Over the past couple of days I began to doubt if my membership of Second Life might go anywhere. I logged in a couple of times, but as is usual, life the universe and everything dumped on me, and I struggled to remain online for more than a few moments. I began to wonder if it was really worth the effort – not only reaching out to the community that inhabits the virtual world, but also the work required to build relationships with people I will almost certainly never meet.
And then tonight everything changed.
I logged in after dinner, and wandered around a few different venues to see what might be going on. I made the mistake of asking the virtual “London” crowd where their favourite places were, and walked into an argument that essentially boiled down to “not mentioning fight club in the fight club”. They didn’t want anybody talking about anywhere but the London area. I walked away.
A few moments later my avatar re-appeared in a re-creation of an Irish pub. I wandered down the side of the bar, and discovered a small group of people dancing with abandon to live music. I found a stool by the bar, perched myself on it, and watched for a while.
While sitting there, I wondered “why am I doing this?”. I was on the point of logging out when the chat icon lit up. It was like a slippery slope into a place that doesn’t exist, where time, identity, expectation, and obligation don’t exist.
I discovered a group of people that have existed in the heart of “Second Life” for over a decade in some cases. What’s more, they were surprisingly normal. No muscle-bound idiots with phallic “attachments”. No porn-star girls with pneumatic breasts and sequined g-strings.
We talked. We danced. Yes – danced. I made a fool of myself on purpose – trying out all the dancing options while everybody else pitched in too. The live band finally stopped, and walked out into the crowd, striking up conversation with those that had been listening. I exchanged messages with the lead singer.
After another hour the virtual pub fell silent, and slowly emptied as people wandered out into the night within the game world. I sat on a stool at the corner of the bar and told the regulars how important the experience had been – that they had essentially “saved” Second Life for me. It turned out several of them had gone through pretty much the same experience.
Leaving the bar took quite some time – shaking hands with new friends through text conversations, and making promises not to lose touch. It struck me that we might all be vastly different to one another – leading different lives, in different parts of the world, each with a different story – but for the last few hours that had all been wiped away. This was what the “social internet” should always have been about – not about pissing competitions on Facebook or Twitter.
As I said my goodbyes a final message appeared from a girl that had been across the bar from me most of the evening.
“Don’t be a stranger”.