Peculiarities of Cyberspace

Welcome to Second Life

The rise of virtual worlds and the 3D-web is accompanied by great transformations in the way in which we communicate and interact, publish and learn, meet people and recreate, do business and are involved in politics. The best-known and most flexible virtual world is Second Life (SL). We explore this digital world and compare the structure of the 3D-web to the structure of the old, flat web.

Dreaming of a second life

“Second Life? I hardly have time to live my first life...”

The residents of SL interact in a 3D environment. At first sight SL looks like an on line role play for a great number of players who are jointly building a virtual existence. The participants create their own digital image. They determine the appearance and character with which they want to live in SL. There you can be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do.

The difference with on line games — such as  and  World of Warcraft — is that the use of SL is not determined by locations and rules that are incorporated in its software. Therefore SL is not a game with pre-programmed story lines: it has no clear-cut playground, no rules of play, no assignments or specific goal. You cannot ‘win’ in SL.

Genesis: a biblical metaphor

The comparison with the biblical story of the creation is there for the taking. “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep“ [Bible, Genesis 1, verse 1]. But this time it is no ethereal god operating as the great creator, but people of flesh and blood creating their own world from behind their keyboards.

The environment offered by the inventors is completely empty: there are neither subjects nor objects. When SL opened its virtual gates on 23 June 2003 there was nothing; there was no place to go to and nobody to be seen. This empty world is only then brought to life when the residents themselves choose a digital alter ego (an avatar) and determine what they want to do in this new world. The residents of SL receive the means to adapt the virtual world to their own wishes and ideas, and subsequently they can share this world with equals. So SL is in the most literal sense of the word a co-creation.

SL has a self-developing structure and not a prefabricated one. There is no mission, there are no assignments to be carried out and no bonus points to be gained. Nobody tells you what to do. SL is not a chat room either, nor a marketplace nor a site for social networks, but all in one. SL is a simulation of reality with the help of a 3D audio-visual user environment. SL is an electronic living environment or a metaverse(a metaphysical universe).

Fantasy world

SL is not a second-hand world, but offers us the opportunity to lead a second virtual life beside (not after!) our local life. At last our longing for rebirth can be realised in a non-infantile way. And this time not as the idée fixe of surviving beyond the grave, and without the religious belief in the immortality of the soul (only offering false hope on an eternal hereafter). The second world is not so lofty and can be found in the virtual regions of the here and now. The virtual kingdom belongs to this earth and to the people who live now.

In our first world we act bearing in mind the materiality of our body. This body is bound by place and time. In this world we can only be in one place at the same time (the physical body is indivisible) and we need time to bridge the distance to another place. In the digital world things are completely different. In the digital world we need not surmount natural barriers. Our body remains ‘at home’, behind the computer screen. In the virtual space we are liberated from our corporality and in this world only our avatar manoeuvres, in a more or less fantasised or idealised representation of who we are or who we would like to be.

Those who enter a virtual world have the possibility to redefine their appearance and personality. This digital representation leaves ample room for the most divergent and extreme fantasies and phobias. It is a large-scale, carnival-like masquerade in which (almost) nobody is who he or she ‘really’ is. In SL everybody is really who he/she pretends to be. Only the digital character and his or her virtual achievements are real.

In SL you can make (nearly) everything you can think of. It is an ultimate fantasy world, in which an environment is created in a complete class of its own, with powerful and very flexible instruments. It is a challenge to be creative. Those who are not creative get little attention. And that is what it is mostly about in the virtual world: attention, expressed by the number of visitors, the duration of their visit, and the frequency of the visit.

SL is a completely 3D space, able to imitate the physical world to a very large extent. But it can also differ greatly from the ‘real world’, if the imaginative powers of the designers allow it. In the virtual world there is only one limit: the restriction of our fantasy. The virtual world is in essence a domain where we can indulge our fantasies.

However, in many ways SL is embedded in the daily life of the first world. This does not only apply in a psychological and social-cultural respect, but also and especially in an economic respect. In the fast growing virtual economy of SL products, services and land are purchased with ‘Linden dollars’. There is a stock exchange where you can buy and sell Linden dollars. In many respects the virtual exchange rate behaves like any other foreign currency. More and more companies offer real life products and services for sale for Linden dollars. Companies and institutions make use of the advantages SL offers and build their intranets and extranets there. They buy a piece of land in SL and build a virtual office on it. Its own personnel use this office as a workplace, whereas it functions as a marketing and sales outlet for its customers.

Digital spitting image - divine incarnation

    • “Avatars are not of this world.”
Reborn in a non-irrational wayIn the past the childish desire to be reborn — at any price — was usually transformed into the religious longing for the hereafter. SL offers the chance to fulfil this typically human longing, resulting from the fear of death, in a non-irrational way in the virtual second world.

In the virtual world only the digital alter egos of the residents act. Avatars are of crucial importance to the use of artificial identities in cyberspace. Internet knows many temptations. But the major temptation of SL is that it enables us to fulfil a classical, until now unattainable wish: the idea to start your life anew. SL offers the opportunity to construct a completely new identity. “In your Second Life, you can look like nearly anyone, or anything you want!”

Some people consider their SL experience a mere fantasy, others regard it as an extension of their off line personality. More than ever this can lead to the fading of boundaries between reality and fantasy.

SpookyThis turns out to be the case when we take a close look at the construction of the avatars. SL-residents often spend a great deal of time on their avatars. They are not simple images, but fantasised images, in which real and imagined aspects of identity merge. In an avatar you articulate how you prefer to present yourself and/or how you prefer to be seen by others.

The construction of an avatar is a divine act of creation. It is a god who, in his immense wisdom, creates a new human being: with a little bit of himself (‘after one‘s own image’) and a little imagination. Fantasised, idealised, dreamt, wished for, hoped for, transposed, construed, perverted, cultivated, mirrored, crossbred. ‘Avatar’ is an accurate characterisation of the digital image — in Sanskrit avatar means: divine incarnation.

Photo-realistic avatarsMost residents of SL enjoy indulging their fantasies and ‘re-inventing’ themselves. The more SL grows, the more the need for realistic avatars. Until now it was rather complicated to design a photo-realistic avatar, but now it is possible to design a photographically resembling avatar within a few minutes on Avatar Island.

As true gods we mould our identity to our own will. We model our sex and age, our bodily shapes and features, our outerwear and undergarments, our hairstyle and make-up, our adornments (jewels, tattoos) and attributes, our posture and physical movements, our facial expression and gestures. We can pose as humans, but also as animals, dragons, monsters, little robots, cuddly toys, or as objects. If so desired you can make yourself invisible, allowing you to sit down somewhere unnoticed and listen in. You communicate with other avatars by means of text, voice, posture and facial expression.

Peculiarities of the 3D-web

What makes the 3D-web so special or new? In which respect does this new web differ from the by now so familiar flat web? In order to trace the structural and dynamic peculiarities of 3D virtual spaces we start with a schematic summary of the differences between the flat and the 3D-web.

  2D-web 3D-web
Structure Independently side by side in unlimited virtual space: abstract connection between dots on a flat surface. Dependently together in a delimited virtual space: concrete connection via specific places in 3D- space.
Navigation Hyper transition:
connection by click on magic hyperlink.
Smooth transition:
connection by movement of avatar: by walking and flying (but also by hyper transport).
Orientation Orientation by search machines and directories. Orientation by spatial imagination.
Information Hypertextuality:
textual (re)presentation of information.
(re)presentation of information: eyes turn into powerful lenses that can focus.(*)
Communication Primarily textual communication: no non-verbal communication of emotions except by means of emoticons. Communication in natural language: possibility of non-verbal communication by means of posture, facial expression and gestures.
Animation Inanimate objects. Capacity to animate all objects.
Presence Invisible to other users: no sense of social presence of the others. Visible to other users: sense of social presence — space of proximity.
Accountability Not accountable, except in communicative web locations, such as chat rooms, web forums and instant messaging. Direct personal accountability: opportunities for self regulation.
Identity Screen name + 2D profiles. 3D avatars.
Expansion Infinite expansion: no limit of number of local servers and consequently of servers. Limited expansion: depending on the number of central servers.
Centralisation Principally and practically decentred: peer-to-peer model. Practically centred: server-client model.
Power formation Idiosyncratic power of separate sites: number of incoming links. Concentrated power of sites on sim: power of sim administrators and property developers.
(*) For a few hundred Linden dollars you can buy a camera on Second Life, allowing you to take pictures or make films in the virtual world. The lenses enable you to zoom in or out.


The structure of the old web was characterised by independently operating sites in an unlimited virtual space. The sites are mutually connected, just as abstractly as random dots on a flat surface. In the 3D-web, however, the separate sites are interdependently together in a marked out virtual space. The sites are mutually and concretely connected because they occupy specific places in a 3D space. This structural difference has immediate consequences for the manner of navigation.

In the 2D-web we navigate within and between sites by means of a hyper transition. Via a click on the magic hyperlink we move with lightning speed from site to site. In the 3D-web we can make our avatars travel just as fast over great distances. But the characteristic transfer takes place much more smoothly: we navigate from site to site by letting our avatar walk or fly. So we don’t operate in an abstract universe anymore, in which we move to other sites via hyperlinks, but in a visually marked out space in which we can make our avatar move.This also has consequences for the way in which we orientate ourselves in the virtual world.

Strangers in a pubPeople first have to take a good look around in this 3D space, learn how to move around and how to communicate with other people. It takes a while to get used to this. You can see newcomers taking their first unsteady steps in a strange body and a strange environment. They marvel at the most extraordinary creatures with peculiar names above their avatars. The first experience with SL can best be compared to entering a pub where everybody is a stranger.

The orientation in the 2D-web occurs primarily via search machines offering results corresponding with our search terms. Furthermore, we make use of directories and portals specialised in certain subjects. In the 3D-web we orientate ourselves with the help of a human potential for which there was no need in the flat web: our spatial imagination. It allow us to orientate and position ourselves in a spatial living environment, even when this is a merely virtual one. In spite of the flat screen, projecting the images of the virtual world, we are able to visualise something in three dimensions. In pre-modern societies space was the area in which someone moved around, and time was the experience while moving around in this space. In modern societies social space is no longer restricted by the boundaries set by the space in which one moves around. We can now image spaces we have never visited before.

There are other differences that strike the eye. In the 2D-web information is primarily (re)presented in a textual way, whereas in the 3D-web information is (re)presented in a much more visual way or in images. More precisely: in the 3D-web hypertextuality and hypervisuality are combined. This enrichment of the modes of information transfer has immediate consequences for the nature of communication.


Part of the internet
Second Life is not a separate environment unrelated to the internet. It is an integral part of the internet. Just like e-mail, chat and instant messaging Second Life facilitates on line communication. However, the possibilities of this communication and its media resources are far greater than in web 1.0.

In the flat web communication was mainly textual. Although this was compensated by the use of emoticons, it remained difficult to communicate emotions straight away in a non-verbal manner. In the 3D-web we can communicate with each other in natural (spoken) language as well. Moreover, our avatar also offers the opportunity to communicate non-verbally, by means of posture, facial expressions and gestures. Since SL enables us to express feelings and emotions straight away, there is also room to perform activities with a large degree of complexity and ambiguity.

The fewer communication channels available (e.g. only audio versus audio plus video) the more limited the capacity of the medium, and the smaller its ability to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. Due to technological mediation virtual teams and organisations are restricted in their ability to perform tasks with the greatest complexity and ambiguity. I have analysed this phenomenon in more detail in Virtuele Organisatie en Communicatie.

From a socio-scientific perspective the main difference between the old and the new web lies in the way in which we experience each other’s presence in the virtual space. In the flat web users were invisible to other users. As a rule, visitors of websites do not see which other visitors are simultaneously present on the site. In communicative internet locations, such as chat, IM and web forums the presence of others is only visible in the shape of a screen name, written profiles and a lifeless, non-animated avatar. In the 3D-web everyone is, by means of one‘s avatar, immediately visible to all other avatars that are present in the same marked out space. This perceptibility of virtual presence reinforces the sense of social presence. The 3D-web is a space of proximity.

Sense of Social Presence
It has often been assumed that physical proximity is required for the realisation of ‘real’ social relations and communities. In the classical formulation of Erving Goffmann this condition of ‘copresence’ was formulated as follows: “persons must sense that they are close enough to be perceived in whatever they are doing, including their experiencing of others and close enough to be perceived in this sensing of being perceived” [Erving Goffmann, Behavior in Public Places, 1963:17]. Now we know that personal relations and community formation can also occur in virtual arrangements when the sense of social presence can be generated there.

Accountability and Identity
The perceptibility of the virtual presence has immediate consequences for the accountability. In the 2D-web internet users were not directly accountable, because they were not directly visible and recognisable — except on communicative web locations. In the 3D-web avatars that are present in the same location immediately experience each other’s presence, recognise each other’s virtual identity, and can address each other directly. Possibly, but that should be subject of close research, this also leads to an improvement of the chances of on line self regulation. The sustainability of and safety in the second life depends on the extent to which the participants collectively succeed in regulating the activities in SL and in protecting their community against criminal usurpations and commercial colonisation. This capacity for self-regulation is no doubt the major success factor and therefore the major fail factor at the same time.

As the use of the virtual reality has come to be an everyday activity, the boundary between physical and virtual space increasingly fades. In the long run virtual reality will become ‘a low resolution version of reality’ [Mitchell Kapor]. The virtual world becomes a normal condition of our daily existence. Now already many participants of Second Live experience that the boundary between their digitally construed identity/identities and their appearance in local reality fades. Yet, they do not experience this as a problem, but rather as a challenge. They do not really care if the interactions that influence them come from the local or virtual world. Usually they are most aware of the fact that they do not only cultivate their online personality in SL but also transform themselves — and perhaps even their complete personality.

The possibilities of expansion of the 2D-web are in principle unlimited. The number of sites is only practically restricted by the number of local servers that we can dispose of. This was and is the consequence of the decentralised character of the network of networks forming the internet. For 3D environments such as SL it has been a different matter so far. At this moment organising a private SL-server and modelling the system to personal goals is still not possible. Therefore the expansion of SL remains dependent on the number of central servers that make this internet environment run.

SL is a centralised network. In such a network a central server (‘broker’) regulates the traffic between individually registered users (à la Napster). Such a centralised architecture indeed facilitates efficient and extensive searching, but the system only has one entrance point. The consequence is that the network may collapse completely when one or more servers are put out of action.

Power formation

The reputation of incoming linkshas been described in more detail in my analysis of the topology and dynamics of the internet: Zichzelf organiserende netwerken (“Self-organising networks”).

This brings us to the last point of comparison: power formation. In the decentralised structure of the flat web the power of a site is determined by the number of visitors (‘number of eyeballs’) and the number of links that refer to a site (and the reputation of these incoming links). In the 3D space of SL we are dealing with another type of power formation. Power in SL is realised in the shape of the concentrated presence of sites on a ‘sim’ (a spatially marked out part of the virtual space facilitated by Linden Lab). Because of this the real power is usurped by sim administrators and property developers who operate as true colonisers in the virtual space.

Rights for SL-citizens

We have seen that the 3D-world of SL entails a series of transformations compared to the familiar flat web. These transformations make the internet even more exciting and vital than it already was. The most striking transformation lies, no doubt, in the field of the social presence that can be simulated in 3D environments. Criticism starts where the technology of SL is centralised (and privatised) in such a way, that a premium is put on the power of capital, endangering the democratic standard of the virtual world.

Sl is an extremely flexible and creative virtual world. It has strongly evolved, reached a worldwide reputation, and houses millions of enthusiastic residents. Yet, SL is not beforehand the only and best virtual world. Since the beginning of this century the number of virtual worlds has grown explosively. So SL has to prove that it is robust enough to be accepted as a developing standard for the construction of a world-wide, 3D and multimedia virtual world. SL can only prove this if it continues to innovate rapidly. This innovation not only lies in the area of the technology facilitated by SL, but is also particularly dependent on the creative energies of its residents. Furthermore, it is of the utmost importance that SL citizens obtain rights that can protect their carefully composed digital constructions. Unfortunately this is not yet the case.