Do Linden Lab PR blunders really ever surprise anyone anymore?
The day after Black History Month has ended, Second Life has announced a new Black Culture community webpage, with pleasant imagery and a directory to prominent black creators on the grid.
A moment of recognition should be given to the company for finally coming around to doing this. It's especially nice to see Dondallia Graves and The Black Excellence Project shining and doing their best to bring about better representation. Things used to be a lot shabbier in that department; several years ago, Second Life felt almost unwholly welcome to anyone who wasn't a white user between the ages of 35 and 50. To speak out on this was an uphill battle that almost wasn't worth the trouble.
Still, Second Life's move is a pithy band-aid to the problem. The platform still lacks in respect to diversity, so much that Linden Lab has had to create this initiative to make it seem the complete opposite.
So, what exactly is wrong here? Let's discuss.
A Matter Of Terms
In 2020, Second Life finally banned racial slurs from being used to sell products in their marketplace. This came after an outcry during a time when Linden Lab was publicly posting "Black Lives Matter" sentiments on their social media. Being pro-inclusivity is great, but it must mean something when one does it. Does Second Life and Linden Lab mean it now with their new initiative?
The best way to determine if they do, is to revisit their search terms. Utilizing the platform's in-game search system, a few incendiary terms were plugged in to test parcel listings and see what would come back. The above picture is a sample of what could be seen for the word "plantation" back in 2020. Keep in mind, Second Life's official search engine may not uncover all of these results. For this test, I used the Firestorm client because it's a lot more thorough.
Here is a sample of what is returned for "plantation" now:
Second Life listings don't yield results that blatantly violate its TOS anymore. Instead, they rely on dogwhistle language and ties to specific imagery. It's just as hurtful, but now is a lot deeper of a problem that requires a different solution in game moderation.
I visited the highlighted "plantation" listing (on a parcel named after Kentucky, no less--ugh) and looked around. Overall, it doesn't appear as any sort of Southern mansion with ties to a Civil War era society. It was actually rather beachy, which was confusing.
I asked a user why the club was named after a plantation at all. The user responded that it was about "Southern roots". Deciding not to push further on that topic, I left. It wasn't overtly bad, but it's about as comfortable as visiting a restaurant in real life named after a plantation. Who really wants to stay there?
Curious about how deep the dogwhistle hole goes, I tried another word:
"Slave" is rather broad, and let's be honest--everybody's got a thing they like. But within the search for just "slave", there are tons of raceplay-related parcels that make it clear it's about being dominated by black men.
This one's big, because even under the top results are several listings for raceplay, tying black men in a specific imagery to race-related payback and reparations (yes, "reparations" is included as a search term in some of these results). Although the listings try to reemphasize they are open to all races and creeds, there's an uncomfortable focus on black men and the power fantasy of being one or interacting with one for the sole purpose of sexual gratification.
Another similar search, but narrowing it down to "black slave" shows the problem again:
"Reparations" pops up once more as a search term, this time also featuring "raceplay" along with it. It's very obvious what's going on here.
The real problem comes with dogwhistle going further, implying places where you can have sexual encounters with black men that are specifically about crime and places of danger. None are as brave as those who use this search combo on their parcel listings:
The highlighted result is an example of a parcel named after an area you wouldn't want to loiter around. Its entry image depicts a white woman being held down by several black men in explicit fashion. Its search terms list "criminal", "kidnap", "drug", to other offenses that won't be listed here.
From there, the search terms become diffused. "Urban" is a common listing for both actual roleplay and for places to find black men and "dangerous" sexual situations. If you enter the search term "white", you find an even more concentrated result of the same thing again: black men, domination, danger. Some try to be more diverse but it's barely a nudge in the effort.
"What's The Big Problem?"
Fine, you say. A lot of these parcels are centered strangely around black men. What's the issue with it, you ask?
It's questionable, in the least, that several of these parcels are using the term "reparations" over and over again. You could like black men and meet those men anywhere. Why do the terms "reparations" and "supremacy" show up in an interracial adult listing? Why is it specifically a power fantasy involving black men getting revenge for a traumatic time in our collective cultural history? Why is someone specifically seeking this out, and why do they think this isn't ultimately harmful to how people perceive black men overall?
This was a quick search that didn't even go into how parcel listings perceive black women.
Right now, Second Life seems to be at a fork in the road. In one direction is a focused effort to show the creative side of the black community. The other direction shows the grid treating black culture like a red light district.
We're good for sexual gratification, corporate messaging, and fashion trends, but little else. How is this confused messaging supposed to help black users feel comfortable?
A Need For Change
It's painful to see Second Life finally take slow steps towards changing its attitude towards race. It's been a problem for so long, that fighting it--along with its much-needed fight against homophobia and transphobia--feel like it's too late. The game is in its sunset years now. Is Second Life's new community page truly an effort to do better, or is this a move to pander to a new crowd now that they're in need of fresh income?
It's hard to eradicate dogwhistle search terms, but smart moderation can help. The first step is awareness and a willingness to admit there's a deeper problem. Not everything can be solved with a pretty community webpage, but it's adequate to admit it's a start.