When I joined Second Life, a little over a year ago, I was strictly an immersionist. For me, SL was a virtual world in which I could be anything I wanted to be. I kept in mind that other avatars with whom I interacted had real people with real feelings behind them, but I was interested only in dealing with them as fellow SL citizens. I didn't want anyone peeking behind my mask, and I wasn't interested in peeking behind anyone else's. Our world, our imagination—accent on "imagination."
SL for me was a world unto itself, a place separate from first life. Any of us could be anyone in first life—male, female, both, or neither; young, old, or in between; fat or thin, able-bodied or handicapped; having a hearing impairment or Asperger's Syndrome; a cabinet minister or a sanitation worker or a nurse or a student or a CEO; famous or unknown. Each of us had the opportunity to create our own persona (or personae, as was often the case), to build a reputation based on what we did and how we behaved in SL.
During my time in SL, more and more often I saw people for whom SL was an extension of their first life—"MySpace with an economy," as some wag put it. They wanted to create avatars that looked like themselves in first life. They quickly volunteered who they were and where they lived in first life and wanted such information in return. The addition of integrated voice to SL was only the latest thing strengthening the cause of augmentationism. People had already been having conversations with Skype anyway.
The line between first life and SL blurred. The freedom to be someone other than your first life self was eroded, and continues to be eroded. SL became a way for our first life selves to interact.
I railed against the ascendancy of augmentationalism, but a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. The social aspects of SL have always been of interest to me anyway, but I found that more and more I was interested in actual contact with some of the people I knew as avatars in SL. We still don't necessarily know each other's real names, and each of us has a choice as to how much of our first lives we reveal, but we're now in touch via e-mail and instant messaging and Twitter, and maybe even via telephone. I have not yet met anyone from SL in person, but that will happen, probably sooner rather than later.
I think part of the reason for this change is that I have made changes in my first life that make the fantasy aspect of SL less important to me. I still love the SL fantasy and the ability to live a different life, but it's not quite as vital as it once was. As well, I think there's a natural curiosity to want to know people better once you've been interacting for a while as avatars. The barrier between SL and first life starts to feel like an imposition. Finally, the sad tale is that I don't have many close friends in first life, for various and sundry reasons. My SL contacts have become important to me, as real people and not just as fantasy characters, even though most of them are far away.
There's never a gain without some loss. I kind of miss the days when SL was a complete fantasy world for me, when it was a total immersion thing. But since I've never treated it like a game, it was hard to continue to treat avatars like game players. I don't break the wall for just anyone. I continue to interact as my avatar with most other avatars, and to keep a distance from first life. But there are now exceptions to the immersionist rule. And even though something has been lost in the process, I really appreciate what I have gained.
Here's to "immersionism plus" and to my new friends.