The Art of Second Living
A communication-theory approach
to the virtual world of Second Life
This is an ethnographic study of ‘Second Life’ and of the interaction of ‘avatars’ within this 3D online environment from the perspective of communication theory. Participant observation was conducted between 2007 and 2012, focusing on a particular online community and on a small number of its members. It explores the affordances of the medium for online lives and relationships. Research into virtual environments has been dominated by experimental approaches, the goal of which has been to measure the ‘effects’ of the medium. Such approaches have been organised around the concept of presence—the experience of being in a place other than that in which one is physically situated. While researchers have considered how people adapt their communication practices to accommodate the affordances of the medium, the dominant assumption has been that the medium has a shaping influence over those practices. However, such researchers do not concern themselves with the actual experiences of people who spend time in virtual worlds and insufficient emphasis has been placed on the role that social codes and situational rules play in organising the social construction of virtual existences. As a contribution to communication theory this study argues that the realism of such online worlds is derived not from the adequacy with which the ‘delivery mechanism’ is perceived to create a realistic computer-mediated environment but rather from the ongoing communicative achievements of the participants.
Key words: communication theory, ethnography, participant observation, virtual worlds, Second Life, computer-mediated communication, communication practices, avatars, affordances, social constructionism.