In the past couple of years or so, I have to admit that I haven’t been as regular on Second Life as I wished. There are a lot of reasons for that, most of which work-related, and I have to include my own academic studies on that category as well. As a result, that also means less blogging, less socialisation, more isolation, and sticking to answering more boring emails from clueless clients or colleagues requesting help. But fundamentally it means a lot of less time for “myself” — what other people usually call “leisure”.
My current health issues, which are likely related to working too much, have forced me to pretty much stay at home and forget all about work, whether I wanted it or not. This gave me some pretext to blog a bit again, and, by doing so, reflect quite a lot. It also made me realise the meaning of four things: boredom, work, leisure, and self-accomplishment. They’re closely interrelated.
I tend to tell everybody that I don’t understand the meaning of the word “boredom”. I mean, I understand it intellectually; I can look up the definition in the dictionary (“an emotional state experienced when an individual is without any work or is not interested in their surroundings”). But it doesn’t make any sense to me. There is no single instant in my life where I was “without any work” in the sense of “not having anything to do”. There is always something to do: from house chores, to university assignments, to work for my many clients, to answering emails, to spending time with friends, offline or online. Every single second of my life is crammed full of activity and it never stops; in fact, the amount of “things to do” tends to accumulate and grow exponentially, as more and more demands are constantly being piled on me. I always felt things that way.
I remember that in my late teens I already suffered from an extreme intensity of “things to do”. It became so overwhelming that at some stage I started taking notes about things to do when I had time for them on forthcoming weekends or vacations; I had a notebook near my bed where I would jot notes, some diagrams, a few paragraphs — about novels to write, things to learn, books to read, even games! (At that time, I was involved with a group of friends engaged in pen-and-paper role-playing games). The notebook quickly got filled up, and it was with great sorrow that I suddenly realised that even working 24h a day during the forthcoming vacations I would be unable to even make a small start on all those projects. So it was with some frustration that I had to postpone a lot of those projects to the next vacations. But at some time the list grew so much that I realised I had to finish school first, and only at university — which everybody described to me as being “easy” and “full of time of doing nothing and throwing wild parties” — would I have any hope to start looking back at those postponed projects and ideas.
Well, university finally came, and obviously I realised it was nothing of what I expected, in terms of intensity of demands. I supposed I was in a wrong university! While most of my friends idled along in boredom on other universities, on my own campus, except for the rather long summer vacations, we were always way too busy with work. It’s not as it was very demanding — except for studying for the exams! — but it tended to absorb pretty much all free time. And unfortunately that only meant that the list of “pending projects to do when I was bored and had nothing else to do” just grew and grew…
I think it was at the end of my university time, when I got a job as junior researcher for a while, that I came up with something I had written when I was… 8 or 9 years old. At that time, my daddy showed me the huge data room for one of the major research computers in my country (at that time, there were only two dozen computers or so around — half on universities or research labs, the rest churning out printouts for the phone and power companies. What impressed me was a very primitive form of a text-chat interface, using a teletype device (you know, from the times before CRT screens were popular…) — it would hardly qualify as “Artificial Intelligence”, but it certainly impressed a 8-or-9-year-old like me. When I went back home, I asked my daddy how the computer knew how to speak, and why it only spoke English; my father then just explained to me the rudiments of computer programming, and I remember quite distinctly that I spent the rest of the way devising instructions to “tell” the computer how to speak in Portuguese. It was perhaps the first software programme that I ever wrote, and it even had a name — Dialog. Not very original, but how was I supposed to know it wasn’t original? The fun bit is that it became part of an university assignment over a dozen years afterwards, and I thought that it could be used as a further project in natural language processing, “once I had time to do that”. Aye, it went back into my ever-growing notebook with “things to do when bored”, as well as the original and incredibly naive piece of paper I wrote when I was 8 or 9 years old 🙂
Then I thought that perhaps when I had a 9-to-5 job, I could finally have a few hours per day to allocate to all my endless pending projects. I quickly found out that a 9-to-5 job actually means waking up at 7 and coming back home after commuting by dinner time, and being so tired that I would just brainwash myself watching TV (I still had a TV back then) or reading avidly something; I would be too tired to do anything else. And weekends, of course, were spent with family & friends that I had no time left to meet during the week. A few years after I started to work, I was immediately persuaded to get engaged in a pioneer project, related to the then very young Internet. That meant spending all my “rest time” during the weekdays at a friend’s place while we first planned and then implemented our project; it also meant coming back at home after midnight, going straight to bed, and wake up at dawn for another day at my regular day job. Weekends meant more time free for this new enterprise. Those days pretty much defined my usual routine, to which I stuck since I was 25: 16-hour-a-day workdays, including weekends, with the rest of the hours spent commuting, eating, and sleeping; it also meant forfeiting pretty much everything that remotely sounded like “vacation”. There simply was no time for anything; and I couldn’t even start to understand how people got time to get bored — I didn’t have enough time to do what I wanted, not even to rest a bit! Boredom, as a concept, utterly failed to register on my radar. It was clearly something that “happened to other people”. You need to have time to be bored, and time was certainly something I never had.
So, again, all personal projects got postponed, this time sine die.
In a sense, I’ve been waiting for the past 33 or so years to have some time free to deal with some of my own projects! Even though these days I forgot where I put the notebook, the habit of leaving notes to myself to do things when I have time persists (they just became digital). For instance, on my blog, I have a lot of “drafts” which I never managed to complete; some are from… 2007, and thus completely outdated and irrelevant 🙂 And I estimate that to complete all my personal projects, I would need to live something like 200-300 years at least…
Someone clever once said, “Work is what you do against your will, and demand payment for it” (if you know the quote, please let me know who the author was, because they certainly deserve credit for it!). This is not exactly how I see things. Due to several fortunate circumstances, most of my professional life was spent doing things that I not only actively enjoy, but that I wouldn’t dream to get paid for it, since they were so fun to do, that I always felt I was cheating my employers or partners (or clients!) when they insisted to pay me!
This was also something that I learned in my past. At some point, I looked at what I was doing, and, thanks to a very close friend who sort of “woke me up” to the reality I was living in, telling me that I was weak and not really doing any risks. She claimed that life was only worth living by accepting challenges and overcoming them. I have to say that I truly had to reflect a lot on her words, but, ultimately, I think she was right, so I threw away my comfortable job as junior researcher and risked everything on a completely radical new way of life, where I would be my own boss (well, with a group of partners…) and forfeit job security in exchange of doing fun things for a living. Well, fun for me, of course; most people would get shocked at what passes for “fun” in my line of work.
I might have some trouble explaining things, but at least I guess that you will be able to relate to some aspects. On my early job experience, I had the kind of job that probably most of humankind has: a boss gives you orders, sets your limits and deadlines, and expects you to fulfil them, no matter what happens. If you fail to comply, at best, you get yelled at; at worst, you get kicked out (or not paid). Motivation is hard in that scenario, because rarely you feel a sense of accomplishment. “It’s just work”, one could say. “It pays the bills”, a pragmatist would add. So there is this idea that, in order to survive, you’ll basically do pretty much anything to get money — even if you’re tremendously unhappy during most of the day, doing things you hate. But so long as the end-of-month check comes in, you’re fine, and your family will thank you.
This split between work — doing things one hates, but in return for having enough money to survive — and leisure — doing things that you like, but that nobody will pay you to do them (like, say, watching TV or going out to parties with friends) — is a predominant model on most societies, for most people. There are obviously exceptions, but we tend to look at them as being very rare. When people say, “I love my work!” what they generally mean is just “At my workplace, nobody bothers me a lot, my boss is nice, the clients are understanding, and the daily routine is not much demanding”. The “ideal workplace” is where everybody likes everybody else, all work is respected, all bosses are nice and encouraging and motivating, all clients thank you for your extraordinary skills in dealing with their needs, and the work is not stressy. In this category we can actually find quite a lot of people! For example, most university professors I know tend to fall somewhere in this category; many professional writers (and possibly other types of artists); and several yoga coaches 🙂
For me, that’s not enough to motivate me; I’m far more demanding! The work in itself has to be, well, fun to do. And by “fun” I actually mean that it has to give me enjoyment. I can certainly believe that accountants like accountants Gympie can have “fun” doing spreadsheets, and some might find it so pleasing that when they return home they do spreadsheets for imaginary companies, just for fun. That’s pretty much what I mean with having fun at work: it’s when you suddenly realise that no matter where you are — at the office, at home, during vacations — all you can ever think of doing is your work. Now there is a word for these kind of people — workoholics. But the word is misleading in the dictionary definition, since it sort of implies either a disorder of some sort, or, at least, a very edge case of someone who is passionate about their job to an extent that they don’t have a “personal life” of their own.
I’m not going into the “psychology of workoholism”, since that’s totally outside my field of experience. I prefer instead to quote something written in the 1980s by Alvin Toffler and much repeated by others: he foresaw that the 21st century would finally break the barrier between “work” and “leisure”, and that they would not be separate. In the 1990s, with the huge pre-dot-com-bubble economic growth world-wide, this seemed to be the case: suddenly, pretty much anyone with a crazy idea could start a new company and become immediately famous and successful — and rich. Not only in the Internet industry, not even only in the software industry, but pretty much on all areas. While I’m sure that a lot of examples existed before the 1990s, this was clearly an epoch where Toffler’s visionary prediction came to bear fruit, as more and more people started to work on things that they had fun with, and these people, even if they never considered themselves “workoholics”, would enjoy working so much that they pretty much did it all the time.
Google’s approach to their corporate culture embodies that spirit. All developers are supposed to work four days per week “for the company” and one day “on personal projects”. They can either start a new one, or join existing projects as “paid volunteers”. This mostly means that 20% of Google’s budget is allocated to research — which is another way to describe the process of letting people do whatever they please and pay them for that, in the hope that the result is a sellable product. Well, at least in some cases. The idea is that if you have a critical mass of creative people doing whatever they please, some good ideas might come out of it and become products. It’s the reverse approach of a traditional company, where analysts, marketeers, and consultants try to figure out what the market wants and tell the employees to produce that (on small companies, of course, the boss will have “intuition” to figure out what is supposed to be best and tell the employees to work on it; good entrepreneurs just happen to have a good intuition and be “right” — aligned with market demands — most of the time).
Now of course Google’s model is pretty much the rule in crazy California, and is the hallmark of Silicon Valley. Even if we take into account that most of the products coming out of that creative pool are rarely good enough to survive in the long run as having a solid business model — most are just good enough to attract venture capital, get an IPO, make everybody rich, and get sold quickly before the press notices that nobody really wants that kind of product — a few obviously succeeded. Second Life® is a typical example — after 12 years, Linden Lab doesn’t “feel” the need of an IPO or of additional funding: they run a solid business model, and it all started with some crazy ideas thrown together by a few people that “confused” work and pleasure and created a company around that model. Obviously this doesn’t mean that everybody at Linden Lab feels that way, but it was clear that this was what kick-started LL.
They’re definitely not the only example, and these examples also not exclusively found in Silicon Valley. I have been lucky so far to be able to jump from one start-up to another and apply precisely the same principle: doing just what is fun for me, and making a living out of it. Sometimes it works very well; more often it’s an utter failure (but I still learn from the experience!); and sometimes it’s just enough to survive. This means not making big plans and have little expectations to the future. On the other hand, the way the economy is these days, having expectations of getting “job for life” is simply naïve…
So what do people like me do in their spare time — when they have spare time at all? Let’s skip the bit about “family & friends” and go straight to something a bit more selfish: what we do when we have time on our own. While being with family & friends is obviously also fun, there is a trade-off — not all share the same “concept of fun” so we have to agree on things that we all enjoy (which in my circle of friends means mostly chatting about pretty much everything; from Spinoza to politics, from ancient Egyptian art to macroeconomy… and what we shopped for on the previous day 😉 ).
When I’m on my own, however, there is no separation between what would be considered by others “work” and what is actual “leisure”. A friend of mine has a good definition: “leisure is when you’re not being paid to do things”. And she’s right! There is actually no difference in the quality of things being done. For example, I might be tinkering with a WordPress install — if it’s for my personal blog, it’s “leisure”. If it’s for a client, it’s “work”. Or I might be adjusting a script in Second Life. If a customer pays me to do that, it’s “work”. If it’s part of something that eventually will pop up on SL Marketplace (or one of my WordPress plugins that integrate with SL), well, then, it’s “leisure”.
Similarly, if I’m researching academic papers about my field of work, it’s, well, “work”. If I start to read articles about economy, identity, or social networking, well, that’s “leisure” (since nobody pays me to write articles about those topics 🙂 ). The amount of trouble for either is, however, similar.
Tweaking a server for a customer to run their own web server is “work”; tweaking my own server to get OpenSim to perform a bit better takes about the same amount of time. But the latter is “leisure”. So I guess you can see the pattern here: leisure is an activity I perform without being asked for, without getting a financial return, and without deadlines or other constraints.
Now most people have “hobbies” — activities that are utterly removed from their main, professional activity. From collecting things to reading, from sports or outdoor activities to playing console games… or logging in to Second Life… the idea is that people are supposed to spend their spare time doing “completely different” activities, to “take their minds off” their daily routine at work. It’s like the leisure time is some sort of “antidote” against the “poison” of the work. While I’m certainly sure that most people don’t feel that their work is “toxic” and required “de-poisoning”, I’m sure that most will agree that leisure should be an activity that “takes the mind off work”. Some examples are obvious: a doctor isn’t going to treat patients in their free time; they have seen plenty of suffering the whole day. A teacher, after doing classes with unruly students, just wants to sit with a nice book and relax. Wall Street yuppies (if there are any left…) will probably continue to make contacts and get tips for the next breakthrough IPO by playing golf, but at least they’ll be in the outdoors and not worried about taking phone calls and constantly checking on streams of data. Lawyers might have fun playing railroad tycoon games on their PCs at home (yes, Ashcroft, if you’re reading this, I’ve got you in mind 🙂 ).
On creative professions, this might be not so easy to separate. Imagine a professional graphics designer, who sits in an office the whole day designing covers for fashion magazines. At night at home, they might be designing clothes for SL instead. It’s a similar activity — possibly using different tools, and for completely different purposes — but there is still an artistic drive which makes their leisure time “different” than their worktime. Journalists might be writing on their novel when at home (I know a few that actually write their novels during work hours, because they have so little to do — except spending the whole day reading Facebook and Twitter streams, and testing out Google Plus). And obviously it’s not just the creative areas; some areas definitely might have some overlap, even though the person doesn’t realise that their professional skills are actually being employed (even if just subconsciously) during their leisure time as well. I just mention the creative professions because they’re easier to understand how smoothly the transition between “work” and “leisure” can be.
And a few of us simply have no different activities. They just spend time doing pretty much what they would be doing during their working hours; but, instead, they focus on personal projects. And here I prefer to define them as before: these are projects without any kind of expectations (of glory, fame, money…) and no constraints (no deadlines, no nasty bosses or clients making impossible demands, no stress in getting the project finished — it can be abandoned or picked up again at will without anyone complaining). In some cases, of course, “hobbies” turn into professional projects (that’s what happened with me with Second Life and WordPress, for example); in some cases, the reverse happens (e.g. a programmer might get a job as a teacher, but keeps programming as a hobby).
When the split between leisure and work is obvious, it’s also clear to see why people spend their time in specific activities that are completely different from their work routine. The motivation is to do something so completely different that it relaxes the mind and the body. Their friends and family might perfectly understand why a busy CEO suddenly wants to spend the weekend just fishing (even if they don’t catch anything): the whole point is avoiding the stress, the routine, the constant contact with others, and so forth, and keeping the mind in a completely different state that (hopefully) induces relaxation. Doctors, for instance, will definitely recommend that.
When there is no split, but just a smooth transition from one activity to the other, and they’re just arbitrarily labeled as “work” or “leisure”, this is much harder to understand. “So, what do you do for a living?” asks the doctor. “3D modelling in Second Life.” “Is it stressy?” “Yes, when the customer yells at me, doesn’t pay, or wants something impossible.” “Ok, so what do you do to relax and forget about your work?” “3D modelling in Second Life…” You can see that this is the kind of dialogue with a doctor that will not end well 🙂
Not only this is incomprehensible to most, but there is a big question to be raised in this case. What is the motivation behind doing the same kind of activities during one’s leisure time — if it’s not for fame, glory, money, or simply to relax?
Since it’s something eminently personal, I suggest that it’s related mostly to self-accomplishment: a feeling where we are able to prove to ourselves that we have managed to do something on our own — without anyone else pressing us to do so.
I believe that this is a wide, vast area, and I’m also pretty sure that different people will have completely different definitions. In my case, I’ve been blessed with a huge amount of self-motivation to do pretty much everything, even during moments of despair, with two sole exceptions. The first is, of course, exhaustion. Exhaustion is also hard to define, because some people get tired very easily (and I’m talking about mental exhaustion in this context), and exhaustion is not merely being tired — it’s the inability, at some point, to do any work because even the slightest inkling of doing something remotely related to “work” will immediately trigger stress symptoms (like anxiety attacks or utter tiredness); in other cases, it’s also hard to separate exhaustion from lazyness (or its closely-related sister, procrastination). While I’m healthy, I often am too tired to work, and need a break, or some sleep; sometimes, I just postpone things because I’m not “in the mood”, and that’s just lazyness. When labouring under exhaustion, things are different: anything that I conceptually view as “work” — in the sense that someone tells me to do something for their interest, not mine — immediately triggers a lot of physical conditions: blood pressure changes, heart rate changes, dizziness, utter tiredness, the physical feeling of not even being able to raise a hand towards “work”. Some of those conditions are similar to the ones exhibited by people under depression, and they’re also physical; but the causes are rather different. Ordinarily, though, I have always the ability to self-motivate myself to do things I dislike (exhaustion is for me a very rare condition that happens every 5 or 6 years or so, and usually lasts for several weeks). This is done by setting goals towards an objective, and pushing my will to accomplish those goals. Sometimes the mere accomplishment of one goal is enough to provide further encouragement to drag me along to the next; sometimes I need to constantly encourage myself to go from goal to goal, because all are perceived as being hateful things that I have no other option to comply with, but nevertheless disliking them all the time. In my case, the former is more usual — there is always some satisfaction of meeting a goal, and that is enough to keep me happy towards the next one.
So under my assumption, motivation is what drives you to accomplish something that otherwise you wouldn’t bother to do. If it has external causes — like, getting a check for your efforts, some compliments, recognition, fame, glory… — it might be synonymous with incentive. When an external cause is not apparent, it’s simply just motivation: for example, the motivation to finish a task at work quickly because you want to go home earlier.
When talking about leisure instead of work, obviously motivation also plays a role. This is way more apparent on physical activities — there is a drive or incentive, established by ourselves, to accomplish a certain goal. It could be training to be able to run a half-marathon, for example. Nobody else establishes that goal but you; the incentive is to accomplish something which you set as a goal. While not all types of leisure are tied to motivation and setting goals — like, for instance, watching TV! — many are. Even picking up a book to read can have as a goal finishing that book.
Obviously I cannot claim that I have analysed all types of leisure activities! But many that come to mind have similar models than, well, work-related tasks. The only difference is that for most the goals are set by the person engaging in the activity, and not influenced by external causes. Of course there are “grey” areas. Imagine that you do ballroom dancing as a hobby; it makes sense to accomplish the required techniques at about the same time as the rest of the class, so that you can all go dance together on a end-of-year ballroom dancing event. Every leisure activity that involves others usually have commonly-defined goals. However, even then, it’s something that you agree to, and are not forced or conditioned to accept. For example, let’s say that you and your friends decide to learn Japanese because you are expecting to travel together to Japan in two years, and find it useful to learn the language on your spare time. There is a “deadline” commonly agreed upon. Nevertheless, at any point between now and the day you board the plane, you can drop the course if you think it’s too intensive, too stressy, “too much like real work”. Or you can forfeit travelling to Japan altogether. The world won’t end — in the sense that, unlike at work, you won’t be fired, demoted, or yelled at by the boss. Even on collaborative activities, there is this notion of willingly setting a common goal and not attaching undue importance to achieving things in a set time limit (unlike what happens at work, where both someone else sets the time limit and forces you to stick to it). If you accomplish your goal in your own time frame, then you feel good about it. It’s this feeling of self-accomplishment that makes people turn to their hobbies over and over again (or switch hobbies when you don’t feel good about them; I remember that happening to me several times).
Some tasks are more prone to trigger this feeling of self-accomplishment than others. Learning a physical task — riding a bike, swimming, playing some sport — are excellent examples, since at the beginning we might find it impossible, but, after enough practice, we start to grasp the overall concept, and we motivate ourselves to go further and further. Other, solitary tasks might be harder to trigger the satisfaction from achieving that goal. I remember when I wrote my first novel, perhaps when I was 13 or 14. When I finished it, I thought: “What now?” Because, well, it was not meant to be read by anyone but myself. And when re-reading it, it was obviously crap. Worse than that, I didn’t even feel the urge to make revisions; what seemed to be best was to throw it into the waste bin and forget all about it. Even after writing a lot in my teens I still didn’t think it was worth reading — specially because there was just one reader, myself. So it was rather hard to get any satisfaction from all that time wasted in front of a typewriter.
I also remember how I experimented with other artistic tasks — drawing, painting, playing music, and so forth. I’m terrible at all of them, and it’s not a question of techique — in most cases, I had pretty decent teachers. I just had absolutely no talent at all. And so, no matter how much I applied my efforts to improve, I never achieved anything (while I was green with envy of my cousins, who could effortlessly draw pretty much anything without even thinking, or without needing to learn any technique — they were just naturally gifted. They still are!). Photography, and later movies, pretty much had the same result: lots of effort, no goals ever achieved, no satisfaction. Not to mention sports — I was absolutely terrible at all of them, and managed to be the worst sports student at high school in my year (they just didn’t have the courage to flunk me 🙂 ). That certainly wasn’t the kind of activities I wanted to do in my leisure time!
I guess that most people that require a hobby that gives them some sense of self-accomplishment need to find first some activity they’re good at, or at least one where they feel encouraged to apply their skills and mind in order to progress and achieve some goals. But perhaps it’s not so for some, who might be perfectly at ease with the idea of doing something in their leisure time they’re not good at, but don’t worry at all about it — just enjoy it and relax (again, fishing seems to fall neatly into this category!).
For the ones that require engaging activities for their leisure, I have found nothing more compelling that Second Life.
Now don’t get me wrong; this is not yet-another-of-Gwyn’s-evangelising-pieces-about-how-good-Second-Life-is. It’s just looking at a list of “requirements” for engaging activities that trigger the satisfaction of self-accomplishment and see how well SL fits into that list.
First and foremost, it’s the no rules environment — something which keeps so many people away from SL because it’s not a game. People expect to be told what to do, even in their leisure time. But in SL, we set our own rules and nobody else is able to force those upon us (well, except for criminal activity, which obviously is forbidden). I conjectured, about a year ago, on a long essay about self-entertainment, that SL is only appealing to a very special group of people who always had this talent of knowing how to entertain themselves. This time, I’m looking at the same issue from a different perspective.
Second Life is immensely gratifying — but in different ways than gamification experts propose. On social sites, one goal is to have the largest number of followers, and making the process of adding friends fun and entertaining (like Google Plus does with Circles and its cute animations) is a way to contribute to that aspect. Collectors, for example, have often the goal of having “the biggest collection”, or the “most valuable collection”. There is this aspect of being “better” than others at the same task — competition is a strong incentive. US companies, arising in a culture of competition, know very well what to do to get people engaged in activities; gamification is just another tool to increase competitiveness (at an abstract level) and give people goals. Would any one use Twitter if they had no followers and no friends to follow?
By contrast — and specially after LL got rid of the rating system and the leader boards (most people will need to look up the history sites to know what they were) — Second Life doesn’t offer any real “competition” system inside the virtual world, and no obvious way to set “goals”. So it mostly means that people have to find their own goals (and they don’t necessarily need to be “competitive” goals either).
At the early stages, these are very simple goals — not unlike walking through an orientation area. I remember my own goals: first, design an avatar. That took me 90 minutes! But it was great fun, and once I had created the shape of my avatar, I felt I had “accomplished” something. But nobody told me that an avatar was important; or how much time I should spend on it. In fact, most newbies at that time rarely changed their avatars and just jumped straight ahead into the mess of the mainland without looking back. The second “goal” was, well, finishing orientation area and figuring out what it was for. I left that very much confused. Then came the divejump into the old Welcome Area, where I learned how to chat to other residents. At this stage I was actually impressed at how many people were simultaneously logged in! (Little did I know about the “clustering” effect of certain areas)
It was when I realised that all in-world objects could be done by residents (even programmed by them!) that I was truly impressed. I spent two days (and these were 16-hour days!) just to figure out how to link two items together. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t make a chain of links set to physical without creating havoc (pun intended!). I broke down freebies to look at what was inside them and try to understand how scripting worked. These were all self-set goals. Nobody told me I was supposed to build content; nobody told me about time-frames to learn new tasks and skills. It was a process of discovering how things worked. But at the same time, I was immersed in a social environment: others, like me, were roaming the world trying to find out answers for themselves. Sometimes I went with them to things like the Ivory Tower Library of Primitives because someone overheard that this was a great place to learn about building. Then we exchanged landmarks, jumped to shops, found out that we had no money to buy most things… and then were pestered every half hour or so by frantic Lindens trying to get us to attend events. Which we did. Some, like the Show & Tell events, would be great to learn about how things are done. Others, like parties, were great for meeting new people and exchange ideas.
Both people that view Second Life as a hobby — “leisure” — or as work have the same sense of self-accomplishment every time they do something in SL. There is this constant notion that you can do things, and they are not very hard to do — and when some of those things are hard (like learning to place your first house on a parcel), when you manage that, you feel good about yourself. The visual environment is a bliss for self-accomplishment, because you can immediately get feedback on what you’re doing right. A typical example: putting on a new set of clothes. It happens pretty quickly (well, minus rezzing time…). When it does, you have this sense of wonder, “wow, my avatar now has a new set of clothes!”. This is the kind of experience that, say, a painter might have after hours and hours of patiently placing ink dots on a surface, and then looking back and see the whole picture unfolding. But in SL the picture unfolds instantly. Similarly, a programmer might spend weeks tweaking a few lines of code, and just at some point, things start to make sense. In Second Life, however, just making an object react to touch — one line of code! — provides instant gratification (no wonder, though, that some universities include Second Life programming as part of their curricula to teach students how to write computer programs — it’s because the students will experience instant gratification when their objects get animated with simple scripts. I know, I’ve done some scripting classes, and that’s what happens all the time).
There are few environments providing similar experiences. Most hobbies have a learning period which can be more or less frustrating until some skills are mastered. One of the reasons that sports are so compelling is that an untrained human body can, with regular training, reach 90% of its maximum efficiency within a week or so (for a healthy person). It’s astonishing how wonderful our human bodies actually are! Of course, 90% is not what an athlete is aiming at, and to get those extra few percent is what makes the difference between a hobbyist, an amateur competing on some venues, a professional, and an Olympic-class athlete — each extra achievement requires an insane amount of practice just to squeeze a tiny bit of extra performance. But for a hobbyist, 90% is pretty good to enjoy oneself, if the only motivation is having some fun.
Second Life is relatively similar, but at a mental level. For those things that don’t require special talent, most residents, after a week, have mastered the interface, which is rather hard to learn (that’s why most give up after less than an hour). But once that week elapses, you’re not a newbie any more: you have mastered all skills for “normal” enjoyment of all activities in SL. You might not be able to become the next land baron or fashionista in a week, but you will be able to buy and sell land like any other resident, place objects in your parcel, and know where to shop for clothes. Contrast that with other mental activities like learning a new language!
It’s true that anyone can “learn” how to use Facebook (or email!) in even less than a week, but that’s because those social online activities are incredibly simple — when compared to the wealth of activities that are possible in SL. There is such a restricted amount of things you can do on most social online environments that obviously they’re not hard to learn; but there is really not much to do in them anyway. That doesn’t mean they cannot be enjoyable. Turning on the TV and searching for a channel takes five minutes to learn and gives instant gratification, repeatedly, during one’s whole life — watching TV is certainly enjoyable for the majority of the inhabitants of this planet. But there is not much more to do; nothing more to learn; TV has an incredibly limited set of things to do (well, of course, you can also chat about what you’ve just seen or are willing to watch, and this happens outside the “TV experience”, but it still remains limited). SL is at the other end of the spectrum: you can do everything, some things are insanely complex to achieve (like, say, running a network of fashion shops or a global land baroning operation), but after a few days, one learns enough to engage in perhaps 90% of all activities. Not as an expert, but as a hobbyist — which is more than fine for an environment suitable for leisure.
All this environment is very hard to explain to a non-resident. Looking at Second Life as “leisure”, it’s the kind of “leisure” that is crammed full of experiences after experiences, and instead of having a single “goal”, it has many, and multiple ones, and all are set by none other than our own selves. I remember that I was so overwhelmed with the amount of things to see, the sheer number of new skills to learn, and the infinite number of people to meet, that when I first saw someone saying that he was “bored, because there is nothing to do in SL” I almost strangled him on the spot! How could someone be bored? Even in 2004, to be able to see the whole world, would take uncountable weeks. Extropia DaSilva managed to calculate in 2007 or so how long it would take to cross the main continent from one side to side, just walking; about that time, I made a short calculation that if we spent 1 minute at each coordinate in SL, we would take a century to see it all. The same calculation today would require over 4,000 years (if you just stay a second, you can manage it in a lifetime — about 70 years to see everything). So how could someone be bored and not find anything to do in SL?? Just walking around will entertain you for several lifetimes…
That was, however, a different kind of “boredom”, which I also addressed four years ago: I found that it was related with the difficulty of actually finding interesting things, not the lack of interesting things to find. This problem is still unsolved, although I believe that the Destination Guide goes a long way to help people to find what they like in SL — and of course the rich SLogosphere will also help 🙂
Naturally enough, there are other incentives: money, for instance, is a huge incentive for many, and I’m not even going to attempt to write about that. Being popular or famous is also a goal pursued by many. But Second Life is still enjoyable by “social hermits” that just log in on an empty area and spend the whole day programming or building, on their own, and don’t even require admiration of their work — in a sense, they’re just like I was in my teens, writing just for myself, and setting my own goals (“to write something that is not crap”). This strength of Second Life as the ultimate leisure tool is little understood outside SL. If you compare it to any other online social platform, there is none that comes even close to what virtual worlds with user-generated content can offer to their users (Second Life just happens to be the most popular of that type of environment, and the only one, so far, to resist the test of time). Obviously a lot of MMORPGs provide similarly engaging environments — but all goals are set in advance by “others”. One might be happy about following others’ goals — like in the example of ballroom dancing, for example — but for the kind of people that see “leisure” as the “ability to set one’s goals, and pursue them at one’s own pace”, nothing can beat Second Life (or, well, similar virtual worlds with user-generated content).
Now contrast that with people tweeting at leisure and hoping that their tweets get propagated among the biggest number of people — and using that as an incentive to remain a solid Twitter fan. How insignificant that is, compared to the wealth of things to do in Second Life that can give so many different people a sense of self-accomplishment!