Last month Microsoft chairman and CEO Satya Nadella kicked off the company’s big developer’s conference by describing an exciting new virtual economy and society transformed by the pandemic. AI, cloud, seamless collaboration!
Most evocatively, Nadella said Microsoft would create virtual meeting environments that aim to restore a pre-pandemic sense of human connection, even as employees continue to work remotely. So I’m in my underpants at home, but my avatar in business-casual, doing a walk-and-talk down a cartoon hallway.
This vision caused me not to gaze misty-eyed toward the future, but back, exactly 15 years into the past, when I made it my business to explore the virtual world of Second Life, where many breathless experts were telling us we were all going to be living and working.
This was published in a now-defunct communication industry newsletter called The Ragan Report, in October 2006.
My first thought after I had created the animated character named Doraff Moraff was the deepest one I’ve had since my college days:
Why am I here?
“Here,” back in college and before anybody had heard of the Internet, meant, “On the planet Earth.”
Here,” last week, meant, “In the body of a strapping young man named Doraff Moraff on an animated, arid island in an online world named Second Life.”
I was here because communication technology guru Shel Holtz and other techno-evangelists in our industry have been recommending that communicators take time out of their overwhelming real lives get up to speed on this virtual world. Holtz has compared Second-Life skeptics to those who pooh-poohed “blogging a few years back and the web circa 1996.”
I was here to answer two questions: What’s the motivation of the 358,000 active “residents” who spend their time building this alternate world and playing in it? And what need might they possibly have for communicators?
The first thing I discovered was that I could fly. That’s how you get around in Second Life. You use keyboard buttons to fly at any altitude you want, in any direction you want, as far as you want. I took off and flew at about 1,000 virtual feet, over animated oceans and islands, until I spotted a person standing on one of the islands.
I dove, landed about a hundred yards away and, now on my feet, weaved and reeled my way toward the person. (Walking with keyboard arrow buttons precisely simulates the delayed reflexes and loss of balance resultant from the consumption of 79 beers.) Upon finally finding myself in the approximate presence of Amira Cassada (as her name-bubble indicated), I typed a witty line into the dialogue box.
To which Amira replied, “Nothing much.”
To which I offered the following rejoinder, “What do you do in Second Life?”
“I guess the funnest thing to do is flying,” she said, and then indicated that I should follow her on a flying trip somewhere. I agreed. But I fly like a drunk, too. I lost her almost immediately. Or she lost me.
On my next visit to Second Life, I went looking for another kind of action. Through Second Life’s search function, I found a casino. Instead of flying there, I teleported. But hadn’t bought any “Linden Dollars,” as the Second Life currency is called, to gamble with. I looked around for someone to help me and found only one other person in the casino, a punky looking fellow seated in a chair—Amira was punky looking too, come to think of it—apparently playing some game. I staggered over to him.
“What’s up?” I said.
“The sky,” he replied.
“I’m lost in Second Life and I don’t know what to do,” I confessed.
“Go fuck yourself,” he informed me.
Just because I didn’t care for his tone, I left Doraff Moraff standing and staring at him for a few minutes while I checked my e-mail. Then I coolly tripped my way out of the casino like Hunter S. Thompson on ether. I was still looking for the Meaning of Second Life—but I’d settle for a little friendly company.
So I went the house of a “writer for hire,” but her neighbor told me she wasn’t home. I went to another place that I thought was a kind of hangout for writers, but it turned out to be only a place where a guy made typewriters. I talked to the guy. I asked him if his typewriters were “real.” He said yeah, they were real. They were for “IM-ing and stuff.” And I noticed that, as he was typing that message to me, he was typing it into a green typewriter suspended in space. I thanked him and took off, still looking for something, but less and less knowing what.
I had sent a postcard to Shel from Second Life. I hadn’t heard back. I rechecked his blog to see what he thought about this place. I was relieved to hear him say, “I’m not a gamer and I’m having no fun learning my way around this virtual environment.” However: “Businesses and other institutions (ranging from universities to political candidates to government agencies) are taking their brands and images to Second Life, and we’d better be there providing communication counsel,” he wrote. “If we don’t, our employers and clients will find somebody else who can. … Virtual worlds are going to be big—not as games or escapism, but as a way for people to engage with other people and brands they can’t engage with in Real Life. It’s just another argument for communicators to take it seriously and figure out how communication works in these worlds.”
I don’t know much about the economy of Second Life, whose operators claim to oversee the movement of millions of Linden dollars, which can be exchanged for real dollars with people who need virtual money to build virtual property or start virtual businesses.
But before I can think about engaging a brand out here, I figure I have to find a way to engage a person in a meaningful and satisfying way.
And one night last week, I did. For a moment, anyway.
I was flying along, looking for other people to talk to about Second Life. It was dark. On an island below, I spotted what appeared to be two women, chatting at an outdoor patio under a lantern. I landed, and took my usual minute to stagger within talking range. Only this time I got a little too close. I was standing upon the lap of one of the women.
She tried to get me to take a seat, but my Mac mouse didn’t have the “right click” function required to sit. So there we talked, these two women sitting and Doraff Moraff, standing on one of their laps.
I leveled with them. I told them I was a journalist and I was looking for the meaning of Second Life. I asked them why they take time away from their loved-ones in real life to engage with strangers in this strange world.
One of the women said, “Not everyone is as lucky as you.”
I asked her what she meant. She offered the example of a quadriplegic, who can’t walk in the real world but can fly in Second Life. The other woman said she herself is a fulltime caregiver to her elderly parents. “I don’t have time for an RL,” she said, presumably meaning a “real life.” She spends what little free time she has at her computer, turning strangers into friends. Finally, the first woman pointed out that many people’s lives are generally boring and limited. Conversely, in Second Life, one can fly here and teleport there to meet people from all over the world in a thriving new world.
And, for the first time, I was getting it. At least I allowed myself to start to think I was getting it.
That is, until I realized one of the women wasn’t a woman, but rather another punk, long-haired man. And the woman who was a woman became insulted on behalf of the man—she incorrectly thought I was making fun of him—and she expressed her outrage. (She was already a little edgy because she sensed my “attitude” about Second Life wasn’t entirely positive.)
I quickly apologized for being such a clod, thanked them and flew away. But before I went far, I got a notion. I plunged into the ocean, maneuvered underwater and through a stroke of luck bobbed up near the shore to about 50 virtual yards away from my two erstwhile friends. They couldn’t see me. But I could hear them! They were talking about me.
They argued over whether I was an intentional jerk or just an amiable dunce. (An argument that’s been raging among my RL friends for many years.) “I was laughing my head off at him,” one said. “I love to watch newbies try to move around.”
“He is a fast typer,” the other one pointed out, in fairness to Doraff Moraff.
Anxious to share my adventures with Holtz and hear more about how he thinks communicators might take advantage of Second Life, I e-mailed him. He said he was too bogged down in RL to spend any time in SL lately.
“Way too jammed with work,” he said, adding, “Gotta go … flying soon.”
In an airplane, he meant.
I’m pretty sure.
Most people who enjoy technology enough to devote their lives to it are like most people who devote their whole lives to their pets: Not that great with people!
Which is why I don’t trust technologists to create things that dominate our human lives: They understand people about as well as I understand my iPhone: Just well enough to be functional.
But not well enough to build lasting, loving, real human communities.
Which is what we are looking for these days—and for all days to come. And as Kurt Vonnegut wrote, also about 15 years ago, just before he died: “Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”