The web was built on openness and designed from the ground up to enable sharing of code – view the source from early web pages for examples. Yet it seems that already Second Life content creators want strict restrictions on copying, even going so far as to support the DMCA. So, while the DMCA is decried in so many cases (such as the RIAA suing elderly women and children who don’t even own computers), Second Life content creators want to call upon it for protection. There are currently multitudes of useful business models built around open source and free sharing. Why do users of Second Life, who have the ability to create a new world and rethink the negatives associated with our geophysical one, want to rely on an obsolete notion of copy restriction? This acts to simulate the production of physically-templated objects instead of assisting in the understanding of new models which are based on (and flourish from) copying, sharing and building commons.
Ultimately, this is my argument: much like the alter-globalization movement wants to create a new world, an “other globalization” not based on corporate profit at the expense of the millions who are exploited, synthetic worlds present us with an opportunity to imagine and craft the kind of worlds in which we want to exist. While many argue that Second Life duplicates the problems of sexism, racism and homophobia that we see in the geophysical world, I would argue that we can’t ignore the way that corporations are shaping our synthetic environs.
If the example of the web shows us anything, it is that users and developers can ensure some degree of freedom for the next few decades. While net neutrality threatens the future of that openness – as phone companies demand laws that guarantee the prevention of copyrighted films from being downloaded – new technologies like wireless mesh networks offer the possibility for hope. One of the most important and wonderful properties of the net is that problems are identified and routed around. It seems that synthetic worlds are at a point where some routing is necessary.
There are components ready to create a decentralized universe of virtual worlds: open source clients (Indra – the official SL client) and open source server software. OpenSim seems to be the current decentralised contender (which offers some SL interoperability) plus others including WoW server software. With the creation of Google’s _Lively_ we’re already seeing a lack of concern with interoperability through name collisions or name theft incidences.
Who stands to benefit from this kind of lack of interoperability? Obviously corporations with the goal of controlling the only available synthetic world would benefit enormously from halting interoperability. Users, then, need to demand interoperability or create systems that operate as such and make those that are not unusable. As users of virtual worlds and synthetic environments, we are responsible for the choices we make about what software we use. Users of Microsoft software are as much responsible for the Microsoft monopoly as is the company itself.
What stands in the way of creating interoperability? One major component of the web’s success is open standards. We need open standards in – and for – synthetic worlds. IBM and Linden Labs are currently working on developing such standards [see: Architecture Working Group].
Friends of mine who are daily Second Life users describe it as just another social networking site – just another place to chat with their friends, buy a cool outfit and have a nice house too. In this way, one can see that the real value of Second Life is in making synthetic worlds accessible. While the initial openness of the web allowed anyone to write html and make websites, one could argue that it was only with MySpace that a true explosion of web authoring took place. MySpace allowed every kid to suddenly have a web page because of the combination of simplicity (fill out this form, pick your song here, upload your photo here) and social value (express your vanity here, look good to your friends here, show how cool you are here). Second Life does something similar; playing to sociability and degrees of vanity through the use of an easy interface designed primarily for creating and buying 3D objects. Perhaps Google’s Lively will demonstrate whether ease of use and a lack of catering for creativity is the adoption benchmark for the next synthetic world interface.