In Fight Club, the narrator discusses the concept of the “single-serving friend”. These are the people that you may meet in transit, by chance, and with whom you may strike up a genial conversation. These people are the friends you meet and then just as easily discard on the way to your next flight. In our busy, mobile world, various constraints of time and location are placed upon human interaction. Friendships aren’t what they used to be and you’re left with this kind of discard-able human relations.

The constraints of today’s society do not simply wreck havoc on traditional human friendships. They also impede the progress of various social and activist groups, such a Rotary Clubs or bowling leagues. As Robert Putnam discusses in his book, Bowling Alone, these types of social groups did not only provide healthy interpersonal interaction, but they also provided a means for transmitting and receiving information on both politics and social causes. In an extremely transient world filled with single-serving friends, it appears that we sacrifice both healthy relationships and political and social discourse.

The groundbreaking virtual world of Second Life, for many, picks up where modern society leaves off. Though the constraints of society make traditional, face-to-face relationships close to impossible, Second Life gives you friends and interactions within a virtual world which you can access at any time, for any amount of time you wish, and that you may take with you as your vocation may demand. You don’t have to worry about calling your friend up for coffee or lunch and wasting several hours over awkward conversation. They’re there when you need them and they’re gone when you don’t.

This idea also translates into community meetings. In our grandparents’ time, they might have met weekly in a community setting for something like an Elk’s Lodge or knitting circle where they would have made conversation about the important topics within their town or county. During these meetings, important causes or problems would have been identified and people could rally around their community and work together for tangible improvements in the place they called home. Community organization was one of the great tools that Appalachians have used throughout time to work for reform and changes within everything from labor unions and mining practices to simple inter-community interactions.

When these community structures break down within real life, can Second Life communities and social organizations pick up where they leave off? Can residents of SL move past the ever-pervasive sex culture and hoards of free stuff and achieve meaningful conversation and political discourse and possibly even enact change in the real world? Or does Second Life simply pay lip service to issues that are far too complex and important to possibly tackle within the virtual world?

Admittedly, when you first began work with the Second Life program, it is extremely easy to be highly skeptical of the kind of community that could be fostered in a virtual world. In Second Life, you create an avatar and, thus, are free to recreate yourself. You don’t have to remain true to your height, weight, hair color, or even your own gender, so what is to say that people are going to remain honest in other facets of interaction? Without that sense of honesty, and with a new recreation of one’s self, it seems to be highly unlikely that many residents of Second Life would spend their free time to use their newly created identity to rebuild the sorts of community that our modern society has come up lacking.

One of the most highly visible and highly advertised activist communities in Second Life is the Camp Darfur Island, created by an organization called Better World. In real life, many on the University of Kentucky campus have become captivated by the plight of the region that seems to be the farthest thing from our comfortable lives in central Kentucky that one could possibly imagine. The “Invisible Children” documentary has motivated many on campus to get involved in the issue. Last spring, many students decided to “displace” themselves by sleeping outdoors in cardboard boxes to get just a tiny bit of a taste of what the children of Darfur experience on a daily basis. It worked to raise awareness on the issue and, since then, it seems you cannot throw a rock on campus without hitting someone with a “Save Darfur” button or awareness bracelet.

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When you first teleport to the Camp Darfur island, it seems a bit too pretty and happy to convey what truly goes on in that region of Africa. Immediately after making these presumptuous observations, you'll find what could only be described as a “portkey” (to borrow terminology from the Harry Potter books). This “portkey” transports avatars to the area of the island that was actually meant to resemble the camps created for child soldiers in Darfur.

A welcome message is immediately presented, stating the horrifying statistics of the situation in Darfur. Those who visit the island also receive a note card which tells the story of a member of the Janjaweed, the armed gunmen in Darfur. It's was a moving story and it definitely added a personal touch to the island, which could certainly have been lacking in a virtual representation of the tragedy. The island itself had small tents and cardboard boxes everywhere which did a really great job of making the camps seem real to those who would have no other way of conceptualizing what goes on in Darfur.

Camp Darfur was filled with emotional appeals to those who visited. Walls lined the camp and these walls were filled, top to bottom, with terribly depressing pictures of the tiny child soldiers with their gut-wrenching sad eyes. The walls also included statistics on the number of child soldiers, the fatalities involved with the conflict, and ways that you could get involved and help. At the end of the path at the camp, you could get free “Save Darfur” t-shirts and bracelets. Though they seemed to be a bit trivial and consumerist, they can serve as an advertisement for the cause in other areas of Second Life, and they may just inspire a lively conversation about the cause between other avatars who may not be familiar with Camp Darfur. Another positive of the area was the fact it gave a visual representation of the horrors of Darfur to those who may not otherwise get it. The area really made it feel real and personal, instead of just making it seem like a problem thousands of miles away.

One of the constraints that is extremely noticible in Camp Darfur is the lack of avatar activity in the area. Unlike some other activist areas, there were not volunteer avatars there at scheduled times who you could come to for answers to questions and discussion on the topic. Additionally, there was simply not a lot of traffic in the area. Unlike real life activist groups, there were not scheduled meeting times or ways to really get involved together. In order to be more effective, Camp Darfur should band its visitors together to get them to work for the good of the cause. It’s great to raise awareness, as Camp Darfur does in ways many other sites on the internet cannot, but Camp Darfur didn’t replace the community organizing of real life.

The AIDS Memory Quilt in Second Life, which served much the same purpose as Camp Darfur. Much like the real life AIDS Memory Quilt, it was meant to raise awareness about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in our own country and help highlight personal stories to give the epidemic a bit of humanity. For Clementine Ballyhoo, this subject really hits close to home because she have a close relative who suffers from HIV. The AIDS Memory Quilt area, like Camp Darfur, worked to raise awareness but left out any features that could help make it a community. At the very similar Danish AIDS Memory Park, you could donate one Linden dollar and light a candle in memory of someone you knew who suffered from the disease, and the proceeds went to research for the disease. That allowed those who came to the area to make a tangible difference, even if it was simply a passive, monetary difference.

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The AIDS Memory Quilt did have an option to join an AIDS awareness group, though it did not provide good directions on how to do it, or make it extremely easy to do, so those who are technologically inept or simply brand new to the program would have a difficult time making it work. This barrier serves as another form of constraint to the formation of communities and organizations within Second Life. In real life, interaction is (for the most part) pretty simple. You just show up and talk to people, something most have the knowledge and ability to do. You don’t have to learn to use a computer or a specific program to get it done. However, Second Life does allow some members of society who may be disenfranchised from regular communication an outlet to form communities and interact. Those who are deaf could form communities and would not have to worry about the constraints of not being able to communicate in the same way as most of society. It also allows those who have social anxieties to interact in a less threatening way, from the comfort of their own homes. Additionally, those who may be confined to their homes for medical reasons can still conduct meetings and converse with friends, even if they may be precluded from face to face interaction.

Another memorial in Second Life was the one for the victims of Virginia Tech and other college shootings. These memorials didn’t exist to provide incommunity, but they definitely served an important purpose. When someone passes away in such a tragic manner, in real life, many people within the community will gather together and do something to keep their memory alive. After Virginia Tech, many within the Hokie community banded together to make a memorial where people could come and remember those who had died. Second Life gives people an opportunity to expand these memorials and remembrances into the virtual world, where their message can be spread all over the world. Maybe someone from Europe who had no personal connection can visit the memorial and realize that the victims reminded them of someone they knew in their community. If nothing else, these memorials can remind us all how much we are alike and maybe help to end this senseless violence.
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In Kentucky, the church often serves as the most important source of community and involvement for people. Small groups and devotionals give members an opportunity to discuss political and social issues within the context of their faith and serve as a springboard for mission trips and volunteer activity. For many across the country, churches are the surviving community organizations within modern society.

Keeping this in mind, it's extremely interesting to see what sort of faith-based organizations and resources existed in Second Life. Upon doing a simple search, several different choices pop up. The most impressive church within Second Life was one called Truth. The island on which it was located had a very large church building with stained glass windows, a traditional pulpit, and rows of pews. In the back, you could leave an offering, but it didn’t make it clear where the money went. Unlike the offering we give at our church in real life, it seems logical to guess that most of the money went to building and upkeep on the island rather than to altruistic pursuits.

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Truth offered Sunday morning services, just like any real life church, at 11:00 a.m. each week. These services differed from real life services in that they were not constrained by place. People from all over the world could gather to hear the message and take part in a community of worship. Truth also had a small coffee shop which, on a Saturday evening, had a very involved Bible study going on. It sounded like your run-of-the-mill Bible Study and seemed to be conducted in much of the same manner. Not only did they discuss the lessons they could learn from the passages they read that evening, but they also discussed the passages’ implications on their day-to-day real lives. They talked about service and kept each other motivated.

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Other such religious groups existed for those of the Jewish faith. There is an entire Jewish neighborhood complete with a Synagogue that offered regular weekly services and also had meeting spaces where avatars could come together and discuss their faith and current issues. A search for Islamic places of worship and came up empty. It leaves one to wonder whether this is due to a lack of Muslims participating in Second Life or if they have just yet to organize themselves.

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It seems that Second Life churches and other places of worship may be the future of religion in the U.S. The tradition houses of worship where the last several generations grew up fail to mesh with the way the people of the 21st Century actually live their lives. Second Life breaks down constraints and allows anyone with access to the program to come together and worship. It is possible that those who live great distances from the houses of worship of their particular religion and denomination can build a community of faith that works for them. Those who live in countries where certain religions are persecuted may also find communities of support within Second Life who can encourage them and provide them with something that might be outlawed in their homeland.

Religiously persecuted groups are not the only ones that could benefit from the anonymity within Second Life. The most informative island within Second Life with regard to social groups and activism was an island featuring a Transgender Resource Center. This is a group that would certainly be met with resistance in many real life communities, so their resource center can be a wealth of information on community building within Second Life.

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When you teleport to the island, you are immediately warned that child avatars, nudity, and other sorts of similar behaviors are not permitted, as to promote a more positive environment in which to discuss the serious issues facing those within these communities. The center itself featured a wealth of media and information on transgender and transsexual individuals, so that those who come to the island can gain a better understanding. The center also had supportive materials for those who may be a part of that community who need some help and support. There were also places where you could instant message the founder of the community if you needed a supportive ear to listen to what you were going through or had any questions.

The resource center had a large meeting room where many avatars could come together and support one another and build a genuine community within Second Life. One Saturday night, we were lucky enough to meet an avatar who served as a volunteer for the center and she was gracious enough to answer some questions that we had about the center. Our group felt that it would be best to keep her avatar name confidential, so in the excerpt of the interview, her name has been changed.

Clementine Ballyhoo: What type of things do you do here at the center?

Volunteer Avatar: mostly we offer a safe place for the transgender community of SL that is a non sexual safe place, we offer a place for people to come and be themselves, and we do outreach, and offer help and support (usually a friendly ear)

Clementine Ballyhoo: Do you think it's easier to find people with whom you can connect and talk about transgender issues in SL than it is in real life?

Volunteer Avatar: I belong to a RL support group, and I have met some of the folks from here in RL, but that said being part of a small minority it is somewhat difficult to meet others that are Trans as well

Clementine Ballyhoo: Do you get many people who come here just to give people a hard time? I think they call them griefers.

Volunteer Avatar: no, but if they do come that is one of our jobs as volunteers, he warn then remove harmful people

Throughout our experience within Second Life, we found it to be much more accepting of homosexuals than many communities are in real life, so we were glad to hear that this acceptance also translates to the experience of those within the Transgender community. Many at the center mentioned that it was a very acceptable lifestyle within the sexual culture of Second Life, but that the resource center was one of the very few non-sexual places they could come and talk about their lifestyles and other serious concerns that they may have. They also mentioned that they appreciated Second Life for the fact that they could not only be whoever they wanted, but they could also create an avatar whose gender reflected how they really felt they were inside.

During that same evening, we also spoke to an avatar who said that he was from Lithuania. He said that he thought the best part about Second Life was that it provided him with an opportunity to improve his English and his understanding of America’s gay and lesbian communities and culture. He felt that people in Second Life were much more understanding of people’s differences than they are in real life. He thought the program was great for people who are different because in Second Life it doesn’t matter “if you are ugly or disabled” since no one can tell. He said that it gave him and others the ability to be who they really wanted to be, even if it didn’t match up with real life.

He also talked about how, even though many were accepting of him in his home country, it was extremely difficult for him to find someone to date. He talked about the sex culture within Second Life and discussed how it provided him easy opportunities to experience that lifestyle which evaded him in his real life. Then, he discussed how in Lithuania, they had a term for people who are different on the inside than they are on the outside – they call them “locusts”. He felt that Second Life was the perfect home for these “locusts” that could finally find people who were like them and accepted them for who they were on the inside. We would be remiss not to mention that he also discussed the fact that he was born a woman, is now a man, but feels that his true self is a raccoon with extremely large sex organs. This kind of conversation could really only happen within Second Life.

The Transgender Resource Center really showed what kind of community is truly possible within Second Life. Though other sections of our project discussed the isolation and consumerism that is rampant within Second Life, the Transgender Resource Center proves you really can shut out the sex culture, at least for a little while, and meet people who are like you and who may be from all over the world. It was impressive that most of the people there on Saturday night already knew each other and they were willing to freely discuss the troubles they were going through in their real lives. While there are some who are fake within Second Life, there are many who seem to be very honest and forthcoming. In that respect, it is very much like real life in that once you get past the fakery, you can connect with some very honest and real people.

The area of Second Life which best sums up our research about social groups and activism within the virtual world is this billboard which simply states “Don’t Forget the Real World”. Second Life is a great way to build communities in a transient, single-serving world and it can also build awareness about very worthy issues. However, it is still easy to argue that it is still important to take these new communities and knowledge and use them for the good of the real world. Sometimes it’s important to shut down the computer and walk outside and see what you can do for your neighbor. After all, as the billboard states, over 50 million children have died from preventable global poverty since the launch of Second Life. A couple hours or a few Linden dollars could go a long way to seeing the end of poverty in our lifetime. You can’t forget the influence you can have in the good old real world.

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Links


Untitled Misfits Research Project
Untitled Misfits Group Page