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Virtual Worlds: An Ethnomusicological Perspective

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter investigates the coconstruction of musical identities among audiences and performers in the virtual world of Second Life. Within this digital environment, musicians, rendered as digitally constructed avatars, perform “live” concerts in front of audience members, each represented by their own avatar. Through an ethnographic account of live music performances in Second Life, including interviews with musicians and audience members, this chapter will explore the layered identities of Second Life participants as they socially construct their digital avatar personas within the virtual world. Musical personas of Second Life participants, like real-world identities, are constantly in flux and incomplete, and are constructed in the process of musical performances. Musical avatars, both of musicians and audiences, are thus complex intersubjective and intrasubjective mediators of the meaningful sociomusical experiences that draw participation into virtual worlds.

Keywords: Virtual worlds, Second Life, musical personas, identity, avatars, ethnography

One Wednesday night, while searching for live music performances in the virtual world of Second Life, I walked into MJ’s Blues and Dance Club, a live music venue that billed itself as a “Classic Rock-n-Roll, Blues, Jazz, and All Around Good Time Entertainment Establishment.” Looking around the digitally constructed room from the perspective of my avatar—my computer-rendered, human-like body that indicates my presence and place within the virtual world—I observed the club was a spacious hall boasting a large dance floor and two stages. One stage, outfitted with turntables and other equipment for DJs, was empty, but on the other stage stood Ictus Belford, a thirty-something male avatar, who was wearing blue jeans, a long-sleeve T-shirt, and sneakers (see figure 23.1). As Ictus sang Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” accompanying himself on his acoustic Takamine guitar, the audience of about 20 avatars chatted (via text messages) and danced, occasionally adding Linden Dollars (Second Life currency) to Ictus’s tip jar, which sat conspicuously at the front of the stage. Covering the wall behind Ictus were pictures of other virtual-world musicians who have performed at MJ’s, a testament to the club’s prominence in the live music scene of Second Life. After singing several cover tunes, Ictus introduced one of his own original compositions:

I’m going to do a song I wrote. It’s about Second Life and my first few days’ experience in this wild, wild world. This song is called “No More Real Life.”

Virtual WorldsAn Ethnomusicological Perspective

Figure 23.1 Ictus Belford performing at MJ’s Blues and Dance Club.

There was an immediacy to Ictus’s voice, similar to the intimate sound of a closely miked radio DJ, that suggested a closer proximity between our avatars in the digitally constructed space than was visually evident and that did not at all match the cavernous appearance of the club. This discrepancy between what I was seeing and what I was hearing was perhaps even more pronounced because of the artificial reverb that was (p. 379) added to Ictus’s vocals. As with his voice, there was a clarity and presence to the acoustic, steel-string guitar, suggesting the utilization of a piezoelectric pickup device that allows a guitar to be plugged directly into a personal computer. Indeed, as I sat in my bedroom in Florida, controlling my avatar with my mouse and keyboard while peering into my computer screen, Ictus was more than a thousand miles away in Oklahoma, singing into a microphone connected to his computer, which projected his voice and guitar in real time through an Internet-based audio-streaming channel into the virtual club where our avatars stood separated only by the short rise of the virtual stage upon which his avatar was performing.

Live music performances, such as the one described above, are common events within Second Life; multiple clubs and venues feature live musicians or DJs at any hour of the day (or night), any day of the week. Within these venues, participants dance, sing, and converse, mirroring “real-world” music-oriented sociality. To an ethnomusicologist like me, interested in lived musical experiences, live music concerts in Second Life present a compelling environment for investigating how musical phenomena play an important part of meaning-making in the social life of virtual-world participants. The temporality of music and the physical nature of sound (concepts further discussed in Knakkergaard, chapter 24 in this volume) are critical issues in understanding the vital role of musical activities in virtual worlds. By exploring the manifestation of “virtual” concerts within an avatar-based virtual world, I seek to understand how musicians and audiences experience “liveness” in the context of computer-mediated, digital environments. I posit that the value placed on live performances within Second Life suggests a particular efficacy to aurality in actualizing social relationships within virtual space such that real-time (p. 380) musical performances serve to bridge “virtual” and “actual” experiences in so-called “virtual worlds.”

Music in Virtual Worlds

Second Life is a graphically rich, user-designed environment within which human participants interact via avatars. To even the most casual observer, music plays a central role in the social life of Second Life participants. The immense importance of music to the design, marketing, and user experiences in virtual worlds is evident from the proliferation of music-themed virtual worlds throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century. From massively multiplayer online social games (e.g., Popmundo) to 3D digital spaces for social listening (e.g. 3DJay and MixM8), music-oriented virtual worlds attract users into online environments through attempts to draw out meaningful sociomusical participatory action.

Participants in virtual worlds such as Second Life tend to divide musical sounds into two broad categories: (1) “live” music, meaning music that is controlled in real time by human actors and streamed into the digital space with minimal latency; and (2) nonlive, preprogrammed music. Live music events, as defined by Second Life participants, include not only live musicians, whose offline performances are simultaneously streamed into the virtual world, but also DJs, who generally play commercially released, prerecorded music, but socially interact with their virtual-world audience in real time as they select, introduce, and play back recordings. Nonlive musical sounds include constant music streams established by owners of land parcels as a soundtrack for their virtual space. The employment of such ambient music provides soundscapes to the user-constructed landscapes of Second Life, much the way that background music is used in shopping malls, elevators, and other public and commercial spaces. While the sources of both live and ambient music are located outside of Second Life and streamed into the virtual world via third-party audio streaming services such as SHOUTcast, users have also created virtual musical instruments, allowing avatars to simulate musical performance not only through the animation of the avatar, but also by scripting the automatic playback of musical sound associated with that instrument (see figure 23.2). While these various categories of musical experience within virtual worlds utilize different technologies for enacting musical performances, they each articulate ways in which musical behavior affects perceptions of being “in” the virtual world. Of these categories, however, only live music performances are conceived of as social events—circumscribed times and spaces defined as socially interactive gathering places for participant avatars.

Virtual WorldsAn Ethnomusicological Perspective

Figure 23.2 The author (known as Collyier Heberle in Second Life) playing a Bach prelude on the virtual pipe organ at Balboa Park, San Diego.

As with the many text-based virtual worlds, or Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), that preceded it (see Curtis 1996; 2001), Second Life stands apart from other graphically rich virtual worlds in that the software developers endowed Second Life with no specific purpose or meaning for the users. While World of Warcraft, Entropia Universe (which includes the music-themed Rocktropia), and many other 3D-rendered, avatar-based (p. 381) virtual worlds were conceived and developed as games with predetermined goals and achievement-based rewards, Second Life offers no such goal-oriented purpose for its users. This distinction is clearly articulated in both personal conversations and published reports, where Second Life participants repeatedly and adamantly reject the suggestion that they are playing a “game” (see, for example, Boellstorff 2008; Kirkpatrick 2007). Thus, Second Life participants create meaning for their own existence by engaging in social practices connected to or extending from their “real life” interests. Live music concerts, which are among the most popular attractions in Second Life, often serve to draw participants toward, and provide an environment for social engagement, leading to the development of a rich and active musical culture within the virtual world.

Ethnomusicology and Digital Culture

The founding of ethnomusicology as a discipline in the middle of the twentieth century brought a “new emphasis upon the relationship of music to culture” and institutionalized a branch of musicological research whose focus was not so much on the “definition of music styles…[but on] an understanding of music as a human phenomenon” (Merriam 1960, 107–108). In pursuit of this goal, Alan Merriam, a founding member of the discipline of ethnomusicology, sought to distinguish the existing humanistic focus (p. 382) on musical works (product) from the social-scientific concern of human behavior and social activity (process) (1964). The process of music-making by human actors, rather than the resulting art-object of musical production, continues to be a central focus for ethnomusicological research today.

As Merriam and others sought to establish ethnomusicology as an academic discipline in the 1950s, they saw their efforts as an evolution of cross-cultural musicological research that had been going on for more than half of a century. The emergence of ethnomusicology as a social-scientific practice around the turn of the twentieth century was a response to new research in acoustics, developments in audio engineering, and the evolution of recording technology (for example, see Ellis 1885; Gilman and Fewkes 1891; Hornbostel and Sachs 1914). Throughout the twentieth century, these areas of techno-scientific knowledge—and the musical machines developed therefrom—became increasingly vital in defining and determining the research activities of Western ethnomusicologists who continued to focus on traditional (i.e., technologically “primitive”), non-Western cultures. Criticizing what he identified as colonial practices and attitudes related to the technologically privileged position of ethnomusicologists, René Lysloff (1997) called for an “ethnomusicology of technoculture” to expand critical engagement with music-cultural practices in relation to media and information technology. Still, the study of new technologies pertaining to sociomusical life within emergent digital cultures has only recently received some attention within the field of ethnomusicology (see Miller 2012). By applying an ethnographic lens to musical activity in Second Life, I hope to raise awareness of the relationship between sociomusical life and Internet-oriented digital technology within virtual worlds and, on a more general level, foreground important ways of conceptualizing musical performance and participation within our twenty-first-century, digitally mediated experiences.

Experiencing the “Virtual” in Virtual Worlds

After introducing his song “No More Real Life” during his set at MJ’s Blues and Dance Club, Ictus began to strum his guitar in a medium-slow tempo. Starting on a D-major chord and then moving to a D-minor chord, Ictus produced an unexpected shift in tonality that, together with the relatively slow pacing of the song, presented a sense of ambiguity to the listener. The unsettled harmonic quality of the guitar part seemed fitting, an appropriate accompaniment to his descriptive lyrical retelling of his initial experiences in the disembodied realm of Second Life and the complex relationship between online experiences and offline perceptions of virtual worlds (see Weblink: Audio 23.1):

  • I was sitting at my desktop looking at this cartoon girl
  • She was telling me she wants to give this Second Life a whirl
  • (p. 383) Wondering what the hell I was doing here
  • Oh my God, I’m flying somewhere
  • No more real life
  • I want my second life
  • No more real life
  • Gotta have my second life

Initiation narratives that communicate the difficulties and wonderment that new participants experience when entering a virtual world for the first time are commonly shared both within and outside of Second Life. In the opening paragraph of his monograph, Coming of Age in “Second Life,” anthropologist Tom Boellstorff compared his initial experience with Second Life to the classic Malinowskian ethnographic description of entering the field:

Imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village while the launch or dinghy which has brought you sails away out of sight. You have nothing to do, but to start at once on your ethnographic work….This exactly describes my first initiation into field work in Second Life.

(Boellstorff 2008, 3)

Indeed, entering Second Life for the first time is a strange and disorienting experience. After choosing a name (which also serves as a username for logging in to the Second Life servers), a new resident must then create her avatar, the digitally rendered body that represents the participant’s being within the virtual space and the agent through which she interacts with that world. Special computer code, known as a physics engine, establishes the laws and constraints by which the movement and interaction of digital bodies within virtual space must abide. This visually based simulation of physicality underlies the conceptualization of virtual worlds as “immersive” environments. Such immersion, however, is often disrupted as a new resident develops an understanding of the “physical” presence of her own body (or avatar) in reference to other digital objects. Learning to control the avatar’s movement in space, through the arrow keys on the computer keyboard, can be a difficult and frustrating process. The shortcomings of the computer keyboard as a fluid human-computer interface are readily apparent as the new resident struggles to orient herself within the virtual space, creating a rupture between self and physical environment, and avatar and virtual environment. The disorienting experience described by Boellstorff is reaffirmed by Ictus in the second verse to “No More Real Life”:

  • And then she said I needed hair
  • Well, I was thinking: who cares
  • I hadn’t been here just a day or two
  • Since I got into this room I can’t find my way out of here

In both of these examples, Boellstorff and Ictus focus on the ocularcentric manifestations of being within Second Life—they perceive and interpret their virtual experience as a visually simulated world. Indeed, it is this visual representation of intended actions (p. 384) (or perhaps even more so, unintended actions) that accentuates the disembodied nature of living in a digital environment and distinguishes virtual worlds like Second Life from other socially oriented networked spaces (Krotoski et al. 2009). This ocularcentric environment accentuates the sense of disembodiment within virtual worlds, where computer-generated objects, including one’s very own avatar, always remain exterior to one’s bio-physical body. Thus, the term “virtuality,” generally understood to mean “almost” or a “simulation,” is commonly used to describe social life and interaction in “virtual worlds.”

These common discourses of virtual reality suggest an experience that is separate and distinct from our “real lives,” a space in which fantastical desires may be played out in ways impossible or improbable in the “real world.” There are certainly elements to Second Life that support this perspective of the virtual: as Ictus sings in the first verse of his song, “Oh my God, I’m flying somewhere.” Further investigation, however, reveals that the virtual is not separate from, but rather embedded within, “real life” experiences, and musical performance can play a vital role in actualizing virtual-world experiences. As I endeavor to articulate the relationship between the virtual and the actual within live music performances in Second Life, I follow Steve Woolgar in his call for developing “a much more sophisticated appreciation of the relations between online and offline” (2002b, 8). In the introductory chapter to his edited volume, Virtual Society? (2002a), Woolgar offers “five rules of virtuality” as analytic tools for investigating the relationship between virtuality and actuality. One of these rules, in particular, deserves mention in relation to Second Life live music events, namely that virtual technologies supplement rather than substitute for real activities.

Live Music Concerts in Second Life

Ictus was initially drawn to Second Life for social, not musical, reasons. “I hated it,” Ictus said to me when describing his initial experience with Second Life. Controlling his avatar, his virtual body, was frustrating, as was the increased demand on computing power and Internet bandwidth, causing lag (temporal delays) inherent in such graphically rich, but geographically distributed, environments.

  • I couldn’t move too quick, just like a walking stick
  • She called it lag, I thought, “It’s more like a drag”
  • And then she crashed and left me standing there
  • All alone holding her bag
  • No more real life
  • I want my second life.

Soon, however, Ictus discovered the live music scene and began playing concerts. Five years later, despite his initial frustrations, Ictus maintains a permanent residence in a contemporary house on a private island, all paid for by his earnings (p. 385) (mostly from tips) as a musician in Second Life. While none of the songs in his repertoire are as reflexive of the Second Life experience as his song “No More Real Life,” this song is indicative of Ictus’s attempt to bridge the “virtual” and “actual” through musical expression in Second Life. Through this song—or more specifically, through live performances of this song for audiences of avatars—Ictus expresses not only the disjuncture of disembodied experiences in virtual worlds but a desire to actualize his virtual-world experiences.

According to anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, the term “virtual” has undergone “an intriguing metamorphosis from the concrete to the abstract” (Strathern 2002, 305). The root word from which “virtual” descends, “virtue,” which references the qualities and essence of a thing, has been overshadowed by emphasizing the visual simulations of virtual worlds. Unlike the physical separation experienced through digitally based visual simulation, the materiality of digitally processed and distributed sound via performances by musicians such as Ictus is reconstructed “live” and literally embodied through the process of hearing. Thus, the sonic aspect of live music concerts is one of several actualizing mechanisms for Second Life audiences.

Within the context of virtuality, we may understand actuality as two closely related concepts: the first, informed by the French word actualité, implies that actuality is something that exists now, something that is current; and the second indicates that that which is actual emerges through action—suggesting an active process to actualization. Thus, while Second Life participants may experience disembodied distantiation from the virtual world in which their avatar resides, musical participation can serve to transcend this separation by actualizing the social experience—an active practice of making technologically mediated sociomusical processes current and more immediate. The issue of immediacy in establishing privileged modes of communication (e.g., face-to-face speech versus written communication versus computer-mediated electronic messaging) has a long history in communication studies (see Sterne 2003). More recently, however, scholars have challenged assumptions that communication involving a lower degree of technical complexity is any less mediated than communication within networks of digital devices (see Inoue 2003).

For Second Life participants, live concerts offer a certain amount of temporal immediacy between performers and audience members. The simultaneity of social action allows musicians to simulate familiar experiences of playing for audiences in “real life.” The musicians I have met in Second Life did not perform first in a virtual world, but rather had offline experience performing on stage in front of audiences before discovering the possibility of live concerts in virtual worlds. Accustomed to conventional behaviors of audiences in relation to their performances (e.g., clapping), the natural inclination for these musicians was to expect certain responses from the avatars attending virtual-world performances, leading to a comparison of their online performances to offline experiences.

In an interview by Slim Warrior on the Metaverse TV show Amped Up, Damien Carbonell discussed the mental shift musicians encounter when moving from offline performance venues to computer-mediated virtual worlds.1 Slim Warrior (aka (p. 386) SlimGirlFat), herself an active musician in virtual worlds and other online spaces, asked Damien to relate how the “buzz” musicians get from performing in front of “real life” audiences compares to live performances in virtual worlds. For Damien, the lack of aural feedback from the audience was perhaps the biggest barrier to perceiving temporal immediacy between himself and the audience:

It takes some getting used to—going from a real stage and then going to the virtual world where you can’t really read the audience because you don’t hear the clapping, you don’t hear if they’re holding full-length conversations with each other mid-song and not listening to you, you know, you don’t really hear all of that. So, at first it kind of feels like nobody’s paying attention because you can’t hear anything and you’re so used to hearing the crowd. But after you adjust and kind of figure out how to tell if people are enjoying themselves and things like that then, yeah, you can really get a buzz off of it.

The “buzz” sought by musicians in live performance situations cannot be simulated in virtual worlds; it must arise from actual sociality within that space. For musicians, such as Damien, developing modes of sociomusical interaction between audience members and performers in virtual worlds is crucial to the viability of “live” performances in digital space. Understanding and manipulating multimodal communicative action in virtual worlds—the aural, visual, and textual—is crucial to successful live performances. As Damien explained to Slim Warrior in the same interview:

And it is that multi-tasking thing where, you know, perhaps in a live performance you’re not listening to what they’re talking about, but with Second Life you’re actually reading what people are saying and it gets you a chance to be…you know, it becomes a little more personal because you’re recognizing people’s names.

You know, what I think it does also, it gets your fans and your support a chance to get to know you through your music on a far more personal level than if you were doing a [real-life] gig.

That’s something I’ve enjoyed a lot about Second Life is the more personal feel to it. That’s why when I started doing it I kept saying, over and over again, that I’m not putting on a concert, you know, I’m doing a show. There’s a whole different atmosphere to it. It’s more like I want people to feel like we’re sitting around a campfire jamming. You know, I don’t want people to feel like they’re looking at me on an untouchable stage 20 feet away. It’s a whole different atmosphere.

The desire to create social settings aimed at enhancing or enabling the development of intimate social interactions within virtual worlds is frequently expressed by musicians in Second Life. Just as in mainstream popular music, virtual-world songs often serve as a vehicle for relating romantic encounters and exploring the meaning of such relationships, as demonstrated in Ictus’s “No More Real Life.” Having watched friends engage in online romance, another Second Life musician, Rich Desoto, wrote “Avatar Girl,” a song in which he remarks upon the development of romantically inclined intimate (p. 387) relationships that sometimes follow the “hyperpersonal” (Walther 1996) social interaction possible within virtual worlds (see Weblink Audio 23.2):

  • I’m in love with an avatar girl
  • She looks so good in this virtual world
  • I watch her dance, I watch her talk with her friends
  • And when she can she cuddles up with me again
  • I’m in love with an avatar girl
  • Doo n’ doo, doo n’ doo doo doo
  • I’m in love with an avatar girl
  • What is this place I have fallen in to?
  • So many things here that I can do…
  • When I arrived it seemed oh so strange
  • But something kept me coming back again
  • Doo n’ doo, doo n’ doo doo doo
  • I’m in love with an avatar girl

My point here is not to sensationalize social interaction within virtual worlds by focusing on romantic affairs, but rather to establish the actuality of intimacy experienced in virtual worlds. Like Damien, Rich believes that live music performances in virtual worlds can provide an opportunity for close interaction among performers and audiences. In a personal interview I conducted with Rich, he explained how playing for offline audiences differs from virtual-world audiences and the benefits he finds as a performer to the modes of social engagement offered in the digital realm:

As you can tell probably from my show this morning, I like to really interact [with the audience]. And there’s maybe times where I want to just go into a musical vamp so I can do that interaction and respond to the chat or talk about specific event items or…the hostesses or the people in the audience…And there’s a lot to be said about how your audiences and the people that interact with you understand you as a performer and you as a person…What I don’t get…I don’t get the facial expressions and the nuances from body language, but I do get the comments and…I think we don’t often as musicians get that in real time. By the time the feedback comes, it’s in the event of, you know, a letter or an e-mail or a lack of sales or…it’s always a residual feedback, but this is an immediate…like you said, more intimate.

Rich’s statement on immediacy here is not merely an observation of the temporal compression made available via communication technology, but also speaks to a social intimacy that challenges our assumptions of virtuality as a highly mediated, technical process. Damien expressed it this way:

I get touched a lot when I’m playing shows, especially when I’m playing an original [song] and there’s people out there typing the lyrics to a song that I wrote in local chat. It’s very touching.

(p. 388) Actualizing Online Sociality through Virtual Musical Participation

Back at MJ’s Blues and Dance Club, where I first encountered Ictus, he was not the only one performing on stage during his set. He was accompanied by Carrie Laysan, his then Second Life wife and manager—and the inspiration of the song “No More Real Life.” In her performances with Ictus, Carrie did not produce audible music; rather she would “sing” in (text) chat, while her avatar strummed her psychedelic “spork”—a multicolored, guitar-shaped instrument modeled after the hybrid spoon-fork utensil (see figure 23.3).

Virtual WorldsAn Ethnomusicological Perspective

Figure 23.3 Ictus Belford, guitar, and Carrie Laysan, spork, performing at Crystal Sands.

As an audience member at concerts featuring Ictus accompanied by Carrie, only Ictus’s guitar and voice were streamed into the virtual-world music venue and relayed by my computer speakers. But both Ictus’s and Carrie’s avatars stood on stage, strumming their associated virtual instruments. Despite not producing actual sound, Carrie played an active and important role in actualizing the social experience at Ictus’s live concerts, typing the lyrics to the songs in the chat as Ictus sang them. At times, Carrie’s “backup vocals” enticed audience members to participate, and they, too, would “sing” along with the song in chat. When I asked Carrie how she started this process of virtual “musicking” (Small 1998) she explained: (p. 389)

It started with me typing lyrics. I’ve always kinda just sung in chat along with him, just not all of the words. [Ictus] had several fans who were Korean…well, Korean and [from] other countries…but a couple of the Koreans thanked me [after the show] because they said they could understand better when I typed the lyrics.

So, I dunno, I just hopped on stage one day and said I was gonna play backup…and sing backup, and then when people started asking me to type the lyrics—more and more people asked me to type lyrics—I did. More and more. And then people started expecting me to get on stage and type. It feels weird to be “singing” from the audience. So then I asked [a friend] to make my spork pretty since I was using it so much.

Carrie’s participation within the context of Ictus’s concerts again raises questions about liveness, virtuality, and the nature of musical performance. The “virtual musicking” of Carrie’s avatar, however—what we may perceive as a representation of musical performance—is hardly different from the simulated musical movements of Ictus’s avatar. The actions of both avatars fall within what Kiri Miller calls “schizophonic performances” (Miller 2009). Building upon R. Murray Schafer’s concept of “schizophonia,” a “nervous” term he employed to emphasize “the split between an original sound and its electroacoustical transmission or reproduction” (Schafer 1977, 90), Miller utilizes “schizophonic performances” to characterize what Philip Auslander describes as musical practices “in which the visual evidence of performance [has] no relation to the production of sound” (Auslander 1999, 86). As a technologically mediated musical experience, schizophonia arises in response to the “socially and historically produced…categories of the live and the recorded [that] are defined in a mutually exclusive relationship” (Wurtzler 1992, 89). Generally accepted conceptions of “liveness,” Steve Wurtzler explains, depend upon both temporal simultaneity and spatial copresence, as opposed to the temporal anteriority and spatial absence of recordings.

Liveness within Second Life, however, is not only conceptualized along conditions of spatial and temporal relationships between musician and audience, but is also understood as a socially interactive process of musical—not necessarily sonic—communication that may be extended to Carrie’s performative practices. Through her performances, Carrie mediated social interaction among audience members and between the audience and Ictus. Carrie’s role as a Second Life musician reveals not an “almost” musician nor the “simulation” of musical behavior, but rather the exhibition of virtual musicianship as an extension of the virtue of sociomusical activity into live music settings in Second Life.

Within the virtual world of Second Life, the animated actions of digital bodies can have an actualizing effect. Drawing upon Deleuze’s ideas of virtuality and actuality, William Echard argues that there are multiple activities of musical practice that offer “devices for building sensitivity to [and perhaps actualize] the virtual” (Echard 2006, 10). Just as Ictus’s real-life guitar serves to “actualize music as sound” (2006, 11), Carrie’s spork and textual “singing” are technological apparatuses that provide a means of actualizing the avatar as a musician. Similarly, the textual chatting and animated dance moves of the audience’s avatars help to actualize their participatory role in this sociomusical event.

“I love the audience participation!” Carrie told me.

“Do you [ever] find it intrusive?” I asked. (p. 390)

“Nooooo. Noooo, I love it! I love being a part of the show and getting [the audience] into it.”

“You see in real life, bands stop playing and let the audience sing,” Ictus added. “Do you know what a thrill that is for that band?”

Carrie continued, “Sometimes he plays a chord and I type the lyrics to the first line of the song and…Bam, they go nuts!”


Virtual worlds such as Second Life function as important environments for Internet-based social interaction. As our daily lives, both personal and professional, become increasingly enmeshed in digitally mediated sociality, virtual worlds, I believe, can provide insight for understanding how music and aurality fit into our contemporary musical world. Linden Lab, the developer and owner of Second Life, established a relatively open platform that not only allowed users to create the simulated, 3D environment in which they interact, but also empowered Second Life residents to derive meaning from their own participatory practices—a digitally rendered analog to so-called “real life.” Lacking a predetermined, goal-oriented purpose, Second Life participants derive significance for their virtual existence through social interaction.

Second Life residents are not living in a parallel world separate from the “real world” in which we have actual experiences, but rather, as suggested by Woolgar, physical and virtual activities are integrally connected. For Second Life avatars, sociomusical participation is embedded in “real life” as much as it is a part of the virtual world in which the live music event is taking place. As one audience member at a concert I attended said: “Nothing like listening to Ictus and doing the laundry.”

Live music events in Second Life are a social space in which interpersonal relationships are actualized and individual avatars negotiate the simultaneity of their social identity as both online and offline social actors. The embodied nature of musical experience creates an immediacy for social interaction that transcends typical assumptions about the virtuality of computer-mediated communication through the realization of meaningful social participation.


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                                                (1) . Slim Warrior’s interview with Damien Carbonell was broadcast on Episode 4 of Amped Up and is available at