As it turns out, Second Life culture is not a uniquely odd society with no real world analogues. Instead, it's useful to compare SL to the Tokugawa/Edo period of Japan, which ushered that country into the modern era, preparing it to become the global power it is today.
That's the revolutionary thesis of "Avatars Are For Real: Virtual Communities and Public Spheres", a groundbreaking academic paper by Eiko Ikegami and Piet Hut, recently published in the first volume of The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, a peer-reviewed publication. Pictured at left, Ikegami is a Sociology professor and Department chair at Manhattan's esteemed New School, and the paper is based on her experiences in Second Life as Kiremimi Tigerpaw, at right. (Hut is the Princeton astrophysicist whose work simulating Newtonian mechanics in SL and OpenSim was featured here; he also happens to be Eiko's husband.) Through their in-world Second Life activity, they began noticing commonalites to a period in Japan that emphasized culture, the arts, and the sensuality of Ukiyo lifestyle-- literally, "floating world."
So how does the culture of 16th-19th century Japan resemble Second Life? How about Tokugawa activity that eerily resembles avatar-based roleplay, virtual world construction, and communities based on creativity, not social barriers?
In Tokugawa, Ikegami notes, haiku poetry was so highly valued, it offered temporary transcendence across traditional boundaries:
[O]nce a person had become seriously involved in this form of poetry in their home town, he or she enjoyed automatic entry into other poetry networks anywhere in Japan, given the existence of numerous loosely connected poetry circles all over the country. Even women poets could travel easily and extensively by utilizing these poetry networks. They mingled and communicated addressing each other solely by their poet names. These pen names signified an alternative rule of sociability that made feudal status distinction temporarily null and void.
Speaking of pen names and fanciful pseudonyms, the authors cite a samurai of the period complaining about how common and prevalent they'd become within informal arts communities:
When these men are able to sing popular songs (jōruri) well enough, they are given artist names by their teachers. The students feel honored by this treatment. Within their own circle, they address each other only by ‘—tayū’, these fake names. Their samurai names are deemed appropriate only for official public matters. In their private life, they use only their ‘—tayū’ names. How deplorable!
Apparently, that's the feudal Japanese version of "Get a first life!" But these second lives persisted and took on many forms:
Through tea ceremony and flower arrangement to haiku and the game of Go, Tokugawa citizens could escape political pressure and meet each other freely in the safe realms of the virtual worlds of art. In big cities as well as in the provinces—or even in small villages— numerous hobby circles emerged, which allowed people to experience alternative realities.... Just like contemporary Second Life, numerous loose groups showed up, combining voluntarism and commercialism in a fluid mix of shifting forms.
How is all this important? Here's the paper's clincher:
In the middle of stifling feudal social structures, networks of people who engaged in interactive artistic and literary pursuits could provide much more freedom than "real life" could possibly offer, in a totally immersive and hence very "real" way. The result was an emerging cultural condition that prepared the population of premodern Japan for moving toward political modernity once the country opened up after the late nineteenth century.
This happened during a time of strict samurai-borne hierarchies and class divisions. Given that, the authors marvel,
[I]t was almost a miracle that Japan built a modern nationhood with modern political institutions so quickly. One of the main ingredients for this outcome, in our view, is Japan's early form of a second life in the form of participatory art circles... In only half a century, Japan succeeded in building a modern state with a constitution, parliamentary politics, meritocratic bureaucracy, and universal public education. At the dawn of the 20th century, Japan found itself to be the first non-western industrialized nation: a dramatic success story of a real world transformed through roots in virtual worlds.
In other words, modern Japan in all its endlessly inventive grandeur was made possible by what was effectively a kind of nascent Second Life community experience. If SL becomes pervasive enough through our era, a virtual society spread out across the entire Net-connected world, what global transformations are to come?
These are only excerpts to an inspiring (and for an academic work, highly readable) paper. Here's the abstract, and here's the direct .pdf link. In my view, it's mandatory reading for understanding Second Life's full potential.
Image credit: Ikegami photo by Piet Hut/Pema Pera, Tigerpaw screenshot by Sylectra Darwin. Second image is from Kenroku, a Japanese historical sim in SL.