Second Life: Digital Ethnography and Dancing

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…

Faery land Second Life


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).

Multi Media Arts Center in Second Life


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?

Dancing at Sloppy Joe's Rock Bar in Second Life Virtual World


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!

Virtual World Marketing Failure Youtube Comments


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.




  1. says

    Angela –

    I must say I really appreciated the thoroughness of your blog post and that you took the time to research the topic further outside of Second Life itself. I also experienced that most of the locations had little to no people in them, which did kind of negate what our assignment was to do. I also found lots of people at the dance clubs, yet I didn’t stay long since I couldn’t figure out how to make my avatar dance. ☺ I found my way to an art museum, but once I was there, I didn’t know how to interact with it. I felt the same way you did, really wanting an updated interface to make interactions easier. I definitely felt the unity within Second Life amongst the users that have been on it for multiple years, but I can understand why companies are reluctant to put in the effort in Second Life to enhance their brand and sales. Great observations!

    • says

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Ashley. Yes, it will be interesting to see what virtual world will be next. Surely someone has something in the works? If Second Life took the time to reprogram the way in which people customize and control their avatars, so that the user experience is up-to-date and more intuitive, and then relaunched Second Life and marketed an enhanced experience, it could probably be revived. If it’s not Second Life, though, it will be something else. When that “something else” does come along, there will be ways to effectively use it as a marketing tool.

  2. says

    You found some really interesting places that I did not find when I was experiencing Second Life. I’m pretty jealous you started in that whimsical fairy land as I never got to experience anything that cool. I wandered around quite a bit, but somehow, I always ended up back in the same locations. It is so strange to see real life places like the Mayo Clinic represented in a virtual reality world like Second Life. I do wonder how real businesses and organizations like the Mayo Clinic feel about being part of virtual reality worlds. While I found basic navigation easier than I expected, I was not able to figure out some of the more complicated moves like dancing. I also was never able to make it to a shopping area just to see the environment for making purchases.

    It is crazy to me that artists or entertainers would hold virtual performances in a place like Second Life, but I guess it truly is time to start believing the statistics regarding the number of not only Second Life users but other virtual reality world users as well.

    • says

      Kayla, I was really surprised by Mayo Clinic. It was also one of the busier places I visited. I’m not sure if they were having a talk or something, because I was busy flying over the ocean instead of venturing in ;). Thanks for stopping by!

  3. says

    I like your conversation on billboards and advertisers. I found this feature to be tremendously underutilized. I did happen on a person selling painting. She had a billboard with an easel next to it. She explained on her board that she would paint a picture using the color you select and a topic (like dog). You would pay and share your facebook page and she would “send” it to you. I thought this was pretty neat and gave a sort of glimpse into what is possible with such a platform. But it has to be easier to use to really get people interested.

    • says

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting, John. I didn’t happen upon anything like that while visiting SL, but I wish I had! She would have been interesting to talk with.

  4. says

    Hello Angela, It was fun to read about your SL experience! I felt the same in that many of the places I went to didn’t have a lot of people. I like the additional resources you used. I had a friend send me the music video she made while on SL. I also heard from a coworker people would actually create SL buildings and have people be able to tour them for a fee and then they could actually purchase the real plans to make that building in RL!

    • says

      I appreciate you reading and sharing. The last bit about building tours and selling plans is really interesting to me. I’d love to hear about more ways in which entrepreneurs endeavor to create businesses in SL, along with ways in which brands market in virtual worlds.

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