The metaverse isn’t everything

Found on psfk: A ho-hum article on the significance and use of avatars in virtual worlds (well, mostly Second Life for now). The only interesting bit imho, is this:

Another hurdle to broad participation in avatar worlds: Fantasy playgrounds actually don’t work particularly well as social networks, says Danah Boyd, a doctoral candidate at Berkeley and fellow at USC’s Annenberg Center who was dubbed the “high priestess of Internet friendship” last year by the Financial Times.

“[Successful] social-network sites like MySpace … are primarily places where you actually model your social network on the people you see all day long,” in simple representations closely tied to offline identities, Ms. Boyd says.

“We want our site to be real,” says Jerry Kaplan, who runs, where “mainly older women” meet and network. Some exchange photos, he writes in an e-mail. “[But this isn’t about fantasy lives, avatars, or other masks.”

Immersive 3-D fantasy games require immobility and a major investment in screen time. “More time at the computer,” Boyd says, “is not what most people are seeking out.”

Which sounds sensible. Avatar-based worlds will replace our current interfaces for interacting online only if that technology offers better value (in both financial and non-financial senses) than the current alternatives.

For example, people would probably still prefer to shop for books on than in Second Life, because offers added services within quick and easy access, like recommendations, book searches, and user reviews.

Even if the input devices get better, say, a brain/computer interface like the one demo’ed at CEBIT recently, any kind of technology like that will lower the difficulty threshold for all applications — including the ones that were easier to use in the first place.

So the distinguishing factor isn’t just technology, but more of what people want to use it for. I know this sounds suspiciously teleological, but perhaps Second Life has somehow become a fantasy playground (in every sense), just because. As Warren Ellis — freelance-Second-Life-observer for Reuters — observes:

people are continuing to enter the world because of, not despite, what might ordinarily be considered dubious experiences.

Moving on, the Christian Science Monitor article mentions that:

immersion has its whole-hearted backers. Sarah Robbins, an English instructor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., sees Second Life and its avatars as both tools and object of study.

“We talk about how to ‘unpack’ certain types of messages,” says Ms. Robbins, who teaches as Intelligirl, an extreme version of herself.

“The students read avatars as you would read a text,” says Robbins. “We see it as a form of composition.”

Which is interesting in and of itself, especially when you think about the kinds of norms about avatar appearance in SL — look anything other than human and people automatically label you as weird, think you’re a griefer, or both.

Now that avatar-based environments (heh, what a verbose construction) have hit mainstream media, perhaps futurists will need to look even further ahead while the academics and consultants play catch-up while policymakers lag behind

Is this the age of the online avatar? |


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