The Digital Closet

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A discussion of the virtual worlds medium and why it’s so hard to stand up and be a proud citizen.

In my personal research into goth culture (which I’m slowly absorbing in utter fascination), I find myself coming across the same notion time and again – that the culture owes a lot to internet communities. Given that this sort of activity hits its peak in the late 1990s, when I was just starting secondary school, my memories of it are vague. I do recall Livejournal being one example of a gothic cultural forum though, and while the practise never drew me in then, the memory of it has risen to the fore once more.

As everyone knows, goth has been around well before the world wide web hit, but as a very modern subculture it’s been quick to mould itself around new media like the internet. I’d imagine that goths are still making heavy use of it to this day, although for some reason (perhaps fear) I’ve yet to seek that out myself. Its biggest impact is probably seen in the success of Whitby Gothic Weekend, promoted largely through magazines and web communities. Through use of the internet medium, goths and converts have been drawn into a new culture, making new friends and experiencing new and exciting ideas, largely from having met in ‘real life’ after months or years of internet chatter.

I’ve been a part of something else. In spending the last two years in virtual worlds, I’d thought I was exposing myself to an exciting new community, similar to what I’m now reading about gothic groups. Neither the act of seeking out a community or finding pasttimes with similar scope to goths’ own were goals of mine in engaging with virtual worlds. Still, now that I’m reading about the formation of other internet communities, I’m beginning to wonder why my own, in virtual worlds, is so different.

In a generic sense, I believe there may be a number of reasons:

  • Anonymity: many users of these environments, myself included, do so either under pseudonyms or the distanced perspective of an entire digital persona, making any physical-world contact nigh on impossible. I also wonder if there’s a degree of ├╝ber-geek to virtual worlds use too, which I’ll get back to later.
  • Corporate goals: when I think of those people I do know meet up and have formed networks around their common medium, it’s not from friendship but from business. Most are academics or businesspeople, and to my surprise there are very few creatives or designers in this bracket – amusing, given the basis of Second Life‘s only current, positive reputation.
  • Cultural breadth: my argument may well be folly when we consider that goth works because its enthusiastic participants have a number of common grounds. What might two virtual world citizens have in common? Amusing anecdotes about lag or inventory losses?

Anonymity is a key point for me, but I’ve already explained some of my own thoughts on what this can open up to an individual. I wonder instead about the level of geekiness attached to the medium.

Lots of allusions are made to the late ’90s goth being a web domain owner and page designer, and this romantic image of the pre-Facebook and MySpace days is one I recently discussed with friends, too. Time was, a web page owner was a member of a very enthusiastic community of their own. Above the level of ‘goth webmaster’, any early web pioneer was part of a clique not unlike the bedroom game coder. Sharing tips, hyperlinking to each other’s pages, sharing slowly-rendered JPG and GIF images placed in positions of prominence over a modem connection… It’s a world I know only from anecdotes, again being born just five years too late to really ‘catch on’. Still, with that and the pioneering world of historic game design, it’s clear that internet cultures have a proud past. So what are virtual worlds doing to maintain this allure?

As far as I can tell, they’re not. From my own experiences, my use of virtual worlds puts me as something of an outcast. Having discussed the matter at length with my friend John, I concluded that my own generation is so far from the ‘digital native’ definition as to make this new buzzword laughable. The whole affair has made me rather a cynic, I’m sorry to say, because so few of my peers manage to extend their outward personae beyond MySpace and Facebook. Quite how virtual worlds and their associated metaverse platforms are likely to succeed amongst the young, then, is beyond my estimation.

I wonder if perhaps this loops back to the passionate, closeted internet communities which have so enlivened early games design, web design and goth culture. Certainly, Second Life has long claimed its roots in bedroom coding and the boyhood passions of its founder, Philip Rosedale. Ask any current resident of the world whether or not the world still holds to its principles, however, and you’ll likely receive cynicism similar to my own. It is as though virtual worlds curation has been pushed too hard, and too quickly for it to manage. Those who kept websites in ‘the old days’ may well look upon the web 2.0 boom and chuckle, knowing how long it took for the general public to realise what the ‘net was capable of. The same is still going on for video games. The medium is only now gaining a proper reception in the public eye, perhaps in thanks to Nintendo alone.

The key here seems to be that after years of development through passionate hobbying, the digital game and internet media both emerged into the public eye decades after they began, ready to impress. I’m now of the belief that virtual worlds (curiously, an amalgam of these two digital media in itself) may in fact have to recede for a while before they’re accepted, as there is little evidence to suggest that the world was ready for them in the past couple of years.

Second Life is for cheating wives and sex-starved men. MMOs are for geeks too hardcore for console games. New interface technologies related to virtual worlds are wide open to cheap jokes about teledildonics, advanced marital affairing and the advanced retreat of geeks into their shady dens, then. An exaggeration, of course, but this is what I tend to see, and such verbal ammunition is often levelled at the self-esteem of a man struggling to be proud of his digital citizenry.

Through the course of this rambling conjecture, I appear to have arrived at a new question, which I simply cannot hope to answer in myself. If goths have had to deal with the slinging of Satanistic paranoia and accusations of extreme deviancy, while webmasters have had an easier time from the press but a decade or two of public ignorance to boot, how are virtual worlds communities to survive the current media negativity? Should they ven be expected to? After all, it is in the nature of the metaverse that media and news have changed in their delivery. Perhaps virtual worlds haven’t been pushed too early after all, and they can ride this out to join the ranks of games and the web in public acceptance and widespread use.