Monday, October 22, 2007

When I Hear The Word 'Culture' I Reach For The Revolver

We are going to come to a massive cultural conflict in Second Life, one that has been brewing for quite some time now, and only recently has it come this close to the surface.

For on October 24, 2007, Second Life will witness an (expected and not yet realized) mass immigration of people who are in it for sightseeing. Tourists. Weekenders. Why? CSI is going to air an episode in which SL plays a pivotal role, and SL and the Electric Sheep Company are teaming up to tie it into an actual SL experience, even making a client that will cater to someone who doesn't want to deal with the daunting and intimidating SL interface.

Now, for the culture clash: It will between those coming in viewing SL as just a game and those who've been in SL for some time who see it as something more. And the former will win.

The simple problem is that community building in SL is a pain in the ass. Almost everyone I have met thinks their neighbors are assholes. It is a draining experience to deal with people who think they have a royal right to lord their will over entire sims or people who bombard you with nasty IMs asking that "you remove this penguin because I HATE PENGUINS" and when you take more than seven seconds to find it you're dealt a line of insults that would make a hardened sailor blush.

The problem in so many words is that everyone thinks everyone else is dead wrong, and due to this SL is inherently scattered into millions of fractured groups, each of which thinks it is divinely right and everyone else is destined to hell.

To be sure, there are a few communities, towns, and groups. But most of these tend to either be small, friend-centric, or a rental / role play community where a land lord or sim host dictates the behavior. In short, to be successful on a large scale in SL you need to have an overlord to enforce the rules and that everyone can equally hate.

For the most part, the only unified SL culture is one that is impressed upon SL from the Lindens and that which we draw from SL related blogs. The Lindens are the ultimate fall guys in SL culture, because as I mentioned above SL is really only in agreement when there is an overlord for everyone to hate. And dear Nunchuck, when you own the game itself, do you attract a large amount of disdain.

I won't go too far into this. Here is my point: If someone who is brand spanking new enters SL encounters this attitude (and they most certainly will), and upon seeing so much anger and drama generated in a virtual world, what will they think?

Will they join in the riots? Real life is full of enough drama. A good friend of mine once wrote that she came to SL to relax from stress, not engage in it. And lo and behold, guess which direction they will take.

It will be far easier for them to poke fun at SL, to laugh at the silly nerds taking a game so seriously. It will be a coping mechanism for them, because of the intense stress they witness from people they will likely never ever meet. They will see no point in engaging in SL in any capacity beyond a spectacle or a zoo. Look at the silly monkeys! Typing and arguing as if anything they do makes a difference! LOL!

No, it's much easier to disengage.

And over the past year, this disengagement has spread as more people make free accounts and get turned off by the unnecessary drama and debate and obsessions they see in SL. And the network effect is beginning to come into play as well.

The network effect is simple, and states that whatever is popular will continue to become increasingly popular, and whatever is marginal will stay in the margins. Everyone uses Windows because everyone uses windows. Everyone has a cell phone because everyone has a cell phone. It sounds like a circular argument, but it's an actual observed effect.

We have just seen it is much easier (and increasingly common) to treat SL as a silly game full of freaks. Old hands in SL wish for the opposite to occur, that people see SL as the next world. But network effect dictates that the former opinion will dominate and continue to, while the diehards become marginalized and ignored.

This is the cultural shift we will see. We have people who take Second Life as serious as night competing and conflicting with those who see it as Online Barbie dolls.

In order for the native SL culture to 'win', it needs to be attractive or addicting. Unfortunately, it's neither. It's annoying, stress inducing, and usually full of drama and ulcers. And it's really not much of a culture at all. It's more a hierarchy of 'who do I hate more than the others'. When I hear people talk about SL's culture, I groan and usually leave the discussion. It's nonexistent as an entity as culture is commonly defined in real life.

Whatever 'culture' SL may have had is disintegrating around us. Real life big business is moving in and attempting to press real life rules and views on us. The masses come in, become disgusted or amused by what they see and leave.

The best corollary I can think of is the Spartans in ancient Greece. They really didn't have much of a culture at all, it was all based heavily on might and military. This was all well and good, but as others increasingly encroached upon Sparta, they were reduced to a sideshow. The more democratic Athenian attitude held more gravity with the newer developing cultures like Rome, and Sparta's culture became a freak show.

SL is Sparta. Our culture is only tenuously defined, and exists but for the fact that the Lindens polarize it into being. Network effect is working against those supporters of SL-Next World, and working with those of the SL-stupid-video-game crowd.

So what will happen? Undeniably, with the way things are proceeding, SL will devolve into stupid video game. The immigrants, and those sending them our way, hold the belief that SL is a game and nothing more. The current cultural adherents are disorganized, and in accordance with their culture will never unify long enough or in enough time to reverse the tide. It's an uphill battle, and one that the natives will lose. The force in the other direction is just too great, and building every day.

I do believe that before the end, we will witness some spectacular fireworks. We may see measures and policies forced on the populace by the Lindens in an attempt to calm the very vocal and angry SL mob, perhaps stricter community standards (HA!) or an actual SL police force (unlike the role play ones that run about today). We'll get discrimination against day trippers as lesser beings in SL, even though they may pay more for land (not unheard of, there are large tracts of abandoned land from those who played for a month and left). It'll get very interesting, in this coming year.

And I fully believe it will be decided within the next year. In the next year, SL will be cemented in one direction or the other. Anyone wishing to change SL to their liking will have as long and probably less to do so.

Personally, I could care less either way. I suppose that puts me in a grey area, where I want SL to be something besides a video game, but I don't think we should take it to the point of missing the original (entertainment) point of it.

However, I certainly do derive entertainment from watching things like this.

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