Friday, 2 November 2012

If You Die in RL...

Talking with a friend in SL yesterday, he mentioned that a particular creator had vanished from the virtual world without a word, and how he wondered what had happened to her. This set me thinking. I have written before about the idea that an avatar 'dies' when their owner logs out of Second Life, but I have only looked at this in terms of a temporary death, the idea being that the owner of that avatar will sign back in at a later point and bring the avatar back to life. It's not that that person ceases to exist, but rather they cease to exist in the virtual plain - whilst continuing in the physical plain.

This is only half of the story, however. Plenty of users sign up to SL and, after their first attempt at trying to navigate the alien landscape and all of its ridiculous sliders and confusing buttons and poorly-spelled offers of cybersex, they give up and never sign in ever again. These are dead accounts, virtual stillbirths, and every so often Linden Labs must run a clean-up and delete all of these accounts that have not been active since their first log-in. In six months time, it'll be like they never existed. What a grim analogy - but you understand my point.

And then there is the other scenario: what about avatars that just vanish? They tell no one they are planning to leave - they leave no suicide notes - and then one day they log out, never to log in again. 

There are plenty of reasons why someone might do this. Enough drama and bullying goes on in SL to make you wonder why you ever bothered signing up in the first place sometimes, and as anybody who has read my blog must realise, there are a lot of things going on in SL that are dark and grim and wrong for a whole host of reasons. It's also really, really easy to get bored, and if you aren't a builder or a creator, and you don't have a whole host of friends who happen to be on a close enough time-zone to you so that you can actually hang out regularly, SL can get tedious quickly. On the other hand, real life can get in the way, or those that use SL as an escape from something in the first world find a different outlet, or manage to resolve the issues that drove them to SL in the first place. 

But there is also a more saddening reason why an avatar might never again be signed in. Their owners can die. Due to the nature of Second Life and the reasons people engage with it, if someone dies in the real world, their loved ones might not even know they have an SL avatar. They might not care if they do know. Signing in and having to tell people what has happened might be too painful - assuming their username and password aren't hidden away. In the face of such a situation, could anybody really be blamed for not wanting to do that? 

It's difficult, when an avatar vanishes so, not to jump to that awful conclusion. You try not to, but the horror of it is inescapable. Perhaps there's an arrogance there, a sense that something awful must have happened to make someone simply remove themselves from your (virtual) life without any kind of a warning. But in some cases, it is almost certainly what has happened. And in many of those cases, we'll receive no confirmation either way.

Anonymity in Second Life brings us together, but also makes sure - in situations like this - that we realise the extent of our separation. For the same reasons that loved ones may not know about someone's engagement with SL, often people in SL do not like to share their real life names and details. There is no way to break that anonymity unless we submit that kind of information, and even then, how far can a name get you? It's crushing just to think about it, and yet this has never even happened to me. But it could.

And the concept stretches into so many other virtual mediums as we become more and move intertwined with the internet. It's important. It's becoming important.

How do we deal with this? Do we have to accept that our virtual lives are temporary, or do we make a move to bridge the gap? Do we start writing clauses and passwords into our wills? Do we say goodbye to each other as if every time is the last? Did we realise any of this when we signed up? How do we move on, here?


  1. That's a thoughtful post. I once started a thread on an SL board about this and had a bunch of people going, "meh, who cares?"

    Once, I had an account who even owned a little shop. She got a stalker. She made some questionable decisions. Eventually, I killed her. Closed the account, and let her die. After a while I cautiously re-connected with a few friends of the old av who I missed, but many people think she's gone forever.

    More pertinently, perhaps, back in March I was contacted by a fairly well-known person in some scenes to be part of an exhibition. And then, halfway through organising this thing, the organiser fell off the map. No one who knew her had any idea what happened and it stayed this way for, as far as I can tell, for months. I have no idea what happened - she isn't on my friends list or anything - but she could have died, or anything. Something must have happened to her, but it's weird how completely and suddenly avatars can die. I think of the robot chick I used to hang around with -- I was rping with her one of the first times I met you, actually -- and what happened to her. She was so keen, started a group, everything... and then nothing. Gone for more than a year.

    I remember reading about a sim that had a memorial for dead avatars. I wonder if it is still there.

  2. I think people just move on and SL gets left behind. It isn't intentionally meant to worry those who remain, it just becomes less important than whatever else is going on around, and then eventually just drops off the radar, and unless you have contact outside of SL you have no way of knowing just what happened :-)

    For example Kitti - You started SL as a project at Uni. How many of your peers just walked away after the project and have not been seen in SL since? I suspect the majority of them did, as they weren't bitten by the bug. You don't worry about these characters because you know that in the 'Real World' their lives are continuing quite happily or unhappily, as the case may be, but continuing nonetheless. You have to apply this principle of thought to everyone who vanishes from the SL plain, unless of course you learn otherwise - then you can worry!

  3. Yes, that is completely the case, but it is also the case that things do happen to people irl and, knowing that, you can't help but wonder. Especially when you consider that some of the people involved in SL are very, very unhappy in their first lives. Not all, obviously, but some.


All questions, comments and feedback are welcome. Thank you.