ACADEMIC: Coming of age in Second Life

[Originally published on the blog of the Scopic Regimes of Virtuality course taught by Edward Shanken]

primtionaryIt is with the description of a ‘Primtionary’ game (a virtual spin on the famous ‘Pictionary’) that Chapter 7 of Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life begins. Instead of drawing objects that the other game participants must guess (‘Pictionary’), the residents of Second Life create 3D objects known as prims, the cornerstones of the entire platform. The transition from a 2D representation of pencil on a piece a paper to a 3D rendering of a set of parameters, including shape/type, position, scale/size, rotation, cut, hollow, twist, shear, etc. is one of the prime examples of the immense potential associated with the virtual alter-ego; instead of drawing a picture of the world, residents have a chance to make the world.

In this post I will start by outlining and briefly examining the theoretical background of the main concepts introduced by Boellstorff, namely “event”, “group”, “community”, “kindness” and “griefing”. The main focus will be on the notions of “group” and “community” and their connection to the construction of identity in a virtual world.

An “event” is a mode of social interaction usually limited to a group of five to fifteen residents, which consists of a “conjunction of place, time and sociality” (Boellstorff, 2008: 182). A key aspect of an “event” is synchronicity: all participants should be physically present at the same virtual location, at the same time. In other words, “forms of asynchronous sociality” or those which could have been such forms are not categorized as events; for the former, the author gives the example of a common building project completed by participants over and extended period of time, while for the latter he points at “round-robin storytelling” in which residents gather in the same virtual place to contribute a paragraph each to a developing story, but could have done so by exchanging asynchronous notes. Also, given the limitations of the Second Life platform at the time of Boellstorff’s ethnographic research (“events” with a hundred participants could not occur), most happenings could be described as “relatively intimate instantiations of sociality” (Boellstorff, 2008 : 183). That is to say, such a phenomenon is comparable to real-life social interaction in which the sheer the number of people constituting the community of a neighbourhood, city, region or nation, for instance, makes individuals establish strong and weak ties with the strength of a tie depending on a linear combination of factors such as the amount of time invested into the relationship, the level of emotional intensity associated with the tie, the mutual sense of confiding in one another, or the type of reciprocities exchanged through the tie (Granovetter, 1973: 1361). In the real world people spend time with their partners, close friends, family, or rather socialise with more distant ties; Second Life “events” exemplify a type of interaction at the crossing the so-called “effective network” (the individuals one interacts with most often and most intensely) and the “extended network” (the remainder of individuals) (Granovetter, 1973: 1370).

Just like collectivities mediate between the individual and society, Second Life “groups” establish a bridge between a resident and the extended community. Boellstorff actually further describes “events” as “groups temporarily formed in time and space” (Boellstorff, 2008: 183), thus suggesting that encounters between participants are actualizations of networks of weak ties formed around a common interest (such as a women’s support group). This type of “group” is a formal type of association which could be loosely organized horizontally around a similar passion or have a vertical structure of leadership and official roles. The informal “group” is thought of as a “community” or “subculture” and refers to the totality of formal groups with the same preoccupations or concerns (like the significant community of furrie SL residents). In a fashion similar to social network sites such as MySpace or Facebook, “groups were listed on each resident’s profile; perusing them was an important way to learn about someone’s sense of selfhood” (Boellstorff, 2008: 184). Joining groups is part of a process of identity performance in which the individuals creates profiles (digital bodies), in which they “write themselves into being” as “text, images, audio and video all provide valuable means for developing a virtual presence” (boyd, 2008: 12); through choosing some groups over others, people express salient aspects of their virtual identity.

The notions of “kindness” and “griefing” go hand in hand, as the first one mainly deals with the creation of social capital (performing actions that benefit the collective good, as they are based on norms and values that promote social cooperation) while the second one could be considered a destruction of it. Virtual kindness and altruism have deep roots in their real-life equivalents; imparting knowledge (such as forming orientation groups for SL newcomers) or helping others selfessly is of benefit to all residents as an atmosphere of collaboration can only enable others to make their avatars grow and contribute to a general sense of community. “Griefing”, described as ‘participation in a virtual world with the intent of disrupting the experience of others” (Boellstorff, 2008: 185); reasons for doing so, as listed by SL users, include enjoying oneself, feeling in a position of power, receiving attention, displaying intelectual capabilities or simply proving that the platform is flawed; again, such behaviour has its real-life correspondent in bullying and intimidating others for a variety of reasons. But, more importantly, “griefers” can also form minorities whose main characteristic is not necessarily that they are fewer than peaceful residents, but that they represent the margins who are politically opposed to predominant politics of interaction and the terms and conditions that govern the virtual world.

It would of great interest to examine how “good” and “bad” (I use these labels to differentiate between those who obey the rules of the virtual world as stated by Linden Lab and those who enjoy disrupting such residents’ experience, respectively) construct their identities in relation to each other. Thus, it would be possible to observe a form of identity construction based on binaries, on opposites; the “good” have, just like the “bad”, a series of tags which form their virtual identity (avatar appearance, possessions, groups etc.), but the latter mainly build their representations on something they are not, something they do not wish to be thus negating the identity of the former.

References

Boellstorff, T. (2008) Coming of Age in Second Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

boyd, d. (2008)  Why Youth Heart Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life. In Buckingham, D. (ed). Youth, Identity and Digital Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Granovetter, M. (1973).  The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78 (6), 1360.

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