SecondLife – Same functions different space

Posted by jerry on June 2nd, 2007 — Posted in Journal, New media, Theory

At the risk of sounding polemical, secondLife is arguably little different from any other virtual world or cultural space. When you strip away the hype and the individual modalities of how you navigate such a space, it quickly becomes apparent that SecondLife performs many very familiar functions.

Firstly, it is a genuinely interactive social space. It is a space for people to engage with each other. It has been marketed to some extent as a ‘game’ – and insofar as it provides a creative role-play space it is. But it is also much more than that.

Like the text-based Multi-user Object-Oriented Domains (MOO) of years gone by, SecondLife provides a space in which your proxy character, or ‘avatar’ interacts with other avatars, as well as with objects built within the world-space. SecondLife takes the concept of a MOO a step further by making it visual, and hence more apparently part of the 3D web, rather than a 2D text space.

Of course we are all in virtual space all the time. And arguably, we always have been. The way we articulate the real social space is already mediated by and through language and other systems of signification. Even in RL that mediation is apparent in the dress codes, proxemic codes, social markers, body language and so on. So it is not too surprising that these same cultural codes apply in virtual worlds.

People operating avatars appologise when they accidentally bump another avatar with their own. If an avatar stands too close, others will move theirs back a little to make room.

And that would be an interesting phenomenon but for the fact that behind those avatars are people, and the avatars form a visual representation and virtual body stand-in for the person – just as the screen stands as the matrix upon which we project all computer mediated communication.

Okay, so in SL we are not (yet) interacting tactilely, but leaving aside the technology for a moment, we are really dealing with people interacting with people. Just as we do in RL.

But even in RL we arguably articulate ourselves through avatars based on clothing codes (suits, casual gear, sporting and other uniforms etc) which we change according to the social situation in which we find ourselves.

These dress codes are part of a broader set of systems of signification that facilitate our social interactions with other people within a cultural group. But this is not new.

Moreover, the kinds of social spaces that have been set up in SL remain very much the kind of social spaces we see in RL. Among the more popular spaces in SL are pubs and dance venues – designed very like pubs and dance spaces the world over.

Education and performance spaces are similarly culturally coded – amphitheatres with seats, conference rooms, office spaces and so on reflect designs established in some cases thousands of years ago – suuch as those based on Greek and Roman amphitheatres.

The lack of a roof serves several functions – it facilitiates avatars flying in to the space, making navigation easier. And it isn’t going to rain so the roof is not an essential piece of architecture – other than where you want to connote privacy. And the lack of a roof saves on ‘prims’ – the building material in SL – which would otherwise add to the server space and bandwidth requirements.

Shopping spaces are familiar designs – kept fairly uncluttered to enable maximum display with minimum obstacles for the navigationally challenged.

SL has been described as the ‘Mosaic’ &tm; of the 3D web. And in many ways it is. It provides a visual dimension – in much the way that Mosaic added images to gopher space – the pre-browser version of the internet, before it became recognisably the web we know today. Tomorrow, I’ll explore this issue further.

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