The Permanent Virtual Corporate Carnival


Henry Jenkins and Clay Shirky are having an interesting "debate" on their blogs about Second Life, arguably the best-known online virtual world. I put the word debate in quotation marks because there isn't actually a lot of disagreement here. Shirky makes a compelling argument that journalists and other boosters have overhyped the size and significance of Second Life, then concedes that "there are many interesting things going on in Second Life….My concerns are demographic." Jenkins, in turn, passes quickly through the demographic questions ("personally, I have never believed that SL is going to be a mass movement in any meaningful sense of the term") before explaining that "Second Life interests me as a particular model of participatory culture." The two don't concur on everything—and a third participant in the discussion, Beth Coleman, has yet to weigh in—but their essays complement more than contradict each other. Both are worth reading.

Since I was blogging about medieval carnivals last month, I'll throw in this quote from Jenkins' piece:

Some have dismissed SL as a costume party—I see it more as carnival in the medieval sense of the term—as a time and place within which normal rules of interactions are suspended, roles can be swapped or transformed, hierarchies can be reordered, and we can step out of normal reality into a "magic circle" or "green world" which can be highly generative for the imagination. The difference is that in the old days, carnival was something that existed for a very short period of time and people planned for it all year. Now, in the era of SL, carnival exists all the day and people have to decide how much time they want to spend there. In the old days, the power structures that led to carnival were religious and the church had to decide whether or not to embrace the popular rites. Today, the power structures that lead to SL are corporate and companies have to decide whether or not to embrace the popular rites. That corporate America seems to be experimenting with the alternative reality that constitutes SL is news—even if many of these experiments fail and even if many of these companies have no clue what to do with their islands and even if most of them go back into their cloisters in another year or two.