Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Curator and the Pornographer: Thoughts on Defining the “Adult” in Second Life, Part I

A rose is a rose is a rose.
Gertrude Stein

Like many of you, I have spent a fair amount of time of late perusing online discussions of Linden Lab’s new classification system for regions. Much of what I have read is vague, some of it mildly annoying, and much more of it dull, dull, dull. Every once in a while, however, one comes across a little snippet that sort of jolts the cerebral cortex, and demands attention. As, for example, this excerpt from a question and answer session hosted by Linden Lab not too long ago:

Even art. I mean, art is subjective. You can have the exact same two pictures, both naked people, and you put that in a museum, and that is art. You put that in a strip club and it is pornography. So it is subjective.

However, on a PG sim, it is just purely not allowed. I think that definition...I think that PG has already defined itself. Honestly, I am not even going to take my six year old kids to a museum where there is T&A hanging out. They don't need that right now. They are going to get it enough when they are watching TV.
("Adult Oriented content controls: definitions meeting transcript")

I confess I was a little floored by this particular contribution by an unnamed speaker designated only as “Q.” (The dull thumping you hear in the background is the sound of my forehead rhythmically striking my desktop; it’s an involuntary gesture that occurs every time I reread this quote). It is just so . . . wrong . . . in so many ways, that it’s difficult to know where to start. Perhaps with the image invoked here of crowds of slavering trench-coat-clad strip-club patrons lasciviously ogling Titian’s Venus or Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass in decrepit pay-by-the-minute back rooms? With the revelation that museums are hitherto unheralded fleshpots of luridly exposed “T&A”? (Once the word about this gets out, imagine the boon to cultural institutions everywhere, as museum ticket receipts shoot through the roof!) With the implied equation here of “T&A” with pornography? (Other dangling bits apparently need not apply.) Or should we simply applaud this fond parent’s wise decision to leave the TV on for his kids, while carefully insulating them from the pernicious effects of museums?

Of course, I am being a little unfair here. “Q” is correct in one regard at least: Art is subjective, or at least vulnerable to the ebb and flow of public opinion, as witness the furor that surrounds the emergence of every new school of artistic expression, not to mention the sorts of controversy aroused by apparently “borderline” works like many of those of Robert Mapplethorpe. Yet, the definition even of something as apparently subjective as art does stabilize with time. We are all likely to agree that Picasso produced wonderful paintings, that Stravinsky was a great composer, and that Delta of Venus is a valid and important work of literature, but ’twas not always thus; these redefinitions have come about through a slow and gradual process of collective usage. In practice, language proves pretty intractable to deliberate attempts to meddle, to define; it is, in general, the slow acceptance implied by collective usage, rather than the definition handed down by imperial fiat, that determines the meaning of things. Yet, it is something very like “fiat” that Linden Lab is attempting to impose through its new tripartite classification scheme of “PG,” “Mature,” and “Adult.” Really, this is all about “definition”: indeed, the excerpt I quote above is from a “brown bag” meeting of Linden Lab representatives with a group of unidentified “residents” about the “definition” for “Adult” in Second Life.

Now, I am pretty sure that Linden Lab is going to have problems with whatever definitions they finally settle on for “PG,” “Mature,” and “Adult.” To begin with, their apparent inability to enforce their own policies regarding restricted content (anyone filed a verifiably successful abuse report recently? Anyone?) suggests that Linden Lab is not going to be very effective at actually applying their new definitions. I also rather suspect that the banishment of sex to the “Adult” region is going to lead to a massive migration of all sorts of content to those areas: after all, who really wants to inhabit a world without sex? In practice, the community will soon impose its own redefinition upon the term, with the result that it will still be impossible to get a decent cup of virtual java without walking past that really noisy BDSM club down the road.

So, I think Linden Lab is going to have problems. And these are going to be accentuated by the way that they are going about doing this. While I am willing to give the Lindens credit for at least consulting with some residents about this process of redefinition, there still seems to be a lot more “telling” than “asking” going on here. We may also legitimately question the breadth or representativeness of the community that Linden Lab is consulting. If you, like me, find yourself horrified by the notion that our contributor “Q,” cited above, is being permitted input into the definition of anything, yet alone something as complicated and nuanced as the meaning of “adult content” in Second Life, then you will probably agree that there is some cause for concern with current developments in our favourite virtual world.

(Go to Part II)

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