Friday, April 30, 2010

The Search for A Second Life Culture - Part 0

"Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiment artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of tradition (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; cultural systems may on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of further action." [1]

In 1952, Kroeber and Kluckhohn [1] compiled a list of no less than 164 definitions of culture; it's not surprising that the question "If Second Life® has a culture, what is it?" becomes as unwieldy as a broadsword.

Kluckhohn suggested that "culture is to society what memory is to individuals" which leads me to believe that culture is not absolute but rather like a collective hunch, or a recollection based on certain characteristics. Culture is then, as Eric Champion explains, "impossible to clearly demarcate" and is not a single thing but a "connection and rejection of threads over space and time". [2]

I really liked Tateru Nino's perspective: "Culture is an aggregate appearance of many entities, just as your skin is an aggregate of many types of cells." To which I'd add: And therefore, there are no right or wrong answers, just shared insights.

Shared Insights

The comment thread from my post "Is There A Culture in the Virtual World of Second Life" is packed with incredible insights about this idea of "a culture".  I wanted to highlight a few (emphasis is mine).

I've been wondering if this Second Life culture, while a nice dream, is more like what Macbeth is trying to say when he declares:Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

I'm not saying I think this to be the case, only that it may be relative to where you stand. Do you see only your shadow, or do you see the horizon? Both are interesting experiences, relevant, and worthy of a look. If culture is the glue and framework of a civilization, perhaps it's something that can only be seen in retrospect. Economic indicators, parameters, and the like cannot substitute for substance. - Mab MacMoragh

I don't know whether there is a Second Life Culture, as opposed to Culture in Second Life (I suspect not), but there is certainly a Second Life metaculture, or perhaps epiculture, a narrative that arises partly in-world, but mostly in the blogosphere (with occasional leaks into RL), involving the interaction of multiple characters often at wildly different levels of immersion and consciousness.    - Johnny

"A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive."
The assumption here is that SL is or should be a "nation". Or call it a community, collective, or TRIBE. Tribalism is what drives and keeps a lot of people in SL. LL is milking that as much as they can, that's why they call us Residents. Tribalism in SL was probably a big reason that Tim Guest called SL a cult. And the tribalism in SL is one thing that turns me off the most.

SL needs a purpose. Or several. People should have (or find) a purpose as soon as they first come in. Being part of an SL tribe may be a purpose but I'm not buying into that and LL is probably not buying into that anymore either. SL needs new purpose(s) and it/they will be in the form of PLATFORM uses. SL is becoming more and more a platform as opposed to a community. It's inevitable, get used to it.   - Lem Skall

Lalo Telling commented as well, but followed with a thoughtful post entitled "Hey, Rube!" from which this is perhaps my favorite passage (emphasis mine):

The rubes go to the carnie or the circus and they see the freaks, the midway game runners, the hawkers, the acrobats, the clowns, and the animal trainers and think "They're all so different, they couldn't possibly share anything in common." But they do: they share the life of the carnie, hauling it all from town to town, living on the economic edge, entertaining the townsfolk and dealing with the rubes. Rubes like T Linden see the analogous thing in Second Life and react the same way, "It's all so fragmented and different -- there couldn't possibly be anything that unites them." 

Crap Mariner lamented that Linden Lab is trading or ignoring the value of culture for economics in his post "Culture .. or Economy?".  One would hope that they are not mutually exclusive, unless of course the entire concept of a culture is, one might say, specious.


Lalo's post alerted me to the fact that I'd missed Dusan Writer's post "Virtual Worlds Hackers Innovation and Enhancing the Human Condition" as well as a most interesting quote from T Linden (Tom Hale) about culture.

ROBERT BLOOMFIELD: Looking inside the Lab, Dusan Writer has a question. You had talked about big changes in the way that Linden Lab is approaching the technology and the business. So the question that he asks is, "What do you see being retained from the days of Philip Rosedale, the founder?"

TOM HALE: That's such a broad and vague question, I'm not even sure how to answer it, but I'll take a stab. I'm certainly familiar with some of what Dusan has written and said about the culture of Second Life. I'll start by saying I actually think to say that there is "a" culture of Second Life is, forgive me, Dusan, specious. 

And that's because there are as many cultures in Second Life as there are groups, and there are many hundreds of thousands of groups in Second Life. There are as many cultures as there are groups of people. You can, even at a high level, say something like there is a culture around architecture. There's a culture around fashion. There's a culture around dancing and music. And there's a culture around role-play. There's a culture around furry and gore. And there's a culture around being an entrepreneur. There's a culture around creation. All these cultures are actually, I think, central to Second Life, and I think are critical for us to carry forward.

This idea that there is no way to distinguish "a" culture was also expressed by Gwyneth Llewelyn two years ago as she described her perspectives on the evolution of Second Life.

The first recognition, made publicly over a year ago, is that Second Life is not a community any more; instead, it’s a mix of communities, with completely different goals, and ethics or morals. Many huge communities don’t even speak SL’s lingua franca, English, and were never seen outside their “corner of the virtua world”. Others simply move in to a community they like (which, having grown, slowly becomes self-sustaining and independent, providing their own specific content and events targeted for their community) and remain there voluntarily. This has been described by many as the “balkanisation of Second Life”: “many communities, one world”. I believe it might have been foreseeable, since, unlike a “real country”, which, through education, provides a cultural environment for their citizens, Second Life is the reverse: it promotes diversity and different cultures, and allows them to pacifically co-exist (well, most of the time, at least…). The result, of course, is a “fragmentation”. Last year people still clamoured for “the lost predominant culture of Second Life: an environment where people were helpful, friendly (or at least polite), communicative, and tolerant”. In 2007, we all became pragmatists. The “Second Life Culture” does not exist. Instead, we have many cultures, many socities, many local norms and uses, and it’s up to each and every one to adopt the ones they like, and tolerate the rest.

A Culture or Many Cultures.  Does it Matter?

I think it will be relatively easy to highlight cultural artifacts that are universally shared such as the prim,  the action to rez, the language methods of open chat versus private IM, or the notion of teleportation.  These symbols and concepts are built into the fabric of this world in which we reside; they don't go away just because you are in a group, or because you are an architect, or are a fashionista, or any other kind of -ista.

In other words, these might easily describe "a culture" (in an academic sense) of Second Life, but to me what is more important about this dialogue are the more subtle and possibly intangible dimensions of culture that shape the very essence of our existence and our evolution - and yes, in turn even the economy.

Are there things that tie us together as Residents of this Second Life circus?

It is possible that perhaps there are bonds that bind us, not as the Tribe that Lem Skall disdains, but rather via a connection and rejection of threads over time as Erik suggests, or through a narrative that extends beyond the prim walls as Johnny described?

Can we see it now or must we wait until the sun has set to see the shadow?

Or is this all just, specious?

Part 1 of this series will refresh the framework that I suggested, updated and informed by still more shared insights.

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