There’s a lot of hype about Second Life in libraryland, and I have to be quite honest: I’ve never understood it. Sure, it’s fun, but it isn’t very interesting other than in a “Hey-amusing-computer-game -where-I-can-chat-with-people-pretty-much-like-I-would-in-a-chat-room kind of way. Woo. Actually, it’s less interesting than that — I don’t have a “rockin” graphics card, and I don’t have great bandwidth so, it’s a rather-less-than-impressive computer game with chat. (I like the ability to change your appearance and — being totally self-obsessed — I could do that for days on end.) My feeling though is that libraries shouldn’t spend too much time and energy on Second Life for a number of reasons.
The first thing is that Second Life is only one virtual world; one take on the concept. It’s one of the more impressive virtual worlds, but the others have different concepts that make them attractive to different groups. I respect the people I know that build extensive presences in Second Life; these are great people who are at the bleeding edge of their work. The problem is that the interface in Second Life isn’t good enough; it’s clumsy, it is far from intuitive and it really requires a lot of skill, patience and interest to get the hand of. I’m afraid that this will keep Second Life in the realm of special interest forever. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Second Life presents a lot of interesting possibilities and concepts, I just don’t think that it has caught on, and is catching on with the all-important 15-20 age group.
That’s Second Life in particular, but the factor that all virtual worlds have in common is that they are cut off from our real lives; that shouldn’t come as a shock — probably the reason that virtual worlds are popular is exactly this: you aren’t “you”, you’re the person you want to be (yes female librarian, you can have wings). It’s much easier to project the qualities you want to identify with when you’re out of your own environment. This kind of thing “frees your mind” of the shackles of gravity and all the mundane stuff that you’re immersed in on a day-to-day basis. Certain psychologists and other reactionaries will no doubt claim that all this is very harmful, etc., but they’re just trying to earn a crust.
In truth, there’s no problem with escapism of this kind, except if it starts affecting your health due to sleep deprivation, RSI and the associated ills of modern computer living. The problem of escapism does however mean that virtual worlds have no real use for libraries.
To explain this, I think that it’s necessary to understand the role of libraries and other sources of information: they are real-world necessities. In a virtual world, everyone will project themselves as omniscient and omnipotent. Why would a god need to go to the library? The other thing is that the libraries we know aren’t likely to store the kind of information the typical virtual world inhabitant is looking for (how to modify their appearance, the best places to hang out, etc.) These kinds of information are baked into the subsystems of the virtual worlds, leaving no space for the real-world-type library. Do people want to search Google from Second Life? (Does Google have a presence in Second Life?) This goes some way to explaining why library resources aren’t relevant in virtual worlds, but it doesn’t explain what people will be doing instead (and why virtual worlds will remain nothing more than glorified computer games).
I keep on banging on in other posts about how I believe that mobile is the next big thing (I’ve even started developing apps for mobile devices — so I must be taking this seriously) and this being the case, I’d like to know why and how we’d like to downgrade to a paltry “if you stand here, you can search for information”, when we’ve got the world in our pocket? When you can search pretty much anywhere, cheaply, using your mobile device, you’re hardly going to accept the kind of things that are currently possible in Second Life or any other virtual world as being even worth stopping to look at. I mean does this stuff work on iPhone?
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