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Monday, July 14, 2008

Google Lively’s Many Adult Rooms

The graphics in Google’s 3D chat world Lively shine, but behind the scenes the Lively team also seems busy squashing minor and major early-release bugs. And since some days, Lively got its first social phenomenon, too: the almost meme-like creation of cyber sex rooms. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, or is there? To see what Google thinks let’s ask Lively’s community guidelines, which state:

We don’t allow nudity, graphic sex acts, or sexually explicit material. This includes making sexual advances toward other users. We also don’t allow content that drives traffic to commercial pornography sites ...

However, a typical room overview listing at lately revealed many adult-oriented rooms, often ranking in high positions. Titles and descriptions may read “sexy meetings here” or “cyber sex,” and the rooms may contain display of semi-saucy YouTube videos.

Wikipedia explains “Cybersex ... is a virtual sex encounter in which two or more persons connected remotely via a computer network send one another sexually explicit messages describing a sexual experience. It is a form of role-playing in which the participants pretend they are having actual sexual relations.” Added to that, some of these rooms may partly also just be means to promote adult sites, I’m not too sure.

Right now, even when a public room listing is a useful way to explore, the sub-communities may also be much too fragmented in their needs for overlaps not to hurt... and it could also be a temptation for spammers to have their content listed so visibly on a Google service homepage. Whatever the case, Google seems to think of it as something worth addressing and posted the following in the Lively help group:

We’ve received complaints about recently created “sex rooms” in Lively, and we take these complaints seriously. When browsing or searching for rooms, some Livley citizens come upon these rooms as the top results, which can erode their Lively experience.

Lively is intended to be a place for Lively citizens to connect with each other and express themselves freely and in a safe environment. Our community standards prohibit sexually explicit images and rooms intended for sexual activity, even if virtual. When we become aware of “sex rooms” that violate or Terms of Service, we’ll work to remove them. We may also disable the violator’s Google Account and Lively access.

If you come across rooms with sexually explicit content or that are intended to engage in or solicit sexual activity, you can find out how to report a user or room at the Lively Help Center ...

Google’s help pages point out that objects, avatars and rooms can be abuse-reported by clicking a button – to do so, you need to log-in to the room first, though. But note Google’s language; whether intentionally or not, they say they remove sex rooms which violate their terms of services... perhaps implying there may be sex rooms which don’t violate their terms. Indeed, a room like “Sexy & Hot” was created on July 10th – with over 8,000 visitors so far – and remains unremoved. It might be possible these remaining rooms don’t fit Google’s “explicit” criteria from the ToS. Google in their help entry explains:

When you click Report Abuse, we automatically receive a notification. If based on the report we discover that the content violates real world laws or our policies, we may immediately remove it and report any necessary information to the appropriate authorities.

If you continue to see the content a few days after you flagged it, it’s likely that it was reviewed and did not violate our policies.

With this in mind, perhaps a mere safe search filter for the frontpage room listings may be more along what Google deems pragmatic. (Lively’s terms already require you to be 13 years or older to use the service, by the way.) Then if you want adult rooms and you disabled the safe search setting in your main Google search options, you’d get those but it wouldn’t be noise. Imagine the reverse: a Big Brother-ish world where two adults talking about adult topics would risk being banned – with potentially serious real-world implications, as this may include locking you out of your Google Account... which in turn includes Gmail emails, Google Docs documents and so on. A free virtual world seems more likable.

Consequently, when you do want to report a room for abuse, Google’s dialog first disclaims that “Lively is a place for many different people to express themselves, and you may read or see things you don’t agree with ... Remember, you can always ignore users you don’t like or leave rooms you don’t feel comfortable in.”

On another note, Google now disabled adding custom graphics into objects like photo frames... and they disabled this for everyone, not just creators of adult-oriented places. I don’t know if this is related to the current “saucy rooms” issue, but it may be. Instead of your favorite picture, your photo frame may now just show black... and you won’t be able to edit or access its photo URL anymore. Imagine the surprise of a happy home owner busy decorating their walls. Google in the help group posts:

We ran into a snag with the photo gadget, and have currently removed it for maintenance. Hopefully it’ll be back up soon.

Thanks for your patience while we work on a fix.

Then again, it’s also possible Google disabled this due to a bug with photo frames that didn’t make pics you loaded into it automatically adjust to the object’s size... rather, the pics mostly ended up distorted and misplaced.


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