Was it mere coincidence that Linden announced the opening of its brand new Second Life Instagram account just a couple of days after the announcement that Flickr had been sold to SmugMug? Whilst the new owner of Flickr would appear to be a reasonably safe pair of hands from all the reassuring statements thus far offered, one could be forgiven for wondering just how much of an asset Flickr actually is, given that Verizon has sold it off not two years since it acquired Yahoo, and to a company that many of us have never heard of (sorry, SmugMug).
Such things must worry Linden Lab, who must surely be aware just how much of a pivotal role the photo sharing platform now plays in SL’s ongoing existence. SL photography on Flickr is a huge phenomenon, with many photographers attracting followers in the thousands on Flickr. Fashion photography – pictures of models in the latest outfits – plays a big part of this, but an increasing number of these pictures also feature (and give details on) the ever-expanding range of high quality buildings, furnishings, plants, vehicles and all manner of objects domestic and exotic to be found in the metaverse. The mesh revolution and its reduced land impact of complex objects has resulted in it being possible to place a lot more items within the environment, making possible pictures that are packed with detail. Recent policy changes by Linden – the 50% increase in land impact capacity in November 2016 and the doubling of free land in March this year – are, amongst other things, extremely photographer-friendly since they enable us to add even more detail to our pictures. For many people, taking pictures is now a key reason for logging on each day and, if Flickr were to disappear, the impact on SL could be quite considerable. It makes perfect sense, then, for the Lab to encourage photo sharing on other platforms.
Of course, SL photography has been ‘a thing’ for considerably longer than it’s been ‘a phenomenon.’ Arguably, it’s only really in the days since mesh avatars bedded in that it’s become such a mainstream metaverse activity, but we mustn’t forget that dedicated SL photographers were capturing the grid’s fashion scene long before this, with lifestyle magazines such as the much missed AVENUE presenting the best of some of this output. A lot of these images don’t stand the test of time very well, but some of them do, and whilst good looking avatar pictures back then probably made judicious use of various Photoshop tools to deal with the system avatar’s fold lines, a lot could be achieved ‘in the lens’ when it came to landscapes and buildings. This is because SL comes with a lot of support for photography built-in, the most obvious example of this, perhaps, being the ability to manipulate light and colour via Windlight (ten years old this year, I believe). But we mustn’t overlook also the incredible utility of SL’s camming tools, part of the viewer for as long as I can remember: the ability to pan, zoom and tilt your camera angle gives you access to pretty much every conceivable view of something it’s possible to have (combine that with the derender tool available in viewers like Firestorm and you can even get rid of objects that either obscure the subject or mess with your image’s composition), which is a remarkable freedom for a photographer to have, and one yet to be found within Sansar and Sinespace (both of which do have camming tools of a sort, but which require no small degree of contortion and luck when it comes to finding an interesting angle).
In one respect, then, the huge increase in interest in SL photography isn’t really hard to explain away: the ease of use of its relatively simple tools (present for a long time) has combined with the enhanced visuals of high quality mesh (present only in recent years), making a much higher standard of photography available to all (the huge 2013 increase in storage on free Flickr accounts to one terabyte and the removal of the monthly 100MB upload limit likely also helped). Of course, these elements alone do not by themselves a good picture make, and a good proportion of the pictures published on Flickr from our virtual world continue to be, frankly, awful.
That said, there are a good proportion that are not awful at all; what’s more, take a look back in time through the Flickr feed of a not awful SL photographer and, more often than not, as you reach the earlier pages of long ago, the not awful pictures will start to turn into awful ones (I would say this of my own work except this presupposes that my feed has actually ever transitioned into ‘not awful,’ a claim you might find yourself doubting strongly). There’s a lot of learning going on in Second Life; people want to be better photographers.
This appreciation of good quality photography is, by and large, to be found in Flickr followings. Most followings in the thousands reflect good, well thought out images and the pictures of photographers attracting close to or above ten thousand followers are generally – in my humble opinion – Excellent. This is a broad statement, of course. There are some photographers who deserve much larger followings than the relatively small collection they have (Moon Parker is one of them) and there are also those with followings in the thousands where I just don’t get what people are seeing in their work. Of course, the currency of ‘favs’ and comments should not be overlooked when scratching one’s head about such things: without a doubt, there is a ‘gaming’ of the system going on, of which the innumerous ‘awards’ posted into a picture’s comments section are no small part, not to mention the habit by some of adding their picture to more groups than there are instances of Donald Trump’s ineptitude.
What motivates people to engage in this pastime in the first place? There is a big debate going on at the moment, focused primarily on the millennials (no surprises there; they get the blame for everything these days), that narcissism is on the rise. Narcissism involves an inflated view of the self, and is associated with unhappiness, anger, low empathy and a reduced tolerance of criticism. Year on year, data collected from self-report measures of narcissism indicate that there is a steady rise in this personality trait, such that about 70% of young people today (it’s young people, incidentally, because this research tends to be carried out at universities, where the population measured is students) score higher on narcissism and lower on empathy than did young people 30 years go (see here, for further discussion). Some of the reasons speculated as being responsible for this rise includes the self-esteem ‘movement’ that started in the mid-eighties (ie, the culture of over-praise for children), the increased pressure on young people to achieve in everything that they do and the decline in childhood play.
It’s also been suggested that social media has played a role in this rise, with a number of studies finding that people scoring high on narcissism tend to be a lot more active on platforms such as Facebook than people who score low. It’s well documented that people tend to compare themselves to others unfavourably when looking at the things they post on Facebook, whilst at the same time only posting images and text themselves which portray them in a favourable light – thus creating in others exactly the same inferiority complex that they feel and perpetuating the cycle. We post ourselves at our best, selecting only the good moments from our days (or faking huge smiles for the camera when there are no good moments) and then worry that other people who are doing exactly the same thing seem to have better lives than we do. Whilst this does all sound terribly narcissistic, it’s difficult to imagine anything else ever taking place: would you be happy to take a selfie of yourself first thing in the morning or ill in bed or in the midst of an argument with someone?
And this is all well and good for those of us capable of achieving a beautifully photogenic moment at least once a day to post on Facebook (I myself manage it about once a month if I’m lucky and the sun is shining from behind me), but what about the rest of us? When Second Life avatars were about as realistic as a painted blow-up doll there was little help to be found in the metaverse. Today’s top-of-the-range models, however, well accessorised with all the latest hair, clothing, skin, tattoos, piercings and genitalia portray some truly magnificent specimens of the human species. For just a little bit of money, one can obtain a look of rippling muscles, flawless skin, an hourglass figure or freckles that look like a falling of miniature rose petals. No exercise, attention to nutrition or self-discipline is required. What’s more, the huge variety of beautiful locations in which it’s possible to photograph these beautiful bodies ensures the message that gets communicated is not only, “I am a beautiful person” but also, “I go to beautiful places and I do beautiful things.” Throw in a couple of equally photogenic associates and you can add, “And look what beautiful friends I have” for good measure.
Yes, it’s easy to see how SL Flickr photography fits within the rise in narcissism; it would likely be naive to argue against this. I’d love to be able to tell you that my own Flickr pictures portray me as a middle aged man who could do with going to the gym a bit more often that he does, but I can’t: I resemble a young athlete who does push-ups when he’s bored to while away the time. We make ourselves look good in Second Life and we try to make ourselves look even better in the photographs that we take of ourselves in Second Life. But does narcissism alone account for the ever-growing volume of SL pictures to be found?
One could argue that even the drive to create better photographs – to be more skilled in composition and more sensitive to light and emotional content; to create something which could justifiably be called ‘art’ – might be just another form of narcissism: here, the message becomes, “look how skilled I am; look what beautiful things I can create.” But this accusation is one which could potentially be levelled at all artists who have ever lived. It would be no new thing to suggest a correlation between narcissism and artistic endeavour. As Picasso allegedly said, “God is really an artist, like me… I am God, I am God, I am God.”
Perhaps narcissism, then, is the driving force – the fuel – behind such creativity. Narcissism might be the hunger that gets us out into the world and looking for that next potential photo opportunity. Through it – through the drive to be better and then better again – there is the opportunity for growth. We might learn to look more closely at something. We might learn to look at it in a slightly different way. When we do these things, we might start to notice details we had never noticed before. Our concept of the world might change. We might experiment. We might take risks. We might learn through our experimentation that eyes pointing to one side makes an avatar look lost in thought or a forward facing stare can introduce into a picture the unseen person on the other side of the lens. In time, our experimentation might turn into the intentional manipulation of all these elements as we move towards that goal of expressing perfectly a thought, a feeling, a moment, an idea – all without a single word being dropped onto a page. We might become different people, driven to express ever greater and ever more subtle complexity. We might become more alive to the places and the people and the whole world around us.
An essential thread to be pulled on – one which goes way beyond the scope of this article – is whether or not narcissism is actually bad thing, or even whether or not it is one thing (there might be ‘good’ and ‘not so good’ narcissism: a healthy appetite is generally regarded as positive, but a hunger never satisfied leads to heart disease). For me, it all boils down to one thing: I like looking at the pictures people create in Second Life. Every morning I have a quick scroll through my people feed to see what new images have been added and it gives me genuine pleasure when I come across something magnificent.
If it’s narcissism that brought into being the finely tuned perception which created these images, then so be it.