Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Will Linden Lab's Change Efforts Destroy Second Life Culture as We Know it?

Dusan Writer wrote a couple of posts last week that included a question about the impact of Linden Lab's technology and governance changes on Second Life Culture. After days of fruitless musing, I eventually realized that the main reason I was having such a hard time gaining clarity on the topic was that I didn't really know what the heck "Second Life Culture" meant.

I poked around a bit and found a post by Lalo Telling, a smart SL blogger, describing Second Life culture as:
Commonality: shared experience; shared symbology and language; shared worldview; shared purpose; shared philosophies of what is "right behavior", and why, and how to coax it from people... in the case of Second Life, I'll even borrow from archaeology and include a shared "tool kit". The operative word, obviously, is shared.
After contemplating that perspective, I came up with some concrete examples of "shared culture" that seem to be relatively universal within the Second Life population as a whole, such as:
  • Projecting into a 3D virtual world as an avatar. This is the oldest and most fundamental shared universal experience in Second Life. I can think of dozens of other cultural dimensions related to the sensorial experience of virtual embodiment, including teleportation vs. linear travel, visual POV that can be divorced from one's virtual body, etc. Many of these are tied to the dictates of the platform and client.
  • Using parentheticals to communicate imagined physical action that is not possible within the platform, i.e. "Botgirl smiles knowingly." There are quite a few unique textual communication customs such as brb/wb (be right back/welcome back). 
  • A taboo against asking people to divulge personally identifying information they have not proactively disclosed. 
Cultural factors relating to purpose, meaning, ethics and activity seem to be much less universal and vary greatly between Second Life subcultures. That said, I think there are clusters of meaning-related culture within particular groups.  I'll post soon with some concrete example of the relationship between changes Linden Lab might make in technology or governance, and particular subcultures within Second Life. A graphic is in the works, in keeping with my identity as a Venn Buddhist (a term coined by Lalo Telling).

For now, it might be fun to take a look at the Second Life subcultures and Communities of Interest depicted in this mind map. What cultural differences and commonalities come to mind? It's on a wiki-like platform, so please feel free to tweak it.



Tateru Nino said...

Those three things that you mention are pretty much common to virtual environments over the last couple of decades - rather than being specific to SL (Though in the case of the first, obviously, no 3D in many earlier VE generations).

So, they're essentially cross-platform principles. There's another traditional one that I can think of right off the top of my head, "Referring to another avatar as the last gender they portrayed, or the most common gender that they portray." -- not only considered a basic cultural courtesy, but avoids tremendous confusion when mentioning someone in conversation, because wading through a morass of conflicting gender pronouns gets confusing very quickly.

for Paisley Beebe said...

Its really like..."If you have to ask" ........

Botgirl Questi said...

I agree on both counts! The top section stuff was not exclusive to SL , but still a part of the mother culture. I guess I wasn't looking for what was exclusive to SL, but only uniform within it. The gender example is great. Complicated when you know people interact with in both forms. I take the cowardly way out and use name instead of pronoun if I'm not sure.

Botgirl Questi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Botgirl Questi said...

Paisley baby, that's my point! It seems really obvious at first glance, but a little digging shows the lofty spires of speculation are least for me. My next post should be much more concrete on cause and effect.

Anyway, I'm an ambian too far for rational chat so I'll stop here.

Lalo Telling said...

The piece you quoted from my blog was meant to frame "culture" in a universal way; hence the parenthetical "in the case of Second Life" regarding the tool kit.

That tool kit, however, is important to the discussion: what else is a User Interface but the modern analog to sharing a technique of chipping flint to create spearheads, knives and scrapers? We learn from archaeology that cultures in nature evolve and diffuse gradually, through trade and migration, not by fiat. As we are no less human in our psyches in SL than we are in nature, it's not surprising that the sudden comprehensive revision of our tool kit, imposed from without, feels unnatural.

I also believe you can find more universality of ethics in the SL culture. Consider "griefing" as a prime example: not even those who practice it as a form of entertainment (a thankfully tiny minority) want to be on the receiving end. You may also refer to SL's Community Standards, and clause 4.1 of the Terms of Service, for rules we all allegedly agreed to, regardless of which "subcultures" we find ourselves participating in.