows from every pore of the new year.
Actually, in the context of SL, sych graphic metaphors become vaguely creepy. The idea of applying metaphors to online experiences has fuelled good websites since the birth of the web. Some sites “behave” like, say, a grocer’s, and some might behave like, well, a room you chat in: that means the user knows what to expect; when they (accidentally or otherwise) stop behaving like that then the visitor is jolted out of their reverie and has to deal with blue underlined links and gaps between graphics.
But the metaphorical beast needs careful wrestling on SL, because there’s always someone who will want to literalize them. This is what SL is right now: one big collection of literalized metaphors, caprices of analogy made concrete. The grocer’s now really does look a bit like a grocer’s, only not very consistently and with about three tins in it because graphics are expensive; the chat room looks like a room, and—if you can work around SL’s rather poor chat software—you can chat in it. A bit. Until too many people log in, everything slows down, and nobody can really hold a conversation any more.
To be honest, although the music was great, the visual aspect was no more informative than the display of an IRC channel’s text: just more, well, visual, and distracting with it. As my tastes run to the rather odd combination of verbal and spatial, I’d prefer it if the effort of placing something over here, and something else over here (when those two things don’t even exist without someone’s hard work) could help me to visualize abstract relations. I can move furniture round an office perfectly well, thanks very much; I can even assemble my own furniture if it comes with instructions. And when my back’s better, I can go to parties and dance to music: I don’t do it very often, but I could.
Right now the unique selling point of SL—the avatar, the space, the notion of creating a world separate from ours—seems entirely overused, yet at the same time underinformative. Meanwhile, the wide range of other opportunities it offers are amply covered by existing methods on the web. SL still awaits its “killer app,” the employment of SL ideas which will finally justify their enormous overheads. For now, although I might well pass by again in the future, I’m undecided as to whether the whole shebang is really worth all those polygons. Even if they make a beautiful baby unicorn.