The Narrative as Theoretical Construct to understand Digital Realities

Having been recently confronted with “what do you study in Second Life” yet again, I have felt the need to come up with a useful theoretical tool.  While I have been collecting data in SL since 2011, almost entirely video capture along all the roads in the mainland areas of SL, interpreting the use of space, concepts of place and the built environment in SL has been elusive.  Existing theories in geography and archaeology are lacking in that they seem to come from two polar POVs: 1) the group defines all [think vernacular architecture studies in U.S.]; 2) the entirely autonomous individual [the stereotype of SL in popular media].  Neither works for what you can see walking (or flying) down a road in SL.  What you see is strange patterns of conformity, largely mundane architecture (especially bungalow homes with garages, yard, fence…) with occasional highly exotic builds that are almost entirely in 3 genres: European fantasy/gothic; urban grunge; semi-Japanese.  The vast majority of SL residents buy objects/homes from crafter-residents in SL (at SL Marketplace).  Therefore while you can ‘reinvent’ yourself in SL, your home will be a purchase, and frequently a mundane one.

This is the big conundrum in SL: If you can be who/whatever you want, and live in whatever you want, why are the choices so mundane?  There is no centralized zoning, regulations on builds, or other ‘group control’ at work–this is the result of individual choices.  I should note that he cost of the build is almost invariably quite small compared (between .25-5.00$ US) to the monthly rental costs of owning property to put the house on, so cost isn’t an issue.  There are a large number of cheap strange structures, and some quite expensive (and very accurate) California bungalows c. 1955.  So we are looking at market-constrained individual choice.

So I present the construct of the “Narrative”.  A Narrative is the sum total of an individual’s self identity.  Note that others contribute to the Narrative through interaction, criticism, providing models to emulate, etc.  Individuals are not free to write their own Narrative–all Narratives are collective in nature.  Having said that, the individual in the Narrative is always the central player–they choose how to engage with other forces, they constantly make choices in what to look like, sound like, act like, in many cases where multiple choices are available.

In SL this means when you look at a bungalow residence in Sansara, that represents a complex intertwining of individual choice (the resident chose the house, the property, and rezzed it on site) and the group (builders who constructed the house/furniture etc.).  But it also involves the past of the individual in reality–where they live, what aspirations they have, media they have consumed that promotes ‘the bungalow’ as a HOME (an emotional/value based concept), their perception of how others view houses, etc.  So an SL residence does reflect a virtual choice by the owner, but it also reflects the various forces in the past-present that made that choice more likely.

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