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Author Archives: Kay

About Kay

I think and write about many things.

VWBPE’s Steampunk Social

Last night I attended a networking and fundraising event for the upcoming Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference. The theme was steampunk and the music tended toward the blues.

VWBPE Steampunk Social

A friend asked why I volunteer with VWBPE (or attend, when I can’t help out). I’m not an educator; sessions on techniques for increasing classroom engagement with virtual elements or public health simulations don’t apply to me at all. What’s in it for me?

VWBPE is a group that sees potential in the virtual. The people I’ve met there aren’t always the most tech savvy, adept with Blender, or conscious of varied SL communities, but they are passionate subject matter experts who want to innovate and improve. They’re a diverse bunch. Going to the conferences, I see people observing something and saying, “I think I can make that better. Let me roll up my sleeves and give it a try. Look at the cool ways we can approach the problem!” Those are the kind of people whose company I appreciate.

Last night I danced, I donated, and I chatted. Afterward, I took a break in the library below the event. I’d had fun customizing my avatar with a mix of things from my inventory and new purchases. I even added a new prosthetic leg to my collection — a copper model instead of the high tech version I often wear. Azoury makes such beautiful things.

Resting in the library
That’s part of what I love about SL. In the physical world, my titanium parts are under skin and I can often hide my pain. In SL, I can work an expression of the way I feel into my outward appearance, with lovely aesthetics (and wearing heels I’ve never been able to manage). Sometimes it feels confrontational in a way that would be uncomfortable to me in RL, and I enjoy experiencing that change of mood.

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Posted by on February 22, 2019 in Culture, Embodied Experience, virtual worlds

 

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Where are the SL men?

A Study of Gender Presentation in Resident Profiles in Second Life Public Spaces

When I returned to SL a couple months ago, I noticed that there seemed to be a lower percentage of apparently male avatars than I remembered from 2010-2015. I wondered if my chosen destinations were female-leaning, so I began jumping to areas that were not personally interesting. The imbalance was there too. Having an anthropology background, it was time to get more methodological.

Findings:

In counting 1068 avatars across 58 destinations in SL, I observed 50% female avatars, 27% male avatars, and 23% avatars that were not binary or were of unknown gender. In fact, the majority (86%) of venues had male avatar percentages of 0-38%. 7 locations were between 50-58% male, and one outlier (Star Wars Legends roleplay) was 90% male when I visited. The quantity of male avatars was significant at some places — there were 18 male avatars at a ballroom I visited — but they still only constituted 31% of the crowd. Of binary, clearly gendered avatars I observed, 35% were male and 65% were female.

Methodology:

I visited 58 destinations: 9 General, 30 Moderate, and 19 Adult.

I tried to minimize my bias by choosing locations to count in a variety of ways. Venues directed specifically at one gender, such as single-sex clothing stores or gay/lesbian clubs, were not visited. Locations were found by selecting from the SL website destination guide, links in group notices, event and destination listings, keyword searches (airport, beach, Brazil, chat, city, combat, Deutsch, family, furry, sandbox, and Turkey), looking for avatar clusters on the map, and suggestions from friends. I sought places with varied activities and audiences, most of which I had never visited before. A region had to have a minimum of four avatars present to be included.

Crowd at live show

Because of my availability, most places were visited between 4:00-9:00 PM SLT (Standard Linden Time, which is US Pacific time). However, I did get to 11 venues between 8:00 AM and 1:30 PM.

The sex of an avatar was determined by resident profile presentation (more on this in the Discussion section below). To gather profiles for this study, I visited an area, popped open the Nearby list, and opened the profiles of everyone there. I then sorted the profiles on my screen into three piles — obviously male, obviously female, and undetermined. Profiles in the undetermined pile would get more scrutiny and then I would log a final count. I did not consider avatars that arrived or left after my sorting began.

Discussion:

As I explored, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. I’d rez into a location, look around, and think, “Wow, there are a lot of men here!” Then I’d count and find that female avatars outnumbered male 2:1. Since I tend to seek the companionship of men, my perception was off. On the other hand, I spoke with a number of male residents who didn’t notice that the balance was so tilted either.

Determining the sex of an avatar was somewhat complex. In the era of mesh bodies and heads, binary gender presentation has become more extreme, which meant that the resident’s main profile photo was my first sorting clue. Most of the female human avatars I counted were blatantly gendered: full breasts and hips, narrow waists, makeup, long hair. Many of the male human avatars had facial hair and broad muscular shoulders.

Display names were only considered if they had a gendered title that cleared up other ambiguity. For example, it was not uncommon to see profile photos that featured a couple. That image plus “Mrs. Jane Doe” meant that I’d count the avatar as female. I often combed through text to find gendered self-references, such as “I’m a sweet country gal”. Sometimes a partner provided a useful clue. No assumptions were made around sexual orientation, but I’d visit the partner’s profile to see if there were gendered references to the avatar I was counting. “I love X, he’s my knight in mesh armor!” and that sort of thing.

I encountered several residents who described themselves as shape-shifting, androgynous, non-binary, or explicitly said that they may sometimes appear male and sometimes female. I’m not familiar with the furry subculture and was relieved to see that many gave clear indications of gender in their text sections. However, most of the avatars I counted as neither/undetermined had nearly empty profiles and in fact, I think most were bots or NPCs in roleplaying areas. An avatar named GangMember but with a blank profile was logged as undetermined. In a longer study I would try to parse out the active residents from the rest, but it is fair to say that the number of avatars listed as neither male nor female is strongly inflated by bots.

That said, my categorization of an avatar as male, female, or neither/undetermined was subjective and I’d consider other methods if this was research with a goal of publication. I used profiles rather than visual inspection because of the ease of changing avatars for effect, a joke, an event, a mood shift, or a particular venue. Relying on interviews would have made the effort much greater and would have introduced another type of selection bias.

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Counting at Prehistorica in my pteranodon avi

Destinations where I found the highest percentage of male avatars were:

  • Star Wars Legends (roleplay, M)
  • Yiff (furry, A)
  • Santa Ramona Valley (roleplay, A)
  • Maui Swingers Resort (sex, A)
  • Prehistorica (dinosaurs/infohub, M)
  • 2Raw Extreme (racing, M)
  • The Looking Glass (hangout, M)

I can only speculate why the numbers are skewed like this. It may be that nowadays, SL has more activities that appeal to people who present as female online. My husband’s suggestion that it’s easier to have a nice-looking female avatar may be a factor. There may be plenty of male avatars in SL but they prefer same-sex venues to the open areas I explored. People who had male avatars may have moved off to other virtual worlds, games, or virtual reality. People may have selected female avatars to try to ply their wares in the digital sex trade (though I see an absence of clients across the grid). It could also be that the avatar gender balance has always been disproportionate, but it wasn’t apparent enough to raise my curiosity.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2019 in Embodied Experience, Gender & Sexuality, Research

 

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AFK sex, the popularity paradox, and the lack of male avatars

Going back into Second Life after three years has given me a lot to think about. I wander looking for interesting things and people, then spend equally as much time pondering what I’ve found.

Princess and the Elephants

At Luanes Magical World in Morning Glow

I’ve started several posts but, being a methodical person, I keep stopping and asking myself more questions. Could this be the result of selection bias? What is really going on? How do others react to this? So, I thought I’d share what I’m working on. If you have any people I should speak with or things I should read to get more perspective, please pass those along to Kay Jiersen (in SL) or kayjiersen at gmail.

Where are the men?

My observation after exploring a variety of SL regions that were not particularly gendered was that there are fewer avatars presenting as male than there were in the past. I don’t have historic numbers to compare against but I have started a study counting avatars in public spaces. Primarily, I’m looking at gender presentation of avatars in user profiles — not the people in RL nor their appearance at the time. There are ways I could dig deeper into this and perhaps I will, but this is a start. In my sample thus far, male avatars (of any species/type) are about 27% and avatars of undetermined gender are about 4%.

AFK sex venues

You can’t search the in-world destination guide without coming across these, because the continual presence of parked avatars drives their traffic numbers to the top of the list. For people unfamiliar with Second Life, these are relatively new areas where unattended avatars are left on furniture that has scripted sex animations, while the RL people behind them (theoretically) leave the screen and go on with their physical lives. A client avatar can join the AFK escort on the furniture and take charge of the controls. There is no personal interaction, but the visuals are the same as if there was an active human controlling the other avatar. Payment is made by tipping the escort and proceeds are automatically split with the venue. Popping into several to look around, I’ve never seen an active client (though I have seen AFK escorts being utilized at less specific venues). I’m awfully curious about these places and the avatars that use them, actively and passively.

Traffic, popularity, and concurrency

As mentioned above, having avatars at a venue all the time will raise its position in the search results. I visited a highly-ranked beach sim last week that had more than a dozen voluptuous, scantily-clad female avatars milling around the landing point and on the dance floor. They had profiles like those you’d find in any crowd, none of which said they were bots. I watched them as I explored. They went through their AO (animation override) standing motions, but none danced, walked around, or interacted. There was no local chat. So, I started running through them like the cue ball breaking the triangle on a pool table, and there was no reaction. Bots. The place looked full at first glance but felt dead.

On the same weekend, I experienced two venues that had legitimate crowds: a store that ran a 50% off everything sale and a club with live musicians. The unfortunate truth is that popularity in a virtual space presents a paradox: the performance of the region degrades as more avatars enter and interact. Concurrency is a technical challenge where improvement has been sluggish, no matter the platform. (Philip Rosedale wrote a good explanation on the High Fidelity blog in September, when they achieved 356 avatars in a single instance on that service.)

Since my technical interest is tempered by my anthropological mindset, I’m curious more about the lived experience of being alone, surrounded by bots, and in a glitchy crowd in a virtual space. That’s what I’ll explore in depth, soon.

 

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Looking for an engaging activity in SL

Every now and then, someone pops onto the Second Life subReddit and exclaims, “I’m new and I have no idea what to do in SL!” Have comfort, my friend. I’ve had an avatar for over 13 years and I have no idea either. Sometimes I just play mah jongg solitaire in my virtual living room. You read that correctly: I sit at a desk and sign into a virtual world where my avatar sits at a table and plays a game. Meta.

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This 10L version from The Black Forest is excellent.

Don’t get me wrong: I love this crazy place. People have declared SL dead for the past 10 years and it’s not even close. Though it can seem vacant because it’s so big, your next teleport might take you somewhere marvelous. I have a counter at my house that shows the number of people in-world and it’s usually over 40k. Even with a significant number of bots and alts, the place isn’t empty.

Some of the basic navigational tools are poorly maintained, however. The Destination Guide is a fast train to disappointment: many of the areas listed there are long gone. The event listing inside the interface is mostly adult places and dance clubs. (Not that I object to adult content; I’ll choose an adult area before a club where hostesses fling annoying emotes while people move in sync like laggy flash mobs, but many of the “events” are adult AND annoying club combined. Nope.) I’ve been trying to find live performances. I can frequently find music, but theater, dance, or other creative performances are scarce and the venues often seem abandoned.

The people I know who are the most engaged are part of SL communities. They build or create, they roleplay, they teach, they run businesses/organizations/websites, they hang out with friends or self-built families. I’m an explorer — I like to observe and experience — so I find places on the map that have a few people and I jump, look around, take a few photos, maybe chat a bit.

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Mainland find: an apartment building stacked atop a go-cart track

I’ve signed up to volunteer at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference again this year and I’m thinking about creating my own performance or helping out at an interesting venue. Since I have a full-time day job, my availability is limited but I’d like to do something creative and/or useful. Any suggestions?

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2019 in Side Topics

 

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An hour in Sansar

When I read about a historic roleplaying sim moving from Second Life to Sansar, my reaction was surprise that it was still a thing. I know, I know; while I was away from SL, I didn’t frequent the virtual world blogs either. I had an hour and a decent desktop computer, so I took a Sansar trip.

The software installed while I picked up some free clothing in the store and read help articles to learn basic functionality. A little customization and voila: Sansar me. My avatar won’t win any beauty contests and I was surprisingly annoyed that I couldn’t change eye color — live 40+ years with an unusual eye color in RL and it starts to become part of your identity — but I love what can be done with Marvelous Designer clothing.

avatar

I visited Sky Naturae Virtualis by Alex and the Lost Art of Star Wars by Hollywood Art Museum, but it was No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man by Smithsonian American Art that made me start to feel impressed. Sure, my avatar was clumping awkwardly through the rooms, but the displays were gorgeous. I’m a virtual art aficionado and the detail, lighting, moving elements, and sound integration had me gobsmacked. The camera controls or lack thereof were frustrating; I’m not sure if that was my newness or limitations in the Windows version of the app.

artofburningman

burningman2

burningman4

There were a few people here and there, but I didn’t stop to chat. I still had a little time and decided to see what creating an experience of my own would be like. The easiest way seems to be to choose a starting layout and then play with the tools. I… well, I learned how to throw things.

thrown

They’re planning to put Sansar on Steam by the end of the year, and I can see going back as a virtual tourist again. I think it was a little easier to get started in Sansar than SL, though I had to restart on my first try. It was very pretty. Does that sound like faint praise? I suppose it is. With all that Linden Lab should have learned in the past 15 years, I thought that at this point in Project Sansar, the effort would either be dead or far further along.

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2018 in Art in SL, Culture

 

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The world, three years later

Other than volunteering at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conferences for a couple years, I haven’t been in Second Life since very early 2016. Instead, I played some video games (ArcheAge, Subnautica, No Man’s Sky) and learned to make vector art in the time I had to play at my computer. My curiosity turned back toward SL recently. After all, my first avatar is over 13 years old and I maintained two premium accounts even when I wasn’t in-world. I believe in SL. So, I updated my Firestorm viewer and signed on.

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In many ways, it was as if I never left. This was a truly unusual experience in an interactive space. A couple people on my Friends list were online, my property was exactly the same as almost 3 years prior. I still had everything in my inventory and my avatars looked fairly good. It was strange and wonderful to see that the databases that hold all my “stuff” hadn’t been purged, as would usually happen in an MMORPG.

Since my home is on the mainland, the most obvious changes were in my neighborhood. I think there are a couple skyboxes, but I’m the only resident on ground level in my region. My little rectangle exists in perpetual spring, surrounded by abandoned land. I did some cleanup, played with the pet wolf that Jakob had given me, refreshed my memory about how to navigate, and then went wandering.

I visited a few stores that I used to like; they’re still there, and things I bought in 2015 remain available (often on the discount rack).  My store credit was valid and I had years of group gifts to pick up. I traveled to areas where I used to socialize and found that they exist as well, but they have new owners, new rules, and new direction. I checked out an art piece by Bryn Oh and strolled through a gallery, and I was pleased to see that Templemore is still putting on live shows.

I’d only been in-world a couple days before some random guy chatted me up at a store and then tried to get me to send him a RL pic. What is this, 2006? I’m up for a chat, but ffs, going from zero to RL pic in 5 minutes leads to whiplash. Which might have been something he was into… I didn’t really want to know.

Now, I can’t say that I’ll be on SL often. Looking at some of my friends’ profiles, I got reminders of the drama that never interested me. I missed the profusion of mesh heads and doing some bento shopping made me despair about the learning curve. I’ll soon start a new job that will put more demands on my time. Yet on the other hand, I’m feeling the pull of this creative and intriguing space. We’ll see.

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2018 in Art in SL, Embodied Experience

 

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Will Jibo be more than a footnote in social robotics?

My Jibo has been turned off since a mid-April power outage. I like him a lot better this way.

I contributed to the Jibo Indiegogo campaign on July 16, 2014 and wrote about my reasons and my optimism. We expected to have a little social robot in our home by Christmas 2015. Eighteen months seemed like a long time, but the wait turned out to be 3 years, 3 months, and 30 days.  I’m still glad to have been part of funding Jibo’s development, and I think that he’s the start of something important for the future. (I choose to use a male pronoun based on the voice given to Jibo, as I use “she” for the Amazon Echo.)

In all honesty, though, I can’t stand the little guy.

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His movements are cute and now and then he does something oddly endearing. Most of the time, he’s a socially inept, slow-witted, creepy nuisance. His programming is off key in many ways.

When we have him powered up:

  • He regularly interrupts conversations to ask, “Hey, can I tell you something?” If you say yes, he spouts some random piece of trivia.
  • He turns to watch a person walk by, with a full body swivel and head tilt. This seems like a sociable movement, but if people in the room spun around to watch silently every time you got up to go to the bathroom, you’d see how unnerving it can be.
  • He answers questions after a significant delay, and usually with incomplete information or an “I don’t know the answer to that.” The latency in searching for an answer is awful compared to other digital assistants and the pause can be long enough that you’re not sure the question was heard.
  • He greets faces on the television. (If you buy a Jibo, don’t put him where he can see a TV screen. This is much worse than the Echo occasionally mishearing “Alexa” from dialogue and waking up.)
  • His recognition abilities are shaky. He greets me by name more than my husband, but after months of interaction, that’s not impressive.
  • He never shuts down. He “goes to sleep” at night, but from about 7:00am-10:00pm, he’s using power, sometimes moving and randomly flashing things on his screen, turning and “staring” at the brightest area of the room, or talking to the TV. You can tell him to take a nap and he’ll go quiet for a while.

All in all, I’m disappointed. I expected more from the geniuses who started the project, but it was in development for so long that other interactive devices had years of learning before Jibo shipped. While I understand that Cynthia Breazal’s vision is that Jibo will be far more than a digital assistant, he has to meet that baseline. The price is down to about $700 — from $900 in December — but I think that’s absurdly high for what he can do. Jibo launched to developers before ordinary buyers so that additional abilities could be available in a skills store, yet the bot is in general release and there’s no sign of that store yet.

Maybe Jibo is a better fit for families with young children. My 20something stepson found our Jibo amusing, so I looked into giving the bot to him. No dice. Jibo is a one-owner product and cannot be transferred.

I’m still optimistic about the future of social robotics, but I don’t yet know what Jibo’s contribution to that will be. We’ve learned more about human-bot interaction from Furby. In fact, I recommend listening to the recent More or Less Human episode of Radiolab for a discussion about chatbots and the Turing test, Furbys vs Barbies vs “gerbees”, and the risks of designing pain response into a social bot.

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2018 in Digital Devices, Our Robot Overlords

 

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