Identity and Expression, Second Life

Is Second Life Consumerism Redux?

I’ve been following with interest the new blog Pixels and Policy but I’ve been a bit, well, reserved about it, primarily because the site was running a photo or promo or Amazon link or whatever to Castranova’s last book, which is a pamphlet really, or a job application, and had me squirming because of a) the false dichotomy it creates between the real and the virtual and b) because he’d have governments and companies program the world to make it…well, to make it more “fun” somehow. So for now I kind of scan the headlines and sort of plug along on the assumption that the author might get rid of his Castranova fixation and maybe figure out that all those Google ads don’t actually pay that much and pull some of them down.

I’m probably being a little snarky. Because the blog does cover good ground, and the focus on policy is right up my alley – it has that kind of wonky take on things that I like, because the intersection of platform governance and personal exploration is where some of the real action is.

But P&P’s latest post picks up on some “research” into why people spend so much money in Second Life, or virtual worlds, and it seems the conclusion is – well, we’re all followers and we wanna just FIT in:

“In an effort to expand our image of who we are through virtual worlds, the same consumerism and cliquishness have followed us into the Metaverse.”

Now, I put the term research in quotes, because clicking through to the actual report, it turns out it isn’t really research at all, but rather commentary on research that’s in progress, which makes me wonder: if the author is coming to conclusions ahead of the actual analysis of the results, then how are they avoiding study bias?

In any case, the rough conclusion of the author is as follows, with the first paragraph stating the, um, patently obvious (if you don’t do it for personal or social reasons, why WOULD you? For your cat?):

A lot of what drives consumption in Second Life appears to be a combination of its personal and social elements [3], such as customizing the body and joining groups, respectively. Perhaps one of the defining features of virtual goods is that while they may not be useful to the avatar or the user in a physical sense, they can provide significant meaning for those who buy them and for other residents within the world. From identity creation through to group membership, the hedonic benefits and social values of virtual goods are significant enough to sustain Second Life’s virtual economy.

However, in addition to these benefits, consumption in Second Life has another element in play. While purchases may be driven by the resident’s desires, they can also be driven by social pressure. Residents may appreciate goods for their aesthetics or functionality, yet this appreciation can exist in tandem with broader social encouragement or even pressure to develop an individual identity or appearance, or to establish membership within particular group.

All right, well, whatever. The whole thing has a slightly moralistic tone to it that I don’t like. Plus, it’s unclear what frame of reference the author is using to come to their conclusions: sociological? Anthropological?

I recommend that someone send both of these folks a copy of Tom Boellstorff’s book and to build from there, rather than trying to append to the tired cliches of consumerism and group think that people seem to migrate to when they come at virtual worlds from external disciplines.

Or watch Metanomics (yay! I spammed!), and consider this beautiful quote by Harper Beresford, which understands that virtual goods are about cultural affordances:

HARPER BERESFORD: Well, we’re at a conference for virtual goods so I don’t really need to speak about the point and the importance of virtual goods and how they add up, how these micro payments that people use for virtual goods add up. But, in a bigger theme, there’s a deep need in our culture for consumers to distinguish and differentiate themselves and display their class and belief systems outwardly. The use of cultural goods is a cultural communication and a cultural discussion, which is the same thing that people do when they choose a special ringtone on their phone.

So you’d asked why people buy our clothes. A lot of people ask me, “How can you be selling virtual clothes?” But it’s a sort of cultural display that people can customize, that’s made for them using the creation tools that Second Life provides. And this cultural display is much more easily afforded in Second Life than our first lives so we can fulfill our fantasies of having beautiful clothes and interesting lifestyles and amazing homes relatively inexpensively, and we can communicate our tastes and values to others. So that’s why customers spend money on our clothing at RFyre, to customize their self representation and their experience and to engage in cultural discussion at a very low cost.

Or hear what she has to say in this clip:


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