In my extended family, the children (pre-teens) sign.
This isn’t because they are deaf – or include a deaf child. No, they have evolved sign as a secret meta-language in which they can serenely communicate, undisturbed, unheard and uncomprehended by adults.
It happens that a couple of the adults in the family can sign. One taught her very bright eight-year-old and he picked it up and ran with it, teaching it to his contemporaries across the family so that the younger cousinage, when they meet, can communicate. And, like most meta-languages, it has evolved to meet their needs. I’m not sure if people fully conversant with conventional BSL would be able to follow their evolved dialect – it serves its purpose in that none of the familial adults can.
Private generational communication has been an aspect of the evolution of social media (and perhaps one spoken about anecdotally, but less studied than other issues, such as online gender). Here’s a couple of examples.
Back in the day, we were all on Live Journal, chatting and sharing. A friend of mine would, occasionally, complain about her job. Then one day, she was shocked to read a helpful response from her aunt who had recently joined. And then, suddenly, a load of strange people started appearing, offering chirpy advice – and occasionally referencing the aunt. “Yes, dear,” said the aunt when questioned. “I told my bridge club. They’re all on Live Journal now – such fun! And I told them my niece had a wonderful Live Journal so they all friended you!”
Back to my family again … and a generation that was cheerfully sharing on Facebook had a Moment when they realised that parents were starting to make accounts – in order to share family info and gossip. The look of naked shock and horror when the young adults realised that aunts, uncles, parents … were there, in their play space, invading their cyberspace fun … well, it was quite something.
People looking at Second Life from the outside (especially journalists and doubly journalists working in the tabloid market) look at the avatars in Second Life and are fascinated by the gender choices of residents. The men who choose to explore their feminine side. The women who choose to take on a masculine role in a virtual world. Even in Second Life, apocryphal tales abound about the prevalence of Gorean slave girls with surprisingly gruff voices, or the discovery that this or that well-known Second Life Lothario is, in fact, female.
And let’s not even get in to the questions asked about people who choose to live their online lives as vampires, dragons, or children – and maybe cross-gender there too.
Suffice it to say that over the years, the question of gender in virtual worlds has formed the fodder for a wide variety of newspaper and magazine articles and several well-regarded academic studies in the wider world, some fascinating blog posts from inworld and a hideous amount of Outrage and Shock and Hurt on numerous twitter and plurk streams.
But one area that has been comparatively overlooked – and it’s one that I think has an important bearing on some of the problems that Second Life faces today (and some of its potential strengths that could ensure its longevity) is the demographic of age.
First of all, let me make one thing abundantly clear – this has nothing to do with avatar age as it is conventionally understood, with adults choosing to play juveniles.
This is about something quite different.
It was some years ago that Tateru Nino looked at the demographics and said that, given the preponderance of the demographic, skewed to over 35 and female, it was clear who was using Second Life – “It’s your mother.” And that hasn’t changed.
Let’s think about this …
You are a brilliant software engineer. You create – or help to develop – one of the most advanced and stunning game systems that exists. In many areas the capabilities of your product outstrips the top ranked and best selling computer games of all time. Cutting edge? You are so far the other side that the cutting edge is a flashing light on the horizon behind you. Be proud because you have made something so unique and exciting that it’s the favourite game for … your parents.
And when things go wrong – and, oh boy, do they go wrong – you have your parents on your back, or your aunts and your uncles and their bridge club … except it’s not a bridge club any more, because they’ve discovered Second Life and so it could be their night club or their sex club, or their dragon clan, or their pirate chapter or their very upmarket yacht club … but it’s their community and it’s going wrong so – Do Something About It, Young ‘Un!
As is often the case with avatar gender, many people know – it’s just not something that’s generally talked about. Occasional references give the game away: college aged children. Grandchildren. Sometimes even the fact that people have ample time for Second Life without the urgent need to make a living suggests … a period of life when the drive to support a growing family has passed – although this is not to discount other reasons why people may spend a large amount of time inworld.
And this is also not to say that everyone in Second Life is pulling down a pension – I doubt that many are. But there is a sizeable number of people who have followed the evolution of computer technology from the 1980s to the 2010s, and who have settled down in Second Life.
In marketing terms, these people are the grey panthers. They have leisure and disposable income. They also have energy and creativity in bucketloads – and it’s coupled with life experience. These people enjoy a Second Life because they can bring to bear a full First Life … and Second life gives them a chance to try something different. And they create wonderful things.
But, in computer terms, the obsession is always with the new.
Once, a group of us on our way to a holiday in Tuscany met up with an American couple. They expressed their dissatisfaction with much of what they had seen (they must have been a very unusual pair of American travellers in Europe – everyone else I have met adores it). When they were asked why, they looked disgusted and said, “It’s not new!”
That became the catchphrase of our holiday. Looking at the Duomo in Florence, the amazing pavement at the Cathedral in Sienna, the towers of San Gimignano, the central square of Volterra … we would exclaim: “It’s not new!” and collapse in fits of laughter.
Of course, an obsession with the new has long been a feature of every attempt to sell anything – and so too has the desire to acquire a new audience by appealing to the young, the hip, the cool.
But … what if Second Life wasn’t the place to attract a young audience? What if it was, instead, a perfect place for people of more mature years (with larger, if more shrewdly managed wallets)? What if Linden Lab should be luring not the young gamers of Steam, but another audience entirely?
This isn’t to suggest that Second Life should be slipping ads into Saga magazine and Retirement Planning Monthly and ignoring all other audiences. There are as many brilliant young designers in Second Life as there are more mature ones, and the same goes for event planning, sim ownership, club management etc. Targeting one particular audience at the expense of all others hasn’t worked so well in the past (remember the drive for the business customers, anyone?). But making Second Life more grey panther friendly (for example, making sure that the info hubs where newbies arrive aren’t packed with idiots shouting sexual abuse at each other) could certainly help. As would some thinking about grey panther friendly policies for residents. Because these residents have the capacity to be long stay, faithful customers.
Growing your business by constantly looking for the young, trend-setting demographic is one way forward. But there’s a very substantial business to be built on the discerning mature customer – ask any cruise line.
And yet … it’s not sexy (in so many senses of the word). It’s also not the way most Second Life users would want to be regarded – they are here, after all, to live a very different life. Ages ago, I made over a Second Life house for someone who told me, “Some friends came over to visit us, and said our house looked like it was created for a couple in their sixties. Well, actually, we are in our sixties – but we don’t want to be seen that way!”
So there is a demographic that loves Second Life, and whose participation in Second Life could probably be expanded. But … how to target them without alienating them? And is there any will at the Lab to sell the game to … well, their parents’ generation?
Perhaps it will remain Second Life’s little secret …