Excavating Second Life: Cyber-archaeologies, heritage and virtual communities

Harrison, Rodney (2009). Excavating Second Life: Cyber-archaeologies, heritage and virtual communities. Journal of Material Culture, 14(1) pp. 75–106.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1359183508100009

Abstract

While the anthropology of online communities has emerged as a significant area of research, there has been little discussion of the possibilities of the archaeology of virtual settlements, defined here as interactive synthetic environments in which users are sensually immersed and which respond to user input. Bartle (in Designing Virtual Worlds, 2003: 1) has described such virtual settlements as `places where the imaginary meets the real'. In this sense, an examination of the role of heritage in virtual settlements has the potential to shed light on the role of heritage in both `real' and `imagined' communities more generally. This article develops the concept of `cyberarchaeology' (originally devised by Jones in his 1997 article, `Virtual Communities') to study the virtual material culture of the settlement Second Life, and in particular, its explicit programme of heritage conservation. A survey of heritage places in Second Life suggests that the functions of heritage in virtual settlements may be far more limited than in the actual world, functioning primarily as a structure of governance and control through the establishment of the rationale for (virtual) land ownership and the production of a sense of community through memorials which produce a sense of `rootedness' and materialize social memory. Such functions of heritage are consistent with recent discussion of the role of heritage in western societies. Nonetheless, this study of heritage and cyber-archaeology provides insights into the ways in which the notions of heritage are transforming in the early 21st century in connection with the proliferation of virtual environments, and the challenge this provides to contemporary society.

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