This week’s focus in Research Methods in Digital Communication (MMC5427) is on digital ethnography, especially as it applies to virtual worlds. Although time does not allow for an expensive qualitative research study including active and passive observation along with interviews, I did have the opportunity to venture into virtual reality (VR) for a few hours via the virtual world platform, Second Life. For a general overview of this online 3D experience, please view the video below.
Who Was I for Four Hours?
From the pre-made options, I selected an avatar that I thought would be as close to my real-life (RL) self as possible. She had simple red hair and pretty normal clothing. I felt most comfortable in this parallel “integrated self” experience rather than leaving the real me behind to take on a completely different character living a fantasy in an “immersed self” situation.
How Did I Travel?
In Second Life (SL), avatars navigate the landscape by traditional means such as walking, running, and driving cars. However, although SL creators wanted the “residents” of their online reality to have all the normalities and luxuries of their physical lives, the virtual gods must have also wanted to make our second lives extraordinary by giving us the ability to fly freely, (my favorite way to travel), and to even teleport to long-distance locations.
Where Did I Go?
With the virtual expanse in all directions, where does one sight-see? I began my travels in a whimsical faery land…
I then journeyed to more “normal” places such as universities, a science museum, Mayo Clinic, and even a grocery store. Of course, when I saw the option to visit the Multi Media Arts Center, (featured below), I had to press “Teleport!” During its busier times, the MMAC hosts live performances and events. However, at 2:30 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, I was the only one there (as indicated by the lonely yellow dot in the map in the upper left region of the screenshot below).
As with the MMAC, most of the other places mentioned previously were deserted. According to its creators, Second Life has about a million active users. So where were they?
That’s right- the bars and dance clubs. I admit that this is where I spent a bit of my time, although not only for the dancing, but also for the communication aspect of my experiential ethnographic research. (Hey, I had to be where the people were!)
Communication in Second Life is very similar to other digital platforms. One may opt to use either chat or microphone / audio features. Linguistically speaking, the virtual world “residents” do have some unique terms and concepts native to the platform’s culture and structure. For example, they call their currency “Lindens.” Also, when those chatting around me spoke about real estate or instructed me to “Get dance moves from the feminine pink disco ball up near the ceiling,” I was a little lost due to my fledgling familiarity with the software’s functions and tools. More hours of experience in SL would have made the communication easier, and it would also have given me further opportunity to observe behavioral and language similarities and differences between VR and RL. (See? I’m already getting the lingo!)
Life After Second Life
After returning to my boring 2D internet browser, I decided to do a little research about SL from the outside. I was curious to know how companies and organizations utilize the platform for digital marketing and communication purposes. I found an interesting, (albeit outdated), video highlighting some of the brands with a Second Life of their own:
What was even more interesting, though, were some of the comments made below this YouTube video. As further in-world research later confirmed, commenters noted that most of these big businesses have long since abandoned SL. Furthermore, they attributed the brands’ failures to misuse of the platform as a “website” or virtual “[billboard]” hoping to drive more traffic to their real-world locations. Considering all I’ve learned and experienced about Second Life, coupled with my academic knowledge of mass communication, social media, and marketing; I’d say these comments are likely right on target!
A Little Virtual Life Inspiration
My personal adventures in Second Life, as well as the dated materials about this platform across the web, led me to wonder if perhaps this virtual world is heading for irrelevance? To find out, I located Second Life on Twitter, and found that the social media profile is active daily and tweets the latest news and upcoming events in SL.
While browsing the updates, I discovered another human/digital twist. The video below captures a live virtual dance performance and demonstrates that artists, entertainers, and other creatives are continuously finding new ways to express vision through digital media, (even in virtual worlds). Online realities are filled with real people, and where there are people, there is creation. There is innovation, beauty, and art. There is self-expression and interconnection through shared language and culture. There is unity. All of this coalesces to form a society, and understanding that society is what ethnography is all about.