Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Second Life: value?

Exploring Reuters on Second Life, I guess I was swept away by an influx of questions. These of course, didn't seem to promote any clarity on the subject and perhaps even further confused my notions of what Second Life is and more importantly, what significance it might have. 

Create a character for yourself...use it as a means of expression or a game, whatever. But "gain another outlet for your voice" is what it seems to promote. As we venture into this new world then, signing on as characters we've created, choosing a set of activities, making choices, and meeting others who have done the same, we do (in a sense) begin to form that "Second Life" that is suggested by its title. But why is this significant? Is it significant? To what extent is this alternate reality "real" and to what extent should it be valued? These are all questions that floated through my mind as I read a number of the Reuters articles. 

But like Jon Stewart, my first reaction was to make fun of the "virtual world." Why should there be a need to live a second life, if you are living "real life" to its fullest? The one where handshakes, conversations, friendships, hugs and all things that physical interaction can bring mean something more than a visual representation on the screen. But could the same be argued for Second Life and its loyal participants? Can this be allotted real significance? 

I think back to discussions I've had in previous classes (as well  our Myspace discussion last week) and note that there have been similar criticisms of Facebook and Myspace, the social networking sites that our generation (particularly college students) flock to in herds. In fact, on campus, its rare to find a person who doesn't have a profile. Some spend more time playing with applications, writing wall posts, and viewing friends' profiles than they do on any other online activity and many use it as a primary source of communication. To what extent then, as "friendships" are created, messages are sent, and friends are poked, is this interaction to be considered "real?" Criticism comes from people who believe that the relationships we form in this way are not real, but falsely promoted and that our means of relating to one other is thusly  becoming artificial as well - and lazy. 

I, however, as a Facebook user and enthusiast would support its ability to keep friends in touch. Friends in different, cities, states, and countries around the world. It makes personal messages easier to write, photos easier to share, and additionally allows you to address a great mass of people at once. It's networking capabilities are extensive and very real. And though relationships may have become more "convenient" as a result,  the extent to which advertising has become common on theses sites and the extent to which political figures, artists, companies, organizations, etc. are represented by their own profiles demonstrates a power that cannot be ignored. 

So to redirect my own thinking, can Second Life be similarly defended? Can the people that laugh at it for creating a new life for people who don't live theirs in reality, be silenced, or at the very least, challenged? 

I am a skeptic myself, and look at Second Life with a laugh at what it allows its users to do. To think that this is anything beyond a game and strange use of time is difficult to me, yet the articles pointed me in a direction to pose a few more interesting questions. 

For example, does the fact that companies have become involved with Second Life and that advertising  has become more common, mean that the site, its network/community, can be deemed significant? Does it present a new way to reach the public? To change thinking? To create unity? Can it be thought of as a new market? or a new way to present one's voice? 

The articles seemed to express that indeed Second Life did have this power, the capability to reach a large audience. Companies like Cisco Systems and IBM (among many others) are involved, and hell, it even has a Reuters source dedicated solely to its own material. But the articles also expressed that the interest in this virtual reality has "lagged," that perhaps the excitement about the avatars is falling. 

In an event, while I believe the premise to still be laughable, (you can, after all, make yourself a character resembling a dolphin with breasts), if there are a large number of people participating and forming an alternate reality, and there is a real audience to be reached through whatever medium that may be, then the source should be approached with an extent of validity. it in no way, however, offers the same power that a blog, or one of the more popular social networking sites does. In these cases, voice and unity aren't just possible side effects of a medium's use, but the way through which these media are used. Their effect and significance are inevitable. 

Like I said, my thoughts are choppy. But sifting through all of this material has brought me to more questions than answers. I just try to be my own devil's advocate and come out of my box, my own ways of thinking. 

1 comment:

John said...

Some folks don't -- for whatever reason -- recognize or value the fact that Second Life has its own emerging culture and economy, and is, in psychological terms, for a growing number of residents, a real "alternative place" for conducting business and spending leisure time.

Those who have difficulty with this concept might instead simply look at SL as a platform -- globally connected, multimedia-enabled, intrinsically free-to-use for simple residents -- whose power and flexibility exceeds that of any commercial conferencing system now extant; and whose power to facilitate and offer access to immersive content is unmatched.

We just did a business-to-business event in Second Life for 2100 registered audience, on the topic of metaverse development and marketing. Our audience -- most of them executives and technology creatives in key positions with the Fortune 1000, large universities, the US government (multiple divisions), state governments and major institutions (including the MacArthur, Ford, Wallace and Gates foundations, for example), spent six full days with us, listening to live presentations from folks like Mitch Kapor ... and actually hanging around to talk with him, afterward. It was all free (to attendees, not free to our sponsors Sun and Cisco). Nobody had to leave their desks. And the carbon cost for the whole event was 333% smaller than for an equivalent "real" event in a major destination city.

In the course of attending, our guests talked among themselves, networked, shared contact information, made deals, and did everything else people expect to do at real-world events. All that was missing was the cost, the disruption, and the environmental damage of conventional business travel.

Dude - that's profound. And it makes this stuff like gravity. So my suggestion is: stop laughing, spend more time in these environments, and figure out the appeal. Because in ten years, you may not be able to get a white-collar job without fluent 3D skills. And in the advanced reaches of tech, education, marketing, communications and media, they'll laugh at you if you can't swim like a fish in these environments.