SecondLife as a low-bandwidth social medium

Posted by jerry on June 3rd, 2007 — Posted in Journal, New media, Theory

SL has been seen as the ‘mosaic of the 3D web, and it reflects this in several ways. Firstly, although rich in visual texture, it is still relatively low-resolution. And of necessity it works within the constraints of bandwidth.

As it is, it requires a fairly fast broadband connection to make it work anything like smoothly – and even then the lag between command and action can result in your avatar overshooting the mark and bumping others.

Secondly, this has implications for the bandwith of information exchange. And this manifests in several ways. There is a strong need to affirm one’s presence as a human being behind the avatar. So there is an emphasis on the physical – and especially the appearance of the avatar. One of the most expensive items people buy are photo-realistic skins – which they then proceed to clothe in culturally coded ways.

Some use dress codes to push boundaries the would never contemplate in RL. So some avatars dress in a sexually provocative manner – perhaps even equipping the avatar with sexual animations that can be played out with willing partner avatars.

But it is easy for the press media to make too much of that. Yes there is a ‘mature content’ aspect to SL and there will always be a percentage of newcomers or ‘newbies’ who will play their avatars in that way until they get bored and start to build their own spaces and engage in all the other aspects of SL – like live music, academic conferences and teaching spaces and so on. My take on this emphasis on physicality – including the youth and vigour appearances most avatars seem to have – is that such affirmations of physicality are the direct consequence of a low-bandwidth social medium.

This was also the case with text-based MOO spaces and there were moral panics raised over those – just as there were in the 19th century over the emergent novel – such as the court case over ‘Madame Bovary’. The media debate over secondlife interestingly reflects again the literally age-old questions raised by any mediated third-party communication medium right back at least as far as Plato around 244 BC.

And these come down to about five key issues.

Firstly, there are issues of authenticity and authentication. This is reflected in media articles on whether or not people are ‘playing false’ – lying about their appearance, race, gender, and importantly, age. It is also reflected in articles about the economy of Lindens – the SL currency – which can be bought and exchanged with real money. Yes, real fortunes have already been made by early adopters and those with a good product to sell, be it a good skin, or a swirling dress, or a virtual hang-glider. And most of the big money has been made on virtual real-estate – and there are already RL real-estate speculators starting to play and make money with virtual real-estate.

Of course there is an actual aspect to this – the real-estate may be virtual, but the server space is real. And that’s what you are actually purchasing when you buy virtual land in SL – more server space.

All of which requires at some levedl, trusted communications to enable the real money to be exchanged for Lindens.

The age one raises the issue of how to protect minors online from sexual predation or exposure to mature content. And that also speaks to the second of Plato’s five big issues: authorised access to information.

When it was face-to-face communication there are several biometric verification codes – you can see who you are really talking to, and this would give some measure of assurance – a person could give their word, and their reputation would assure that they were really the right people to receive the information you impart – or at least the trusted agent of the business. But with writing there was no such assurance – once out of sight, the message could be read by anyone with the access and necessary level of literacy.

With writing as with portraits – as Henry VIII of Britain found out – in cyberspace no-one knows what the real person is like.

As educators come to grips with the need to teach visual literacy so too more and more educational institutions are appearing in SL. And, predictably, there are already debates over whether SL is a real tool for education, or just another gimmick.

Plato was worried about that too. He warned us that this game-space of writing was not for serious stuff. And he was concerned at the damage it would do to young minds – they would lose their memory, they could read things and pretend to be knowledgeable when they lacked understanding. Writing would produce pseudo experts. And he was right.

But any modelling space, including SL also provides a safe space to develop skills in reading the culture, and in learning how to deal with relationships in a relatively safe mediated environment.

SecondLife – Same functions different space

Posted by jerry on June 2nd, 2007 — Posted in Journal, New media, Theory

At the risk of sounding polemical, secondLife is arguably little different from any other virtual world or cultural space. When you strip away the hype and the individual modalities of how you navigate such a space, it quickly becomes apparent that SecondLife performs many very familiar functions.

Firstly, it is a genuinely interactive social space. It is a space for people to engage with each other. It has been marketed to some extent as a ‘game’ – and insofar as it provides a creative role-play space it is. But it is also much more than that.

Like the text-based Multi-user Object-Oriented Domains (MOO) of years gone by, SecondLife provides a space in which your proxy character, or ‘avatar’ interacts with other avatars, as well as with objects built within the world-space. SecondLife takes the concept of a MOO a step further by making it visual, and hence more apparently part of the 3D web, rather than a 2D text space.

Of course we are all in virtual space all the time. And arguably, we always have been. The way we articulate the real social space is already mediated by and through language and other systems of signification. Even in RL that mediation is apparent in the dress codes, proxemic codes, social markers, body language and so on. So it is not too surprising that these same cultural codes apply in virtual worlds.

People operating avatars appologise when they accidentally bump another avatar with their own. If an avatar stands too close, others will move theirs back a little to make room.

And that would be an interesting phenomenon but for the fact that behind those avatars are people, and the avatars form a visual representation and virtual body stand-in for the person – just as the screen stands as the matrix upon which we project all computer mediated communication.

Okay, so in SL we are not (yet) interacting tactilely, but leaving aside the technology for a moment, we are really dealing with people interacting with people. Just as we do in RL.

But even in RL we arguably articulate ourselves through avatars based on clothing codes (suits, casual gear, sporting and other uniforms etc) which we change according to the social situation in which we find ourselves.

These dress codes are part of a broader set of systems of signification that facilitate our social interactions with other people within a cultural group. But this is not new.

Moreover, the kinds of social spaces that have been set up in SL remain very much the kind of social spaces we see in RL. Among the more popular spaces in SL are pubs and dance venues – designed very like pubs and dance spaces the world over.

Education and performance spaces are similarly culturally coded – amphitheatres with seats, conference rooms, office spaces and so on reflect designs established in some cases thousands of years ago – suuch as those based on Greek and Roman amphitheatres.

The lack of a roof serves several functions – it facilitiates avatars flying in to the space, making navigation easier. And it isn’t going to rain so the roof is not an essential piece of architecture – other than where you want to connote privacy. And the lack of a roof saves on ‘prims’ – the building material in SL – which would otherwise add to the server space and bandwidth requirements.

Shopping spaces are familiar designs – kept fairly uncluttered to enable maximum display with minimum obstacles for the navigationally challenged.

SL has been described as the ‘Mosaic’ &tm; of the 3D web. And in many ways it is. It provides a visual dimension – in much the way that Mosaic added images to gopher space – the pre-browser version of the internet, before it became recognisably the web we know today. Tomorrow, I’ll explore this issue further.

SecondLife – Navigating realities

Posted by jerry on May 31st, 2007 — Posted in Journal, New media, Technology, Theory

What do we think of when we encounter the concept of ‘Virtual Reality’? Perhaps we have visions of people like myself staggering around the padded podia of the VR Cafe, or perhaps we have visions of sending our avatar out into SecondLife for another kind of immersive social experience.

Secondlife - Blarney Pub

Such immersive experiences position the user/reader in an artificial world comprised of computer-generated graphics. These greet us, perhaps at one end of what Ruthrof (1981) termed the ‘ladder of fictionality’. Ruthrof here depicts the distinction between invented and non-invented narrative as a ladder of varying degrees of fabrication. The steps of this ladder are bounded within authorial structuring of narrative and set in contra-distinction to what Edmund Husserl terms the ‘world-out-there’. I want to argue throughout this chapter that there are strong parallels to be drawn between the reality/virtuality debate, and the figurative/non-figurative debate in contemporary literary theory.

Read more of this paper on the page to the right, or click here:-)


Semiotics of music – blogged!

Posted by jerry on May 22nd, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Music, New media, Theory

New media researcher Angela Thomas has written a lovely post about my semiotics of music experiment. I have drawn on MAK Halliday’s systemic functional semiotics to develop a schema for music, which can be used to analyse multimodal texts.

semiotics of music

Interestingly there seems to have been very few attempts at developing such schemas. Angela raised a useful question in relation to my schema, namely that there is no listing for an analogue of adverbial phrase – or even adjectival phrase come to think of it. My response is two-fold. Firstly, if an adverb-function were to exist, it would probably lie in the selection of mode – major, minor, dorian etc – which would provide a sense of the manner in which a musical phrase acts/creates drama or action.

My second response is that music, along with other non-linguistic systems of signification, probably doesn’t translate directly into a linguistic model. Sure, linguistic or literary semiotics is probably the most highly developed as a means of analysing texts (however broadly defined), but I’m not entirely convinced that such a model maps all the signifying activity of a non-linguistic or multimodal text. It does, however, form a useful point of entry to any discussion of how we make meaning with non-linguistic or para-linguistic signs. Is there a grammar of music? Emphatically yes, but beyond forms of analogy, I remain uncertain as to how far one can map it directly onto a linguistic model.

But there remains the tantalising possibility that one could develop a metalanguage for analysis of music and how it functions to make meaning within a sign system.


First foray into SecondLife

Posted by jerry on May 1st, 2007 — Posted in Journal, New media, Technology

After reading quite a bit about the virtual world SecondLife, Sharon and I decided to check it out and see what all the fuss is about. And what a fascinating space it is. After some preliminaries downloading the software (64mb for a mac) – setting up a virtual body (known as an ‘avatar’) we were ready to check out this virtual world. There’s certainly a knack to it – even walking has its isues so one starts off in a ‘newby’ area where you can learn to walk and talk and fly and drive a strange assortment of vehicles from a virtual ‘segway’ scooter to a road roller or a car. We were both pretty dangerous – luckily these were only virtual vehicles and the squished rats were only virtual animals…

After completing some simple tasks we were off to explore the new world. Sharon’s first stop was a gallery, mine an Irish pub – it’s amazing how even online real life (rl) tastes prevail. The gallery was well constructed and quite surreal – it took a while to figure out how we could sit on a sofa – but that’s part of the fun.

There are several academic spaces in SecondLife (sl) and several ‘movie’ screens where you can watch machinimas or animations from streaming video. Same goes for music performances and several bands have performed in sl streaming their sound into a venue – like the Blarney Stone Irish pub – and these are scheduled events.


Conferences are held here and as a distance learning tool I think sl has a lot to offer in terms of getting away from the constraints of space.

And there is a range of ways to animate your avatar – including dance moves which synch to the streaming music – you can buy dance routines with virtual money (lindens) or you can go to a dance venue, as I did with new media theorist Angela Thomas aka Anya Ixchel who pointed out that like any community newbies are either taken under someone’s wing or ignored. You can always tell a newbie by their stock avatar – yes you can obtain clothes or buy them from a fashion store – but the most expensive part is new skin – because of the work that goes into tones and shadows.

So all up a fascinating experience and clearly there is a lot to explore – watch this space!