UPDATED WITH AUDIO LINKS! Philip Rosedale: Second Life Stories, and Designing the Metaverse—Some Notes from a Wide-Ranging Conversation Multicast on Twitter Spaces, Clubhouse, Callin and Second Life

Today at 11:00 a.m. CST, Philip Rosedale (the founder and former CEO of Linden Lab, the makers of Second Life, and the current CEO of High Fidelity) hosted a discussion titled Second Life Stories, and Designing the Metaverse, where people had an opportunity to ask him questions. Dr. Fran Babcock and Dr. Hayman Buwaneswaran Buwan from the MetaWhat? The Metaverse Show were key organizers. Philip is always an engaged, articulate, and informed speaker, and if you missed this event, I will update this blogpost with links to an archived version which you can listen to via Twitter Spaces, Clubhouse, and Callin. UPDATE 7:14 p.m.: Links are at the end of this blogpost.

Philip was on Twitter Spaces, with well over 100 listeners in the room, but the conversation was also extended to the social audio apps Clubhouse and Callin, plus there was a virtual auditorium set up in Second Life, with almost 50 avatars present! Participants in all four spaces could both hear and ask questions. To my knowledge, this is the first time something like this set-up had been attempted.

Philip shared a couple of “first stories” from his experience with Second Life, real stories from the early years of the company, both pre- and post-launch in 2003, e.g. Steller Sunshine’s beanstalk. He talked about how it was a challenge to provide backwards-compatibility, and how this affected the design of SL over time (for example, changing the friction elements would affect how people could climb the beanstalk). He talked about how he was able to drop a virtual pebble into the virtual water to create ripples (something which was later taken out because it was so computationally expensive!).

When asked why Second Life did not create mobile apps, Philip says that SL, when launched in 2003, predated mobile devices like the iPhone (introduced in 2007) and apps like Facebook (launched in 2004). While Philip is an advisor to Linden Lab, he is not a member of the executive team running the company day-to-day. He says that running SL on a mobile app is a “hard problem” to solve (I agree).

I asked Philip about his opinions regarding Meta’s surveillance system to enforce good behaviour, which includes constantly recording what happens in Horizon Worlds in case someone wants to send an abuse report to the moderators to act upon. Philip talked about his misgivings about AI-based surveillance and targeting systems in the metaverse, and how they could be used to gather information about us in new and disturbing ways, such as using how we are feeling to decide what ads to show us.

Philip has grave concerns about a business model of metaverse designed around advertising and surveillance. Talking about moderation, Philip wants the metaverse to be designed largely driven by the actions of the (human) people who are there, rather than implementing an automated behavioural surveillance and reporting system.

In answering a follow-up question, Philip said he felt that it it is indeed possible to have a metaverse with consequences for trolls and griefers, while still building strong social connections between people, citing as an example banning a person from a public place such as a restaurant where they were misbehaving.

Philip mentioned, in an interview he gave to a media outlet earlier today, that Second Life still has a higher revenue per person per year than YouTube does, with most of that income coming from fees: fees on sales and fees for virtual land (tier). He feels that a business based on fees (as opposed to surveillance advertising) is most definitely scalable, citing the approximately one million users in Second Life.

Philip talked about how presence can change communication dynamics, such as how how walking up to another avatar, and being physically near another avatar, triggers a response where people tended to be more civil than they might be in a text-only environment like a chatroom, and how quickly such presence could help defuse potentially negative communications.

Among the speakers present were Avi Bar-Zeev, the person who created SL’s primitive system, the digital atoms used for building anything and everything in the early days of Second Life! In fact, many content creators in the metaverse got their start by prim-building in SL. (One SL historian remarked that today was the 20th anniversary of the first-ever created prim in Second Life, made on January 25th, 2002.) Philip talked about how Second Life’s prim permission system could be seen as a forerunner of newer digital asset systems being considered for the metaverse.

Avi also talked about the necessity to design the metaverse to be human spaces, a place to rehumanize rather than dehumanize those who participate.

Philip talked about how VR headsets are still not affordable and accessible enough (i.e. uncomfortable if you have to wear them all day), to be able to have the kind of social community that we experience in virtual worlds like Second Life. He said (and I was transcribing madly while he spoke, so this is a paraphrase!):

It’s difficult to get people to communicate normally in a virtual world. It’s easy to forget that this is an experience that most people would not be comfortable with, yet. We’re not there yet, and the way we get there is to make avatars more visually expressive, which is a tough problem to solve.

—Philip Rosedale

Philip talked about spatialized audio products such as High Fidelity’s 3D audio as an aid to community-building, but adds that we still need to work on nonverbal communications (the listener leaning in to the speaker to indicate engagement, etc.).

There was a lot more discussed, including Philip Rosedale’s thoughts about virtual economies and NFT real estate, which unfortunately I did not have a chance to transcribe. Philip is always an articulate and informative speaker, so you will want to listen to the recording if you missed this event.

I will, however, provide a link to an archive of this wide-ranging and fascinating discussion on Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, and Callin, once Dr. Hayman posts it! He is to be thanked for juggling everything in order to make this multicast such as success.

UPDATE 7:14 p.m.: Here, as promised, are links to the recordings made:

Twitter Spaces recording 1:43:44 (Dr. Hayman tells me, “this recording has less of the interruptions from Second Life, as I muted the mic when feedback and keyboard noises were present in SL”)

Callin recording 1:40:08

Enjoy! I know I will be relistening to portions of this.

I Am Addicted to Social Media

One of the ways I try to get people to understand just how wrong feeds from places like Facebook are is to think about Wikipedia. When you go to a page, you’re seeing the same thing as other people. So it’s one of the few things online that we at least hold in common.

Now just imagine for a second that Wikipedia said, “We’re gonna give each person a different customized definition, and we’re gonna be paid by people for that.” So, Wikipedia would be spying on you. Wikipedia would calculate, “What’s the thing I can do to get this person to change a little bit on behalf of some commercial interest?” Right? And then it would change the entry.

Can you imagine that? Well, you should be able to, because that’s exactly what’s happening on Facebook. It’s exactly what’s happening in your YouTube feed.

—Jaron Lanier, from the documentary The Social Dilemma

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

This is not the blogpost I originally started writing.

The first draft of my blogpost is quoted below:

As I lie on the sofa in my darkened apartment, listening to an LGBTQ “Queeraoke” room in Clubhouse (and wondering if I have the audacity to inflict my pitchy tenor voice on the assembly), it occurs to me that my relationship with social media has evolved significantly since I started this blog, a little over four years ago.

I don’t kid myself; my divorce from Facebook (not so much a single event as a series of steps), led not to a reduction in my use of social media, but an overall increase, something about which I have strong mixed feelings about. (It would appear that I am not alone in this: I have noticed a significant uptick in recent views of a blogpost I wrote about Jaron Lanier’s 10 reasons to quit social media, according to my WordPress blog statistics.)

Spending so much of my time in social isolation since the pandemic started 20 months ago, I find myself spending varying amounts of time every day on five wildly disparate social media platforms: Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Discord, and (the newcomer) Clubhouse. I tell myself that it helps me stay connected to other people, but I also

And then, like so many other blogposts I write, I set it aside, literally mid-sentence, to complete on another day, when the muse struck.

Well, today is another day.

And it is a day that I started watching a one-and-a-half hour documentary on Netflix, which is also available to watch for free on YouTube: The Social Dilemma. And, as it happens, Jaron Lanier also appears in this particular documentary—along with two dozen other experts, many of them executives who formerly held high-ranking positions at social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

I full well realize the irony in asking you to watch a YouTube video on social media addiction (given the platform’s at-times-scarily accurate recommendation engine, algorithmically designed to keep you viewing long past your bedtime), but I would urge you to set aside 93 minutes and 42 seconds of your time, and watch this documentary. It is eye-opening, it is disturbing, and it is a wake-up call.

One shocking thing I learned from this documentary is that even the people who designed, created, and tweaked the algorithms that glue us to our cellphones, are addicted to social media and its attendant ills (for example, a more divisive society and increasingly polarized politics).

We are participating in an experiment that is slowly but surely rewiring our brains in ways that we are only now starting to comprehend. Particularly disturbing is the impact that social media algorithms are having on children and teenagers, something once again brought to light by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen last week in her testimony to the U.S. Senate.

According to the video description on YouTube, The Social Dilemma was only supposed to be on YouTube until September 30th, 2021, but it’s still up as of today. I don’t know how long it will be available on YouTube, so if you don’t subscribe to Netflix, please don’t delay in watching this.

As I said up top, while I might be proud of my emancipation from Facebook, I have landed up spending more time—a lot more time—on other social media, notably Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Clubhouse, and Discord. The pandemic (and its lockdowns and social distancing requirements) have only exacerbated the problem over the past 20 months. And I suspect that I am not alone in this.

I might be free of Facebook (which I consider the most egregious culprit), but I am still addicted to social media.

Are you?

Here’s a resource to help you learn more: The Center for Humane Technology.

MetaWhat? The Metaverse Show on Clubhouse

Metaverse chat rooms on the social audio app Clubhouse have come and gone—there was a Virtual Worlds club which used to host regular rooms, but like many Clubhouse clubs, it kind of ran out of steam—but there’s a new club, called the MetaWhat? Show. (By the way, you no longer need to wait for an invitation to use Clubhouse; it’s now open to the general public, with both iOS and Android apps.)

Here’s the description of the MetaWhat? Show club on Clubhouse:

MetaWhat? The Metaverse Show: Everything you wanted to know about the metaverse, but you didn’t have the metadata to go on or felt uncool to ask! From the perspectives of the uninitiated to the movices and the pros, we’ll explore all things metaverse and more.

The club already has over 500 members, and they’re meeting on Sundays at 3:00 p.m. CDT/4:00 p.m. EDT time. Here’s the Clubhouse link to this afternoon’s chat. (I’m not sure if these links will work on desktop, but they will on your mobile device!)

The chat show brings together a number of people, from various backgrounds and with varying levels of experience, to talk about anything and everything metaverse-related (including blockchain metaverses).

Even better, the Clubhouse chats are being archived as podcasts on Callin, which is also an app on both iOS and Android devices. Here’s a link to part 1 of episode 1 to get you started (you’ll need to download and install the free Callin app).

You can also follow MetaWhat? The Metaverse Show on Twitter. If you are at all interested in the metaverse, I highly recommend you follow them!

Clubhouse Conflict: Tempest in a Teacup, Or a Sign of More Serious Problems?

In an effort to combat my isolation and depression, which is being made worse by a third pandemic lockdown largely caused by my provincial government’s bumbling, bungling and inaction, I often turn to Clubhouse for company. I like to have it nearby, running on my cellphone, and I often listen to it throughout my workday.

I consider Clubhouse a much more accessible version of talk radio, one where I can easily join in, if I feel I have something to contribute to the conversation. Listening makes me less lonely, and less likely to ruminate about my situation. Since I started in mid-February, listening to Clubhouse has very quickly become a part of my daily routine.

But frankly, Clubhouse is not a very happy place lately. The stresses and strains of unprecedented growth have all too readily shown the weaknesses of the platform.

Today, the users are in a collective uproar, with room after room after room of complaints about recent updates to the platform, which (among other things) led to the loss of keyword searching in personal bios. People are upset because they have spent time and energy build profiles which are no longer searchable, and therefore, like-minded users can no longer find each other as easily.

Clubhouse is not a happy place today
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

More and more, it feels as if the Clubhouse community is getting smaller and more insular, despite the recent rollout to Android users (many of whom are also complaining, lacking features such as the ability to add Twitter and Instagram links to their bios). The overall mood among the remaining and (seemingly) dwindling number of Clubhouse users is angry, divisive, quarrelsome, and frankly somewhat off-putting to newcomers. And it’s unclear what is the best way to fix these problems.

Lightning may have struck once, with Clubhouse’s initial buzz and sizzle, but I think that it is unlikely to strike in the same place a second time. Clubhouse is now facing stiff, strong competition from platforms with much larger social graphs off of which they can leverage, such as Twitter, Facebook, and even Discord. Clubhouse is now far from the only game in town, and their front-runner advantage dwindles by the day.

And it’s not just single users that are giving up and leaving Clubhouse. Whole communities have moved away from Clubhouse, seeking greener pastures. For example, some Black users have left Clubhouse for the crowdfunded, Black-owned Fanbase, feeling more at home there. I expect this trend to continue as competitor social audio platforms proliferate, and create submarkets within the marketplace.

And there still seems to be a great deal of upset about the awarding of the sixty finalists in Clubhouse’s recent Creator First program. Worse, many content creators feel that their hard work is not being acknowledged or rewarded with larger numbers of followers due to recent changes to the discoverability algorithms, so why bother?

In short, Clubhouse, my bulwark against isolation and depression, is springing leaks, It will be interesting to see how Clubhouse rises to the new challenges it faces. Is this just a tempest in a teacup, or a sign of more serious problems that will spell the end of Clubhouse? Was it all just a passing fad, fed by the pandemic?