Sunday, June 29, 2008

Back by Unpopular Demand . . . My SL Paper

Tipping the Balance:

Despite the hype, virtual worlds offer chances for professional communicators – if we're ready to take them

Brian Davidson (Second Life avatar, Jacob Rabinowicz)

We’ve heard it all before.

Back in 1961, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Newton N. Minow gave his famous “vast wasteland” speech in regards to the content of television:

“When television is good, nothing –not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers – nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you –and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”

Today, as professional communicators explore virtual worlds – notably, Second Life – as potential 21st-century venues for professional collaboration, training, simulation and other work activities, much the same is being said about these worlds as Minow said about television – with the added wrinkle that, barring a power failure, network breakdown or server blow-up, these virtual worlds never sign off.

If we see these potentials in Second Life and other virtual worlds, it’s up to us to work through these worlds’ weaknesses to demonstrate that potential to those who hold the purse strings. We have to seize upon our professional interest in these worlds to tip the balance from vast wasteland to public interest.

Second Life and other virtual worlds do indeed have their weaknesses:



They

gobble

hardware

Calling for graphics cards, computer memory and Internet bandwidth that companies may balk at providing. According to Reuters, while Linden Labs, creators of Second Life, brag that only between 2 and 4 percent of the virtual world's regions deliver less than 35 frames per second as of December 2007, the average user has seen performance decline from 13.5 fps in April 2007 to 12.3 fps in December 2007. Linden Labs defines anything below 20 fps to be “very slow and laggy.” The slow frame speeds are due to end-user hardware not being up to Second Life's demands.



They offer temptation

Companies are already concerned about lost production time to the Internet in general; introducing virtual worlds to the world of work might seem an open invitation to goofing off. In the past three years, surveys conducted by Salary.com and AOL of an average of 2,500 bosses and employees per year show at least 43 percent of respondents admit to using the Internet for personal use while at work, marking the Internet as their primary time-waster. They also admit to wasting nearly two hours a day at work doing non-work tasks.


They’re the Wild West

The United States government ordered casinos operating in Second Life to shut down in July 2007, as on line gambling is illegal. Time magazine also says German officials are investigating allegations that traffickers in child pornography are using Second Life to exchange explicit material.


They’re unpredictable

In 2007, the so-called Second Life Liberation Army set off virtual nuclear devices near Second Life corporate stores operated by American Apparel and Reebok and also virtually gunned down American Apparel shoppers in a separate incident. According to Time, American Apparel and Starwood Hotels pulled out of substantial investments in Second Life in 2007, citing “low traffic and raunchy behavior.”


They're sparsely populated

In 2007, Linden Labs reported 2.3 million registered members – a number which increased to 8.7 in 2008. The number of active users, however – those who use Second Life more than just once a week – has lagged. In 2003, the number of active users was estimated by Linden Labs and outside consultants at between 200,000 and 230,000; in 2008, it has climbed – but only to 600,000.

These worlds’ greatest weakness, however, when it comes to applying them in the workplace, may simply be that there are other ways to use the Internet to bring people together to collaborate that companies already have – e-mail, wikis, voice and video conferencing, the simple telephone.

But we would be well to heed what Minow said in 1961 about novelty and its power.

The television industry in 1961, Minow said, possessed “the most powerful voice in America. It has an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership. In a few years, this exciting industry has grown from a novelty to an instrument of overwhelming impact on the American people. It should be making ready for the kind of leadership that newspapers and magazines assumed years ago, to make your people aware of the world.”

Today, the Internet wields that power. Second Life and similar virtual worlds, though novelties now, are part of that disparate Internet world where the vast wasteland is battling with the public interest in the form of universities offering classes, businesses recruiting new hires, doctors working with patients in virtual rehabilitation and, somewhere I’m sure, professional communicators meeting, collaborating, working and celebrating when their work is done.

In a small way, I’ve participated in such an inroad. In pursuing a masters degree in technical writing from Utah State University, I took a course in the summer of 2008 with about a half dozen other students, in which we took a look at Second Life and how it could be used in our profession.

We started with two Second Life premises: One group would build virtual furniture and a virtual office we and others could use in Second Life for our meetings. The furniture and office were built in sandboxes – areas in Second Life set aside for building experimentation, free of charge. The other group, of which I was a member, would create in-world and real-world advertising for the furniture group, pulling together elements of Second Life as well as real life, including the use of real-life, formatted documents the furniture group could exchange and explore as they sought out ideas on what kinds of furniture to build next.

Ours was not a flawless exploration, nor did we find a virtual world free of flaws that inhibit professional use of virtual worlds. Second Life, for example, offers no easy way to exchange formatted documents, and even makes bringing computer slide shows and videos into the world a bit more difficult than it should be. As Second Life’s many critics have pointed out, there are simply easier ways to do these kinds of things – either through a group wiki or Web site, using the services of Web sites such as issuu.com to post and exchange documents or merely picking up the phone or sending an e-mail to collaborate. “It could just be me, but I don’t see the usefulness of [Second Life,]” writes John Sheesley, a section editor at Tech Republic, a popular news and discussion Web site for those in tech-related industries. “I’m not sure what you can do with such a thing that you couldn’t do with just a conference call or NetMeeting,” he continues. “Maybe someone who’s more used to or comfortable with virtual worlds would find it beneficial, but I sure don’t get it.” And more: “You can run seminars and symposiums in Second Life. But why going to a seminar or meeting as an avatar is a good idea is beyond me,” writes Simon van Wyk at hothouse.com.au, an Australian web marketing blog. “People have been running these types of meetings for years using a range of tools. Webcasting, Netmeeting, IRC - these are important and they have shaped the Internet and our usage and expectations. Second Life just makes this harder to get to.”

We found, however, that behind the novelty, there are advantages as well, and that “getting it,” as Sheesley identifies as imperative, takes more than just experimentation with virtual worlds. Additionally, critics often forget that technologies like webcasting and Netmeeting were new once, too.

In some ways, I found Second Life to be more liberating than other collaborative tools I've used – from Basecamp to iVisit. I am, for example, generally a shy, inhibited person. If I can avoid using the telephone, I’ll do so. Collaborating with me over the phone is a painful experience. But as our group met in Second Life to discuss our project, that wall vanished. I chatted easily with my group members. We accomplished much in a short amount of time because Second Life allowed us to meet together, exchange ideas and collaborate with a second class group. Our project involved creating a communication and advertising campaign for another class group, which was designing and building Second Life furniture. Our group worked around some Second Life limitations, specifically the inability to create information-rich documents in Second Life itself. We, like many other Second Life residents, used current document-sharing methods, such as e-mail and posting documents to common servers where the entire team could read and comment on them.

As we worked, however, we discovered the process of collaborating in Second Life to be more valuable than the end products (the furniture and advertising campaign). That we worked together in Second Life to plan our various project elements helped remove Second Life from the world of novelty into the world of utility. Second Life allowed us to create a social environment – a critical point in a successful collaborative work environment, according to Nardi and Whittaker who advise focusing on “not what people communicate about, but [on] how they create a social environment in which they can communicate at all.”

There are many ways we could have communicated as we worked on our various projects, ranging from e-mails to messages exchanged in our on line classroom. We naturally sought out, however, the continuity of face-to-face conversations in Second Life (focusing on shared content and culture as we went about our virtual work, as recommended by Watson-Manheim, Chudowba and Crowston in “Discontinuities and continuities: a new way to understand virtual work”).

In other words, we sought out the sociability we could build in Second Life. “Face to face communication supports touch, shared activities, eating and drinking together, as well as informal interactions and attention management,” Nardi and Whittaker write. “We argue that these activities are crucial for sustaining the social relationships that make distributed work possible.” We didn't necessarily eat and drink together while in Second Life, but that we could all socialize and work in a single environment even though we were widely dispersed by geography and also experience is a wonderful testament to working in a virtual world. In our own brief excursion into Second Life, for example, we found:

  • A group of people determined to use Second Life to collaborate and work in a professional manner can do so, without interruption from any in-world distraction.

  • The Second Life learning curve, feared by many, does not necessarily apply. Even in our small class of about a half dozen, we had enough people who could learn how to build Second Life objects, recognize how Second Life could interact with other Web applications and how Second Life could function as a professional space at minimal or no cost to accomplish our work goals.

  • We created an example of professional collaboration in Second Life we could show our real-life employers.

What may be most important about virtual worlds like Second Life is that they add to the variety of Internet-based tools we have at our disposal to make collaboration and the exchange of ideas simpler and more satisfying. Rather than fretting about composing an e-mail or memo, we simply met in Second Life and talked to each other, as we might over the telephone or beside the water cooler, taking advantage of the natural flow of conversation to guide us as we worked and to inspire us to take new directions we might not have considered had we been working though e-mail or other means, where communication is not done in real-time.

Continued development of virtual worlds may further contribute to those real-time exchanges. Studies such as the Metaverse Roadmap, conducted by the Acceleration Studies Foundation, could fuel further technological synergies, as long as the necessary hardware lies within the grasp of the average knowledge worker.

The foundation surveyed information technology experts and frequent Internet users to find out what they believe about the future of such technologies. The respondents predict that the “Metaverse,” a term taken from Neal Stephenson’s 1993 novel Snow Crash, which describes a virtual world in which people interact, learn and socialize as much as they do in the real world, will primarily be used for social interaction and communication, but that growing numbers of people will use such environments to earn money, to learn and even to exercise, as the growing phenomenon of the Nintendo Wii has already demonstrated. The study also explores how 3D technologies (such as Google Earth), virtual worlds (such as Second Life) and other computer applications ranging from animation to artificial life could shape the Internet in the future.

The roadmap also sees future utility in merging virtual worlds with the real world – or at least the real world in the form of Google maps and similar services. The future could see virtual avatars wandering Google Maps’ real streets, holding virtual meetings with real people in real representations of real places. “In time, many of the Internet activities we now associate with the 2D Web will migrate to the 3D space of the Metaverse,” the roadmap’s authors write. “This does not mean all or even most of our web pages will become 3D, or even that we’ll typically read web content in 3D spaces. It means that as new tools develop, we’ll be able to intelligently mesh 2D and 3D to gain the unique advantages of each, in the appropriate context. Like the Web, the Metaverse wouldn’t be the entirety of the Internet – but like the Web, it would be seen by many as the most important part.”

Today, that potential lies mostly untapped in virtual worlds, just as 25 years ago, the novelty lay in those new-fangled inventions, e-mail and the World Wide Web. They may appear weird and appealing only to a few – but that’s the same way many felt when CBS news began broadcasting Internet URLs along with their news stories. As time goes on, perceptions – and usefulness – change. Second Life has the potential to be either a western or a symphony – or a happy mixture of both, where those who want to be informed can gather just as easily as those who want to be entertained – and gather in ways that keep the professional decorum some seek.

The best way to do that may simply be to explore Second Life and use it professionally. Why wait, all explorers may say, when you can be the vanguard? Most of my fellow classmates, going into this virtual world, had doubts to its use. Eight weeks after entering Second Life, some of those doubts still exist. We’re skeptical that Second Life can be anything more than, as many critics on the Web have described it, a 3D chat room. But it seems premature to write Second Life off completely. Here are a few suggestions of what we can do as professionals to demonstrate to ourselves and others that Second Life and other, similar virtual worlds, have some potential:


Find other like-minded souls, both in real and virtual world

I, for example, have joined a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based group of professionals – ranging from teachers to writers to administrators – who are exploring how they and their companies can use Second Life as a communication and collaboration tool. Aside from its Second Life presence, the group maintains a website where members may exchange messages and ideas on how they're using Second Life in their professional environments.



Get deeply into the virtual world

This implies not necessarily settling in with virtual property, but rather finding people with similar professional interests in Second Life, starting a Second life group meant to attract like-minded individuals, and taking opportunities to participate in professional uses of Second Life, even if those uses at the time don't fit in with your particular career or company. I have spent time talking with people at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Second Life Island, and have participated in a few events there, focusing on recent successes in NASA's remote explorations of Mars. Though the gatherings aren't particularly oriented towards professional communicators, they provide ample example of how the site can be used professionally.


Get off the hype and onto the evidence

Find individuals within your own company who are interested in exploring Second Life's potential. Examine that potential together – outside regular working hours – and document it through the videos, photos and chat transcripts Second Life allows you to produce, so when you go to your employer formally to show how Second Life could be used in your workplace, you have the evidence to back up your claims.

Virtual worlds may be a novelty at the moment – but so was television. So was the Internet. As professional communicators, we could play a hand in easing Second Life and other virtual worlds past that novelty and turning it into “an instrument of overwhelming impact,” echoing Minow’s words about the potential of television, so many years ago.

A Few Professional Spaces

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

First, stroll through JPL and NASA's virtual space flight museum, which heavily features models and information on remote explorers and satellites currently plying the mysteries of the planet Mars. More importantly, attend one of JPL's regularly-scheduled meeting, which attract amateur space enthusiasts and professionals willing to discuss the ins and outs of the American space program.

SLURL (Second Life Uniform Resource Locator) : http://slurl.com/secondlife/Explorer%20Island/183/151/23.

Book Island Publishing Village

Second Life has a surprisingly strong population of publishers looking to find the next great novel, and many of them have gathered in this village, setting up storefronts where they sell books and offer contacts to budding writers.

SLURL: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Book%20Island/222/213/36

IBM Virtual Business Center

IBM has perhaps one of the largest corporate presences in Second Life, and is using the space for on line meetings and as a demonstration of how to integrate thousands of existing company Web sites into a 3D environment.

SLURL: http://slurl.com/secondlife/IBM%20Business%20Center////

5 comments:

Bill said...

I see that you are using issu for your online publication. Did you try calameo.com as well? what do you think about it? I think calameo.com is great too. I'd like to have your feedback. Thank you.

Brian Davidson said...

Bill,

I looked at a few services like issuu, googledocs, zoho, et cetera. Calameo looks comparable to issuu, though you do support more formats. I was primarily interested in finding a service that supports PDFs, and issuu seems to do that fairly well. How does calameo differentiate itself in its PDF support?

Bill said...

Brian,

I do not own calameo.com ;-) However, they support video and audio insertion in their publication. And for the tests I have made, they do respect links you prepared into the documents. Last but not least, the standalone viewer that you can insert into your webpage is really great !

Thank you for answering

mattzpublic said...

This is a good article, I'm sorry I missed it earlier.

I agree completely that virtual worlds have a lot of real-world potential, but as mentioned in that earlier list of concerns, they're more hype than reality at the moment. A combination of other services right now, like, say, using gotvmail and a website is currently more accessible than building a big Second Life storefront, like the one that got "nuked".

Kids today are already growing up with a significant part of their lives spent virtually, and it's really only a matter of time, but sadly the time isn't now, yet.

Brian Davidson said...

It's an interesting conundrum. There is potential in these virtual worlds, but right now, as you say, there are easier ways to accomplish what the virtual worlds can offer. But, if people who see the potential in virtual worlds don't use them and try to make them better, they'll devolve into the 3-D chatrooms that they're primarily used for now. Somehow we've got to bridge the gap between what we have now and the Metaverse that Neal Stephenson envisioned in Snow Crash.

I know people have used and are using MUDs for virtual communication and collaboration, and worlds like Second Life are trying to build on that. But I worry in some ways they've made it too complicated, having to build storefronts, et cetera, and putting the emphasis on the visual rather than the practical. I know from a professional standpoint, the best use I can get out of virtual worlds is the same I can get out of much simpler IM.