Monday, February 28, 2011

Consumerism and Creativity in Second Life

 Botgirl Questi 
Consumerism is a more universal norm in Second Life than creativity. 
One of the most revered aspects of Second Life is its culture of creativity. This is mostly fueled by creative tools that are built right into the platform, allowing users to:
  • Create, shape, color, texture and combine prims to build virtual 3D objects
  • Create clothing items with support for external texture creation and compositing
  • Write programs that can be combined with objects for automation and interactivity
  • Terraform land
  • Stream music from a single user to a large audience
  • Capture high resolution images and video
  • Hold virtual concerts and exhibitions
Second Life also supports a large community of people creating content for consumption outside of the virtual world. Mediums such as machinima, comics and virtual photography use the virtual world for source material, but are edited and distributed externally. There are sizable Second Life contingents on sites like Koinup, YouTube, Flickr and Vimeo.

The flip side to this unprecedented culture of creativity is an equally larger-than-RL culture of consumerism. It's supported by the platform through an in-world economy that facilitates peer-to-peer transaction and the Second Life Marketplace site for web-based shopping with in-world delivery. Another factor encouraging the hyper-consumerism of Second Life culture is that virtual items cost a tiny fraction of their physical counterparts. Virtual clothing, for instance costs less than even RL doll clothes.

One result of this fluid ecosystem is that most Second Lifers' inventories make the iconic Imelda Marcos seem like a bag lady. Shopping and the incessant acquisition of new items is the norm. This tendency is so  pervasive that I'd wager more than 90% of the items in most people's inventories never get used more than a few times. (It makes me wonder whether the absence of a meta-tagged, visual virtual closet is also a factor moving people to buy something new, rather than search through lists of thousands and thousands of item titles.)

Consumerism in the physical world contributes to a number of significant personal and cultural problems. The incessant drive to keep up with the Joneses pushes many people to devote more of their lives to making a living than to living fulfilling lives. It fueled the credit crunch and housing market crash and contributes to the looming ecological crisis. But I think that none of these negative aspects of RL consumerism play out significantly in the virtual world. We can go on shopping binges in Second Life without threatening our credit rating. Virtual vehicles don't deplete our oil reserves or pollute the air. Virtual goods are not created by sweatshop workers in developing countries.

As with virtual identity, virtual consumerism provides us with an opportunity to use the mirror of the virtual world to shed light on our behavior in the physical world.  We can use our virtual consumerism to notice how what we buy relates to our sense of identity and self-worth. We can notice how long it takes before the thrill of a new purchase dies and we are moved to hit the stores again. Over time, this self-realization can be extended into the physical world and act as an antidote to our happiness-through-consumption mindset.


Chestnut Rau said...

Fabulous, thought provoking post.

Mera Kranfel said...

Great post and important. Got me thinking. I have a fairly small wardrobe in real life. But its even smaller in my virtual world =) Yes its TRUE!! But I guess im not the norm. :P

I have actually never been interested in clothes or shoes, but i try to look decent =))

Bradd Laval said...

In Inworldz, all I'm concerned about is looking like an oozing sexual caramel chocolate :)

Mera Kranfel said...

and u are so successful Bradd! Thats why we are stalking you so bad, all the way from Twitter to your blog :P

Skylar Smythe said...

Loved this. Nodded my way through it.

Thank you.


Sowa Mai's dog said...

there is a psychological weight to the items in inventory. With a collection comes a sense of achievement, a sense of propriety to the platform. it is harder to drop it all and move to another grid. An emotional attachment, the memories. The hunts and freebies.

I wonder how big is the silicone footprint of large inventory compared to say a park-like sim.

The big question is ownership. Is it really your stuff you bought?

There is a native american thought that ownership applies only to things you can carry away. Can you carry away your inventory? or does it belong to Linden Labs? Can you really own something virtual?

I am doing research for an art project on this idea and would love to hear from you guys, the VW culture.

This summer I intend to "sell" virtual land in New York City. On the same spot where Manhatttan is believed to have been bought for beads will be an Inwood field of voices much like the one in SL last year using augmented reality to bring the objects and sounds in to rl. I'd like to include some sound bites on land ownership from SL'rs. check out the website for info on how you can participate.

In my research its become clear that the Native had far different ideas about land than the european settlers. This same clash can be applied to the current state of affairs between residents and management of sl. Are they gonna march the artists off to reservations and turn the place in to a mall? Only keep the ones who are selling stuff and collect taxes.

Is the culture of consumerism binding a yoke around the artists neck?
I'm not talking about crafts and clothing in SL but also the established gallery system which holds out the carrot of exorbitant sales figures luring young starry eyed slackers through a 4 yr program with dreams of celebrity and sloth.

Why pay for the Mona Lisa when you can get a reproduction which will look better, last longer, and not jack up your insurance? What are you paying for? A piece of the cross? an artifact of history?

Thanks for the post Botgirl, your writings often get me thinking.

Mera Kranfel said...

Well i have read Proks "novel" now and i must say.... its us who dont shop who are provoking, not the "shop o holics". Shopping is the norm in our society so we are the rebels, we who just have 5 pair of pants and dresses in our inventory.

But I have actually nothing against shopping in virtual worlds, of course not. Im just not that interested myself. In clothes that is. Plants and stuff is a different matter ;)

In the real world, of course, it a environmental issue......therefore we should do our shopping in virtual worlds instead =)

Botgirl Questi said...

Sowa: Sounds like a great project! I've ranted from time to time here that "you don't own crap" in Second Life. There's a huge and generally unacknowledged disconnect between the way that virtual land and DRM-protected goods are marketed as something you own, versus your actual rights.

As you wrote, there's a psychological sense of ownership and attachment to our inventories that make it more difficult to cut out and leave.

On the art thread, I thought Banksy's "Exit Through The Gift Shop" offered a cutting commentary on the connection between art and perceived value.

Unknown said...

Well, that's just in, Kranfel. The people who adopt this posture at being abhorred at consumerism *and are sincere and honest in doing so* are in a tiny, tiny sectarian minority. Yet around them is a somewhat larger -- but still tiny in proportional terms -- ring of people who profess to be abhorred at consumerism but in fact just mean to oppose merely consumerism of stuff they find in bad taste, of low mass culture. They themselves don't hesitate to consume large quantities of soy mocha lattes, organic whole foods, Lambos, houses in Aspen -- whatever. So it's pretty hypocritical.

The people who do this in SL are in fact often affluent in RL and have an elaborate consumption pattern of things they think are organic or whole or cool but which are just consumed items, too. And even if they are poor ascetes, they consume ascetisism...

I call it out as an elaborate pose which really masks several kinds of pernicious ideologies -- one, the old Calvinist and Puritanical constraints on people's freedoms that are obvious, and two, the Marxist collectivist ideologies

Yet we live in the modern 21st century which has overthrown Puritanical traditions and communism. Why can't we be free to shop and not have to learn homilies about how to behave in real life from that?!

So hey, no mean trick, calling upon the rich stores of American oppressive religious doctrine from conservatives AND the rich stores of Marxist legacy from "progressives," but you do both disreputable things when you tell people in SL that they should feel guilty for consuming because they have "too much" of the pixelated stuff, and then turn around and admonish that this is all "a lesson" for real life where we will "must start having a smaller carbon footprint" blah blah blah.

Get off the Internet burning electricity if you want to leave smaller carbon footprints.

Unknown said...

re: "ownership applies only to things you can carry away"

Ok, if you believe this neo-Marxist warmed-over "native" claptrap, then let me take your house, your car, whatever, as you can't carry it.

And go and find happier hunting grounds.

Unknown said...

<The Native had far different ideas about land than the european settlers. This same clash can be applied to the current state of affairs between residents and management of sl. Are they gonna march the artists off to reservations and turn the place in to a mall? Only keep the ones who are selling stuff and collect taxes.

Hmmm. I guess that's why some tribes had to keep scalps as treasures? Or even accept beads?

It really is silly to idealize the American Indians in this fatuous matter. I don't know if you claim to be one yourself, but that politically correct status doesn't scare me.

If the Indian didn't have any sense of ownership of his land, why did he fight to the last man to preserve his territories against the encroachments of the white man? And rightly so. He did so because maybe his little parcel wasn't something he thought of as "his," but maybe he had greater appetites -- the entire wild outdoors was "his".

So instead of just smoking some weed with whitey and sharing, he fought him and drove him off his land. And why not? Pretty normal reaction.

But let's not then glorify this basic human trait as somehow "different" and "other" and "special" and pretend that some higher and finer notion of property or land obtained. It didn't. It overlapped with mean old whitey's notion. It evolved in a different direction. But it need not be glorified and is being misrepresented. The real modern world and not utopia is where we have to live.

Botgirl Questi said...

Prokofy: My point was that there is no harm done by virtual consumerism. And although I point out some of the negative consequences of RL consumerism, you're right in that I wouldn't trade my iPad and broadband connection for a shack in the pristine woods.

These kind of issues aren't black and white. Although it's fun to get into dueling extremest mode once and a while, we end up arguing with our own projected foes rather than the ideas of the actual person we're supposedly debating.

Mera Kranfel said...

I have a fairly clear concience. I use my bicycle instead of a car or bus irl. All year round, even in snowstorm. But dont touch my iPhone!! =O