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« Second Life: What are the real numbers? | Main | PLoS ONE ... the long tail of scientific research »

December 15, 2006

on being virtual

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Posted by danah boyd

Lately, i’ve become very irritated by the immersive virtual questions i’ve been getting. In particular, “will Web3.0 be all about immersive virtual worlds?” Clay’s post on Second Life reminded me of how irritated i am by this. I have to admit that i get really annoyed when techno-futurists fetishize Stephenson-esque visions of virtuality. Why is it that every 5 years or so we re-instate this fantasy as the utopian end-all be-all of technology? (Remember VRML? That was fun.)

Maybe i’m wrong, maybe i’ll look back twenty years ago and be embarrassed by my lack of foresight. But honestly, i don’t think we’re going virtual.

There is no doubt that immersive games are on the rise and i don’t think that trend is going to stop. I think that WoW is a strong indicator of one kind of play that will become part of the cultural landscape. But there’s a huge difference between enjoying WoW and wanting to live virtually. There ARE people who want to go virtual and i wouldn’t be surprised if there are many opportunities for sustainable virtual environments. People who feel socially ostracized in meatspace are good candidates for wanting to go virtual. But again, that’s not everyone.

If you look at the rise of social tech amongst young people, it’s not about divorcing the physical to live digitally. MySpace has more to do with offline structures of sociality than it has to do with virtuality. People are modeling their offline social network; the digital is complementing (and complicating) the physical. In an environment where anyone could socialize with anyone, they don’t. They socialize with the people who validate them in meatspace. The mobile is another example of this. People don’t call up anyone in the world (like is fantasized by some wrt Skype); they call up the people that they are closest with. The mobile supports pre-existing social networks, not purely virtual ones.

That’s the big joke about the social media explosion. 1980s and 1990s researchers argued that the Internet would make race, class, gender, etc. extinct. There was a huge assumption that geography and language would no longer matter, that social organization would be based on some higher function. Guess what? When the masses adopted social media, they replicated the same social structures present in the offline world. Hell, take a look at how people from India are organizing themselves by caste on Orkut. Nothing gets erased because it’s all connected to the offline bodies that are heavily regulated on a daily basis.

While social network sites and mobile phones are technology to adults, they are just part of the social infrastructure for teens. Remember what Alan Kay said? “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.” These technologies haven’t been adopted as an alternative to meatspace; they’ve been adopted to complement it.

Virtual systems will be part of our lives, but i don’t think immersion is where it’s at. Most people are deeply invested in the physicality of life; this is not going away.

Update: to discuss this post, please join the conversation at apophenia.

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