Monthly Archives: April 2007

Second Life’s search for identity

Three interesting events have happened in the Second Life arena over the past few weeks, and together they make a compelling case that the place is growing up, but not without growing pains:

  1. First, Linden Lab announced that it is planning to introduce an opt-in system for users to be able to confirm aspects of each others’ real-life identities, such as age and jurisdiction.
  2. At the same time, Linden Lab also announced that it will no longer “abet” in the advertising of casinos in Second Life, because these have a questionable legal status in some jurisdictions.
  3. Finally, a few days ago, Linden Labs Electric Sheep Company introduced a new web-based search tool for Second Life, coupled to a bot that scrapes every public space about once a day for items made by users that are for sale (on the assumption that these are therefore intended for public consumption — it is possible to opt out, however). It works much better than the in-world search function we’ve had until now. Just look at what a search for “swedish” brings up.

Before I draw some general conclusions, there are some interesting reactions to the introduction of search in SL worth noting: SL blogs in the main have lauded it, as do I. It greatly increases the findability of SL objects, and hence the usability of SL as a whole. It truly does to SL what the advent of decent search engines did to the web in 1996.

But on the web in 1996, it also took some getting used to the fact that search engines made holiday snapshots or a CV on your obscure home page accessible to all. To others, this newfound search efficiency cut out profit opportunities for business plans that relied on information opacity. And so it is in SL today: Large SL stakeholder Anche Chung has forbidden the bot from all her properties, and residents are realizing they have public objects listed for sale that they thought were out of the public eye, simply because there was no easy way to find them previously.

There are some larger trends afoot, I think: The coming ability to verify identities will make it easier for businesses (including casinos) to be run legitimately in SL, just as they are on the web now; this is just another step in the process of SL becoming a mainstream 3D medium — a 3D immersive web rather than a self-sufficient alternate community.

The introduction of search also sees Linden Lab Electric Sheep take on a relationship to Second Life which is not unlike that of Google to the web.

What about a Google analogy for Linden Lab? It is to Second Life what Google is to the Google Earth Community and YouTube. Both these places contain user-generated content, but Google also hosts the content, and thus has an ultimate legal responsibility — witness recent dustups in Turkey and Thailand over YouTube content deemed illegal in these countries. Gambling in Second Life present a similar exposure for Linden Lab.

The long-term solution to such dilemmas is to open-source the software that serves Second Life content, or at the very least to license it — and this will be easier to do once protocols are in place for proving one’s true identity. In other words, everything is proceeding according to plan in the metaverse roadmap:-)

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FAQ: How real can a virtual embassy be?

Several people have asked how “official” the embassy will be in Second Life. Here are some typical questions: “Could we consider the Swedish Embassy in SL as an official representation of the Swedish government? Is the embassy going to charge a fee for its services? Who will work at the embassy? Will Swedes abroad be able to use it to do consular business?”

The short answer is that the virtual embassy in Second Life is not an official embassy, and you can’t do any consular business there, though it is a government project: The Swedish Institute, which is behind the project, is a government agency. One of SI’s mandates is to promote Sweden via public diplomacy using a wide variety of media, and the institute collaborates closely with Swedish embassies and consulates around the world to get its message across.

The virtual embassy, then, is SI’s public diplomacy transposed into a brand new media — an immersive 3D virtual world.

We actually did think about whether it might be possible to have some functions performed in-world, but the main impediment right now is that there is no way to guarantee identities and engage in secure transactions in Second Life. I’m sure that will change — in any case, avatars don’t need visas to visit Sweden:-)

Instead, the Second House of Sweden will fulfill the role of “embassy” in the more secular sense of the word: as an emissary of goodwill to a place. We will have people at the embassy during set hours of the day to answer questions about Sweden, and we will also have information about where to find the embassies nearest you in real life, as well as information about how to get a visa (if you need one). But the majority of the embassy will be dedicated to revolving exhibits about Sweden, and to providing a platform for events — film showings, seminars, concerts, all with a Swedish theme. Finally, there will also be some typically Swedish things for visitors to do… more about that later:-)

Division of labor

Apologies all round for the lapse in posting, especially so soon after launching this blog, but I have plenty of excuses lined up. They’re not that interesting, so I’m listing them at the end of this post.

Work on the Second House of Sweden is continuing apace. What’s interesting is how the work is naturally ending up being divided into tasks that correspond to the different types of content we’re going to have:

  • The platform: Our presence in Second Life is taking shape across two sims. Both are being styled to represent islands along Sweden’s coastline, not unlike what the Stockholm Archipelago looks like. One sim will give visitors new to Second Life a quick orientation, while the other will hold the virtual embassy and the amphitheater. A lot of attention is being paid to getting the mood just right — Swedish nature is quite distinctive, and we’re trying to capture that. The idea is that first impressions will be very positive — to that end, Söderhavet are plying Electric Sheep with plenty of photography and art detailing precisely how the archipelago looks. I can’t wait to see the end result — Electric Sheep are proving themselves to be master builders.
  • Repurposed web content: The Swedish Institute sits atop a treasure trove of information about Sweden in a variety of media, and much of this is already accessibly via our web sites — recipes, music, PDFs, pictures… These are easy pickings for repurposing in Second Life. What’s a challenge, however, is that some of this content is best suited for viewing in 2D rather than in 3D, so the focus is on building a compelling gateway to the content already served on our websites. Our PDF booklets, for example, will be downloadable from virtual bookstands, while our recipes will be linked to from within SL. A Swedish music stream will be available as you amble through the islands.
  • Second Life-specific content: More exciting perhaps are the projects that involve completely new content created specifically for delivery via Second Life. The embassy will house three exhibition areas, and two of these will (likely) house completely new 3D material around Swedish themes. (I’m not going to give away what precisely just yet.) In the longer term, we’re looking at changing these exhibition spaces every three months or so, though we may keep past exhibits accessible — hey, it’s Second Life, it’s not as if we’re cramped for space.
  • Events: It’s the events that are going to provide the most compelling reason to revisit the Second House of Sweden, I suspect. If you look at what are the most popular (serious) places in Second Life today, they are the ones that manage to regularly set up interesting group activities — discussions, debates, presentations, interviews, film showings, concerts, art installations, press conferences… Our first such event will be the opening of the virtual embassy, and it will be attended by Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt. Afterwards, we’re hoping to provide a regular stream of interesting events. Planning these will be a challenge, but I think that plenty of venues already cater to pure entertainment, so we’ve pretty much got the market to ourselves when it comes to debating Sweden’s politics and culture from a more scholarly perspective — especially as voice chat is coming to Second Life, which will make presentations much more compelling.
  • That’s the main outline of how development is proceeding on our end. I’ve been meaning to put up a quick flyover of the model for all this, just as an teaser, and I promise to put something up in the next few days.

    (The excuses, as promised: Most of last week I spent in Sweden, which was chock-full of meetings, the kind that don’t really work via Skype, and then last Wednesday, March 28, the Swedish Institute hosted a conference for Swedish organizations that either are in Second Life or are thinking of going into Second Life. On March 29 some of us at the Swedish Institute travelled to Budapest for a series of internal meetings, and I finally made it back to Cairo on Tuesday, April 3. Today, April 4, I finally (after a three week wait) got an internet connection delivered to my apartment, and you are now seeing the fruits of that.)