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Month: August 2008

The Value in Replicas

The Value in Replicas

Jeremy and I have a recurring argument about replica builds. Well, it’s not an argument so much; mostly I agree with him. He does an excellent presentation describing his point that’s very convincing. There are a lot of replica builds in Second Life. And it’s not really a good thing.

By replicas I mean exact reproductions of real-world locations in Second Life. Spending significant money and time to reproduce, say, your campus down to the most minute detail. Jeremy’s argument is that the purpose behind these builds is primarily branding, and he questions the point of it. You branded a piece of Second Life by building your campus on it, but the campus in world is empty. So what was the point? He anticipates that most of these virtual campuses will start shutting down one by one as they fail to produce any recruitment or interest in the real life institution.

I agree with him, easily, that building a replica of your campus for the purposes of branding is a fairly pointless idea. The population of Second Life is not that big, given that it’s a global system. They claim to have over 14 million residents (at present), but only roughly 500K have logged in in the last 7 days, and to be honest I’ve rarely seen more than 60K on at any given time. Sure, by any human standards that’s a lot of people, but compare that to facebook: 90 million active users. Second Life is a small fish in a big internet; it’s filled with some tourists, some business people, some mavens who love building and coding, and a whole bunch of people who just like hanging out. The chances of any university administration having even a tiny minority of its students in Second Life is pretty minimal. The chances of any university administration having any prospective students in world is practically nil; remember that the minimum age requirement to log into Second Life is 18. I personally assumed that no students at my school have ever logged on until someone caught a glimpse of Second Life on a laptop in the library (so maybe there’s one). Putting things in Second Life to get attention of parents and prospective students simply won’t work. Whose attention are you going to get?

The best thing you can do in Second Life, the wisdom goes (and I don’t dispute it), is create something you can’t create in real life. Create impossible structures; the weather is always great and everyone can fly. Create a physical manifestation of a concept, an idea, a feeling. I’ve tried my hand at this and it has proved compelling. It works. It works and it’s unique, it’s using a tool to do something that breaks the barriers to which we’re accustomed. Doing something that you can’t do anywhere else; that’s the only way to make it worthwhile. There’s no point using the place as a chat room. Too much bandwidth, to expensive to maintain. So when you choose to do something, it needs to be worthwhile.

So replicas: where’s the value?

Same principles. Do something you can’t do in real life. What if you need to build the replica first in order to do that?

Example one:

Build a building in Second Life that doesn’t actually exist yet. Make a movie about it. If I were them, I’d probably use that build for presentations, or displays. Have a character running around inside it, doing a virtual tour, while you’re talking about it. Set up stations and let people log in and wander around through it. Make a movie of it without sound and display it on digital signage. You’re encouraging interest in something that doesn’t exist yet, allaying fears, answering questions, letting people feel like part of the process. What a fantastic idea.

But that’s not quite a replica, is it. It’s realistic, it’s real world, it’s abiding by real world physics and a literal plan, but it’s still something virtual (for now). You could do something similar with a renovation; make the soon-to-be real virtually. But what about things that really do exist?

The standard line does indeed run along branding lines; set up your campus, let people explore it. It’s not a bad idea, at its heart. But maybe it’s not enough to just recreate it. What if you recreate it, but add something impossible to it? Something real, something legitimate, but not something you’d ever get in real life?

One of my very favourite art projects was dotted around the streets of Toronto a few years ago. It was a sign in the shape of an ear, with a cell phone number on it. When you call it, you get a recording, someone telling you about a memory about the spot you’re standing on. It’s like a digital tour of the city, in personal stories. This is hard to do in real life, but relatively easy to do in person. What about a story around every corner? The collected stories of students on your campus, added to regularly. Add them in audio, text, pictures. Bring your campus to personal, legitimate, intimate life. People it not with avatars but with real stories, voices of real people, talking about what it’s like to be there, experiences. Moments of epiphany, stories about coffee with instructors, mentorship, enjoying the beauty of an autumn morning. Sounds of the street, random conversations. The options are really unlimited.

It’s not really so very far from the concept/feeling idea. You can use replicas in the service of those things, as the canvas on which you can build your masterpiece. But the masterpiece needs to be built; it’s not enough to just nail the canvas together. Don’t just brand; convey genuine, honest information. Use the tool to its fullest.

But who’s going to see it? Again, I think it’s something you demonstrate rather than expect people to stumble upon (though: if they do stumble on it, great!). Maybe you make movies; maybe you do something else with it that I can’t think of. Though I think it’s not unlikely that, once built, prospective students would jump in to see something full of stories and information from other students, especially if it grows every year. I imagine it would be a neat project for graduating students. Force number one to contend with: first year students are excited. They’re excited the moment they get that letter of acceptance. They want to pick their courses, meet students, ask questions, buy books. They want any scrap of advice or information they can get. They are keen. And yet for some reason we don’t do a heck of a lot to entertain that energy. We make them wait until September. For some of the less sexy but more useful services (like, say, reference, or interlibrary loan, or career services) that eager time where all information is absorbed with great glee, wouldn’t that be a great moment to express what is really available for them? Maybe they’re the audience, one way or another. And I can’t think of many other places where you could do it.

So I’ve come full circle with the replica build. On its own, not so interesting. But I can see it getting more interesting the more stories you add to it.