Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Second Life is a place we visit

Here's my March column for AVENUE magazine.


This is a column I’ve been meaning to write for a while now, and what better time than March 2012, the very last day of which denotes the fifth rez day of Huckleberry Hax?  That’s right: five years of writing novels set in Second Life®.  Five years of doing open mic poetry and live readings, and being told what a wonderful voice I have (calm yourselves, it’s just the southern British accent).  Five years of occasionally building 60s and 70s furniture and never quite getting around to finishing that shop I keep on saying is just around the corner.

Five is quite an age in SL, if I do say so myself.  I remember looking at two year olds sitting on the wall at Bear (the infohub I got sent to when I decided I was done at Help Island) and being envious of their seniority.  Now, I’ve exceeded their age by more than a factor of two.  I’ve seen the introduction of voice, windlight, sculpties, mesh, shadows and depth of field.  And bouncy breasts.  I’ve seen gambling banned and Linden homes built and the continent of Zindra created.  I’ve seen Philip Linden go and come back… and go again.  I’ve seen SL open-sourced and watched the rise of Open Sim worlds and third party viewers.  I even visited Google Lively.

And five years of friendships with people from faraway places.  When people get asked what it is about SL that makes it special, they usually say something along the lines of, “the people”.  They’re sometimes talking about ‘user generated content’, that oft-cited phrase that ultimately denotes the separation of SL from a world of essentially default avatars and prefabricated locations (and, admittedly, less lag).  In most cases, however, they’re talking about friendship; more specifically, they’re talking about the realisation that first dawned on them perhaps a few weeks into their inworld life – that SL is a place where you can find and make the friends you’ve always secretly wanted to have.

It’s increasingly the case these days that our personal audits are comprised of digital acquisitions, things that aren’t tangible and real, at least within our own physical space.  It all started with music downloads, bits of data you couldn’t hold in your hand, but which it suddenly became appropriate to exchange money for.  Now we have movie downloads and ebooks and apps, and, courtesy of social networking, we now have digital friends as well.  Digital friends are a whole new type of friendship, at once better and worse than their RL equivalents.  Like ebooks, we can’t touch and smell them, and we can’t look at them in one go in anything approaching completeness; all you can see at any given moment is a single solitary slice.  But, also like ebooks, they are instantly there, it’s so much easier to find them and it is their content – not their physical packaging – that is what makes us want their company.  We connect with people in SL in ways it’s much harder to connect with people in RL, at least some of us do.  In part, this is because we’re able to find more likeminded people in the metaverse; but also – and perhaps more significantly – it’s because we get to know deeper parts of them, the bits we’re more guarded about giving away – or being – in RL.  The bits, also, that we can’t or don’t want to see in others in RL because superficial aspects of them take precedence in our mind, like their appearance or the way they speak.  We are all, as a product of both evolution and social conditioning, naturally prejudiced as human beings.  One of the reasons, then, that I get so excited about online interaction is that it presents a way (not the only way) for us to escape the confines of our programming.  Our genetic and social heritage is where we come from, not our destiny.  It does not define us.

Like I said, it’s not the only way.  Poets and artists have been describing for us the unseen world for as long as people have existed.  But, for some of us, there is a moment in SL when there descends a feeling of being at the edge of something immensely meaningful as a result of being inside this ‘artificial’ place.  Our whole way of thinking about the ‘real’ world starts to change as a result of it.  And this is a process that does not – which cannot – stop, once it has begun.

Cyberspace, however, can seduce us into false assumptions.  The realisation that true and meaningful relationships can be found in it is only the start – not the end point – of our growth.  Because it quite literally surrounds us, wherever we go and there is an internet connection, we can become fooled into thinking that the friendships we form within it will be just as pervasive over time as the metaverse is over space.  Those early days of thinking, ‘This is a friendship that will exist forever’ do not last.  Perhaps this is why we come to symbolise particularly strong bonds within SL using the language of siblinghood; perhaps we describe our best friends in our profile picks as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ as insurance against that which we know deep down must still inevitably happen, because it has happened to us in RL so many times before: the eventual parting of ways.  A brother or sister, after all, cannot not be our brother or sister; they are that for life.

The saddest part of my five years in SL, you see, is the friends who have left.  People who, at one stage, I thought would be a part of my life forever, have moved on.  On our first encounter with this, it’s easy to become disillusioned with or bitter about the sense of security and warmth we felt we had discovered in SL, to be angry at ourselves for letting ourselves believe that things could somehow be different.  Speaking personally, I recall a time (in truth, I’m not entirely out of this stage yet) when I grew weary of people telling me they would always be in SL and couldn’t imagine ever leaving it.  I knew that they too would leave eventually – all the people I have been closest to in SL have left, or at least reduced their time inworld to having left to all extents and purposes.  In some ways, this hurts even more than when friends move out of our lives in RL.  If a friend moves to a different geographical place, for example, then of course we will see them less; of course the nature of our interaction will change.  But a friend who leaves SL does so wholly by choice – there is nothing physical preventing them from continuing to be inworld.  They are choosing, therefore, to end an existence which had previously been celebrated for its immensity and endurance.  It can feel like a whole new level of personal rejection.

But SL shouldn’t be thought of as some sort of omnipotent place that we can always reach out and brush our fingers against.  If its function has been to introduce us to the unseen world, an inevitable consequence of this is the realisation that hidden truths do not exist in the metaverse alone.  These things are the things that actually are all around us, behind every shadow and smile and movement of a hand across a face.  For some of us, then, our experiences in SL serve as a catalyst, an awakening, a leap in our level of personal consciousness which then needs to be fed into our real lives if its ultimate purpose is to be fulfilled.  For some, SL is a respite, a place to just pause and get our breath back.  For some, it is a playground, a chance to experiment with being something different.  For some of us, it is all of these things together.

Whatever it is that it is, however, SL is a place that we visit and, for many of us, the visit is ultimately finite.  Sometimes we leave for time out, but sometimes we leave for good.  And that is totally okay.  People are responsible only to themselves for their happiness, and they are the best judge of the direction in which that lies.  And life is meant to be fluid.  If we who remain can get past the bitterness phase then what’s waiting for us on the other side is a deeper understanding of what it means to experience real friendship, not to mention gratitude for having found people to discover such closeness, trust and intimacy with, however briefly that lasted.  What’s waiting is hope and optimism for all the things that we now know are possible.  What’s waiting is a better understanding of what it actually means to be human.

As I move towards my second half decade of Huck, therefore – my own time in SL, as it happens, currently just a fraction of what it used to be – I look forward more to the continued growth in my thinking and being than I do to any improvement technically in the metaverse experience or its popularity (much as I do look forward also to these things).  And this is a good opportunity for me to thank every person who has touched me in such a way that I have awakened just a little bit more from their touch.  You are all deeply meaningful to me and – wherever you are – I wish you happiness.

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