New World Notes blog, which I think is one of the crucial resources for anyone interested in thinking about Second Life. (It's in my blogroll to the right.) Her latest post there is so interesting that I thought I'd refer you directly:
Does Second Life have a class system? Spoiler: "Yes."
It's a brief piece (citing the thoughts of SL designer Aranel Ah somewhere in Plurk; I don't Plurk) but I can sum it up more briefly. She says, does SL have a class system? Yes, and it's based on money and talent. If you have talent at something that is part of SL -- "build, design, script, perform, anything" -- then you will "gather a following". Since most people in SL conflate appearance with experience (and, in my experience, also with skill at using the tools), people who have money can experiment with their avs, buy expensive stuff and look great, and people do them the credit of thinking that they have the same kind of talent that talented people use to design their avs. So if you have either money or talent, you rise to the top of the system in SL. And if you have money AND talent, my extension goes, you rule it.
Now, I think there is a great deal of truth in this. I have met people who have both money and talent and, believe me, they are the ones who really are having fun in SL. Just because you have money doesn't mean you can't actually be talented at an art that is valued in Second Life. And, yes, people with talent are lionized in Second Life; people like to be around them because they do interesting things. People with money who put it into having a great-looking av and being a great host at a private sim -- believe me, people like to be around them too, even if they only manage to get a group of talented poor people to play with them ;-). Being "the host with the most" is a talent too, and a very pleasant one to have among your acquaintance.
Let me be clear; she talks about money and SL class at greater length than I have, and you should read the article. Iris Ophelia is not being a snob. She's a talented observer of virtual lifestyles and she says this is happening; it's not because she happens to benefit from it, since she's talented and smart and looks great, it's because it's really there. I know my American friends will insist loudly and at length that THEIR social structure contains no classes. "This is Amurrica! We don't have classes!!" My experience has been that they will then immediately proceed to detail the social class structure that rules their lives, in great detail, with great precision, and a subtle command of its finer points; they just won't call it a class structure. It's a "hierarchy" or "the natural order" or some such. I'll let them live with their dreams LOL.
The thing that interested me about the article, though, was something that Iris Ophelia either overlooked or assumed that everyone was on the same wavelength about. If you're on the top of the class system in SL, what is it that you get, or what happens, that is different from people at the bottom of the class system? Why would it be worthwhile to be of an upper class?
I took an inventory of what she actually said in the context. You will "separate yourself from the herd"; "gather a following". You will "move up the social ladder." Looking like an experienced player is a good thing; you will increase your "progress and status". "Other players are much less likely to write you off at first glance."
But I found a phrase that I think cuts to the heart of what she's getting at; you'll be able to "find your place". And I'm reassured by this; I think this is much more egalitarian than the caste-like system that I, and I'm sure some of my readers, immediately thought she might be suggesting.
If you "find your place", it means that you find your place among a group of people who are like you, whom you like, and whose company and pursuits you enjoy. This is not about a group of people being "better" than each other; this is a kind of sortation process. If you are a talented designer of virtual furniture or skins, you will enjoy hanging around with people who design virtual houses or tuxedos, to exchange information and share a common enjoyment. If you are a person of limited or fixed means who is looking for inexpensive ways to enjoy the game, you will enjoy hanging around with other such people to exchange information and share a common enjoyment. The problem in Second Life is to find other people who are like you.
In real life, this sortation process is helped by visual signals that are both unambiguous and universally understood. You have a BMW, she has a wheelchair, I have a Harley, and each of those things says something about the way we live. I'm not saying that those three people cannot understand each other or be sympathetic to each other's issues -- I'm merely saying that if you have a BMW and I have a BMW, or you have a wheelchair and I have a wheelchair, it will be worthwhile for us to get together socially. And I can see if you have a BMW or a wheelchair, or both. So I look for people who look like me and have the same physical trappings as I do.
In Second Life, the physical signals are changed by the nature of the environment. You may be a man in a wheelchair in RL, but in SL you can be an eight-foot goddess with hair to the floor who likes to wear ball gowns and go dancing. And many people in SL, as is perfectly their right, don't like to share information about RL. So how is someone to tell if you have a BMW, or a wheelchair, or a Harley, or a tractor, or a city bus?
Iris Ophelia seems to be saying that looking as little like a newbie as possible -- whatever that means -- will move you up the ladder. And at the top of the ladder are people with money, or people with talent, or people with money and talent. If that's what you're looking for in your virtual friendships, then I think she's saying you have to look like those people. You can either do that by spending a lot of money, or by figuring out how to achieve a hot look for less money. (People with talent do it all the time -- a teenage Madonna started fashion trends for things like rubber and leather jewelry that were copied by people who could have afforded diamond tennis bracelets.)
So what do people look like when they have money and talent? This circles back to a conversation I had in a club the other night with a stranger -- who had been in SL for less than a month. (I'm pretty sure English was not his first language.) He started talking to me, he said, because I looked different than most of the people in the room; I looked "complete". I was kind of kidding him along and said, "Well yeah, I have the usual number of hands and feet." "No, no," he said, "You look like SOMEBODY. Everybody else looks like ANYBODY." Well, of course, I was foolishly pleased and gave him the LMs for some really good skin shops where he could start the process of looking like somebody. Bless his pixels, he's on the right track, and he gave me the way to express it. Looking like a newbie means you look like anybody. Looking like an experienced resident means you look like somebody.
So I've taken Iris Ophelia's clever observation one step further. There is a class structure in Second Life, and it's worth knowing where you fit in it. If you do, then you will find other people who are like you, who will become your friends, and who will increase your enjoyment of Second Life. And the way to give people signals as to where you fit into it is -- look like yourself, and look like somebody. I'm currently doing that by paying very little attention to what most of the people in bars look like; I'm trying to create a personality that is distinctive and that you can figure out by looking at me. Then other people who are the same class as me will find me, and I'll find them. And we all will have more fun!