Realism vs Romanticism in Second Life

Realism vs Romanticism in Second Life


Baby Oona and I were flipping through our Flickr feed and we came across this sweet picture from one of my favorite SL photographers, Bambi. Making a smiley face in the snow is a sweet moment. Feeding baby Oona is also a sweet moment.

Performing Moments that Look Real

Is Bambi “really” making a smiley face? In the sense of a fleshvatar walking down the street, and seeing snow on a car, or dirt on a window, and making a face with her index finger? No, this wasn’t the spontaneous moment it looks like. It was “performed”. “Manufactured”.

In the photo Bambi is performing in virtual life a moment that might be spontaneous, or “authentic” in First Life (FL). Sort of. Today, perhaps most fleshvatars making smiley faces do it, perform it, so they can post it on Social Media like Instagram, TikTok, etc.

Is First Life More “Real”?

Are there any “real” moments in SL? There are real people in SL! We can be kind or cruel to them. That’s real. But can I do a spontaneous street dance in SL as I might do in FL? Or be too embarrassed to do the street dance as I might be in FL? Or draw a smiley face?

Is everything in SL performance? Is it all “romanticism”? Seeing life as it “should be” rather than as it actually is?

Social Media

Is anything a fleshvatar posts on Social Media “realism”? Life as it is honestly lived? Or is that all romanticism and performance too?

When I look at this photo of Baby Oona in my arms my heart bends. It feels like it means something. But the reality is that Baby Oona isn’t real. While I am a real typist, my avatar is made of polygons & pixels, not flesh & blood. I have a fleshvatar friend who’s an empty nester this Christmas. Since the kids weren’t available for their usual family holiday portrait, and since Greta Gerwig’s Barbie meant so much to her this year, she decided to do a Barbie Holiday Card instead. Barbie stood in for my friend. Ken for her husband. And other dolls for their kids as they all decorated a miniature tree. The virtual/fake longs to be “real”. The “real” represent themselves with legendary plastic dolls. Are we all Pinocchios tumbling endlessly down Alice’s Rabbit Hole?

Realism & Romanticism

For me, Realism & Romanticism are a pendulum. 100% of either probably isn’t the best life. Maybe 50-50 is better. Or 75-25, or 25-75. Some sort of mix.

Animesh babies like Baby Oona are amazing. I know they creep some people out. But so many avatars are surprised by how palpable the nurturing feelings are. Unlike an FL baby, Baby Oona will be just fine if I don’t feed her or change her diaper for a week. Or a month. Does that make this a fake baby experience? For sure it isn’t the full experience that 20 years later leads to an adult child in college. Is parenting all or nothing? Make the 20-years-to-life commitment of financial and emotional investment and you have a fully formed child? Or nothing? An animesh baby is the tiniest shadow of the joy & burden of an FL child. What’s amazing isn’t that it’s less. But that it means, or feels like, so much more than the nothing you might expect.

Meatdiated Space

Avatars in Second Life exist in a mediated space.

Fleshvatars in First Life and on Social Media also exist in a mediated (and typically performative) space.

What about Fleshvatars in the flesh? In actual meatspace? Is that “real”?

A Real Slap in the Face?

When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, was that “real”? Or was Smith performing for his wife in hopes of shoring up their shaky marriage? When someone is kind to you, or cruel to you, is that “real”? Or a performance for some purpose?

Most of us only effect a few people near us. World leaders impact more people. When Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine, that’s damn real! But it’s also performance, isn’t it? He’s doing it to make some point? When Donald Trump puts immigrant children in cages, that too is damn real. But it’s also performance, isn’t it? He’s performing something to try to say something to someone? Maybe to his base? Maybe to his opponents? Or maybe he’s trying to show that he’s powerful and important to his father who never loved him and his alcoholic mother?

Baby Oona & Meg surfing Flickr and appreciating Bambi’s sweet photograph “Just Smile”.

Performance & Effect

I think I’ve mixed up Performance & Effect.

The actions of Putin, Trump, and plenty of other people on stages large and small are often, or always, performative. But they are also “real” in the sense that the have a real effect on real people.

What is it when Bambi draws a smiley face on a snow-covered car? If she did it in First Life, a fleshvatar might walk by and see it and smile. But more people are likely to see her smiley face on Flickr than in FL. So as a cultural moment that might generate a smile, “Manufactured in SL & Posted on Flickr” is as “functional” as a spontaneous fleshvatar act while walking down the street.

The thing is, the manufactured SL moment can only exist as a thing performed for others to see. The fleshvatar walking could, at least possibly, do it as an authentic human moment. And, theoretically at least, they wouldn’t even have to post it to Instagram.

Yearning for Authenticity

Perhaps TikTok is so over-the-top performative no one considers it “real”. It’s the land of the crazy/amazing things people can do. It feels manufactured, performed, made for public consumption, and that becomes part of the enjoyment.

Instagram isn’t a lot different. But it still has some sense of “just sharing what I’m up to.” Even if “what I’m up to” is trying to prove to you, or myself, that I’m living a full and meaningful life. That my lunch is awesomer than yours.

The Real

Where’s The Real? A cheetah chasing, killing, and eating an antelope is real. We largely don’t live in that sort of reality anymore. From the invention of The Novel, to the invention of Second Life, we have created fictions. Fictions that are not “real”. Fictions that might offer insights and experiences that are real and valuable.

So… making smiley faces in Second Life… is… good?

Really Ejected!

After I finished writing this post Baby Oona and I went to Warehouse 21 to dance and listen to some EDM. We were promptly ejected by Warehouse 21 CEO Thinkie (Ithinkthisisa Cooljoke) because, “We have a no child policy here”.

Apparently fake babies are real enough to get you thrown out of a dance club.

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