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This must be the place (naive post)

August 12, 2009

community

Just what does community mean in Second Life?  Yes, I know we’re nearing the start of the Second Life Community Convention (and no, you won’t see me there), but sometimes it seems to me that Second Life has the community feel of, oh, the Balkans maybe?  I’m being flip by comparing it to the Balkans, but for the most part community in Second Life feels like bunches of small groups that maybe – just maybe – overlap with one another.  But more than just being a world that seems to embrace community in micro-groups, the concepts of community feels fragile and cliquey in Second Life.

Lanna, you’ve already sorta mentioned the Talking Heads; please don’t tell me you start singing Kumbaya after the jump.  Pretty please?  Read on to find out…

People come to Second Life for so many different reasons; there are business users, casual residents, educators, content creators, fashionistas, RP enthusiasts, and the list could go on and on.  I like to believe that despite all of the different reasons why a person comes to SL, that most people make connections with one another that make up the building blocks of community. Granted, some enjoy the creative solitude of SL and avoid connecting with a community in SL, but the opportunities do exist to seek a community that fits your interests.

So yes, community does exist in Second Life.  Or should I say communities?  Lots of them.  It seems that it is more like a series of small groups of friends with similar interests than any sort of broad community.   Maybe the best analogy is that community is a little like the gang at Cheers, and groups are built on finding connections “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.”   We forge friendships, share living space, collaborate on projects, and hang out with people we like who do stuff we enjoy.

When I first came to Second Life, I was taken by all of the different people and possibilities; I felt that connecting with people and groups was so easy.  I became a serial friender and group joiner  (pretty common, I think).  But as I spent time in-world, I came to realize a truth, finding the right communities or the right friends takes as much work in SL as it does in RL (maybe even moreso).  The problem is that although we make connections with others, it takes time to build the feelings of trust and interconnectedness that are the hallmarks of good community.  We might spend a bunch of time with a group only to find that they weren’t who we thought they were.  Moreover, depending on the group, it can be intimidating to jump in among a community of people who have been together for a while.  Sometimes finding the right community is just plain hard.

The fact that Second Life is a part-time activity for the majority of us means that we simply don’t look at community the same way they do as the atomic world.  For many, being in SL is an inherently selfish activity: “I’m having fun and doing my thing.”  There is nothing wrong with this, it simply makes it harder to form communities greater than small groups.  People’s interests shift and hop from one thing to the next.  Community requires some permanence and connection that an attitude of “Hey, I can always just log out or start an alt” does not help to serve.

I have some friends who live in what was a very tight-knit community in SL.  They were a very lovely group of people that cover multiple sims.  Honestly, I believe they had as strong a feel of community as I’ve seen anywhere in Second Life.  At the start of the year, the sim owner took an unannounced months-long hiatus from SL.  During this absence, there was no knowledge of tier being paid to Linden Lab, no knowledge of what might happen to the community.  As you can expect, disagreements followed.  The sim owner returned and the sims are still on the map, but the sense that I have is that the community is bruised and not quite the same.  I bring this up not to comment on the disappearance or anyone’s actions, but on the relative fragility of community.  If a community can be shaken by uncertainty, what does it say about our social fabric?

So where does this leave us?  Community is what we make of it, but just know that it is dynamic and changeable because of the nature of Second Life.  And when one community goes away,  you really need to work to find another.  Of course, I’m now curious, what have been your experiences with community in Second Life?  Are there any ways we can make our communities stronger?

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4 comments

  1. Very profound post. You articulate questions I’ve sensed but not fully framed for some time. Thank you. Probably one possibly thing that binds ties is a set of shared values. If the shared values are genuine, these are things that hold true even when people in the community don’t necessarily get along. The one worrisome thing about shared values is I suspect the idea of holding “change” or the “ability to change” as a value. Because imagination often does require an element of creation, something new. Change. Life is change, many would say, but if that one idea of “ability to change” is the *only* pillar for a value system, I wonder if it automatically sets the community up to have a very shakey foundation. I think the values have to go beyond the basic premise of change, which is definitely a wonderful element but not the only one. The same with intention…if it’s change for the sake of change, well, then, for what purpose? To what end? And who will be there for it? Might be an oversimplification of a very interesting and deep conversation you raise. I’m sure I’ll continue to keep thinking on it. Thanks, as always, for your wonderful posts.


  2. I think the same fragility holds true in first life communities. Flexibility of values is an obvious vulnerability of such groups. It often comes down to whether a relationship can handle the making of mistakes and holding on to what someone perceives is right and true no matter what … What’s more important, being right or being in a relationship?


  3. Great points, Michele and Paypabak! In retrospect, there probably is a paragraph or two I would add to the post.

    I think the concepts of change and fragility are part of what make SL community a little different. I agree that first life groups experience similar fragility, Paypabak. At the risk of generalizing, however, the context of pseudonymity and transience in SL add an extra wrinkle; more than just establishing trusting relationships, I think there is a significant number that might not feel the same connections because of it. Moreover, the constant churn of people in SL is a factor to community. People are what make up community, and an undeniable truth in SL is that some people get very involved and then leave. Such rapid change can make it harder to build a sense of real community.


  4. Great post. Thank you. I have been deeply involved in online communities since the 80’s and while each is unique, they all share some common elements. There is the potential for amazing closeness and mutual assistance, and some similar pitfalls: vulnerability to bullying, deception, arguments and just the misunderstandings that come about because one or more vital communication dimensions are missing. Communities happened when there was only UNIX text, so Second Life is that much closer to real life.

    If you can use search and persevere, you’ll find your SL tribe, but we could do a much better job of mentoring new residents on where they might start. They may not even know it, when they are new, but most are indeed looking for that ‘right’ group/cause/sim where they can feel at home.



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