There has been a spate of posts about the balance between First and Second Life lately, starting with my friend’s Dandellion’s thoughtful and entertaining blog post Going Schizo. At its core is the question how to handle the realisation that the personalities we evolve in the 3D metaverse of Second Life might seep back into our atomic life (a distant echo of some of Dusan Writer’s earlier thoughts). Besides a fair number of comments, it has also spurned Kit Meredith to ask the question if atomic her is jealous of her avatar, and Botgirl Questi to complete her schematic of the relationship of metaverse and meatverse. Independently of those, Zippora Zabelin has touched on the same topic in her beautiful Life is a game.
The funny thing about all these is that, much as I wanted to give feedback and tell the authors how much I enjoyed their posts, my own uneasy balance between First and Second Life has not let me do so until now. Consoling and supporting a friend much in the same situation as Dandellion’s unknown avatar, but also saying a chance good bye to another one who was leaving SL, as well as finally accepting some other friends and lovers will never come back, has made me painfully aware how ephemeral our second life can be — and how fragile whatever fleeting balance we find is.
It also made me think. Because while we often discuss how, and why we leave this world for good, we rarely dwell on the question that maybe should have been asked first : why bother with the effort of two lives at all ? Why come to Second Life, and stay ?
I have an answer to offer, though I’m not sure it will be all that popular : need.
One way or another, we are here because we seek something we miss in our First Life ; sure, mere curiosity may lead us here, but if nothing taps into our urges and needs, we won’t stay. And though it’s most certainly not as simplistic as Philip Rosedale’s bumbling quote implies, there is something in the notion that where there are no needs, no feelings of inadequacy or frustration, no restrained sexual urges and suppressed identities, no boredom or loneliness, no social handicaps, no unrealised pet projects and crazy ideas lurking in the back of our minds, there is nothing to push us into the virtual world. Need is what makes the virtual world attractive, and addictive. It is the reason why virtual worlds work (with immersion being the how).
What happens when we get there is another thing again. What starts as a mere avatar, a pixel puppet we direct with some detachment, soon develops a life of its own. As we design our shape, choose our looks and clothes, seek friendships and activities, we define what we want to be, and how we want to be perceived in this world. And behind all of it, we have a feedback line into our first world ; as our avatars ripen into personalities of their own, and despite the struggle of identity this brings, despite the lack of sleep and the strain leading two lives puts on us, despite the drama due to the volatile environment, we find solace, and contentment. No wonder those who do not manage this are insistent Second Life is nothing but a game — in a space where you can start afresh, your RL slate wiped blank, nothing hurts more than failing, because it is painfully obvious the failure is yours alone.
But for those of us who do not fail, what will grow on us is a second identity. It is complex and powerful, as befits the interplay of our needs and the complex and powerful world we seek to sate them in. And for many, that identity will grow more and more restive, refusing to stay boxed away as time and social constraints keep us from logging in. It will start to suffuse parts of the world outside. Hamlet Au noted that :
There are hundreds of blogs about Second Life; there are nearly 1000 Flickr groups devoted to SL; there’s a few SL Facebook widgets, an active SL-oriented Twitter community, and searching “Second Life” in YouTube returns over 21,000 videos. […] So a tremendous level of Second Life activity really takes place within Web 2.0 systems which weren’t made with the metaverse in mind.
Surprising ? I think not. Blogging, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube : these are the parts of the web « into which one can ‘write an identity’ into a public arena ». And writing our new, second identity is what we do all along, telling the story we have invented, and keep inventing for ourselves. Dusan Writer was right on the fact Second Life is a Story Box — maybe the greatest made yet. Where he was wrong was in thinking the storytelling experience is collective. It is not. It is individual, even where the multitude of residents interacts. They interact because a story without an audience might as well remain untold. But the essential thing about this is that it doesn’t make a community out of the multitude. It’s a cacophony, not a campfire group listening to the griot.
Our stories are ours alone.
Which might be why my very first reaction to Grace McDunnough’s brilliant essay on Upholding Social Norms was dismissive (good for me Grace does not currently read me. Balance again, I guess). There was too much of the longing for the campfire in it for my taste at first reading. I am distrustful of communities, whose flip-side always seems to be exclusion. Some of the comments and followup posts listed here do indeed little more than sing the melancholy tune of « once, my son, all of this was green and pleasant land, and man was not a wolf unto his fellow man » ; but then, telling us the world will end because youngsters do not respect their elders’ ways hasn’t lost its novelty value in the last 2500 years, so what did I expect ?
But in Grace’s essay, that tune is only a faint echo in the background. First and foremost, she raises the question if the recent newcomer’s unrestrained approach to the watershed between First and Second Life identity does not mean the stories we can invent for ourselves will soon be much, much poorer — because in a universe where avatar identity is firmly linked to RL identity, your second life becomes just another facet of your first. Without true pseudonimity, without alts, in this age of weblogs and social networks, you will soon find out that, in the metaverse, too, people know you are a dog.
Looking back at her own SL childhood, Grace points out the existence of a community of residents that was able to channel and collect the trickle of newcomers, teaching them the ways and norms of the world they entered, respect for the divide between identities coming first. But that community is no more. If Grace’s story starts with « When Grace entered Second Life in Feb. 2006… », mine could start simply with « 52 weeks later, Second Life was a very different place… ». It was indeed.
In the SL of early 2007, there was nobody to teach me beyond what I taught myself ; nobody expecting me to mend my ways ; no one to enforce limits and rules. Seeing how allergic I am to patronising hints and the review of self appointed peers, that might even have been a good thing. I probably wouldn’t be here if somebody had told me « we don’t do it like that around here » in my first weeks. « Welcome to Second Life » would have been nice, though.
Still, I learned. And if you keep in mind that I am neither brighter, nor more creative or more social than the average newcomer, you can be sure there are more, many more who did, and who will do. The transition from avatar to person still works the same way. What has become impossible, now that the original community has dwindled into a minority, is to socially enforce rules that favour it. Giving your avatar the chance to evolve into a person, by disconnecting it from RL you, has become a personal choice instead of a norm. How obvious a choice is it when you come from a world where the notion of a second, semiautonomous identity is preposterous ? Paradoxically, and in spite of some old time residents thinking most everybody having entered SL after 2006 is a barely social attention-getter, or a sociopath even, we have been spared the full impact of the question yet by SL’s sheer inadequacy.
Right now, the frustrating newbie experience, confusing interface and lack of reliability of the service still ensure that those who stay have a certain level of need, curiosity, or sheer bloody-mindedness which makes them conductive to learning the ways of the world they entered. Safe to say that as the 3D metaverse gets more accessible, the share of people willing to accept it on its own terms, instead of terms they bring from RL, will further dwindle. You were complaining about the brook the trickle has turned into ? Just wait for the flood, friend, just wait for it.
Because 3D avatars make sense even if they are no more disconnected from RL identities than Facebook profiles are — the immersive sense of a place to be in, the intuitive simplicity of walking up to a person to strike up a conversation, the option to do things together nicely balance the disorientation and bewilderment its sheer size and lack of structure beget — and there are other advantages as well. As technical deficiencies become less, we can be sure to see this kind of social metaverse attract a larger audience, an audience to which the idea of disconnecting identities might be utterly outlandish.
So does that mean we are doomed to lose the world we have made ? Are we a civilisation on the brink of extinction ? Maybe. But against the angst, I would like to set the hope we can make a difference, and that when history will label our generation, it will be by the word avantgarde, not fluke.
Granted : history does not teach trying to make a difference ever made one. But it does teach that not trying is the best way not to make one. Let’s stop pining for drier days, and start learning to swim while we’re still ahead of the flood.
First step, breathing regularly and taking our bearings :
- The days of unquestioning community norms enshrined in the ToS and Community Standards which Chestnut Rau recurs to are gone. They will not come again, not in the guise of the tacit governance Grace puzzles over, nor in any other. That kind of social homogeneity, stemming from a common background — as Washu Zebrastripe jokingly put it, « reading [Neal Stephenson’s SF novel] Snow Crash was pretty much a prerequisite to joining SL in beta days! » — is no more.
- This means enforcing norms — either by fear of retribution or by community regulation — is out, because that only works if the norms enforced are based on a large consensus (when they are not, you get, respectively, a reign of terror, and a clique). But there is another way, not to enforce, but to spread a minority’s norms beyond its original scope : making people want to be like the minority. Let us show the newcomers to our world, through our example, what gift they might find here if they surrender to its workings. Let us make them understand how rich and compelling the cacophony, how beautiful the chaos is out of which our second personalities emerge. Let us make them understand that what they get, here, if they can stand it, is the one thing mankind has always wanted : the freedom to live your dreams. It works, believe me. It did on me.
- To be able to do this, however, we have to accept what and who we are, and get rid of one misunderstanding : whatever Philip Rosedale may think, the 3D metaverse is not the future of the internet, but something else entirely. Powerful as its applications in teaching, social research and conferencing, in architecture, engineering and other areas where real-time, collaborative manipulation of 3D models is a real plus might be — or rather : turn out to be — this is not the future of information publication, retrieval and exchange. The fact that early adopters of technology regularly focus on the communication aspect (as was the case for early internet adopters) only muddles the waters. The flat, 2D internet is far better at what it does than the 3D metaverse will ever be. You wouldn’t be reading a blog post if it wasn’t.
So Second Life won’t supplant the internet. In fact, it needs it to exist, and probably always will, as the identities created there seek a wider field of expression. As Botgirl Questi remarked, it is very much possible to have a network of residents you have never met in-world. The greatest potential of Second Life lies elsewhere than its use as a 3D internet : it lies in our dreams, in our needs and aspirations, and in the freedom to give them a shape we find there. Second Life is the great escape.
All right, I’ve said it, now hit me. No, better yet, repeat after me : Second Life is the great escape. What we are is the vanguard of tomorrow’s escapists.
There is nothing wrong about being an escapist. There never has been anything wrong about escapism, for that matter. From the first caveman gazing at the stars, wondering if there was something else and better there, escaping from the daily plight has been one of mankind’s overriding urges. We have built civilisations and religions on it. Even today, without existential plight, we need to escape from our reality, once in a while. And we do : every daydream, every scrap of entertainment, every bit of culture or leisure we create or assimilate is an escape from the needs of life. Dreaming, and escaping into dreams is part of what makes us human.
Self styled pragmatists have, at all times, missed the significance of the escapist dream, and not the moral or ideal significance either, but the very tangible power, economic and cultural. Even when they stood at the core of it, when they created the means for it, they often missed its essence. Take the Frenchman who, when asked in 1895 to commercialise a novelty he had invented said : « My invention can be exploited… as a scientific curiosity, but apart from that it has no commercial value whatsoever. » He was called Auguste Lumière. His novelty was the motion picture camera.
Today, once more, we confront a novelty whose potential is beyond conventional wisdom, and once more the pragmatists’ tell us there is little application beyond what they can see — their visions are of the same, just more so. They are wrong, as wrong as Lumière was. Let us not play their game, on their terms. Let us be proud of what we are.
For the first time in mankind’s history, we have a world to escape to as complete as the one we live in, but without most of its limitations. We have a place where what we are, and are not, in our atomic life is not important ; a canvas we can re-invent ourselves on, again and again, every day. We have, in short, a place where we can make our dreams come true — the birthplace of our second (and sometimes third, fourth, fifth) selves.
We have just begun exploring its possibilities. One thing, however, I know for sure : for the right to live there, going schizo is a very small price to pay.
Welcome to the new world.