On Second Life and Presence

Dinner at SublimeI have only marginally been keeping track of some of the discussions over the “importance” of Second Life. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s time to get too meta. It may be enough to say: there are interesting things going on, it is changing rapidly, you would be stupid to miss the good stuff by not being there. That last piece puts me at odds with those who see this as (another) flash in the pan. Even if it is, I think its a really interesting, and consequential, flash.

Intelligirl does a round-up of the three-party talks by Shirky, Jenkins, and Coleman. Chris Lott also has some things to say about education in SL that has unfortunately put him at loggerheads with the SLED folks.

I like Clay Shirky’s critical voice on most issues in participatory media, but here I think he’s missed the boat. I agree, that like every new technology–witness blogging and wikis–the hype has outstripped the reality. There’s nothing new in that occurrence: communication innovation has had hype before users; that’s how the users find out about it. Blogging continues, to my unending surprise, to have more hype than users, but that does not diminish that the practice has had a real and lasting effect on our communications environment.

I’m not particularly concerned, as he and Coleman seem to be, whether there are 50,000 regular users of SL or two million. I won’t go as far as Jenkins. I think that counting things can be a helpful source of insight, just not particularly important at this stage. If I were a marketer and thinking about investing heavily in Second Life, then the demographics would matter to me. As someone interested in the direction of social computing, the impact on how people think about using computers is what I am interested in. And even if the numbers are wrong, a lot of people who have never visited SL are interested in it, which means that it is already having an impact on how people will think about media moving forward.

But I want to take issue with one of Shirky’s claims in particular, and this has to do with presence. For someone who has been involved in computing for a while, his claim here strikes me as particularly tone-deaf. Presence is not a binary feeling. You don’t either “get it or not.” And in any case, it is not at all clear to me that it has to do with visual or sensory fidelity. The experiments at the HITLab in creating presence in virtual realities present visuals that are far less realistic than those of Second Life, but are immersive enough that participants feel as if they are “there.” Despite the low resolution blocky nature of the environments the interaction allows participants to forget their real-world physical pain, for example.

Moreover, saying the LamdaMOO or Second Life are uninteresting because they are not the penultimate incarnation of a particular form of technology is terribly short-sighted. It would be the equivalent of me saying I don’t care about robot vacuuming machines or assembly line robotics because they don’t remind me of my dream robot: an intelligent, sexy, sassy, and multi-talented humanoid. Think of Second Life as the equivalent of iRobot’s vacuums. Sure, they aren’t what we imagine are the revolutionary ultimate destination of robots, but that’s not how innovation happens. Innovation happens by drawing enough interest, attention, and cash to an area that it continues to build and develop. I suspect Second Life, at least as we know it, is not the ultimate sort of virtual reality that we dream of, any more than MUDs and MOOs were or Active Worlds were. But the hype surrounding SL is as much about its imagined future as it is about its prosaic present.

I attended a dinner party a couple of nights ago hosted by Sphere Gasser at Sublime Restaurant. Some of the other attendees I had met in real life, some I had not, and one, it turned out, I had met in-word when she was another avatar. I felt very present at that party, not because the graphics were outstanding, or because of the wonderful “meal,” but because Second Life is made… of… people. Just like other social technologies.

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  1. Posted 2/3/2007 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Hi Alex– Just a note to say that only one SLED member took umbrage, and I’m still unsure why… I think something completely outside the conversation frame was involved. Many others on the list provided much food for thought. It’s a good group. I have more comments on your post (and those by Clay, Henry, etc) but they’ll have to wait until there’s a little less sun outside in my First Life…

  2. M.
    Posted 2/3/2007 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    On presence and the virtual, I regret quoting Gertrude Stein, but, guys, there IS no there there, so does it matter whether it feels as if you are there? Certainly, the creation of an imaginary, or even imaginary-and-real, place is interesting, but we’ve all been doing that since childhood, alone or in groups. This is just a much much bigger group to play with!

  3. Posted 2/4/2007 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    I found your blog again and it is still very interesting, congrats on it! I am currently living my third incarnation in SL and I agree with you – I think this time these commentators missed the point. What hinders the whole experience of SL, imho, is the exxageratedly money-driven design. As I cannot dedicate time enough to get money enough to use my talents as a modeller and a texturist, I never really feel welcome there. Twice already that caused me to loose interest and quit.

    BTW, this time I am back because students are crazy to know more about SL. I would say that such pressure is the sign that the hype is reaching its highest point. Let’s see how it goes from now.

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