Secretly love it or publicly loathe it, SLSecrets has been around since 2008, and if the number of daily posts and comments are any reflection of its popularity, the website shows no signs of losing momentum.
What is most interesting to me about this site is that it started as a forum for people to anonymously share their secrets (like PostSecret) with the wider world. Today, it seems more like a forum for people to anonymous accuse their fellow residents of behaving badly. How did that happen?
According to the website’s About page, the founder of the site (Iris Seale) said she wanted to create a site “like PostSecret, where people send their secrets in on postcards and those cards are published on the web and in books. Many of the things people send in are heartbreaking, uplifting and works of art in their own right. Basically, I wanted to issue the same challenge to the SL community.”
That seems to me like a such a great idea. Many people find relief by sharing secrets, especially anonymously. It’s a risk-free way of being vulnerable, and can be a rehearsal for sharing one’s secrets with whom one cares more deeply about.
I can see that the early archived posts on SLSecret tended to be posted by people interested in sharing secrets about themselves (e.g. “I f*cked my alt and I liked it”, “I love you completely in Second Life but on the phone I hate your voice.”, and “I hate my customers, I hate my friends list, this game sucks since you left, I wish I could stop playing.”).
Slowly and inexorably, the posts then began to take a more other-centred perspective and accusatory tone. Today’s post includes someone dramatically accusing someone else of drama, criticising the creative output of a creator as dull and unimaginative, targeting someone for being an unassailable target, claiming a SL designer copied an RL design whilst posting their copyrighted images on the site, judging someone else for being judgemental, complaining that a certain men’s fashion event is broadening its offerings, and anonymously accusing someone of faking their identity.
Beyond the clear hypocrisy at work in nearly all the above examples, the site’s postings are now probably 80 to 90% negative, and focused on targeting others. The 67 comments (at the time of this posting) that respond to the original postings are either supportive (jumping on the gossip bandwagon) or dismissive (usually calling the original posters or other commenters they disagree with timewasters, low, needing medication, idiots, thieves, stupid, bitter, irrelevant, pointless, scum, and worse…)
The current site administrators have taken a laissez-faire approach to managing the site now:
I hope to keep Iris’s dream alive. I’d really like it if the SL Community stood up and made secrets what it could be. But most people just come for the drama, and I can’t deny that is part of what keeps SLSecret’s highly controversial and what keeps people coming back and reading, even though most people say they don’t.
Personally, I’d just moderate it to align with the original vision, and if I wanted a gossip site I’d start another one to act as a “home to the virtual bitch slap.”
PostSecret, however, remains everything Iris hoped SLSecrets would be. People have submitted over a million postcards with their secrets written on the back – often touchingly illustrated – where they share secrets about themselves.
What interests me about the SLSecrets website is mainly how it differs from its real life analog. The Second Life version is profoundly other-centred where the real life version is deeply self-centred – where the real life version is used for expressing safe vulnerability, the virtual version is used to primarily to gossip.
Can we then suggest that given the same circumstances and access to tools, virtual world residents engage in more gossip than those who primarily live in the real world?
What might account for the difference? It can’t be anonymity – the posters on both sites are anonymous. It’s not that people might have run out of secrets to share about themselves, the real world version of the site has been around 4 years longer than the Second Life version. Does it say something about residents in a virtual world? Are they perhaps less inclined to reveal secrets about themselves, even anonymously, in comparison to slagging others off for real or perceived infringements on what they consider to be fair in the world? And if that’s true, what does it say about us?
I can appreciate the inherent benefits of gossip in how it aids in social bonding in groups. A common behaviour in any social group is the forming of alliances. As groups get larger however, it becomes impossible to physically connect with everyone, so we engage in gossip to help members of the group gain information about other members, without individually speaking to them. In this way, we too may stay up to date on what other members of our group are doing. One might argue, that gossip is one of the driving factors behind social networks of any kind – be they digital, or existing offline. Like primates groom each other, we gossip to bond – to create the invisible lines between us and them, so that if we one day may be the target of attack, we might have a ready group of allies to come to our aid.
Gossip also helps us communicate social norms with each other. Because the subject of one’s gossip is usually associated with the appropriateness of their behaviour, by repeating the story, we emphasise its importance to the group. So and so did a bad (or good) thing, I’m going to tell my friend, so that we both can agree that it’s a bad (or good) thing.
As an aside, did you know the most common last name in Second Life was Gossipgirl with over 150,000 residents holding that surname? It was a tie in with the popular tv show about rich New York teenage girls (and boys) who spend most of the show… gossiping.
That being said, I don’t understand why gossip might be more prevalent among virtual world residents than those who live outside of it. In this I’m truly perplexed, and if anyone has a guess or explanation, I’d love to hear it.
I suppose what surprises me most about this, is that it’s so atypical of what I see when the Second Life community is challenged in other ways. We tend to be so altruistic, giving, and generous when it comes to causes outside of ourselves; what’s on display on SLSecrets, however, isn’t something I’d like my community to be recognised for.
Now that I think more of it, perhaps it’s none of these things that explains the differences between PostSecret and SLSecrets. Perhaps it’s just a lack of moderation on the administrators behalf? If so, might there still be an opportunity to create a site with the original intentions behind SLSecrets? Would people use it? Or would they rather just slag someone off because they can?
Thanks to Tessa Grace for writing a post reminding me of this website’s existence, where she shared how she’d not participate in an online community who’s main purpose seems to be to throw one another under the bus.