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Friday, November 17, 2017


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Leslie? Do you like to roleplay?



Hi Leslie,

First, I like much of what you had to say and appreciate your resisting the SL is Pornville narrative. Thanks for that.

After we talked, I went to look at what you have written in the past and saw the article on Morgellons that I remembered reading a few years back. It was easy to remember because it's such a weird disease....and now it turns out the NIH says it's a real disease - a tickborne disease. How's that for weird?

Looking at your bibliography, though, it seems you have a fascination with brokenness, with loss, loneliness, alienation, illness, and suicide. An empathetic writer, it seems you seek out brokenness. I also know that our own experiences, biases, and fascination effect how we synthesize the information we take in, so my question is whether your own fascination with brokenness leads you to see brokenness among people who are not broken.

I suggested you talk to Gidge because she is hilarious and because she is the opposite of the trope of "special needs" mothers. She does not feel sanctified by her challenges or see autism as a blessing that transforms the family into a morality play. But she sure is not broken. She is coal under pressure, a diamond that finds joy and laughter in her life. She is smart, funny, and frank and realistic. She doesn't pretend she loves changing diapers on teenagers, but she doesn't let it break her, ever.

You misread Alicia, too. Since you expressed interest in how people find community, I thought she was a great representative of the family community. She is also not broken. She can't have children in her first life but found a way to find joy and family in SL. That's not broken. That is taking the lemons life handed her and adding some salt and tequila and making a party.

So that's my question. How much did your own fascination with brokenness influence how you perceived the strengths of people with challenges as fractures?

Ciaran Laval

Hi Leslie,

You include quotes from Tom Boellstorff, do you think that the work of anthropologists in digital communities can help foster better communities, not just in Second Life but in online communities in general?

You also mention your good fortune with relative good health, youth and freedom, do you think that class and wealth also play a role in a motivating factor for embracing virtual worlds?


Cajsa! Great to hear from you here. I take your point, absolutely--and to your larger point, I think you're absolutely right: Our fascinations drive our seeking, and certainly inform what we find. I would describe my own fascinations slightly differently than you do, above--I think I'm interested in pain, certainly, but also in the possibilities of community and empathy, the species of resilience, the strange and unexpected forms of intimacy that arrive in our lives--so yes, the facets of alienation and loneliness, but also the ways we find solace for those things, or find ourselves generatively reshaped by them.
But the central point remains, and you make it so eloquently: where we come from, what we've lived, what we're fascinated by--all these things inflect how we see the world. I try to confess that process of skew and influence whenever possible, rather than pretending it doesn't happen.
As to your point about how I portray some of my particular subjects in this piece--specifically Gidge and Alicia--I certainly didn't want to portray anyone as wholly "broken," and hope I didn't, though of course--as with most acts of thinking, encounter, and interpretation--how someone might characterize the nature of my portraits is--as you point out yourself--somewhat subjective. (Many readers I've heard from certainly didn't read Gidge and Alicia as broken, for example.) I wanted to honor the ways pain and difficulty live alongside intimacy and generative creativity; and that's why the piece lands where it does--with the idea that what many people might call escapism is actually part of what it might mean to inhabit experience authentically.
Thanks for writing to me, here, though--it's an interesting question and helped me think about/interrogate my own process a bit. I appreciate that, and--as I did in our talk--your intelligence and sensitivity to nuance.

PS: For Curious...Do I roleplay? I never have, formally! Though I believe there is no version of living that doesn't involve playing at least five or six roles a day. So I live that plural selfhood as much as the next girl.


Hello Leslie,

thanx a lot for your article!

I wish more of these kind of writings would have been accessible in Europe around 2004 - as it definitely would have made me curious about Second Life which I unfortunately only visited recently.

My question to you:

After your experiences there - would you consider for yourself to build friendships or have a social life in virtual worlds?
And if (not) so - why (not)?

Best Wishes,


Hi Leslie,

I was told you look at comments this weekend & as Jo Yardley - my podcast co-host - and I gave our initial two cents on your story on the Drax Files Radio Hour last week I wanted to link to it:


We collected QUITE A FEW lengthy comments from listeners as well as protagonists from your story.

Critical stuff that was eye-opening to me and a bit dismaying as well, although I want to make clear that I don't lay my personal critique solely at your feet - I am aware that there is an editorial process going on and I am not a fan of the Atlantic to begin with so let's just acknowledge my bias right now!

Interestingly some commenters [like Jadyn and Tom] are also in my upcoming documentary film about disability and VR and I was taken aback that Tom was not even consulted for the piece as implied. Also disheartening Jadyn's perception that "juicy" details were asked for repeatedly and that somewhat out of context.

Anyways = please do chime in if you like [other readers of this blog as well of course] & my invitation to join us for a live taping of the show sometime still stands.

Tom Boellstorff

These comments are posted as well on the Drax Files Radio Hour and also on The Atlantic site itself.

On further reflection and after discussing your article with some Second Life residents (some of whose comments have unfortunately been deleted from your article’s Comments section), I wanted to briefly point out what are some pretty significant shortcomings of your article. I do appreciate all of the time you put into it. I also recognize the incredibly strong headwinds we face when writing about Second Life, because the misconceptions about virtual worlds and what people do in them are so significant. But for that very reason, three comments are in order:

1. Definitions matter. They set the stage for everything that follows in terms of what we write and think. (That is why, as you note in your article, I take so much care to define even terms like “afk.”) Because definitions are so important, it’s unfortunate that throughout your article you distinguish Second Life from “the real world.” From the moment you do that, on some level you might as well pack up your bags and go home, because you have assumed from the outset what you should be investigating. As your own reporting indicates, much of what happens in Second Life is real. (And by the way, on the flip side, not everything in the physical world is real, which is why we have things like Halloween and Hollywood). You see the damaging effects of this assumption throughout your article and they are picked up when, for instance, people comment that Second Life is “escapism.” (It might be escapism some of the time, but not for everyone, not all of the time. And can’t, say, going to a baseball game be escapism too?) We must remember that the Euro-American culture that dominates the tech world, there is a Christian metaphysics that assumes the physical is more real, as when Christ becomes flesh. (There is a reason why to say in English “that is immaterial” means not only it is not physical, but that it is unimportant.)

2. A related issue that should have been clearer to you, given the time you invested in your reporting, is that people use any technology in more than one way. So the fact that some people, some of the time, think of what they do in Second Life as escapist emphatically doesn’t mean it is a universal feature of Second Life. As one of my colleagues noted, this really shows up when you conclude that your “aversion to Second Life—as well as my embrace of flaw and imperfection in the physical world—testified to my own good fortune as much as anything. When I move through the real world, I am buffered by my (relative) youth, my (relative) health, and my (relative) freedom. Who am I to begrudge those who have found in the reaches of Second Life what they couldn’t find offline?” This is a deeply flawed claim. It is empirically, obviously wrong that not everyone who spends time in Second Life does so to escape or compensate for something they cannot find offline. That might be true for some people on occasion, but for the vast majority of residents, Second Life is additive not supplanting. It creates multiplicity, new possibilities in one’s life, rather than compensating for a lack. In fact, there are many (relatively) young, (relatively) healthy, and (relatively) free people who do not have an aversion to Second Life, yet have good fortune. Crucially, this includes many disabled residents of Second Life, since contrary to stereotype, not all disabled folks live a life of lack and misfortune. Your article simply gives us no way to understand experiences in Second Life that are not about compensating for a lack of what “good fortune,” and this is the vast majority of what happens inworld.

3. One reason for these and other shortcomings in your article is that while you seem to have spent a good amount of time in Second Life (and I appreciate that journalists always face deadlines and time limits), your understanding of the virtual world seems really limited. That seems to shape your “visceral distaste.” You state that you were “terrible at navigating Second Life,” but that is not an eternal fact: if you spent time inworld, then navigating would get easier. Additionally, as colleagues of mine have pointed out, you do not use (or seem to understand) basic terms like “prim,” or how residents build things inworld. That is probably why you talk about people choosing things “from a series of prefab choices,” when in fact those “prefab” items are built and sold (or given away freely) by other residents; it involves collaboration and creativity. It doesn’t seem that you ever built anything in Second Life, owned (or even rented) land, or participated in a community in any ongoing manner. The fact that your interaction with the virtual world was quite superficial seems to shape your rather superficial understanding of the virtual world. A limited understanding seems to also seems to be behind the contradiction that on the one hand you speak approvingly of “the grit and imperfection that make the [physical] world feel like the world,” yet speak disapprovingly of the errors and crashes you encountered in Second Life. That virtual grit and imperfection is also part of the online experience: it doesn’t indicate failure.

I hope these comments will prove helpful to the continuing conversation about virtual worlds, their potentials and dangers, and how they might contribute to our digital futures.

Sincerely, Tom Boellstorff
Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Irvine
Author: Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human


Leslie, now that you've trampled on the territory of some academics and threatened the livelihood of those with depend on SL's economy, can you see how the VR community isn't comprised of truly unique individuals anymore?

Thanks for your consideration.


on the virtual vs physical point raised

Philip Rosedale is right in the sense that we will opt out of time spent in the physical world for more time in the virtual world, for the reason he and Leslie touched on (agreed with broadly)

opting out is basically because we can. And because when we do, its like the cocoon effect. A way for us to avoid confrontations not of our own choosing. Something we are doing now even with 2D environments like Facebook, etc, Block/mute/private/circles/etc. Engagement with others, outside of our immediate families, more and more is becoming an option and not a necessity as in ages past

a recent example of this is Swift Life (not picking on it, just explaining how it works for its members). A world in which haters and trolls are not welcome. Not just muted but expunged from this life entirely

is this life a good thing ? For its members/citizens/residents yes. Yes for the most obvious reason that it works for them in the here and now. Is this good for all of humanity for the futures to come ? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe and most likely it doesnt matter much at all really

Second Life went through this as well when mainland trolling reached its zenith. Mainland trolling ended up not just muted, but expunged as well

why doesn't this matter much at all really ? The future of virtuality is not a singular event horizon, its a multiplicity of horizons. (technically the big S Singularity is the sum of the multiplicity but thats a whole other point)

the future; virtual, physical or otherwise, is always a multiplicity while human beings continue to have the basic capability to think and decide. A capability we will not forgo (or be dismembered from) any time soon, or in aeons either for that matter

while we do seem to consume enormous amounts of triviality in our daily lives, when in ages past has that never been true ? And despite all this we (humanity as a whole) are by and large far better off than at any time in the past. And in this respect there is nothing to suggest, despite what individuals today might choose to spend their time on, that the future of humanity will be any different from what it is now, and what it ever was

i think it can be easy to dismiss 3D as the sum of virtually. When 2D networks are far more virtual in scope, size and pervasiveness, in terms of our current engagement and interactions. When 3D views of our own online presence start appearing on our smart phones then we as people are just going to go oh! ok and carry on swiping our screens. No big deal. As its not about whats on our screen. Its about us, as it always is, was, and always will be


the ancient true since forever (which never changes regardless of every invention humanity ever came up with since the beginning time)

its not about delivering the world to us, it never has been. Its about delivering ourselves to the world on the ground of our own choosing and timing, it always will be

Bixyl Shuftan

Greetings, Leslie Jameson,

As someone whom has been writing about Second Life for ten years, seven under the Second Life Newser, I am still finding new people, places, and events here to write about. Hopefully you will be back for a follow-up article, such as about the Relay for Life in Second Life or Burn2.

Masami Kuramoto

Funny how the term "escapism" comes up and is looked down upon every time the topic is virtual worlds in general or Second Life in particular.

Here's something to consider: Unless you spend your life hunting, fishing, farming and crafting your own tools, clothes, weapons and shelters, you're indulging in escapism. Escapism is what made us leave our caves and tents behind for that air-conditioned apartment with flatscreen TV, broadband internet and a 7-Eleven around the corner. Escapism is the basis of our unique ability to first re-think and then re-shape reality. You need to know where you want to go before you start building the road.

Eme Capalini

Hi Leslie,

Thanks for the chance to ask questions!

I was wondering how long you were in SL before you wrote your article. Also, did you have a chance to customize your avatar? Did you build anything?

As I read your article I had the feeling of someone that stuck their head inside a snow globe and took a look around but never ventured much farther than that. You did a fine job of interviewing others about their SL but you never seemed to create one for yourself or try to understand why someone would want to.

I invite you to come back and try it again.

A. P.

You could have left the sappy, lopsided, "autism martyr mom" out of the article entirely. It skewed the entire article into yet another "disability is tragedy" and "here's how a saint keeps her sanity" POS that happens to mention an online world you do not understand.

SL is not escapism, parents of autistic people are not saints for merely existing, and you need to spend some serious time with each of the worlds of autistics and Second Life before you write another word about either of them. And yes, I said "autistics," not "autism parents". If you wouldn't spend time interviewing White people to learn about Black or Asian people, then don't ask non-autistic parents and "experts" about autistics.


Hi all,

Thanks for these responses--it helps me think about the piece from multiple angles, and I appreciate the energy and thought in them. I'm working with limited time, so I'll speak to as much as I can!

It's true that I was present in Second Life as a writer and journalist, not as someone going for a social experience--that's part of why I was so interested in talking to people who had sought and found intimacy and community in SL, more permanent residents of the snow globe! If I'd been offering a first-person account of a decade of SL residence, it would have been a different piece, written by someone coming from a different place; and I would love to read that piece! I found some of the blogs of my interview subjects fascinating for precisely that reason.

I also appreciate the questioning of "escapism" as an overly reductive term for a complicated, fascinating, and often adaptive or generative human impulse--I try to get at that very idea in the piece itself, but I agree that there is so much more to say about it.

And Tom, I appreciate your thoughtful response to the piece, and—as I say in the essay itself—found your research compelling and useful when I wrote it. What’s perhaps most fascinating to me about your response is the way in which so many of your critiques here actually paraphrase ideas that the essay itself articulates or wrestles with, rather than pointing out concerns it elided. I agree that people use technology in many different ways—the 20-something users I interviewed with certainly testified to that, and I represented as many of their experiences as the piece could feasibly hold—and the piece itself closes with the idea that “escapist” is too simple a word for what happens when people create alternate lives online, and with an interrogation of why we think of escape as somehow antithetical to presence, rather than thinking about the ways in which they are constantly in conversation. (You point out that we could call a baseball game escapist; I point out the ways we might think of art, drugs, smart phones, or daydreaming along similar lines.) I also wrestle explicitly with this very question of why one might think of the offline world as more “real”—cite Alice, for example, expressing frustration with the dichotomy between “real” and online experiences, and pose that very question near the end of the piece: Why do we consider the offline world more “real,” anyway?

That said, it’s clear we might come at questions of embodiment from different angles. I was interested in looking at how physicality and embodiment inflect our experience of intimacy and identity—and in that sense, there are some very real differences between digital and physical experience. I wanted to look at those differences. I love your point about how the Judeo-Christian tradition might bias us toward the physical as more “real”—I also think we live in human bodies, and those bodies matter. (For me, it feels more like the church of Virginia Woolf.) I also wanted to be upfront about my own visceral reactions to Second Life over the several months I spent there, confessing subjectivity rather than pretending to be a neutral observer—in that particular sense, perhaps, I was representing an experience of SL more akin to the 200,000 people who show up each month and leave, rather than those who stay. But that’s part of why I spent months talking to people who have set up shop long-term—to hear what they've found, and what it's like for them, how their experiences on SL are in conversation with their experiences offline. In your book, you lay out one methodology: looking at peoples’ Second Lives without reference to their offline lives. I was—quite simply—interested in something else, in looking at the relationship between Second Life and peoples’ offline lives. Many of the stories I found most compelling were the stories of people who found something in Second Life they couldn’t find in the physical world. That wasn’t pathological to me (or something I claimed was universal) just fascinating. I tried to honor the ways I found their experiences rich, complicated, and layered. Many readers I’ve heard from felt that complexity and humanity in the piece--Second Life users as well as people who had already dismissed Second Life without a second thought, before reading it—others didn’t. But I’ve found all the reactions--here and elsewhere--fascinating, and yours has certainly asked me to interrogate my own piece is useful ways, and have so many of the other comments on this thread—so thank you for that!

Bookworm Hienrichs

(I don't know if you're still reading these or not, but I thought I'd give it a try.)

I have to admit, your article came across to me as "Yet another journalist enters Second Life with preconceived notions, and does very little to find anything to dispel those notions." Second Life is many things to many people, but one of its aspects that it seems so many outsiders ignore is the sheer amount of creativity that finds an outlet there. Creativity in building (not just the so-despised nightclubs and mansions and pools and castles, but places (not just adult sims) that offer actual grit and imperfection), creativity in art, creativity in clothing, creativity in avatar appearance (not just sexually-oriented), creativity in roleplaying, etc., etc., etc.

There are plenty of blogs that offer pointers to finding these. I'd also highly recommend looking through the archives of the Second Life television show 'Designing Worlds.' (https://designingworlds.wordpress.com/)

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