Diving into the Metaverse
For the last week or so I’ve been spending some quality time getting to know Second Life. It seems to be all the rage right now in librarianship; in fact, what pushed me in that direction just now was a combination of collegial enthusiasm (from Jason) and a variety of presentations and teasers from libraries all over the place that made me feel like, gosh, I’ve missing something crucial while I’m running around implementing a learning management system; I should look up and see what’s going on.
Full disclaimer: immersive virtual environments is how I came by my honest love of things interactive, so this has been something I’ve been meaning to do for a while. Some of my personal interests have been relegated to the lowest tier of my attention lately, because a lot of my thought and time is dominated by what those around me want and need. Synchronous environments are my first true love, so it was just a matter of time before I dove into Second Life to see what was going on.
What I knew about Second Life before I logged was that it was based on the Metaverse, a fictional vision of the internet found in Neal Stephenson’s 1990 book, Snow Crash. The Metaverse built on the sense of place fostered by MUD, IRC, and BBSs, and took it a thousand steps farther; while characters in Snow Crash are logged on to the internet, they are in a shadow world, where their status is different than their real life ones, their connections are in the room with them while logged in from across the planet, and the digital streets were filled with billboards and strip joints. That book inspired a lot of people from the moment it appeared, and I’ve been seeing echoes of it in text-based environments for years, but Linden Labs took the concept extremely literally when they designed Second Life. While I always felt that the Metaverse’s commerciality was a wry commentary on the inevitable polution of captialist encroachment into the internet, a tool which was originally the result of a scientific and academic gift economy. But Linden Labs took Stephenson’s description dead seriously and fostered a real economy inside Second Life, based very much on that original vision. While I lean toward the far left of the political spectrum and tend to turn my nose up at captialist ventures inching into interactive online spaces, the Second Life economy appears to work pretty well, and benefits a large portion of its population.
I’d like to say I’m ready to pontificate about the pros and cons of Second Life, but I’m really not. I’m going to be sitting with it for a while, because there’s a lot to get to know about it, and I don’t think this kind of experience can be rushed. So I’ll keep my comments fairly general, and I must give you the caveat that my ideas are subject to change at any moment.
First, it’s very, very familiar to me. Second Life appears to be not only the digital child of Snow Crash, it’s also a sexier descendant of the MUDs of the 1980s, and, to be more specific, very much a close cousin to the MOOs of the 1990s (sorry Jeremy, but I think it’s true). To clarify: MUDs are games; they are game spaces with a select group of wizards doing all the building and crafting of the game elements, and a much larger group of users getting into character and role playing through that world. I haven’t played it myself, but from what I understand from friends is that World of Warcraft is a natural descendant of MUDverses. Of course they look extremely different; MUDs are text-based, and WoW is, well, not. MOOspaces were the same kind of environment as MUDs, but they had no required game elements. You could use it to game, but the general point of a MOO is that all users can build, not just the wizards. It’s a co-constructed space, still with a set of wizards, but the rules of the space are different. It’s not necessarily all about staying in character; the point is whatever you decide the point is. MOOs (and, yes I know, IRC) were the mass chat rooms before the web-based ones appeared. The difference between IRC and MOO was that MOO a place rather than a channel. A MOO was a place where you could build yourself a room and put furniture inside it, though everything you did in MOO was text. So your creation was based entirely on descriptions. But still; in MOO, people would enter a room and have a seat, because otherwise they would be standing in a room with friends chatting, and their virtual legs would get tired. Second Life, it seems to me, is the pretty young sibling in the MOO/MUD/MUSH/MUSE world. Finally, they replaced all those text descriptions with three-dimensional images.
So, Second Life is a place, or rather, a series of places, built by users. Unlike the text-based spaces I’m familiar with, Second Life is fully multi-media. And when I say fully, I really mean it; there are videos on screens in there, there’s streaming music you can listen to with your friends if you’re all sitting in the same room. There are auditoriums where masses of people can listen to a speaker speak live. There’s a voicechat in beta. Not only is your 3-D self in the space, your experiencing it, hearing it, running into it and (ouch) whacking your head against it at times. Second Life is so fully immersive that it’s very hard (in my experience) not to get emotionally involved. I mean, you’re right there. How can you not?
The first afternoon I spent in Second Life, sitting in one room together, we got up after 4 hours and realized we hadn’t moved in all that time. We’d just sat there on the couch. But we all felt like we’d be running all over the place. Because part of us had.
I’ve been very lucky in my introduction to this space; I have some friends to help me along the way. I have a few ideas so far, but I’m going to wait and see how much I can learn. It’s to easy to come to a quick conclusion about how to manage in Second Life as a librarian, and there’s lots of evidence of that in there. It’s fairly easy to rebuild the real world in there, but is that the best thing we can do? I don’t think it is. More when I’ve digested it a bit more.