second life castes of my mind

Ivy Darrow

The day before yesterday and during the following night I spent more than nine hours apiece in Second Life (SL), the days before also long times, simultaneously working on the second screen. Now I have to recall my earlier statement, that SL appears to be an empty world. Once you adjusted to the rules and principles of navigation in this world, you will easily (depending heavily on your own personality, naturally) find lots of company and people willing to talk, fool around, explore, and undertake things together. A feast for every psychologist interested in the peculiarities of online communication and interaction—but are there really points of interest for the anthropologist? Apart from the general philosophical interests concerning the ontology of this persistent state world, the conceptual space of interaction? [Sidenote: In my view one comes to grips with the issue of ontology quite quickly, when looking at SL as an online interface subsuming an array of media.] Is there social stratification, are their identifiable groups, are there shared identities? More then tentatively I dare to state yes. There are groups, already institutionalized by the possibilities the software offers—hence those constitute a special category. But there are also groups which refer much stronger on social bonds than on formal ones reflected by the social software, or social organization components SL’s program code offers. At the moment there are 5.3 million accounts registered (I say “accounts”, not “people”, because there is the possibility of multiple accounts) on the main Grid, the average number of people online simultaneously is about 15,000. Both figures are of a magnitude which clearly shows that the overall population can not be accessed by the anthropological method. Hence the “identifiable groups” should be our “target”, are apt to become “your tribe”.

Clearly there is social stratification—a direct consequence of the current in- and trans-world economical model of SL (currently 27,423 accounts generate a monthly income between 0.001 and 100 US$, 152 accounts generate a monthly income of more than 5000 US$ inside SL only). It is quite encouraging that this issues already are discussed within anthropological (online-) circles.

And then there are “castes”, people having certain professions, or following analogous activities, and significantly display recognizable behaviour against caste-members and others. People I would sort into a certain “caste” usually do not know all the other caste-members personally or even know of their existence, hence “caste”—maybe “class” would be the better term, but I am not sure yet, as I am only at the beginning of looking into that phenomenon (and, quite frankly, I am not sure if I ever will follow it through to the end). I’ve got a specific caste in mind, and from participant observation I can safely tell that the modes of interaction significantly point to a shared set of notions about how to behave and act.

It has to be mentioned that real-time chat conversation is the most important form of interaction in SL, as far as I can see. “Successful” interaction heavily depends on your writing-skills and your abilities to react, make conversation, and to augment the graphical world by your imagination, mediated through the written word. Every IRC-veteran has best chances for social success. Hint to anthropologists: Like every decent chat-client, SL also features the option to log both chat- and IM-conversation (Edit –> Preferences –> Communication)—and remember your ethics-code. Together with the “snapshot”-feature you can nicely document your fieldwork sojourn. Recording the whole screen animations and the sound (e.g. via Camtasia) I would only recommend for special occasions. Agaion their is enough space for arguing about ethics.

For logging out after nine hours I resorted to the privacy of a place where you seldomly meet people, although personally I deem it to be one of the most interesting Sims in whole SL. When I logged into SL again today, I spawned on top of the dome covering the Sculpture Garden in The Future, close to the hook—the dome does not float, it hangs from the sky :-) At spawn time it seemed to be pitch black night, but a minute later the horizon brightened up a bit, and reddened. There really are people who watch a movie just showing a crackling fire for hours on their TV set. Well, I am working on the screen to my right, and time and again glance over onto the left screen, watching the sun slowly coming up over SL’s flatland.