If you have followed my Twitter microblog for at least the past few days, you may have noticed that I have been traveling to certain places in SL that would seem "seedy" at first glance. Specifically I visited places that on some level or another, represent the favelas of Brazil and Portugal, such as Cidade De Deus(City of God) and Favela Do Capao Redondo.
I was inspired to do so after stumbling onto a video presentation by Robert Neuwirth, a journalist who has spent two years of his life living in squatter communities in four continents(quite an achievement, I'd say). He argues that these squatter communities are "the cities of tomorrow". To a surprising extent, he may be very right. In fact, Robert's argument is playing out right now in the context of virtual worlds.
When Second Life began as LindenWorld, everything was a blank slate to explore, build and develop on. The pioneers of LindenWorld began creating little communities, with merely a fraction of the creation abilities of today's Second Life. Yesterday's LindenWorld beared very little resemblance to Second Life. It was "the virtual world of tomorrow".
As Second Life became more and more mainstream, it simultaneously became more restrictive in certain ways. First it was the gambling ban. Then it was banking. Then ageplay became practically verboten. Most recently adult content is getting thrown into an age-verified only red light district called Zindra. At every point many communities complained it would strip a piece of their freedoms away, but they were ultimately silenced because Linden Lab "had to do this to stay legitimate".
As something of a response to the increasing restrictive complexity, other but less developed virtual worlds have emerged. Most notably is OpenSim, a clean-room reverse engineered implementation of a Second Life sim server. With this, you can host your own sim and hook it up to an existing online grid.
In this sense, OpenSim and it's derivatives can be seen in a similar light as the shantytowns and favelas Mr. Neuwirth talks of so fondly: it offers the kind of freedom Second Life does not. Everybody owns a sim, but property rights are either loose or non-existant. Everything that was once commonplace but now forbidden in SL can be seen on OSGrid or any number of smaller clusters of sims. They are the "virtual favelas" where those who have been disenfranchised by SL may wind up going. This is the competition to SL that it and its' residents must not shun, but rather engage with if SL and the virtual world community at large are to prosper in the long term.
Thankfully, we are seeing a bit or progress on that front, as LL's Content Management Roadmap blog post speaks of best practices for inter-virtual world content interoperability. It is a good first step, but much more engagement and debate must be made on all sides. Otherwise, SL may wind up like Vault 101 from the Fallout 3 video game: sealed off, isolated and left behind. On that, I hope I'm wrong actually, but that's what it seems to me.
So, what's your take? Does SL need these "virtual squatter communities", or am I simply being foolish praising "virtual slums"? Comments are open for discussion :)