Editorial: Will Facebook Horizon Succeed If You Can’t Be Anybody But Yourself? (What Fourteen Years of Second Life Has Taught Me)

If anybody had told me, at the start of my 14-year Second Life journey, that my main avatar (the one I use the most) would be a woman, I would have laughed my damn head off. It would have never even occurred to me that I could be a woman. When I started off, I created an avatar that, more or less, looked like me, dressed like me…was me. The first two alts I created were also male (here’s an old picture of the three of them, way back in 2007, gathered around a cozy pixel campfire):

My first three SL avatars: Heath Homewood, Morden Winkler, and Notecard Writer

And yet, almost fourteen years later, here I am, Vanity Fair, wearing a slinky new ombre dress I picked up at ViSion with the free L$300 gift card available from their booth at the seasonal Shop and Hop (which ends tomorrow, by the way, so hurry down to pick up the fabulous freebies!), elegantly sipping coffee from my limited-edition Lab Gab mug (thanks, Xiola and Strawberry!) and sedately listening to the tunes at the new, upstart Frank’s Jazz Club…and dressed to kill, honey! 😉

Which got me to thinking.

Second Life has been an unparalleled opportunity for literally hundreds of thousands—even millions—of people over the past 16 years, to step outside their own skins and become somebody else for a day, a week, a month, a year…or forever.

At various times in the past, I have been (and sometimes still am):

  • a medieval lute and harp player, serenading fantasy roleplayers in drafty stone castles and at jousting tournaments
  • an urban angel with a neon halo, dressed in black from head to toe, patroling the mean streets
  • a six-year-old girl with a teddy bear, who skips everywhere she goes
  • a very prim and proper 1950s housewife (complete with pearls!)
  • a Chinese emperor—and a Chinese empress!
  • Britney Spears (“It’s Britney, bitch”)
  • Cher, surrounded by an army of animated cockroaches, belting out “If I could turn back tiiime…If I could find a waaay…” on an endless loop, as she wanders various post-apocalyptic worlds in Second Life! (Uhhhm, that would be Cher singing, not the cockroaches—although that would be pretty funny, too!)
  • a satyr
  • a stripper for cash tips (link is safe for work)
  • a fat cop who likes to hang out at donut stops
  • a plus-size female model
  • Queen Elizabeth I in full regalia
  • Elvis Presley (complete with white sequin jumpsuit, microphone and wearable spotlights!)
  • a male moon fairy—and a female fairy godmother!
  • a flaming phoenix
  • a gypsy fortune teller (complete with crystal ball)
  • a very old man in a Hugh-Hefneresque smoking jacket, puffing away contentedly on his pipe
  • a 1960s hippie chick
  • Ennis Del Mar (and Jack Twist!) from Brokeback Mountain
  • a male Na’vi warrior from Avatar
  • a Victorian parlourmaid (whom I like to stick in rather unexpected places like clubs and stores, where she busily dusts and vacuums)
  • a Johnny-Depp-lookalike pirate with a parrot on his shoulder
  • a Japanese geisha
  • Marilyn Monroe
  • a vampire
  • Mary Poppins (complete with levitating umbrella and carpetbag, she once memorably dive-bombed an S&M orgy in Second Life while staying completely in character!)
  • a Bollywood movie star
  • Michael Jackson
  • a goth girl who only wears three colours: black, white, and red
  • a mermaid
  • Paris Hilton (“the Paris Hilton of Second Life” from that long-ago CSI:NY episode)
  • an Afro-Canadian woman
  • an Indigenous/First Nations Canadian woman
  • a white-haired old woman for Caledon/steampunk/Victorian roleplay
  • Santa Claus
  • a Bavarian German man in lederhosen with a beer stein
  • a Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter wizard
  • a drag queen
  • a circus clown
  • a timberwolf
  • a large, fire-breathing dragon
  • a court jester
  • a ball-joined china doll
  • a stern Roman Catholic sister armed with a ruler to inflict God’s punishment on sinners! And sometimes, just to get a laugh, I have her being followed around by a flock of penguins…
  • and the list goes on, and on, and on…

And it makes me wonder: just how successful will the new Facebook Horizon be, if they insist that you be, essentially, your own rather boring self, linked to your personal Facebook account, and unable to throw on the guise of somebody else?

The very thought would horrify most Second Life users, who are so used to being somebody else, and hiding behind an avatar name, and often roleplaying somebody (or something) completely different from their real lives. And the same would apply to many of the newer social VR platforms, like VRChat, where everybody you meet seems to want to be an anime girl or a Disney character on the lam from their corporate lawyers.

Fourteen years of Second Life has taught me that the ability to be somebody else—walk around in someone else’s skin—can be an insightful, instructive, transformative, and even delightful experience. And I rather doubt that Facebook Horizon is going to be able to replace that, at least to start. (I mean, there’s no lower half of your body on the Horizon avatars! Think of the loss of shoe-shopping opportunities alone… 😉 )

If Facebook Horizon won’t let you be somebody else, will it still have the same appeal? Will it attract a different audience? These are good questions to ponder as we watch Facebook roll out Horizon this year.

Facebook Horizon: Friendly, yes…but what if you can’t be a fire-breathing dragon?
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