Immersionism and Augmentationism Revisited

Where is Gwyneth Llewelyn?

Thanks to Jade Lily, there was an event on “Immersionism vs. Augmentism” on SL’s Orange Island, moderated by Tom Bukowski, our “resident anthropologist”. The discussion was lively — even if necessarily “short”, a lot remained to be said about the subject, as always 🙂 But several bloggers (many of which attended the event) talked about the issue all over again; it’s clear that Henrik Bennetsen’s essay on the subject is still being read and discussed and that there is still a lot to be said about the two philosophies.

I used to be an “Immersionist” way before I knew what that meant. There were good reasons for me not to reveal my real identity back in 2004 (I had been stalked in RL through the Internet before, as people looked me up on blogs and forums I participated). I wished to continue the joy of participating on a vibrant online community that allowed me both to elude eventual stalkers, and a place where I could have some freedom of expression without fear. Second Life allowed all that — nay, back in 2004, it was even mandatory to keep quiet about your RL! — so I was immediately attracted to it. More to the point, I found out several hundreds (or thousands perhaps) of residents that had the same view. These were collectively labeled “Immersionists” later on.

“Immersionism” was a “tag” that we used like, say, “Americans” might use that tag to describe their personal relationship with the USA. People were individually different in their relationship to SL — like obviously no two Americans think the same way about their country and culture. When Philip made his bold statement of “I’m not building a game; I’m building a country”, this hit the mark completely. Thus I like Rheta Shan‘s definition: “Immersionists” are “citizens of the metaverse”, which is the place/country where they spend (part) of their lives; the rest — people who don’t feel any ties/bonds to SL like we do — are “tourists”. In some extreme cases, a tourist that spends a lot of time in SL, even using it as part of their work (and certainly as part of their leisure), might become “immigrants” — tourists that love the place they’re in, spending a lot of time thinking about it and living in it, but still not feeling that special bond that we “metaverse citizens” feel.

Later on, this class of users became labeled as “Augmentationists”. Obviously, again, there are lots of gradations — it’s not a black/white definition, and there are no pure Immersionists or pure Augmentationists. In fact, my hardest decision was to start doing RL work in SL — where, exactly, would be the separation line? When sending out emails to partners, colleagues, and proposals to customers, I sign them with my “pen name” (even many of my colleagues call me “Gwyn” on the phone 🙂 ). But obviously when meeting “in the flesh” (which sometimes is necessary) things are different. Sure, there is a continuum between my pseudonym and my flesh-avatar on the physical world, but where exactly does “Gwyn” stop being a “citizen of the metaverse” and becomes a “citizen of Planet Earth”? Put into other words, when I send out an email to a real company and sign it as Gwyneth Llewelyn, am I being an Immersionist or an Augmentist? It’s tough to draw the line when people cross both worlds, and have bonds and ties to both.

Why, then, the debate? Well, the Internet, as most of you know, exists thanks to a common set of protocols, globally collected on guidelines and rules called “RFCs”. There are RFCs to describe how email, the Web, or DNS works. Most are technical. A few are social — RFC1855, for instance, defines the rules for participation on online communities — Netiquette. And part of Netiquette says disturbing things like:

Don’t badger other users for personal information such as sex, age, or location. […]

If a user is using a nickname alias or pseudonym, respect that user’s desire for anonymity. Even if you and that person are close friends, it is more courteous to use his nickname. Do not use that person’s real name online without permission.

Interesting, isn’t it? Specially because these rules were set up back in October 1995. These quoted paragraphs were targetted at MUD/MOO users and the early MMOGs, but they apply rather well to complex virtual worlds like Second Life, and Linden Lab certainly had them in mind when putting them in their Terms of Service.

Now you might say, “oh, but these are just guidelines, we can safely ignore them if we don’t like them”. Well, yes and no. People “ignore” other RFCs too — that’s why Microsoft’s IE does not comply fully with the RFC establishing how HTML should be rendered. Microsoft is big and powerful enough to be able to push violations of the RFCs as common practice (to be honest, though, IE7 is much more complaint than any other browser that MS released in the past), but, in general, most people and organisations do indeed comply with the thousands of RFCs. If they didn’t, the Internet wouldn’t exist at all — since to voluntarily connect your own network to the Big Internet, you are expected to voluntarily abide by the RFCs — all of them, not only the ones you happen to like! So you should abide by RFC1855 too, even if it is only about social responsibilities and relationships in an online world.

Linden Lab certainly agreed with that view at the beginning of Second Life. This meant that oldtimers like me, used to netiquette and all those old-fashioned concepts, naturally came to Second Life as a “place” where these old-fashioned rules and guidelines were the norm — and were actively enforced, through LL’s terms of service. They were fully “immersed” (pun intended!) in the overall spirit of the Internet.

Still, things change. MySpace, Facebook, Friendster and all those “social networking platforms” introduced a counter-culture to the whole principles of the Old Internet. Here, people would show themselves in their true colours, talk about their real lives, post their real pictures, talk about their real issues. The current mainstream generation of “netizens” are used to bring in their real identities to the online space; they shun anyone that doesn’t do the same; and they seriously suspect about the intentions of anyone using a pseudonym.

It’s undeniable that these two extremes — the ones living pseudonymously on the Internet, faithful to the old principles; the new generation that wants to push their identity to a wide audience — were consolidated in these two philosophies: Augmentism (online communities are communication tools) and Immersionism (“cyberspace” is a place in itself with which we create our own emotional bindings). As time goes by, and the Internet became mainstream (as did Second Life!), it’s obvious that nobody cares about the old Netiquette rules. In 1995-7 I used to teach Netiquette to clients before I taught them how to use email; in 2005, I still taught in-world classes about Netiquette in Virtual Worlds.

But now these relics of the past are pretty much useless. Like we don’t teach people how to use a phone — or how to behave when doing a phone communication — it’s pointless to teach them how to use online communication tools. The rules and guidelines that served in the past to a community that had special views and interests, and a philosophy to back those up, are worthless when new paradigms have completely put the whole issue upside down. Instead of considering unpolite to ask for A/S/L on chatrooms, A/S/L is nowadays almost a requirement to participate — and if you don’t agree in revealing your own personal data (backed up by a webcam, of course), you’re going to be ostracised, labelled as “anti-social”, and become a “weirdo” that is “alienated” from reality. When, in fact, you were just being polite according to old established social norms.

In Second Life, for a while, there was a revivalism of the “old social norms”. Linden Lab certainly embraced them fully, and it’s not very surprising, considering their background. But, like the rest of the Internet community, they realised they were pushing a model of social behaviour that was not consistent with the contemporary philosophy. Thus, things like voice and identification were introduced — requirements for an augmentationist world, where it is essential and necessary to prove your real identity on a virtual space to avoid stigmatism. The next level will probably be a mapping from webcam-captured data onto your avatar’s facial features (a work which is under progress); at some point, however, it’s very likely that all avatars freshly created will have faces from automated replicas of your own face, captured through a webcam (which pretty much every computer has these days). Obviously you might tweak your own avatar afterwards, but people will expect that all newbies at least have “RL avatars” as closely as possible to their RL persona. Augmentationism will, ultimately, win the long battle.

Several bloggers commented that both viewpoints are not really “opposites”. I agree that there is a lot of grey shades, and, like Henrik claims, both extremes are archetypes which don’t really exist in pure form. Even the most die-hard augmentationist will cry when reading a very sad book, thus feeling emotions inside a “virtual” environment (the one described by the author of the book). And even the most die-hard immersionist will, at some point, admit to having a life beyond the Internet and its online communities (although in some cases I seriously suspect they don’t 🙂 ). Most people will struggle with the privacy/identification issues without being “labelled” as immersionists/augmentationists; augmentationists can worry about privacy issues, and immersionists might feel that RL credentials can be often useful to get a job or sustain an argument better.

So why is the issue still being discussed? Linden Lab subtly manipulates our environment by changing the rules. Most of these changes are too subtle to be noticed; others drive residents to dispair. A good example is the banking ban. Other platforms (like Entropia Universe) sold banking licenses to any bank that wished to apply; the creators of EU are interested in regulating the market. Linden Lab simply forced all non-RL banks to close down — an augmentationist victory. The same, of course, happens with voice — LL has invested a lot of time and money in that augmentationist technology, and they know that if they make it the default means of communication, they’ll appeal to the far larger augmentationist culture — the MySpace/Facebook generation which is only concerned about providing as much of their RL personality into online environments. The compromise is hard to meet, but at least people have an option to self-segregate themselves into the ghettos of obscurity, walling themselves away from the dominant culture. Linden Lab is not happy about this evolution — if they were, they would be pushing for it much harder — mostly because many of them are strong Netiquette believers and come from a different online culture. But they’re slowly giving up the fight. Take Torley as an example — perhaps one of the best examples of a “pure Immersionist” that slowly moved over to the “other camp”. Torley Linden, née Torgesson, started as a purely virtual construct — obviously immersed in Second Life as deep as no other. He earned the motto “The Soul of Second Life” since he embodied all the good that Second Life had to offer – immersion, privacy, creativity, communication, relationships, friendship, eagerness, exploration, fun, and an incredible open mind towards all types of people and their philosophies. Torley started using his own voice on his videos a year ago or so; and nowadays, you can see his RL pictures and RL image on the videos as well. He abandoned Immersionism gradually, step by step, and is now at the bridge between the two philosophies. I think that he is still the Soul of Second Life — mostly, he is showing everybody else that the “old philosophies” are slowly fading out of this world, and that all Immersionists have to understand that they live on an evolved environment, one where things like “immersion” and “privacy” are far less important than “identity” and self-promotion of your “real” identity. But, in purely Torley-esque fashion, he does all of this in the most friendly and fun way possible. Moving over to Augmentism does not need to be hurtful; it can be entertaining and fullfilling, too. It will hurt less and less as people open their minds and sever their ties to the virtual world and start thinking of it as a bridge between many people, many cultures, many philosophies.

So will we still talk about this issue in, say, a decade? I think so. A whole new generation has popped up, away from the old Netiquette and the new MySpace-in-your-face generations, and they are exploring the notion of “cyberspace as a country”. They have new ideas and are experimenting with new things. They’re, for instance, the landowners and content creators that never opened up a business in real life, but that are successful businesspersons in Second Life, and amazed at drawing an income from it. They are the philosophers that meet with similar-minded people, and that understand that things like reputation in a virtual world does not require credentials from Harvard, Yale, the MIT or Cornell, or being born in the Kennedy family, or being reviewed by the New York Times or Washington Post. The virtual environment of Second Life, with its 13 million residents (sure, only a part are active; but isn’t that the same in real life, too?), provides a breeding ground for its own rules — its own models of defining success; its own reputation; its own business models. Like “tourists” going out into a different country with a different culture, and sometimes returning back and back because they like what they see, becoming immigrants, and then full citizens as they feel themselves “immersed” in a country’s own, peculiar, culture, the same happens to this “new generation” (and obviously affects many of the SL veteran residents too).

In Second Life, we’re not Americans, Europeans, Australians, Brazilians, Japanese, all sharing the same environment, tolerating each other’s views and cultures, and getting together for inter-cultural discussion, friendship, and business. We’re so much more than that: we’re Second Life Residents, and we have our own culture, our own way to establish relationships and make business. The ones that accept that they are residents are, indeed, Immersionists. The “tourists” are Augmentationist visitors, that we can only hope they find here what they like, and become Immersionists after a while. Does this really happen, or is it just wishful thinking? Well, I rest my case by using IBM as an example. They looked at SL, and liked what they saw, and started exploring it (like a good, Augmentationist company). Now they’re part of the community and accepted as such. “Outsiders” look at what IBM is doing and ask themselves for how long Big Blue can waste money, time, and effort to stay in SL. But the residents just see a company that has “immersed” itself in Second Life, like they have “immersed” themselves so successfully in a hundred countries or so in the past half century — and thus become an example for others to follow. These things happen. Slowly — mostly with anedoctal evidence — but they’re being explored right now as we speak.

So there is still much to discuss and learn from the Second Life experience. By contrast, MySpace is actually “no space at all” — it’s just self-promoting identities in an online environment. Second Life can certainly be just that — but it offers a lot more. And while we reflect on what that “much more” actually is, and how our own feelings, emotions, and relationships (both personal and business) are changed by it, we continue to keep the Immersionist vs. Augmentist debate alive.

Disclaimer: the “tourist” analogy is a brilliant concept from Rheta Shan in her blog entry so appropriately named “The world Philip made

Many thanks to Insula for her lovely picture of Praça do Comércio in Lisbon that I used as background for this article!

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