In the real world, I have been known to associate with some interesting and eclectic people. Occasionally, we’ll have a social get-together – maybe a meal or a few drinks in a local pub, and spend the time engaged in everyday things completely unrelated to the common interests that bring us together. I suppose you could say that we’re a community of sorts, although you might struggle to identify exactly what it is that links us, and an outsider to the group would probably find more in terms of dissimilarity than commonality between us, without knowing the common bond that connects us.
Indeed, at a recent evening out, there was an outsider in our midst – a university student undertaking a project seeking to document the activities of various communities within society. Some interesting discussion ensued, and it became patently obvious that not all social groupings are easy to either categorise or define, either by activities, beliefs, interests or indeed any frame of reference that our young researcher had intended to rely upon.
Some communities, I suppose, are fairly easy to categorise – model train enthusiasts, for example, are linked by a certain amount of common ground that is readily identifiable. Even so, I’m pretty certain that if you were to bring a bunch of model railway buffs together and questioned them, it would rapidly become apparent that the world of miniature trains is far more complicated than an outsider might ever imagine, as are the people who indulge in the pursuit!
Second Life clearly illustrates this paradox. Few of us would disagree with the statement that SL is a community – it bears all the hallmarks of being so, yet dig a little deeper and you’ll find that there is a huge disparity amongst the people who spend their time inworld. To some, SL is a game; to others, a virtual world; a business platform; a social medium; a creativity tool; an escape from the pressures of everyday life… And it can be any combination of these things to any one individual at any time.
Our reasons for spending our time in SL may see us sharing common interests with others – music, role play, romance, games or any combination of many varied pursuits that may mirror or even be at complete variance to our RL interests. Then again, we might choose to absent ourselves from the company of others whilst inworld, or perhaps interact with them on a strictly business footing. To call the assemblage of people who are connected through the device of SL a community, is perhaps stretching a point – we certainly share an environment, and within that environment we may well take part in community based activities, but just how closely do we really connect to the majority of the people with whom we share SL in real terms?
And speaking of reality, the real people behind the avatars really have very little in common too. We will share certain attributes, such as a means of accessing the virtual world and a shared understanding of the manner in which it works, but apart from the odd twist of fate and chance connection, the vast majority of us will have very little in common – in real terms – with those with whom we spend our time inworld. If we were to meet outside SL what are the chances that our real world communities would happen to encompass those same people with whom we spend our time in SL?
So, with regard to those in the oustide world those who do not share our interest in a virtual existence, we face something of a challenge in explaining the allure of SL and the community that we feel we are part of – on the face of it, it’s a fairly straightforward matter to rationalise partaking in what SL has to offer, but try to explain the relationships and friendships that arise from it, the connections that we feel so strongly, and the attachments we forge within virtual groupings of arbitrary and otherwise unconnected human beings – apart from the tenuous link of a shared interest – and we may struggle to engage those who have never experienced those sort of bonds.
How many of us, when we log out, become entirely different people… Leaving behind the virtual construct that we like to think of as a community, to rejoin the real communities of which we are a part in our real lives.
Or, is that the one vital ingredient that some of us may feel we are missing in the real world anyway?
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
Nouela – The Sound Of Silence