New Citizens International introduces newbies to SL

One of the most common things I hear about Second LIfe is that everyone here is very helpful. It’s true — avatars will go out of their way to give you a copy of something they’ve made, share their collection of landmarks, or show you how to get that box off your head. The desire to share information is particularly strong. Ellie, my avatar, tells me she thinks the whole virtual world is made up of would-be teachers.

Ellie’s an optimist — she overlooks the small but malevolent substrata of griefers that we all have to deal with — but I think, for the most part , she’s right. You might argue that because reputation plays such a strong role in SL society, avatars are always on the lookout to impress others. That would be true in part, but I’d also argue that the free exchange of information in SL just “feels right.” It promotes a healthy and open society.

Which makes me wonder what Steven Downes would say about all these would-be teachers. Downes’ explanation of connective knowledge is based on his very specific and somewhat eccentric definitions of the terms “network” and “group.” A group is homogeneous and hierarchical, closed to outsiders. It is therefore limited by the capacities of the dominant individuals who control and dispense knowledge. A network is a heterogeneous association of autonomous entities which depends on its connections to spread knowledge. Downes suggests that a network is like an ecosystem; distributed knowledge means that the failure of one part of the system can be compensated for by other parts of the system, and the knowledge that circulates in the system is more open to cross-fertilization of ideas.

As an ecofeminist, I’m a sucker for that kind of talk, but I’m still a little unsure of Downes’ terminology. You could certainly argue that the would-be teachers of Second Life are the connections in a very large network, and the cross-fertilization resulting from their exchanges results in a healthy social ecosystem. But Second Life also has groups. Some of these groups are quite open to outsiders – the librarians, for example: chummy but helpful. Other groups are closed only because their interests are narrow (few want to join a latrine-builders club). Still others develop a mystique around being a closed group, like the citizens of Gor. However, not all groups are hierarchical. I know there are feminist and other social justice groups where consensus-based action is of prime importance.

If groups can be open and non-hierarchical, it seems as if Downes’ terminology needs a little tinkering with. Do we need another term for “group” in the group/network comparison? Can a network contain groups? Consensus is easiest achieved in smaller, homogeneous groups. Can you achieve consensus in a network? Seems to me that the system is too dispersed to include everyone. How does the diverse nature of groups fit into the theory of connective knowledge?