Saturday, March 7, 2009

Get a (Second) Life!: Too Free or Not Too Free? That is the Question...

Well, folks, there’s a new kid on the block when it comes to online interactivity. It’s called Second Life—because we all know that when it comes to chocolate and identities, why have one when you can have two?

Actually, Second Life seems to offer users things that their first lives don’t—freedom to represent themselves in any way they want through their
avatars or digital representations of themselves. And we’re not just talking gender or age or weight or race; we’re talking completely fantastical fabrications that cross boundaries regarding everything from cultures to species.

But does Second Life really offer so much freedom?

Second Life is the brainchild of
Linden Lab, a San Francisco-based Internet company founded in 1999. Developed in 2003, Second Life is a virtual world that allows users to relate to each other in ways that mimic—and enhance—real life interactions. It boasts everything from classroom environments in which professors from such hallowed universities as Harvard and Colombia conduct lectures, to trendy clubs, fashion outlets, and even a Reuters news bureau. Second Life even has its own currency, the Linden dollar, which users can exchange for actual U.S. dollars.

The effects on online identity are mind boggling. While proponents of the virtual environment would have you believe that you have virtually unlimited freedom in constructing the online identity represented by your avatar, there are several constraints that make this impossible.

1. Name—The most obvious limitation, and quite often the first you come across, is the ability to chose your own name. Oddly enough, Second Life only allows users to choose a name based on a set list of last names which can be combined with a first name to form your avatar’s full name. This constraint means that while you are technically “free” to choose your name, which you cannot typically do in real life, your choice is limited by the possible name combinations Second Life provides. In a way, this relates to Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno’s thoughts on ideology, namely that freedom to choose from that which is always the same is no freedom at all.

2. Appearance—While the possible appearances avatars can have seem virtually limitless, there are two very real constraints when it comes to matching your vision with (virtual) reality: online artistic ability and money. The simple fact is that, unless you’re an excellent graphic designer, you’ll probably have some difficulty trying to make your avatar look the way you want it to, especially if you’re going for a heavily customized avatar complete with wings and/or bunny ears. The other alternative is to buy “skins” which modify the appearance of your avatar from other Second Life users by way of Linden dollars. If you don’t have the cash, you’ll just have to be happy with what you’ve got.

3. Real-life constraints—As much as Second Life users like to keep their real lives separate from their second lives, to do so would really be impossible. Users are limited by the amount of time they are able to spend on their avatars based on real-life commitments such as jobs, education and families. Their personalities are also a factor, since it might be difficult for generally shy people to open up, even in a virtual environment. Finally, money is also a factor, since real U.S. dollars are used to buy the Second Life currency which allows users to shop, enter parties, buy real estate and so on.

We can see, then, that Second Life doesn’t offer the type of freedom that it suggests when it comes to identity formation. Rather, it offers only the illusion of freedom to people desperate to feel like they have some semblance of choice in their lives.

How a propos that there exists only an illusion of freedom in a place built as an illusion of reality.

1 comment:

  1. The Digital Ethnography Project has a video preview of their Anonymity Project -- you should see it as it touches on a lot of the things you have been discussing.