Second Life meets FaceBook: Why do we like being part of a virtual community?
Even though Levy‘s writing style is not my favorite (and that is probably because I am getting used to the Dutch style, very to-the-point), I still can handle it (probably because, in the end, I’m Italian and his mother tongue is French). In his book Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age, Levy writes about virtualization processes in different areas. Virtualization of text, economics, body and intelligence.
Although he enriches his idea with many speculations that are useless in my opinion, I find his way of understanding virtuality very attractive. He sees virtualization as the inverse process of actualization. While actualization goes from a given problem to a solution, virtualization brings us from the actual solution back to the problem. He also describes a number of examples to clarify what this very abstract concept means in practice: in a company where all employees are gathered inside a (number of) building(s), and working time is organized in schedules and supervised by other employees, the company has solved a problem actualizing the solution in the physical organization of her members. The virtual organization on the other hand makes large use of telecommunication and employees are dispersed in different places and work at different times. This solution is not definitive, and can rather be seen as a never-solved problem.
Levy applied these principles to his very specific interest in collective intelligence and language. His influence on collective intelligence theories have been recognized by the scholar community. To name an instance, Henry Jenkins makes large use of Levy’s ideas. Levy also created a website to develop his own project, on which his latest works are focused: the Information Economy Meta Language (IEML). IEML is a symbolic notation of meaning, semantic content-oriented language created for the Internet. It is a language created to be written and read, not spoken. And it is an attempt to make human-machine communication possible. Though IEML resembles natural language, it is also machine-readable.
I am very intrigued by all these theories and studies around collective intelligence. In fact, I wrote my bachelor thesis on the subject. On the other hand I find Levy’s ideas also interesting related to other areas of study and I’d like to see his ideas from a different angle. For instance, one could try to apply the actualization-virtualization principle to virtual communities.
Virtual communities have changed a lot. A couple of years ago Second Life was “The virtual community”. Even though Second Life still exists, other communities have been more successful and have become part of our every-day life. I am talking about social networking sites like FaceBook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, etc. Second Life is very different because it aims to be a parallel world, where one adopts a brand new identity and acts in a parallel reality, (mostly) without knowing who is the real person behind the avatars he is interacting with. I believe though that Second Life and other social networking sites like the ones I just named also have more in common than one would think at first sight.
I would like to analyze Second Life and FaceBook, compared to each other, using Levy’s paradigm of actualization VS virtualization. I think that the outcomes of this reflection could be very interesting and stimulating to better understand what is for us the appeal of virtual communities and virtual realities. Even if we are more and more immersed in a world of augmented reality, where virtual and actual become one space and our actual environment is transformed in an interface, I think it is still relevant to discuss how humans experience the belonging to a virtual community.
Second Life, like its name says, can be seen as a parallel life that one can begin and build in a virtual environment. From a very personal and individual point of view, this can be seen as the virtualization of a set of actual facts. From body shape, occupation, residence, way of spending money, to interpersonal relationships, every actualization in “Real Life” can be reinvented in a virtual environment.
Second Life is not just a game. It is a reality that influences our “actual” life. These actual life implications can vary from earning great money to being fired by your actual life employer, from getting married or divorce, to being involved in child pornography and sexual abuse. This short video documentary about child prostitution in Second Life shows one of the darkest side of this virtual community. At the same time it makes very clear how virtual world has to be considered real, and not as abstract and distant from our life.
Going back to Levy, Second Life can be seen as the virtualization of our actual life. Real people behind their avatars find different ways of solving their real problems. In this way, they have the feeling that they can change the outcomes of their actual life, and become someone else or reach a better status. It is well known that many Second Life users like Second Life exactly for this reason. Also, we have the tendency to think that virtual actions have no influence on our actual world. This is not correct. But at the same time, the idea allows us to act more freely than in “Real Life”. In some cases Second Life can become addicting, and I think that this is partly because in that world we can actualize things that we cannot actualize anymore in our “actual life”. This could also be an illusion: we may perceive a number of facts as the only possible outcome of our situation, establish cause-effect relationships that are in fact not real. Virtual reality could then give us the idea to open up new possibilities that are not conceivable in our actual life.
If we think of FaceBook, we think of totally different things. FaceBook is a place where we can stay in touch with old friends, find (and possibly stalk) old boyfriends and girlfriends, keep ourselves updated on what is going on with of brothers, sisters and people we more or less care about. It is also a place where we can express ourselves, we can show what we like, what we dislike, what we make, where we go, etc. We can also show ourselves to others in different situations. So one doesn’t actually need to invite a friend to a party or tell him about it, but can still show the pictures of it afterwards because they will appear on his friend’s homepage.
To give a practical example, I will use updates of my brothers’ and sisters’ profiles, because I know they don’t mind. It is also a striking example of someone you know in a given context, and can show a totally different side of his personality in a virtual context, where the relationship is differently regulated.
This picture illustrates how I got to know that my brother has a girlfriend. And that her name is Sara. I see my brother occasionally, when I go back to Italy to visit my family. Of course I talk to him on the phone sometimes, but he never talks about his private life. There is a big age difference and, sadly enough, he doesn’t see me that much around so he doesn’t really open up on this kind of subjects. He does, though, on FaceBook, in an indirect way.
Not only our relationships in actual life change on-line. We can also use FaceBook to create relationships from the very beginning. Never happened that you meet someone new, and you automatically exchange your FaceBook accounts? Then he/ she goes a little bit through your photos and you read his/ her last updates, and that helps you both in establishing a new friendship. You think that he/ she will know you faster and better by looking at different sides of you (for example: you the parent, you the student, you the party beast and you the filmmaker). You hope or you believe that he will have a better idea of who you are and he will not judge you only for how you behave in the given actual situation in which you first met.
In Levy’s perspective, I would interpret virtual relationships as a virtualization of the actual relationship (or non-relationship) with a person. Adding a friend or someone you know to your FaceBook network implies that you will show him/ her another side of yourself. You are opening new possibilities for new levels in that relationship with the same person. The actualization of these new levels in the relationship will also take place in your off-line life, in the form of new meetings, new activities or a modified relationship in the off-line world (ex. I can now make a joke about my brother’s girlfriend, and he will maybe talk about that more than he ever did).
I think that you can see now why I believe that two totally different virtual environments like Second Life and FaceBook can have a lot in common. The virtualization of our interpersonal relationships gives us the chance to re-experience them, transform their actualizations and constantly question them.