01 May 2009

Because Finding a Prom Date in One Life Isn't Enough Trouble...

Ah, spring. The lilacs bloom, the cars get washed, the baseballs get batted. And, if you believe Lord Tennyson—and who doesn’t?—it is in the spring that a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love. If that be so, to belabor a cliché, spring is when a young woman’s fancy turns to thoughts of prom.

One thing I’ve been growing increasingly interested in this semester is the way real-world cultural hierarchies replicate themselves online. We once had this idyllic notion that online, everyone’s beautiful. Virtual reality would allow us all to shed twenty pounds and five years. We could “fix” ungainly noses and weak chins; we could wear hair colors and styles that would never work in our real lives; we could be everything we want to be, but aren’t. We could bend gender and race and ability. And in doing so, we would gain greater empathy for others, or we would eliminate the privilege that some people are born to. Ah, the Internet, my old utopian home.

I wonder if that’s true in practice. Do people create avatars that look very different from themselves, or do they create realistic representations? Do the same looks that draw approval in real life gain favor in online circles as well? In being masters of our own creation, we have the eugenic potential to eliminate anything unpleasant, or simply unpreferred, about our physical appearances. (And, with limited options, we may be forced to omit some physical problems from our online selves. There are no wheelchairs in Wii world.) But more importantly, do we really interact and get along any differently online than in real life? Do virtual librarians have to attend to virtual homeless people? Is there a cool kids’ table at high schools in SecondLife?

Probably. And sitting there, no doubt, are the SecondLife prom king and queen.

Yes, friends, if attending prom once (or twice, or five times) wasn’t enough for you, you are welcome to relive the experience online. You, too, could be the belle of the ball—or several balls, really. You certainly have prom night options.

Second Life, for one, really is having a prom. Themed “An Experience Under the Sea,” the event, held at the creatively-named “Rocker Night Club” is open to all. At least, I think. I’m not really familiar with SL. (I’m having enough trouble with one life.) According to the invite, though, “Some of the best DJs in all SL will be streaming live from 3 until 2am!! Come see if you and your date are named King and Queen. This is a Relay for Life event and all tips will be given to The American Cancer Society. See you there!!” And if that’s not enough fun (I mean, FUN!!) for you, you can attend numerous pre- and post-parties, enter contests, and, of course, shop for all the attendant clothing, transportation, and various accoutrements.
[Ed.: It turns out that this prom was last week, but don't worry--that's not the only prom in SL. You can try Club Sky if that's more your thing.] I have to think that, just like real prom, it’s the buildup that’s exciting here. Planning, and figuring out who’s taking who, and what you’re going to wear. And then, once you get there, I imagine everyone ends up talking to the people they already know—but, like, two-dimensionally.

But if it’s the shopping you’re after, instead of the socializing, the virtual world has plenty of prom options. Gaia has an online prom that’s primarily just shopping for a dress, hairstyle, accessories, and peer approval. (At least it lets you show your new ball gown to other people. A large number of “dress up” sites let you create the perfect outfit, but have no interconnected social capacity; you can’t actually “attend” a prom. Literally all dressed up with no place to go.)
CosmoGirl, Zwinky, There.com-all host online proms. And, of course, online prom shopping.

Speaking of shopping,
Men’s Warehouse launched a site five weeks ago, aimed at young men, that allows them to set up their own virtual prom. In so doing they can also scout out tuxedo options; they get a discount if they then rent a tux in real life—and more if they get other people to join the online-prom/real-life-tuxedo-buying party. Nothing says “friends forever” like a sweet hookup on cummerbunds, bro. It’s been a massive success. Among the most popular features, apparently, is a “bust a move” option whereby you can force your two-dimensional tuxedoed posse to breakdance, cabbage patch, and (oh, no, NO!) YMCA.

According to BrandWeek, “Matt Schow, director of online marketing at Men’s Wearhouse, Houston, said the site has resulted in a 689 percent week-over week improvement compared to 2008 for registered prom rep sign ups.” Dang. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but it sounds impressive. Girls are allowed to “attend,” but it’s primarily targeted at 15- to 18-year-old boys. Besides, with tuxedoes and cheesy eighties dance moves, who needs girls?

Well, not the men at the Rainbow Prom, I suppose. A truly super idea, the GLBT prom is hosted by the site City of Heroes—an online MMORPG where all the players are superheroes. Game sponsor NCsoft donated its ski lodge venue for the event. Nearly 200 attendees showed for the first Rainbow Prom in 2007. According to GameLife, “Attendees apparently partied so hard that the festivities forced "Heroes" owner NCsoft to reboot the virtual world several times.” (That is awesome. I picture the programmers in some fluorescent-lit office in Silicon Valley, while the party raging on the floor above bounces the acoustic tile around until the whole thing just overloads. Reboot!) I think this is definitely one example where virtual society was able to transcend the conventions of traditional, real-life society. Many of the Rainbow Prom attendees would not have been allowed to attend prom in their own high school days, or at least not with the date of their choice. The online space allows like-minded users to meet up for all the thrills (and subsequent disappointments) they might have missed. It’s worth noting that gay rights have made great strides in a number of virtual worlds; gay marriage is legal in “The Sims,” “Fable,” and “Fallout 2,” there’s a gay pirate on the make in “The Temple of Elemental Evil.” When “World of Warcraft” tried to shut down an LGBT players’ group in 2006, protests forced them to back down and issue an apology.

I have no idea whether these virtual worlds really bring people together in new ways; I suspect that, much as like finds like on the internet in general, these “proms” are attended by people with similar interests in the first place. Sci-fi fans still hang with sci-fi fans; there are just fewer non-sci fi fans around to hassle them. Maybe we should have a virtual GSLIS prom. You are cordially invited to grab your tiaras and bowties and meet me at the Moodle Night Club! We’ll crown the Head Librarian at midnight!! The hottest DJs in information science will spin remixes of chat archives, Ted talks and Mortenssen lectures!!

On second thought, maybe I’ll leave the party planning to Men’s Warehouse.

1 comment:

  1. Meez (www.meez.com) has (had, or is having) a prom, too - we've created our staff avatars for our EVPL "community" website (well, those of us what want avatars)at Meez.com...

    So, not only can you suffer at the 'real' prom, you can suffer at the virtual one? I'd be interested in going just to see what it's like. Is there gross, processed Chicken Kiev for the 'sit down' meal (as there was at my junior prom)? Do you get to dance with people you like? Do people who totally gross you out also ask you to dance, and if so, do you dance with them, to spare their feelings? Is there an afterprom? So people get drunk? Do you lose your virtual virginity? Do you have virtual bad hair and a virtual dress that you're mortified you wore? Do people hate the virtual prom as much as they hate the real prom? Can your date dump you for someone else?

    I'm curious about these things, mainly because I never liked the prom. It seemed like one of those things I 'should' do, mainly to make my parents happy and to be with my friends. But even at the time it all seemed so dumb to me. I remember asking myself what the purpose was. So, what's the purpose here?

    I can understand, I guess, the opportunity something like this might present for imaginative development. I mean, the prom is a nightmare for most people - at least once you gain about five years' perspective (or, in my case, in advance of the prom)...it's something to laugh about. So how will you be able to look back and laugh about the virtual prom? I considered checking out the meez prom for that very purpose. I may still.

    The avatar question is an interesting one. I try really hard to make my avatar look like me, inasmuch as I think it's possible. But I know other people probably look at it and think I'm nuts for thinking I look at all as good as my avatar. On the other hand, I see other peoples' avatars and I think 'Whoa...that's not even remotely Joe or Jane or Bob or Carol' - whatever. I think some people make their avatars look totally different out of a desire for anonymity or to be someone totally different on the web. Which is not at all bad...I'm too honest for my own good, I think. I find myself picking out things for my avatar and looking at it critically, thinking 'Does that really look like me'? 'Is that something I would wear'? Which defeats the purpose of the avatar, so clearly I'm old.

    And, upon reflection, how nice would it have been as a teenager to be able to step out as an alter-ego? I mean, taken too seriously, or too far, it obviously creates problems of its own, but wow...creating yourself exactly as you want to be (in a virtual world, no less) carries some power with it, doesn't it?