Living one year in Second Life?

It’s true – I’ve been one year in Second Life?. Like any old cliché, it really looks like it was much longer than that. I’m not even sure where I did spend my time when there wasn’t Second Life for me to connect to. Definitely not watching TV – I haven’t owned a TV set since 2000 and will probably never buy one again in my life. So, what did I do? Mostly sleeping a bit more every night, I guess 🙂

One year. Wow. About this time last year, I looked upon people who had been one or more years in SL and wondered, “what would I still find interesting to do in another year? Won’t I get bored? What will be there to discover and explore, that I haven’t seen already?” Well, it’s true that there is still lots of things “undiscovered” for me – like how to properly script particles, weapons or vehicles; or what the most popular places in the private islands are…

From so many self-doubts, through an almost collapse of identity at the very beginning; from dealing with people that wanted to hurt me verbally, to good friends that have remained solid pillars through bad moments — I have experienced a lot. I have to admit, in retrospective, that I have been a painfully slow learner. It’s only when I started to teach classes to new residents or watch how well they adapt that I see how badly I started, and still, had so much fun learning it all.

Nowadays, a new resident drops in, and she takes about 15 minutes to tweak her Appearance and find out how to IM someone else. Probably by the afternoon she’ll be busy scripting, and by the week’s end she’ll have opened a shop or a club and will be yearning for higher goals, while still complaining about how little money she has 🙂 She’ll be trading land like a professional real estate agent on her second week, and furiously posting in the forums things like “why people hate newbies” before she has even completed her two first weeks in-world. And will give me advice about things to do and places to go on her third week.

In my time, well… I took three 16-hour days or so just to understand how prims stuck together – and that was after a 90-minute session tweaking the appearance of my avatar (it paid off – I just did slight changes since then 🙂 ). I logged off in hidden nooks because I was afraid to what would happen to my avatar when I was offline, since I couldn’t afford a home. I was scared and furious one day that a texture failed to rez properly — it was a bug with my graphics card, but I thought that someone pulled a prank on me while I was “away”. I remember using a green carpet texture to make a jacket and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the amazingly detailed and realistic clothes other people wore. The first item I built was a lamp post, because I thought SL followed a 24-hour cycle in PST, and I’d be in the dark most of the time anyway, since I’m in GMT (of course, I had the timezones completely mixed up – and I took half a year to understand that we have 4-hour days followed by 1-hour nights, with two half-hour twilight periods) and by mere chance I seemed to be logging in always during the “night time”. I spent all my first days in the Morris sandbox, which I had found by chance on my first online hours, and was fascinated by what people could build there. I tried desperately to get some people to help me out; I didn’t know what a “Linden” or a “Mentor” was (yes, I browsed through the notecards at Orientation Island, but I simply didn’t understand half of it). Titles, by the way, baffled me completely. All was strange and weird, and all around me, people seemed to be about the same “age” as myself, desperately exchanging bits of information and rumour here and there.

I remember the first person who sent me some freebies – that was tireless Dee McLean, who must have the largest inventory in SL filled with freebie stuff. I was incredibly grateful to her; she was some sort of goddess to me, giving away so much stuff that it hurt my eyes – her generosity seemed to be boundless. The same happened with other people I met, like Meritum Lily, and later, my eight-month-neighbour, Lily Lightcloud. Tears came to my eyes when I started to understand how golden-hearted most of the “elder” population of Second Life seemed to be – how patient they were with this utterly clueless, wide-eyed newbie, who stumbled along, tripped over doors, crashed at windows, and ended up facing the wrong place and talking to walls.

The Summer of 2004 was special in many ways. SL had just gotten animations and streaming music, and dance clubs started really to become interesting. Also, there was an overflow of new residents that time, far higher than the usual rate, and Linden Lab didn’t manage to keep up with the regular supply of new land. You had waiting lists for “new land” (a program called “Land for the Landless”, now replaced with First Land) for 6 to 8 weeks. I bought my own first 512 m2 plot in Uli for L$ 6000 using money exchanged through GOM – there really wasn’t an alternative, and I thought my plot was pretty cheap at that time of land scarcity.

I built my first home, a silly cabin overlooking a mountain drop, which took almost 100 prims, a space where 2 people couldn’t fit in properly. I had to redesign the door to be “sliding” instead of “rotating” because there simply wasn’t enough space for that. I hit the prim limit suddenly after dropping my second couch. I definitely was doing something very wrong, and here I learned my first important lesson in Second Life – let professionals do their job, concentrate on what you’re good at, and buy cheap from the creative artists. It’ll be much more entertainable that way.

One day, while teleporting to some place, I met my first Linden, who had a below-average-looking female avatar, and was very friendly. She had just bought the first Hug Attachment thingy that had appeared a few days ago, and hugged me, completely fascinated by what was being developed by residents in SL. By that time I vaguely knew that people with the “Linden” surname were employees of the company, and this was my first “contact” with them, and I was very happy it went so well. The violet-haired female avatar excused herself, because she was having a meeting and had to rush, and flew away with lots of waving and friendly “bye byes”. The notion of “having a meeting and having to rush in SL” only made sense to me half a year later; at that time, I found it only odd and a new experience, like everything else in SL. So the employees actually use the platform they’ve created, wow. How cool. This one must be pretty new, actually, since she seemed to be as goggle-eyed about new stuff as I was, but she seemed friendly enough.

The fact that this Linden’s first name was “Philip” only registered many, many months afterwards 🙂

Philip – either in drag or in his more usual, spiky-orange-haired avatar – gave an interview at Wired a few months before I had logged in, where he claimed “I’m not building a game. I’m building a new country.” This is my favourite quote of him, for several reasons. First, it states clearly what SL isn’t. Secondly, at that time, I had also completed a RL move towards a new place, and I had need of some time to adapt myself. By a pure coincidence, I also “moved in” to a new country – a country called “Second Life”. So, chance made me adapt to two new places at the same time. And this, I think, shaped my own fate in Second Life – from that time onwards, I dedicated all my free time to understand this “new country”, to talk to its inhabitants, try to grasp how they think and feel and act, and how they interact with each other.

It’s unlikely that any other experience has changed me so much since my early teens.

I’m not a newcomer to “the cutting edge of technology”. I was skeptic about the World-Wide Web in 1993, but, one year later, I was knocking at people’s doors, telling them “one day we will sell everything through the Web”, and having people laugh at me and politely tell me to go away. In the mean time, I thought that the best experience I could get would be to understand what the Web gurus were thinking and planning to do. I was amazed at their thoughts, at their energy in building a “new global community”, based upon a 25-year-old technology — the Internet itself. More that ten years has passed, and of course all those visionaries were right. So was I, having sided with them very early on.

So it didn’t take much time – well, perhaps a few months! – to recognize the same visionary ideas in Second Life. I think I reached “maturity” in Second Life after half a year, when I told myself: “this is the place where I want to be”. Not “this is the technology I want to use” or “this is the game I want to play”. But this place. A new country, like Philip said.

I’m stubborn, but I’m easily convinced with strong argumentation – this is something inherent to my personality. When “moved over” to a contrary opinion, I tend to defend it as stubbornly as the opposite view. It just takes someone clever and intelligent enough to point out the flaws in my argument to win me over. This is also what happened to me with Second Life. From a goggle-eyed newbie I started to develop in myself a sense that all this feels “right”. The time to cut the ties to the 10-year-old 2D WWW is now. Games design and Hollywood animation movies, since the dawn of the new millenium, are all 3D digital recreations. It’s time the rest of the computer technology to migrate to this new paradigm as well. Farewell, 2D desktop; welcome, immersion in a 3D virtual world. Slowly, bit by bit, all the pieces fell into place, and the vision of the future of global communication and interaction became clearer to me.

The first step I took, I think, was to understand my own role in this process. I’m neither a programmer, nor a creative artist, nor a 3D designer, nor an animator. Also, I don’t have the finantial genius to become a banker or a real estate agent. Compared to my American friends, who excel at marketing ideas and selling solutions, my own “selling” skills are definitely below average. Still, I firmly believe that there is a place for everyone in the world in SL, and my own goal would be to pursue the right to claim that space as my own — while, at the same time, encouraging and helping others to do precisely the same.

This was, I think, an iterative process. Being a new “immigrant” in Second Life, I should try to understand its society and population better. Understand their needs, their drives and goals, and figure out for myself why they are like that. This wasn’t easy. I remember that the first thing I did after buying my first plot in Uli was to try to talk to all neighbours and get them interested into a “community project”. Looking backwards, it seemed that I had started with the wrong approach – SL’s community is much more interested in self-expression than in self-organization. I took many months – and chatted to hundreds of residents – simply to understand why.

While cybersex didn’t appeal much to me (yes, I know; nobody in SL will believe me when I claim that 🙂 ) — I had enough cybersex in the mid-nineties 😉 — there was no way to escape the fact that sex & money are big pushers of SL’s economy and society. So I tried to understand them more. I discovered lifestyles that I hadn’t ever heard about; besides, of course, getting the first impressions from people belonging to some lifestyles that I would never dream to ask anything about (it helps a lot that everybody is really so patient, helpful, and friendly in SL). I could go on for hours talking about the issues of anonymity (or rather, pseudonimity) and the way SL has been shaped by a sense of freedom you don’t have elsewhere – either in real life, of course, or other games/platforms. But all this I had to learn and experience first. It’s not until you role-play your flirty, sexy avatar for the first time, and get harassed sexually in SL, that you get a taste of what people really think and how they’re motivated. I’ve still got a (virtual) sore spot from that experience, but I’ve also learned from it a lot (I guess cybersex in IRC and ICQ was “safer” in the mid-nineties…).

Many still accuse me of having “strange friends”. I’m part of a smallish group in SL that moves across almost all other groups in SL, and count among them many friends (this is not surprising for my RL friends – I’m like that in RL as well, of course). It’s strange for many to see me dancing in a furry club, jump over to some red-wing libertarians, discuss with 60-year-olds about being connected in SL under the influence of drugs or alcohol, go to a hard-core stripper club, get invited to a BDSM or Vampire wedding, give classes to newbies, and do religious meetings at the Church of Neualtenburg. I gravitate to economy discussions and discuss fashion with clothiers; I talk to the “aristocracy” (the politically correct name of the [unexisting] Feted Inner Core) as well as to the anti-aristocrats. I defend all groups promoting self-organization and political setups, while enjoying the company of my anarchist and libertarian friends in their peaceful land plots. I’m glad to talk to the W-Hat or any other “counter-culture” group, as well as to the top architects of SL who promote an aesthetically pleasing virtual world. Land barons don’t shun me, and I rent from them and promote their services to new residents – but I also participate in discussions about fair use and respect of residents’ rights.

This is actually what encourages me to deal with Second Life. Like the real world, it has all sorts of people in it. All are fascinating. They are most likely at odds with each other, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s this diversity of thoughts and opinions that captures my attention and makes this virtual world so enjoyable. We even had a figurehead for what the “soul” of Second Life is – Torley Torgeson, who sadly left SL. Torley was the only person in SL that was respected and cherished by everybody, without a single exception. I look upon Torley as my personal guide – the person that showed me how so many different aspects of SL are in reality all knitted together, and that you can’t separate one piece from the rest.

The “life” in Second Life is people. This is the major lesson I’ve learned. The second is that people communicate, and you cannot miss that if you stay in Second Life for enough time. When people communicate, they do amazing things together — even if they don’t originally plan to do so. That’s the third lesson.

So, my role in Second Life is now clear to me. I would like to put people to communicate and to do amazing things together. We did that with the 2D WWW. They will do so with the Metaverse which will “assimilate” it and give us something much better to work with. SL is the ultimate virtual community — one that goes far beyond what we do in Second Life, but to what we do with it. My commitment to Second Life started at the moment I understood this aspect, and willingly pursued my own choice of working in an area where I would use Second Life (ie. “do things with it”). Not unsurprisingly, I’ve since met many others who have found out the same thing – much earlier than I did in some cases – and that slowly are growing in number, getting together, and working together.

Yes, Second Life has its own community, like any country has its own society and rules that you have to learn and adapt to, in order to be able to “fit in”. But it’s a community integrated into a vaster world – the one we call Real Life. Sooner or later, you cannot miss that point any more: real people in virtual worlds will behave just like they do in the real world. There is no difference. Second Life is just a tool — a fantastic tool, certainly! — to enable community-building, and, like a new country where you live in, it’s up to you to learn to live in that place.

I took one year to understand all the above, but then again, I’m a very slow thinker. 🙂

Looking backwards to one year in SL, I cannot fail to realize that the question of “will SL still be interesting in the next year?” was rather pointless to ask. It’s at the same level of “will we need oxygen to breathe next year?” SL is not “interesting” by itself; it’s interesting because of the people in it. As long as there is one single person connected to SL, this part of the Metaverse will still be interesting.

*hugs back at Philip* – one year late.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...