Jonathan: what does it mean

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What Does It All Mean?

Jonathan Krop


We made an interesting little statement in class when, despite all being in the same room and having no external audience, we decided to break out our laptops and hold our final trial in Second Life instead of just talking to each other. I'd suggested that we simply close our laptops and hold the event in First Life, a.k.a. the real world, but the idea met with considerable resistance and was quickly scrapped. Why did we do that, Charlie? Why do we find technology so compelling that we use it when it's unnecessary, even when it's a hindrance? From one angle, I'm reminded of people logging on to www.campusfoods.com to order Chinese takeout when they have the restaurant's number in their phone, or – as is often the case with my housemates and me – when they live right across the street from the restaurant. From another, I'm reminded of the obvious and classic parallel of people logging onto social simulacra like Second Life or (back in the day) proprietary chat rooms as a substitute for a meatspace social life.

I'll start this essay by talking about the inconveniences and burdens to communication that we willingly took on by choosing Second Life over First Life as our medium. I'll follow that up with some investigation of why we were willing to take on those burdens – in other words, what it is about Second Life, and Web 2.0 communications tech in general, that calls to us so alluringly.

I truly believe that our final trial would have been better in First Life than in Second life. Second Life simply isn't as smooth, intuitive, or hospitable to interpersonal interactions. Its value in an endeavor like the trial lies in its ability to transgress real-life spatial boundaries, enabling people from all over the world to share a virtual space and communicate "face-to-face" with one another. We didn't take advantage of that functionality – we had no audience, no one participating or observing who wasn't sitting in our classroom in Lewis. And yet, we sat there staring at our laptops instead of looking each other in the eye, the silence punctuated by the clack of rapid-fire typing and occasional spoken meta-conversation about our typed conversation in Second Life. And make no mistake, Charlie, it was clunky at times. I felt significantly constrained in my ability to communicate. If the conversational thread abruptly changed while I was in the middle of typing something, I'd have to hit delete dozens of times and wait as my cursor very slowly ate whatever I'd written. People talked over people, it was sometimes hard to tell who was being addressed, and messages came out distorted, partly because we're used to relying on nonverbal cues that have no useful counterparts in Second Life.

Worse, there was no sense of decorum. I think this was due largely to the lack of repercussions and controls. I'm not just talking about the macro-level repercussions – the ability to silence someone, exclude them, or overtly penalize them. We also didn't have access to the more subtle controls that we exercise upon each other all the time. There was no way to narrow my eyes in displeasure when someone said something offensive or inappropriate, no way to adjust my body language or unconsciously modulate my vocal tonality. More importantly, there was no way for you, the judge and therefore the designated babysitter, to do so. These things, exercised in different ways by all the parties to an interaction, play a real role in holding the interaction together and staving off conversational entropy. They're simply not in the Second Life toolkit… not yet, anyway.

I think the lack of decorum also stems from the fact that there's no sense of social capital in Second Life, at least for tourists like us who don't have established Second Lives with the corresponding social investment in that world. There's a feeling that the way we behave in Second Life won't follow us back into the real world. Somehow, even though we all know each other and have spent time together, dropping us all into the virtual fish-tank of Second Life freed us from the rules of decorum. This can be a good thing; personally, I think that decorum is overrated. However, for a trial, a little respect for protocol and observation of the social niceties are important for maintaining order, especially when they're the only possible sources of order (since, as I said, we can't simply boot people or gag them). There's a feeling of safety and freedom from inhibition in speaking through an avatar. After all, you're not the one talking – the avatar is a new identity for whose actions you aren't accountable. In keeping with my well-established superhero obsession, I'm reminded of Spider-Man. Peter Parker was a shy, socially inhibited science student. He was surprised to discover that, when wearing the costume and mask of Spider-Man, he became a wisecracking, overconfident loudmouth. That's often chalked up to the anonymity the costume provides, but I don't think that's the only thing going on. There's something empowering about being someone else, taking a new form and a new name, existing in a new world.

Seeing yourself on that screen further sharpens the divide between you and this golem into which you've breathed life. It's not really you, so the rules are gone and the bets are off. This appears to be true even if everyone with whom your golem comes into contact knows that it's you sitting behind the controls. Maybe you've noticed this yourself – do you ever feel freer to speak your mind or loose your id as Eon than you do as Charles Nesson? I can't guess if that's true for you, but I am curious. On the other hand, you might be a special case – it seems to me like those personae (Charles Nesson, eminent professor at the Harvard Law School, and Eon, Dean of Cyberspace) are merging, if they were ever truly separate to begin with.

I'm not saying we were a bunch of ill-behaved little gremlins during the trial, but there was definitely a flippant undertone to the proceeding. Everyone felt liberated to say whatever they wanted, and no one had the power to deter bad behavior. That being said, the trial did go surprisingly well. For the most part, people got to say what we wanted to say, and the issues were actually considered and debated at a decently high level. And, of course, the submersion of identity in the alter ego of the avatar has interesting and positive ramifications as well as disruptive ones. I'm not knocking our trial, nor am I denying the many sparkly new possibilities that Second Life and similar communications tech can awaken in global society. But those are topics for someone else's paper. I'm more interested, for whatever reason, in examining our fascination with these technologies and the way they've pervaded our lives, such that we use them even when it's inconvenient or disruptive to do so.

You know what? I'm not going to do this laundry-list style. I was going to talk about internet addiction and Second Life as a social safe space and our fascination with technological novelty, but I'd rather not. Instead, I'm going to talk about some of my feelings and experiences when it comes to being a young citizen of the Internet. You wanted to know "what it all means," Charlie. Well, I have no clue, so you're out of luck there. But here's what's going on with me right now, as I sit here typing this.

I'm currently on vacation with several friends in Denver, Colorado. We're all staying in a big old house, exploring Denver and Boulder during the day and partying at night. There are about a dozen of us, and for one week we're hanging out almost exclusively with each other. The strange thing is that, despite the insularity of this vacation, we feel weirdly "linked in" at all times. About half of us have digital cameras with us, and we're constantly photographing even the most boring of our little misadventures. We laid out a photography guideline at the beginning of our week: each of us would snap photos as if we were the only person with a camera, thus ensuring a ridiculously large and detailed body of visual evidence of our various acts and indiscretions. And what is the purpose, the ultimate fate of these photos? Display on Facebook, of course.

As we eat, drink, chat, and carouse our way through this brief winter vacation, we know that people from the future are watching us. What's private becomes public as we upload our photos en masse, sift through them tagging all the people for easy identification, and sit around with beers while we think of clever names for the online albums. With every outfit we don, every drink we consume, every goofy face we pull, every nice-looking girl (or guy) we throw an arm around,[1] we're hyper-aware that our actions will be submitted for review to the court of public opinion in the form of our friends, acquaintances, and even total strangers.

This reminds me of another phenomenon of the recent past: Livejournals. There's something both endearing and absurd about a generation of teenagers posting their most "private" thoughts and feelings in a medium specifically designed for anyone to access and read them. I briefly wrote in a Livejournal back in 2003, and I remember a weird mix of desperate fear and fervent hope that the people about whom I was writing would find and read my posts. Above all, I didn't want the people about whom I was writing to think that I'd deliberately written my posts for them to read. That last transparent pretense, of wanting not to seem like the exhibitionists and attention whores (forgive my language) that we are, is already, culturally speaking, in its last throes. We like having an audience, and we don't care who knows it.

As our meatspace comings and goings become ever better-documented online, life feels more and more like performance art or reality TV. Presumably we're happy with that, since we're the ones responsible. No one's putting a gun to our heads and forcing us to photolog our winter break via Facebook. We want to do it. We want everyone to see. Orwell was right, sort of; the cameras are everywhere, but we're the ones holding them. Big Brother is us, and We Love Big Brother.

Another way that we've been amusing ourselves during our vacation is by watching Youtube videos. Our favorite so far is "RvD2: Ryan vs. Dorkman 2," an elaborate lightsaber fight by two nimble young geeks that's neck-and-neck in terms of quality with the better fights from the recent Star Wars prequels. We also like the very funny, very lowbrow and obscene videos done by the group Derrick Comedy. Watching these videos, created by regular young people like us, somehow adds to that feeling of being perpetually "linked in." There's really no being separate anymore, as even our passive consumption of entertainment reminds us that we're part of a network of young, empowered, creative people making things happen online. We're a generation of people who exist more comfortably online than in meatspace – it's no surprise, then, that we see an appeal in holding a trial in Second Life that goes beyond the actual utilitarian advantages of the tech. My blog gets one hundred unique hits a day and rising; my friend Andy has a modest Youtube following. We're contributing in our small but growing way, plugged into the multidirectional flow of information.

Holed up in this house, my friends and I feel less like an isolated group of people and more like a decentralized cell of some larger web of young cultural revolutionaries,[2] in partial seclusion but still connected, always connected. Even our posting of photos and accompanying commentary is a contribution, however small. No matter that we're not doing anything particularly revolutionary at the moment (besides discovering the virtues of mixing equal parts pear cider with hefeweizen). We're the hip young gods of the Internet, all of us, indulging in the sort of rest and revelry in which gods are wont to indulge. John Perry Barlow saw us coming. Jack Balkin saw us coming. You saw us coming, and here we are. Hello, Eon.

[1] Log into your Facebook account to view these.

[2] My thinking, for better or worse, is heavily shaped by the pop and junk culture that I love and constantly devour instead of the fine cinema and literature with which I should probably be enriching my mind instead. When I talk about a "web of young cultural revolutionaries" – hip, plugged in, ready to change the world – the images that spring to mind and shape, piecemeal, my conception of this rather romantic idea come mainly from the comic books Global Frequency and especially my beloved The Invisibles. Also, of course, The Matrix. Idealized in my imagination, I see the cyber-zeitgeist, the new pop aesthetic. I'm seeing sexy, globetrotting hackers who know kung fu and C++, fighting the Agents and the Archons, clearing away the ugliness and creating something beautiful.