For years I’ve read about Second Life and didn’t get it. Now after spending a few hours on it, I admit it’s still not my cup of tea. Apparently, I’m not alone. Ten years after launch, Second Life’s growth has stalled at 1 million, and I’m betting they are just the kind of users Tom Boellstroff came to know more than a half-a-decade ago when Second Life was still so avant-garde. He is an anthropologist. But I couldn’t help thinking of sociological and psychological questions about who comes to Second Life and why – and if there is an applicability for commerce outside the band of entrepreneurs already serving the community. But I heartly agree with Boellstroff that Second Life as a whole is a culture, even if it has multiple subcultures.
For my venture into Second Life I adopted a feminized name of Boellstroff’s inspiration, Bronnie Malinowski (the original Bronislaw Malinowski is the guy in the portrait to the right), and opted for blond hair (do they really have more fun?) and the so-called student attire (grad student on reconnaisance) and stylish backpack included. I quickly jumped from the beach and then went looking for some of my favorite cities: London, Paris, Miami, New York, Buenos Aires to name a few. The landmarks were fun to see, but they all seemed to have a disco. And after seeing a couple of avatars’ moves and you’ve seen them all.
(An interesting insight I stumbled across from Second Life Founder Philip Rosedale…”one of the biggest surprises he had building SecondLife was how when given total creative license, most of the houses just looked like ones in Malibu. Most people just covet the things they know, he says. And in the US, perhaps that life is attainable enough. And for those who can’t attain it, there are already well-trod ways to escape into it, through television, music videos, or RomComs set in Manhattan where everything winds up okay. Perhaps they want the culture that’s already built for them, not the responsibility to build it themselves. Full write up here.)
After our reading, however, I was surprised to have minimal social interactions on Second Life – just three over the course of my multiple visits and all of them the most superficial of sorts. Personally, I found the stop-motion-vibe of the entire experience at times unpleasant and hard to navigate smoothly. And perhaps the most virtual I felt was in discos when a creepy guy would invade my avatar’s space and not offer to chat. So more realistic than I expected, eh? I found myself most taken with the fantasy sites I visited – Musiclandia and Serenity Gardens – for their better-than-reality creations, interactive elements and relative lack of crowds. (One viewer was so taken by Musiclandia, she posted her own video of her avatar’s trip there on YouTube .)
I found this week’s second reading a bit more of service, with its good discussion of techniques for digital ethnography, even if its references were dated. How quaint it was to read that just 10 years ago social scientists were pondering, “Until consumer digital technology products like cellular phones, faxes, and digital cameras become common household items, we will tackle a steeper learning and logistics curve bringing the participants into the research process.”
Steve Jobs must have been reading.
Indeed, the modern era provides tools Malinowski could not have dreamed of and that commerce is already exploiting, from Twitter and instant feedback to Google alerts. The challenge – for academic research in particular – is how to insure the data comes from a representative sample, when appropriate, and that data gathering itself does not skew the results because of participant awareness as in the Valentine’s Day experiment. Nor have we resolved that privacy issue the authors’ mentioned, have we?
And if you still haven’t had a chance, please take a moment for Joni’s Silly Survey.
1. Do you think Second Life has reached its peak? Do you envision any changes or technology advances that would allow it to grow again? (Oh, and please tell me YOUR avatar’s name!)
2. Nowadays we all give data to commerce via cookies, etc., mobile applications on the Internet — but tell ourselves that in the aggregate it doesn’t mean much. But under what conditions would you go a step further and give a researcher carte blanche access to parts or all of the personal contents on your mobile device/email account, etc?
3. A previous reading talked about research connected to Twitter; now we have Second Life; is there anyway to do something similar on Facebook, where privacy settings make it impossible for a “digital ethnographer” to lurk?