Second Life is moving toward integrated voice capability. This isn’t news at this point; it’s moved onto the main grid now, and it’s only a matter of time (less rather than more) before it becomes an everyday, standard feature. There has been much discussion about what voice will do to interactions within SL; some people believe it will be so revolutionary that it will fundamentally change the way this particular virtual environment functions, and some others believe that voice is the path toward ultimate destruction.
Personally, I don’t think it’s that big a deal.
I mean, technically, it is a big deal; it’s an amazing thing. If you try it out, you’ll see what I mean. It’s not internet audio like I remember it back when I used AIM to talk to people overseas. Press the button, talk, release, listen: it’s like talking on CB radios. Second Life voice is not like that. It’s not tinny and distant like skype can be, either. Voice in Second Life is more like voice in real life than anything else I’ve ever seen. Everyone can talk at once; you get overlapping voices when many people are talking to each other, not cancelling each other out, but competing with each other. The people who are closer to you are louder, while people who are walking away from you get progressively quieter. I had the interesting experience of standing in a valley by a river with a friend on the beta grid and hearing conversations floating past as others walking near our location; it’s an amazingly rich way to process information, giving Second Life a depth that’s difficult to fully quantify. It has always had its three dimensions in terms of movement, but the flexibility of the voice features highlights them in ways that are incredibly powerful. The idea of this was already buried in the system; people’s text greys out as they’e farther away from you. But the audio factor is so much clearer in defining and describing distance and space. I’ve always found audio cues particularly powerful, so the voice features appeal to me.
But I don’t think voice chat is going to destroy anything. Not really.
There are a variety of arguments for why voice is destructive. The obvious: people whose avatars don’t reflect their physical realities are on their way to becoming exposed. Female avatars belonging to real-life men, for instance; possibly age will be reabable though voice (unlikely, in my opinion). Those with hearing challenges will be left out, as will people who are shy or don’t have a mic, who will disappear into the wallpaper. Wired noted that voice destroys the kind of level playing field that the text-based world provides by hiding age/culture distinctions that might otherwise keep users in their respective silos. It brings in a level of the real world that, in the case of World of Warcraft in particular, apparently isn’t very welcome. Having our preconceptions about others challenged is uncomfortable. Going along with other people preconceptions of us can sometimes be useful, and voice might endanger that.
You could make the same arguments for text, in many ways. Lots of us are pretty good at working out who’s probably male and who’s probably female in text anyway. (And I’m not talking about the gender genie, but that’s a post for another time.) And it’s not as if we can really hide our age and experience from people with whom we spend significant time. Educational level, etc. becomes clear fairly quickly in text. Pure text conversation excludes a significant number of people as well; it’s not as if text is more pure and predjudice-free than voice.
But I’m primarily convinced that voice won’t alter much because I don’t think voice is going to supplant text in Second Life.
I was talking to Catspaw last night about voice in WoW, and the way she described it pretty much matched up with what I expect we’ll see; voice takes its place as one element in the mix, an authoritative feature used in very specific circumstances with requirements that can make use of its advantages. In her case, she said the voice channel is what you use when the leader of a group needs to get information to everyone else really fast. In the case of Second Life, it might be a short bit of instruction or a story that everyone in a place wants to hear. I will likely be immediate, intimate, ephemeral, and short. In the case of Second Life, it’s not private by any means (your “ears” in Second Life are attached to your camera, not your avatar; you can zoom in on people and listen to a conversation even if you’re not that close to them). You can’t walk away from a voice chat (though, Catspaw says you can, you just need to crank the volume, but that crack aside). Voice chat ties you to a window in ways that text doesn’t. If someone hears you talking in response, you can’t very well be multi-tasking and catching up at intervals (which, I suspect, is how many people manage text chats…at least, that’s how I manage them). Voice chat is more like a real life conversation; if you don’t answer immediately, people will think you’re not paying attention (which you aren’t) and will be offended. For spurts of information, I think voice will be very useful, but I don’t think it will really push out those who doesn’t want to use it. Most people will use text for chatter because it requires less effort and allows for the ability to read up. (Even if they added a “listen to the last 5 minutes you missed” feature, you’d still get dragged out of the immediacy of the voice chat moment.)
And some people don’t have mics, that’s just reality. They can still listen in, though, and respond. If someone really didn’t want to use their voices, they could just say that they don’t have a mic and don’t really like talking into one anyway. I can’t imagine too many people would find that odd. Even I found it a bit daunting to experiment with the voice feature on the beta grid, and it’s hard to find someone more gregarious than I am. Voice is sort of like stepping up on stage in middle school to give your speech in front of all your peers; even for the pathologically un-shy, it’s a bit unnerving.
I expect the full introduction of voice in Second Life will go something like this: voice comes in, there’s a flurry of activity around it for a while, people talking to old friends for the first time, listening to people’s accents and luxuriating in the quality of their voices, feeling, possibly, distance because the tenor of the voices is different than expected, and then eventually things settling down and returning to normal, and returning, primarily, to text. Voice will probably get used, but only in specific circumstances that call for it. I think this is very literally about the addition of a feature rather than the replacement of another.
From an Ed Tech perspective, I think the introduction of voice is going to be amazing; it means we don’t need to set up live streaming to bring talks into Second Life. Audio chat comes with a certain amount of built-in authority; we used to run into problems with getting a message out to everyone in a class through text, because the set up of text is democratic in nature and doesn’t specially highlight the teacher’s words over everyone else’s. I’m in favour of that breakdown of authority on most levels and in most circumstances, but providing an authoritative channel like voice means we can acknowledge that the authority that exists, alows us to use it thoughtfully and meaningfully when we need it, and let us deliberately distribute it among the students when it’s required. For instance, we could have students take turns presenting via voice chat, and allow others to type their reactions and questions and feedback as text. It allows for a kind of visible backchannel that doesn’t need to take away from the presentation itself. It means many people can “talk” at once without interrupting each other; that was always been the beauty of text. (Me and Jason sometimes tell each other stories at the same time in text, stories that get twisted together but both get across at the same time.) Personally, I can’t sit through presentations anymore without talking back; at the moment I’m restricted to the number of questions I can ask before I feel like I’m dominating the group, and my various text-based backchannel options (which drag me out of the immediate room rather than keeping me in it). Voice brings to Second Life the function that conferencing software already has; text from the peanut gallery and voice from the presenter, and then the option of voice for the peanut gallery, who generally prefer to stick to text. If anything, the introduction of voice to Second Life is a challenge to conference software packages; there’s no sense of presence in those as it stands. Second Life would be a much more fun place to hold a conference once it gets easy voice chat.
But I guess we’ll soon see.