The Atlantic explores Second Life through users’ eyes

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The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future might sound a dismal title for an article on the subject of Second Life. But that is precisely the title Leslie Jamison chose for her in-depth piece on the platform.

However, before anyone starts reaching for pitchforks and looking to ignite torches, the article’s title believes an in-depth piece studying not so much Second Life itself, but the lives of some of us who use the platform. It is, in short, a rich study of the very humanity that for so many of us, makes Second Life a rich extension of our lives, rather than the encapsulation of an escapist fantasy environment so often portrayed within the media and by those with little practical exposure to Second Life.

Of course, there is the inevitable exploration of Second Life’s history, including its startling media rise, the plateauing of active user numbers and the media’s eventual disenchantment with the platform. There’s also a look and founder Philip Rosedale’s vision and ideals, Linden Lab’s own attempts to “correctly” define Second Life and more.

But these explorations are interwoven with the stories from those individual users – such as Gidge Uriza, Gentle Heron, Jadyn Firehawk, and more – in which their physical lives and their time in world is fused into a rounded picture of each, presenting what is perhaps the clearest means of truly appreciating the nature of Second Life and those who use it.

Within all of this as well, we get to see Leslie’s own engagement with the platform, from struggling newcomer with strong antipathy towards Second Life, through to a growing understanding of what makes it appealing to so many. In this she is equally honest in her self-examination, expressing the kind of conflicted views of Second Life many of us probably dealt with at one point or another.

Taken individually, each of the stories  – I refuse to call them case studies, as they are so much more – offers considerable insight into the appeal and rewards of active involvement in Second Life. Taken together they naturally weave together into a tapestry of life and activities which those who have not engaged in second Life cannot really fail to recognise as containing themes that mark our passage through the physical world:  how do we connect to one another; what brings meaning into our lives, what agencies do we use to express ourselves and find personal satisfaction? All of which, as noted, make this one of the most complete examinations of Second Life yet put into print.

The Digital Ruins offers a huge amount to read and digest – and to listen to as well: the entire article is available via SoundCloud, and I’ve embedded it below. In this respect, analysis of the piece would at best be convoluted – and as lengthy as the piece itself. As such, I thoroughly recommend taking the time to read the piece in full, or listen to the audio version (just under 58 minutes in length).

For now, I’ll leave you with Leslie’s closing comments on her explorations, discoveries and ruminations of and about Second Life – comments which serve as an insightful encapsulation of the article as a whole:

Some people call Second Life escapist, and often its residents argue against that. But for me, the question isn’t whether or not Second Life involves escape. The more important point is that the impulse to escape our lives is universal, and hardly worth vilifying. Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it—through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, or hard drugs, or adultery, or a smartphone screen. These forms of “leaving” aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms—the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.

 

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5 thoughts on “The Atlantic explores Second Life through users’ eyes

  1. Reblogged this on Thar She Blows! and commented:
    Whoa! This is not only the first accurate depicting of SL in the press I’ve heard about but it’s kinda important as well. Thank You, Inara, for finding this not-so-little gem.

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  2. Inara, I have a hunch that an editor at The Atlantic, and not Leslie Jamison, chose the misleading title “The Digital Ruins of a Forgotten Future”. Note that actual HTML title of the web page on The Atlantic website is the much better-sounding “Second Life Still Has 600,000 Regular Users”, which is probably what Leslie originally wanted to call her article.

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    1. Oh, it’s fairly common practice for editors to use titles other than those proposed by the submitting writer. I’ve contended with it a few times myself in my other life 🙂 .

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  3. There are lots of things I like about this article—one of the best journalistic pieces on sl in a while—but it was also disappointing. Here are the comments I posted on The Atlantic site about it, in case anyone finds them useful!
    ———-
    On further reflection and after discussing your article with some Second Life residents (some of whose comments have unfortunately been deleted from your article’s Comments section), I wanted to briefly point out what are some pretty significant shortcomings of your article. I do appreciate all of the time you put into it. I also recognize the incredibly strong headwinds we face when writing about Second Life, because the misconceptions about virtual worlds and what people do in them are so significant. But for that very reason, three comments are in order:

    1. Definitions matter. They set the stage for everything that follows in terms of what we write and think. (That is why, as you note in your article, I take so much care to define even terms like “afk.”) Because definitions are so important, it’s unfortunate that throughout your article you distinguish Second Life from “the real world.” From the moment you do that, on some level you might as well pack up your bags and go home, because you have assumed from the outset what you should be investigating. As your own reporting indicates, much of what happens in Second Life is real. (And by the way, on the flip side, not everything in the physical world is real, which is why we have things like Halloween and Hollywood). You see the damaging effects of this assumption throughout your article and they are picked up when, for instance, people comment that Second Life is “escapism.” (It might be escapism some of the time, but not for everyone, not all of the time. And can’t, say, going to a baseball game be escapism too?) We must remember that the Euro-American culture that dominates the tech world, there is a Christian metaphysics that assumes the physical is more real, as when Christ becomes flesh. (There is a reason why to say in English “that is immaterial” means not only it is not physical, but that it is unimportant.)

    2. A related issue that should have been clearer to you, given the time you invested in your reporting, is that people use any technology in more than one way. So the fact that some people, some of the time, think of what they do in Second Life as escapist emphatically doesn’t mean it is a universal feature of Second Life. As one of my colleagues noted, this really shows up when you conclude that your “aversion to Second Life—as well as my embrace of flaw and imperfection in the physical world—testified to my own good fortune as much as anything. When I move through the real world, I am buffered by my (relative) youth, my (relative) health, and my (relative) freedom. Who am I to begrudge those who have found in the reaches of Second Life what they couldn’t find offline?” This is a deeply flawed claim. It is empirically, obviously wrong that not everyone who spends time in Second Life does so to escape or compensate for something they cannot find offline. That might be true for some people on occasion, but for the vast majority of residents, Second Life is additive not supplanting. It creates multiplicity, new possibilities in one’s life, rather than compensating for a lack. In fact, there are many (relatively) young, (relatively) healthy, and (relatively) free people who do not have an aversion to Second Life, yet have good fortune. Crucially, this includes many disabled residents of Second Life, since contrary to stereotype, not all disabled folks live a life of lack and misfortune. Your article simply gives us no way to understand experiences in Second Life that are not about compensating for a lack of what “good fortune,” and this is the vast majority of what happens inworld.

    3. One reason for these and other shortcomings in your article is that while you seem to have spent a good amount of time in Second Life (and I appreciate that journalists always face deadlines and time limits), your understanding of the virtual world seems really limited. That seems to shape your “visceral distaste.” You state that you were “terrible at navigating Second Life,” but that is not an eternal fact: if you spent time inworld, then navigating would get easier. Additionally, as colleagues of mine have pointed out, you do not use (or seem to understand) basic terms like “prim,” or how residents build things inworld. That is probably why you talk about people choosing things “from a series of prefab choices,” when in fact those “prefab” items are built and sold (or given away freely) by other residents; it involves collaboration and creativity. It doesn’t seem that you ever built anything in Second Life, owned (or even rented) land, or participated in a community in any ongoing manner. The fact that your interaction with the virtual world was quite superficial seems to shape your rather superficial understanding of the virtual world. A limited understanding seems to also seems to be behind the contradiction that on the one hand you speak approvingly of “the grit and imperfection that make the [physical] world feel like the world,” yet speak disapprovingly of the errors and crashes you encountered in Second Life. That virtual grit and imperfection is also part of the online experience: it doesn’t indicate failure.

    I hope these comments will prove helpful to the continuing conversation about virtual worlds, their potentials and dangers, and how they might contribute to our digital futures.

    Sincerely, Tom Boellstorff
    Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine
    Author: Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human

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