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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

What's wrong with First Life?

Can someone explain the appeal of SecondLife to me, please? It's an online virtual world where people create avatars for themselves, and interact with other people's avatars. You can buy land in the virtual world (paying with real money), and you can use the land to build whatever you want. People have set up businesses in SecondLife, and some professors are teaching classes and holding office hours entirely in SecondLife.

The program now has 7.2 million members, more people than Israel, Ireland, or Singapore. According to their web site, people spent $1.7 million there yesterday.

The program is a downloadable client, and it doesn't work on either my desktop or my laptop. But seriously, what's the big deal? Why is this thing so popular?

My favorite SecondLife story is this. In the last French presidential elections, each of the political parties set up a virtual headquarters in SecondLife, including the far-right National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Pen. The far-right SecondLife virtual party headquarters attracted virtual protesters - and the protests quickly turned virtually violent. Why not just have a real protest in front of the real headquarters?

Why is SecondLife so popular? Sociologists and computer addicts, any theories?

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8 Comments:

Anonymous csven said...

Can someone explain the appeal of SecondLife to me, please?

I ask the same question about television, that box that has attracted the passive attention of people across the world.

Perhaps if you have the answer to why people find television appealing, you *might* start to understand why they find Second Life appealing. Though Second Life isn't passive.

The program now has 7.2 million members, more people than Israel, Ireland, or Singapore. According to their web site, people spent $1.7 million there yesterday.

Incorrect. There are not 7.2M "members". There are 7.2M registrations (aka "residents"); not nearly the same thing. What MSM repeatedly fails to do is properly report the numbers. It helps to know that for a very long time it was to a person's advantage to have 3 registered avatars (this was due to a "Group" requiring a minimum of three avatars).

Weekly login numbers are probably a better metric. Last I recall, they're currently somewhere around a half million.

The money numbers are equally difficult to qualify. Some suspect that in-world gambling accounts for a hefty inflation of the number because each transaction would be counted. Win $100. Lose $100. Win $100. Lose $100. End result: $0. Reported figure: $400.

Perhaps the money numbers have been resolved, but I don't think so.

The program is a downloadable client, and it doesn't work on either my desktop or my laptop. But seriously, what's the big deal? Why is this thing so popular?

It really has to be tried for an extended period to be understood. I started using it for purely technical reasons. What I found was something surprising.

The best analogy I can give would be previous technologies that likely elicited the same response. Once upon a time I imagine people thought telephones were evil because they removed face-to-face social interaction. Now it's common.

History is likely full of such examples. Remember when parents didn't understand rock 'n roll? Some people today don't understand Blackberry addiction or instant messaging or iPod fanaticism....

My favorite SecondLife story is this. In the last French presidential elections, each of the political parties set up a virtual headquarters in SecondLife, including the far-right National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Pen. The far-right SecondLife virtual party headquarters attracted virtual protesters - and the protests quickly turned virtually violent. Why not just have a real protest in front of the real headquarters?

What about expats? How can they participate in a way that makes them feel as if they're participating? Is posting a comment on a web site sufficient? Is circulating a chain email? Is writing and sending snail mail? Of those options, the only one that will give them a visceral, real-time sense of community from their out-of-country location is Second Life.

That's not to say everyone will be sufficiently immersed to feel that way, but some do.

I think a much better story is that of Wilde Cunningham. Google that name and read what you find (you should get hits from New World Notes). Then perhaps you'll start to get a different sense of the possibilities that an immersive space provides.

And it's not just people like Cunningham (pl) who find it useful, but military families separated by distance who log into SL and watch real movies together in the virtual world. That's better than a phone call, isn't it?

As to my own reasons, I'm still there for the technical side of things. But for me, as someone who designs the products people buy in stores - products that start off as virtual objects in my CAD system (which is very similar to videogames and Second Life data) - the convergence of the two is less about social interaction and more about preparing for what I see coming: a convergence between a 3D internet and rapid manufacturing.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 1:45:00 PM  
Blogger Practicing Idealist said...

Slag,
I discuss phenomena like Second Life when I teach cultural/technological influences on personality. Last semester, I actually had my students analyze Second Life in a paper with reference to an idea of the "Saturated Self" discussed by psychologist Kenneth Gergen in his book of the same name.
The basic argument is that technology has allowed us to become "saturated" in a variety of ways. We are constantly bombarded with images via t.v., the internet, movies, etc. This technology is wonderful in that it allows us to maintain relationships with past friends and create new relationships more quickly (i.e., through email or cell phones). However, because we have the ability to retain old relationships and make new ones that may or may not have the same role requirements, we may easily end up becoming saturated.
To get back to your original question, though, Gergen would probably argue that games like Second Life are appealing precisely because they allow us to play with our identities, and try completely new things on. That's another consequence of so many new technologies - who's to know if I'm really a 75 year old ex-stripper or a 250 lb. black man in a chat room? Just as technology bombards us, it allows us to play with our "beingness." Games like Second Life just take it to an extreme.
I highly recommend checking out Gergen's book - it's fascinating stuff.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 7:30:00 PM  
Blogger S.S.Stone said...

I found the post and the comments very interesting and fascinating! Thanks for such a great post! I haven't heard of First or Second life but then again I've been living in museum basements with mummies for the past year!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 7:59:00 PM  
Blogger Slag said...

Thanks, all.

Csven, thanks for pointing out the difference between members and registrations, and how money changes hands. I thought those numbers seemed high, but I didn't understand how.

I do see your point about how SL gives a visceral sense of participation to expats, and it's certainly opened up beautiful new possibilities for Wilde Cunningham and the military families. The examples I gave still strike me as weird - for people actually in France, a virtual protest seems a highly ineffective way of having your voice heard. I see that SL would be hugely useful for office hours in online courses - much more so than a discussion board or chat. But why would a professor think it was a good idea to replace in-person office hours with SL for on-campus classes?

This may be simply because this is a new technology, and it always takes a while to see how new technologies will be most useful.

Practicing Idealist, playing with identities is an important part of what people get out of SecondLife. There was a very interesting article in Wired recently about what happens when voice chat comes to World of Warcraft, and people hear what their fellow players sound like.

S.S., FirstLife was just my way of joking about living an outside-the-computer life, but Practicing Idealist's comments put an interesting spin on it. There is no reason that a SecondLife avatar is anything like a person's real life.

Working in the basement with mummies? Sounds like an interesting job. What are you studying? Do they chase you? :)

Thursday, June 21, 2007 7:06:00 AM  
Blogger ΕΡΜΕΣ said...

yes, it is popular because people can play with their identites. not only their avatars' appearances, but their demeanors in interactions with others, their roles as consumers/producers, and lots of other dimensions of identity too. it also offers social networking - easy ways to find people with similar interests that may be rare in real life depending on geography, and easy ways to find diverse people with *different* interests and cultures than ones own, and so provides a learning environment. then again, its probably more popular for the convenience of gratification of sexual fetishes than for any of the reasons above. a simple comparison of the total number of "events" going on at any given time, and the proportion thereof that are tagged as "mature" will demonstrate this. :)

Thursday, June 21, 2007 7:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Drek's Officemate said...

For anyone interested in what exactly goes on in SecondLife: http://secondlife.reuters.com

Yes, Reuters has an office in SecondLife. I think it says something when First Life news outlets start paying a staff to write articles about the goings-on in SL (even if I don't know what, exactly, it means).

Anyways, the articles by Warren Ellis highlight a lot of the more creative (and sometimes downright scary) stuff that happens in SL, so it's worth a read for any interested parties. This being my only exposure to SL, I've been tempted to check it out, if for not other reason that to actually see some of the stuff that I've read about.

Thursday, June 21, 2007 7:26:00 AM  
Anonymous csven said...

I agree. While there are things for which Second Life make sense, there are other times when it seems inappropriate. But then we have that with other technology (e.g. bosses using email to fire employees).

What's unfortunate is that I see both sides - the less-than-professional press and the overly zealous supporters - misleading the majority of people. MSM continuously misrepresents Second Life and the supporters ignore the kinds of things you point out.

That said, from the perspective of someone who only intended to move 3D data around, the social implications were too big to ignore; especially as they became apparent to me very soon after registering. I've written about an experience you might find interesting: "http://blog.rebang.com/?p=1308.

Should you ever register, feel free to drop me an IM. Just do a Search>People for "csven".

All the best.

Thursday, June 21, 2007 7:35:00 AM  
Blogger S.S.Stone said...

Thanks for the explanation. Most of my life has been "outside-the-computer life" (depending on which way one uses a comp.)Gosh, who has time for a SecondLife? laughing here. I find one is quite enought!
"Sounds like an interesting job." -Very!
"What are you studying?" -was part of my course in restoration/conservation/museum studies-

"Do they chase you? :)"- ALWAYS!

Thursday, June 21, 2007 8:03:00 AM  

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