The Dark Side of SL and SL Modeling

This is the text of a talk I gave at Model’s Wrokshop on 6/21/10


As the title of this talk suggests, I’ll be talking about a number of things that are not talked about very much in SL, the so called dark side of being here.  I think these things really need to be talked about and I’ll be highlighting some of them here today.  Some of this may make you feel uncomfortable.  But if you stick with me, you’ll find that this talk is really about finding balance in your life.

We hear a lot about what attracts us here.  When I first joined SL over 3 years ago, I was immediately enthralled by this amazing virtual world that had been created by the Lindens and the “residents” who “lived” here.  I was in awe of the creativity I found here.

One of my RL mottoes is that “Life is not worth living unless I learn something new each day”.  SL certainly presented me with lots to learn.  I wanted to learn how to make some of the things I saw here.  I wanted to push my poorly developed artistic skills.  I wanted to learn how to write the scripts that made things work.  I wanted to learn how to animate avatars.  I wanted to learn how this complex system that is SL worked.  And, although I’ve learned a lot in the last 3 years, I still feel like there is so much to learn.

In my second year I began to see SL as a great laboratory to explore different ways of being.  I am not a model in RL nor will I ever be.  I never had much training or inclination toward fashion or the fashion industry.  But deep down inside me there was this fantasy of being a model.  I saw SL as a fairly safe way to role play that and thereby fulfill a fantasy.

I’ve met many people along the way, many of whom seemed to have other motives for being here.  Some seemed to treat this as a business, a way to make money.  Others seemed to be attracted by the social networking or to the entertainment.  Some seemed to be trying to fill gaps in their RL relationships or perhaps even were on the hunt to find a RL mate here.  Some seemed to be trying to live out their sexual fantasies.  Some had philantropic interests.  Many others seemed to be using it like me as an outlet for their creativity.

I’ve made many friends along the way.  Most people I’ve met here have been truly nice people.  SL certainly is a great medium to socialize, network and just plain have fun with others.  SL allows us to expand our social network and literally have friends all over the world.

What attracts you to SecondLife?  Why do you spend your time here?

This is truly a phenomenal virtual world.  Our avatars obey different laws of physics.  Our avatars may be surrounded by objects that we would never see in the real world.  We may be able to do a lot of things we cannot do in RL, like teleporting.  Wouldn’t we all like to be able to teleport in RL?

Despite these differences between RL and SL, there are a many ways in which the two worlds and our way of being in them are very similar.

I’ve found that the way we interact socially with other avatars in SL is really pretty much the same as RL.  Our SL personalities and the way we interact with others is not that much different from RL even if we are role playing here.  If we are disorganized in RL we will likely be disorganized here. 

If we are dishonest in RL we are likely to be dishonest here.  If we are passionate and reliable in our RL work, we are likely to be the same here.  If we are drawn to drama in RL, we will be drawn to it here too.  We are likely to have the same social problems here as we do in RL.

The nice thing about SL is that it provides a laboratory for us to learn how to overcome the shortcomings of our RL personality, if we are open to it.  No one is going to cause us physical harm here.  If you blow a relationship or get a bad reputation, you can always just reappear and start over as another avatar.

I see all of these things as positive.  If we keep it all in perspective, SL offers a great medium in which to explore, learn, grow or just plain have fun.

Despite all these positives, I’ve come to find that SL also has its dark side, and there are dark aspects to the SL world of fashion modeling as well.  SL can be the source of a lot of pleasure, but also can be the cause of a lot of pain.

No matter who our avatar is in SL or the role it plays here, at the end of the RL day we are in reality just a bunch of people sitting in front of a computer absorbed in this imaginary virtual world.  We are able to do this because of the phenomenal human capacity for imagination. 

The power of SL derives from the fact that we are not just absorbed in our private imaginary world, like we do when we daydream.  This is a collective imaginary world where we use real world skills to interact with others also absorbed in this imaginary world.  It’s like we are absorbed in an interactive movie where we can have a small say in how it turns out.

My point here is that SL fosters the blurring of lines between our real world and this imaginary world.  It is easy to lose perspective here and to start thinking that SL is just as real as RL.  I see this loss of perspective between our real lives and our virtual lives as the source of a series of problems and pitfalls.  It is easy to lose your soul to the dark side of the SL force.  Let me elaborate on this.

The appeal of SL is quite great for many of us, as I mentioned above.  However, addiction to SL can be a major problem. 

I know some people who spend most of their waking days here.  I know some who have ruined their relationship with their spouse or paramour by spending too much time here.  I have heard a number of people annoyed at their crying child whose need for mommy’s attention detracts from mommy’s SL time.  I myself have been irritated by those in my RL environment who “interrupt” something that was pressing for my SL attention. 

I’ve seen many people who continued to be in SL despite being sick with a fever and who probably should have been in bed resting.  I’ve seen others whose RL school work or employment were negatively affected because of the time they spent here.  I’ve seen people bury themselves in SL so much that their social life suffers. 

How many of us have stayed up way too late absorbed in SL only to drag our way through our next RL day?  How many times have you been doing something in RL only to find a good part of your mind still absorbed in SL?

So, how do you know if you’re addicted to SL?

The American Psychiatric Association defines an addiction to a drug or activity as follows (paraphrasing):
1)The need for increasing amounts of it to achieve the desired effects.
2)Withdrawal symptoms when you don’t have it or do it.
3)You find yourself doing it more than you originally intended.
4)Unsuccessful attempts to cut down.
5)It consumes a great deal of your time
6)Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up, reduced or negatively impacted because of it.
7)Use continues despite the realization that it is likely causing you significant physical or psychological problems.

At the root of an addiction is the seeking of short term pleasure or avoidance of pain at the expense of longer term negative effects. 

SL is certainly very appealing and provides lots of opportunity for various kinds of pleasure like we talked about above.  But, what is the long term cost it is having on you?  Is your RL being negatively impacted because of your time in SL?  Are you using SL as an escape to avoid having to deal with some aspect of your RL that is painful?

Let’s talk a bit about money.

We have all heard the famous saying that “money is the root of all evil”.  How does the SL economy relate to how and why you are here?

Some people earn their RL living in SL, making enough money to live on in RL.  Those folks are rare.  They of course treat SL as a business with all the things that go with that.

Others can translate some of their SL earnings into RL earnings but still can’t “quit their day job.”  SL provides supplementary income.  Some of the owners of bigger stores or malls or multiple sims may be in this position.

Others earn enough to pay for the things they want to buy in SL without having to take out the  RL credit card.

Others, and probably most people, have to invest RL money to keep “playing the game”.

What is your net income in SL?  Are you making money and how does that affect how you behave here?  I would expect that you take SL a lot more seriously if this is a part of your RL income.  How does money affect how you interact with others here?

Are you putting in your RL money here?  If so, how much?  Are you putting in more than you really can afford?

Let’s talk about relationships.

Although our SL relationships can be very rewarding, just as in RL, they can also be very painful.  Our relationships here are not that much different from our RL relationships.  We will often find ourselves repeating the same painful scenarios that we play out in RL.  As I mentioned above, hopefully SL can be a laboratory for learning how to do that differently.  Many times it is not and we merely find ourselves making the same interpersonal mistakes as we do in RL.

However, SL poses its own set of challenges with relationships.

Most interactions in SL are via text chat.  A few are in voice.  In text chat, we are not privy to most of the information we have when we are face to face with someone in RL.  We cannot tell their tone of voice or the expression on their face.  Voice chat adds tone of voice information but still misses visual information. 

It’s hard enough to communicate in RL.  In SL effective communication is 10 times more difficult.  Factor in the fact that you are often talking with someone whose native language is not the same as yours and who comes from a different culture, and it becomes even more difficult.  Perhaps you are both trying to converse in a language that is not native to either of you. 

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gotten into difficulties with people because of communication problems and how much time I’ve spent trying to correct miscommunications.

Communicating here can be stressful in other ways.  Multitasking by trying to talk with a number of people simultaneously can  be quite stressful.  And because of chat lag, you are almost always one sentence behind in what you are addressing.  Voice chat is like a bunch of people trying to talk to each other while blindfolded.

If you’re hoping that communicating with others here will be a peaceful get away, you may just find yourself being more stressed out at the end of the day.

Some people develop romantic or other close relationships in SL.  Some people even seem to be trying to find a RL mate in SL.  Any relationship in SL is going to be very restricted.  You may be very attracted to the other person, but you are totally unable to feel or smell him or her.  Any caressing or hand holding will be entirely in imagination.

I’ve known some people who move far distances to be closer to their SL lover only to have it not work out and be terribly hurt.  SL can be a dating service but you have to be very careful.

I’ve seen a number of friends here who have had their SL “marriage” end up in a “divorce”.  Although there may not be as many legal repercussions to SL divorces, I’ve found that the emotional repercussions are often no less intense.  People can be terribly hurt when SL romances break up.

Others have gotten involved in SL romances while they are in a RL marriage or relationship.  Although some partners are tolerant of this, many are not.  Pursuing SL romances or sexual affairs can cause as much damage to your RL relationship as if the affair were in RL.  You have to ask yourself why you need to be doing this.

If you are a person in RL who takes what s/he does seriously, you are likely to take your work, relationships just as seriously in SL. 

If you have a tendency to take on too much and burn your self out in RL, you are likely to do the same in SL.  If a mood disorder or seasonal affective disorder or just plain PMS causes you problems in RL, they are likely to be carried into your SL experience.

Last year, I was in a contest that was very competitive.  I had invested a ton of time into preparing for that contest both in styling as well as my runway routine.

At the time of the contest, the show organizers jacked up the max avatar count on the sim to 70 thereby causing lag to fluctuate widely and unpredictably.  My walk was a total disaster because of that and all my practice time had been for naught. 

I was furious at them for introducing this unfair “at the mercy of unpredictable and variable lag” factor into what should have been a fair contest with everyone on the same level playing field.  I reacted by giving the show organizers a good piece of my mind.

In retrospect, I feel I overreacted to the situation.  I got over involved in what I was doing, got myself over tired and stressed out and lost perspective that my not placing in this contest had absolutely no effect whatsoever on my real life.  I’ve seen many other instances of this happening to people and have a few others of my own.  In all cases, we were taking this far more seriously than what it is and confusing SL with RL. 

I’ve experienced other instances like this where I’ve gotten into major conflicts with someone else.  I’ve born the brunt of other people “losing it” with me even though I kept my cool.  I’ve seen friends in arguments of a similar nature.  In my case, these all occurred when I was taking my SL experience way more serious than I should, had taken on too much and felt stressed out, had had to deal with too many people wanting something from me, was possibly in a bad state because of something in RL, or possibly it was just a bad time of year or month, or any combination of the above.

Every case was quite painful and bothered me for days and from what I witnessed of others, it seemed to be equally painful to them.  In each one,  SL seemed to become more real or seemed to have greater importance than it really should.  Reactions to SL events seemed almost the same as though they had occurred in RL.  The lines distinguishing the two worlds seemed to become quite blurred.

Have you experienced or witness anything like this yourself?

The fashion industry in SL also has its own dark side.  I’m sure those in other aspects of the industry can talk about many more than I’ll mention here.  I’ll focus on some of the things that pertain to modeling.

There is a clear pecking order in the fashion industry.  The designers are at the top of that order, the modeling agencies in the middle and the models at the bottom.  Models are often reminded that they are no more than fancy coat hangers on which to display the creations of the designers.

Models are often reminded of how they are suppose to behave with the admonition, sometimes explicitly stated but often implied, that agency heads and designers talk among themselves and if they get a “bad reputation” they will never get work.  On the other hand, it’s considered “unprofessional” for models to do the same about agencies or designers.

I’ve heard a number of speeches on how designers and models should work together.  Most of these, even by other models, take the form of advising models how they should behave. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone from the designer’s or agency’s side ask a model for their input on how to best display an outfit.  I often voice my opinion in a collaborative manner, but I’m rarely asked for it.

How many models here would risk voicing the request (not so bluntly stated) “Please get the outfit to me with ample time so I can present it the best I can.  My time is limited and valuable too.” 

How many models would say to a designer “Please give me some idea of what you want me to wear out of all these options for this outfit.” 

Or, “because you attach the skirt to the spine rather than the pelvis is does not move properly and looks weird when I pose.” 

How many here would be willing to say to a show director (again hopefully not so bluntly) “Please get your act together with this show and stop wasting my time.”  Etc. Etc. Etc.

I don’t want to imply that these attitudes are maliciously held in any way.  Most designers and agency directors that I know are extremely dedicated, competent, hard working and creative people who treat the people who work for or with them with utmost respect and support.  I am also aware that many models are unreliable in their commitments, create destructive drama and whose behavior would be considered unprofessional in any world.

My only point here is that the pecking order in SL fashion is quite real.  In any hierarchy of power, those at the bottom are usually more fearful of speaking what is really on their mind than those above them.  In fact the whole culture keeps them in their place.  Those at the top are thereby insulated from important feedback about how they are behaving or how they could improve what they’re doing.  It’s the same in RL.

The strange thing about all this in SL is that the real people behind the role playing avatars may be quite the opposite.  The “lowly” SL model may be an older intelligent successful professional in real life, while the one role playing a director or designer may be much younger or with less education and RL experience.  But in SL it’s quite easy to get lost in the role.  If your SL role as a model places you at a different place in the power hierarchy than you are accustomed to in RL, it can be a source of tension for you.

There is a body of RL research on how one’s place in a power hierarchy affects one’s well being.  Those at the bottom are more prone to depression and to truly being abused, and more likely to suffer medical problems.  Could your role playing a SL model be having that affect on you?

Not unlike RL, the SL fashion industry is also prone to discrimination.  Your “look” has to correspond to what those higher up in the power hierarchy view as fashionable and in their mind be able to sell clothes. 

One of my friends here is a professional black woman in RL who chooses to maintain her racial identity in SL as a black avatar.  She tells me that she has often been advised that she would get further in this field if she presented a different avatar.

Many of you here know Musimba Yellowknife who chooses to play a furry.  Musimba is a talented, sociable, hard working person who takes SL modeling quite seriously.  I have seen him passed over for jobs because someone doesn’t think that furries will fit in with the “look” or the show.

I doubt that any of this amounts to mean spirited prejudice, and we all are chasing the elusive “look” as defined by someone who may employ us.  However, it can still be a source of frustration nonetheless.  Do you sell your soul to the fashion devil in order to get ahead?  At what cost?

There’s another insidious factor in the SL fashion industry.  The same is true about RL fashion. 

As I imply above, for the most part we are chasing an illusion.  What is the currently “in” way to look?  What’s going to attract attention and make everyone run to the stores to have to buy that “new look”.  Will you be seen as a hip and “with it” trend setter or as just an average nobody.  Who decides all this?  There is certainly no objective ruler to measure it.

Marketing hype certainly affects these opinions to some degree.  The fashion experts do to some degree.  Well respected celebrities do too.  Much of it is in the eye of the beholder however.

My point here is that the ground we are walking on in this industry is never very solid and is constantly shifting.  This constant sense of uncertainty with the accompanying pressure to be on top can be quite disconcerting.  It also creates a constant pressure to have to stay current with all the latest trends.  If you don’t, you’ll fall behind.

In modeling there is intense pressure to have all the best hair, jewelry, clothes, poses, etc.  How much time do you spend shopping in SL?  How much money do you spend at it?  Are you perhaps a shopaholic?  Is modeling perhaps driving you to spend more than you should?

The constant drive for perfection in an uncertain environment can take its toll on you.  Models are told they are always on display.  Your poses have to meet the highest standard, your attachments always have to be perfectly worn, your hair the latest styles, you need a boot fixer so you ankles don’t break your boots, etc., etc.

I ran into a friend at a club a while ago.  She was totally dressed down, about as casual as she could be, just one of the girls out on the town not needing to impress anyone.  She mentioned how she enjoyed just letting herself be and get away from this pressure.  I can totally empathize.

Fashion contests in SL can be quite challenging and exciting.  However, just like any competition, people only remember the winner and for not that long at that.  For every “winner” there are far many others who don’t make it to the top.  Can you handle the pressure of subjecting yourself to the fickled subjective scrutiny of others.  Can you handle losing?  What affect will all this have on your emotional state?

Modeling is very competitive.  Some people get off on the competitive aspect of modeling.  I’ve seen many models who express a determination to “make it to the top.”  I think that is part of the addictive nature of all this.  How will your sense of competition affect how you behave with others?  How will it drive you?  Even if you do “make it to the top”, what affect will all that have on your real life?

Do you really want to put all that energy into this in a virtual world?  What emotional cost will all this “chasing an illusion” have for you?

Most people who are involved in SL modeling want to “get work”.  They want to get hired by an agency or designer to actually model in some capacity.  They just don’t want to get together with a couple friends and play around.  This sets up other pitfalls for models.

For females, modeling is extremely competitive.  Female models are a dime a dozen with many proven experienced models to choose from.  For males, the competition is not as fierce but there are many less opportunities.

When I first started modeling two years ago, I graduated from three different highly respected schools before I even started looking for work.  Even then, getting my first job was an uphill battle. 

I had many rejections or “sorry we’re not hiring” responses.  There was always something that wasn’t right.  All of this can be quite discouraging and take an emotional toll on you.  I can’t tell you how many times I felt badly for several days.  I can’t tell you how much time and effort I put into learning all this.

My point here, is that the intense competition and the repeated failures can take an emotional toll on you.  Breaking into this field is not for the feint of heart or those with a fragile ego.  If you’re looking to modeling to help boost your self esteem, you may find the opposite actually happening.  And, you won’t get very far in this business unless you can withstand all that and keep plugging away.

Once you do finally get hired somewhere, you clearly are entering an employer / employee relationship.  It stops being something you do just for fun when you want to.  There are deadlines to meet and schedules that must be adhered to.

There is no model in SL who is more reliable than me.  I don’t commit to something unless I’m pretty sure I will be able to do it.  Once I commit, I rearrange anything in my RL to be sure I live up to my SL commitments.  I have never missed a show or practice.  When I’m working, I’m fully there and committed and willing to do anything to help the event succeed. 

I’m fairly lucky that my RL is stable and flexible enough to allow me to do this.  I’ve been lucky to not have unexpected RL things happen that interfere with these commitments. 

If your RL is more demanding of you or less stable and predictable, you may have difficulty living up to your “employment” expectations in SL.  Can you keep your SL commitments and at what cost to your RL?  Do you find yourself perhaps giving up sleep or having to rearrange your RL life too often to accommodate SL?  If you’re not “reliable”, it will affect your reputation and ability to get work.  Can  you keep the two worlds in balance?

Even if you do have the RL luxury and internal discipline to keep your commitments, it’s quite easy to run into another potential problem, burnout.  I alluded to this above.

For most activities we engage in, we have a limited amount of emotional or psychic energy for that activity.  If we are prevented or deprived of doing it for a while, we experience and urge or need to do it and are drawn to it.  We probably started from that position when we first got into modeling.  Working from that position is usually experienced as fun.

However, once you start having to fulfill commitments, you sometimes find yourself having to do it when you don’t quite feel like it.  You may be able to motivate yourself or otherwise get into it and still enjoy it.  Now it’s starting to feel more like work.

Working in SL fashion can be quite demanding.  There are always the deadlines, extra practices, designers who give you outfits at the last minute and expect miracles, and disorganized show directors who waste your time.  There are the demands to do extras like blog the outfit or show up at a show to support your fellow models.

There is a certain excitement to all this that many find attractive, a sort of adrenaline rush.  However it can also be quite exhausting.  It’s easy to over commit to doing too many things.  Once you find yourself running on empty, it clearly stops being fun.  You are in burn out mode.  That clearly takes an emotional and physical toll on you. 

Are you prone to over committing and perhaps burning yourself out?  How does that affect your RL?

Let me wrap up by trying to summarize what I’m trying to say here today.

SecondLife provides a wonderful virtual world where, via our avatar, we can play, socialize, learn and be creative.  It allows us to explore ways of being that we may never be able to be in real life.  In many respects it provides a needed escape or diversion from our real lives. 

However the way we approach real life, particularly how we approach work and relationships has a way of finding its way into our SL work and relationships.

If you are attracted to SL thinking you will escape from your RL, it is more likely that you will end up replaying your RL here.  There is the strong tendency that the lines between this virtual imaginary world and your real world will become blurred to the point of acting as though SL is more real, to the detriment of your RL.  It’s easy to lose perspective about what is more important.

Role playing a SL fashion model can be lots of fun and allow you to play out a long held fantasy and itself provide lots of opportunities to be creative, to learn new skills, and to make many friends.  However, it is not without its insidious dark side that can have profound affects on your well being and on your real life.

Remember, only real life is real.  Are you keeping a healthy balance between your RL and your imaginary SL life?  I certainly have to keep reminding myself of all that as I find myself being drawn into SL.  How about you?


~ by monicabalut on July 1, 2010.

2 Responses to “The Dark Side of SL and SL Modeling”

  1. Dear Monica

    I have been modeling for a year now; I attended 3 academies, graduating from one hopefully this month while I registered with my 5th institute/academy in pursuing to perfect this profession in a virtual world that means nothing to me in the real world.

    Modeling in SL is exactly as you described with few additions I can add, but I rather take the 5th on this one so I don’t rock the boat. However , to let you know that the last 3 weeks have been hard on me as I was faced with many of the dark sides of modeling in SL which made me loose confidant on my ability, creativity even I start doubting the tags I hold and the titles I worked so hard to achieve to the point that I was about to trash all the certificates I paid hard money and spent hard real life dollars and time consuming down the trash folder, and was about to terminate my existence from SL when a very good friend handed to me your note card “The Dark Side of SL”.. The irony of this, this friend is a real life doctor which I found out and like she was giving me my prescription to go the pharmacy for immediate cure. She was reading my mind, my status when I was talking to her and like examining me on the exam table.

    Monica reading your article was a vaccine to my mind and soul, I read it so many times, I even copied it on a word documents so I can keep reading it over and over when I am off line. I have never been a quitter, or a looser. In fact, I am 23 years old, an Honor Student majoring in business law that will be going to law school in spring of 2011.

    I pursed modeling and all the categories and sub-categories within this industry in SL for my true passion and love for fashion, style and the runway and the ability to implement innovation to the best of my ability.

    This article is the prescription to cure to this cancerous syndrome, I am grateful to the doctor “my friend” who is innovator and a model. I am grateful to the pharmacist Monica “my friend” the innovator and model alike. I hope every modeling institute or agency in SL utilize this article as an addition curriculum in their contribution to the noble trust of teaching.

    Thank you and hugs and kisses
    Candylicious Forster

  2. wow you people are fucked in the head

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