Reality Check: “The world ‘outside’ may often view SL and its inhabitants with skepticism, hostility, and mockery”

March 23rd, 2008  |  Published in SLENTRE.COM Magazine Feature Articles

Eric S. Gregory

By Eric S. Gregory
(Reality Check is an in-depth look at how Real world media portrays virtual worlds such as Second Life, Eric S. Gregory holds a Masters degree in English Literature and has specialized in literary theory and criticism.)

In 1995, then Vice President Al Gore spoke of the imminent internet revolution as an epistemological and practical shift of world-historic dimensions and consequences:

These highways — or, more accurately, networks of distributed intelligence — will allow us to share information, to connect, and to communicate as a global community. From these connections we will derive robust and sustainable economic progress, strong democracies, better solutions to global and local environmental challenges, improved health care, and — ultimately — a greater sense of shared stewardship of our small planet. (1)

While it would be difficult to argue with the first half of Gore’s claims—the world does indeed appear to be shrinking as computer-based communications technologies become more and more sophisticated and advanced–what are we to make of the second half of Gore’s historical claims? Most of us would probably have serious qualms regarding his claim that these “networks of distributed intelligence” have rewarded us with “a greater sense of shared stewardship of our small planet.” But with personal computers and high-speed access now widely available across the bulk of the Western socioeconomic spectrum, and with more and more people expressing themselves via cyber-technologies, what can we say about our new ways of knowing ourselves and one another? I don’t think anyone would dispute that things have changed. But have these shifts been as profoundly revolutionary as predicted? And what are the implications involved in these shifts for our systems of relations? In short, have these “networks of distributed intelligence” made possible equal access, democratizing our experiences, and, perhaps most intriguingly–have they upended or expanded what it means to be a human citizen, online or not?
This is the first in what I hope to be an ongoing exploration of what it means to be a 21st century global subject, with a specific emphasis on how we come to know and see ourselves in and through the filter of online technologies. In particular, I’ll be looking at Second Life™, the 3D online application, and the relations between its users and the world “outside” (bearing in mind that while the world “outside” may often view SL and its inhabitants with skepticism, hostility, and mockery, the bulk of the western world is now “online,” and the lived distance between the two camps is not as dramatic as either side might occasionally perceive it). I’ll be primarily focusing on representations of SL through online major media reportage as well as individual blogs, attempting to track the ongoing relations between SL and its “outside” at the same time as I try and articulate how SL might actually be altering the fabric of our shared “reality.” While early users probably saw their own activities within SL in highly optimistic, even utopian, dimensions (2) , increasing media attention and a rapidly expanding user base have shifted priorities and interest in SL towards the utilitarian and financial. Where once SL implied a world of subjective possibilities (one imagines that gender distinctions become superfluous in a world where identity is always assumed and always fluid), it can be argued that SL is rapidly becoming a finance speculator’s wet dream. As finance capital begins to dimly perceive the finite limits of our material world and attendant markets, virtual worlds like SL suggest new investment frontiers, new ways of consumption—in short, new and potentially infinite markets to create and manipulate (3). And when these in-world markets make substantive connections with the world “outside” (as they already are), what will the subjective, political, and economic implications be?
In an excellent overview of cyberculture’s history <>, David Silver traces an intriguing emotional trajectory through the various stages of internet development. The early years (1990-93) were marked by strong dualistic perspectives—observers tended to either perceive the internet as a foreclosure on reality or as a utopian expansion of what reality might become. And while these too reductive oppositions eventually collapsed as reality proved as complicated as ever, traces of both viewpoints can be located in many of the arguments and discussions surrounding Second Life today.

Mainstream media portrayals of SL tend to embed these polarized positions in their representations and coverage. Recent articles often introduce or defend SL as a “productive” space for “real-life” institutional/governmental/corporate investment and interventions (4). SL is less frequently, though no less productively, advertised as a space for emotional recuperation, expression, diversion and perhaps most provocatively, healing (5). In this regard, SL reflects the older cyber-utopian impulses, with the suggestions that SL’s social community might replace or supplement one’s failed or dysfunctional “real-life” family and interpersonal relationships. The SL user re-inscribes her identity within a new and presumably healthier set of social, emotional, romantic, and sexual relations—social relations she actively chooses. So on the upside of media representation, SL can potentially provide a propitious space for new forms of educational and business opportunities (6). And less importantly (at least as regards media coverage), SL might offer newer healthier forms of familial and social relations. In both manifestations, SL represents a way of scripting a better future. Though these connections aren’t made explicit in SL’s positive media coverage, the implications appear to be highly beneficial for society at large—improved educational settings and tools, new business communication tools and skills, new markets for capital to create, manipulate, and cultivate–and perhaps less obvious but no less crucially, unhealthy “real world” lifestyles and relations can be rewritten and improved in the more fluid agency of SL identity-formation. One can’t help but be reminded of Al Gore’s optimistic terms quoted at the beginning of this essay—although the advantages appear to be on a smaller, more individual, scale rather than at the “global” and “shared” frequency prophesized by Mr. Gore in 1995.

On the downside of mainstream media coverage, SL has recently been presented as a site uncontrollably rife with technological danger, especially as a conduit for international terrorist activity and recruitment (apparently “shared stewardship” of the globe might not be such a good thing after all) (7). What’s perhaps most intriguing about this kind of fear-mongering is how it can coexist with the kind of capitalistic optimism regarding SL as a space for institutional exploitation. Who will win in the race to dominate and claim SL—the maverick financial speculators and corporations of the West or the crazed destruction-willed terrorists of the East? As more balanced reports have pointed out, this kind of media coverage obviously serves no purpose save to promote more post-9/11 hysteria. On a similarly cranky, though certainly less manipulatively cynical, tack are the moralizing SL critics hard at work in individual web-blogs. These typically take the form of personal rants, denouncing SL activity as an essentially unhealthy practice or satirizing its users as social misfits with no “first life” to speak of (8).

Dwight avatar from The Office

Although these critiques offer little beyond defensive moralizing, we can trace this type of (usually not so subtly luddite) response along a media continuum culminating in mass cultural comedic representations such as the one recently portrayed on the hit sitcom The Office—wherein the un-sexualized workplace buffoon with an unhealthy relation to technological interfaces is so unsuccessful with his first (and presumably even second) life, that he creates a “second” second life (9). These representations of typical SL users as unsocial (possibly permanently unsocialized?) losers with a limited or fantasy-restricted sex life operates at strange frequencies with recent news accounts of SL users as sex-addicted home wreckers, eager and willing to toss aside years of marriage and domestic stability for newly made cyber-relations and loves that reach beyond the limits of computer-only interfacing (10). It’s notable that this particular media representation sits uneasily, yet strangely comfortably, aside those aforementioned accounts of SL users who are re-mapping new ways of life and love for the better.
In this brief mapping of recent media coverage of SL and SL users—a mapping that attempts to scratch beneath the surface of the all too obvious and all too prevalent advertising for investment and marketing capital—we can see that, regardless of how powerfully optimistic SL proponents and opportunists present the platform, they (and we) can never escape the fears, ambivalences, and suspicions triggered by technologies that purport to re-function and re-arrange our ways of making and doing interpersonal relations. SL and technological interfaces like it will always be marked by such polarizations. Mainstream media, while most certainly and comfortably snug deep in the hip-pocket of global investment capital, can’t help but regurgitate these embedded suspicions and fears that maybe the future really won’t be better. And perhaps in their small way these conservative gestures reflect fears that a future framed by interfaces like SL will only lead to more of the same.


(1) As quoted in “Looking Backwards, Looking Forward: Cyberculture Studies 1990-2000,” David Silver, RCCS: Introducing Cyberculture <>

(2) An excellent source for thoughtful, and some might suggest utopian, analysis by what I presume to be a longtime SL user:

(3) For an example of this type of starry-eyed optimism (Or is it good old-fashioned cynical opportunism? Or both?) regarding virtual consumption and better worlds, check here:

(4) Recent examples of pro-institutional/educational media coverage can be found here:

(5) Recent examples of online accounts/coverage of SL as a space for interpersonal connectivity and health:


And for a sober informed response:

(8) For example:


(10) Some recent examples of online media coverage of SL-related divorce, betrayals, etc. (there are more—this has become the hot button negative issue):,0,5676830.story
And check here for an account of “in-world” betrayal:

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