I am Columbus Mint: beginning a second life

second_lifePictured above is the digital me, standing in front of the administrative building for the digital replica of my old college campus.

That’s one way to look at the shot. The other way would be seeing it as nothing more than a blocky computer image, no more a personal reflection than a doodle of me drawn in class.

Somewhere in-between lies the “reality” of Second Life, which I dove into last night for the first time. For an upcoming assignment, I’ll be designing a virtual classroom within Second Life for my Public Opinion and New Media course, so I’ve got a steep learning curve to figure out the possibilities of a world where many have already made small fortunes developing and selling property. CNN has a Second Life newsroom, and everyone from mega corporations to starving artists are looking to hype their brand in the virtual space. Wondering how this is possible? The first PR company to establish a major presence in Second Life would love to show you.

But this commercialization has alienated some of the original users, including my chance first encounter with another person in Second Life. After christening my character Columbus Mint (city where I was born + favorite flavor = Brook’s avatar name) I struck up a conversation from someone claiming to be a former Second Life regular dating back to 2005 who now laments what it has become. Back in the beginning, Second Life was a much tighter community, but free access and rising publicity have opened the flood gates to unsightly ads, lack of creative focus and obnoxious jerks logged on only to harass. I encountered all of these in my first hour-long session.

But there were some practical purposes as well, such as the replica UNC campus with a librarian you could contact for help and a spiffy classroom with stadium-style seating for virtual seminars. If professionals can network in these kind of spaces to share ideas, or folks can get virtual tours of far off lands to decide where to visit then there’s a real practical use for this kind of world without sacrificing our first lives in the process.

If it doesn’t get done in Second Life, (which is still pretty clunky and full of jerks and perverts) some virtual program will harness the technology for a better experience. It was amazing how diverse an array of experiences my fellow classmates had in their Second Life forays this week. Some met people from other countries and were guided to special events and locations by friendly avatars, while others had their clothes stolen, got stuck in a certain world or only encountered lewd avatars.

Hollywood is catching onto the trend and emphasizing some of the ethical dangers of this form of interaction with a slew of movies coming out related to virtual worlds. There are some scary possibilities out there as the virtual reality not only flawlessly reproduces physical reality, but actually enhances the real-world experience. We already have systems that show images and play sounds better than they look and sound in real life. Touch and smell are much harder to replicate, and for now make the Second Life experience a pale imitation of the real world. But as one of my professors, Ken Calhoun, pointed out on the first day of class: “we’re working on that.”

  1. Greetings to you, and welcome to the madness. I keep up with SL blogs by following the “Second Life” tag, so please make sure you use that whenever you’re writing about the Grid.

    If you’re looking for some sane advice and talks about Second Life, instead of fighting through the griefers at the newbie stations, I’ll be glad to meet with you sometime. Just drop me a line in world to Harper Ganesvoort, or check out my own blog and you’ll find my avatar’s E-mail address.

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