Saturday, April 24, 2010

Is There A Culture in the Virtual World Second Life?

My fourth rez day was February 6th, and I feel like I've spent the entire time getting ready to write this next series of posts. In some ways I am no more ready to start than the day I found my way off that dreaded little island in a purple t-shirt, faded jeans and really bad auburn hair, but now is certainly the right time to take the first step.

I recently wrote I am convinced that Second Life® is facing a Tipping Point and some people have asked me how I know. There is no way to articulate precisely how I know, I just do. What I cannot say is if tipping in this case is a good thing or a bad thing; good and bad are relative to your point of view. However, I do know that this type of event can result in a seismic shift in what one might call a cultural base - a commonly held set of beliefs, a set of rules and practice, forms of governance, etc. This assumes that there is a "culture" upon which these systems were built.

 If Second Life has a culture, what is it?
As the collective Residency of Second Life begins the next cycle of evolution, this might be the most important question we ask ourselves. This is especially true of you agree with the motto of the National Museum in Kabul where it is believed that museum workers risked their lives to protect artifacts from the Taliban:
A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.
This statement suggests that there is no life without culture, or could it be that there is no Second Life without a culture?

If so, that places an enormous burden on this thing we call culture - a word we toss around so easily and yet when asked to define it precisely, things get a little murky even for an academic like Tom Boellstorff who recently published "Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human". 

Reading Tom's book was a precursor to starting this series of posts however, I found it to be a treatise written for academics and luddites. I know some people found it to be enlightening, but for me his analysis was squashed by an overextended and overused notion of episteme versus techne that makes his handful of salient points into a mess of unobtainium for the average reader (not to mention you will never want to even see the word techne again).

I am not an anthropologist (IANAA) but I wanted to explore the tenants of Second Life culture in a way that is more accessible to non-academics. Since I'm a technologist and not an anthropologist the best way I know to do that is by getting as many voices and perspectives as possible heard and by using some sort of framework to organize my thinking. 

A framework for exploring A Second Life Culture
If you search for "Second Life Culture" you get a mess of things, including a relatively empty page on the Second Life wiki that describes itself as:
Pages focused on the rich traditions, customs, mores, etc. of Second Life. These are largely subjective, yet we wouldn't be without them.
If this is culture thing is so important you'd think this would be the weightiest page in the entire SL Wiki, but it's not. It's little more than a collection of links with an undefined "culture" reference including a link over to the Wikia page. Despite being relatively easy to use, I've found that wikis present a stumbling block for a lot of people and I think blogs are the most accessible.

But writing one giant blog post called "A Second Life Culture" would be no better than the sparse and random links on the SL Wiki page. So,  I am going to use a simple framework to organize my thoughts. I hope you will join me and write your perspectives and observations however and wherever, you are most comfortable even if it's in the comments.

Seven Elements of A Second Life Culture
I adapted this framework from papers and references I found around the web regarding culture. It's divided into seven sections or elements that I think are manageable and relevant to our virtual lives.

1. Social Organization and Collectives
Second Life is predominantly a social experience, and out of that experience natural patterns of self-organization and collectives are formed.  This series of posts will explore how Second Life is structured by looking at things such as family patterns and social classes.   Is there a "family unit" within Second Life? What are the types of families that exist and why?  Are there social classes within Second Life? What drives social status in world - achievements, creating, sharing, selling, experience, age, etc? Is there an FIC - or if there were an FIC, what would that mean?

2. Customs, Traditions, Values, Beliefs and Ideologies
This is a rich set of material covering a wide gamut of social norms and behaviors and will likely be more than just one post.  It includes questions such as: What are the de facto rules of behavior? Are there taboos? Are there widely held shared values or only small pockets of shared values? Are there or have there been widely held beliefs or collective social agreements in place? Are the Second Life ideologies that are shared or in conflict? Do Residents and Linden Lab share any customs, beliefs, values?

3. Language
Somehow, we all need to communicate. Is there a language of Second Life?  What are the implications of a global residency communicating in a shared space? What are the implications of using text versus voice for communications? How is the predominance of English as a default language shaping the world experience?

4. Music, Arts and Literature
There are great issues here, especially with "native" art versus "imported" art, etc.  What are the implications of the Linden Endowment for the Arts? How does Art shape the Second Life identity and society? What is important about music in Second Life? What role does literature play? What role do blogs play in shaping the world?

5. Religion
I am not sure if this has a place in the framework, but I found it so rarely discussed that I left it in to generate more discussion. Perhaps "religion" here might be reframed to evaluate the notions of "game gods" overlords in the context of the world?

6. Forms of Government
This is a topic ripe with interest given the recent Terms of Service kerfuffle and extended discussions about player/resident rights versus business implications, etc. What are the various forms of in world "government" such as role play, democracies, etc.?

7. Economic Systems - market and social
Here we should address two types of economic systems - the market economy and the social economy.  By social economy, I mean the aspects of how people use Second Life to meet their needs and wants. In 2006, I led a discussion entitled "Does Second Life fulfill any basic human needs?" with Gwyn Llewelyn that led to many interesting insights and perspectives. The market economy of Second Life gets a lot of attention, but the social economy is equally important.

The search for "A Second Life Culture" is on
So that's it - seven buckets of stuff to examine in our search for "A Second Life Culture".  Am I missing anything?  Will you join me in this exploration and share your insights?  If so, and I hope that you do, please let me know so I can cross link to your blog.

And before you declare "there is no Second Life culture there are many subcultures" (I see you typing, Gwyn) I'm suggesting that subcultures are in fact woven into the fabric of the framework above but we are on the hunt for common threads and/or those things that are so dissimilar that they cause conflict.

Perhaps we will find that "A Second Life Culture" simply does not exist. If that is the case, what then does that say about our future?

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