Exploring Second Life: an exercise in digital ethnography


Second Life is a virtual world where people interact online as their virtual selves.  A person can have a integrated realistic avatar, one that is more of an augmented self, or an immersed version of self.

Let me just say, that if you’re the type of person, as I am, who doesn’t like to read the instructions when you get a new piece of software or a new device, then Second Life probably is not for you.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand the draw of interacting anonymously and in world with no consequences.  I also see the benefit for practical applications like education and research.  I have no doubt that there are very real friendships that have been formed, much the same way many people have “Facebook friends” they’ve never actually met.  You just have to have the patience to get past the learning curve of Second Life.


I was entering Second Life for research purposes.  I was trying to learn more about it and some of its basic functions.  I thought I’d be a combination of passive and active, both observing and interacting.  Let me just say that there is so much to learn about Second Life that it is impossible to give a good account of this virtual world having only spent five hours in it.  Even though Second Life is not as well-known or as populated as it was in it’s heyday, it still has, relatively, a lot of regular users.  I thought it would be a valuable place to visit to better understand researchers who have used it in ethnography.

Most of us like to plug and play.  That simply isn’t possible with Second Life.  I did some research reading a few blogs before beginning my use of Second Life, and it seemed fairly straightforward.  However, once I was in the world, there was a lot that I just couldn’t figure out.

How to walk

Most of the simple controls are straightforward, but the controls are by no means intuitive.  I expected them to be much easier to navigate than they were.  Things like walking, flying, chatting, and making basic changes to my initial appearance were pretty easy.  For some reason, I just could not seem to get my hair right, though.  Since I didn’t have the patience to wait or have the desire to take the time to figure it out, I decided to go to a place where I could buy the kind of hair I wanted.

First Edits to appearance

One of the, seemingly, easy things about Second Life is that if you don’t want to take the time or don’t have the knowledge to create something, you can buy it.  I didn’t think I’d be able to get a good idea of this virtual world without exploring, so I visited several shops.  I looked at and demoed hair styles, clothing, and animations and decided to buy a few.  In order to do this I needed Linden Dollars, so I went to my account and purchased over 3,000 Linden Dollars for about $15 US dollars.  After demoing a hairstyle I liked, I decided to purchase it.  The trouble was, once I purchased it, I couldn’t find it.  I looked and searched in my inventory.  I checked the “Recent” tab, but it was no where.

confusing hair

I had different troubles with clothing.  I purchased several outfits and some jewelry.  Although I was able to put on most of the clothing, some of it wouldn’t go on my body, and instead looked like I was trying to wear a poster around my waist.  Try as I might to figure out what I had done wrong, I couldn’t correct it.  So, I added that to my wasted spending.

troubles wearing new clothing

But my purpose of entering Second Life was not only to explore the controls, but also to interact, so after buying some funky dance move animations, I transported to a dance club I found in my search.

Dance Club

I went to a dance club where people were dancing by themselves.  I saw in the chat that some people were referring to the music and the voice of the DJ, but I could not hear either.  After some investigating, I discovered I’d accidentally turned off the sound when I had denied using the Smart Voice feature.   I found the answer on the community page, which has lots of good suggestions and answers.  Basically, I Googled anything I didn’t know how to do, and that’s how I would find blogs and discussion posts that would help me.


So, I went back to the club and I danced.  And it was fun.  For about a moment.  Then it was old.  I realized that the only people talking to each other clearly knew each other.  When I went back to this same club several hours later, it was almost exclusively couples dancing together.

So far I had had exactly two people talk to me the entire time I had been in Second Life.  I had tried to initiate conversation by saying hello to one and asking a question, and, after my clothing fiasco, complimented another’s very nice dress.  That’s as far as is it went.

first chat

Herein lies the main point of my observations while in Second Life.  For those who are used to the world and have built virtual homes, businesses, and relationships in it, Second Life would be a great place to live online.  If you’re new, there is a heavy technical learning curve that can be discouraging.  You also miss out on a lot of the relational parts that would build value to the experience, simply because it isn’t easy to get to know people.  I particularly found it difficult to gauge people when chatting with them.  Where people engaging in a medical education pilot in Second Life found this helpful in discouraging judgment when asking questions, I found the lack of expression added to the confusion of meeting and communicating with new people.  When you’re meeting a person out in the “real” world, you can read their body language and hear the tone of their voice.  While it is possible to hear someone’s voice in Second Life if they’re using Second Voice, most of the people I encountered were not using it, and we were relying solely on typing and reading in the chat feature.  If someone had added the appropriate animations to communicate body language, they could use those.  But that comes back to the learning curve.  To effectively communicate while in Second Life, you’d have to have a library of animations.

Not Confidential

So, if you’re interested in a virtual world experience and have a lot of time to dedicate to it, I can see Second Life providing an escape and a unique experience.  I would like to add that the developers make it very clear, as shown in the screen shot above that I took while registering, that nothing is private that you do in Second Life.  Given the widespread provocative clothing, animations, and locations, I think that’s important to remember.

6 thoughts on “Exploring Second Life: an exercise in digital ethnography

    • I thought the investment of a few dollars would be worth the experience. I wasn’t very stingy with my L$ because I wanted to try to use them in as many ways possible, knowing I probably wouldn’t be back in SL. I did notice how I wanted to spend them determined where I spent some of my time. I, also, didn’t think it was a bad deal to get to personalize so much more of me for a few dollars.

  1. Nice post Ann Marie. I also fought with the learning curve, as I posted in my blog I couldn’t change my hair color for the entire time so I just gave up and stuck with the default blonde.
    I think it’s interesting you found people in the clubs; most of the places I visited were empty except for the dancing in the streets I encountered. I’m curious your thoughts on the couples dancing in the clubs. Were these people talking? How do you think they met? These are just some of the questions I have for pretty much all Second Life users though.
    I agree with your assessment on body language. It was basically like walking around to a bunch of pictures. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the experience and exploring the world- but after I turned off the computer and looking back, it just seemed cold to me. It would have been better for me to have a friend “meet” me in Second Life to go explore together.

    • Some of the people in the clubs were chatting; others used Second Voice, and I could hear them talking. I wondered about how they may have met, too. Some seemed to know each other pretty well, and others were clearly just getting to know each other. I agree it would have been a different and better experience if I had met a friend there instead of going in alone.

  2. Hi AnnMarie,
    I had the same trouble with clothing showing up as boxes when I was trying to get outfits through the freebies store “Free Dove.” That must have been frustrating that you could not find/properly wear things that you actually purchased! I agree with you that Second Life is probably better if you “read the instructions first.” I’m like you though that when it comes to software or a game, I would just rather jump into it. I don’t think I’ll be returning to Second Life either, at least any time soon. The lack of facial expressions/body language make interactions confusing. Like you said, they are available for people to use, but most people didn’t really use them and just went with the typed chat function.

    • Hi Amanda,

      Thanks for commenting! I’m glad it wasn’t just me who had the desire to plug-and-play! I met some people who used animations as we chatted, which mimicked “real” world body language, and it was confusing to me. Visually, they were showing what i would characterize as a flirtatious vibe, but their conversation seemed very, very causal.

      That’s why I feel a person in SL would benefit from having a library of animations that they could pull up for a variety of circumstances. Of course, this would require more Linden Dollars. I think, at first, it would be hard to keep all of the animations straight, because it wasn’t very intuitive for me. I wonder how many more people would inhabit SL if it was technically easier to navigate.

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