Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Avatars and Body Language

via Omega Point

Body language in the real-world is an essential and powerful communications tool. With it we can convey what is often referred to as, "sub-text." Not to be taken literally, the dictionary definition explains the meaning thus:

2. The underlying personality of a dramatic character as implied or indicated by a script or text and interpreted by an actor in performance

To frame it in context, astute observers of human interaction eventually notice that in any conversation there are two lines (sometimes more!) of communication taking place simultaneously between two peope: that which is said, and that which is implied. For the purposes of this post, sub-text refers to implied speech.

Sub-text in real life is easy to communicate and happens almost sub-consciously for most people. It's all about the way you stand, the direction your eyes glance, the way your mouth moves when you speak... dozens of tiny hints are hidden in your physical movements that often say more than what your actually saying.

In Second Life, most of us assume some form of humanoid equivalent. With the power of user-created animations and gestures, is it safe to assume that we can transmit sub-text in our conversation online? With arms and legs and hands... even some facial expressions; it's a world above plain-text in emails, IMs, and IRC. How can you compare, :-) to a full 3D avatar with a smile animation?

However, like emoticons, body-language (if you can call it that) in Second Life is highly distorted. While one is able to convey more information -- it takes a really clever mind and quick hot-keying to make an avater convey even a fraction of the body language we use in our day-to-day lives. There is also the problem that because of the lack of range for body movement, subtleties are either exaggerated or outright ignored making it difficult to seperate the noise from the signal. Where emoticons lack information, it is in my opinion that Second Life can sometimes add too much irrelevant information. Like the fabled, "lol;" not everyone is keeling over with laughter at your joke.

Thankfully our amazing human brains are built to work with signal noise. There is enormous amounts of it in our daily lives and activities, and so it's reasonable to assume there will be in Second Life as well. For example, I'm sure most of us understand that when an avatar is keeling over laughing at our notorious trout joke, it may only really mean we got half a smirk or so from the person beind the avatar. So if there is extraneous noise, but we're able to filter most of the obvious stuff out, how does that affect our perception of our online relationships? What about meeting new people?

This blogger suggests that it may also distort our relationships as it distorts our communication. Many people who consider themselves less-than-socially adequate tend to find strong bonds and meaningful relationships in Second Life. This could be because we're now expanding our ability to communicate online with degrees of (clumsy and limited) sub-text... via proxy. It could also be because that proxy is a projection of our ideal selves, which in turn expands the bubble of lies that protect our true natures in real-world situations.

When truth begins in lies, Second Life might actually be a utopia.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Trusting Second Life

Certain recent events have sparked a train of thought that I keep returning to whenever I read news such as this. This is more of a meta-post regarding issues of ownership and copyrights in Second Life. I hope that whoever started the chain of events that led to Torrid's departure reads this and learns something.


There is no security. The fundamental principle of network security is that for every measure there is a counter-measure. The second fundamental principle is that security becomes becomes cumbersome to the user it protects as much as it does to the intruder it defends against. Once we can accept this we can move on.

Second Life then, being a computer network at its core, cannot be assumed to provide protection for our intellectual property. As a system, it is vulnerable to intruders. The more we protect it from intrustion, the more difficult the system will become to use. The more difficult the system is to use, the less practical and accessible it is to those it is meant to protect. Therefore, Second Life will never and can never protect your intellectual property.


Fair use is under attack by paranoid copyright holders. It is under even further duress from paranoid copyright holders who do not understand the principles underlying the foundation of the Internet. This is largely due to the ease of reproduction and distribution of intellectual property that the Internet affords people. In trying to protect themselves from unscrupulous practices, rights holders are taking actions to enhance copyrights that restrict consumer use of the very properties they purchase.

Fair use is a simple concept to grasp: As a consumer, Betty purchases a new pair of jeans. However, Betty is very creative and alters the jeans to fit her own style. This is generally considered fair and acceptable. She purchased the jeans, they are now her property to do with as she pleases.

However, people seem to think that computers make things complicated when they are not. Let's go back to Betty who has just downloaded a new track from -- a legit online music retailer. Like the pants, it is generally accepted and considered fair use for Betty to remix the song or use it as a sound track for her home movies. She purchased the song and the recording became her property.

In Second Life, the same accepted rules governing fair use are logically applicable. Betty logs in and buys a new sweater for her avatar. Like the jeans she bought in the real world, the copy of that sweater is now her property and if she'd like to modify it to suit her style, it is considered fair use.

... afterall, would you buy a car if you were only allowed to drive it and not modify, tune, repair, or alter in any way? What if you weren't allowed to open the hood either?


The nature of the Internet changes a lot of our concepts regarding redistribution and "sharing." It's a hot topic for copyrights holders of all streaks. The recording industry has been grappling with people sharing music files for years and the movie industry has also joined the fray. While smaller, books have also come under attack by sharing.

The thing is that all these copyright holders don't understand is that it's perfectly legal to share. The methods of sharing have changed over the years of course. We've gone from trading and lending physical media, to recording it from radio, to mix tapes, CD's, and the Internet (and trading on the Internet has undergone it's own evolution from FTP to Torrents). All of these technologies were disruptive in some capacity when they were first introduced: records cut into money from live performances, radio and the Internet cut into the sale of recordings. However, the industry had only evolved from each disruptive development. That's life.

Sharing in Second Life however, takes a very difficult turn. In this burgeoning virtual world, the sole method of compensation for content creators is their ability to limit or control reproduction. Where in the real world an author will still sell books despite giving electronic copies away for free online; Second Life has no ties to real life in order to give content creators such luxury -- or does it? Is the internalized, self-contained, and inward looking nature of Second Life steering it to an anti-social economy?


Don't upload what you don't intend to share. Content creators have to face the reality that they cannot trust the systems in Second Life to protect their work. They should realize that there will never be security enough without seriously eroding the usability of Second Life itself. Therefore they'll have to eventually come to terms with the fact that people may create knock-offs or derivative works as people do in the real world; and they'll have to factor that risk into their business.

It's the belief of this blogger that content creators could do more to protect their intellectual property by monetizing it in more diverse ways. Selling within Second Life is one thing, but the nature of Second Life is an economy of scarcity which makes sharing -- a powerful tool in generating hype and market buzz -- really difficult. Monetizing in diverse ways could mean taking intellectual property outside of the virtual world into the real one.

For example, a clothing designer in Second Life is at considerably more risk of people copying their work and ferreting profits away from them. However, their bottom line might be affected less had they taken their designs to a real-world printing shop and supplemented their revenue streams with real clothes alongside the virtual ones.

Anyhow, when I find the lucky lawyer who will conceed to my grilling -- I will be focusing on fair use and it's related gray-area: derivative works. As I currently understand it, anyone can profit off of derivative works. This could have a large bearing on the current climate and attitudes towards what is considered an unscrupulous practice. However, there are some really flunky legalities to it that I hope to understand better from the interview. Maybe we can settle things once and for all?

As for what has happened, I think certain people have been rather insensitive and dense. Had they stopped to consider their responses before acting they may have appeared to at least posess a modicum of intelligence and social grace. However, for whatever reason, their markedly anti-social behaviour has really hurt someone for no good reason.

If you're reading this, I would consider it a hollow victory for you. You've done more harm than good and have done nothing to improve anyone's lives in any way -- even your own. As I understand it, a Betty bought something from you and modified it for herself. Then you went all willy-nilly and here I am telling you you're an idiot. Thanks for bringing down the status-quo a notch, you're really classy.