On virtual sex

It is no mistake to say that sex has been practiced by humanity for as long as this species of primates exists, sex for pleasurable purposes rather than for procreation in particular. If anyone shows up to try and dispute that, I won’t accept any arguments younger than Kama Sutra or goddes Ishtar. Some even say that it is one of the key factors in evolving into a more social and intelligent species.

It is also no mistake to say that communication channel mediated sexual activities are at least as old as those channels. The oldest of them is written word, and that got used for erotic literature, fictional and otherwise, as early as it became feasible to deliver a written message anywhere and the number of available literate communication partners rose high enough. People used to write each other personal erotic letters describing their fantasies for as long as postal network systems existed, and numerous published letter collections from any era can be called in to support that claim.

Telegraph was, throughout it’s history, a bit too brief and expensive for this sort of thing, too little privacy and too much obscenity laws — a new invention of the christian fundamentalists of the most modern and progressive societies of the era, which kind of allowed themĀ much higher productivity, so they had the social clout to do that. But people tried anyway.

Then telephone came, and with it, phone sex appeared — there is little doubt, that while it really got noticed around 80s, with the availability of billing for it emerging with 1-900 numbers, it was actually privately practiced as soon as the privacy of communication was guaranteed.

The earliest instances of cybersex in written word have undoubtedly shown up with email, which was the first major application of computer networks after sharing files, and email interoperability was the killer application that brought Internet in. It was, and still is a major activity on IRC chat networks, as well as in the web-based chat rooms that flourished in the 90s.

It was done in late 80s in the first thing that you can call a persistent virtual world, MUSH/MUD/MUX/MUCK/MOO family servers. I have logs of third parties engaging dated to the earliest days of TinyMUD in it to prove it. Even the first accusations of rape in cybersex date to that era, which became (sort of) possible because of the introduction of the persistent aspect into the virtual world, which was the one true innovation of the age.

Virtual worlds are nothing new, you know. At all. Virtual worlds so big that you always meet strangers in them are.

These worlds were textual in nature throughout their existance, and they still exist today, though the younger generation, incapable of seeing the world in any way other than through a web browser anymore, is underrepresented — relying heavily on the imagination and stimulating it more or less directly, it was the ideal environment, where words weave the entirety of the world and still persist. It is often said that the biggest sexual organ is the brain, and as far as science can tell us, it is quite true. It is also true that in a virtual world, it is the only one you get.

So what does Second Life bring into the mix?

Surprisingly little, actually, mostly because SL is all about reinventing the wheel, abandoning all previous experience — that of the earlier virtual worlds in particular. Conversations with people I’ve had throughout my time in SL and other observations indicate that among the more intelligent part of the population (that is, people who can say more than ‘lol’ being the major criterion) sexual activities are primarily conducted through written conversation, poseballs and animations are far more likely to be shunned and discounted. But for written cybersex, Second Life is notoriously unsuitable — the 1000 character chat line limit is stifling, the single-line text entry window is even more so, (Back in my time in MU* research, the average line in a cybersex session was 500-700 characters long, longest ones went well over 2000, and yes, I have statistics. When you do it right, it takes a LONG time.) and if you’re going to do that, why bother about all these avatars and other nonsense when you can run a persistent textual world on your bleeding mobile phone, and non-persistent textual communication channels with zero round-trip are legion.

Yet others try to go to the other extreme, using little or no written word at all and employing, at best, voice channels for communications and visual means of expression. But for this, Second Life is also notoriously unsuitable, with the complete absence of built-in animation control throughout, (gestures don’t count) extreme crudeness of existing animation control tools — and seeing the code of MLP and ZHAO-II, the pinnacles of the technology, you can clearly see how much effort it took to get even that much — and the fact that the most versatile input devices you have are still your keyboard and mouse doesn’t help much either.

In short, it’s bad for it either way, and you can liken Second Life to an endless striptease session where you can easily look desirable, but when it comes to consummating this desire you still have a thick glass wall between you and no touching is allowed, and you have to make do with suggestive noises, barely audible through the glass. And the glass is thicker than it was just ten years ago.

It remains to be seen whether a true balance between the visual capabilities of Second Life style virtual world that we pay so much for — in terms of hardware requirements and computing power — and written word can be reached, a balance that will produce something that will bring the virtual sex experience to the new heights. Something that lets you create a communication channel that is as versatile visually as written word is, one that can be used to communicate things that are so hard to express in words because no words exist for them — things about love, things about warmth, and things about desire.

Only, Second Life won’t be where it happens.

It ain’t gonna work

And when I say something isn’t going to work, I’m usually correct, a gift I inherited from my mother. Which is why I make a point to never tell her what I’m doing, that gets me a much higher success rate.

Linden Research consistently plugs Second Life as “Web 3.0”, as a collaborative environment for corporate use. It ain’t gonna work. Not because the platform is unstable (though it very much is) but for simple, fundamental reasons rooted deeply in how human interaction works.

But to explain it better, let’s do a history lesson.

The very first patents in video telephony have been granted back in 1955, fairly soon after television was introduced. They were popular in fiction since much earlier, at least the 30s, and were a mainstay of science fiction gadgetry ever since the idea science fiction was first televised.

The costs were largely prohibitive, because of the requirement for higher bandwidth, but if they were really ‘The wave of the future’, costs would have been driven down rather quickly. I remember seeing first practical video telephones that could be used over ordinary phone lines on an exibition well before the 90s rolled in. Entire towns were given video phone services and then the services were quietly discontinued.

For the very simple reason that you can’t spend the whole day made up for the off chance someone might call you for a videophone conversation. You don’t really need that kind of fidelity for business communication — in fact, you’d best have less, so it doesn’t distract you from other work you have to do. There are certain applications where much higher fidelity is desired and needed — for communicating on a highly personal level, between members of a family, between very close friends and lovers.

And that niche is filled nicely these days by Skype and it’s ilk.

Early science fiction imagined all books as audio books, self-contained players which would read text aloud to the user. The technology made that feasible at least as early as the introduction of the cassete players.

And yet, audio books failed to drive the printed ones out. You can read much, much faster than you can hear a story, you can use the much higher bandwidth of your visual senses to get coded and preprocessed information, and learning to read is a small price to pay to have that faster access. Audio books have a niche of their own now. They’re very popular among the people who need their visual senses while driving, but still want the story.

Second Life and other virtual world systems provide for the communication on a deeply personal level, allow you the opportunity to send a high bandwidth visual image that is under your direct conscious control and express what you actually want to express instead of you might be expressing otherwise in a direct face to face meeting.

But for a business meeting, this is extraneous. Even assembling people in one physical world room actually results in lots of time wasted getting there, lots of time wasted while they’re waiting for the speaker to get their message through low-bandwidth voice. Instead of doing useful work, they’re trying not to fall asleep. What would serve a business meeting far, far better is a combination of IRC, a presentation system and a networked whiteboard. Because that allows people to actually devote resources to other tasks while a meeting is in progress, actually gives them a moment to think and look things up in relation to what the speaker is saying.

I remember lots and lots of experiments with 3D web back in the dotcom boom. They’re the reason VRML even exists. They all failed not because hardware couldn’t cope, but because for processing large amounts of rich content, 3D doesn’t offer any advantages and taxes the brain much more. For getting a lot of information, fast, nothing beats well-typographed text with a few pictures. A virtual world is just as useless for what web is good for as a videophone does not really offer substantial improvements over a normal phone in day to day business communication. You don’t want to see the face of the pizza delivery receptionist, and they certainly don’t need to see yours! A virtual world allows two people on the opposite edges of the world to be as close as nothing else can ever get them. Business people don’t need to or want to be that close.

It’s as if Linden Research is trying to sell warm fuzzy shawls to corporate executives saying they help keep the office relationships warm. And while the logic is sound, and it does look like a good idea for a while, it doesn’t really work. Eventually corporate executives notice that with AC on the shawls are a nuisance and don’t offer any real benefits. So first they find excuses to take the shawl off and then stop replacing them when they wear out.

But back at home someone is freezing without a warm, fuzzy shawl…

Ageplay theory

I started that on the forums, but the thread got closed. Meanwhile, I think the discussion I started has merit and is not idle theorising, because it demonstrates gaping holes in logic.

Second Life Terms of Service do not, as such, say anything about the subject of ageplay. It refers you to the Community Standards, which, as written, do not contain the word ‘ageplay’ either. In fact, never in those two documents are the words ‘age’ and ‘sex’ encountered in the same sentence. So whatever policy exists in place forbidding sexual ageplay, it is not stated clearly anywhere a rank resident may read it or even know it’s forbidden.

The consensus in various resident discourse has been that any person wearing a child avatar and simultaneously engaging in any activity that can be termed sexual, for example, animating their avatar in a lewd manner, is committing an offense against TOS, even though that is not stated clearly in any official source I don’t have to search the deep web for. But, this behavior is hardly atomic. What sexual ageplay in SL context is? Is it creating an image to be seen by someone else, consuming an image that has been created by yourself in cooperation with someone else, seeing an image created by someone else, or what? To clarify, let us consider the following set of hypothetical situations…

Situation 1: Suppose a person creates two accounts, A and B. That same person dresses up both as child avatars. Then the hypothetical perpetrator sets up an MLP-based animation device full of animations of sexual nature in a private region where no visitors are allowed. The animation device is set up in such a way as to be triggerable from chat commands.

Then they use Metabolt or another non-graphical client to log in both avatars and proceed to seat them onto the poseballs and engage in a sexual animation that even the owner themselves doesn’t see, and nobody else can observe since the region is private, except a hypothetical God-Mode Linden, who may or may not be present, and there is no way for the owner of the two nongraphical clients to know they’re there.

Situation 2: Same as situation 1. But let’s assume that instead of Metabolt, pure uncontrolled preprogrammed bots are used to connect, that can only sit down on two specially marked poseballs and nothing else. An LSL script is used to randomly cycle poseball pairs in the MLP device, and the device contains 50 purely innocent pose pairs and 1 pose pair of sexual nature. The cycling happens once, say, every hour.

The MLP device is set to silent mode — this way, at no time the owner of the bots may be aware what animation is being played right now. Since the animations are switched through server-side scripting, the owner literally has no control over whether the bots ever appear in a sexual ageplay scene, and the probability of it happening in any given day once is 47%. Mind you, the owner of the bots makes a point not to visit the bots to observe them, and makes sure nobody but a God-Mode Linden can do this.

Situation 1A: Same as situation 1. But now A is the owner of that account connecting with a normal client and viewing the animation as it occurs.

Situation 2A: Same as situation 2. But now A is the owner of the account connecting with a normal client and viewing the animation as it occurs, glued to the screen.

Situation 2B: Same as situation 2. But now A is the owner of the account, connecting with a normal client and not viewing the animation as it occurs, being busy around the house with something else.

Situation 3: A much more realistic and less scientifically rigid version now… Let us assume that a perpetrator has set up a system of camping chairs in a public mall, that are using an animation engine to animate avatars in innocent couple animations, like playing chess. At some point, a bot, B, dressed up as an adult avatar, sits on one of the couple poseballs. A few minutes later, a user, A, dressed up as a child avatar, sits on the other one. The multipose system used for the camping chair was made by adapting a sex bed, and the maker opted to keep the original sex animations intact. Due to a bug in the code, at a random point with an undetermined chance, the system may make A and B engage in a lewd animation. A is present at the keyboard as it happens, but is not aware that they may stop it by teleporting out.

Situation 3A: Same as situation 3. But now, A, dressed up as a child avatar, sits on a poseball first, and for a while has no idea a bot, B, might ever join them.

Situation 3B: Same as situation 3. But A, being an expert camper, is not present at the keyboard as a lewd animation happens, busy with something else entirely.

Situation 4: A common chair with an embedded pose is maliciously modified to request and keep animation permissions of the sitter with a separately introduced script. Since the scripts in objects sat upon are given permissions implicitly, the user is unaware that it happens. At a random time, if the person who was sitting on the chair but now isn’t, is still present in the sim, they are being animated in a lewd manner. A user, A, wearing a child avatar, sits on the chair to check out the pose, stands up and hangs out in other shops in the same sim, when the malicious script triggers.

Situation 4A: Same, but A was wearing an adult avatar at the time they sat on the chair, but purchased a child avatar shape, skin and clothing while still being in the sim, and wore them to check them out before the malicious animation triggered.

Which of these situations have sexual ageplay being committed as subject to an Abuse Report? Who exactly is committing it when, and who should be reported as the perpetrator? How exactly would their guilt be determined? Who has the burden of proof that any wrongdoing was committed? I must remind you — “There’s nothing objectionable nor illegal in having a child-like avatar in itself and we must assume innocence until proof of the contrary.” — Lewis PR Linden.

And most importantly, why, if it’s so easy to deliberately mislead a person wearing a child avatar into a situation which would be so questionable, and where they would have no control over ending up in it, are they actually presumed guilty by a rank resident that Abuse Reports them, and by a Linden that suspends them before actually checking if any wrongdoing occurred?!

Fun. I really should find professor Stanley Cohen — the gentleman is still alive and well, I hear — and ask his opinion on this particular moral panic. But I bet he’s crying his eyes out now.

Because I almost am.

Sex, lies, and statistics

I have mentioned previously that there is almost no good cosplay in Second Life. This applies both to anime and to any other fan culture I have so far observed. Which still strikes me as patently odd, but I think I have a theory now.

As far as I can see, the distribution of products seen in themed markets devoted to these pursuits is 90% junk, 10% worthy things that “aren’t quite cosplay”, meaning that they are obviously inspired by the theme, but do not follow it directly or do not copy the original material faithfully. The distribution is far more polar than you could think — while in most other areas, the distribution is close to a rather even normal distribution curve, with the highest number of products being of medium quality, in fan cultures the median is quite far away from the mean. The amount of products that look like a child made them, but which make an attempt to faithfully copy the source material, far exceeds the amount of high quality products which make no attempt to follow any source closely at all.

Well, maybe it really is because a child made them.

It is no secret that while Teen Second Life exists, the barrier for a teenager to create an account on the main Second Life grid is essentially nonexistent. (Well, technically they’re the same grid artificially partitioned, but I digress.) It is not known just how many of them are actually out there, since residents on average are not inclined to pry, and the only way someone would suffer for beeing a teenager on the main grid is by them telling someone explicitly and that someone ARs them.

It is not known just how many of them are trying to create their own stuff in Second Life either. There are no released statistics describing the Second Life user age distribution that I could find, only rough estimates or data based on surveys, the validity of which I cannot assess.

My own rough estimates say that the majority of users that actually produce content are over 30, and this holds for all areas — except explicitly faithful fan media, where the majority of content producers would actually be teenagers.

Which makes sense, because hardcore fan behavior is relatively uncharacteristic for people over 30, who commonly have families and other long-term commitments, like careers, and even if they do have a subject of hardcore fandom, they are less likely to be active members of a fan community, which would put value on faithful reproduction. For teenagers, being members of a fan community and status in it would be directly connected to faithfullness of any content they produce, and they value such status much more.

Why do I think the others are teenagers though, and not within 20-30 age bracket? Beside the obvious lack of general skill, which is gained as time passes, and the increase in self-criticism, which progressively prevents older people from releasing something obviously inadequate, there is one a very interesting and common brain bug that can often be seen in many things made by people under 20. I have no idea if there is any research to support that, but apparently, at least part of the ability to correctly estimate the level of a 2-dimensional planar deformation of an image that repesents an object with known proportions only starts appearing in people after 20. It can often be seen in video, where a 16:9 image is stretched to fill a 4:3 space as if nothing out of the ordinary is going on, mixed with other footage which was 4:3 initially — not because the editor of the video doesn’t know about the proper editing tools to correct that, but because they aren’t aware it’s happening. It is also easily seen in images where the skull axis is sheared consistently to the right up to 45 degrees because of the way the drawing implement is held in a hand that rests upon the paper — when confronted about it, the artist says that nothing is wrong with shearing, even though editing the image later brings it much closer to a realistic proportion. The effect starts quickly disappearing in people older than 20.

Mind you, not everybody agrees with me that it even exists, but hey, my blog, I can theorise all I want.

That leads us to another interesting question. If the above theories are true, it appears that either users within the 20-30 age bracket themselves are underrepresented in Second Life, or that they create considerably less content than other age brackets both above and below them.

Why?

Research

Second Life Resident Answers official forum gets, on average, two attempts to run a survey per week. Is it a good idea? Oh how wrong it is, let me count the ways…

  1. For survey results to actually mean anything, you need to know just how many people could have responded but did not — this lets you tell just how reliable your results are, statistically. In Second Life you do not. The actual number of active users is not released by Linden Labs and not obtainable without their assistance. The online count is not clearly indicative of the number of active users because of large populations of bots, used to inflate traffic statistics, and the amount of bots actually out on the grid is a very interesting research question.
  2. In case of Second Life, forum population is a minority, consisting of largely vocal and active residents, and it’s attitudes and preferences as well as any measurements taken from them have a certain likelihood of not reflecting the same about Second Life as a whole at all. It could be argued that they’re the ones that matter, and that is probably true, however, if this is not taken into account, the result of any survey is essentially void.
  3. The particular deeply invested residents inhabiting the forums have a well-defined, complex and diverse culture of their own, with it’s own slang and cultural standards, overlaid and mixed with national and professional subcultures. Finding questions that would be meaningful to them and properly wording them is it’s own challenge that requires a researcher to be determined. The approach of addressing them as an average consumer, or average American, or any other kind of average simply doesn’t work.
  4. There is no reliable way to guard against deliberate sabotage of an internet survey, particularly with a group that is on average more technologically qualified than much of the rest of the Internet and is hostile to surveys in general because they often treat them as deviants.
  5. Voluntary surveys are in general an iffy research method for reasons described elsewhere. It works if your respondents don’t recognise themselves as part of a group with defined interests and goals. Otherwise, they will fudge it to the best of their ability, see Hawthorne effect.

That is not to say a survey is completely unusable, but unless all these limitations are understood and taken into account for, it’s pure and simple hogwash.

Normality

One thing absolutely surprising about Second Life residents is that far more of them are normal than you have any right to expect.

They will say they aren’t quite often, but despite Dakota Tebaldi‘s lovely satirical “survey“, answering which they gleefully announce how depraved and insane they are, despite the large collection of sexual fetishes, despite that many people actually feel that what they do in Second Life is in some way an aberration, it is far more normal than they themselves realize. Everyone has their own kinks, everyone has strong feelings, everyone has desires that cannot be satisfied due to social pressure in the First Life — desire to be unique and different, desire to engage in behaviors that are impossible, desire to live fully and to strive for greater things, or at the very least, greater quantities if you aren’t the sort for greater things.

Don’t tell me you think it isn’t normal. Everyone has that.

Second Life acts as an eternal resort town — where nobody knows your name and nobody cares, where you can leave your day job back at home, where you don’t really know anyone, and the social pressure that prevents you from pursuing your desires is lifted — because you no longer have to keep your true name clean and it loses it’s magical power over you. I don’t know if English contains an idiom like “resort romance”, but Russian does — a relationship that exists only within the sealed locus of a space where your life is untraceable. No wonder so much of Second Life is endless beachland.

But it’s an eternal resort town. You don’t move in for the season and then move out, you come in and stick. You start growing a new name, and with it eventually comes new social pressure — a different one, because it comes with a different set of values, but any pressure can sometimes be stifling. Thankfully, moving in again is easy, and thus a new alt gets born… but I digress.

A “resort romance” usually grows fast. It may sometimes result in consequences reaching far outside it, or it may not, but it is usually fast. That is because within a resort town, everything is within walking distance, and few things are available to do that everyone else wouldn’t be doing at the same time. The time-space locus is small. Second Life is far bigger than a resort town, but it’s locus is even smaller. Absolutely everything is a button click away. In First Life, at the very least you have to spend minutes or hours going there, wherever it is that you might meet other people to interact with, and coming back, and it gives you time to think, to reassess, to understand what is happening. Not so in a resort town, where you just walk there, and definitely not so in Second Life, where people will often stay online until the very moment it’s time for them to drop asleep. Compress space and you compress time, everything will go faster.

But that compression comes at a cost. You don’t really have the time to think about what you’re saying right there when you talk. You don’t really have the opportunity to think why are you doing what you are doing, and whether it is a good idea — the iron is hot and then you strike. It takes being very conscious of yourself to avoid doing things you would never do, if you knew what you are doing — consciously knew.

But few people are really conscious more than half their waking time, which is also normal. Normal people think in normal ways. And these usually involve doing more or less the same things as they did yesterday, over and over, same things as their parents did, same things that their teachers taught them, things they have seen in the movies. They are behaving like they should and feeling what they think they should, even if there is no logic to it.

And in Second Life, they do it very, very fast.

Wake up. Because this isn’t the same as the usual resort town.

You’re never really going to leave it. It’s not sealed in itself. And just like First Life, your Second one is no less a Life, and is real.