Esoteric immersionism

For years, residents have been incredibly worried about the way Second Life® has been viewed by the media: a place for freaks to come out and escape from the harsh reality of so-called “real life”. Escapism, and its step brother, sex, was what made the news — and from there, drama ensued, and drama sold papers (or TV spots, or blog pages), which in turn got more advertisers, so, that’s all we got.

Second Life continues to be hard to understand or explain, and will remain so, even though the announced “Lite” viewer will come out by the end of this year. The reasons for that are a bit more subtle than I, in my ingenuity, thought.

Strangely enough, the real reason for the hard adoption rate came to me just recently, after a chat with a friend, who is not exactly a newcomer to SL, but has been a rather “passive” user, logging in once or twice in order to do her work. Only in the past few weeks has she been in touch with the reality of SL: its inhabitants, its culture, its relationships. We both study esoteric philosophies, and she suddenly had this insight why Second Life is so hard to “get”: it’s not only because it’s hard to use the interface — but it’s quite hard to understand the whole scope of what you can do in SL (or why you should do it in SL).

For us residents, this comes to us naturally. We have read about social networking, and SL is about people — so it’s obvious for us that this is one major use for SL. Grace McDunnough cleverly pinpoints the “killer application” for SL: forging weak ties and maintaining them very active. M Linden might be still a bit confused about the best use for SL might be, but we have to forgive him his newbieness — in a couple of years, he’ll have a clearer picture. Nevertheless, bringing people together (either for meetings and conferences or educational purposes, like M Linden likes to say; or for creative and cultural reasons, like so many others have written about) is one major focus for SL.

But this is not easy to explain to outsiders.

Philip Linden liked to compare Second Life to a “country”. Although this metaphor has been a bit out of fashion (we prefer to call it a “3D social networking platform” these days), there is a good reason for remaining faithful to the “country” concept: when you start logging in to Second Life, you can have three fundamental approaches. You can come in as a closed-mind tourist. And you just see SL as a tourist trap and want quickly to go away. This is what happens to at least 90% of the people: this is a country they have no interest to visit again. The second group becomes a regular tourist: they drop in, now and then, attached to some intriguing aspects of SL that don’t exist elsewhere. But they don’t bond, they don’t get attached; like a short vacation to an exotic country, you get fascinated by the sights and the people, but you don’t wish to live there full time.

The last group — the tiniest minority of all registered users of Second Life — have a completely different mindset. They view their actions and their goals in Second Life just like “emigrating to another country”. It’s a country similar enough to their own origin, in the sense that the major activity is getting together with similarly-minded people (or, for some, a nice environment where you can be on your own and be creative without being bothered) and share an environment that is shaped solely by our minds and imagination. Once this process of adapting to the social environment of Second Life takes place, we become patriotic (the more acceptable label is evangelical): we love our country and wish everybody to be part of it, since what is so wonderful for us should definitely be great for anyone else, if they only bothered to log in and visit. So we become enthusiasts. We write comments on each other’s blogs. We create whole social networks on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn, YouTube, and, like any other country-based organisation, we stick together even if we’re off-world. We shape the SLogosphere around us — as a country with 15 million inhabitants, we’re large enough (among, say, the 70 largest countries of the world or so) to develop our own culture, which goes beyond the immersive experience of Second Life. We’re business people, we’re artists, we’re philosophers, and we routinely get in touch with people with similar interests, who have at least one thing in common: they, like ourselves, are good Second Life patriots.

And we fail to understand why the rest of the world doesn’t follow us.

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