Danah Boyd on being virtual

I’ve been talking a lot about Second Life lately, since my thesis (which, inshallah, I will finish in May) will center on using it as an activist platform. The idea is to model activist behavior in Second Life and to then export what I’ve learned to a real-world situation. This is being done all over Second Life; everyone from the United Nations to the Red Cross to IBM is using it as a collaborative platform. I’m hoping to replicate some the experiences of virtual activists in order to ask important questions about the relationship of virtual activism to real-world activism.

Most of the people I talk to have not heard of Second Life, or know little about it, so I often find myself explaining what it is from the ground up, “it’s this virtual world but it’s not a game…” kind of talk. What’s surprised me during these conversations is how many people react by saying, “you can’t replace the real world with a virtual world,” or “isn’t it unhealthy to spend all of your time in a virtual world?” What’s funny is that I’ve never suggested that we spend all of our time online, or that it should replace offline behavior; these questions come from peoples’ assumptions that if you use a virtual space you must somehow favor the eradication of real (“meat”) spaces.

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. I and most other people who study these things have always seen virtual spaces, and the Internet in general, as an extension of the so-called real world, and there is no division between the two. What happens in one space influences the other. Few people are actually trying to replace one world with another.

danah boyd recently responded to similar criticism:

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.

New technologies are about expanding our cultural ecosystems, not limiting them. Despite naysayers’ claims, the Internet will not replace TV, print journalism, or movies. It augments them and co-exists (however testily) with them in the larger media environment.

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