by Sharon Collingwood
In November of 2008 a conference was held at Ohio State University. Over 50 academics from Europe, North America and Australia met to discuss women’s activism and community development in the virtual world Second Life. None of the attendees needed airplane tickets; no hotel rooms were reserved. This conference was carried out entirely online, using the three-dimensional research and study space maintained by the university within the “virtual world” Second Life.
Second Life, for those unfamiliar with it, is a digitally constructed virtual world in which people create a persona to represent them which looks something like a figure in a graphic novel or animated film. Known as an avatar, this persona communicates in real-time with other avatars, and can use the software to establish specific interest groups, or communities, based on mutual interests.
Avatars move around in a simulated environment that is continuously available and easily customizable by users. Use of Second Life is free; only those who wish to reserve space for their own use must pay a monthly fee. Residents have built homes, gardens, classrooms, and businesses; the only limit to construction in this virtual space is the user’s imagination. Since its inception in 2003, membership in this virtual world has grown exponentially; at any time, round the clock, there are approximately 60,000 to 80,000 people using this virtual world for work and recreation.
The unique nature of the Ohio State conference was demonstrated by one of the first speakers, who had come to discuss women’s role in the production and distribution of news and entertainment content in virtual environments. Pausing in her introduction, she turned from her microphone to make a request: “Can you guys keep it down please? Mommy is presenting.”
The speaker’s request had a strong impact, not only on her rambunctious children, but also on her audience. The amused reaction showed an appreciation of this intersection of the virtual and the actual, as well as the acknowledgement that the two are not mutually exclusive.
This incident reflects the transformation in communications that has taken place in recent years, blurring the lines between private and public, between home and work and between the local and the global. Women are taking a prominent role in these communications, through blogging and social networking (Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter), but 3-D platforms like Second Life may be the next step in women’s participation in social media.
An Enabling Technology
As indicated by its title, “Virtual Praxis: A Conference on Women’s Community in Second Life,” the conference set out to study the impact of women on and in this digital community. To do so, it used all of the tools of Second Life .
The most important tool in Second Life is the avatar. A user may choose the avatar’s gender, race, age and many other characteristics; some people identify quite strongly with their avatar, and choose a persona that approximates their real-life appearance. Once made, these choices become part of the avatar’s identity and also play a role in how that user is received in a virtual community. Many users prefer to conform to western ideals of beauty, but others choose to explore alternate representations. They may appear as animals, robots or mythical creatures. Self-representation in this virtual world may be playful, but it is also a form of communication, permitting nonverbal expression of aspects of a user’s personality. In some cases it is also therapeutic, allowing the individual to explore alternate identities or to deal with a physical or emotional disability in a safe environment. Although much has been said about the addictive nature of online environments, research on their potential is just beginning.
Many of the registrants at the conference were participating in Second Life for the first time, and some had attended a pre-conference workshop to learn how to “create themselves” for appearance in the virtual meeting space. More experienced avatar-attendees were able to recognize old friends and “sit together” in the conference area bleachers. Others were able to identify common interests through reading the public profiles of new acquaintances. The potential for serendipitous meetings — of “bumping into” old friends or “running across” new ones — gives psychological weight to these virtual spaces. Because they are immersive environments replicating a physical and social reality, they encourage participants to become invested in the space.
As with a video conference, participants are able to see, hear and interact with speakers, although in the virtual space, the interaction takes place between avatars. Speakers gave their papers through a microphone that broadcast to everyone at the conference, while simultaneously posting text summaries in a public chat window for the hearing impaired and those with technical difficulties. Questions were sent to the session chair by instant message, to avoid interrupting the speaker, and they were discussed at the end of each session in both voice and text chat.
Unlike a video conference, however, this virtual gathering permitted a much more interactive and collaborative experience. As noted, participants were able to use the public chat window to make comments to each other, or they could use the Second Life program to discuss the paper privately through instant messaging. They could also choose to take a break from the proceedings, much as they would at an actual conference. Avatars could “walk away” from a paper to discuss related issues in another area of the virtual space. Instead of trading business cards, however, avatars maintain contact through the “friendship” function of Second Life, which informs users of the availability of their contacts and enables them to converse.
A virtual world is a persistent space, continuously available. The Virtual Praxis conference took place on Minerva Isle, where university classes are also held and student work is displayed. Minerva is always open for student use and visitors are welcome in many areas. Outside of class time, the space is used for office hours, independent study groups or even social activities. This gives the virtual classroom a sense of “place” that cannot be achieved through a mere website or learning management system.
The sense of “place,” a feeling of being anchored within a shared social space, is the most salient characteristic of a virtual world platform. Second Life is used for a wide range of activities. A member may log on with the intention of seeing an art exhibit or attending a poetry reading. She may be looking for entertainment at a live music event, or she may decide to go shopping with a friend. Critically, all of these activities have a social component, but respond to individual preferences. There is ample opportunity to form relationships and join interest groups; in fact, few people remain in this virtual world without a connection to a community.
Community was at the heart of the presentations given at the Virtual Praxis conference (archived here). For the most part, speakers either explained how their own community has grown within Second Life, or they studied communities that interested them. Questions of identity presented problems for many of the speakers: in a world where identity is chosen, how can members distinguish who is a lesbian, an African-American, or even a woman? Actual-world identity may or may not be crucial to virtual communities. Presenters opted to leave this question for future conferences in order to deal with the practical task of identification and description of the communities they study.
Linda Rogers (known in Second Life as Kate Miranda) and Chris Collins (Second Life: Fleep Tuque) are founding members of two prominent Second Life communities, Cedar / Sea Turtle Island, and Chilbo,respectively. As Executive Director of the Toronto Philharmonia, Rogers was able to rely on her real-world organization for contacts in developing a series of live music events in Second Life. Collins, an IT analyst at the University of Cincinnati, relied on her own community, a loose association of online friends who moved from posted chat to virtual interaction and established Chilbo as an important cultural center for artists, architects, musicians, educators and others to gather.
Women are also involved in more loosely connected communities. Phyllis Johnson (Second Life: Sonicity Fitzroy), an associate professor of media studies at Southern Illinois University, spoke about the incursion of traditional media, like NPR’s Science Friday, which airs weekly within Second Life. She also discussed virtual communities that have developed their own media representation, sicj as Cybergrrl Oh’s program highlighting Athena Island, a resource for women’s businesses. Leta Hendricks (Second Life: Tamu Oh), one of the many librarians working in Second Life, spoke about the representation of African-Americans. She discussed the availability of womanist resources in virtual libraries, as well as installations like Virtual Harlem, which permits users to explore African-American culture by walking the streets of 1920s Harlem.
Two presenters reported on sociological studies of Second Life communities. Lea Popielinski (Second Life: Lette Ponnier), a Ph.D candidate at Ohio State, examined the importance of avatar identity in a close-knit lesbian community, and Randolph Hollingsworth (Second Life: Bella Yan), Assistant Provost at the University of Kentucky, explored the darker side of Second Life in her study of the recruitment methods of hate groups.
The day ended with a panel discussion of women’s experience of Second Life. As is the case elsewhere on the Internet, sexist, racist and homophobic attitudes are present, and there have been incidents of sexual harassment. Panelists talked about their own Second Life experiences, and related how they dealt with them. They acknowledged the psychological harm that can result from being subjected to this kind of behavior, but also noted the therapeutic value of learning to deal with these situations in a relatively safe environment. They discussed practical ways of protecting oneself from harassment: abusive people can be “muted,” making it impossible for their voice or chat to be seen or heard, and users can easily “teleport” away from an unpleasant situation. There is also a reporting system to handle complaints, but all agreed that there is much more to discuss on this topic.
Female Avatars Lead the Way
What became clear from the Virtual Praxis conference is that female avatars play a prominent role in the growing number of social networks within Second Life. Avatars who are connected to real-world institutions often use their connections as a springboard for community, and their professional identities are known. Others prefer to identify themselves only through their digital personae, perhaps because this allows them a safe space to work out aspects of their own lives or to simply enjoy the freedom of anonymity. However, whether identified or anonymous, the avatar’s reputation is the essential criteria for her participation in virtual communities, and her reputation is based on past conduct and the value of her contribution to the group.
The success of the conference is one indication of the possibilities of community organizing in virtual worlds. The event itself took about six months to organize. Like most conferences, time was needed for the call for papers, the vetting of proposals, and a publicity campaign focused on the target audience. However, the event itself cost practically nothing, and even without the use of the Ohio State virtual classroom space, could have been hosted at minimal cost.
Much of this work also served to establish Minerva Isle as a gathering place for feminist dialogue and activism, and this will encourage impromptu meetings arranged with minimal effort. As most of the island is always open to visitors, we hope attendees at the conference will return to see our exhibits or to socialize. In March of 2009, Minerva is participating in International Women’s Day activities, hopefully eliciting more interest in women’s issues within and outside of Second Life.
The possibility of a social networking space bridging the divide between the private and public is an exciting one for women. Those who are isolated due to disability, distance or caregiving responsibilities can participate in social activities in their own way and in their own time. Self expression is available in various forms, from avatar customization to musical performance, art and 3-D sculpture. Although the issue of identity remains difficult, anonymity allows many women the freedom to openly discuss problems of sexuality, abuse and violence. Through activism in virtual communities, many will be encouraged to find their political voice.
The pattern of community in Second Life has much to offer the global women’s movement. Communities are often international, although groups tend to unite by a common language. Negotiation of time zones is very important in organizing, and this has the effect of reducing parochialism. In addition, the technological demands of sharing virtual space require a measure of cooperation, and encourages an understanding of the ecology of a shared virtual space. Community support in a virtual world can have concrete benefits for an organization, too. This year the American Cancer Society raised over $200,000 through fundraising activities in Second Life.
There are many possibilities for feminist organizing in this new virtual world, but there are also difficulties. The technology is developing very quickly, but there can still be frustrating systemic problems. Although use of Second Life is free, it does require a recent computer and a fast Internet connection. Some problems of accessibility and disability exist. However, organization at a grassroots level is growing and these small communities are now reaching out to each other to negotiate a larger social framework.
As in the early days of the women’s movement, this negotiation is taking place outside institutional control, and it is based on trust and cooperation. It is too early to make predictions on where this social framework will lead the citizens of Second Life, but the inherently egalitarian nature of this new technology could provide fertile ground for feminist activism.
Sharon Collingwood (Ellie Brewster in Second Life) teaches Women’s Studies and French at Ohio State University. She is the designer of Minerva, the Department of Women’s Studies’ teaching and research space in Second Life, home base for the department’s first distance course. To visit Minerva, install the Second Life program, then click this link. Information on future events is available on the Minerva website; you can also add your name to the “Minerva Guests” group in Second Life (use the search menu within Second Life to find this group), or join Minerva Isle in Facebook.