Dare to be Different in Second Life

June 13, 2009 at 9:00 am (Communication, Life, Second Life)

Courtesty of Studio Tau

Courtesty of Studio Tau

If we had a chance to live life over again, would we make the same choices?

Have any of you seen the movie Eternal Sunshine of the  Spotless Mind? It’s a great and thoughtful film starring Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey, who are both phenomenal in their unique roles. The story is about two lovers who go to great lengths to erase the painful memories of each other from their minds. But the underlying question of the film is poignant: if we had a chance to do life over, would we make the same choices?

The virtual world Second Life (SL) often reminds me of this question in its ability to provide a landscape where we might live our slives a little differently than the real ones in which we’re immersed every day. And I am often astonished to see the lengths to which many folks within SL go to recreate their lives so they reflect their real world around them.

Example, you say? Of course I’ll give you an example. What kind of writer would I be if I made assertions without backup? 😉 One of the places I find this behavior to be most prevelant is the dance clubs within Second Life. Even in design many of these clubs resemble the high school dances of yesteryear, complete with rows of seating lining the walls where avis line up and…you guessed it…wait. What are they waiting for? To be asked to dance, of course. Few put themselves out there and actually initiate conversation with others even though that’s probably what they’re there for in the first place.

Like real life, we use the attention we might receive from other avis in Second Life to help us feel better about ourselves and bolster our self confidence in our real lives. (Don’t believe me? check out my post that disscusses research on the subject). And, sadly, like real life we probably also experience dips in our self esteem when we are rejected in SL. I guess that’s why we remain reluctant to initiate conversation or put ourselves out there by acting in ways that are a bit different than our modus operandi in our real lives.

Admittedly I used to be unphased by initiating conversation with someone I found interesting at a club or venue in SL. But over time I began to feel like I was always the initiator and I stopped to see if the would pendulum swing back in the other direction. And after repeated (and rather lonely) visits to places brimming with activity where it seemed everyone stood back to wait for someone else to make the first move, I realized SL is just a microcosm of what’s both right and wrong with our world.

So my challenge here is to get off your butt (figuratively, of course) and reach out. Dare to act differently in Second Life than you would in real life. If you find yourself visting an event or social spot in SL put yourself out there. Strike up a conversation. Ask someone to dance. Comment on his or her profile. Flirt a little.  Why not? You’re just sitting at your computer; noone but  you will know if you are rebuffed by that stunning cartoon or not. And who knows, you might just meet a like-minded soul who was just waiting for you to reach out. If you stay silent, you may never know.

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Second Life and My Journey From Monogamy (Monotony) to Bliss

December 3, 2008 at 4:55 pm (Communication, Infidelity, Life, Love, Marriage, Polyamory, Relationships, Second Life, Sex) (, , )

feet

“I blame Cinderella.”

That is the first line of Jenny Block’s amazing and courageous book titled Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage. Don’t worry, I don’t take her words personally. But that’s because her book has changed my life.

What’s so fab about this book you wonder? For one, it is a refreshingly honest glimpse into the evolution of one woman’s relationship(s) juxtaposed alongside her critical analysis of our entrenched and long-standing societal beliefs on sex, marriage, and monogamy. But I think more importantly this true story is told by Jenny herself, and she is someone you’d consider “normal” by today’s standards–if you were judging. It’s delightfully refreshing to think about the issues of open relationships and non-monogamy outside the previously more prevalent “touchy-feely, lets-get-naked-and-massage-each-others’-auras” tribe. In essence Jenny’s story is my story, sans Second Life.

Let’s first back up to the year I got married and was still in hot pursuit of my own real life Cinderella Story. In preparation for my wedding I wrote a poem that I featured as one of my very first blog posts on this blog: True Love’s Toes. The poem captures the perspective I had on the meaning of my impending nuptials: the confident promise, the burgeoning possibilities, and the starry-eyed fairytale presumptions all in place. I am certain it mirrors the myriad other marital musings, love notes, vows, etc. captured by countless brides and grooms across the globe as they embark on their own journeys.

Now fast forward 12 years. The scenes that zip by are as familiar any others: friendly gatherings, Grateful Dead shows, interstate moves, death of grandparents, birth of child, Montessori school, job changes, financial gains and losses, and Second Life. Now here’s where the plot thickens or as I like to say, where I woke up. And then my husband awoke. And our lives have been forever changed.

For many years my husband and I had led relatively contented lives relentlessly pursuing the proverbial American dream together. Although it was thankfully (and by our design) way less Stepford wife-like than many others’, our life together resembled the typical fantasy of true love and marital bliss. Yet several times over the years I teetered on the edge of not just contemplating but committing sexual indiscretions. Nearly every business trip to Las Vegas seemed to culminate in passionate flirtatious connections I’d make with interesting men. In every case I didn’t go through with them. But I returned to my life and my husband and was honest about my feelings. And we both wondered why these experiences happened and what they meant.

Second Life is like Vegas on pixelated steroids. There are fascinating men and women everywhere–yet this time Barbie and Ken perfect –just aching to meet and virtually connect with willing counterparts. And after awhile I was no longer able to ignore both the sexual desires and emotional connections I had for people other than my husband. And thus was the true beginning of our open marriage, which started in the virtual realm of Second Life and soon spilled over into our real lives.

In my opinion and experience, Second Life has a tremendous capacity to be a catalyst for us as a culture to question the existing constructs of marriage and monogamy, and to explore in a relatively safe environment what it might feel like to engage in open relationships. Many people, like my husband and I, are for the first time discussing honestly and openly what it means to love more than one person. We are all realizing that opening our hearts to include more people actually brings greater benefits to our existing relationships, rather than having negative consequences. That goes against nearly everything we’ve been taught to believe about adultery, monogamy, and the one-size-fits-all approach to partnerships we’ve been fed our entire lives. As Jenny points out repeatedly in her book, open or polyamorous relationships actually expand our capacity to love, rather than diminish it.

Yet Second Life also has an alarming potential to reinforce the fairy tale fantasies of monogamy and sexual and emotional fidelity that have dominated our culture through literature, movies, songs, religious teachings, etc. for decades. Isn’t there something bizarre and contradictory about many folks’ tendency in Second Life to meet “the one,” fall in love, host a virtual wedding, and expect emotional and sexual fidelity in this world that is primarily comprised of our own brain dramas? In a world where anything is possible, I find this near replication of real life a somewhat sad indication that we still have a long way to go to free our minds.

As I read this post back I realize this is more of a summary of my own journey to this happy place where I now sit. I haven’t included the statistics (like 40 – 60% of married men and women cheat on their spouses). I omitted a discussion of historical and evolutionary data on how fidelitous and emotional love-based marriages have really only taken hold in the last century, whereas prior to that marriage was an economically-based transaction. I’ve failed to include analysis on the riveting topic of the virgin/whore paradox, whereby men and women perpetuate this idea that men want a vixen in the bedroom but a virgin at the altar. And I’ve left out the opinions of countless experts who agree that monogamy is as natural to the human species as eating our young. So in fairness I owe you that next round. In the meantime, if you’re curious on this topic and want to further open your own mind–and perhaps other things–, check out the reading list below:

  1. Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray by Helen Fisher, PhD
  2. Open Marriage: A New Life Style for Couples by Nena O’Neill & George O’Neill
  3. The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People by David P. Barash, PhD, and Judith Eve Lipton, MD

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Breaking Up is Hard To Do–And Even Harder in Second Life

August 18, 2008 at 2:39 pm (Communication, dishonesty, Friendship, Infidelity, Integrity, Life, Love, Polyamory, Relationships, Second Life) (, , , )

Love and loss are central themes of thousands of blog posts peppering the web. And many folks–whether Second Life avatars or real humans in the flesh–use their blogs as a platform to publicly process their parting-of-ways. One of the trends I’ve noticed when witnessing these abrogation of affairs is that many people experience some definitive act–like betrayal or dishonesty–that prompts them to dissolve their previously fantastic flings. And, as painful as these breakups are, those experiences follow a natural grief progression that helps the healing process proceed. Yet there are many other instances when lovers leave their flames in far less salient circumstances. And these situations, I assert, carve wounds that lie exposed to the elements longer and, are thus, harder to heal.

As you know, I’ve promised never to bore you with gory details of my own real or Second lives on these blog pages. But between myself and other friends, I’ve recently observed–or experienced–romantic relationships in both SL & RL that have either withered or been abruptly dismantled, leaving one or more of the partners reeling in the breakup wake. These experiences–or “soul extractions” as my friend calls them–are a bit different from the typical breakup because there is no one person or event to blame. And this leaves the lover(s) stunned and unclear what to do next–and thus unable to move through typical stages of grief.

As I discuss these scenerios imagine yourself, my dear reader, as the subject of the experiences. Now picture yourself in the twitterpated excitement of an intense new romance; your mind curious and thirsty to know him or her better and your heart aflutter at the anticipation of this amazing new person. You blush at the mere thought of them texting you sweet nothings and spend your days marveling at how lucky you are they have suddenly graced your life. Now imagine this goes along for quite awhile…the intensity increasing with each exchange. You may even enjoy real glimpses of your lover; photos emailed or even smiles exchanged via webcam in the darkened corner of your home office. Then one day….nothing. Crickets. Dialtone. You reach out repeatedly with no response. And you feel numb. And confused. And hurt.

Now imagine you’ve met another sweet sweet friend–one who makes you laugh until tears stream down your face and your stomach and side muscles ache in a good way. You forge a close friendship, share details of who you each are and how you each came to be, and begin to care about what happens to them during their days and nights not spent with you. Then, because you are conscientious people, you realize you might care a little too much. And you mutually decide to part ways. Their absence in  your life rips your heart open leaving a gaping hole where that joy used to be. And you feel numb. And confused. And hurt.

As I read this back it sounds like a I’m having a pity party. I assure you I hate those and would never attend one even if I was invited as the guest of honor and my favorite band Galactic was playing and Christian Bale was there alone and wanted to meet me (ok, well maybe then). I’m merely curious as to why it seems so difficult to get over romances and the wonderful, provocative people we come in contact with when we do it for the right reasons. It appears to me that, because we can’t logically get angry (since we don’t have real reason to be)–and anger is a very useful emotion in the grief process–it prolongs the pain and compounds the process of healing.

So maybe this means we need to get mad–not at the people but perhaps at the situations. Take a moment in our grief to throw around that blame and rage we’ve bottled up inside. And then move on and look at what we’ve learned about ourselves in the process and through the experience. And, even after that, be grateful we’ve lived life–both real and virtual–so fully and felt so deeply. Some people don’t even get that. And that does leave you feeling numb. And who wants to go through life like that?

Be sure to share your own comments and experiences. Helps us all get through the grief, ya know?

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Is Second Life Shaking up Your Marriage? You’re Not Alone

July 8, 2008 at 6:46 pm (Communication, Infidelity, Life, Love, Marriage, Polyamory, Relationships, Second Life, Sex) ()

As my blog has evolved over the past year or so, I’ve noticed some remarkable and possibly alarming trends in the search terms used by my readers to find it. Whether this is indicative of my burgeoning bevy of blog posts related to the topic or it’s facilitated by an increase in the preponderance of these personal ordeals, I’ve yet to conclude. But I thought I’d share with you a snapshot of the search terms used to find my blog just today. See if you notice a pattern:

meetup.com wife swapping
the boredom of long life marriages
are you in love with your second life avatar?
husband sl addiction
sl broken marriages
second life divorce
second life friend’s online
believes sl is rl
has second life broken up real life relationships?
polyamory divorce

For those who have followed my blog for awhile, this may seem like review as I’ve written about this issue before in different context. But I was so struck by today’s search terms that I felt it warranted another look. Because, as you can see from the list, it appears to be an epidemic of sorts: Second Life is having a huge impact on marriages and relationships all over the world. And more often than not people do not view the effects as positive.

So what gives? Why are so many people–men and women alike–falling in love online while still married to others in real life?

Now here is where I’m going to get controversial (bring on your contrarian views, my lovelies…all opinions are welcome here). In my [disclaimer: non professional] opinion it is because we have an unrealistic and outdated view of what long term relationships should bring us. I believe this is left over from the definitions of marriage handed down to us by our churches and our families–from an age when power dynamics and earning potential was distributed very differently.

In essence, in days past men were often the breadwinners (read “hunters & gatherers“) while women stayed home to raise the family and tend to the household. This dynamic favored long term commitments and partnerships based more on function than on the fever of infatuation or romance (aka love). That isn’t to say our grandparents weren’t in love. I’m simply suggesting it was a different kind of love based more on mutual admiration and utilitarian constructs than on weak-in-the-knees, heart melting passion.

So how does this tie back to Second Life? Well I think we’ve come to erroneously expect our marriages and long term partnerships to bring us not only functional families, but romance, passion, desire, and amazing sex “till death do us part.” And how’s that working for us? Clearly, it’s not. When we’re faced with alternatives, like the secretary down the hall or that  Second Life honey on the next sim, we are often drawn to options other than our real life partners. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

You may be surprised to learn there is terminology that covers this phenomenon: it’s called New Relationship Energy (NRE). Basically it means the very real, very physical sensations elicited by attractions we have for new people in our lives. In the polyamory community, it is perfectly normal to experience these feelings alongside a longer, more established relationship. But most of us haven’t drank that koolaid yet, although admittedly I have and my marriage–and my self esteem–has never been stronger as a result.

I want to ask that if you’re reading this because your marriage or partnership has been affected by your partner’s romantic escapades in Second Life take this moment to open your mind and really ask yourself what you’re expecting  your partner to bring to you long-term. Have you ever complained that “the romance is gone” from your marriage or that your partner no longer makes you weak in the knees? This doesn’t mean your relationship is necessarily over. It probably just means you’ve reached a new phase and have new things to learn and appreciate about your love.

And if you are the one who has found yourself feeling those stomach flips of a new crush, whether in Second Life or real life, try not to mistake that for an indication that you’ve finally found “the one” and you should toss out your long-term partner as yesterday’s garbage. What you’re probably feeling is simply the physical excitement of NRE and you should feel blessed and savor the swagger it adds to your step.

In summary (wow, I never summarize at the end of a post…must be important), use this experience as an opportunity to openly and honestly communicate with your partner or spouse what you’re experiencing. Try not to judge yourself, him, and/or her too harshly. Because all of these experiences are real and valid. They may indicate more serious and irreconcilable problems. Or perhaps they just mean you need to spice up your sex life and bring back the romance. Regardless, talk to each other. If necessary, find a good counselor to help you through it. Because only through self knowledge are we able to grow–and that’s as true for couples as it is for individuals.

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The Plague of Popularity: Do You Take Your Second Life Friends for Granted?

June 1, 2008 at 9:48 pm (Communication, Friendship, Life, Love, Relationships, Second Life) ()

Do you love me or do you not?
You told me once, but I forgot.

I don’t know about you,  but I spent many of my teen years filled with angst and consumed by a persistent desire to be part of the popular crowd. It was unfortunate I was plagued with parents who thought expensive name-brand clothing was extravagant and unnecessary. I say unfortunate because–probably like many of you–I grew up in an era known for its rampant materialism and shallow definitions of success. Ah the ’80s, when your worth as defined by others was derived from how many Izods you could layer underneath an oxford and what brand was displayed on your butt.

I like to believe times have changed a bit. Sure, there still exist needlessly overpriced clothing like Lucky jeans and Juicy Couture [$200 for jeans? You have to be kidding!]. But kids these days seem a little more focused on personal attributes and less likely to write you off simply because of your Wranglers.

What prompts me to muse on these moments and meander down memory lane you wonder? Well my last post discussed how studies have shown that Second Life can affect our personal self esteem in a positive way. And I mentioned that the opposite is also true; sad situations and suffering in SL can bring a cloud of melancholy and malaise to our real lives. Recently I realized how much my friendships within SL have a direct reflection on how sunny my disposition is during my day. And in that sense, it kind of feels like the terrible teens all over again.

I can’t shake the notion that each time we log into Second Life and our name appears on screen for all our friends to see, it feels like that moment of vulnerability in our youth when we stood before that boy or girl waiting to know if they’d dance with us or not. It’s strange to me how few folks welcome me to the grid when I first arrive. Imagine if a friend of ours walked in to a coffee shop or nightclub in real life. Most likely we’d stop in our tracks and reach out to hug them even if we’d just seen them yesterday. Yet in Second Life, there is no such greeting. In fact, I can go months without so much as a hello from that long list of comrades.

Regardless, my friendships are my favorite reason to be in Second Life at all. I admittedly get a thrill every time I hear the ding that comes when I receive an instant message from a friend; I excitedly look with anticipation to see who’s come knocking on my door. But sometimes I wonder if folks take those friendships in world for granted. I notice when friends partner up I hear from them less often, which is quite sad. And, like the relationship patterns we perpetuate in RL, sometimes we wait for our friends to make contact first–a behavior that also feels like a throwback to the turbulent teenage times.

So to wrap up this rambling post in a nuthshell, here is some advice. See that long list of friends in your upper right corner? When was the last time you picked up the proverbial phone and said hello? Go ahead and make the first move. I guarantee your friend will feel fantastic because you did. And that is real friendship–the desire to make someone else happy just because you can.

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Beauty Isn’t Just “Prim” Deep: The Effect Second Life Can Have on Self Image

May 17, 2008 at 2:57 pm (Beauty, Communication, Life, Love, Relationships, Second Life, Sexuality) (, , , )

One of my very first blog posts asked the the following question: “must avatars look good for us to be attracted to them?” And I still maintain that the way an avatar presents him or herself physically–the eyes, hair, skin, and the clothes we do or do not wear–has a contributory effect on how others perceive us within the walls of Second Life (SL). Yet growing amounts of research indicate that cyber beauty not only affects how others view us, but also has a strong affect on our own personal self image. And in an era where the already staggering numbers of men and women who suffer from poor body image and low self esteem continue to escalate at alarming rates, it’s good news to learn something like Second Life could inspire us to feel better about ourselves.

This week Kristina Dell published an article in Time Magazine (How Second Life Affects Real Life) that explores how the attractiveness of her avatar influences how she behaves when not immersed in the Second Life virtual world. She references Jeremy Bailenson, head of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University where he is an assistant professor of communication studying the way self perception within virtual realms affects behavior.

In an experiment conducted in 2007, Bailenson’s research team studied how an avatar’s attractiveness affected their behavior both on and offline. Thirty-two volunteers received either an attractive or unattractive avatar at random and were asked to admire their avis for 90 seconds before being placed in a group setting where they interacted with other avatars. Researchers found that volunteers assigned the more attractive avatars interacted more confidently with others, stood closer to them when conversing, and even disclosed more personal details about themselves. The volunteers with less attractive avatars basically exhibited “wallflower” behavior–standing farther away and revealing less of themselves in their conversations.

What Bailenson’s research has found, I’m sure, does not astound many of you. For I imagine we all qualitatively deduced that the experiences we’ve had in Second Life have had remarkable reverberations in our own personal lives. Bailenson discovered–as summarized by Kristina Dell–what so many of us have felt: “the qualities you acquire online—whether it’s confidence or insecurity—can spill over and change your conduct in the real world, often without your awareness. Bailenson has found that even 90 seconds spent chatting it up with avatars is enough to elicit behavioral changes offline—at least in the short term.”

I’ll confess that I have enjoyed a personal transformation due to the confidence I’ve gained through my experiences in Second Life. When I began playing SL, I was more than twenty pounds heavier, with shorter hair, and had suffered a minor crisis of confidence caused by a company re-org that orbited my career into a professional planetary tailspin. Yet now, over a year and a half later, I’ve slimmed down, grown my hair to match the length of my avatar and landed my dream job. And I’m not alone here; I’ve heard countless tales of friends who likewise have been motivated to match the model of their online personas by exercising and exhibiting increased confidence in their personal and professional lives. On the flip side, I’ve also suffered from meloncholy and minor depression when I’ve experienced loss, pain, or loneliness within Second Life.

I think it is for this main reason that–like a Pavlovian dog–I keep coming back to SL in search of what helps me get my groove on. SL and the wonderful people and relationships I experience there act as a virtual power suit that I don to help me feel comfortable in my own skin in my real world. And that is terrific news, not just because I like my skin but because–unlike the prim skin in SL–it wasn’t sold separately from this wonderful body and mind to which it is attached.

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Cyber Crush: The Allure of Online Attraction

April 27, 2008 at 3:34 pm (Communication, Friendship, Life, Love, Relationships, Second Life) (, , )

Awhile back I invited guests to submit relevant topics to post on my blog. My great friend Joey Svenska finally took me up on the offer. This is his original post, in its entirety.
~Cindy Kesey

I think it is human nature for people to want to connect with others. We want to be liked and accepted, and either consciously or otherwise, we tend to seek out and bond with others whom we perceive to be similar to ourselves. I also think the majority of people who purposely put themselves into social situations–even virtual ones like Second Life (SL)–are generally receptive to interacting with others; otherwise, they’d have their noses in a book or their eyes glued to the television set instead of venturing out.

But as human beings we are, at our most base level, merely animals, and some of the most primitive of human instincts are those that involve the desire to seek out a potential mate. Thus it’s no surprise that with the right combination of physical attraction, charm, and witty exchanges, the desire to socialize and the innate primal impulse to find a partner can coalesce into a classic recipe for “hooking up,”especially when all of these elements are combined within a virtual framework designed for interaction. Add a couple of glasses of wine to that and it’s very easy to see how so many people in SL find themselves deeply infatuated with someone else online–whether they intended to or not.

As many of we SL veterans can attest, meeting and connecting with a new person in-world can be rather exciting, especially if we find our counterpart to be charming and visually-appealing. And of course, as we all have seen, in SL virtually everyone is drop-dead gorgeous. But why is it that the initial spark we often feel when meeting someone new is so short-lived? And why do we, time and time again, find ourselves craving the intense energy and strong emotional feelings that we get from new encounters?

I think some of the answers may come from an area of psychology known as cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are learned behaviors that influence and sometimes foul up our ability to make rational decisions. One particular cognitive bias known as the “halo effect” was identified by psychologist Edward Thorndike and later expanded upon by Solomon Asch. They discovered that when an observer finds a particular aspect of a situation appealing they tend to assume that the other undiscovered traits of the situation are also positive, even in the absence of supporting evidence. As such, when one person finds another physically attractive or particularly intelligent, it’s quite common for the observer to generalize that the observed person’s other personality aspects are equally appealing.

We also tend to perceive brand new people in the best light because we are initially unaware of their faults and shortcomings. Over time, we slowly and inexorably discover that the new person is just another ordinary human being, fraught with their own merits and faults. But during those blissful initial stages, the new person is often regarded as if they truly do wear a halo.

The halo effect seems to explain, at least in part, how we become so myopically focused on the positive aspects of a partner whilst we are–at least temporarily–blind to their differences and faults. As time goes by and as we learn more about the new person’s proclivities and foibles, our overly optimistic initial perception of the new person tends to wane along with the law of diminishing returns.

So why are we so addicted to the bliss of initial encounters when we know based on our past experiences that the magic almost always fades away? It’s probably because our brain experiences an arousal response when we meet new potential mates. The stimulation provided by a flirtatious conversation with a sexy new person in a romantic setting is a likely trigger for the release of neurochemicals in our brains, giving us a temporary “high”– something that feels really good and makes us crave more.

But alas, as with all mind-altering substances, the partaker builds up a tolerance to the conditions that facilitate the “high,” and as the effects are successively shorter-lived they thus require more and more of the stimulus to get to that exalted happy place. Paradoxically, as we learn more about the new person, their halo starts to dim and we begin to lose, little by little, the charge of that initial excitement. At that point I think the focus of the relationship must necessarily change from one of simple attraction into one based on honest communication, mutual respect, and shared experiences in order for it to grow and thrive.

After some reflection on this, it has become rather apparent to me how easy it is for people to become so totally enthralled, and, yes, even addicted to establishing new relationships. I also see how some of us can suffer a bit from our nascent online infatuations and even become somewhat frustrated as we continue to crave the intense feelings associated with the ephemeral high of those sublime first encounters.

So the next time an initial physical attraction sparks up your primitive mating instinct and gives you those warm fuzzy feelings, be sure to enjoy that moment to its fullest. As it’s quite likely that future encounters with the new person may become successively less thrilling. However, if you go into the situation knowledgeable of the halo effect, and you put forth some time and effort to really get to know that person better and communicate openly and honestly about your feelings, you may find yourself with something that is far more rewarding than a simple cyber-infatuation: that of a true friendship and a lasting relationship.

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Which came first Second Life or the messed-up marriage?

April 16, 2008 at 9:34 pm (Communication, dishonesty, Life, Love, Marriage, Relationships, Second Life, Sex) (, )

Did you hear that? It’s the sound a movie makes when you play it in quickly in reverse. It’s the same sound you heard when you played those old Ozzy and Led Zeppelin record albums (yes, record album…look it up kids) backwards to hear their supposed secret messages. But that sound has a new meaning. It’s now the sound you hear when someone uninstalls Second Life (SL) from their computer. All their experiences–the love affairs, explorations, live music, poetry readings, amazing conversations, drama, and discovery–played in reverse as their virtual world is sucked back into the void. And it just happened again.

Sadly the person who erased the existence of his virtual life this time was a good friend of mine. But I hear the sound more and more frequently as people struggle to come to terms with the ways in which Second Life is affecting their real lives.

Like the story of so many others, one ordinary online day my friend’s unsuspecting spouse stumbled upon his up-till-then secret Second Life romance. Shocked, she stood and stared at the computer screen, mouth gaping, silently soaking in what she was seeing on the screen: the sensuous embrace between her husband’s avatar self and his avatar sweetheart. What ensued, according to my friend, was a spat of monstrous proportions complete with sinister accusations, insufferable demands, and blanket ultimatums.

Sound familiar?

The sad thing about this scenario is that, because my friend was caught in the proverbial act so to speak, he seemed compelled to shoulder the weight of the blame for the state of the relationship he and his spouse shared. But that is just too simple and life is never simple, is it? For there must have been something that led him–and many others like him–to land and linger in Second Life in the first place.

What I’ve found is that people from all walks of life are floundering in uninspired and sometimes even loveless marriages, then flocking to Second Life in search of something to fill the void. Most of them don’t even realize that’s what they’re doing; they themselves foster the illusion that all is well on the homefront. (Ah, if I had a dime for every person I’ve met in SL who, upon first meeting, told tales of happy marriages later fessing up to the reality of their fizzling real life connections.)

My point is that for every person engaged in what many would deem “cyber-cheating,” there is usually an untold tale of marital strife that led them to seek out online diversions in the first place. In essence, it’s the same familiar chicken-and-egg cycle: the relationship is broken so we seek solace somewhere else. Then the virtual adventures cause partnership problems. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

So if you find your partners engaged in online relationships that you don’t understand, don’t simply slam down your gavel and thrust your verdict upon them just yet. Talk openly and honestly with him or her about why they are in Second Life.

And for those of you running from your real life and into the arms of your online loves it’s time to get real. Stop torturing yourself and those around you and make some decisions that will have a positive impact in your real life. It may mean that, like my friend, you must uninstall SL for awhile. Or perhaps you can get to the root of the problem with your partner and patch things up without saying goodbye to all the great things SL has to offer.

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Group Dynamics, Communities, and the Mob Mentality

December 27, 2007 at 6:55 pm (Communication, Friendship, Life, Relationships, Second Life) (, , , , , , , , , )

group-of-people.jpg

The idea of community isn’t new to the online world. In fact, those who know would say the Internet itself was born out of Usenet groups and discussion forums that began popping up on college campuses in the eighties and early nineties (yes, I am old enough to remember that!). In the last several years communities have further evolved to encompass even greater purpose in this perpetually connected world of ours. From open source software to self help communities where regular folks get answers to their burning questions from other regular folks–arguably a return to the original objective of those communities of yesteryear–Web-based communities continue to be one of the greatest driving forces that push our ever evolving online culture to innovate. And Second Life (SL), one could contend, is at the forefront of that innovation.

So now that I’ve gotten my theoretical academic preamble out of the way, let’s get down to the smarmy tabloid topics I’d really like to talk about. I’ve been wondering about the concept of community in Second Life for awhile now. And recently I was reminded of that curiosity when a fellow SL blogger–ehem, I mean journalist–included me in a list he had compiled (*blush*–you’ll have to see for yourself what the list was about.). The list was long and included a variety of people he must know in SL. But I wondered: in addition to him, do they all know each other? Are they perhaps members of some giant online community or extended mutual admiration society?

Second Life communities–which could also be described as groups, friends, networks, sims, neighbors…you get the picture–seem to function much like our own circles of friends in the real world around us. Often these groups or communities center around similar tastes or experiences like music, art, politics, or sex. Some revolve around proximity, as in groups of neighbors (my friend Daxiaong has written a great post about his own neighborhood community). And I suppose some just grow organically from the seeds of mutual attraction.

This is the part where I admit that I haven’t had great luck cultivating my own community experiences in SL. Which is why I’m always in awe of people to whom groups seem to gravitate. But from what I’ve seen of them, many SL communities tend to magnify some of the good but mostly the bad and the ugly characteristics of group dynamics. They are often ripe with rotten relationship triangles or cheating friends and lovers. Many include the he-said-she-said back-and-forth I thought we all tried to leave behind in middle school. And, sadly, some even include the gang-ups and hang-ups of mob mentality.

Why is this? Why do people, pixelated or fleshy, seem to create levels of never-before-achieved drama when we gang together as groups? Is there something left of our Darwinian evolution from animals where we work to mate and then ascend to the top of the social spectrum of the pack? Is it simply human nature to seek others with like minds in order to wrap ourselves in the comfortable blanket of the familiar?

As usual I don’t know. But I think I know why in SL these group games seem so much more pronounced: because we can hide behind a veil of anonymity that we think shields us from the guilt and blame that should accompany bad behavior.

In the Buddhist sense, however, we’re never anonymous; our karma follows us far beyond this second, real, or any other life we might live. So why not make the most of this opportunity and try to push our evolutionary story even further? Move beyond forming Survivor-style alliances and bring our very best selves to the groups to which we belong. This might mean zipping our lips at times or finding forgiveness when we don’t want to. But what else is evolution for than to move beyond the behaviors that hold us back as a society?

I realize this was a rather negative commentary on such an important feature of the entire social network scene. So for those with positive experiences and stories to share, bring them on. I know they’re out there.

P.S. For those curious onlookers, I’ve written my own “list” in the comments section of the blog.

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What’s “SLove” Got To Do With It?

December 4, 2007 at 11:21 am (Communication, Friendship, Love, Polyamory, Relationships, Second Life) (, , , , , , , , , )

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I’ve written before about my own experiences of falling in love online. And I’ve made it no secret that I think we all could benefit from the added ego boost that comes when we see our own power through a fresh pair of eyes. But lately I’ve noticed the unique tendency in Second Life (SL) to be incredibly loose with the use of the “L” word. This is something that appears to be unique to SL, as I don’t hear its utterance on every street corner in the real world around me. In fact, in my own past I recall laboring over whether the time was right to use it at all lest I communicate something I wasn’t ready to reveal. But in SL we seem to be quite liberal with the word and the idea. This has caused me to doubt its sincerity a bit and wonder how many of those love feelings are real and how many we manufacture in an attempt to reap the rewards of simply having them?

Many people I know in SL are quick to claim they’ve found “the one,” to only days later discard the shell of that relationship onto the pile of other rejects. We seem so hasty to label our experience as love or something similar, that perhaps in our desperation we see things that may not really be there. In essence, are our experiences in SL just added examples that we’re a culture addicted to being in love?

Another practice that has me puzzled is the act of partnering in SL. To limit one’s adventures in a limitless universe by staking out relationship territory to me defeats the purpose of Second Life altogether. Yet I think the partnership propensity is another example of how we attempt to find order in the chaos of the grid. Partnership–and other public displays of our affections such as the gushing tributes in our profiles–is a definitive and specific way to profess that we do care about another person. It also helps communicate, in a world where words are all we really have, the varying degrees of feelings we have for those in our circle of friends who are important to us.

A friend told me recently that Second Life can be a very lonely place. This concept amazed me, since there are so many things to do and see and so many people yet to meet. But there is a sense that, if we do not belong to someone on the grid–whether a partner or a family–we are missing some critical component of the experience. How many times have you looked at someone else’s profile and felt a pang of envy at the declarations of love and appreciation showered upon those who are a part of their circle of friends?

So what’s my point? Am I saying we should put on the brakes and be parsimonious with the love language? I don’t think so. I might be more apt to encourage us to learn from how free we feel to use the words in SL, and how great it feels when someone uses them with us in return. Then perhaps we take that freedom and become more liberal with love and appreciation in our lives everyday.

In addition, it may be useful to find another way to affirm our adoration in SL; one that isn’t weighed down by the baggage of varying and disputed definitions of the word (love means many different things to many different people). Not long ago I saw the word “slove” used to describe the intensity of emotion that is uniquely felt within SL and it seemed a perfect definition for the unique but incredibly intense feelings of love–or at minimum deep like or admiration–that are elicited in this crazy online world.

So I say, don’t be afraid to stand up and profess it loudly and proudly: I SLove you! See, doesn’t that feel good?

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