12 April 2007

Searching for an Answer

It was the arrival of the first-generation search engines like Yahoo and Lycos in the mid-1990s that turned a collection of disparate online data into a usable source of information. Today, Google's pivotal role in online activity is even more pronounced.

So it's no surprise that people are working on search engines for Second Life - the thinking being that once you can find anything there, it will be even more useful as a tool. But in virtual worlds, it's not so simple:

Second Life isn't the same as the World Wide Web (at least in how its users perceive it), and probably shouldn't be treated the same way as web pages, routinely scanned by search-engine bots. I'm pretty sure that Linden Lab would prefer to that Second Life be as permeable and open as the WWW, but it's got to take a definitive step in this direction. Currently, there is no true public data in Second Life: Linden Lab owns the data comprising the world, including user avatars and objects. On the other hand, the company's Terms of Service indicate that invasions of privacy are prohibited (section 4.1). I don't understand how user-privacy even exists in a world owned by one private entity. Any shift in resident privacy-expectations Second Life is ultimately up to Linden Lab, which hasn't seemed to have decided whether Second Life is a country or an internet--whether it is a government presiding over population of residents, or a service-provider to hundreds of thousands of users.

The problem is that most people put stuff on the Web because they want others to find it: there is a conscious act of exposing stuff there. In Second Life, people (naively) assume that it's "like" real life, in the sense that virtual objects are private unless explicitly exposed. Alas, no: anything in Second Life is just data, and as such susceptible to being farmed by search bots. As the post above points out, people must now decide now much privacy needs to be built into the system. Where the dividing line should be drawn between private and public in the virtual world is not at all obvious.

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