I’ve never used Second Life. Since I couldn’t even work up any interest in The Sims five or six years ago when I had a Sims-loving best friend and considerably more free time and ennui than I do at the present, I haven’t felt the symptoms of what Clay Shirky aptly called the “Try Me” virus.
But I guess the hilarity of Get a First Life and even further hilarity of Linden Lab‘s resulting refusal to serve its creator with a cease-and-desist letter have really stayed with me. What else—save an unhealthy sci-fi obsession in my tween years and having watched a certain X-Files episode a few too many times—could possibly have led to my dystopian Sunday night dream in which people had uploaded their consciousness into Second Life?
But this wasn’t just my subconscious remixing The Matrix.* That would be a little too embarrassing to post about. Instead of having our corporeal bodies rendered useless and tied in a tangle of wires to bulky machines, they roamed free and consciousness-less, and a favorite pass-time was to manipulate one’s physical body from the virtual world as a sort of game. So in my dream the body was the avatar. Derrida would be so proud.
Now, I’m not big into the Second Life hype, primarily for one of the reasons Clay mentions in his pretty much dead-on aforementioned Valleywag post: There’s just no need to add a simulation of the physical world on top of the internet. Call me crazy, but I don’t see how navigating one’s avatar into a virtual bar could possibly be more efficient for meeting interesting people online than finding a good forum site (or, you know, socially networking).
But I do think that my subconscious, in addition to being simultaneously hysterically funny and distressingly dorky, was making a point: Most commentary about the social web talks up the idea of “living online,” explaining the phenomenon of having MySpace friends you’ve never met and don’t plan to meet, or describing the process of crafting the perfect profile to define your online identity. But the ways we use our online life to manipulate our offline life are just as fascinating—and arguably a little more relevant, at least at this juncture.
Danah Boyd briefly mentions the angst that can come of stressful “top friend” assignments in her paper “Friends, Friendster, and the MySpace Top 8” (pdf available here), but it’s more than just the tweens. The express purpose of LinkedIn is to enhance its users’ offline professional life (and hopefully their bank accounts too). Craigslist has some forums, sure, but mostly its classifieds connect people to real jobs, physical apartments, and tangible dates. And speaking of dates, online dating sites definitely aim to get their users dating in person, rather than just chatting online.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a real and distinct social sphere online—obviously there is. Just this little blog has brought me into contact with more than a handful of interesting online acquaintances whom I’ll probably never meet in person. But my point is that an important part of what we do online is a means to a real-life end rather than an end onto itself. The internet is a medium for offline goals, even if the goal is just the serotonin rush of a completed blog post or an interesting new virtual friend. Ultimately the idea that we could live entirely within a virtual world rests upon the notion that such a world could really be severed from the physical—and recovering sci-fi nerd though I am, I just don’t see it.
*I’m one of the three people left in the U.S. who haven’t seen The Matrix. Any references to that movie are based completely upon what I’ve gleaned from the collective unconscious and wikipedia, if the two are really separate entities as some have claimed.