Given all the ways that Second Life differs from reality, it seems strange that so many of us come here with values from Real Life and expect them to be fulfilled. Does it make sense for us to expect our Real World behaviors and expectations to work in a world in which people change their looks, their age and species as easily as we change clothes; fly, teleport, or even have multiple selves running around unknown to us? Is it even sane to expect our relationships to be steady and consistent in such a world? Or are our hopes for a normal relationship in this virtual world as totally misguided as expecting to hold a picnic on the moon?
This idea’s been percolating inside me for a while now. I was talking to the woman whose recent relationship had crashed and burned after just ten days, leaving her confused and devastated. “I was so sure he was the one,” she said. “We were such a good fit and got along so well. I just can’t understand how this happened. And now I have to start all over again. I don’t know if I can.”
Her lover had just disappeared one day, just vanished from SL. Two weeks of closeness and happiness and wonderful feelings, and then nothing. Not a note, not an IM. It sounded to me like the work of an alt, but you never know. Maybe RL intervened, or his computer had burst into flames, or he just changed his mind and used the freedom of SL to simply vanish. But she was very hurt and bewildered. She wanted to know why this always seemed to happen.
At the same time I suddenly seemed to be running into a lot of people who’d let themselves be adopted by SL “parents”. At first I thought there must be some weird and sinister sexual Freudian thing going on, but I came to understand that most of these people were actually just looking for stability. (In all fairness, I should say that there are, in fact, some pretty weird Freudian things going on in some of them.) They wanted the closeness and commitment of a family unit to give them a sense of support and belonging in the wilds of SL. And given the flexibility of SL, it’s not that hard to turn yourself into an adoptee, or a parent, for that matter.
The thing that makes these kinds of SL arrangements weird and unsettling in that they’re called “families” in the first place, and so we try to understand them in the same way we understand Real Life families and that feels kind of squicky. If we called them communes or clans, we wouldn’t find them so weird. But we persist in bringing RL definitions and expectations to SL, where they just don’t work very well.
It’s not surprising that people try to impose Real Life values on Second Life. In fact it’s pretty inevitable. We’re creatures of habit after all. But you have to wonder if that’s the best way to approach the virtual world, the best way of exploiting and maximizing its potential. By sticking to our old values, are we missing out on developing new, more effective ones?
I happen to think Second Life is important, because I think the virtual world is where the future is. We live in a real world which is steadily becoming more tightly exploited and regulated, in which new frontiers and opportunities for freedom have disappeared. We used to look to space when we imagined our future. We don’t anymore. The only significant cultural frontier left is the virtual one. The only real freedoms we have are online, in worlds of our imagination.
Second Life is like one big sociological experiment in the virtual world, where people are working out the best way to arrange their virtual lives for maximum real world satisfaction. Clans, families, harems, matriarchies, disappearing lovers, alts, fluid relationships and identities are all a part of it. The old rules just won’t apply, and those who expect them to are going to be very disappointed sooner or later.