Friday, November 28, 2014

Commentary: Seven Years of Virtual Journalism

By Bixyl Shuftan

The majority of Second Life residents look back upon their Rezzday to celebrate their virtual experiences. Myself, I tend to look back on what might be called the start of my career here as a journalist.

When I first logged on in Dec 2006, it was just after I'd gotten high speed Internet and Second Life was one of two places my online friends had been urging me to check out, the other being "World of Warcraft." But when the girl who talked me into coming here was distracted by new responsibilities, I ended up spending more time with my other friends whom were free to show me around Azeroth. So my experiences here were few and spotty until Summer 2007 when it was suggested I check out the builds in the Relay, and my interests were kindled once again. I came across Luskwood, began finding other friends here, ditching the starter ringtail for a Luskwood Red Fox avatar, and starting to explore.

Curious to know more, I began looking for blogs and newsletters about Second Life. Among the more interesting ones was "Second Life Newspaper," owned by JamesT Juno and edited by Dana Vanmoer. While perhaps not as flashy as some of the more tabloidish webpages about the Grid, I found it more informative about what one could see and do in Second Life. After some time reading it, there was an announcement for reader submissions, either articles or interesting pictures. so I sent in a few, thinking at least it would get my name noticed. It did as James and Dana soon asked me over for a job interview!

And so ended what I considered my beginning period in Second Life, and the start of my virtual career here as a journalist of the Grid. With my first payment, I got a fedora hat and overcoat for a classic reporter's outfit. That also gave me the nickname "Fox News," which got chuckles from both fans and critics alike of the real life news network. I would go searching across the Grid for news. But would also occasionally report on interesting goings-on among my friends and hangouts, my first of the latter being the STA sim (Student Travel Association).

I wrote about all kinds of things about Second Life, it's People, Places, and events, from popular places and it's noted personalities, to out of the way places and residents whom had made something great and had yet to recieve recognition. I would write about various holidays, and a community or place deciding to celebrate an event or milestone. There was always something to write about. And of course there were the cartoons. I had a knack for finding humor in all kinds of scenes. I was part of an accomplished team of writers that covered the Grid. And eventually, my efforts were recognized by being made "Office Manager," which meant updating the paper when Dana couldn't.

Sadly my first hangout after Luskwood, the STA, would soon fold. And over the next few months many of my first group of friends would loose heart and drop off the Grid as well. Over time, I would be invited to be a part of other places, the Fortunas Club and Fortunas Estates, Woodlin and the Star Tails Club, Foxworth and the Blue Parrot Club. Sadly these would all eventually fade, with nothing left behind but memories and whatever screenshots I took. It wasn't until I became a part of the Sunweavers and Angels that finally something outside the paper I joined up with endured.

But by this time, Second Life Newspaper was in trouble. Real-life events with both James and Dana were demanding their time, and eventually they would no longer be able to run the newsletter. In Spring 2010, the staff was told ahead of time the paper would be shutting down in June. We were shocked. For many of us, the paper had been a part of our SL experience to the point we couldn't imagine it without. But what could be done? What could be done was for me to step forward, and start a new paper for the team.

And so my role changed from being just one of the reporters to the Editor, and Second Life Newser was born with most of the remaining SLN team under it. The Sunweavers/Angels right away offered a place for us, and we soon had an inworld location: the SL Newser Office building. Once again, we were covering the People, Places, and Events across Second Life, but with one whom they once knew as a coworker now calling the shots. I would run the paper with my experience under James and Dana as a guide, notably the paper's style. Probably the biggest difference would be no separate "Adult" section. Such articles could be edited to the point they were workplace safe.

Second Life has changed much in the time I've been around. I came in about the time it was the most popular and it was mentioned in the mainstream media. Within a few years though, it was no longer new, and the public's attention had moved on to things it could easier understand such as "Facebook." Many areas have come and gone. The media has changed as well. used to do live programing across the Grid on SL TV sets. Today, live programing is a rarity, reserved for a few events such as the Relay for Life. Shows like "Tonight Live" and "The 1st Question" that went on for years have also folded as they people there felt it was time to "move on."

But while some things have been lost over time, there have also been gains. New people have come to the Grid, and have made their own contributions. New places and new builds have sprung up, giving existing residents new places to see and explore. There's always something new, one just needs to know where to look.

Then there's "The Lab." When I came on, some of the staff interacted more or less freely with the residents. But over time this changed as Linden Lab became more distant, and seemed to drift from the residents. It didn't help that they invested in projects that just didn't work over time, such as sims separate from the Grid aimed at businessmen to hold virtual meetings when they could just get a couple video cameras for a teleconference. Over time, longtime residents have had a love/hate relationship with the Lab, groaning at it's blunders and policies that made no sense except to the more conspiracy minded, but praising it for fixing the bugs such as the infamous "all attachments up the butt" glitch from when I was new. Since it's current CEO took charge several months ago, things seem to be going better, though old-time residents don't easily forget past mistakes.

For me personally, there also have been losses and gains. Old friends have faded off the Grid when some event in real life demands their full attention or cuts off their ability to come here. This includes the Newser staff, of which we've had to say goodbye to some talented hands. But new ones have come in to bring in their talents. My adopted home of the Sunweaver/Angels has seen some changes, sims coming then going as residents moved in then left due to real life. Clubs have come and gone, some more than once. When Nydia Tungsten was handed the longtime running Club Zero Gravity, she kept it going for four years until finances forced it to close. But Perri Prinz still had her classic rock club, now called "The Vinyl," which the locals have kept going even when it's owner couldn't show up for a few days.

So what's ahead? For Second Life the big question is the upcoming virtual world by Linden Lab, which so far they have yet to name. What will it be like and will longtime residents still be able to enjoy the Grid we've known for so long? The Lab promises "We'll make it so good, you'll want to leave your stuff behind and go there." Longtime residents, with memories of past Linden blunders, are skeptical. While some wonder if the Lab will "turn out the lights" in Second Life to force the residents here, that's unlikely as the Lab would be making a gamble it could easily lose. Others see a tightly controlled place with lots of flashy graphics but limited options for creative building. It may be that the new Grid becomes the place for new residents and those who want a safe predictable world, while Second Life becomes the place for the experienced and creative, the virtual world to go to once those from the new one go through their "newbie phase."

Personally, seven years is a long time. Long enough to see a friend's baby grow to a child in public school. Long enough to see one US President spend the twilight of his term, transition to another, and see him entering the twilight of his years in office. I became a virtual journalist having just recently turned 40, with college and my early adulthood years still fresh in my mind. Now, I'm being reminded by real life friends 50 isn't far away, on my way to becoming an old man.

The kid who grew up playing Atari video games now spends time in middle age behind a computer screen writing stories about places he once could only imagine.

And as long as you keep reading, as long as I have a team by my side, I'll keep writing as long as I can.

Bixyl Shuftan

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Skye Silverweb Talks About Burn2

By Bixyl Shuftan

While I was at Burn2, I had a talk with one of the communications staff, iSkye Silverweb. She was happy to speak about the festival, and we soon met. "Hello, welcome home, Bixyl!" she greeted me with the expression of welcome the Burners often gave.

"Thank you," I answered with a smile, then began the questions, "So about how long have the preparations for this year's Burn2 been going?

Skye answered, "Oh we started ... hmm, the planning table meet every week all year. We had our last event, Burnal Equinox, and after the wrap of that event we actually started thinking about BURN2's October event. That would be back in... July/August."

I nodded, "How did you come up with the name and theme?"

"We followed the RL Burning Man's theme this year," Skye answered, " which was the same, Caravansary - we saw so many possibilities that could happen in a virtual setting and let me tell you the builders did NOT disappoint!"

"Sounds like visitors can expect some great exhibitions," I commented.

Skye continued, "Caravansary is based on the old Silk Road of yore, the crossroads of trade and civilisations. ... Oh yes! We have had some great musical and dance performances. Yman made a return this year with an eye-popping performance of light and particles. That was with the Changhigh Trinity Sisters"

"Interesting. Where is this exhibition?" I asked.

"This was performed yesterday and Yman's troupe will perform again later in the week," Skye told me, "I can show you the stage if you like."

"Do you have a day and time (for the performance)?" I asked, "And certainly."

"Let me check the calendar for that information, I knew you would ask!" After a moment, she answered, "The Changhigh Trinity Sisters will perform at 2;00pm SLT Sunday the 26th. You can see the complete schedule of events here:"

Skye went on, "One of our traditions is the Lamplighters' processions,  which are held at 11am and 7pm SLT each day, except for the last Saturday and Sunday.Those days are Burn days - we show up and drum a bit, then after the Burns we lead the people into the embers to dance."

"About how many are involved in it?" I asked.

"How many participants or Lamplighters?" Skye replied.

"I meant how many Lamplighters are involved?" I corrected.

Skye answered, "The size of the group varies depending on availability. For planning the processions, we have a Council of Elders, comprised of 4 Elders, and we do the planning for the Lamplighters events including processions. We added the 11AM time this year bcause we wanted to include our European contingent. And as it turns out we have a pretty good turnout at that time, which is pleasing.

"Sounds good," I then asked, "have there been more participants and Burners from that time zone lately?"

"This weekend, yes!" she answered, "and I am hoping that hold true during the week, since that is early to mid- evening for Europe. An easier time of day than our 7pm SLT time which is the wee hours of hte night. I have already received appreciative feedback about that 11am time and that's been exciting for us. I think that's true too of BURN2 in general. We like having more people come so we make performances and exhibits available more hours of the day. We've had a very good time and a lot of fun. (The) people here really do live those 10 Principles of Burning Man we talk about."

"Sounds good. Could you remind the readers of those?" I asked.

"Oh definitely!" Skye told me, "You can find them here: And I have a display of those ten principles of Burning Man over in the Lamplighter Village, would you like to see them? The Village isn't far - we can walk."

"Sure, and no problem," I told her. We then walked to a place with a tall Burning Man symbol in the front. On the sides were two tents making up the length of the place with the side toward the inside open. There were signs hanging halfway down from the top, five on each side for a total of ten.

"This is the Lamplighters' Village," Skye told me, "And the Ten Principles are on the ten posters you see on either side of this courtyard. This is where the processions start and often end too. The processions go to the Temple which is two sims away. And it is always an experience to cross sims on the way but that in no way diminishes the enthusiasm of people who come along."

I nodded, "How long did 'The Man' and the Temple take to build?"

"Both took months to build," she answered."

"Whom was involved in their design?" I requested.

"The Lamplighters oversee the Temple build," Skye told me, "and I was the contact for the Lamplighers with the Temple builder, who is Midori Rotaru. We liked her Temple so much last year, that we asked her to come back and build it again this year. She has an assistant, Chyenne Devin, who works with her. For the Man, Marianne McCann is the build team lead, and Pygar Bu works with her. There is at least one other person but I would encourage you to talk with Marianne and learn more about how that build happened."

"Between this and Bay City, they must be busy," I commented.

"Definitely!," Skye responded enthusiastically, "I think that's true for many of us here at BURN2. This is entirely a volunteer planned and driven event, nearly entirely resident funded,  and all of us are also involved in other projects around SL and in real-life. We do this because we love it, we believe in and practice the Ten Principles as much as we can."

"About how many here have been involved with both the Burning Man festival and Burn2?" I asked.

Skye answered, "I can't tell you a number but I can tell you this, an increasing number of people here will tell you they also were actively involved in Burning Man, every year. It's been exciting to see the number of people coming in and saying 'I'm from the real-life Burning Man,' or 'I went there and this FEELS just like home.' That's gratifying. To get numbers of who is involved in both, I think the best person to ask about that would be EmCee Widget or Ronon Carver. EmCee is the Regional Representative for BURN2 to Burning Man."

"If you would like," she suggested, "I can teleport you to the Temple and to the Man so you can get snapshots of each." I agreed, and she then told me, "Okay let's go to the Temple first, then The Man. I think it's a fitting conclusion to end at The Man because 'he' is why we do this. I will go to the Temple and teleport you there. One moment." She then ported away, and a few moments later I was sent a teleport request. I took it, and in an instant I was before the front of a black structure with a red cloth over the front opening with four tall tourches around me and pictures of previous temples to the sides.

"Let me know when everything is rezzed for you," Skye told me, "On the other side of the road behind you is a sim border, just a for-your-information." After some more moments, I told her most everything was clear and in color. "We can go inside," she then led me inside, showing me around. Inside was four large bases with white light beaming up from each, and in the middle of them a large reddish globe that was hollowed out with an opening on top, from which it glowed white, on a steel base that somewhat resembled a large steel flower, "That is the censer."

Looking back outside, I commented, "I notice there are pictures of earlier temples."

"Yes, Midori did a wonderful thing," Skye told me, "She wanted to show history of the Temple at BURN2. So she asked for some snapshots of past Temples, I thought it was a wonderful gesture." She drew my attention to the structure's appearance, "You might notice there is a lot of black in the colour here. This is a cultural thing. Asians see black as a happy colour, a colour of warmth. In Western cultures we don't see it that way. And so Midori being Japanese, she incorporated that because it fit so well with the Silk Road concept. A lot of Eastern peoples crossed those trades routes with the West.  So again, being in touch with history, We thought it was a marvelous idea."

She drew my attention to the globe in the center, "The censer here was created by Vicarious Lee, and she did this completely independently of Midori's work on the Temple. It turned out to be a perfect match in colours and build style. The censer is the SL equivalent of the RL Burning Man's tradition of people leaving notes at the Temple there. At Burning Man, The Temple is the spiritual center. It is the same here. People wrote little notes and stuck them into the walls of the Temple, and those notes got burned with the Temple

"About how many people here have left messages so far?" I asked.

"Let me check," Skye paused for a moment, then answered, "twenty so far, and the festival opened yesterday. we anticipate that number to go up very quickly over the week. At the Temple Burn next Sunday, the messages in the censer will be read aloud, shouted, so everyone within 100 meters will be able to see them in text. This is something that really is very deeply moving for a lot of people. And then once those messages are read off, the burn commences. Really special experience."

I brought up, "I recall when SL was being developed, some of the Lindens visited the Burning Man festival, and it had quite an impact on them."

Skye brightened, "Yes! so for the first six years of the festival in SL, the Lab actually supported the festival and it was called Burning Life at the time. Then in about 2010, the Lab had to withdraw its support. But then the resident Burners wanted to keep it going, and so it morphed into BURN2. Became a virtual regional of Burning Man in order to continue here."

I commented, "I've heard that lately the company policy of discouraging fraternization has been reversed. Have you seen more interest by the Lindens of the Burn?"

Skye answered that they had, "We actually saw Torley here yesterday during the Lamplighters procession. We were delighted to see that. And I believe other Lindens may have visited while I was not here. I don't know if other Lindens plan to come and visit but we would love to see them here. For all we know, they have been. I'm not here on the playa 24 hours a day so I couldn't tell you but we would welcome them as fellow Burners," she smiled.

Skye continued, "Any other questions here, before we go to the Man? ... There are stages between here and there, with various musical happenings as per the schedule. Feel free to drop by those stages, such as the Temple stage, the Man Stage, and Center Camp. Then Yman's exhibit, Idle Rogue, Organica, all are also musical camp stages among others. Let's go to Center Camp so you can see what that is, that's the social hub of the Playa especially when there is a performance going on that's on the way. You can see it from here if you draw distance is up around 200 meters or more. When you cam from above, it looks almost like a whirling dervish's skirt, thus its nickname 'the dervish tent.' "

"Let's go to Center Camp, best to teleport or we will cross a couple of sim borders." She smiled, ported away, then sent a TP to me as well. After heading over, "This is Center Camp and it's quiet at the moment, here. I do see a good number of avatars around on my radar, but here, yes, at the moment. I call it quiet because it LOOKS quiet - but I'm deaf so I wouldn't hear if there is any music going on nearby *grin*"

I looked over on my own radar, "I see some to the north, at a red tent."

"Probably a performance there. We could stop over there when we finish our little tour, if you like Bixyl," she suggested.

"It's up to you. I was able to cam over to take a picture," I answered.

"Good, ok, then a hop to the Souk and then the Man," Skye told me, "I will meet you there ..."

We both teleported to the location in question. The place looked like a bazzar with booths and tables full of goods, "So what's the purpose of this building?" I asked.

Skye answered, "This is to emulate the souk, a marketplace along the Silk Road. It is the center of trade, but of course here no money changes hands. Things are admired and graciously given. And people meet, perform, play music, or do whatever they wish. One person offered 'free hugs.' "

I chuckled, "Heh, what was the reaction?"

"All sorts of them," SKye answered, "amusement, a little chagrin, shyness but once hugged invariably the huggees felt much better! I think this will be more used during the week. This weekend has been mainly focused on opening acts and getting things underway. The marketplace should come to life starting tomorrow (Sunday), espcially later in the day."

 "Then on to the Man," Skye prepared to port over, "see you there in a moment." "I think it's just over there," I commented, and began walking the distance over instead, about a quarter length of a sim. Getting there, Skye smiled, "Crossed a sim border without incident! Now, about the Man..." She pointed up at the huge wooden human-shaped structure, "In real-life, it was 100 feet tall. That works out to about 32 meters. This Man here, is the equivalent, 32 meters tall. And you'll notice he is standing directly on the Playa. This is a first. Uually he stands on a base. Its' not THE first (time) but it's a first in a long time."

"Why none this time?" I asked.

"They wanted a challenge, I guess!" Skye suggested, "It burned very well, but took a LONG time to burn, in real life. However, Marianne, The Man team lead says it will NOT take two hours. The real-life Man took well over two hours. I encourage you to talk more with Marianne McCann about the work on the Man."

I had the radio in, which wasn't broadcasting music but people speaking about something, "Oh, I noticed the radio chatter. What might this be?"

"I'm the wrong person to ask," Skye told me, "I don't hear it! sorry."

Then the chatter ended and some tunes started, "Oh, well, it ended and replaced with music."

"Probably a stream then," she looked around, "there is a stage right behind us, The Man Stage, across the road there." She changed the subject back to the tunes, "This year they tried not to allow people to have too many music events on at once," she gave two reasons, "a) lag,  b) people want to see them, and if they are on at the same time there is that competition for people's ears. So this way people can enjoy everything if they wish."

"Has that meant fewer musicians this year?" I asked.

"Actually," she answered, "We've been happily enjoying about the same number of performers this year. The performance lead for BURN2 this year is Larree Quixote. He manages all the official stages and the performers on the playa."

"Can you give a few examples of the musicians?" I asked

"Ohh, we've had DJs like Puterdoc Devinat Camp Idle Rogue," Skye answered, "and live performers like ... Guerrilla Burlesque (which) performed here last night. We have trance at one of the camps, psytrance, good old rock'n'roll, jazz, blues, all types live and DJ'd."

"Oh, and DRUM performed here today! One live performer, Bamboof Stillmorning, very popular here. There are others, but as I'm deaf, I'm not the music expert here. .. But I refer you to Larree Quixote, who can tell you a lot more."

"There are some lovely art builds, I hope you explore them. They are like little gems scattered all over the Playa, and every one of them is worth seeing. There's a little petite camp 'refuge for little Burners,' just one example."

"So what are your plans after the Burn?" I asked Skye.

"After the Burn, I myself will be looking ahead to Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education, VWBPE, and also I'm active in Virtual Ability so I will be helping Gentle Heron plan the Mental Health Symposium. Both of these touch very important values for me, education and the disability community. VWBPE will be March 18-21, 2015; the Mental Health Symposium hasn't be set with a date yet."

"Was there anything else that you wanted to mention?" I asked.

"No tha'ts it," she answered, "but I hope you will explore some of these art builds. Such clever and inventive creations here."

It was about then that Skye and I parted ways, leaving me to see the rest of the Burn2 grounds.

Burn2 would continue for another week, culminating in the Burning of the Man, and then the Temple Burn. For those who missed the festival, the Burners hold a few smaller events across the year. And of course Burn2 will be back next year.

Bixyl Shuftan