Monday, September 7, 2009

What I Learned in Second Life, So Far


Part One: I learned . . .

I learned how to do a lot of things, including how to make machinima (a slow process, and like any kind of filmmaking, one that is never fully mastered), to build the objects I wanted to build in a virtual world (and how to find the ones I could not build myself), to get to know people in a different way than I had previously, to make my own particular kind of virtual art based on an evolving criteria of what I think is distinctive about virtual art, how to find other like-minded and also incredibly different-minded people, and to amuse myself and others seemingly endlessly. I tried a lot of things as ways of being or thinking through the virtual world, like taking metaphors seriously, or following coincidence and synchronicity to see where it led me, with mixed results. Oh, and I learned how to make a whole array of new social faux pas in the new country of the virtual world, without ever really learning how not to repeat them.

I learned that I really liked meeting the people I had met first in Second Life in the actual world, and that even when there were big differences between their avatars and their physical embodiments, I still enjoyed interacting with them more in the virtual world after meeting them in person. Even when the gender didn’t match up, I could still see or hear the person in the avatar, and “toggle,” my term for moving between the virtual and actual image in my mind’s eye, sometimes so fast as to blur the two. I met some of the people I am closest to in SL in person, but not all of them, and some I have “met” through telepresence on Skype or google video chat, in addition to the phone and voice chat. All these forms of communication, connection, interaction, and ways of knowing are incredibly interesting to me, and I look forward to extending these explorations with my students. I am very curious about interacting with people who I know first in the actual world as avatars; I do some of that, but maybe they are too close to me to be good experiments, or often they are with me in the same room, and we can just talk to each other instead of being together only in the virtual space. I also learned about myself that I do not ever really take the avatar as only an avatar, a virtual presence, but always think of the person on the other side of the computer, and make all kinds of assumptions about them, and sometimes those assumptions are way, way off. Botgirl finally taught me that one.

I also learned something I already knew, but maybe had forgotten a little, and really is the take-home lesson of my sabbatical: that in order to be creative, one has to be open and receptive, even vulnerable, make mistakes, explore and experiment. I could see this most clearly in the inworld art I made, particularly in the installation I did for SL6B, the 6th birthday celebration of Second Life. I was in way over my head, and luckily have friends who helped me. I was able to learn enough new skills to make something that expressed the ideas and images I imagined, and even imagery I hadn’t quite imagined, but made as I worked on the sculptures, experimenting with shape, movement, color, line, space. As I explored SL, especially going to the places suggested by Bettina Tizzy in her Not Possible in Real Life blog or inworld group notices/notecards, the creativity, innovation, and wild unleashing of the human spirit in Second Life never stopped amazing me or inspiring me. I feel incredibly lucky to have made friends with whom to trade ideas and collaborate, with whom finding our ways in the virtual world as artists, thinkers, designers, and builders is serious play, of the best kind.

Part Two

Here are some conclusions I have reached.

1) Everyone is in Second Life for their own reasons, and there is no point in generalizing. That said, I will! In a way, SL reminds me of the Peace and Justice Center I was involved in when I was a graduate student in Bloomington, Indiana, because people came to it for a lot of different reasons, and often found other ones for staying around. I do think that, as I have suggested with the fourth aspect of virtual subjectivity I formulated, "virtual agency," that so much depends on what a person chooses to do in a virtual world; as one discovers or develops new skills and interests, reasons can change. Because of the highly individualized nature of a virtual world, because virtual subjectivity is so, well, subjective, even as it is intersubjective and we create that virtual sense of self and place in our interactions with others, no one's experience of a virtual world is like another's. I have also seen quite a few people leave or drift away from SL, and that is interesting to think about, too, as I end my research time and wonder how my relationship to the virtual world will change now that it is not my primary focus. Is there a threshold of time spent that makes a difference to one's experience?

2) Although I am no Freudian, I found myself thinking a lot about Freud’s categories of id, ego, and superego, and wondering where the hell the superego is in SL. At one point, in the screwball comedy, that is what the heroine is looking for! Maybe it is the game-like environment, or the relative anonymity, or the intense visual stimulus, but people act in some pretty interesting ways, unencumbered by the internal censors that ruin so much of everyday life/keep civilization intact. At the same time, the “emotional bandwidth” of communication, to use Pathfinder Linden’s supersmart concept, is lower than in face to face communication, whether in the narrower pipeline of text chat or the wider one of voice. It is absolutely true that a great deal of actual world interaction is now computer-mediated, but in a virtual world, that’s all you got, and somehow, when combined with the relative absence of the superego, people’s interactions and actions take on a different flavor altogether.

3) A virtual world can be an extension of the actual world, and I think it will be increasingly so. It used to be that making a telephone call was a big, huge deal, involving stationary machines and an operator. Now we stop talking on the phone because we are walking up to the person we are talking to on our cell phone. The transition feels seamless. I believe that in the future, we will move in and out of virtual worlds like that, seamlessly, and our avatars will be another aspect of who we are. Combine this prediction with the observation noted in #2 above, and the future might be kind of fun!

4) There is an aura in a virtual world, and it is in the object of the avatar. I am working this up in a more detailed way, but that is the conclusion of L1AURA Loire. (Add this to #3 and #2, doing some weird insight math.)

5) There are great possibilities for both music, education, and new ways of being in virtual worlds, and Berklee should get in there!!

And here are some highlights of things I did during the sabbatical:

"Having But Not Holding: Consumerism & Commodification in Second Life" Journal of Virtual Worlds Research [Online], 1 10 Nov 2008

“The Falling Woman Story,” machinima

“TOGGLE,” machinima, published on the PBS Frontline Digital Nation website &

with additional commentary on:


“Virtual Art, Virtual Aura.” Presentation for Panel Discussion, Brooklyn Is Watching Best of Year One Festival. Jack the Pelicans Presents Gallery. Brooklyn, NY, July 2009.

“The Future of Virtual Subjectivity.” Inworld presentation/discussion, SL6B, Sixth Birthday Celebration of Second Life, June 2009.

“Boston Is Watching: Virtual Subjectivity.” Presentation, Boston CyberArts Festival, Boston Public Library, April 2009.

"Virtual KinoEye: Mutability, Kinetic Camera, Machinima, and Virtual Subjectivity in Second Life." Paper, Media in Transition 6: stone and papyrus, storage and transmission, MIT, Cambridge, MA, April 2009.

"Keynote Presentation, "Digital Transformations and Conversions in Art- Web 2.0 and Beyond: Virtual Subjectivity," NMC (New Media Consortium) Symposium on New Media and Learning, March 2009.

Inworld installations:

L1Aura’s EduGolf:

The Future of Virtual Subjectivity, Fiteiro Cultural

Podcasts for Brooklyn Is Watching:

Professor Loire’s Second Life blog:


Rough cuts of the screwball comedy and a music video

Machinima piece for Journal of Virtual Worlds Research on virtual goods and services

Multimedia essay on virtual subjectivity

Bouncing on my toes in preparation for the Burning Life land grab

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sabbatical Final Exam!

I have been working on my course syllabi for the Fall semester, and looking at the description of the take-home final exam, which explains that it is important to sit down, reflect, and be forced to perform a synthesis of what you have learned, even as you have one foot out the door and you are running around busier than ever (well, it doesn't use that language exactly). It occurs to me that I should have to do such a thing before I rush off into teaching and committees again, put the seat of the pants in the seat of the chair (as my professor Susan Gubar always said was the only way to get work done) and answer the question: What have you learned this year, studying virtual subjectivity on sabbatical in Second Life?

I post this here and now I have to do it.