Relationships in Second Life

As graduate students new to Second Life, we continue to learn about the similarities and differences between “real life” and the virtual world. For example, we know that in both, technology adds a new layer to the ways we define and experience relationships. But, while we are very familiar with how people communicate through texting, email, and various social media outlets in real life (RL), we wanted to understand the relationship experience in Second Life (SL). Do people build and maintain relationships differently than in “RL”? How are relationships structured in SL? Do SL and RL relationships overlap?

relationships_002Our preparations for this event differed from our past events, which were largely scripted, beginning with an informative presentation and leading into open discussions. Since we are SL newcomers, we felt that our points of view on this topic did not hold much value. We went in with quotes from users found on community forums, a few relevant statistics on SL relationships, and some formulated questions to guide the discussion. From there, the attendees took the reins.

The attendees expressed a sort of translation between SL and RL social behaviors and relationships of any kind—friendship, companionship, or romantic: there are boundaries, norms, and expectations. With that said, some individuals indicated that SL is a place where they can compensate for challenges in RL, such as disabilities, relationship troubles of their own, or self-esteem issues. As explained in Leshed & McLeod’s (2012) article and shown throughout the discussion, people in SL reveal their “layers” in different arrangements than in RL: “…individuals share experiences, emotions, and who they are from the inside while holding back information such as material life name, contact details, occupation, and age.”

This goes hand-in-hand with “alt-avis,” a theme discussed in depth. People use these to adopt identities for different purposes—education, social interactions, etc. The majority of attendees expressed their choices to keep their identities separate. There seemed to be no overlap between these avis; lives were organized and structured on SL accordingly. Dr. Boellstorfff’s talk delves deeper into the structure of the SL community and how individuals with disabilities fit into these communities.

We left the discussion with the realization that Second Life relationships are not different from RL. In our lives, we take on different identities that we share…or don’t share…depending on the context. We often separate our professional life from our social life, and although we don’t call it an “alt-avis,” isn’t that what it really is? The only difference is that in RL, our external layers are the first to show. With the use of technology, however, this line is being blurred, and the ways in which we reveal our layers is jumbled. The discussion was an educational insight into the world virtual relationships, as well as a way to understand interactions in all dimensions.

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