Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Professionalism and Second Life

Tipping the Balance:

If professional communicators see potential in virtual worlds like Second Life, it’s up to us to demonstrate that potential and help pull these worlds back from the Internet’s vast wasteland

Targeted for Intercom magazine

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 – both real and perceived – 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.
• 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.
• They’re obscure – Mention Second Life, The Sims Online, or Active Worlds, and you get a blank look from many over 30.
• They’re unprofessional – Those who have heard of these worlds are likely familiar with pop culture mentions on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, or new stories about Second Life gatherings being interrupted by penis storms. Sexually-oriented businesses, ranging from soft-core pornography to sites where avatars – computer representations of Second Life users – may engage in simulated sex are among the world’s most popular sites, seemingly stimulating Second Life’s growth as pornography stimulated the growth of AOL’s early dial-up Internet services and the triumph of the VHS videocassette format over Betamax.
• They’re unpredictable and somewhat anti-corporate. (Example: the so-called Second Life Liberation Army set off virtual “nuclear devices” near Second Life corporate stores operated by American Apparel and Reebok in an attempt to convince Linden Labs, the San Francisco-area company that created Second Life, to allow Second Life citizens the right to vote on in-world activities.)
• They’re misperceived – They’re games, aren’t they? Or, at best, a novelty. Second Life may give you a chance to walk around a virtual Paris circa 1900, offer a virtual NASA space flight museum and the chance to stroll a virtual Dublin – one of Second Life’s most popular spots – where you can virtually dance and virtually enjoy drinks in a virtual Irish pub. It all sounds like Jerry Seinfeld’s TV show: A place in between places, a place about nothing at all.

These worlds’ greatest weakness, when it comes to applying them in the workplace, may, however, 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 – in the form of twaddling, mundane conversation, senseless commercialization and mass attacks by giant virtual penises – 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.

We found, however, that behind the novelty, there are advantages as well. 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 (discussed in full here:)

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.

We also discovered the process – collaborating in Second Life – 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.

Thus enters the public interest of Second Life and other virtual worlds – much as it entered the world of television when Minow gave his famous speech. “Ours has been called the jet age, the atomic age, the space age. It is also, I submit, the
television age,” Minow wrote. “And just as history will decide whether the leaders of today's world employed the atom to destroy the world or rebuild it for mankind's benefit, so will history decide whether today's broadcasters employed their powerful voice to enrich the people or to debase them.”

The same will be said of the Internet, and of virtual worlds like Second Life.

Second Life and other virtual worlds will join the realm of public interest when those who participate there find ways to make it so. In our own brief excursion, 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, be it an unruly avatar or animated genitalia.
• 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.

The Metaverse Roadmap, a study conducted by the Acceleration Studies Foundation, has the aim of predicting how 3D technologies (such as Google Earth), virtual worlds (such as Second Life) and other computer applications ranging from animation to artificial life will shape the Internet in the future.

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 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.”

Minow saw that potential, mostly untapped, in television. “I believe that the public interest is made up of many interests,” Minow wrote and said back in 1961. “You will get no argument from me if you say that, given a choice between a western and a symphony, more people will watch the western. I like westerns too, but a steady diet for the whole country is obviously not in the public interest. We all know that people would more often prefer to be entertained than stimulated or informed. But your obligations are not satisfied if you look only to popularity as a test of what to broadcast. You are not only in show business; you are free to communicate ideas as well as relaxation.”

Today, that potential lies mostly untapped in virtual worlds. 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. While we still have doubts, we also experienced glimmers of inspiration and vision – one class member met a woman who helped a group set up a Second Life area used to rehabilitate people who had suffered strokes. Others attended Second Life Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Myself, I encountered many people sincere in the belief that valuable work can be done in Second Life, from discussions on NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander to poets who joined together to write poems for hire.

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 past that novelty and turning it into “an instrument of overwhelming impact,” echoing Minow’s words about the potential of television.


Nell Minow said...

Thanks so much for this thoughtful post and for quoting our dad -- we've sent it on to him and he will be very pleased.

Brian Davidson said...

Thank you very much for the praise. (And let this be a lesson that, on the Internet, we never really know who's listening. That doesn't mean we don't speak the truth, but that we do so with dignity.)