Monday, March 15, 2010

Merging the Second Life Adult and Teen Grids -- "Who's on first?"

So what is going on with the idea of merging Second Life’s Teen Grid and Adult grid into one big happy world?

This is something that has been kicking around as a rumor since early last year. There are those who argue that the ghettoization of adult content into Zindra was in preparations for this (personally I think it was perhaps more directed at defeating the widespread perception that “SL is all about pixel poking” in order to help attract more business and education customers). Obviously, if they decide to do so, it’s going to be a real challenge to make that kind of merger work without killing what makes SL a remarkable and engaging place for people over the age of 18 (and I’m not talking about sex).

I began thinking about the possibility a lot more after “There” closed, because such a large part of the customer base in that particular virtual world seemed to be made up of the pre-18 demographic. Some of us suspect that the demise of that platform was at least partially brought about by “There’s" reliance on a market segment that injected only a relatively modest income stream into the economy of that world.

So the other day, when I had the chance to run some questions past T Linden (Tom Hale, LL’s Chief Product Officer), one of the questions I asked him was the following:

Diogenes Kuhr: “On the issue of what we can learn from "There" a big question is what is going to happen regarding younger players--there is some consensus that the nature of the demographics in "There" was part of what worked against them--their chief administrator said as much in his farewell post. You will find some persistent concern that SL is working towards an eventual incorporation of the teen grid into the main grid, a supposition that has been reinforced by the attempted isolation of adult content in Zindra and the combination of main and teen forums. Many people are worried that if this does in fact happen, it is going to have a negative impact on the viability of the platform and on the SL experience for both younger and older residents for a lot of reasons that we don't need to go into at the moment. But bottom line is, will SL continue to provide a separate experience for younger and older residents, even as the Lab works toward a broader adoption of the platform?”

And he replied:

T Linden: “While the success of kids and teen virtual worlds does highlight that there is a potential opportunity in that space, we do not have a plan to merge the grids. If we did have this plan, there are lots of regulatory and legal requirements, technical improvements (eg in terms of maturity ratings for content, chat moderation etc) that are much lower priority than our current list of "things to do". Of course, never say never... but it's not currently contemplated (my bold)." Seems pretty straightforward. Sounds good and reasonable in fact.

But then, I start seeing tweets about what M Linden (the BIG Boss) was saying in his speech at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference this weekend. And apparently he was saying that this kind of merger IS being contemplated.

I have not been able to find a transcript of what M actually said, so I could only go on what people were telling me they heard...or were told that someone else had heard. The best source I could find to this point is a brief mention in Grace McDunnough’s blog:

“When asked about merging the teen grid at the VWBPE conference M Linden confirmed that a combined adult/teen was a distant future dream, but would emerge slowly through ‘thoughtful evolution’."

To say the least, this left me utterly confuzzled. So what’s going on?

Some commentators on Twitter argued that M was perhaps trying to say things that he thought the educators “wanted to hear.’ My response to that was..”why would educators want to hear that the teen and adult grids were going to merge?” The kind and thoughtful Riven Homewood explained to to me thusly:

* Community colleges & tech schools typically have students ranging from 16 to late 20s, - 18 and over is hard for them.

* All colleges & universities find it hard to use SL for recruiting because of over 18 rule.

* I have no direct experience with the teen grid, but people I know have explored using it & decided it wasn't worth the hassle

*What I hear is that educators would like to be able to take students to the great builds on the main grid & hold mixed-age classes

*I suspect many of the people at M's talk were too new to really understand the issues. They all just wanted M bears :) that kind of made sense to me, although I'm not sure I’m still not really sure that the merger would be worth the effort. But then Riven came back at me with one more thought, after we talked about the new Media Consortium/LL joint project to develop “Hakone,” a “walled garden” environment that seems to be a variation of the "SL Enterprise" separate mini-grids, but designed specifically for education customers.

Riven further observed:

“...a mixed-age separate education grid might solve a lot of problems, but not the one of showing great main grid builds to students.”

And while I can see that yes, there are some cool things that could be shown to younger students on the main grid, wouldn’t a more important goal be to provide them with an active learning experience--rather than a passive one--on a safe, relatively grief and flying penis-proof independent grid, where they can really get engaged in world building on their own? Remember--”don’t just build a classroom, build an experience!”

And ultimately, even if some educators might be interested in getting their younger students mixed up in the main grid, has anyone actually talked to the students about it? I keep seeing serious and disturbing indications that younger people are not real comfortable about entering into life on the adult grid. For example, I have on several occasions encountered groups of obviously younger players in-world (we shall take a leap of faith that they were in fact over 18), who were all using voice, and when they found that I and the people I was talking with were NOT using voice, they became hostile and suspicious. They wanted to know why we weren’t on voice--what kind of twisted and evil truths were we trying to hid?

Now mind you, I hate using voice because: A.) it usually doesn’t function well for me; B.) I prefer the immersion of typed chat; and C.) I like having a copyable record of what gets said. Plus, voice just doesn't frakkin’ work for roleplaying, because so much of what you do in SL rp is to type out your “emotes”--descriptions of facial expressions and certain actions that can’t be represented with the avatar itself. So I got my reasons. But I don’t need some uppity kid giving me a hard time because I don’t use voice...

And this is even more interesting and disturbing because I am told that in “There,” voice was used a great deal, and that the numerous (and mostly younger) players “shunned” anyone who relied on typed chat.

That indicates to me that if even younger players than we have now were coming on to the SL main grid, they would perceive it to be an uncomfortable and semi-hostile environment. The ironic thing in all this is that I have read comments by many people who left “There” because they considered it a “perv-fest”--so maybe using voice really doesn’t give the younger players the assurances of safe social interaction that they’re looking for. Regardless of that, it would seem that SL just isn't the kind of environment that many of them will percieve to be agreeable to them.

And that lack of perceived comfort is a two-way street. Now I know this is going to make me sound like some old geezer yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off her goddam lawn--but you know, I’m not sure that a lot of the current customer base--the majority of whom, of course, are not predators and creepy axe murderers--would be all that comfortable with an increased presence of younger players coming on as individuals (not in classes). I can’t tell you how often in the last five years or so, the bad behavior of some jerk de jour was explained away as “oh well...he’s young,” (meaning late teens or early 20s).

To be a successful and happy resident of SL--ie, one who does not piss off every sentient entity you encounter--takes not only a certain degree of technical proficiency, it also requires a certain level of socialization. And of course, before you bright young geniuses start lambasting the cranky oldtimer for painting you all with the same broad brush, yes, I know there are young people who are great to work with and who have oodles of maturity, and yes, there are older players who wallow in their own infantilism. It’s not all black or white. But there do seem to be certain tendencies among certain demographic segments that do seem to repeat themselves.

So that brings us back to the whole issue of should the two grids merge or not. My gut feeling is to say no--I really don’t think it would help the company make enough extra money in order to make it worth dealing with the extra issues...and yeah, face it, it would create a plethora of problems. Even with careful forethought like M was talking about, anything that is done to--or on--the platform usually becomes a jolly festival of unintended consequences.

Maybe they can plan like crazy and mitigate the potential quicksand puddles. Maybe. But in the meantime, they really kind of need to get their story straight.


  1. At the risk of shooting my mouth off regarding things I don't fully understand, it's never been clear to me what youngsters were supposed to be protected from in separating the two grids. Oh, sure, I understand that *Linden Lab* is protecting itself from legal liability by being able to say with a semi-straight face that everyone being exposed to...well, just leave it at "everyone being exposed" is of legal age in the U.S. But let's not fool ourselves and think that the Lab is preventing a 16 year old from being shocked by the sight of floating penises. And if your little tot is surfing the Web unsupervised, you have bigger problems than said tot stumbling into Zindra.

    I'm with you that a large influx of young 'uns might detract from my own enjoyment because *on average* these folk seem a little less mature than we cranky old people. But they tend to stay away from, say, Victorian-themed areas for the most part. (I can't imagine they're thrilled about 19th century Western RP, either, except that it occasionally involves shooting someone.) The kids don't bother me unless they actually walk all over my lawn, at which point I'm happy to yell at them like an old fart.

  2. You know Rhia, you've got a real good point: that in many ways what we are facing is not necessarily the reality of the Main Grid being a "dangerous" place for young people, where they need "protecting"--it is that it is PERCEIVED as a dangerous place.

    It's like this thing about the youngsters who react with hostility and suspicion if you're not using voice. In the examples I witnessed, the people they were getting upset with were in no way a fact,it was the young people who had approached us and initiated contact--rather than the other way around. My own inclination was to simply say hello and then ignore them because they were so terminally vapid. But they had been trained to view the situation in a certain way.

    The ironic thing of course, is that you had "There" which claimed to a safer place and more "welcoming" to people of all ages. Yet the anecdotal evidence about that world suggests that it had more than it's own share of inappropriate situations and interactions going on.

    But part of what is going on, I think, is that as a society we have fallen into the habit of training kids--and ourselves--to think of the internet as an especially dangerous place, full of sexualized bear traps and pits full of social pungee sticks, and that there is a predator under every virtual rock.

    And the fact is, yes, there is a lot of that stuff...JUST LIKE THE REST OF THE WORLD. Schools churches, playgrounds, day care centers--and yes, families--are not guaranteed to be safe places. But I think it is easier for us as a society to tell our kids that they "need to be careful online"...and it is easier to convince ourselves that we are doing a good job of "protecting" our kids if we make them paranoid about online interaction.

    In point of fact, it seems that the worst predatory activities and the most common inappropriate behaviors that take place within a digital context involve young people of similar ages doing these things to each other, not young people who have gotten mixed up with older people.

    And of course it doesn't help that "journalists" love to jump on this kind of band wagon because "sex sells." And then legislators love to try to "do something" about things like perceived online dangers because doing so helps camouflage the fact that they're a bunch of useless weasel-fuckers wallowing in a swamp of self-interest.

    So would the merger be the end of the world? No, probably long as the Lab does execute "thoughtful evolution" to make sure they mitigate the legal and PR issues. I'm still not convinced that it is a good idea from a business perspective, but hey, I could be wrong. Been known to be wrong before. So if it happens, I won't jump into the nearest Huff and drive off.

    But I do have to admit that I am disappointed in T and M for apparently trying to tell different folks what they think those people want to hear--I would have a lot more respect for them just coming out and collectively saying something consistent and straight-forward, like, "hey guys, you might not like this, but here's what we're eventually working towards and why--some of you will like it and some of you won't, but we're going to do it as carefully as we can and maybe it will turn out better than you think."

    Would that be so hard to do?

  3. I am terribly amused by the idea that not having a microphone makes one suspect of being a "perv". My experience early on in SL was that the microphone was what you used to "cyber", and that those who didn't do such did not really need the microphone.
    When Vivito and I were courting, it was nice to be in private voice chat with him while we adventured in SL together. But our interactions with the world were still typed. Once he moved here, we put away the headsets except for when he DJs.
    It was quite an adjustment to me to learn to interact with folks via typing, but now I would have the same adjustment using voice. Different part of my brain is engaged so my interactions are different.
    I appreciate hearing this, however, as it will help me interact with those young folk out there who might want to come hang out with the old folks!

  4. Hey Fogwoman,

    Yeah I think the assumption being made by some people, particularly these paranoid youngsters, is that if you don't use voice, you are trying to hide your real identity for some foul and perverse reason.

    I guess they figure that when they encounter an avatar that looks like some hunky young guy with a broad chest and flowing locks right off the cover of a bodice-ripper, the use of voice will reveal if the charming young stud is in fact some warty old ex-bagel salesman from Jersey, or maybe a ravening bugbladder beast from a distant world, intent on eating their brains (for a very light snack we may assume).

    Well seriously--I hope you're right that there are some young'uns who might like to hang out with us geezers. We probably could learn some things from one another if everybody keeps an open mind.

  5. I'm confused.. but then I'm just a kid. After hearing so much about how people (present company excluded, of course) think folks like me who play kids in SL are perverts.. I wonder what will become of kids playing kids..or kids playing grown ups. And what will kids think of adults who play kids who talk baby talk? I'd actually like to see those reactions...

    Personally, I think there should be two Second Life(s).

    One for the sex addicts and pervs and one for the rest of us...

    But what does I knows?

  6. What do you know about that, ah, activity, Miss Marrant? You're just a kid, remember? :)

  7. well having been accused of it, um.. i figured it out.. kids are smarter than you give us credit for :)

  8. Dio, I'm not sure if you're aware, but at some point in the recent merging/purging of the SL forums into "blogs", which includes a general discussion area and the "SL Answers" area, it came to the attention of regular posters there that teens from TSL now have access to posting in those blogs (whether they always have, and no one noticed in the old format, I don't know).

    Technically the blogs are "PG" so there is to be no discussion there about "adult" topics... yeah, right. I lurk there on occasion, and I've seen several threads that I'd call adult in nature, discussing everything from discrimination against furries for their proclivities, to posts philosophizing about BDSM.

    The "blogorums" may be rated PG, but LL does a pretty poor job of moderating them. They did recently add a "report abuse" button, but that doesn't address the issue of adult access to TSL residents.

    What has regular adult forum posters especially disturbed is that adults and teens are now able to communicate through PMs. That seems like a really bad idea for a number of reasons.

    There is also no way to distinguish if an avatar is from TSL or an adult from SL (though sadly teens are pretty easy to spot because with few exceptions they have terrible typing/grammar/common sense challenges).

    Just to clear, I'm not prude, but it is a bit unsettling to me that this interaction is now available. Here's an example of a JIRA opened recently, which Blue also commented in...

    I think this forum access situation is in large part to blame for adding fuel to the rumor of the teen and adult grids merging.

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