Serene Footman

Serene Footman is known to many of us as the owner of Furillen, the virtual world interpretation of a place with the same name in Sweden. I was immediately drawn to Furillen, partially due to my Scandinavian heritage perhaps, but also because of the raw and unusual beauty of the environment. Serene, with his somewhat grumpy exterior (he will be the first to admit to this), but kind heart and welcoming demeanor, has  succeed in creating an unusually intriguing minimalist environment with a unique atmosphere where people return to visit. An academic in real life, living in London, England, I know he is busy so I was so grateful to catch him for this interview. It is such a pleasure to introduce to you here the talented Serene Footman.

~Kate Bergdorf

The Serene Footman InterviewPhotograph by Kate Bergdorf

Interviewer

First, thank you very much for agreeing to meet with me for this interview. I remember visiting your sim Furillen sometime last year. You had just opened the place then and it was not quite done yet, but a few visitors had found their way there regardless, myself included. It was a quieter time there then, but I think we already had a sense of what kind of magical place it would ultimately become. Tell me please what it was that inspired you to put together Furillen and what were some of the challenges you came up against initially.

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Photograph from Furillen Website (http://www.furillen.com/images/uploads/slideshows/furillen-hotel-gotland-utsikt.jpg)

Footman

I saw pictures of this place in Sweden called Furillen around two years ago. I was doing up a beach in SL – somewhere in the Fruit Islands, I think – and wanted a look that was a bit different from the usual tropical thing you get so often on the grid. I knew that Furillen could make an awesome sim, but was pushing it too far at that place, so I opted for something a bit more North Atlantic instead. Then I took up a sim on the New England estate, which is connected to all those wonderful sailing sims around Blakes Sea. Here, I was if anything more restricted – in order to keep everything in theme there, owners aren’t allowed to terraform, and they have to use only builds that are recognizably ‘New England’. I liked it there, the people are nice and sailing in SL is fabulous – and because of the strict rules, the estate looks pretty good. But after about 18 months I began to feel a bit restricted – getting permission to use certain buildings, changing season at set times, etc. – so I moved to the sim I have now, which is free-standing, so I can do what I like. After a week or two the Furillen idea came back into my head. I took a more serious look at photographs of the real Furillen, checked Google maps, and felt that I could make it work. I envisaged a setting that combined the cold, hard brutalism of an abandoned quarry, with the (very Swedish) minimalist style of the hotel that is situated there. I liked this contrast, and felt that it could bring something really quite new to Second Life. The first thing I did was to work out where everything should go, using maps and ariel photographs and taking a few liberties along the way. The second thing was to decide on the land texture. This was all fine. The third thing – and this proved the most difficult – was finding the main buildings: the hotel itself, and the house next to it, which sits more or less at the centre of the sim. Every building I tried looked wrong, to my eyes – too cute, I guess, or in some cases too urban. Then I found the Junk house, and the Soy building – on the same day, as it happened. Once they were in place, it seemed clear to me that I could get the atmosphere I wanted.

Interviewer

As time has passed, Furillen has become an incredibly popular Second Life destination. It still remains a great place to just linger, for thinking and daydreaming, but it is now of course much busier compared to the way it was initially. Please share with us what it is like for you presently to manage this sim. I suspect that the challenges and rewards may be quite different now than they were in the beginning.

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Photograph by Serene Footman

Footman

It is busier, with around 300-400 visitors per day – and over 13,000 visits in total, now – and although I sometimes think back to the early days when there were just a few people around and the place was empty, I wanted it this way. Too often during my eight or so years on the grid I’ve seen great sims pretty much die because nobody visits them. We all have our theories about why this happens, but I hoped that it might be possible to sustain a livelier sim. People attract people on the grid, we all know about the network effects – so with the sim always looking busy, it would inevitably stay busy. I’ve gone about doing this in several ways. The first is simply to be around when I can. You don’t have to talk to everyone – lots of people come to Furillen for peace and quiet – but being on hand to answer questions can make a difference to whether or not someone feels welcome, or whether they feel like they are intruding. The second way was to tap into the interest generated through Flickr. But if you want interest to be sustained, this is actually a bit more involved than simply making a sim photogenic. Once people have their pictures, they move on, so I tried to keep interest high by changing things, particularly in the hotel rooms, where there are these little ‘installations’ – but also in the outside spaces. You also need an active Flickr group, with people commenting. My good friend Laura – Mrs S –  has helped greatly with that. The final bit of the Flickr puzzle is the competition. I don’t know how this will turn out over time, but initially it has created a good buzz. I avoided making it too big a deal by having no significant prize (the winner gets to choose the next theme and has their picture displayed on the sim) – but I also made it democratic, people vote on the winner, I have no say. And it’s fast – a two-week turnaround, so a theme won’t go stale. We’ll see how it turns out I guess. Then there is the blog, which is quietly building up a readership with short daily posts about the sim and a daily feature picture from the Flickr group, Then there is the music stream, which I tailor and tweak to keep things relevant and interesting. This sounds like a lot of work, but really it isn’t. I’m busy in my regular life anyway, so the Furillen stuff just slots into this. And I really enjoy hanging out at the sim – there are very few problems, and the people who visit are great, I have made some nice friends. Many are photographers, some are bloggers (who appreciate being told they can rez stuff) – many are just tourists and dreamers, or people who want to listen to music while going AFK. So the rewards speak for themselves, and the challenges are minimal. I guess I’ll have to wait and see what happens if and when visitor numbers go down, but that’s not something I worry about right now.

Interviewer

The simple beauty of the Furillen environment inspires people to become creative and astonishing photography has been produced there. You have three Flickr Furillen groups, one of them is used for a photography competition that you started this month. While the sim inspires and challenges new and experienced photographers alike to continue taking photographs, I think the taking and posting on Flickr of these pictures may also represent a form of communication between the Second Life visitors themselves. Please talk to me about your thoughts about the meaning of photography on Furillen.

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Photograph by dolletjes

Footman

It was inevitable that the sim would become a place for taking pictures, because that has been a big interest of mine throughout my time in Second Life. But like many people I know, I do have some reservations about how Flickr can work, with people obsessing about how many favourites they get, and so on. So I had several aims with Flickr at Furillen. First, make it open, positive and welcoming to people who might be inexperienced picture makers. The group is accessible to all, and I try to comment on everything – as does Laura. Second, make it about the pictures, not the popularity – encourage people to try new things, or to recognise what they are really good at and improve on that. Third, make it a bit of a community thing – SL Flickr people know each other, and Furillen has become one of the places they like to hang out. Fourth, and like the sim itself, keep it busy – the turnover of pictures is high, there are over 2000 pictures in the main group now, with nearly 300 members – which is pretty astonishing given that it started only three months ago. Finally, make it fun – so the competition has been designed to give people a focus, set them challenges, not decide who is the best. Most people – everyone I’ve spoken to about it, in fact – have entered in this spirit. So to sum up – photography at Furillen is about capturing the beauty of the place in as creative and social a way as possible. My role has simply been to encourage that.

Interviewer

The people who visit Furillen are an unusual and intriguing crowd of noobs and long-time Second Lifers; fashion people, art people, photographers, bloggers, grid-travelers, dolls, animals and more. People come to take photographs. Many come to just watch people or explore. There is also a friendly atmosphere on Furillen, which I think compels people to come back. Please share your thoughts on the value of making people feel welcome, specifically as it pertains to Furillen.

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Photograph by Revan Jinn

Footman

Second Life is a strange place, we all know that – lots of different needs, agendas, real life problems and constraints, lots of different reasons for being here. I have always enjoyed the variety, and have liked moving between activities and groups – I lived at Wastelands for years (just about to celebrate its 9th birthday – awesome place, wonderful people, and the brilliant Neo running it all), enjoyed the sailing, move in and out of Flickr, and so on. So it feels perfectly natural for me to have a variety of people moving through Furillen, from the AFKers to the noobs through the regulars and dreamers to the photographers and bloggers we already spoke about. The only real constraint I imposed was to make the sim ‘moderate’ (not ‘adult’), so this cuts out some traffic that might put certain people off from hanging around. Otherwise, my aim is to provide an environment where people can do their own thing in peace, whatever that might be. If anyone threatens that in any way I kick them immediately, but otherwise I think visitors feel welcome and relaxed there. They aren’t bombarded with notecards or requests to accept group membership or landmarks; there are donation boxes but these are placed around the sim rather than hitting you in the face when you land – people are left alone. I have gradually gotten to know some of the more regular visitors, and I may say hello to anyone who comes by and looks interesting – so I guess it builds over time that a fairly large number of people (several hundred by now) consider Furillen to be a bit of a home spot, where they are likely to run into someone they know or where they can simply watch the traffic – because as you rightly say, there are some great characters around most of the time.

Interviewer

I am sometimes silly and call you Mr. Furillen, but there is also a more serious reason I think to why I do this. Your passion about the place is recognizable in all you do there; the research you have done on the actual non-virtual Furillen and conscientious planning and replication of your findings then in the virtual world, the consistent and careful changing and replacing of objects on the sim, the well-thought-out music stream, the Flickr groups, then more recently the blog and there is probably much more that does not immediately meet the eye. To many of us you are the glue that holds Furillen together. Please expand if you don’t mind on your passion about this place.

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Photograph by Tutsy Navarathna

Footman

This was not something I necessarily expected or planned, but I have found myself enjoying the role of talking to visitors and keeping the Flickr groups going, encouraging people to become involved, and so on. This evolved naturally, most of the things I have done have seemed quite logical – ways of keeping momentum going and making the sim interesting for people who visit. Underlying it all is my own enjoyment – if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it. I also know my limitations. I’m not a great builder or artist like Cica Ghost or Bryn Oh. People aren’t coming to Furillen to see what great thing I’ve made, they come because they like being there. I like being there too – it is a social space, as much as anything else, but having said all that, my reason for putting the sim together in the first place was the challenge of capturing some of the appearance and spirit that I sensed in the real Furillen – and this is still a huge motivation for me. So I took time finding someone with the skills to build the pier and make it as close as possible to the real thing – KT Syakumi has done an awesome job. And right now I’m talking with her about making one or two other structures that closely replicate what exists in the real Furillen. So besides the social stuff at Furillen, there is this fascination that I have – and some visitors share it – with replicating something that really exists. My personal view is that this correspondence makes the sim even more magical and intriguing.

Interviewer

Lastly, a non-Furillen specific question! You have been in Second Life I believe since 2007 or 2008. Much has changed since then, especially in terms of technology. Our insights about being part of this virtual world, however, still remain fairly basic I think. It seems there is still much to learn about various aspects of our existence here and how to have it be part of every-day life. What are your thoughts on virtuality and how have you managed to incorporate it into your life in general?

Footman

I think many of us still enjoy the challenge of finding some kind of balance between the two worlds. Everyone has their own take on this – how much of their real self is reflected in their virtual self, how much cross over there is between one world and the other, and so on. As I said before, we all have our different reasons for being here, and I never judge how others deal with the connection between what they do and who they are here, and what they do and who they are in their first lives. My own experience has varied quite a bit over the years. Like many people, no doubt, I have experienced periods of over-immersion, as well as times when I pretty much leave the grid altogether. Running Furillen may have changed things a bit for me, because it gives me more of a structured reason for being here. It’s a bigger commitment, but can also be more rewarding. And interestingly, it actually feels more like my real life, where I am also very involved with other people as an academic. But the experience of virtuality is different for everyone, there is no doubt in my mind about that. If there was one thing I could change, it would be that we could feel a little bit more relaxed and open about who we really are – but even as I say that, I realise that for many people this is missing the whole point of being here. Such is the infinite complexity of this wonderful, weird and wacky place …

Interviewer

Thank you so much again for this, Serene, it was a great pleasure. And thank you for maintaining the beautiful Furillen for all of us to visit. I hope it will be there for many, many more years to come!

Footman

My pleasure – and thanks for all the support you have given me – you were one of those very early visitors to Furillen, and your report on the sim was one of the very first to get published. I remember feeling hugely encouraged by it.

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