Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Virtues and veracity of the second life

Online communities - like Second Life that offer an alternate world - are gaining popularity not just among the youth but also among adults, businesses, religious organisations ... you name it.
Virtual community is a virtual space providing technology-mediated communication to perform a wide gamut of activities like building relationships, entertaining people, exchanging information, thoughts and knowledge, performing business activities and facilitating studies. Howard Rheingold (1995) defined virtual community as “social aggregations that emerge from the net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in the cyberspace”. Later, the concept was defined from a multi-disciplinary perspective, ranging from social, technological, business and economic viewpoint.

Millions of users across the world log into their Facebook account religiously and follow the discussion thread, post comments, upload pictures, play games and wish their friends on special days. Almost a similar number of professionals follow LinkedIn from the start of their day. MySpace, Orkut, Skype and many such online communities attract a large number of users everyday and are growing exponentially. The emergence of 3D communities like SecondLife, SmallWorlds, ActiveWorlds etc has given a Midas touch to the community era. The success of these online communities can be attributed to both associated benefits as well as emotional attachment among its users.

Today, with this incessantly updating technological era, these virtual communities have become an integral part of living for the growing generation. Following this dynamic trend, one can observe a significant shift in the social, political, economic and regulatory environment across the globe. On the basis of this advancement, Humphrys (2008) defines virtual world as a space where people not only communicate but also create an alternative (single/multiple) identity. Researchers believe that by 2020, the growth of virtual world will be similar to the world wide web and it will soon replace the web browser, changing the way we interact on the internet (Rawlinson 2007; Sarvary 2008).
De Nood and Attema (2006) believe that the concept of a virtual world is as old as that of humans dreaming. Several novels, plays and movies represent the idea of an imaginary world (Greto 2008). One can identify significantly large number of users on the internet spending most of their time in online gaming, interaction and work activities as compared to the real life (Hof 2006). Several virtual worlds have cropped up to give an opportunity to the users to experience the realm of fantasy and imaginary world. Such online world is experiencing great success with an increasing number of users every second. Williamson (2007) in his study noted the tremendous growth in internet users and stated that if this trend continued, then by 2011, half of the young internet users across the globe will visit virtual world as shown in Figure 1.
Second Life represents an excellent example of a virtual world, engaged in providing virtual experience to its members (Greto 2008). It is a 3D virtual community comprising animated characters in the form of more than 20 million registered users. It represents a complete new world of imagination and creativity. The concept was developed by Linden Labs using Linden Scripting Language and a three-dimensional modeling tool, and was launched on June 23, 2003 with a view of providing a platform and not a game. In January 2004, the website was re-launched after going into dark due to funding problems. However, since re-launching, it allowed its users to own their own land and since then the number of residents have grown rapidly.
Derryberry (2008) categorised Second Life as a serious game embarking the activities of socialising, training and learning. However, this virtual world lacks structured and mission-oriented narratives, defined character roles and their explicit goals (Reeves et al, 2008) and scripted play with a game plan (Sharp and Salomon2008). Later, several researchers gave their opinion and defined Second Life from their point of view.
Second Life has predefined rules and regulations, own currency, banks, police stations, cinema halls, shopping malls, resorts and art galleries and offers more than the physical world. It provides a complete new form of imaginary world in which one would like to be, with a changed perspective of socialising and doing commercial activities.
Second Life: Social structure
Second Life represents the virtual world through the activities performed by its residents known as avatars. This term has a historic religious Hindu belief of physical embodiment of a divine being and represents one’s online persona in a 3D virtual world (Lee 2007). The residents can hold multiple avatars but can exhibit one avatar at a time. These avatars can be in the form of any animated character, including living and non-living things, and perform all the socialising activities of local chat, group chat, global instant messaging and voice chat, either publicly or privately depending upon their choice.
People from different corners of the globe meet in the form of avatars, interact, and establish relationships. Here every group represents an online society, similar to that of the physical society, commands and guides the behaviour of other members in the group, keeps the discussion forum live, hosts live performances and performs all sort of entertainment activities that keep the members connected for a longer period of time. Members have their own houses with other residential members (maximum five members/accounts per household) and neighbours. User profile on Second Life plays an important role in creating the user’s virtual social group. The profile helps the user to discover and get connected with other like-minded users and participate in the discussion forums to enrich her knowledge base. Second Life also gives an opportunity to the residents to add their event in the website’s event guide and create a buzz.
Second Life has already witnessed the emergence of entertainment groups, educational institutes, business organisations and governmental entities as the most growing and beneficial of Second Life’s virtual societies along with its residents (Castronova 2005; Guest 2007). Boulos et al (2007) defined 3D virtual community as a platform to create simulations for business and educational activities during the process of learning. Therefore, members experience the presence of others in much more realistic ways with decreased distance (Boulos et al 2007; Castronova 2005; Guest 2007; Huvila et al 2010). Looking at this changing behaviour and the success of virtual world, several religious organisations have also created their presence to promote spiritual sayings and activities. LifeChurch.tv, a Christian church, has developed an “Experience Island” on Second Life to spread the sayings of Christianity. Similarly, Islam Online has purchased a land and allowed its followers to perform the rituals of Hajj, so that they can be prepared before making the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Such an online environment demands certain rules and regulation to govern the behaviour of the members and maintain a sustainable environment for the others. This led to the formation of the ‘laws’ of Second Life, referred to as the ‘Big Six’ rules. These rules act as a behavioural guidelines prohibiting members from engaging in activities like disclosure (releasing information about the real-life person behind the avatar), intolerance, harassment, assault, indecency and disturbing peace (Linden Labs 2008b).
Second Life normally restricts the membership individuals below 18 years of age. The profile of Second Life users is given in Table 2. The population is dominated by male characters. Most of its users fall in the age group of 25-44 years. One of the interesting observations here is the total number of hours spent by each age group. Although the two groups, 18-24 and 35-44, have equal per cent of active avatars in Second Life, the time spent by age group 35-44 in Second Life is almost double than the younger group. It is evident that as age increases, the number of hours spent among the members increases considerably (Figure 2). On the basis of this fact, we assume that increase in the hours with increasing age reflects their active state of commercial purpose. The members belonging to these bands might constantly derive value from performing activities related to marketing, training and other business related tasks. Therefore, they spend more time as compared to the users in the age group 18-24, who mainly look for entertainment, fun and educational activities.
On the basis of activities performed and the type of users, the virtual world of Second Life is divided in three categories, known as ‘sims’. These categories are: PG (no extreme violence or nudity), mature (violence and nudity to some extent), and adult (extreme violence and adultery). The PG sim represents the teens grid while the other two represent the main grid.
Majority of the Second Life avatars belong to USA (35.81 per cent) (Table 3). The second- and third highest active avatars belong to Germany and the UK, representing only 8.25 per cent and 8.06 per cent of the overall Second Life population. Wyld (2010) quoted that Second Life population is an overly white population group with most of its users being North American and European. Few Asia-Pacific countries have cast their footprints on the virtual islands of Second Life. Countries like India, with the second largest population across the globe, still lag behind in making their presence felt in such virtual worlds.
Second Life: Economical structure
Second Life is viewed as an entrepreneurial, free market-based virtual economy that provides an unregulated playground for economic organisations (Hof 2006; Sharp and Solomon 2008). Krangel (2008) estimated the size of the virtual economy at Second Life to be $300 million or more, which is larger than the economic markets of several real nations.
According to a Linden report (2008a), Second Life generated sales of $3,596,674 in 2005 and gross profit of $64 million in 2006. Later, in 2009, Second Life registered a 65 per cent growth, with business worth $567 million. Also, 25 per cent of their economic activities are due to the virtual goods market. However, the website clearly mentions that the profits gained by the residents are mainly used to pay Second Life’s own subscription and tier fees. The usual monthly land fee is charged in tiers by Linden Labs. It is noteworthy that only a small number of residential members earn large amount of money from this virtual world, known as Second Life entrepreneurs. Some of them have even grossed in excess of $1 million/year.
Second Life has introduced its internal currency, known as the Linden dollar (L$), which can be purchased using US dollars and other currencies on the LindeX exchange provided by Linden Lab, independent brokers or other resident users. The members can earn in the form of Linden dollars which can be exchanged for US dollars and other currencies. This internal currency can be used to buy, sell, rent or trade goods and services with other residents of the community. The virtual goods here include buildings, vehicles, all kinds of devices, clothing, skin and hair products, jewellery, works of art, and flora and fauna. The services include wage labour, business management, entertainment and custom content creation like building, texturing, scripting, animation, art direction etc. The members also earn through the website’s affiliation programme.

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