Virtual Discos: My spin through Second Life

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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.

451px-BronislawmalinowskiFor 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.

25_rosedale_philip(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?


7 thoughts on “Virtual Discos: My spin through Second Life

  1. It’s Katnole. I decided to do a little reading about Second Life, and found that the numbers seem to be holding steady. First and foremost, I think they would need to update the look of its avatars…and maybe move away from the Linden bucks. Apparently, OpenSim is one of its biggest challengers right now…mainly because no money transactions are involved.

    After working at a TV station for years, I think I would be a terrible candidate. I don’t think I would ever open up the books for a researcher; not that there is anything scandalous, or even remotely interesting in my email or on my phone. Just call it paranoia.

    As for Facebook, I think you can still lurk. With so many privacy updates, profiles fall through the cracks. Now, you can also use hashtags…and the graphs.

  2. I hadn’t realized Second Life wasn’t continuing to grow, but I’m surprised. I think modern social networks stunted its growth, and I don’t see Second Life overpowering that. I think Second Life is too focused on the gimmicks, like customizing your appearance. Yes, people can hide behind avatars on Second Life, but they can do the same thing on Facebook (see catfishing). They can make a fake profile and befriend people. Social networks don’t have the same in-person feel, but they accomplish the same goals – connection – and do it more easily. My profile name was Glamburger. No idea why I thought of that.

    The only time I would ever give full-access to researches would be if I had a strong connection with their cause or goals.

    I think all of those platforms probably have similar privacy settings, but I’m not sure. Maybe a digital ethnographer could lurk in public groups on Facebook. I feel like Second Life may be the most public one, because if your avatar is in a public area, then everyone can see what you’re doing, though not necessarily what you are talking about.

  3. I definitely think SecondLife has peaked/plateaued – that whole process of downloading the installer and going through all of that, it seemed so cumbersome. I think technology is going to outgrow that style of application and that SecondLife will then seem outdated. Just looking at the way the web is advancing, the old Doom game was recreated in the browser (and since taken down for copyright infringement) which is very impressive.

    Under what conditions would I give a researcher ( or anyone for that matter ) carte blanche access to my personal content? Never. My privacy is very important to me. I use the incognito browsing a lot of the time because I don’t want ads showing up on YouTube videos or other websites I visit for the same product/service over and over again. If I feel as though people should know my business, then I’ll tell them. But I never tweet and rarely post on Facebook. I feel as with those types of communication, I’m not really in control of the dissemination.

  4. Richard, I have the same love/hate relationship with social media…and I think if my job didn’t require such engagement I would be far less prolific. It’s still so weird to me when someone picks up a conversation with me based on something I’d posted a few days ago, but that has become so standard…

  5. I’m not surprised that Second Life has been stunted in it’s growth. It’s kind of the extreme end of “social networking”. With options life facebook, likedin, twitter, etc. having complete buy in of your time on a site isn’t as necessary anymore. I can easily hop on and off of Facebook within a matter of a minute, where it takes at least that long to get into the system of Second Life and begin being “social”. I also think knowing who you’re speaking to on Facebook trumps Second Life. Of course, there are those catfishes out there that will trick ya’- but I think overall people treat Facebook as a yearbook and a virtual ongoing mailbox, rather than a literal Second Life like the system allows.

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