Monday, December 30, 2019

Top Stories of The 2010s, Part Two

By Bixyl Shuftan

This is the second of our series of some of the top stories of the 2010s. For part one, Click Here.

The Pony Community and Bronyville's Fall

Second Life is noted for it's variety of avatar types. The first ones were human and humanoid. Soon after came other kinds, neko, furry, tiny, and dragon. Since the Newser came to be, two more have come about. There are the petite avatars, which I've seen mostly pixies. And then there are the pony avatars, based off the characters of the "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" cartoons. Unlike previous "generations" of the franchise, "Friendship is Magic" gained a following among teenagers and young adults. It wasn't too long after the cartoon started airing when the cartoonish pony avatars started appearing in the virtual world, and in May 2011 came the Bronyville sim. It quickly became a thriving community. While naturally there were a few bored trolls showing up to harass the ponies, they were quickly dealt with.

Then in July came real trouble when Linden Lab took down Bronyville. It turned out that the sim's two owners were ban-evasion alts of people the Lab had banned from Second Life. For many communities, this would be the end. But once the ponies recovered from the shock, a new sim was acquired and named Bronytown. A few months later in February 2012, they had largely recovered.

Several years later, the pony sims are still around. Trotsdale and it's surrounding sims soon replaced Bronytown as the best known pony area. But there are others with their own people. As the cartoon series that inspired the fans to create the community and sims aired it's last season this year, it should be interesting to see what the Second Life ponies do.

The S.S. Galaxy's Closing

I had the fortune to visit the SS Galaxy in it's early years. This was a cruise ship built in Second Life. And what a ship it was! Three sims long, it was not just the largest ship in the virtual world, but one of the largest structures of any kind inworld. And like a cruise ship, people could rent cabins, and there were numerous parties. It would be one of the first places the Newser would report on.

Then on April 26, 2015 came shocking news to the ship's fans: the SS Galaxy would be shutting down. Why was the ship being scrapped after eight years? An investigation revealed the ship had recently suffered the worst griefing attacks in it's history over a period of several days, and the Linden they talked to told them they would be allowed exactly one rollback to fix the damage and then no more, period. Fans gathered for a few last parties. And on May 3, the place closed down, leaving only screenshots, memories, and a number of residents feeling it's leaving was the result of the Lab acting like it didn't care about longtime customers.

Finally, the Lab realized it had goofed, and on May 13 it was announced that the ship would be coming back, but under Linden ownership.  In September, the ship was once again on the Grid. While residents were happy to see it back, their enthusiasm was dampered by that it was basically a museum piece. Gone were the live events, the renting of cabins, and the crew to greet people.

The closing of the SS Galaxy would be just one of a few incidents that year that got some people wondering about Linden Lab's intentions and competence.

From Passionate Redheads to Sunbeamers

Over the years of covering the Relay for Life,  I've covered the efforts of many teams. Some have continued their efforts year after year, such as Team ACTS and the Gorean team. And some make a good showing for a short time, such as the Relay Wizards and Team Strange Journey, then fade away.

The first Relay team I got to know really well, and the one I eventually joined up, were the Passionate Redheads.  This was a team of both human and furry residents led by co-captains Sabine McGettigan and Daaneth Kivioq. Having been raising money for the Relay since 2007, it was clearing in the big leagues, raising over a million Lindens in 2010. Many of it's team members were from the Sunweaver community, including estate owner Rita Mariner. So it really was the community's team. It had some great campsite builds, such as the "Wild West" one in 2009. And there was the late Artistic Fimicloud who lost her life to cancer, whom became a symbol of the team's determination.

But in April 2011 came some horrible news. Co-captain Daaneth suffered a stroke. Shocked, the Relayers sent him numerous well-wishes and held events in his honor. Various members stepped up to raise a some Lindens of their own, such as Rita, Nydia Tungsten, and myself. And the Relay Weekend went great. What could have ended up a canceled year ended up another successful one for the team, with Daaneth being awarded the Spirit of Relay for 2011 in the "Wrap-Up" event in August.

Sadly, the stroke had lasting effects. Shortly after the 2012 Relay season started, Sabeen left the team and Daaneth both left the team and took an "indefinite break" from Second Life for personal reasons. placing Dusk Griswold and Lomgren Smalls in charge. Despite this trouble in addition to others being sidelined due to real-life troubles, the team made it to gold level, and onto the Relay Weekend.

In January 2013 came more sad news, the Passionate Redheads were disbanding. After six years and many accomplishments, the banner of the Readheads would no longer be paraded down the Relay track. The Sunweaver community was saddened, but two people stepped forward to form two teams. Sadly, the leader of one would soon leave Second Life for personal reasons. But Sunweaver leader Rita Mariner would lead the Sunbeamer team. But while the Passionate Redheads had been a proven team, with the Sunbeamers we were basically starting all over, "We are a small team." Still, we persisted with events and our campsite for the Relay Weekend, in which we reached Silver rank fundraising. But by 2014, the team was making Gold once more.

Since then, the Sunbeamers have continued to do well year after year. The "small team" became "the little team that could," and a force in the Relay. But we haven't forgotten our roots. Every year in the campsite, one can find a small pink fox statue in honor of Fimi.


On August 23, 2011, came a new way of building things in Second Life: Mesh.  One complaint Second Life was getting in the late 2000s was that it lacked the detail of many popular online games at the time. So in 2010, Linden Lab announced it was working on a Mesh import project.

Reactions were somewhat varied. Some were anxious to see what they could do with the option, or at least curious. Others were skeptical, or fearful that the Lab would end up blocking viewers that couldn't see it. Another concern was security vs safety vs convenience, that mesh would make it much easier for the unscrupulous to import and sell material others had copyrighted, and that Linden Lab's security precautions would end up blocking some builders or making it too big a hassle for them to continue.

After it was enabled, there were some early adopters. While at least some called it the most important development in Second Life that year, others expressed skepticism, among them myself. I and others felt there were too few mesh-enabled viewers being used in the first several months for mesh to have that great of an impact. There were other problems as well. While touted as a way to make objects that would be more efficient to process, the truth was it took skill to do this as a mesh objects "prim equivalency" could easily surpass the same item made with prims and end up causing more lag. And then there was that for the first time in Second Life, people had to worry about their clothes fitting. Many people dreaded having to shop for clothes in real life as they had the hardest time trying to find clothes that would fit, and now the issue had come to Second Life. 

Still, skillfully made mesh objects and avatars looked better with smoother movement, one example being that mesh furry avatars have smoother speaking movements. And with mesh people could accomplish some things they couldn't before, such as the creation of impossibly tall avatars.

The use and adoption of mesh has been a long slow process. Linden Lab for instance would offer mesh starting avatars a few years later in 2014. But unlike earlier starter avatars, they couldn't be modified to be slightly taller or shorter or slightly different facial features, or able to wear another set of clothes. So in 2015, they were replaced with another set of starter mesh avatars, though some people commented they looked less like what one could expect in Second Life and more like "The Sims." These comments would continue with the added Fantasy and Sci-fi inspired starting avatars in 2016.

Over time, mesh would see improvements. In 2014, Fitted Mesh allowed for better fitting clothes, though while a step forward wasn't a perfect solution. In 2018 came Animesh, which offered the promise of much more detailed NPCs/bots inworld. 2019 would see the arrival of 'Bakes on Mesh,' which offered the promise of less complexity for detailed avatars.

Today, while mesh has won over much of Second Life, perhaps the majority, there are still some whom have little or anything to do with it. It's made dressing more complicated, and while Fitted Mesh has helped, there's still the problem of mesh outfits not quite fitting one's avatar. All the updates eventually mean some third-party viewers that seldom get updated soon become less and less useful as more and more glitches appear due to more avatars using material made possible by recent updates. It's also been brought up has Mesh been a good thing for Second Life's content creator community. While anyone can still learn to build and script, the arrival of mesh meant creators had to learn more to make a product the masses would buy, perhaps to the point that someone with the skills to make fine mesh clothes would make more money using similar skills outside the virtual world's community. In the end though, the demand for mesh products has ensured it's become an established part of the virtual world.

As Second Life enters the 2020s, the story of Mesh is still being written.

For part three of the series, Click Here.

Bixyl Shuftan

Friday, December 27, 2019

Top Stories of The 2010s, Part One

By Bixyl Shuftan

As the decade comes to a close, there's been some looking back at some of the events that have happened. For the people of Second Life, ten years ago there was the creation, the rise, and then the peaking of the popularity of the virtual world. For the 2010's, Second Life hasn't made Big Media very much. But there's been no shortage of events that were for a time were of great interest to many residents. Some made news more than others. So here's some of the decade's top stories.

The Linden Lab 30% Layoff

Just a week after the Second Life Newser got started came our first big story to cover, when on June 10 2010 Linden Lab announced a "Restructuring" in which thirty percent of it's staff lost their jobs. Residents were shocked at the news. Gone were favorites such as Blue and Teagan Linden. One resident reacted by setting up a memorial to those whom lost their jobs. There was an also an "Independence Day" party in their honor as well.

A company giving a third of it's staff the pink slip is usually a sign of deep trouble. So naturally people were worried about what was going to happen next. Rumors were around for months Linden Lab was in talks with Microsoft for a buyout. This was just one of many changes at the Lab in 2010, including the resignation of M Linden as CEO and Philip returning for a short time as intirem CEO. Second Life's future was very much in doubt for the remainder of the year. It wasn't until December with the arrival of a new CEO, Rod Humble/Rodvik Linden, that the fears of Second Life being closed down had largely faded.


2010 was when Linden Lab began offering a new viewer for the residents, Viewer 2. It was not popular with established residents, and people looked for alternatives. The Emerald Viewer, offered for free by a group of volunteers known as Modular Systems, or Team Emerald, quickly became the most popular alternative, the first third party viewer to hit it big.

But on August 20, there was a DoS attack on a website of one of their critics. The attack was traced to computers using the Emerald viewer to access Second Life at the time. One of the team stepped down, and the Lab presented them with a list of demands, notably three of the team stepping down. When one refused to, the team split in two. One group led by Jessica Lyon would go on to start Team Phoenix and the Phoenix viewer. The other faded away following Linden Lab blocking the viewer from accessing Second Life, some of their leaders banned by Linden Lab or never seen again.

Emeraldgate is notable as it's the incident that sparked the creation of what now is Team Firestorm, the people behind the Firestorm Viewer that remains the most popular viewer used by residents.

The Teen Grid Merger

Also in August 2011, it was announced at the Second Life Community Convention (or the SL con) that Linden Lab would soon be closing the Teen Grid, and those 16 and 17 of age would be allowed in Second Life. Philip Linden called the grid with it's population of under 18 residents a "mistake," and expressed confidence that Second Life with it's filtering system could handle the influx of 17 and 16 year olds.

But the announcement created a storm of comments by residents whom feared this would soon lead to adult areas being shut down. The Lab tried to assure residents that there would be a smooth transition. And there were efforts by some residents to welcome them in. But others called this an accident waiting to happen, having no confidence in Linden Lab to do the job, "I'm sorry LL shafted you all. ... many of us BEGGED for a PG continent that you and us could have and be safe together. We saw what was coming and wanted to make the grid safe for all. Now it isn't safe for anyone.”

As it turned out though, not many of the 16 and 17 year olds would be coming to the Main Grid. When the Teen Grid was turned off on Dec 31, 2010, most apparently went to online games or other Internet activities. Exactly why is speculation, some wondering if the teens just didn't want to hang out with "old people," but preferred a place where they could be with just their peers. Others felt the teens were around, just simply fibbing about their age and always had been.

The Redzone Controversy

One thing many residents fear in Second Life is someone harassing them getting around bans by creating alts to torment them further. So it's no real surprise eventually someone starting offering an "alt detector." As far back as December 2010, news started going around about "Redzone." That the creator developed juvenile products such as a "Toilet HUD" probably helped in the masses not taking the product product seriously at first, especially with stories that the product stunk at delivering what was promised. Privacy activists however were very worried Redzone could potentially be used to trace people to their real-life addresses, leading to doxxing and stalkers taking their harassment to real life.

Eventually, Linden Lab responded, taking down Redzone from Marketplace on March 2, 2011. Redzone's creator, zFire Xue (Michael Prime), remained defiant and was banned a few weeks later. It turned out that zFire was a convicted criminal on parole, and in May he turned himself in when a warrant was issued for his arrest. He would be sentenced to four months in jail, and the judge ordered part of his conditions would be parole were no access to computers or Internet access, Second Life specifically mentioned in the ruling.

For some residents, it was "Emerald all over again" in that a malicious coder had caused so much worry for the residents. Privacy activists such as the Greenzone group remained vigilant for any other alt detector that might cause trouble, getting into a tangle with the Voodoo security system a year later. Fortunately, there wouldn't be another like Redzone.

Second Life Ninth Birthday

2012 was a year Linden Lab put some distance between itself and the residents. There would be no snowball fight between the Lindens and residents. Nor did the "Kiss a Linden" Valentines Day event take place. Later in the summer, it was announced there would be no Second Life Community Convention that year. Residents expressed disappointment at these events being canceled. But then on April 16, 2012, Linden Lab announced they would not be organizing the Second Life Birthday celebration that year. In a statement later on the forums, they stated they were leaving it up to the residents, expecting numerous smaller celebrations.

But instead of following Linden Lab's suggestion, some residents banded together to hold the Second Life Ninth Birthday themselves, with both sponsors and some noted SL personalities behind it. Those taking part had only a short time to get things done, so they hurried things up. It would take place on a twenty sim area, and last from June 18 to June 24. There would be lots to see and do. And the event ended with fireworks at the Cake Stage. While there were a few minor things that went wrong, the SL9B was a definite success.

For five more years, the SLB events continued to be in the hands of a volunteer staff. Although Linden Lab would slowly start to be more involved in the anniversary with "Music Fest" and shopping events, "The Birthday" was still resident-run until the SL15B. In 2019, the Lab finally fully took over, saying over time they had been observing what worked and what didn't. While it meant saying goodbye to some new traditions such as "The Cake," the residents as a whole were glad Linden Lab was taking care of Second Life's anniversary event.

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For part two of the series, Click Here.

Bixyl Shuftan

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

News and Commentary: More on Youtube And COPPA

By Bixyl Shuftan

In recent days, I've gotten a few requests for topics to write on. Some were about Linden Lab's announcement they were bringing back last names, in which they also stated they would be doubling their commission on Marketplace sales. The complaints along these lines was that once again, the Lab was being greedy.

One other topic was not within Second Life, but could and was affecting Second Life music video makers, the COPPA controversy. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had hit Youtube with a massive fine for violating the Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act for collecting data on kids watching, whom weren't supposed to be watching to begin with as to avoid trouble Youtube had a policy of not allowing viewers under 13 to watch videos unless under special accounts. Youtube's response was to tell video makers to mark their videos if they were aimed at kids or if they weren't for kids. But a video's rating could be changed if either Youtube or the FTC determined if a video marked not aimed for kids was appealing to them, and the maker would be subject to a fine of up to $42,000, per video.

The reaction of the music video maker I know best, Nydia Tungsten, was to take down most of the videos from her Youtube channel. While people could still message her for the videos, years of work by her and her friends, done not for money but to entertain, was gone from public access. Very little of her Youtube channel remains, most of it being a number of videos about a discussion on the Inworldz virtual world several years ago.

As it turns out, Nydia was not alone. Shawn Keller, whom used lioness and fox animated characters to discuss topics on the scientific and supernatural, announced he would likely stop making videos. Vivienne Medrano, best known for her "Die Young" animated music video whom more recently has gone into "Hazbin Hotel," an animated cartoon that is definitely not for kids, expressed anger about Youtube's move on her Twitter. I've come across a number of other videos and comments expressing disain over Youtube's move. I've also come across a few videos and a number of comments saying there's nothing to worry about. But it's my impression those who are afraid greatly outnumber those who are not.

So why the fuss? In short, the rules video makers now have to work under are more than a little vague when it comes to COPPA. A reader directed me to one FTC page, "Is Your Content Directed at Children?" One section was "How Channel Owners Can Determine if Their Content Is Directed At Children." Among the factors listed was "the use of animated characters." While later on the page would state "the FTC recognizes there can be animated programming that appeals to everyone," this could easily be interpreted as that Youtube and the Feds were reserving the right to go after any video with animated characters, including computer-generated ones. That certainly explains a lot of the fear as the new rules could be seen as anyone posting an anime or furry animated video on Youtube could be on the chopping block.

Youtube and the FTC seem to be saying "trust us," but many video makers feel they have too little reason to do so, especially with the potential for such heavy fines.

So what can be done? Right now, it looks like a number of video makers are taking down their videos from their Youtube channels. I imagine others are keeping theirs up, but hesitating to make more. Alternatives to Youtube are certainly being sought, such as Viemo. One I keep hearing about is Pornhub. Yes, there is the stigma of a porn channel, they state, but there's no danger of the videos being taken down and being bankrupted by heavy fines.

Hopefully there will be some changes with both Youtube and the FTC on the issue that can get clear up the vagueness so video makers will feel at ease. But a recent video I came across by ReciewTechUSA isn't giving me much hope, at least on the part of Youtube. It seems Youtube also recently made changes in it's anti-harassment policy that in his opinion are being used to silence not just online bullies but brutally honest criticism as well in an effort to make the video service more advertiser, and corporate, friendly. "The Youtube that we once knew and loved is gone," he would state, "the day where you could make content you would see nowhere else and not be corporate controlled is over."

Like so much on the Internet over time, Youtube has been changing. But some of the recent changes are making it less of the place it was where you could just post videos (other than porn or gore) for your friends and anyone else interested to watch. With the new hoops to jump through and potential hazzards, it looks like some videomakers, in Second Life and elsewhere, will be saying goodbye.

Bixyl Shuftan