June 1, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 60°F


Living a second life

Snotrag Steiner was on a mission to find vampires.

From left, avatar Austra Soleil acts as a digital representation of senior Austra Zubkovs, right, in the popular virtual community Second Life, which now has about 1.8 million members. Photoillustration by Thomas Pardee/The Ithacan

Flying from virtual island to virtual island in the online world Second Life, Snotrag, the virtual representation of sophomore Matt McLaughlin, eventually found himself in Vampire Empire, a pixilated town with torch lamps and dark skies. This is just one of many digital spaces built for nighttime creatures.

Unfortunately, not many vampires are awake at 11 a.m.

At a recent “playdate” for Qualitative Mass Media Research Methods, a 24-member class studying the virtual community, students were asked to interview Second Life “residents” who participate in one of the world’s many subcultures.

McLaughlin wanted to know why users chose to be vampires in their second lives.

“I’ve talked to some elves,” he said. “Apparently, the vampires are notoriously stingy in terms of giving away personal information.”

Created in 2003 by California-based Linden Lab, the online community now includes about 1.8 million users. Unlike World of Warcraft, another popular virtual world,

Second Life is created entirely by its users — about as many women as men, with the average user age at 32 — rather than coming fixed on a compact disc.

Second Life can’t be called a game because users aren’t trying to achieve any goals. Instead, the community serves as a social-networking device and an outlet to build virtual creations. It’s also a way to make money. Users can buy and sell goods and services within Second Life after exchanging their U.S. money for Linden dollars, the local currency. Second Life’s annual gross domestic product, in U.S. dollars, is $64 million. As of press time, $1,000 Lindens equaled $4.02 U.S.

Aleks Krotoski, a Ph.D. student studying psychology at the University of Surrey-Guildford in England and a technology blogger for The Guardian, said social systems developed online mirror those experienced offline.

“It’s not a surprise that most of the Western virtual worlds feature a strong capitalist element, as this is an ism which is a feature of their users’ everyday, offline lives,” she said via e-mail.

It’s not just residents opening up shop. About 40 brands now own space in Second Life, including General Motors and Sony BMG. American Apparel has its own virtual store, so users can dress their online selves, or avatars, in one of the company’s bright-colored T-shirts. Even Reuters opened an in-world bureau, with a full-time technology reporter covering Second Life.

Higher education is also logging on. More than 60 schools and organizations are looking to Second Life for new educational opportunities. Harvard University, the University of Texas-Austin and Trinity University in San

Antonio are teaching classes in-world. Ithaca College, and especially the Roy H. Park School of Communications, is looking to have a presence in the online community. This week, the Park School will purchase an island, which costs $980 (U.S.), according to the Second Life Web site. Fees also include $150 a month for rent. The space will be up and running next semester.

Dianne Lynch, dean of the Park School, said online visitors will be able to attend lectures and view student work. They will share a collective experience — one of the appeals of Second Life.

“We do some pretty amazing things here, and it would be lovely to be able to share them with the broader community,” Lynch said.

Everything, from the classrooms to the rocket packs to the porn shops, is saved on servers in the Linden Lab offices. Residents retain the intellectual property (IP) rights to their digital creations. Though Second Life has had a well-established copyright policy, now Linden Lab is dealing with its first significant IP issue. CopyBot, a program that allows users to copy Second Life creations without compensating the author, reportedly has caused thousands of shops to close until the problem is fixed. So rather than purchasing virtual goods, users can steal them.

The company plans to develop a system that enables residents to enforce IP–related rules within certain areas of Second Life. Rather than Linden Lab enforcing fair behavior, residents will self-police the community.

Krotoski said CopyBot has taught people a hard lesson about the real-world threats to e-commerce, and now people are demanding stricter governance and more protection.

“Things have changed. They’ve evolved,” she said. “I’d like to think that the freedom of expression and libertarianism promoted early on is still in effect. Although with different human perspectives … things inevitably adjust to meet the needs of those involved.”

Ulises Mejias ’94, M.S. ’99, a research consultant at Cornell University and an education doctoral student at Columbia University who studies online communications, said with the introduction of CopyBot, there is now a movement away from the permissive landscape in the beginning to a more disciplinarian environment.

“Just by participating in these kinds of environments, we’re opening up to more surveillance and control of our activities,” he said. “So it’s easier to monitor what you do. It’s easier to control what you do — especially for younger generations. They’re being sort of indoctrinated into this kind of control online, and it’s interesting to think about what will happen when that will transfer offline to real life.”

Kim Gregson, an assistant professor in the television-radio department who teaches the qualitative research class and is an authority on video game technology, introduced Second Life to the classroom during a first-year seminar on digital identities.

“What I saw from just their exposure in the freshman class is that there were lots of different kinds of people doing really weird stuff,” she said.

So Gregson, aka Kim Chihuly, brought it to her research methods course this past spring. During this semester’s class, one of the first projects was to observe other Second Life residents. Rather than studying people in, say, the cafeteria at 8 a.m., Gregson said she thought Second Life could introduce the class to different people from all around the world.

“Even though it’s eight in the morning here, it’s nighttime somewhere,” she said.
“So there were people in the clubs. There were people dressed up in furry costumes. There were vampires. There were people from Japan, Britain and South America. You’re not going to find that in our little town.”

Lynch said what’s unique to Second Life is its immersive experience — an experience thatchallenges the fundamental assumption that people are, essentially, one person with one personality and one identity. With the development of our virtual selves, she said, we create multiple identities — what Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholar Sherry Turkle calls “multiplicity” in her book “Life on the Screen.”

“Online experiences present an entirely new set of challenges for understanding and coping with identity development,” Lynch said.

As Snotrag Steiner searched for vampires, resident Austra Soleil, senior Austra Zubkovs’ avatar, searched for a religious experience. For the past several weeks, Zubkovs has been exploring churches and attending religious services in Second Life.

“For some reason, I just automatically assume people are creepy,” she said. “I got to get over that.”

As part of a research collaboration focusing on the role of religion in Second Life between Gregson and Rachel Wagner, assistant professor in the philosophy and religion department, Zubkovs is gathering virtual religious objects, including Bibles and Buddha medicine kits, and exploring groups of virtual temples, like the Drak Yerpa Hermitage. At the Pop Culture Association’s annual spring conference, Gregson and Wagner will present their research, display Zubkovs’ objects and play a slide show of religious builds on the Park School island.

They will also interview Second Life residents in order to better understand the role that religion and faith play in the virtual world, and to find out what this means for people in the development of their religious perspectives, both in their lived and online experiences.

Before Wagner created her avatar, Faith Tracer, in mid-November, she had been interested in religion’s role and meaning in a networked world. In 2004, she studied the role religion plays in “The Matrix,” and the fluid boundary between the viewer and the film’s story.

“We’re invited to see the film as potentially more accurate and more real than our own world — that we might be stuck in the matrix, and the film is trying to pull us out of that illusory state,” she said.

Studying religious experiences in Second Life raises a wide range of interesting questions, Wagner said.

“Can your avatar sin?” she said. “Is it you sinning? What does it mean to sin? … Can you have compassion in Second Life? What would that look like? Can you accumulate good karma in Second Life? What does that mean for you as a real person?”

Wagner said religions like Hinduism and Buddhism recognize that the real world is illusory. Religions like Islam, Christianity and Judaism do have submerged traditions that recognize the illusory nature of reality, but these traditions are in the minority. The mainstream practices of these religions argue the reality of the material world.

So far, Wagner said the majority of religious representations in Second Life are Christian, perhaps because the community is mostly a phenomenon in the U.S., where Christianity is popular. It may also have to do with Christianity’s teachings of the incarnation, of God representing himself in physical form on earth. These beliefs, Wagner said, make it easier to understand the popularity of virtual Christian representations.

But not much has changed between real-world Christian practices and Second Life representations of them. Residents have built traditional churches with stained-glass windows, and avatars still perform the Catholic Mass as it is performed in the real world.

“Even though people don’t feel that kind of obligation to their physical stuff — they’re furry, they’ll have wings, they’ll be different colors of the rainbow, they’ll gender bend — there is this kind of tendency to want religious experience that at least has some obvious echoing of real experience,” Wagner said.

Wagner and Gregson’s Second Life research is joining a global discussion about issues of digital media and identity creation. Turkle argues that without a deep understanding of the selves we create online, we cannot use our virtual experiences to deepen our experiences offline.

Krotoski said Second Life is an enriching world that offers creative, social and business opportunities that aren’t available in the real world. It’s a step toward creating a new way to share information —“social-networking plus.”

“Many people use [Second Life] for educational functions, social purposes and creative expression, and have no economic interest in the platform whatsoever,” she said. “What makes it real and important and relevant to [users] are the human interactions they experience via the software,” she said.