Matters of taste: When Second Life gets too explicit

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A few days ago, we received a terrific question from Jenny Edwards (ED of England's Homeless Link, a national organization of frontline agencies dealing with homelessness). She's intrigued by Second Life's potential, but...

Having joined SL mid December and spending much of the holiday season there I have been thinking about how useful and creative it would be to network those of us round the world who are working to end homelessness and to share ideas and experience. The dilemma for me in thinking of using it for work the amount of adult material and behaviour. It's fine for people privately but inviting others into the world, particularly those from faith based communities, is too problematic for me at the moment. Have you found a way of overcoming this?

It's an issue, all right - and not just for people in faith-based communities. Ask any enthusiast, employee or consultant who finally convinced a friend, parent, boss or client to check out Second Life... only to have them run into X-rated territory.

That said, there are already several faith-based communities active in Second Life, from Christians to Muslims to Buddhists, and faith-based charities such as WorldVision have thriving SL presences. But like any large community, Second Life has a tremendous variety of experiences and content. From overt sexuality to horror to violence, you can find it all on SL.

For many users, it's the only place they can explore these themes with any sense of comfort and security. But coming across something you find offensive or painful without any warning can be alarming at best and traumatizing at worst.

Linden Lab, Second Life's creators, have responded to these issues by allowing owners to rate their land as Mature or PG. Here's how they explain it:

PG regions have frequently been described as an area where you’re free to say and do things that you would feel comfortable doing in front of your grandmother, or a grade school class.

In Mature regions, Residents can be free to engage in more adult activity and language, though of course, explicit adult content must be contained behind “closed doors”.

However, if you feel there’s some ambiguity as to whether or not your activity or content is allowed in a PG region, it’s likely best kept to a Mature region.

Anything goes on Mature-rated land, with a few exceptions (violations of the terms of service, hate speech and Nazi regalia are the main ones), although residents are supposed to limit any sexually explicit activity to indoor spaces. If land hasn't been rated, the rule is to treat it as PG. And members under the age of 18 are restricted to a teen grid, so in theory their safety should never become an issue.

Linden Lab spells the rules out more explicitly in their community standards:

Second Life is an adult community, but Mature material is not necessarily appropriate in all areas (see Global Standards below). Content, communication, or behavior which involves intense language or expletives, nudity or sexual content, the depiction of sex or violence, or anything else broadly offensive must be contained within private land in areas rated Mature (M). Names of Residents, objects, places and groups are broadly viewable in Second Life directories and on the Second Life website, and must adhere to PG guidelines.

The current version of the viewer doesn't include options that warn you when you're about to enter a Mature parcel of land, or – if you'd prefer not to even take the chance – prevent it altogether. (Such a viewer could well become available with the recent open-sourcing of the viewer code.) And while the terms of service prohibit some kinds of conduct in PG areas, rule-breaking still occurs... and those community standards are cold comfort when your kindly but straight-laced board member has just been graphically propositioned by a seven-foot-tall anatomically-correct centaur.

So what to do? If you really need to keep it clean, here are seven ways to help keep a Second Life visit free from unwanted intrusions from the steamier (or seamier) side of the grid:

  1. Educate: Make sure your colleagues understand Second Life, and the cultures that go along with it. Tell them about its community standards and the difference between PG and Mature ratings. Warn them that straying from the group means risking exposure to content they won't like.
  2. Keep to the sunny side of the street: Maintain a list of areas you know offer a positive experience, and if necessary, have your colleagues stick to them. At a minimum, avoid Mature-rated places until you've checked them out. (Even though a place is rated Mature, it may well be a perfectly acceptable place to visit.)
  3. Be a tour guide: Don't send a newcomer into Second Life on their own. Instead, guide them through their first few visits – ideally, right beside them at their computer, or on the phone while your avatar accompanies them. And have an itinerary in mind, with a list of tour stops to orient your friend.
  4. Be fast and firm: Deal with unwanted attention quickly and politely, but unambiguously: a "No, thank you" followed by walking away will dissuade nearly anyone (except for truly determined jerks, and you'll meet those in the physical world, too).
  5. Know the territory: Do some reconnaissance work before bringing people into an unfamiliar area of Second Life. What kinds of activity go on here? Who seems to frequent it? Are there casinos, night clubs or other facilities often associated with sexual activity?
  6. Be stingy with friendship: Get to know another user well before offering or accepting friendship – and really well before you accept a teleport offer. Is that stand-offish? Maybe... but it can help reduce your exposure to potentially offensive instant messages.
  7. Judge not, lest...: The happiest newcomers are the ones who remember that there are communities that were established here long before you came along, many of them centered around fantasy role-playing. Second Life is a very tolerant place, and extending that spirit of tolerance to your community can go a long way toward earning you the kind of goodwill that will make your SL experience a happy one.

Two last things to bear in mind:

First, serendipity is one of the great joys of Second Life. Think of yourself as visiting a new city: sticking to the family-oriented tourist haunts means you'll avoid the red-light districts, but you'll also miss the cool new jazz club.

And second, you can wander and explore Second Life for a long time without stumbling across anything gruesome, violent or sexually explicit. What you'll find instead is community, creativity and fun. Any newcomer to SL needs to find the balance that works best for them between avoiding the distasteful – and missing out on the best that Second Life has to offer.

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