The oddness of one hundred avatars

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Meeting the Lindens on 14 May

The Basilique is a sleepy little Italian town.  More and more often now I find myself there, crossing the square from the waterside landing point on my short walk to the small clubhouse at the far corner, where the weekly salon discussion event attracts sometimes up to thirty or so avatars.  Thirty or so avatars feels like a big number, especially when they’re crammed into that small room.  It’s standing room only on a busy night and navigating my way through a laggy room full of half-rezzed attendees is a precision operation.  Before I had fibre optic, I used to dream about how lightning-fast people and props would rez once I had a high speed connection; it turns out it doesn’t quite work that way.

The square itself, though, is usually peaceful.  Perhaps a light sprinkling of people stand around chatting in front of the tower.  In the nearby Silky’s Café, student Juliette Ford, one of Canary Beck’s tireless robotic helpers, spends her unending summer break serving coffee and pastries.  At Harvey’s bar, her colleague Paul is always cloth-in-hand, drying glasses or keeping surfaces polished.  If you’re lucky, you might spot Silk, the sim’s overalled maintenance guy, on an odd fixing or upgrade job.  The Basilique takes the concept of a Second Life sim as a real, immersive place just that little step further: it has actors.

It had a lot more than that on Thursday evening.

The word went out the day before on the Second Life blog: the Lindens were coming; The Basilique would be the next venue for the monthly ‘Linden meetup’, an informal social hangout where you got to chat with actual Lindens.  I have met – or rather, seen – Lindens before, but at an event that was years and years ago, possibly within the first few months of my signup.  I’ve very little recollection of it.  Since then, the closest I’ve been to seeing one is a visit I made to Torley Linden’s island (he wasn’t home).  Outside of SL, they might be programmers, designers, marketers; everyday folk doing everyday work: inside, they are the out-of-reach royalty of the metaverse, carried around the grid in their blue dot limousines; spoken about, but rarely glimpsed; part-time, virtual celebrities.  It must be a strange thing indeed to be a Linden, and my experience on Thursday evening did absolutely nothing to challenge this notion.

Arriving at about 12:30 SLT (8:30pm for me), there were already over 40 avatars assembled in the square.  My walk from the landing point this time was a tortuous crawl through a fog of unrezzed avatars, and floating eyes and assorted items of hovering grey apparel.  As the 1pm start got closer, the number grew and grew, each additional visitor taking my frame rate lower and lower.  I reduced my graphics to ‘mid’ and then to ‘low’.  I pushed the draw distance slider all the way down to the 32 metre minimum.  Even so, I was well under one frame per second as the last few minutes until The Arrival ticked by.  The sense of anticipation amongst the crowd was palpable.  The imaginary fanfare in my head went from rock guitar to trumpets to a chorus of white-robed angels.

And then, the Lindens were amongst us.

Going by Inara Pey’s write-up of the event, there were six of them in total: Community Manager Xiola Linden, who I understand to be the key organiser of the meetups; Dee Linden, Keira Linden, Patch, Michael and Shaman Linden.  Of these, I could only actually see Shaman, who stood just a few feet away from me.  Any attempt I made to cam over to any of the others resulted in a very abrupt and involuntary exit from the metaverse.  I crashed four times in total, though, amazingly, I managed to get back in every time, even as the number of avatars on sim climbed up to and then over a hundred.

A hundred avatars, all gathered in the same spot, and a sizeable percentage of them all trying to speak at the same time.

I find public chat in SL hard to follow at the best of times.  Events like the weekly Salon discussion or the open mic at the Blue Angel Poets’ Dive are easier to an extent because they employ a structure: turns get taken and ‘open floor’ periods are kept mercifully short.  My limit for unstructured social chat, however, is about six or seven people at most.  I just can’t keep up with all the conversational threads.  On those rare occasions where I’m following it closely enough to actually be able to make a comment in response to something said, I usually find that by the time I’ve typed it out so many other remarks have been made in the interim that it no longer makes any sense.  Most of the time, I just end up deleting what I wrote.  I become disassociated and quickly bored.  As an SL resident, I prefer close, one-to-one or very small group interactions.

A hundred avatars, all gathered in the same spot, and a sizeable percentage of them all trying to speak at the same time.

Frankly, surreal doesn’t even begin to describe it.  The real world equivalent would have been half the audience at a concert all shouting things out at the performers and the other half standing around in bemusement and wondering when the act was going to start.  Except there was no act: this is how it proceeded for the full hour, the text flying up my screen with only the occasional blue-tinted comment indicating that a Linden had issued an utterance.  I can’t tell you anything about what got said; I was unable to follow even the merest scrap of it (though, apparently, we got told that the Lindens like crêpes).  The possibility of any sort of meaningful social interaction was precisely zero.

I felt a little for the Lindens.  If I had been in their place, I’d have felt hopelessly overwhelmed by the event.  It really can’t be fun to have to surrender your lunch hour only to spend that time being bombarded with text that you can’t hope to respond to even 10% of.  It came as no surprise that, the very instant it got to 1:55pm, they started making the polite noises about having to ‘get back to work’ (like this was some sort of sneaked-in guilty pleasure) that would enable them to leave at 2pm on the dot.  And, as the crowd slowly dispersed following their departure, a number of us let out long breaths and wondered aloud what exactly the point of it all had been.

And yet, you don’t always need to be able to hear the words in order to appreciate a good song.  What a spectacle it was.  The sheer quantity of avatars gathered alone was a novel thing to my eyes.  But it was more than just that.  I felt like I had been part of something.  I wasn’t sure exactly what it was I’d been part of, but, for the space of that bizarre sixty minutes, I had somehow been a Resident in a way I hadn’t really been a Resident before.  It was a bit like the slightly more British feeling I get when there’s a Royal event on the TV: it makes no real sense, it makes no practical difference whatsoever to my life, and yet the sense of connection I have to a piece of land I ordinarily frequently find myself despairing of is momentarily strengthened somehow.

Some might possibly suggest that this is entirely sufficient a point, all by itself.  I think they would probably be right.

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