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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.