A Second Look at Second Life

After spending a week and some change on Second Life I am ready to offer my thoughts on my initial misconceptions, the present state, and the future of  Second Life(SL), and virtual worlds in general.

Misconception #1:  Second Life is not real life.

Ok, this is partly true but only from a mediated communication sense. The medium operates in a virtual space to send and receive messages, but every interaction is connected to a real flesh and bones human being with emotions, feelings and thoughts. The interactions had in the virtual space invoke the same two primary senses we would have in real life – sight being the most dominate sensory in all interactions followed closely by sound. Think about the bulk of interactions in real life. The majority of them primarily invoke sight and sound with little to no impact on communication from taste, touch or smell. Not to say those senses are not important, but highly effective communication of emotions and feelings can occur with only using sight and sound. In this video clip, the guys ‘real’ friends form an intervention to save him from his real life.

Misconception #2:  Anyone who spends huge amounts of time on Second Life is a loser. 

OK, loser is harsh, but used for emphasis. I had this thought that the only people who are on SL were there because they had problems interacting with others in real life. I pictured an addicted and out of control person similar to the World of Warcraft episode from South Park. I saw them as being extremely introverted and severely lacking in social skills needed to make it in the world. While there are some people who are on SL with these traits, I don’t think the percentages are any greater in the real world. In fact, the ones who take advantage of the benefits of SL are likely to also possess these traits in real life as well.

Misconception #3:  Everyone pretends to be someone else.

What are these avatars about anyways? Sure, we are obviously not lizards despite how hard Oscar may try, but a larger portion of people than I expected chose to be human, and relatively real. In our class meet up, most came in humanoid form and dressed normal. Wandering around for a while in other spaces, this seemed to be true more than not. On dance floors and clubs the preferred avatar was human. The medium does allow for us to escape from ourselves for a little while, but ultimately, our personalities come through and force us to gravitate towards a more realistic, but slightly enhanced self.

Second Life is what we want it to be. It can be a quiet corner to meditate, a meet-up with friends, a sexual encounter with a stranger or intimate relationships alike. We can choose one of these are all of these at any time in our interactions. These real life activities are available with much greater ease and at a far less cost than their real life counterparts.

The technology is also bringing people closer together. I highly recommend the PBS documentary called “Digital Nation.” In it, they take a technological deterministic approach to our interactions with technology – meaning that technology changes us and how we communicate. Here is an excerpt from YouTube specifically dealing with Second Life.

After watching this video, I think about the future of the virtual world space. Second Life can emerge as a space where business can be conducted and we can live our lives in a totally different dimension.

Will we meet up with clients in this space in the near future? Will multi-million dollar decisions be done between a ‘lizard’ and a ‘vampire’? The medium is largely limited by two factors:

1) Social norms. Will we be willing to become sedate humans with active personas? Perhaps one day we will run on a treadmill in real life while our avatar does the same in SL, but what will be the point? Is the act of exercise and hanging out at a virtual gym enough of a draw? Sexual encounters seems to already be a huge draw in SL as Levinson and others point out, but they can only emotionally replace the ‘real’ thing to a certain extent. What will be the long term effects of this transference of reality? How much of our selves are we willing to give to the technology?

2) The technology. Second Life is a huge power drain and there were many technical challenges in my experiences in the space. The concept of Digital Divide has not been mentioned much in this course thus far, but it plays a huge role in not only developing nations, but also the digital divide here at home. Rural vs. Urban. Rich vs. poor. Each demographic faces their own ‘divide’ and the lack of access to broadband internet and faster computers severely limits the amount of people who can experience the more advanced mediums of Second Life and YouTube.

Of all the mediums we have explored, I think Second Life has the most potential to largely succeed or largely fail. Virtual worlds are the only medium where we can truly become completely immersed. They offer an unparalleled experience of engagement, sight and sound. Yet, they are probably the least used of all the tools we have studied so far.

Perhaps, much like the electric car of the 90’s, virtual worlds are a bit ahead of their time.


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10 responses to “A Second Look at Second Life”

  1. Kevin Brooks says :

    Really well developed post, as always, Jason! I’ll second your Digital Nation recommendation, and really just about everything else you said. And while the non-profit commons meeting on Friday was a bit on the dry side, I actually got a lot from the session. If I think about other options for meeting up with people who are passionate about non-profit work, my other choices become:

    1. a face-to-face seminar. They are good, but time consuming: half day or whole day.
    2. twitter, fb, social media: I get snippets of what’s going on, but not a sustained presentation.
    3. a Google hangout couldn’t have supported as many attendees.
    4. potential to network, although I didn’t take advantage of it.

    I plan to go back any Friday I can work it into my schedule. An hour and a half in SL each week seems like a reasonable use, relevant to this class and other aspects of my career and life.

    The digital divide is immediately obvious and relevant when it comes to SL. Assumes non-profits with high tech skills. Assumes the other things you have talked about. DD might come back more strongly in second half of the course–important topic!

  2. jadesandbulte says :

    It is interesting that most people choose the human avatar. I also noticed that few people seemed to fly. Maybe most people are trying to be their normal selves in SL. Then again, maybe they’re trying to be the person they wished they could be in RL.

  3. Lalo Telling says :

    Thank you, Jason, for this well-thought piece, from a 4-year veteran of Second Life.

    I wonder if you’ve thought much about the international nature of virtual worlds – SL especially, because of its population. They have no borders, no metal detectors, no pat downs… One can find that one’s best friend is literally a half the planet away, waking up early to catch you before you go to sleep.

    Perhaps virtual worlds are a bit ahead of their time.

    @jadesandbulte : Sometimes, rehearsing in SL the person one wishes to be in RL helps realize it.

  4. Jason says :

    @Brooks Thanks for the compliments. I have seen Digital Nation a couple of times now and while I find it a bit too tech deterministic from my own personal perspective, it points out a lot of positives and negatives of living our lives emerged in the medium. In terms of meeting similar to the current SL setup, I see that evolving and emerging as it’s own tool somehow. The interface and UX of SL (as it currently is presented) will not catch on mainstream. Not to say SL won’t be the future tool for online meetings, but in it’s current state, it will remain firmly in the specialized category.

    @jade I think the entire “Avatar” concept is more of a result of the technology than it is of the users. Sure, they allow for an escape from one’s self, but ultimately, I see meetings occurring using a real video relay or actual visual representation of yourself in the very near future – Google+ hangout is one step towards that goal. The next step in that progression would be to add tactile to the mix. A ‘virtual’ coffee mug that sends signals to whatever interface you are using that actually makes it heat up – how cool will that be?

    @Lalo Thank you for the compliments. The ‘border-less’ networking possibilities are what will bring virtual worlds into the mainstream, IMO. Users need to have a reason to use a specific tool, like SL, to accomplish a goal or task that they cannot more easily accomplish elsewhere. While it is true that SL provides a way for an international meeting to take place, I come back to the challenges that SL has to overcome – social acceptance and technological barriers. I happen to think if the tool is user experience driven, widely available and fits a need – the social acceptance will follow.

    Thanks for reading, sharing and commenting!

  5. draxtor says :

    Great article and spot on debunking some ridiculous myths about SL! Quick add: SL is huge and therefore full of thriving sub-cultures. Does not surprise me that at NPC meets you hardly see furries or people fly, but there is no shortage of crazy colorful expression in avatar and behavior. I have attempted to document the world beginning in 2007: here is a playlist that goes up to 2010 – http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL6A15C648B89629E2

    • Jason says :

      Thank you for reading! I have to admit, I was sucked in by your playlist. I am writing a longer essay on social media and its impact on politics; specifically how we can convert computer mediated interactions and messages into real life activism. I found your video about the Obama supporter very interesting. How do you, since you mention the NPC, turn active participation in virtual worlds into civic engagement?

      Thanks again for reading!

      • draxtor says :

        Hi Jason, thanks for watching – there is even more on my channel [can you spell obsession??]. I am convinced that a immersive visceral experience in a virtual world leaves a much more lasting impact than even the most compelling article or TV reportage: you are IN THERE, your avatar [who you identify with] is being impacted by what is going on. We built this “Cap and Trade” demo for the Center of Investigative Reporting and while there were flaws in the tech [SL limitations at the time], the response from students who tested it were amazing: they felt violated they said when they were thrown in jail in Brazil etc. So I believe we are the very beginning of all this! The general public is still learning how to deal with email & Farmville, so there is time hahahah 🙂 in re NPCs: the greatest impact they will have for experience designers in SL: they will populate the location so there is always stuff going on & depending on the AI functionality they would be able to respond intelligently or at least with required information. Good example is the Ancient Mesopotamia project by the Federation of American Scientists in SL: the NPC’s don’t speak really but they populate the simulation, “playing” residents of ancient times, engaged in their profession and social interaction.

  6. Pay says :

    Please come and visit again! You are right about the Digital Divide. As a resident of five years, I am unable to get the newest viewers to on my five-year-old power gamer laptop! Immersion is truly the thing that keeps people coming back as well as the inherent “license to create,” which is not the norm in many simulation-type worlds.

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