Thursday, October 19, 2006

On Not Getting "Second Life"

I am a nerd, but not a geek.

When a student introduced me to the elaborate virtual world of Second Life, my first instinct was not to go there, but to ask geeks to explain it to me and send me things to read. I am grateful to same, especially to my brother-in-law. This helpful guide from Wired may help other nerds and pre-n00bs get the lie of the land.

As a sociologist I am interested in how people think the world is made and how it could be made. Second Life is a wonderful experiment in free market social engineering. Its great appeal is that you can do and make just about anything you can imagine.

My main concern, as readers of this blog know, is with family life, so I was curious about how family life is made there. I asked helpful student Nora "Do you court, marry, and have children?" in Second Life. Her answer is instructive.

Yes and no. You can choose a partner, but to make this official, I think you pay an extremely small fee to LindenLabs so that they can change your online profile. Anything beyond that is the decision of the users. There are definitely wedding places in SL and there are of course people who met in SL and who married in real life. There are no SL babies, though. … But there aren't babies built into the game, unless you get really smart and figure out how to script that! :) You can actually change your avatar to look like a young child, but anyone younger than 17 or 18 (i forget which) isn't allowed into SL. They have their own separate grid to use.

I used to be very interested in narratives of alternative worlds. Science fiction got me through high school. But I have found that since becoming an official sociologist, and most especially since having a wife and children of my own, I am much less interested in virtual or alternative worlds, and more interested in the real one.

I think it is wonderful that Second Life exists, and that the half million people who regularly work and play there have found a place for their passions. I celebrate the wonderful variety of this world, including the alternative worlds it contains.

But I don't find it to be something that I want to do myself. So I very much welcome responses from people who do "get it" to elaborate on why.


Nora Brown said...

Even though we've already discussed this previously via email, I suppose I'll elaborate more by saying that my being a perpetual technological optimist aids me quite a bit. By that I mean that I'm one of those "geeks" who truly believes technology is a force of connection and of benefit to people, despite its setbacks. So to my thinking, the fact that I'm able to log into SecondLife and talk to someone from, say, Denmark, which I did a while back, blows my mind. I routinely meet people from Europe in SecondLife and I attend virtual concerts where the musician is broadcasting from Japan. A cross-continental universal virtual platform can increase global communication. And that seems only of positivity and assitance to people.

SecondLife can also be a platform for real and pertinent discussion to our own society. Just today, for example, there was an intellectual discussion on "What role do video games, cell phones and social networking websites play in the development of today's children?" I was unable to attend this, though, because I was in class and reading for my next class after that. Truth be told, I would much, much rather have been in this discussion than doing Centre-related work.

If I as a citizen and as an individual must place my belief in something, I place it in technology and societal innovation. Perhaps this is truly a mindset of newer generations who have grown up and been personally molded by phenomenon such as Facebook, but at least it is a new mindset and one that hopes for positive change in the world.

So even if SecondLife turns out to be only a virtual experiment of sorts, it is nonetheless a *real* experiment with innovations in social networking, technology, global communication, and a fully operating economy. We are always capable of learning in life; it may just be, though, that we are able to learn more from a resource like SecondLife than from a resource that is fully traditional and tangible.

Nora Brown said...

I'll also add that SecondLife has just passed the 1 million member mark. :)

Edith OSB said...

I heard part of a story on NPR this morning that included a conferece where questions were taken (live) from humans in the room, telephone, and avatars in Second Life.

The radio commentator spoke of how strange it seemed to seriously respond to a question offered by a cartoonish-character on a screen with the same gravity and respect offered to the real humans in the room.

In the 1980s, I moderated an online conference at UMichigan. The relationships there tended to swamp people's real lives; they would forego movies or concerts with friends in order to chat online with strangers. Fights broke out; we had a suicide scare and had to contact Resdident Assistants in the dorms.

I came away with a healthy respect for keeping a sharp dividing line between real interactions and the artificial personae that appear online. Conversation with people I havent met - but could, their names are here - seems quite different from interaction with characters created in a Second World. I'm not suggesting that it be censored, but I also wonder if it is good for people, in the long run.

Gruntled said...

Do people try out alternate personae in virtual worlds that they then selectively incorporate in the real one?