SecondLife as a low-bandwidth social medium

Posted by jerry on June 3rd, 2007 — Posted in Journal, New media, Theory

SL has been seen as the ‘mosaic of the 3D web, and it reflects this in several ways. Firstly, although rich in visual texture, it is still relatively low-resolution. And of necessity it works within the constraints of bandwidth.

As it is, it requires a fairly fast broadband connection to make it work anything like smoothly – and even then the lag between command and action can result in your avatar overshooting the mark and bumping others.

Secondly, this has implications for the bandwith of information exchange. And this manifests in several ways. There is a strong need to affirm one’s presence as a human being behind the avatar. So there is an emphasis on the physical – and especially the appearance of the avatar. One of the most expensive items people buy are photo-realistic skins – which they then proceed to clothe in culturally coded ways.

Some use dress codes to push boundaries the would never contemplate in RL. So some avatars dress in a sexually provocative manner – perhaps even equipping the avatar with sexual animations that can be played out with willing partner avatars.

But it is easy for the press media to make too much of that. Yes there is a ‘mature content’ aspect to SL and there will always be a percentage of newcomers or ‘newbies’ who will play their avatars in that way until they get bored and start to build their own spaces and engage in all the other aspects of SL – like live music, academic conferences and teaching spaces and so on. My take on this emphasis on physicality – including the youth and vigour appearances most avatars seem to have – is that such affirmations of physicality are the direct consequence of a low-bandwidth social medium.

This was also the case with text-based MOO spaces and there were moral panics raised over those – just as there were in the 19th century over the emergent novel – such as the court case over ‘Madame Bovary’. The media debate over secondlife interestingly reflects again the literally age-old questions raised by any mediated third-party communication medium right back at least as far as Plato around 244 BC.

And these come down to about five key issues.

Firstly, there are issues of authenticity and authentication. This is reflected in media articles on whether or not people are ‘playing false’ – lying about their appearance, race, gender, and importantly, age. It is also reflected in articles about the economy of Lindens – the SL currency – which can be bought and exchanged with real money. Yes, real fortunes have already been made by early adopters and those with a good product to sell, be it a good skin, or a swirling dress, or a virtual hang-glider. And most of the big money has been made on virtual real-estate – and there are already RL real-estate speculators starting to play and make money with virtual real-estate.

Of course there is an actual aspect to this – the real-estate may be virtual, but the server space is real. And that’s what you are actually purchasing when you buy virtual land in SL – more server space.

All of which requires at some levedl, trusted communications to enable the real money to be exchanged for Lindens.

The age one raises the issue of how to protect minors online from sexual predation or exposure to mature content. And that also speaks to the second of Plato’s five big issues: authorised access to information.

When it was face-to-face communication there are several biometric verification codes – you can see who you are really talking to, and this would give some measure of assurance – a person could give their word, and their reputation would assure that they were really the right people to receive the information you impart – or at least the trusted agent of the business. But with writing there was no such assurance – once out of sight, the message could be read by anyone with the access and necessary level of literacy.

With writing as with portraits – as Henry VIII of Britain found out – in cyberspace no-one knows what the real person is like.

As educators come to grips with the need to teach visual literacy so too more and more educational institutions are appearing in SL. And, predictably, there are already debates over whether SL is a real tool for education, or just another gimmick.

Plato was worried about that too. He warned us that this game-space of writing was not for serious stuff. And he was concerned at the damage it would do to young minds – they would lose their memory, they could read things and pretend to be knowledgeable when they lacked understanding. Writing would produce pseudo experts. And he was right.

But any modelling space, including SL also provides a safe space to develop skills in reading the culture, and in learning how to deal with relationships in a relatively safe mediated environment.

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