Second Life as a Research Project

My Second Life research looks at the role of digital built environment.

As we have seen, Second Life is like a whiteboard—what is in SL is reflective of a particular point in time and a particular set of participants who are paying for the right to put up aspects of their imagination or fantasy into a digital world.  However, just as with changing classrooms, where the whiteboard gets wiped clean, to have new material placed on it, so does the SL landscape get erased as users leave and new users show up.  This makes the SL landscape uniquely different from our real-world landscape, which is constantly embedded in the past—think of going down Harding or Waialae—new buildings, old walls, sidewalks, roads, plants—all sorts of different periods, all mixed in, the past and the present intertwined.  Also, you are constrained by money, zoning and rules of the group in terms of what you can do in Honolulu—almost all of which is absent in SL.


Theoretically you could walk down the same road in SL once a month and never see the same built environment—but every time you went on that road you know that you are looking at a specific persons’ image of what they want to have and/or be in a unconstrained virtual setting.  This is especially true when you remember the SL is structured for anonymity (unlike Facebook), so it should reflect more of what YOU want rather than group or social demands on you.


From a cultural geographer’s standpoint, since we are mainly interested in the ways in which people view, function and modify our environment, SL gives us insights into place and space that we can’t get elsewhere.  From the standpoint of an archaeologist, who are frequently looking at the built environment as manifestations of social values and symbols, the freedom of the digital allows us to see SL as a unique experiment into choice, message and values.


As we’ve seen, the paradox, which famously mystified the staff at Linden Labs when they first opened up Second Life to users, was that the exotic expressions of ‘free individual fantasy fulfillment’ was frequently a small ranch style home that would look totally at home in anywhere USA (such as Boring, Oregon)[Au’s Making of Second Life covers this in detail].  But from my background in archaeology and cultural geography this is a great area of study, especially as with the whiteboard, the audience is constantly changing.  But in a rather surreal way, while the users/residents change, the built environment seems to remain pretty constant.  This is especially striking given the demographic shifts in the SL audience, with roughly 30-40% from North America, changing percentages from Europe and Asia, a recent major growth in percentage from Brazil, but the built environment remains strikingly boring.


A second note is that if the majority of residents are from outside the U.S., why is the built environment so American looking?  Strip malls, bungalow/ranch style homes, furniture…  Very little of SL’s built environment reflects in any way the diversity of the global group of residents.  You wonder what proportion of the population of “Pleasantville” is actually American?  Is this reflective of globalization, of Hollywood/mass media?  But if that’s true, where is Asian media?


Studies have shown that the vast majority of built pieces (including clothes, avatars, etc.) in SL are purchased, many in Marketplace.  But when you look at the diversity of offerings in Marketplace, again the choices that an apparently diverse population make are puzzling.  Where is the diversity?  Where is the extreme individual expression given the anonymity of Second Life?  The only place you see this is in the avatars themselves, though a number of studies have noted that the longer residents stay in SL, the more they modify their avatars to reflect their real world selves.


Collecting visual data in SL is extremely easy, you simply set a screen grab up and go traveling in SL.  Analyzing the data is a much more complex process for a number of reasons.  As with almost all of our material this semester, digital virtual worlds are so recent that there are no clearly defined set of techniques or processes by which to analyze the context of SL.  Since you change a house in a second, leave SL in a second, purchase land in about 10 seconds, old forms of data collection and analysis are not usually a clean fit.  How important is house size, placement or color in a virtual world?  If it’s floating in the air vs being on the ground?


A big one in my travels, that I still don’t have a satisfactory answer for, though I’m sure it’s significant in some way is: Given the lack of zoning, is there any significance to clusters of structures vs. ones by themselves?  Is the clustering a reflection of group, shared values and attitudes, the surrounding environment or simply random?  If a mix, how (as an observer) can you tell?


Central to all this is the premise that if people are spending time (and money) putting something up, even virtual, then what are they trying to communicate to others?  And how does that differ in the digital, if at all?


No answers, just more questions.


It is also becoming clear that in many ways Second Life in many ways was a precursor to our current engagement with social media.  The desire to be in groups by choice, to identify with a like-minded group that shares similar goals or values (again think Pleasantville or furries), all this predates social media by at least 5 years.  What was seen as an isolate or exotic has turned out to be in many ways the norm.


What does it mean for the future?  There is a bunch of money being pushed into virtual worlds, most famously Facebook, and as technology quickly moves away from phones to augmented reality systems, I think it is likely that even more aspects of Second Life will have turned out to suggest the world we will exist in by 2025.  This has implications for all of us in terms of life choices, careers and future plans that in many ways make going back and wandering around Second Life while pondering the near future for a couple of days a worthwhile exercise.

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