Most people (well SLers) will have by now heard, read, blogged the recent announcement by Linden Labs on the introduction of 'Voice in SL'. This has provoked a somewhat wild and wide-ranging debate on the effects, both positive and negative, that this might have on the SL world and the relations between SL inhabitants ... and interestingly the relation between the self, avatar and anonymity when playing in-world. These debates were surfaced in an article in the Second Life Herald:
"... the way many residents feel about SL is that it's an *extension* of RL, and representing the 'self' in avatar form is logically a process of reflecting RL. Other residents see with clarity the almost endless possibilities available in creating an entirely different 'self' (or many selves) from their reality, sometimes extending that 'self' outside of the grid. The rest of us fall somewhere in between these two virtual extremes, or possibly have a foot in both camps (I do). When 'Voice' was announced, a huge outpouring of anxiety was expressed by those who, given their point of reference, felt it was no more than a mortal threat to their keeping the fantasy/anonymity element of SL safe. Others, although quieter, felt it was a positive, necessary step in the evolution of the platform. And of course the rest of us fell somewhere in between.
I made a very quick comment on the full article on the SL Herald blog but felt it worthy of revisiting here. The panic that seems to surround the introduction of voice as expressed by some parts of the SL community seem to me to be generally missing the point in that fundamental shifts in the discursive space of SL must stem from widespread adoption of audio. I question whether this is actually going to be the case? My analogy would be to take a closer look at another audio technology such as Skype. How many people choose to use Skype for text based interaction (IM) rather than voice? For me, voice or text preferences must be understood within the differing contexts within they operate or are indeed situated. In Skype, text/IM is very heavily used by nearly everyone despite the audio option ... why?. Here the subtle divide between partial-asynchronous/synchronous presence is one dimension that provides each communicative modality (voice or text) with a distinctly different texture. I predict (I hate predicting ... but anyway) that it will be the similar for SL and that the balance will be firmly maintained by the appropriatenesses of IM chat except to certain types of human interaction. For some reason there seems to be an assumption that 'voice' is just better than 'text' and somehow users will be forced or coerced by an unseen natural order into voice-based interaction. Why on earth would this happen? Technology is always situated ... there is no natural hierarchy!
[one might also choose a second example here and examine SMS versus voice in mobile phone use]