Avatars Are For Real: Virtual Communities and Public Spheres

Eiko Ikegami, Piet Hut

Abstract


Using the historical example of Tokugawa Japan (1603-1867), we point out how artistic circles provided a “virtual world,” a kind of early modern “second life.” This world gave their participants the opportunity to escape from the vertical, hierarchical, feudal structure through the creation of horizontal public spheres, in loosely coupled networks based on the strength of weak ties. In an often playful way, these aesthetic circles provided alternative forms of sociability to premodern Japanese people. This in turn had a serious impact on the formation of political modernity in Japan. We explore parallels with the virtual world of Second Life. There, too, new public spheres are being carved out, in equally playful and largel apolitical ways, that may yet have profound and unforeseen consequences for society at large. We illustrate our analysis with two novel examples of communicative spheres in Second Life, the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics and a broadly interdisciplinary initiative called Play as Being. In conclusion, we see the need for a theoretical revision of the notion of “public sphere” beyond its conventional usage. As the virtual worlds of Tokugawa, Japan and Second Life illustrate, the strength of weak-tie networks can form the basis for public spheres in a surprisingly large spectrum of times, locations and cultures.

Keywords


virtual worlds, virtual communities, Second Life, Tokugawa, Japan

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The full website for the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research can be found at: http://jvwresearch.org