THE SECOND LIFE OF THE AMATEUR

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Alex Fenton / MACT / Media & Cultural Theory / The Second Life of the Amateur

The Second Life of the Amateur


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Media & Cultural Theory

ALEX FENTON

MA Creative Technology

Media
&

Cultural Theory


THE SECOND LIFE OF THE AMATEUR



08

January

2009

http://www.edinteractive.co.uk/af_creative_tech/
media_cultural



Alex Fenton / MACT / Media & Cultural Theory / The Second Life of the Amateur

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Media & Cultural Theory

Table of contents

Introduction

................................
................................
.............

3

I. User
-
generated content and web 2.0

................................
.......

4

II. Second Life
................................
................................
..........

5

III. Quality issues with Second Life

................................
.............

9

IV. User
-
generated content is killing our culture

..........................

11

V. RO to RW culture

................................
................................
.

13

VI. Social and economic perspectives

................................
.........

14

Conclusion

................................
................................
..............

18

Bibliography

................................
................................
............

19














Alex Fenton / MACT / Media & Cultural Theory / The Second Life of the Amateur

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Media & Cultural Theory


Introduction

In his book
Cult of the Amateur
, Andrew Keen writes ‘
instead of creating masterpieces,
these million
s and millions of exuberant monkeys
,
many with no more talent than our
primate cousins

are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity
’ (Keen, 2007: 2)

Keen
’s

damning indictment of the user
-
generated nature of web 2.0 technologies such
as
Second Life
sets the foundation

for a war of words.
Second Life is
a virtual world
entirely
generated by its users
, which

makes it an important factor in the user
-
generated content debate.

On the other side of the ring
for

th
e

debate
are authors such
as

Harvard law p
rofessor La
wrence

Lessig
, who passionately supports user
-
generated
content and Second Life
.



Various
angles

are considered to assess the success and impact of a virtual world
created by users
.
The ideas of
user
-
generated content

and web 2.0 can be ambiguo
us,
so these concepts are
examined
. Second Life itself is
then
considered from its birth to
the
beginning
of 20
10
. Lawrence Lessig’s appearance in Second Life
is

covered along
with
an

analysis
of Second
Life’s

popularity and success. Some
issues

are then
raised

with Second
Life’s

dependence on user
-
generated content
,

with
anthropologist
Tom
Boellstorff’s book
Coming of age in Second Life

used
for

one

example.

Andrew Keen’s
theories about the dangers of
user
-
generated content

and Second Life

are followed b
y
Lessig’s book
R
emix
, which
is at the opposite end of the

debate
.
Economic perspectives
of

consumerist capitalism

and Marxist
standpoints

are discussed

finally.

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These facts and theories serve to
raise

arguments for and against

user
-
generated
content

and
Second Life to gauge how successful
it

is as a business model

and
if this
model is damaging to society or if it is a natural
and positive
progression

for society
.


G
iven the available objective data, it would seem that Second Life
is proving to be a
financ
ial and
popular success, but the angles
discussed

are intended to
look beyond this
data to contemplate differing perspectives.

Competing
epistemologies

and objective
facts are
discussed

to question the value, impact and success of allowing
users,
to
gener
ate the virtual world of Second Life.

User
-
generated content is typically
created

by
a wide variety of people, many who can be considered to be amateurs.

I. User
-
generated content and web 2.0

Th
e terms

user
-
generated content


and

web 2.0


have become
p
opular in the last
decade
.
Technologies that allow Internet users to create and share their own videos,
text, images and 3D objects
had become
commonplace

by

2005. Greg Lastowska in his
essay ‘
User
-
generated content

and Virtual Words’ writes that: ‘
User
-
ge
nerated content

is videos posted to YouTube, photos uploaded to Flickr, book reviews posted to
Amazon.com

and personal narratives posted to discussion boards.’

(
Lastowska
, 2008: 2).

This could be considered to be a narrow definition, but
it

is a starting p
oint for

the
relationship between
user
-
generated content

and web 2.0.


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The inventor of the
W
orld
W
ide
W
eb Tim Berners Lee comment
ed in a 2006 IBM


developerWorks interview


Web 1.0 was all about connecting people. It was an
interactive space, and I think
Web 2.0 is, of course, a piece of jargon, nobody even
knows what it means.


The term web 2.0 first arose at an O’Reilly conference in 2004.
One of the core principles of web 2.0 technologies are those that depend very heavily
on the users of those technolo
gies to generate the content that other users enjoy.


Second Life is a prime
example of this type of technology, because the content of this
virtual world is entirely generated by
its

residents. The word content in
Second Life’s

case could be absolutely an
ything from a piece of text to a 3D city
.


T
he word

user


refers to a person
that uses the virtual world.
In the case of most web 2.0 technologies,
almost anyone
can

create content. Inevitably, this means that there is a varying level of
quality
and style
s
of content.
User
-
generated content

is created by amateurs
or
experts
from all walks of life.


II. Second Life

Second Life was launched in 2003 by Linden Labs. Using a freely downloadable piece of
software, a

reasonably modern

Internet connected computer

c
an

be used to

connect to
this

virtual world
.

User
-
generated virtual worlds first became popular in the early 1990’s
with text based Multi
-
User Dungeons (MUD’s). Second Life provides a graphical virtual
world that is created entirely by its users.

Second

Life has been particularly successful in
encouraging user
-
generated content. Linden Labs Jim Cocker stated that
users were

30
times more likely to create something for Second Life
than they would be in The Sims.’
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(Cocker, 2007: 1) Typically, 5% of users
for a web 2.0 website generate content with just
0.1% of users generating content in a first person shooter game.
In Second Life,
60% of
its users
build something using the building tools provided

(Cocker, 2007: 1)
. This makes
Second Life particularly impo
rtant in the debate regarding user
-
generated content.


Some people consider Second Life to be a game, whilst others refute this idea
. On the
Linden Labs website, Second Life is not described as a game
. Linden Labs response to
the question if Second Life is

a game
is

Yes and No

.

The Second Life interface is similar
to other massively multiplayer online role playing games but on
e of the major
differences
is that it gives users the ability to
make and
do almost anything. Compared
to other virtual worlds or
massively multiplayer games, Second Life depends on
user
-
generated content

to a very large extent.
This c
ontent could be anything from a pair of
shoes to a
virtual
shopping centre
. The Second Life client provides the basic tools
required for
anyone

to crea
te practically anything.

It is also possible to create content
using existing 3D modelling software and then import the models into Second Life.


Users can sign up and use Second Life for free, but in most cases, if users want to build a
permanent structur
e, they must pay for land on which they can build.

Legally, a user
must be

eighteen years old to use Second Life. There is a separate grid called Teen
Second Life for thirteen to seventeen year olds.


U
sers
can sell the things that they create

and they
ar
e granted the intellectual property
for anything they create
; t
his was not always the case.

Harvard professor and author
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Lawrence Lessig
founded an organisation in 2001 called Creative Commons which
actively promoted
user
-
generated content
, relaxing of co
pyright laws and the sharing of
content.
In January 2006
Lessig held an event in Second Life

to promote his book
Free
Culture

and to talk about what he consider
ed

to be the government's counterintuitive
approach to copyright

and
user
-
generated content
.

In
an interview after the event, Mia Garlick from Creative Commons commented:


In a very real sense, Second Life exists as it does because of Lawrence Lessig. A
few years ago, he advised Linden Lab to allow their subscribers to retain IP rights
to whatever th
ey built. The result of this has been an explosion of sustained
creativity, with many
r
esidents making all or some of their real life living by their

imagination and efforts in SL.


(Garlick: 2006:

1)


Users and content in Second
L
ife have grown steadily s
ince 2003.
In June 2006,
58,000
users logged on to Second Life. Just one year later in June 2007, 511,000 users logged
on. Since this explosion, monthly unique users rose steadily to 7
50
,000
in
September

2009.

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Fig 1. Monthly unique users of Second Life
with repeat logins (Thousands)

from Second Life blogs
website (Linden, T: 2009)


Fig
2. Second Life resident owned land at month end (millions of square metres)

from Second Life blogs
website (Linden, T: 2009)



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According to data from the Linden Labs webs
ite,
Second Life is increasing in size and
popularity

(Linden, T: 2009)
. In January 2007, there were 350

million square metres of
user owned land. By September 2009 this had grown steadily to
1.808 billion square
metres.

III. Quality issues with Second Li
fe

There are positive and negative effects of a virtual world entirely composed of
user
-
generated content
.
The quantity of
user
-
generated content

compared to the amount of
concurrent users logged on to Second Life is considered by some to be disproportiona
te.
Some commentators consider this to be a major problem. Stan Taverna
in his essay ‘
Is
Second Life Empty
?’ comments

Outside of events, Second Life is pretty empty almost all
of the time everywhere. I've been on since the BETA, and it's always been that
way, and
I suspect it always will be.


(Taverna, 2007: 1)


In December 2009 there
were
1.808 billion square metres of resident
owned land in
Second Life. The
median

amount

of concurrently lo
gged on users in December 2009
was
54,000 compared to 61,000 in
Ju
ly

2009
. What this means effectively is that
the amount
of space in Second Life outweighs the amount of users logged on. O
utside of certain
events

and popular
locations

such as areas where there are free goods
, many locations
in Second Life are either comp
letely
empty

or just have a small amount of users in the
area.

It is always possible to look at the map in Second Life and look for green dots
,
which represent other

users. Some of these users are ‘camping’ or waiting around in
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certain locations so that t
hey can receive a small amount of Linden dollars.

Wandering
around Second Life, it can feel as though one is in the plot of a film where the
population has been wiped out by a deadly disease or similar.


If Lind
en Lab does not figure this out

and quickly
(the definition of success), they will
take a serious hit to their persistent residents, and someone else will come along and
take away their users.


(Taverna, 2007: 1)

Wired editor Ben Hammersley comments about opening shops in Second Life

in a 2009
BBC a
rticle entitled ‘Whatever happened to Second Life’
Hammersley states ‘
They
would have 20 to 30 people there when it opened, and after that no
-
one would bother
going in there again. It just wasn't worth the spend.


(
Hansen
2009)
.

Part of this problem
was re
lated to the sheer quantity of
locations and
shops compared to the amount of
concurrent users in world. One
high profile example

of this was clothing supplier
American Apparel which closed its shop just one year after opening.


Another problem with the
us
er
-
generated content

model of Second Life is highlighted
by anthropologist Tom B
oellstorff
’s book

Coming of Age in Second Life
.

B
oellstorff

describes an incident where a shop appeared in a well loved area of Second Life.

Zazzys

[was]

a black building

wit
h brightly coloured windows
, their neon reds, blues, yellows
and greens in a constantly changing pattern.

I’m sick about this


Samuel said
,


This
glowing monstrosity was just built on this land.



(
B
oellstorff, 2008:
89
)

This piece of
user
-
generated cont
ent caused a mass protest from users that had built and populated
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this area.
The power for users to shape their world as they see fit can lead to disputes
between residents. This case particularly highlights how users disagree about what
constitutes an aes
thetically pleasing

or useful

addition to what they consider to be their
‘place’ in the virtual world.


There is little doubt that the Second Life virtual world is large in quantity, but there is a
question by some as to the quality and popularity of much
of this content.
Greg
Lastowska
states ‘
If a virtual world allows each participant to own a space, the end
result may seem like a patchwork of uninhabited, uninspired and
stylistically

clashing
lots that sprawl onward forever.


(Lastowska, 2008: 17).

Lasto
wska continues to say

Some of the content generated by users is not merely of poor quality, but is offensive
and/or illegal.


(Lastow
s
ka, 2008: 17)

I
V
.
User
-
generated content

is killing our culture

I
n 2007, Andrew Keen wrote
Cult of the Amateur

which rais
es many issues against user
-
generated content and Second Life
. On the cover of the book
Keen

s argument
commences

‘How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user
-
generated
media are killing our culture and economy’. Keen is particularly critical
of the quantity
and quality of user
-
generated content of the web 2.0 revolution.

Radically

new business
models based on user
-
generated material suck the economic value out of traditional
media and cultural content.


(Keen, 2008: 16)


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Keen also singles out

Second Life for criticism

Users create online personas and engage
in any and every form of real
-
life activity

from starting a business, to getting married, to
buying and decorating a home

this

is resulting in a dangerous confusion between virtual
reality

and life
.



(Keen, 2008: 161)

Keen
continues

in true Web 2.0 fashion, Second Life
is virtually unregulated and unsupervised, it has become a channel for all kinds of social
and ethical vices.


(Keen, 2008: 162)


Some

massively multiplayer
games such as

World of Warcraft


have much higher levels
of
participation

than Second Life

(11.5 million user subscriptions in December 2008)
. It
could be argued that
a virtual world like World of Warcraft
constitute
s

more of a threat
to
people

spending
more
time
away
from

real life. It
may be

that Keen singles out
Second Life specifically because of its user
-
generated content model
. Keen considers
Second Life to be a threat to society because
he believes
the audience
are

running the
show
. This view
point
ties in with hi
s core argument

about the damaging effect of user
-
generated content
. Second Life allows freedom to live a life with
out constraints or
regulations. A l
arge part of this freedom is obtained by the ability to generate or obtain
user
-
generated content such as
clothes, houses and other material possessions that
may be unobtainable by the person in real life.


While Keen does not doubt the popularity of Second Life


his argument raises
questions about the impact of amateur generated content on the quality of co
ntent, the
economy and morals of society in general.

The amateur he argues, is s
mothering

real
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talent and quality content from flourishing which is damaging for society, our children
and our economy.

Keen’s arguments are considered to be
inaccurate

and ex
treme by
authors such as Lawrence Lessig. The
Cult of the Amateur

was one of the first books to
raise

argument
s
against user
-
generated content
and provides a valuable

perspective on
the debate of
the Second Life of the amateur.

V. RO to RW

culture

Lawrenc
e Lessig in
his book
Remix

describes the early days of the
World Wide Web

as
largely Read only

(RO)
.
Content was added to the web by a small percentage of people
compared to the amount of people reading the content. Tim Berners Lee’s original
vision of the

web was that i
t

would be Read Write

(RW)
, or in other words, anybody
could add content to the web. By 2003 this Read

Write culture of
user
-
generated
content

was in full swing

with things like blogs and Second Life
. Lessig
views

this idea as
a logical prog
ression and one that has positive connotations

These

new infernal
machines, however, will enable an RW culture again, they could also encourage an
enormous growth in economic opportunity for both the professional

and the amateu
r, and
for all those who ben
efi
t

from both forms of creativity.


(
Lessig
, 2008:
57
)


Lessig

examines Second Life
in
Remix

and concludes that whil
st Linden Labs
is a profit driven
company
,

this
is a commendable quality
. T
he
transparent way
in which Linden Labs

is
operated

directly enc
ourages
user
-
generated content
. T
he profit driven nature of the
business leads to some debate and criticism of Linden Labs,
but
this fact means that the
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company can provide a sharing economy. Aside from the content of the metaverse allowing
users to sell t
heir content, in 2007 Linden Labs made the Second Life client ‘open source’.
This move was aimed at
keeping the company transparent. Philip Rosedale created Second
Life and Lessig interviews him in
Remix


Rosedale’s motivations for this change are
two fold
.
One part is

the belief in his company, and the belief that it should grow as fast

as possible.

Second Life makes people better; Second Life should

therefore grow as quickly as possible.


(Lessig, 2008: 253)

Rosedale believes that encouraging the maximum

possible amount of users to generate
content

benefits

Linden Labs and that prosperity ultimately benefit
s

the users of Second
Life.

Rosedale continued ‘
Thousands

of people who would be willing to contribute
development

time and that it would therefore be

unprincipled of us not to

allow those
people to do so.


(Lessig, 2008: 244)

Linden Labs have essentially taken
part of
their assets and given them to the users

to
allow
them

to contribute to the development and content generating process.

These
gifts are
aimed at inspiring creativity which will
ultimately

add
richness and
value to the
platform

and profit to Linden Labs.

Rosedale des
cribes the transparency of user
-
generated
-
content as a win
-
win situation for both Linden Labs and its participants.

V
I
.
Socia
l and e
conomic perspectives

Tom
Boellstorff

believes that
Second Lif
e is based on a model of


c
reationist capitalism


and a ‘Californian ideology’

(Boellstorff, 2008: 208)
.
San Francisco in
California is the
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main headquarters
of Linden Labs in real life

an
d the

Californian ideology is based
on a
fusion of the bohemian San
Francisco with the technology of Silicon Valley
.
The core
principle
of this Californian ideology is a business model based on the free spirit of a
hippy culture with the business acumen of

the yuppy. Second Life’s user
-
generated but
profit driven model fits into the Californian ideology.
The idea of creationist capitalism is
not limited to California, but may certainly explain Linden Labs approach to
user
-
generated content

to some extent. T
his economic model
is
related to


pr
o
sumption


where people function
to produce what the
y

consume
;

c
onsumption
becomes

a form of
production.


The concept of creationist capitalism is rooted in Max Weber’s
theory of

the Protestant
ethic

as outlined in his
1905 book
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
. This
ethic
is based on

the idea that human fate
is

predestined, but that God’s favour c
an

be
won by achieving worldly success
.

With creationist capitalism, the prosumer has
become a kind of mino
r god


(Boellstorff, 2008:
208).
In traditional cosmology, God
is

the creator
;

c
reationist capitalism shifts
this

model
to

the user as the creator.
This
concept rings true with Second Life

where users can create
their own

virtual universe.

In December 200
3, Linden Labs made the Linden dollar convertible with the United
States dollar or other real world currencies.
This shift took the idea of creationist
capitalism to a n
ew level. B
anks and the concept of paid labour

were now possible

to
enable

a
virtual

ec
onomy
. The idea that a real life living could be made using Second Life
became a reality

for some
.

Over 2000 residents were making more than US$1200 profit
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a year; 58 were earning more than US$60,000 a year and one entrepreneur claimed to
have

Secon
d
Life

assets wo
rth over 1 million US dollars.
Creativity became a form of
exchange value


(Boellstorff, 2008: 212).

‘Paying your tier’ or making enough money to pay for Linden Labs registration and land
fees became an important aspect of Second Life for many.
Of the many residents that
were making money from Second Life however, many were making just a few dollars a
month.


In a traditional Marxist analysis this would be seen
as a form of
super
exploitation

where workers are unable to reproduce their needs for

existence.


(Boellstorff, 2008: 213).

The Pareto distribution model is often used to explain user
-
generated websites and
virtu
al worlds such as Second Life.
Vilfredo Pareto was an It
alian sociologist and
economist.

Pareto distributions are used to describ
e inequalities in data where most of
the distribution is contained in one area of a graph. This theory is over a century old, but
serves as a basis for the 80/20 rule of
user
-
generated content
. Th
e

rule follows the idea
that 80 percent of the work is perfo
rmed by 20 percent of the employees and that 20
percent of the population hold 80 percent of the wealth.
Linden Labs is sometimes
criticized for making a profit, whilst most users struggle to break even.
Andres
Guadamuz

in his essay ‘
If You Build It, They

Won’t Come
’ writes ‘
The end result of the
existence of Pareto distributions with regards to earnings,

profits and royalties may very
well mean that most creators cannot expect to

make a living
.


(
Guadamuz
, 2009: 8)


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Marx’s Communist
m
anifesto

pre
-
dates P
areto

but in a similar way, these economic
theories are often used by today’s authors to explain the phenomenon of
user
-
generated content

and web 2.0.
Some authors such as Bo
e
llstorf
f compare the users
that generate the content to be the exploited proleta
riat or working classes and Linden
Labs to be the
bourgeoisie

or ruling classes

in his comparison of ‘super
-
exploitation’.

Andrew Keen in his essay

web 2.0


comments on the way
owners

of web 2.0
technologies

sell the idea of creationist capitalism as a w
ay for the proletariat to
overcome the bourgeoisie.

We are enabling Internet users to author their own content.
Think of it as empowering citizen media. We can help smash the elitism of the
Hollywood studios and the big record labels.
’ (Keen, 2006: 1)

Kee
n suggests that this radical thinking helps draw people in
to

feeling that their
creations are helping the masses
to overcome the ruling classes

when in fact, they are
being duped into giving their labour
away
for free.

Marx famously claimed that religion
w
as the opium of the people because it drew
working class

attention away from the
exploitation of the ruling classes. Keen’s arguments against Second Life mirror this
concept



that it draws people away from real life issues and exploitation

by a select few

of the ruling classes.


Some people are drawn to the idea of user
-
generated content for more than monetary
or political gains, but that of play or the ability to cre
ate


when I stay up for 2 nights i
n a
row programming my virtual
pet, trying to get it to

do something new,
it sure isn't for
the L$. It's
bringing something into existence.


(Boellstorff, 2008: 213).

These concepts
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serve to explain the motivations of some users and the political and economic factors in
the debate about user
-
generated content

and Second Life.

Conclusion

Second
L
ife is

less than a decade old, but given the objective data
available

so far, it
would appear that Linden Labs and Second Life are prospering in financial terms and in
popularity. Steady growth in both the user base of
Second Life, number of transactions
and amount of owned land has
occurred

almost unswervingly from the creation of
Second Life to the present day of the start of 2010.

It would seem that as a business model, transparency and
user
-
generated content

works w
ell for Linden Labs. It is debateable however what kind of positive impac
t this
model has on society. I
t could be
argued
that users are b
eing exploited to work for free

and that the content they create as amateurs is
sometimes

of a low quality. In addition
,
virtual worlds like Second Life can draw people away from being productive
and living
their

r
eal
l
ive
s
. On the flip side,
this model could be said to

empower users and give
them the
ability to
create and
live a life without the constraints of real life w
hilst
learning new skills. The debate about
user
-
generated content

and Second Life as a force
for society is a complex one.
Individuals have their own view
points and experiences of
Second Life. Second Life may be considered by some to be a ‘digital forest
of
mediocrity’, but ultimately, it continues to
flourish

financia
lly and in terms of popularity.

Alex Fenton / MACT / Media & Cultural Theory / The Second Life of the Amateur

The Second Life of the Amateur


Page
19





Media & Cultural Theory

Other virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft
boast

more users than Second Life
without depending on user
-
generat
ed content. Second Life
offers a very differe
nt virtual
world and one that is
experienced and
created by hundreds of thousands of people
from around the world.
Much of this content is created by amateurs, which can have
drawbacks, but also provides an empowering and engaging experience
for

many peopl
e.


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