John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated Jan 2007
Since my days as a member of the Palace and as a cyberpsychologist studying that community, more than a decade ago, I haven’t paid much attention to the newer avatar/graphical worlds that have come, and in many cases, gone.
Recently some colleagues and journalists have been encouraging me to take a look at Second Life. My reaction, even after I visited the SL web site, was similar to how I responded in the past: been there, done that. However, noticing all the media publicity SL is receiving, and hearing how a million people have joined it, I thought I’d give the idea of visiting it a second chance.
So I downloaded the program and dragged myself through the registration process. Fortunately the install and registration posed no technical problems for me and my Mac. Thank you Linden Labs. Optimistic, I even provided my credit card info so I could collect my free $250 Linden dollars - the equivalent, I discovered later, of about one US dollar. I promised myself I wouldn’t spend it all in one place.
Spotting Newbies by How They Walk
Before logging on, I mentally prepared myself for the possibility that I would, at first, feel like a completely awkward newbie in this unfamiliar virtual world. It was a good idea I did. It took me several minutes just to figure out how to move my avatar, and then I was literally walking into walls and trees. I spent most of the first day learning how to move about without looking like a complete idiot, how to visually survey and interact with the environment, and, most fun of all, how to fly like superman. The controls for navigating one’s avatar are much more sophisticated than they used to be at the Palace, This posed a rather interesting challenge. Even after several hours, when I thought I was doing reasonably well, a more experienced user who I met in the SL version of Amsterdam commented on me being a newbie. When I asked how she knew, she replied, “By how you walk.”
At that point I took my own advice that I’ve written about in various articles: Don’t be afraid to be a newbie. Embrace it graciously and with humor. Ask for help. And don’t be surprised or dismayed if people ignore you or make fun of you because you’re a newbie, which happened often to me in SL.
Lookin’ Good, or Not: The Avatar
After getting a grip on how to move about, I tackled the task of customizing my avatar. Again, the features are more sophisticated than in the days of Palace, especially in designing the body type, hairstyle, clothing, and facial features of a human-like body. After my initial experimentations, I still looked like such a newbie nerd that my wife insisted I continue to work on modifying my clothing.
Eventually, as you can see in that picture, I created an avatar that looks something like me, although a bit more trim and wearing a hat that I never wear. It wasn’t until later on that I figured out how to take the hat off. Although in the past I’ve assumed imaginary identities in cyberspace, I now usually choose to be myself, using my real name - and, in SL, an avatar that is based on reality rather than fantasy. Not that highly imaginary avatars are a bad thing. It’s just that as a cyberpsychologist exploring this world, I prefer to be straightforward about who I am. Even my username reflects my real name, except that in the registration process I was required to choose a last name from a list, as if being forced to join a clan.
Quickly it became clear that people take their avatars very seriously. Users spend a great deal of time, effort, and money designing them. As was true of Palace, how you look is important not only in your ability to attract people, but in demonstrating your technical skill. Unlike Palace, almost all the avatars are human forms, although how people use, think, and feel about their avatars is very similar to what I discovered at Palace.
What Can I Do Here?
Once you create your avatar and get the hang of moving about, you ask yourself “Now what do I do?” Second Life contains a lot of features, much more so than in Palace, so I could easily have spent a great deal of time reading about and experimenting with them. But that got boring after a while. I wanted to go places. But where?
That wasn’t as simple as I thought it might be. I found the maps confusing and unhelpful. The search engine offers a list of popular spots, but almost all of them were rated “mature” and involved sexual content of one type or another. Or they were places to party. People were dancing at Sanctuary Rock, which was fascinating to watch, and I found a variety of shops where people can buy avatar supplies, including quite a few shops devoted to sexual items, services, and avatar bodies. Sex always sells, in real or virtual life.
I tried to find people like me – professors, psychologists, mental health professionals. Some were listed in the directory, but I couldn’t find them. When I teleported to their location, a few other people were there, looking around, appearing disoriented like me, asking questions like, “What can I do here?” I went to Reuters, hoping I might meet some journalists, but that building too was mostly deserted. In Amsterdam some people were roaming the streets, chatting with a friend, or just standing there, surveying the streets while trying to figure out what to do next, just like me. It’s possible the users may not even have been “in” those motionless avatars, but rather letting their virtual bodies stand idly while they were doing something else on their computer. You never can tell whether a still avatar is sentient or not.
At one point I even tried flying on and on in one direction, through misty clouds and blue skies, feeling a tiny bit anxious about getting lost, but expecting I might run into something interesting… I didn’t. Just more sky and mist. After I while, I wasn’t even sure I was moving anymore. Dropping to the ground, I tried to place a “landmark,” not really knowing what that is, but figuring I might as well leave a marker indicating JohnSuler Yue had been here, as if I were exploring the moon…. It didn’t’ work… This was not a good way to explore SL.
In the half a dozen or so areas I visited, I chatted with people, those who were nice enough to talk for a bit with an obvious newbie. There was a vendor and jewelry designer who longed to buy his own shop. A smartly attired female who empathized with my newbie status said that “friends” were the reason why she liked SL. A young, busty, and scantily dressed avatar emphasized that “Everybody in SL wants more Lindens.” There were quite a few people speaking languages other than English. In French I told one person that I only speak French a little.
I also met people who design, construct, and manage their own environment. I mentioned that I am a cyberpsychologist who studies virtual worlds. At the Palace, the technical and company people who ran things rarely seemed interested in my work. These SL folks also seemed only mildly interested, but they are busy people. As one of them quickly excused himself from our conversation because he had “back code” to write, he told me that I should get permission from Linden Labs if I intended to do any professional research here. “There’s information about it in the support section of the web site,” he added before he walked into a wall, which made me smile, and then disappeared down a staircase.
As one of the old-timer cyberpsychologists who often has discussed and debated issues about online social science research, I was curious about what Linden Labs would have to say about people studying their world. As my avatar stood still, I called up my browser window and went to their website. The only information I found was a statement about the importance of adhering to ethical standards of online research, and a link to a Linden Lab document about doing research. The document wasn’t there, but I did eventually find a link they offered to the ethical standards of an outside professional organization.
What’s New Here?
Second Life is a fascinating, cutting edge virtual world with lots of features, places, activities, people, and subcultures to explore. Many people love it. As one emo-looking avatar said to me, “It’s addicting.”
During my explorations, I kept that comment in mind, while thinking back to how people at the Palace often said the same thing, which led to my very first cyberpsychology article that outlined the various reasons why people get addicted to these avatar worlds. In fact, while wandering around Second Life, I often had that feeling of déjà vu. Memories of people, events, and experiences from my days of the Palace starting coming back to me. As sophisticated and complex as Second Life is, as far forward as Linden Labs has pushed the envelop of visual virtual environments, the basic and essential elements of avatar worlds have not changed all that much.
With one very important exception. The economy and it’s linkage to real world money. That’s a big difference with very significant ramifications. The power of money, buying, and selling is another highly motivating factor that I could add to my list of reasons why people get “addicted” to online worlds. But as for me, economic issues are the reality of real world living that I would prefer to escape when joining a virtual community.
And so, as a cyberpsychologist, will I seriously study Second Life? Perhaps, although that would mean spending a lot of time exploring the various features and immersing myself deeper into the culture and subcultures. So many interesting things to do in cyberspace, so little time.
Setting aside my interests as a researcher, will I continue as a member of Second Life and give it a second chance just for the fun of it? Maybe. Despite all the fascinating features of this world, I have to agree with that one avatar about it being friends that really make the difference, and it takes time and effort to make new friends in a virtual community. Perhaps I might invite one of my own friends or colleagues to join me in SL. Or maybe I’ll happen to be logged on at the same time and so will have a chance to meet that dream expert who responded to the IM message I left him.
I also still have those free Linden dollars to spend.
See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:
Psychology of avatars and graphical space
The Psychology of Cyberspace Home Page