What does it mean for an online community when one of its leaders is gone?
Second Life is full of big personalities – those people who create the worlds others enjoy, or who spend enough time in-world to become celebrities within their communities. These are people who are heavily invested in the virtual world – and the virtual world may well be invested in them. They are at the centre of social circles, their names appear constantly in group chats, their personalities make a huge impact on the worlds they inhabit.
When they choose to leave, there is a risk that they take their world with them.
If we accept that virtual lives are real lives – that the relationships formed in virtual worlds are meaningful and that the lives of avatars are grievable – then we cannot escape the conclusion that the act of leaving the virtual world is an act of dying. A person who was present, who had friends and lovers, who had a place within a community, is gone. They leave behind them a sense of loss which is not mitigated by the fact that their life was lived in a digital environment. It is not necessarily mitigated even where the person behind the avatar – their typist – is alive and well. The typist and the avatar are two separate social actors. The living typist, however, has the ability to carefully manage the death of their avatar in order to mitigate the impact on those left behind.
I recently witnessed the death of an avatar who created a popular role playing sim in Second Life. Her typist was alive. The typist had made the decision to prioritise ‘real life’ over Second Life, and was leaving the virtual world to focus on offline pursuits. In a series of group announcements, I saw her announce her decision to leave, provide her real life contact details, and name her successors. In effect, she announced her own death and divided her own virtual possessions. She also ensured that residents to whom she had become close would know how to reach her – albeit without the avatar embodiment they had come to know – and that her community could live on without her.
This strikes me as the construction of a form of immortality – of choosing to ‘die’ while retaining control of that death and passing a lasting legacy on to those who remain. The new owners of the roleplaying sim quickly set about making changes – but the community, the theme, the general look of the sim remained the same. Its creator lived on in Second Life even after death.