“Community” … whether it’s real or virtual – it’s still the same!

About a year and a half ago, I joined the Twitter world. As most of you know – Twitter is not like Facebook. Facebook is a network for you and your friends. Because of nature of having to be approved to “friend” someone – you pretty much have to know that person. Twitter is different. You can follow whoever you want to and read their tweets and even send them messages (unless they block you – which very seldom happens). Twitter is a network based around interests, rather than friends, per say.
Whatever your interests are, you can find a community to get involved in … you just have to search around. In my Twitter travels during the first few months, I ran into an interesting sub-culture of people who didn’t use their real photo, but rather an avatar. And they also made up names to go with them – or vice versa. These were Residents of the virtual world, Second Life.
Residents of Second Life can explore their virtual world (known as the grid), meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade virtual property and services with one another. It’s kind of like a custom-made facsimile of the real world. As of this year, there were about a million active Residents.
I decided, “I’m going to find out what this Second Life is all about.” Well, I joined and spent an hour trying to figure it out, ran out patience … and bailed – never to return. Well, I wasn’t entirely done though. I did the next best thing … I decided to follow a few of these avatar Residents. I followed five that I found interesting based on their tweets: Botgirl Questi – @botgirlq,  Honour McMillan – @HonourMcMillian, Will Burns – @darianknight, and Devon Alderton – @DevonAlderton
Over the last six months I’ve been writing a lot about community. With all the craziness going with the mega-corporate world and our “do nothing federal government” – our local communities are all we have. So I’ve been trying to articulate my vision of what my perfect community is – and as important, what it isn’t. I attempted to do this in a blog post here called, Welcome to my “PerfectWorld.” While the piece has its moments, it’s not my best work.
“Crossing the chasm from virtual to real”
But no worries. One of my Second Life friends, Honour McMillan, wrote a blog post, “Dear Blue Mars – It’s the community, stupid.” Now Houour’s intent was to describe her idea of what community should be like in her travels throughout the various worlds of Second Life. I read the post … and was mesmerized! What I read was a wonderful account of what a “real world” community should be all about. Our virtual wants and needs aren’t really that different from our real wants and needs.
I have reprinted a portion of Honour’s piece below where she outline a few components of her “perfect community.” Enjoy!
  • A sense of me as an individual. From day 1 in Blue Mars the frustration regarding the lack of ability to personalize your avatar in a meaningful way was overwhelming. It’s been more than a year and I don’t care what clothes are now available, or even what skins, those avatars still look like clones. It’s as if one small family was marooned on a desert island and centuries of inbreeding have increased the population but done nothing to introduce new genes. If you have to look at the name over your head to find yourself then you don’t feel like the avatar is really “you.” I don’t think this would make sense to anybody unfamiliar with virtual worlds and I may not be expressing this clearly – but the first thing you must own is yourself – that avatar is not just a vehicle for chat, it is “me.”
  • A sense that I can participate. Having in world tools for creation available to all residents means that we can all build something for the world – even if it’s just a poster on the wall of our rented house. There are many residents in Second Life who don’t build anything, ever. But there are thousands and thousands who do and that means that there are thousands and thousands who have a sense of ownership of the world around them because they helped create it. Those thousands of creators provide enough choice for the non builders to feel a sense of “ownership” just by making their own decisions about what to use and how. Severely limiting the ability to create means you’ve immediately minimized the number of people who will feel a sense of pride in what happens in your world. They will have no personal link to the growth and development of even their personal space never mind the grid as a whole.
  • A sense that I belong. I mean this in various ways. The first is that “community” you feel you have with like-minded residents even if it’s just your friends list. You might also feel a sense of belonging to your neighbourhood. But in addition there is always a larger community you recognize even if you aren’t actively involved – it might be that your avatar is a “tiny” and though you don’t reside in a sim devoted to “tinies” you’ll still feel part of that group. Or you’re a live music devotee or vampire or artist or designer. You feel a sense of kinship with others who share the same interests. All of the individual communities in Second Life are positioned on the same grid. We have our smaller communities and yet we know we are all part of the same world. A “tiny” on one sim will encounter “tinies” from other areas either purposely or accidentally because there are no giant walls separating them. I might encounter individuals from multiple communities just by wandering around – I can explore and learn and, apart from ban lines, my exposure to and knowledge of the grid is limited only by my sense of adventure. Where ever I do go, however, I know I share one thing in common with all residents – I belong to the same world they do. I can learn from the work and presence of all residents not just those in my immediate area of the grid. Blue Mars is designed in a way to put barriers between the individual “cities” just because you have to decide in advance where you plan to go – it does require a separate download for each “location”. That type of architecture inspires laziness in the traveler. So I might decide I belong to one or two cities but you won’t get me to all of them. There is no feeling of “one world” or my place in it.
  • A sense of control. This means everything from being able to decide what I look at (camera controls) to where I go and what I do when I get there. It includes what my screen looks like ( do I really want all those names floating around in the air), who I listen to (muting somebody or watching group chat) and how I move. The more tools available for the residents of the world the more control they have over their interactions and the more personal that interaction becomes. End user tools have never seemed to be a priority for Blue Mars to their detriment.
  • A feeling of safety. This is the hardest one for me to articulate – so I’ll probably do it very badly. I can travel anywhere on the grid and if I feel uncomfortable I can go “home” immediately. My home is in the same world as wherever it is I’ve roamed. However, more importantly there is a huge amount of “safe” in the knowledge that if I have issues I can get support and assistance from complete strangers across the grid. There are groups and individuals I can approach and if they can’t assist they’ll help find somebody who can. I can provide advice and support to strangers in the same way. The size and number of resources available to residents through other residents provides a safety net that is invaluable. We become tied to each other through informal networks as well as our defined social or business circles. The Blue Mars architecture again puts walls between residents.

“I’m sure psychologists and anthropologists will be able to correct my list and add many important things I’ve omitted. But these are the attributes of Second Life that make it work for me and the needs that Blue Mars just doesn’t meet. Without a sense of “ownership” there is no sense of community. Without community you haven’t created something which inspires loyalty or expansion or your existence as a viable concern.”

Maybe the virtual world isn’t so different from the real one …


I can be found on Twitter at @clayforsberg


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