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Cancerland at Relay for Life in Second Life

Cancerland at Relay for Life in Second Life


I suspect this is the last iteration of Cancerland, since I don’t think the land its sitting on will be around too much longer. So I really went to town with it. Building it and sharing it has been a great experience.



So: new job title (“Emerging Technologies Librarian”). Definitely something that I wanted to see happen. I feel like it reflects what I actually do a lot better. Though I have pangs of regret when I think about instructional technology, but the lines are still blurry. Now I deliberately look at emerging technologies in teaching and learning, or maybe ones that haven’t quite emerged at all yet. Also emerging technologies as they apply to libraries in general, and our library in particular.

It’s exciting to have a job title that reflects what I’m already doing anyway, but it’s also kind of intimidating. I mean, keeping up with the trends was something I did as a bonus. Suddenly it’s in my job title.

So I was thinking about what trends I’m currently tracking, and I wonder how they fit into the whole “emerging” thing.

Second Life/Virtual Worlds. I’ve been on this one for a while, but I still think it’s emerging. Mostly because I think no one’s popularized the one true way to use virtual worlds in teaching and learning yet. In fact, there are so many wrong ways in practice currently that many people are getting turned off using Second Life in teaching. I’m still interested in it. I’m a builder, I’m interested in what you could use the environment for to build things and have students build things. A giant collaborative place filled with student-created expression of course content would be awesome. So I’m holding on to this one.

Twitter. I can’t believe I’m putting it on the list, but I am. Mostly because I’ve been talking about how great it is at a conference for some time now and I’m starting to see the argument come back to me from much larger places. People complain about what people twitter during events (“Too critical! Too snarky! The audience is the new keynote!”), but that’s pretty much exactly what would make things interesting in a classroom. I want to install the open source version and try it out with a willing instructor. I’m also interested in it for easy website updates, but most people would tell me that that’s a total misuse of the application. (Too bad!)

Ubiquitous Computing. I’ll say that instead of mobile devices. The hardware will come and go, but the concept of ubiquity for computing is fascinating. It’s coming in fits and starts; I want to see how I can push this one in small ways in the library. Computing without the computer. Ideally without a cell phone either. This is something I’m going to track for a good long while. I have this ubiquitous future in my head that seems like a perfect setting for a cyberpunk novel. (I might get around to writing it one of these days.)

Cheap Storage. As a rule hardware isn’t my area, but I’m interested to see what it means that storage capacity is getting so crazily cheap. If I can carry 120 gb in my pocket without even noticing it, what does that mean for computing in general?

Cloud Computing. This goes along with the cheap storage. Jeremy tells me we will never be affected by the cloud because we are a locked down environment for the most part, but I think he might be wrong. Even if we can’t fully employ the cloud because of security and legal limitations, I think the concept of cloud computing will sink into the consciousnesses of our users. We will need to be prepared to offer services as easily as the cloud can.

Netbooks. This fits in with cloud computing and cheap storage; if we can have tiny little computers with us at all times, massive amounts of physical storage and powerful applications coming down from the cloud, what does the world end up looking like?

Social Networks. Embracing the networks you have, on facebook, on IRC, on Twitter, on IM, wherever. Accepting that we are no longer a culture that uses its brain for information storage; we are processors, connectors. We store our knowledge in machines and in our networks. While social software may look like too much fun to be productive, those social networks are what’s going to scaffold us through most of the rest of our lives. Learning how to respectfully and usefully employ our networks as part of our learning (and teaching, for that matter) is an important skill.

There are some other pieces that are just never going to go away: blogging (for librarians!), wikis for everyone, IM: I think we’ve finally reached a point where we can intelligently choose the best tool for the task at hand from an incredible range of options. So I think part of the emerging trend is to use what’s best, not necessarily what’s most powerful, most expensive, or most popular. Things like twitter and netbooks are evidence of that: sometimes you don’t need all the bells and whistles.

So that’s my emerging update of the moment.

Thick Tweets

Thick Tweets

Another follow-up to a tweet, posted in response to David Silver’s attempt to use a Geertzian theory on twitter: bizarre categorization of tweets. With a link, this is “thick”
2:45 PM Feb 25th

I appreciate someone trying to apply thick description to tweets, but I’m not certain David Silver hasn’t missed the mark a bit here.

First: isn’t it frustrating that every time we experiment with web applications, there’s someone somewhere trying to tell us how to do it right? Case in point, back from 2005: “I just spent fifteen minutes clicking through about 20 Xanga sites and I CAN’T FIND ANY BLOGGING GOING ON! Is it me?” (my response). We like these applications to fulfill a pedagogical role, often to improve the profile of the use of the application to other academics and departmental chairs. Current case in point: some researchers/educators using Second Life don’t want to be associated with the “debauchery” of the Second Life Community Conference, and want to break out on their own in order to set the “right” tone.

So now we get to the “right” and “wrong” kinds of tweets. This is a challenging thing, since a tweet is only 140 characters long. Silver encourages students to “pack multiple layers of information within 140 characters or less,” and those layers are defined by links, primarily. Also by shout outs. And mentioning names.

I don’t think thick description is a good way to evaluate a tweet. A tweet’s value isn’t in how much information it’s conveying, it’s in the basic value of the information itself. Personally I quite like funny tweets, regardless of whether they’ve got links in them or not. The context of tweets doesn’t come from the tweet itself, it comes from the environment around the tweet, the news of the day, the location of the user, the user’s other tweets, the user’s blog, flickr stream, employment history, and the live events the user it attending. Tweets are ultimately snippets that don’t necessarily make sense in isolation. I’d suggest that to evaluate them individually is to miss a great deal of their “thickness”.

Some of my favourite tweets:

“Great design comes from an artistic or cultural impulse, not a focus group.”
11:06 PM Jan 24th from web cloudforest

Is there anything more newbish than using Internet Explorer? Question still valid after 12+ years of asking it.
2:31 PM Feb 27th from TweetDeck, BeCircle

Overheard this week: “Lent? That’s the musical with all the AIDS, right?”
3:58 PM Feb 27th from TweetDeck, RJToronto

Still ignoring Facebook 25 things requests, but copying my wife’s idea: I’ll gladly go for coffee/beer and answer them in person instead.
4:03 AM Feb 27th from web, oninformation

These tweets don’t really fulfill Silver’s “thick” requirements, but I find them interesting and valuable. They give me things to think about. How do you quantify the pithiness of 140 characters?

Cancerland Video, version two

Cancerland Video, version two


Everyone I know has already seen the first video, but after watching it myself a few times, I realized what pieces were missing from the build itself. To start: why didn’t I put labels on the spaces? I had names for the pieces, like the hall of terror and the scar display room, so why don’t I put proper labels on things? I also stopped making good use of audio after a certain point in the build. I didn’t want to be a one-trick pony, but I think the audio is very effective. So I added some more. I added some more interactive pieces into my office recreation too.

It’s all a big learning process, that’s for sure. Building something like this isn’t exactly instinctual, that’s for sure, even though I think it’s hitting on some very basic communication methods.

On a tangiential note: I love youtube’s high res options. You can actually read the narrative text through it. Awesome.

Use of Video

Use of Video

I was launched awake at 4:30am this morning thinking about something I probably won’t be able to approach in the next six months, or even possibly not within the next year. Or ever. And yet.

I’m on a small team at work set on getting a brand new website. No facelift; something totally new. We’ve opened up the floodgates and are interested in anything we could do with a good web presence. Mostly I’m dreaming up more interactive things, which is a bit of a pipe dream. Library websites are usually not interactive on the level that I’m thinking about, but I’m still dreaming about it.

So this morning, out of nowhere, a very simple idea pings me and throws me out of bed. Virtual building. Videos. Navigating services and resources.

I’ve been talking about building a replica of our library in Second Life for some time. I want to do it less to get people interested in virtual worlds or in Second Life in particular, but more as a more interesting way to think and talk about the building and its purpose. I don’t want to lure people into Second Life (one of my pet peeves: people judging projects in Second Life by how many people who experience it stick around in-world). I’d rather they glean what they need from the experience and move forward in whatever way makes the most sense to them.

I want to have it more like an exhibit, a thing you look at and interact with in public places.

But then I was thinking: it would be dead easy, once you have such a replica build, to create short videos about how to get places. For instance: on our new website, we will probably have a section on reference services. Well, why not have a short video that shows you how to find the reference staff? It’s not exactly crystal clear in the building itself. Or how to find the technology centre, or the smart classroom, or the fiance learning centre. Or places for quiet study. Or places for group work. Bathrooms. Gosh, anything! Not a map: we already have those. But actually watching a person do it. Going down the stairs, turning right after the elevators, chosing the door on the left rather than on the right. Going up the stairs, turning left at the water fountain. The details that non-map people use to navigate their world.

Well, that’s not the idea that woke me up. The idea that woke me up was about videos that create themselves. I don’t know much about video, but I presume that’s not impossible; a video that is generated from pieces of existing video and strung together based on the circumstances of a particular set of variables. Does this take forever for a system to accomplish? What woke me up was this: wouldn’t it be awesome if you did a search for a book or journal, and the system showed you a video of an avatar walking up to the stacks and moving toward exactly where that book should be? If we had RFID on all the books this would be even more precise, but we should be able to roughly guess where a book (that isn’t checked out) ought to be. To the shelf, at least. And I got thinking about it because I was thinking about mobile devices, and having such a video play on a mobile device to help you navigate the stacks. A little bandwidth-heavy, but it was just a half-awake sort of thought.

Hacking Say and Reviving ELIZA Webcast

Hacking Say and Reviving ELIZA Webcast

Jason and I are doing a webcast on Wednesday, January 14th as the discussion arm of our article, Hacking Say and Reviving ELIZA. The article is our first attempt to consider our prior work in virtual worlds (text-based MOOs) in light of developments like Second Life. We still have a lot more thinking to do on the subject, as it’s a big one; we learned a lot back in the 90s about using virtual worlds in teaching and learning, and in constructing immersive experiences, and we want to bring our knowledge forward in a thoughtful, considered way.

Please feel free to join us to talk about these things. The article is really just a starting point for us, both professionally and as part of this discussion; we’re interested in a lot of topics re: immersion in virtual worlds, the lessons from MOO/MUD/MUSH, the directions we’d like to see virtual worlds heading, discussion of current projects, etc. Second Life is the darling of the moment, but we’re interested in the tools generally, not so much the company specifically, and even discussing what a future education-based virtual world might look like based on what we sense right now. Would there be one, or several, or would every school maintain their own? What’s the right thing? What about informal learning? How do we find the right blend to ensure the richest possible tools and experience?

Want to join us? The webcast is at 6pm EST, and you can find us here.



I finally managed to get a video of Cancerland. This way you can get a sense of how the audio fits in with the visual. The text remains a mystery in this format, unfortunately. I’ll have to find some other way to get that information across. The narrative is really held together by the text.


When do you become a Survivor?

When do you become a Survivor?

In the SL cancer survivors group meeting today, a friend raised the question of the definition of the term “survivor”. For most of us, we understood it as being a person who has gone into remission. But that’s not the definition they use. (And by “they” I think I mean the American Cancer Society.) To them, you become a survivor the moment you get your diagnosis.

We debated that. I understand wanting to use the term that way, to help people stay out of victimhood. (Though: sometimes you really are a victim. Do we use the world “survivor” to obscure this fact? Is it healthy to obscure it?) The leader of the group is a fan of this method, and I’m sympathetic to her motives. Who wants to tell someone that they’re a victim right now, but one day soon they’re going to move into the role of survivor? (Now that I think of it, that doesn’t sound all that bad at all.) We discussed the concept at some length. Many of us had moments where we felt we moved into survivorship; for some, you become a survivor the moment you decide to fight back. The youngest of us in the group (aged 26, stage 4 lymphoma, currently in remission) says he decided to fight back a second after he got the diagnosis.

I didn’t. For the first few weeks I felt that my incision belonged to my surgeon. I wasn’t a “survivor”. I was a battleground. I felt very passive. Now, even though I’m still struggling with some after effects and I probably have another 6 months before I start to get back to being my old self, I feel like a survivor. I think it might come when you decide to claim it.

I’m not even sure what that means.

At the beginning it was only fear, a fate I couldn’t bear to think about. It was too big for me to cope with. Once the surgery was over with, I felt certain that it didn’t matter to me anymore, the treatment was already done, right? The thing was out, it was over. I underestimated the importance of that final, confirmed diagnosis. It was cancer. I couldn’t say the word. I thought I had accepted it then, but I really hadn’t.

Through treatment I felt like I was going through the motions laid out by my doctor and the nuclear techs. I did what I was told, exactly the way I was told to do it. I clung to the lists of rules. I didn’t take shortcuts. It was like dance by numbers, follow the pattern of feet on the floor. Except in my case it was the outline of my body, and my job was to lay down and wait it out. I didn’t feel like a survivor then either. I felt pretty much like a puppet whose strings are pulled by someone more knowledgeable and more powerful. I was an avatar of cancer treatment.

I didn’t feel like a survivor when the depression sunk in, when I couldn’t stop crying. When my hips burned in pain. I didn’t feel like a survivor when I struggled just to walk from my bedroom to the bathroom. I definitely didn’t feel like a survivor the day after my wedding, when getting out of bed caused pain in every joint and all I wanted to do was lie down and cry.

I didn’t even feel like a survivor when my endocrinologist gave me the first all clear. (Hopefully I’ll get the second all clear in a couple of weeks when I see her again. Apparently this life is going to be a series of all-clears, or the opposite. If you never have cancer, you don’t get told that you still don’t have it. But once you’ve had it, I guess they’re always going to be checking, and giving me the all-clear, again and again and again. Unless I’m unlucky.) You’d think that would be the moment, when you’re finished and it’s gone. Nope.

I think I started to feel like a survivor when started building it and communicating about it. I blogged about it all the way along, that isn’t what I mean. There was something pretty magical about turning it into virtual-physical form that made a huge difference. It made me less afraid. No, not less afraid: less in denial. Once I turned the experience into something concrete, and other people started experiencing it with me in this way, telescoped out with lots of discussion and questions, it was then I started to feel like a survivor.

Maybe you become a survivor when you’re no longer in denial about what’s happening to you. You survive the denial, you move past it. It’s harder to move past cancer. Maybe we need more words for this. Words that pop into mind that are useful: victim (because let’s face it; this is one of the stages we go through), battleground, warrior, survivor.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through all this it’s that there aren’t enough words in the English language. Not by a long shot.

Made the Front Page!

Made the Front Page!

Check it out! Hot off the presses: the latest edition of the Metaverse Messenger, with Dulcie Mills and Verde Otaared’s article, “Cancerland offers a close look at disease”, profiling my build in Second Life. I kind of sound like an airhead, since I couldn’t really claim to have built it for the good of cancer survivors, and I have no good sound bites for the how and why or what of it. Ah well. Poppy and Feeg, who I met through the American Cancer Society’s support group in world, had some great and very kind quotations in there too. There’s my rather crappy model of a tumour on the front cover! OMG my 15 minutes of fame have begun!

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.

Tell me a Story

Tell me a Story

A message I sent to the Second Life in Education Mailing list today:

I was just listening to the latest Radio Lab episode, which summed up a great deal of what I’d argue Second Life has to offer academic communication: the tools to create interactive, powerful, immersive and engaging narrative out of scholarly ideas and works. In this podcast, Robert Krulwich talks about the long conflict between “popular” means of communication and the sciences, and how that stand-off between them has resulted in the dramatic gulf between the ivory tower and everyone else. He links it directly to the power of the anti-evolution front springing forth from the US and spreading out over the world, because the anti-evolution front has an excellent *story* to tell, while science has agreed that story is not useful, is “play”, and science must be “work” and “fact” rather than metaphor and play.

At the same time I’m currently reading Julian Dibbell‘s excellent book Play Money, which underscores the odd divide western culture places between work and play, even when it becomes startlingly clear that productive work and play are by no means seperate entities.

So this podcast brings together these ideas; metaphor, story, and “play” have a valid place even in academic/scientific communication. Play and metaphor doesn’t cheapen or simplify ideas; it merely makes their implications strike us at deeper levels than mere facts. They are the driving mechanism for facts, perhaps. The means to deliver information.

And really, since language is really just a derivative of song, how is metaphor any less frivilous a means than singing?

Second Life, and and any other constructivist worlds that have appeared before and will appear in future, provides the tools to communicate concepts and ideas in a different, more emmersive way. In a way more like play, more like story, with a strong metaphor. I think this is crucially valuable.

Goals in Second Life

Goals in Second Life

From Harry E. Pence, “The homeless professor in Second Life,” Journal of Educational Technology Systems, Vol. 26, 2 (2007): 171-177.

Some people try to classify Second Life as a game. If Second life is a game, it is a most unusual game, since it does not define goals for winning nor is there any method for keeping score. Each resident is responsible for defining his or her personal goals. Setting goals is just as important in Second life as it is in real life. The failure to regonize this fact may explain why many people drop out in frustration after only a short time in Second life. The confusion about goals has probably also contributed to the various articles in the popular press that focus on the sexual aspects of SL; pornographers have established a robust business model by preying upon those who are confused about what to do.

I love this idea of thinking about goals. Reading this paragraph gave me a mini-ephiphany. Unlike traditional game spaces, the system doesn’t give you goals; you need to come in with them, or develop them as you go. If you’re not prepared to provide your own internal motivation and structure, Second Life will indeed seem pointless.

IBM Partitions SL: It Might Not Be a Bad Thing

IBM Partitions SL: It Might Not Be a Bad Thing

Jeremy and I fundamentally disagree about this, but I think this isn’t an entirely bad idea. The gist: IBM and Linden labs have teamed up to create an entirely protected space within Second Life where IBM employees can talk without being interrupted or overheard by other Second Life users. There is an argument in the virtual worlds sphere that holds that Second Life, or virtual worlds in general, are only any good if they’re entirely public. Locking off pieces will reduce creativity and is counterproductive, goes the train of thought.

To me, as long as you can bring objects in and out of locked spaces, I think this is a fantastic development for education. If IBM can lock off a portion of the world, and create new land within in it for their own use, that means educational institutions can do the same thing. I bet IBM will have a public portion (for PR) and a private portion (for work); this would be an excellent example to institutions, who could collaborate on a joint public zone, where all participant institutions could have a storefront (so to speak) for recruitment and public event purposes, and then a private area where their classrooms and sandboxes live, protected for the moment while they’re still in flux. There could also be a space in the public, shared display area to showcase excellent builds and projects created within their private zones. Additionally, in an ideal world, each institutions libraries would take charge of archiving projects and builds that, with permission of course, could be “loaned out” to other students/institutions for academic purposes. So if someone creates an excellent historical build that sits in display for a while and then moves to archives, another instructor could borrow it for a class, and have students from another institution wander through it for a week or two as part of their preparatory reading. Students should absolutely get credit for it, too.

Having a public area and a private area for students allows instructors to keep students in a protected area when required, but would also allow them to use Second Life as a virtual universe to explore at the same time; while many people are concerned about the wild west mentality that pervades some elements of Second Life, a private launch pad would allow students to find their feet before moving into the more diverse parts of the space. It would also put land use in the hands of the institution, which I think is a key part of creating coursework builds.

I just don’t think this kind of structure is possible given the current land organization and administration.

I would never have imagined that IBM enclosing space in a virtual world would ever seem like such a positive step forward for the rest of us, but it seems that way to me!

Virtual Worlds, Ooh La La!

Virtual Worlds, Ooh La La!

Thanks to the lovely Tracy Kennedy for this one: What happens in the virtual world has real world impact.

People assume that, if anything, online activities emanate from offline lives. But Mr. Bailenson and his colleagues have shown the reverse. Their experiments demonstrate, for instance, that people who watch their avatars — cartoonlike versions of themselves — gain weight from overeating are more likely to adopt a weight-loss plan in real life.

As Jason noted, this isn’t actually a new finding, as amazed and awed as the academic world appears to be. I’m happy that people are finally paying attention to virtual worlds, because I find them rich and fascinating and full of potential. Reading this article reminds me of Richard Bartle‘s excellent reaction to virtual worlds media coverage from a few weeks ago:

Now I’m in a bit of a quandry here. On the one hand, I want more research on virtual worlds and don’t want to discourage people from doing it, but on the other hand, this is just slapdash and slipshod. The authors seem to believe they have stumbled across an unresearched area, ripe for consideration; actually, it’s a well-researched area, and their belief that it’s virgin territory merely exposes their ignorance.

Feels like we’re fighting a losing battle on that front; it looks like we’re just destined to reinvent the wheel on virtual worlds. Unless we want to get our act together and get a real book out there? I think we have an article in revision to get to work on, Jason!

Ritual and Virtual Worlds

Ritual and Virtual Worlds

I went to an interesting set of presentations this morning about ritual as performed in virtual worlds. The first thing that stuck out for me is that everyone has a different working definition of the word ‘ritual’. For some, everything is a ritual, everything we do, from sitting in a room listening to an instructor or presenter to accepting the eucharist. Because of that wide definition, all kinds of things got crammed into a session about “ritual” and I’m not sure I’m completely in favour of that. For instance, one of the “rituals” presented was online gaming activities, like trying to kill a dragon in online Dungeons and Dragons. Gathering together and attempting to complete a task communally is ritualistic (hiding behind a rock, everyone with their task to accomplish, the order in which people stand in the virtual world, etc.). I can understand how there are traditions and customary activities in that context, but I seriously hesitate to call them rituals. That’s like calling everything that has any impact an icon, which I’m also not delighted about.

But the key piece that I’m going to take away from the presentations and the discussion is the sense I got that in moving ritual and religious experience online, we’ve in a sense brought it back to an earlier form. Religious authorities are not the only ones with rituals to preside over and religious knowledge to impart, and much as christian leaders needed to fight with local ritual and knowledge to be heard in a medieval and early modern European context, so modern religious leaders need to cope with the influx of religious information and authority that’s available online. And one of the points of discussion was this: can you have a legitimate ritual without a body? Apparently there is some debate around this. Can you? My goodness, how can you not? If Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila were given the opportunity to worship God in a ritual that did not include their physical bodies in any way, they would have jumped at it, I’m sure. Christianity has traditionally had such disdain for the physical body, I don’t understand how anyone could suggest that there’s even a question about whether the virtual ritual is possible. The virtual ritual has been the most desireable kind since medieval christians climbed up on pillars and stood on one foot for 10 years. Remove the impact of the body, remove it from your consciousness, and then you are free to approach the divine with your lustful, sinful flesh tamed and left behind. In many ways, Second Life ritual could be seen as the consumate religious experience.

Can the same be said for jewish ritual, however? Jewish traditions isn’t nearly as flesh-hating, and jewish ritual respects the physicality of the performing the ritual itself, often above the intellectual understanding of it. Perhaps jewish ritual cannot move into a virtual context, but I’d suggest that christian ritual absolutely can.

An interesting morning! I never though my Master of Theological Studies degree would could in handy at an internet researchers’ conference, fancy that!

Hacking Say

Hacking Say

Jason already blogged it, so I suppose I should too. In order to qualify for the Second Life all-day workshop at AoIR‘s Internet Research Conference (“Let’s Play“), Jason Nolan (Assistant Professor at the school of Early Childhood Education at Ryerson University) and I wrote a paper called Hacking Say, Chat Fatigue, Generics and Davy Jones’ Locker: Is there a Second Life in MOO?” Essentially, it’s a retrospective of the work we did in MOO, primarily based around the problems we faced using a virtual environment in an educational context and the solutions we devised to account for them. The entire paper is written in light of work we’re presently doing in Second Life; a sort of compare and contrast of the two worlds and some musing on whether or not what we learned and what we created in MOO has application in Second Life.

Networked Imagination and Persistence

Networked Imagination and Persistence

The education keynote at the SLCC conference this morning was by Connie Yowell of the MacArthur Foundation. She brought up a range of interesting things, but one of the key ideas she presented relates to the idea of connectivism as key to teaching and learning. In this context, she called it networked imagination. Her general premise is that virtual worlds can be the result of a single person’s imagination, but it supports the possibility of people building upon the imagination of others.

This is true on a variety of levels in Second Life; you can copy, collect, and often modify objects originally created by others, but true sharing of builds is difficult. I had lunch with Ali Andrews from the University of Northern Illinois, who pointed out that co-construction is fraught with practical difficulties; each prim in the build needs to have its permissions switched by its original creator to allow co-editing, a process which is tedious and easy to forget on a single prim. In a build that shared, if a single prim isn’t jointly editable, and the collection of objects (making up, say, a single building, or other larger item made up of a collection of individual prims) is placed into someone’s inventory, the next time it comes out into the open, the entirety of it becomes uneditable by both builders. It’s easier to build alone and share your creation, but actually allowing multiple builders, actually doing what Connie suggested, is more complicated. Co-ownership is a difficult proposition.

But more seriously (in my mind) is the problem of ongoing shared space. There’s a wonderful video of a build from start to finish that replicates Van Gogh’s “A Starry Night”; the point of the build was to make the video, the point of the video is to demonstrate the build. In the build, you could stand in one particular spot and see the world exactly the way you see it in the painting. I think it’s amazing, and it saddens me deeply that I can’t go in world and see it. It’s gone. I don’t know how long it stuck around, but I’m told that the point of these videos (machinima) is not to create the builds for posterity, or even in order for others to experiences it in person (so to speak), but only to create the video. I used to bring everyone I knew onto Info Island to show them an audio art exhibit where you could run through sounds and make your own little a capella music, but one day it just vanished. It was a temporary build, and no one seemed to have offered to keep it around. So it’s just gone.

You can build on the creation of someone else’s imagination only as long as that construct exists in world; so much is so incredibly temporary. If you wanted to house something long term, you’d need to pay for the space to put it somewhere. And you’d need to pay regularly. If someone builds something marvelous and useful to the world, but then moves on to other worlds or other projects, you lose that build. Even if the creator of the build is supportive of others taking on custodial ownership of their build, there’s very little structure in place to hook up those creators with people who are prepared to house their creations; in fact, there are no resources around for long-term build storage. Small items, say, a dress or a shirt, are unlikely to disappear, but large builds (like, say, the recreation of the sistine chapel), most certainly will.

I’m a fan of ephemeria. I’m a very big advocate of it, in fact; I don’t feel great about generic blog archiving, for instance, because I believe strongly in the space between permanent record published material (like books), and unrecoraded/ephermal material (like ideas or dinner conversation). This is something I love about the internet, how it takes “publish” and makes it more fluid and flexible. I think there’s a huge place for public, “published”, ephemeral material whose existance depends entirely on the will of the author. But I have the luxury of feeling that way about blogs. There are tons of services that provide long-term storage for blogs, so its not as if the world of the blogosphere is likely to disappear any time soon. Holding on to a blog, or letting your blog just stay up dormant, costs little to nothing. What bothers me so much about the disappearing Second Life builds is that there really is no way to hold on to them. An abandoned blog (so very common) is still a blog, and is still readable; an abandoned build in Second Life just doesn’t exist at all. In fact, the system encourages you to destroy your builds if you lose interest in them; the land you built it on is valuable, and you can sell it for serious amounts of money. Second Life is the most ephemeral space I’ve ever seen.

Rather than set up more reference desks in Second Life, I wish the librarians in-world could instead start collecting builds. Lots of builders would love to either have their build on permanent (or semi-permanent?) display in a central location, or have it sunk into a catalogue where it can be recreated by others for short times. Borrow the sistine chapel or van gogh for a couple of weeks for a class, say. Networked imagination is a great idea, but Second Life without some means of archiving and sharing is not going to allow for that in the long term. The MacArthur folks seem interested in philanthropy in digital worlds;I have a hard time imagining much that’s more important than that.

Power, Control, and Instruction

Power, Control, and Instruction

I’ve been working on a paper for AoIR‘s Second Life Workshop in October, revisiting the issues and challenges we faced in a text-based virtual world and the solutions we developed to wrestle with them. One of the things that’s been so surprising abotu Second Life is how familiar it felt when I first walked in; no matter how shiny the technology seems to become, it remains fairly similiar to the old text-based worlds in terms of useability and structure. And we seem to still be addressing the exact same issues. But looking at our challenges and solutions (former and current) brings home to me one of the central elements of education: power and control.

Power is one of those perennial issues; you can try to weed it out of your classroom, but its shoots are hardy and wiggle their way into all kinds of unexpected nooks and crannies. Power is written into the layout of the furniture, the structure of assessment and evaluation, the lecture style of instruction, and deep into the minds of students who have had a lifetime of being drilled in its norms and expectations. Even in a perfectly Marxist, radical classroom, where the instructor wears only jeans and a ratty t-shirt and regularly challenges his own authority, where every other privilege and dominant hierarchy has been unpacked and tossed out the window, the simple student/instructor power structure remains. Teachers have more power than they often seem to recognize. Maybe you get used to it after a while, and it becomes something you only notice in its absence.

There are two perspectives you can take on power and control in education, as far as I can tell; you can vow to dismantle it (which, it seems to me, primarily results in instructors dismantling the elements of power they don’t like/can recognize while retaining the parts that they do like/can’t recognize), or accept it and use it thoughtfully, purposefully, and as ethically as possible. The former seems like the right idea, but more and more I’m starting to wonder if the latter isn’t the more successful approach. More pragmatic and less idealized, I suppose, but if your end goal is create an ideal instructional environment where real learning can actually take place (far be it from me to suggest that a teacher can create learning in students, isn’t that yet another form of power and control that’s just assumed?), then maybe the ends justify the means.

In reviewing our old attempts to create classroom environments in a pure-text universe, it seems we spent a lot of time trying to control the speech and movement of students. (Unethical fascist! Micromanaging control freak! shouts the peanut gallery, yes, I can hear you from here, thanks for your input.) A lot of the overwhelm problems we had with students was based in the complete democracy of the space. The democracy of the space is what we love about it, honestly, but it has its upsides and its downsides. When a person speaks in a virtual world, they are no more or less important than any other person in the room; if the instructor gives a series of instructions, but fifteen students pipe up at the same time with playful exclamations, the instructor’s serious words are no more or less noticable, no more or less likely to be read by the rest of the class. When students come into a classroom, sit down and start chatting with each other, they hush when the instructor makes the typical motions that indicate that he is ready to speak. There is a culture of highlighting and adding weight to the words of some over others in a classroom. No matter how communal the instructor feels his classroom is, there is an element of power in his mere presence. There are no such traditions in virtual worlds. This is a good thing; this is also a painful roadblock.

Confronted with students who can’t make out what’s important and not when entering a virtual world (why, it’s all important, and up to you to determine which parts are important to you, says the peanut gallery, yes yes, I know, bear with me for a moment), we developed some tools to give us a hand. The web interface we were using gave all exits from a given room as links in a web window. Students would click on them, not knowing they were moving in and out of the classroom space, and missing half of the conversation. They didn’t mean to do it, they just didn’t know how to manoevre yet. They would get lost, or get confused, or get exasperated. So we built a very simple little tool.

Before we learn that classrooms are spaces with clear power distinctions and rules we have to follow, getting us in a group to do something together is like herding cats. So when we’re small, and out on a field trip to see the dinosaurs in the museum, they have us all hold on to a piece of rope. It shows us the relationships we have to the other students in a very concrete and physical way, and also makes very clear who’s got power and control over us in this situation. (Can we unpack the concept of “control” for a moment to see it’s upsides as well? The person leading us at the front end of the rope knows where she’s going, she’s serving a useful purpose. When we hold on to the rope, we’re doing it because we were told to, but also because we want to; we’re complicit in this power relationship. We want to go see the dinosaurs. We don’t want to get lost. The control is not in the person herself, but in what they have to offer right here and now.) With the rope, we can be safely brought to one place to experience something together; we can avoid the confusion of learning all the steps to a particular place in order to get there. That piece of rope is a particular bit of scaffolding to get us all literally and figuratively from one place to another. It’s a ramp to get us over the big procedural learning curve it would take to get there on our own.

We wrote virtual rope. (Well, by “we” I mean Catspaw.) We needed to get students over that hurdle so that they could see the point of learning how to do it on their own. We took control in order to help students come to grips with the meaning of a space, and then gave it back.

I’m still conflicted about power and control in an instruction/learning situation. I don’t want to restrict what students can and can’t do; I want them to explore and build their own knowledge. I’m conflicted by the fact that sometimes taking power and control by the horns and using it deliberately to show students where the tools are, how to use them, how to get comfortable with them and then dismantling it afterwards has good effects.

I just finished writing about a space within a virtual world where I hacked the script on a room that allows students to talk. I actually removed their ability to speak. I knew there were ethical issues with it when I did it, and remember how cautiously I trod with it, but strangely it was shockingly successful, and didn’t put people off at all. Can we be forgiven for these deliberate grabs for power in an instructional situation if it results in a more engaged and motivated student? (NO! shouts the peanut gallery. Okay, okay, mea culpa.)

Voice in Second Life

Voice in Second Life

Second Life is moving toward integrated voice capability. This isn’t news at this point; it’s moved onto the main grid now, and it’s only a matter of time (less rather than more) before it becomes an everyday, standard feature. There has been much discussion about what voice will do to interactions within SL; some people believe it will be so revolutionary that it will fundamentally change the way this particular virtual environment functions, and some others believe that voice is the path toward ultimate destruction.

Personally, I don’t think it’s that big a deal.

I mean, technically, it is a big deal; it’s an amazing thing. If you try it out, you’ll see what I mean. It’s not internet audio like I remember it back when I used AIM to talk to people overseas. Press the button, talk, release, listen: it’s like talking on CB radios. Second Life voice is not like that. It’s not tinny and distant like skype can be, either. Voice in Second Life is more like voice in real life than anything else I’ve ever seen. Everyone can talk at once; you get overlapping voices when many people are talking to each other, not cancelling each other out, but competing with each other. The people who are closer to you are louder, while people who are walking away from you get progressively quieter. I had the interesting experience of standing in a valley by a river with a friend on the beta grid and hearing conversations floating past as others walking near our location; it’s an amazingly rich way to process information, giving Second Life a depth that’s difficult to fully quantify. It has always had its three dimensions in terms of movement, but the flexibility of the voice features highlights them in ways that are incredibly powerful. The idea of this was already buried in the system; people’s text greys out as they’e farther away from you. But the audio factor is so much clearer in defining and describing distance and space. I’ve always found audio cues particularly powerful, so the voice features appeal to me.

But I don’t think voice chat is going to destroy anything. Not really.

There are a variety of arguments for why voice is destructive. The obvious: people whose avatars don’t reflect their physical realities are on their way to becoming exposed. Female avatars belonging to real-life men, for instance; possibly age will be reabable though voice (unlikely, in my opinion). Those with hearing challenges will be left out, as will people who are shy or don’t have a mic, who will disappear into the wallpaper. Wired noted that voice destroys the kind of level playing field that the text-based world provides by hiding age/culture distinctions that might otherwise keep users in their respective silos. It brings in a level of the real world that, in the case of World of Warcraft in particular, apparently isn’t very welcome. Having our preconceptions about others challenged is uncomfortable. Going along with other people preconceptions of us can sometimes be useful, and voice might endanger that.

You could make the same arguments for text, in many ways. Lots of us are pretty good at working out who’s probably male and who’s probably female in text anyway. (And I’m not talking about the gender genie, but that’s a post for another time.) And it’s not as if we can really hide our age and experience from people with whom we spend significant time. Educational level, etc. becomes clear fairly quickly in text. Pure text conversation excludes a significant number of people as well; it’s not as if text is more pure and predjudice-free than voice.

But I’m primarily convinced that voice won’t alter much because I don’t think voice is going to supplant text in Second Life.

I was talking to Catspaw last night about voice in WoW, and the way she described it pretty much matched up with what I expect we’ll see; voice takes its place as one element in the mix, an authoritative feature used in very specific circumstances with requirements that can make use of its advantages. In her case, she said the voice channel is what you use when the leader of a group needs to get information to everyone else really fast. In the case of Second Life, it might be a short bit of instruction or a story that everyone in a place wants to hear. I will likely be immediate, intimate, ephemeral, and short. In the case of Second Life, it’s not private by any means (your “ears” in Second Life are attached to your camera, not your avatar; you can zoom in on people and listen to a conversation even if you’re not that close to them). You can’t walk away from a voice chat (though, Catspaw says you can, you just need to crank the volume, but that crack aside). Voice chat ties you to a window in ways that text doesn’t. If someone hears you talking in response, you can’t very well be multi-tasking and catching up at intervals (which, I suspect, is how many people manage text chats…at least, that’s how I manage them). Voice chat is more like a real life conversation; if you don’t answer immediately, people will think you’re not paying attention (which you aren’t) and will be offended. For spurts of information, I think voice will be very useful, but I don’t think it will really push out those who doesn’t want to use it. Most people will use text for chatter because it requires less effort and allows for the ability to read up. (Even if they added a “listen to the last 5 minutes you missed” feature, you’d still get dragged out of the immediacy of the voice chat moment.)

And some people don’t have mics, that’s just reality. They can still listen in, though, and respond. If someone really didn’t want to use their voices, they could just say that they don’t have a mic and don’t really like talking into one anyway. I can’t imagine too many people would find that odd. Even I found it a bit daunting to experiment with the voice feature on the beta grid, and it’s hard to find someone more gregarious than I am. Voice is sort of like stepping up on stage in middle school to give your speech in front of all your peers; even for the pathologically un-shy, it’s a bit unnerving.

I expect the full introduction of voice in Second Life will go something like this: voice comes in, there’s a flurry of activity around it for a while, people talking to old friends for the first time, listening to people’s accents and luxuriating in the quality of their voices, feeling, possibly, distance because the tenor of the voices is different than expected, and then eventually things settling down and returning to normal, and returning, primarily, to text. Voice will probably get used, but only in specific circumstances that call for it. I think this is very literally about the addition of a feature rather than the replacement of another.

From an Ed Tech perspective, I think the introduction of voice is going to be amazing; it means we don’t need to set up live streaming to bring talks into Second Life. Audio chat comes with a certain amount of built-in authority; we used to run into problems with getting a message out to everyone in a class through text, because the set up of text is democratic in nature and doesn’t specially highlight the teacher’s words over everyone else’s. I’m in favour of that breakdown of authority on most levels and in most circumstances, but providing an authoritative channel like voice means we can acknowledge that the authority that exists, alows us to use it thoughtfully and meaningfully when we need it, and let us deliberately distribute it among the students when it’s required. For instance, we could have students take turns presenting via voice chat, and allow others to type their reactions and questions and feedback as text. It allows for a kind of visible backchannel that doesn’t need to take away from the presentation itself. It means many people can “talk” at once without interrupting each other; that was always been the beauty of text. (Me and Jason sometimes tell each other stories at the same time in text, stories that get twisted together but both get across at the same time.) Personally, I can’t sit through presentations anymore without talking back; at the moment I’m restricted to the number of questions I can ask before I feel like I’m dominating the group, and my various text-based backchannel options (which drag me out of the immediate room rather than keeping me in it). Voice brings to Second Life the function that conferencing software already has; text from the peanut gallery and voice from the presenter, and then the option of voice for the peanut gallery, who generally prefer to stick to text. If anything, the introduction of voice to Second Life is a challenge to conference software packages; there’s no sense of presence in those as it stands. Second Life would be a much more fun place to hold a conference once it gets easy voice chat.

But I guess we’ll soon see.

Reference, Transcripts, and Ethics in SL

Reference, Transcripts, and Ethics in SL

Librarian spy

So here’s the situation: I dropped into the Info Island Reference Desk because someone asked me what librarians in Second Life look like. A neat question, I thought. How do librarians represent themselves when they can look like anything they want? Do they look like traditional librarians, with glasses and buns and sensible shoes, or do they mix it up and look more radical? So I thought I’d drop in and see if I could take some pictures of people to show the variety of looks librarians sport. But this is what I found instead: a librarian sitting in a chair with text over his head saying he’s just listening in to reference questions. (click the picture to see it bigger; the key parts are the hovering text over him, and probably also the two lines of chat in the bottom right corner. That tells you how people were reacting to the fellow!)

Does this seem appropriate to you? I mean, would we let someone just hover around the reference desk and record to the kinds of questions people ask us? This guy is sitting there completely mute. He’s probably away from his computer, so the joy for him will be in reading the transcript. I make no secret whatsoever about my issues with transcripts; I found this guy entirely creepy. He’s sitting in his chair, staring blankly out at us, recording everything we say. We apparently give our permission by merely being in the space. Since this is a reference point, this basically says, if you want to ask a question, you have to let this guy record it. And newbies may not realize that that’s what’s going on. I have a bad feeling about this.

He didn’t mean anything by it, I know it. He just wanted to get a sense of the kinds of questions that are asked at a SL reference point. He’s trying to learn. I understand that, but I think this approach is a classic example of misundertsanding the nature of a virtual environment. While it might look like it’s just another form of virtual reference software, it’s important to remember that you have a body in Second Life. You have presence and you can intimidate people. Someone plonking down in your living room and staring into space, with a tape recorder in their hands, is going to be saying something to the occupants, even if he says nothing at all. While body language is a null issue in traditional virtual reference software (I didn’t think it was time to attach the word “traditional” to vref, but there you go), body language has real meaning in a virtual space, and we need to be conscious of that. It would have been wiser to ask to shadow a reference librarian in action in SL rather than to just sit around and listen while afk. Actually participate in the process, like reference librarians in training tend to do. Watch and learn, participate and learn, interact and learn. The things we do in real life often work pretty well in an immersive digital world.

Is it respectful to record people’s conversations at the reference desk in real life? Why would we do it here? It’s possible here, of course; you can always record the conversations around you. It’s just transcripts, it’s just text. But in SL it’s not just text; it’s more personal than that. While it’s possible to record and study every word that’s said in SL, I expect librarians to be more thoughtful and more careful about patron privacy. We live by it in our work lives, so why shouldn’t it carry over? Why is it so difficult to bring the rules of real life social engagement into a digital world? Is it because, in the end, it’s hard to believe in the place and the people inside it? Is it too easy to dehumanize the virtual?

I used to run into that in text based environments. It was just too difficult to read closely and feel the three dimensions in text. But this is a three dimensional world, with human-like avatars. I would think it would be easier to humanize our presence there. But maybe I’m wrong about that.

Listen to Live Music in SL

Listen to Live Music in SL

This is pretty cool, there’s a group of us hanging out in a Second Life cafe, listening to live music. The quality is pretty great, too; no lag, no skipping.

Live Music streaming through Second Life
Music in Second Life

I really love the way we can listen to one stream all together, and still be all in the same room virtually, interacting and reacting to what we’re hearing. We’re able to communicate with the musician and everything!

(Virtual) Comfort is Key

(Virtual) Comfort is Key

Can I get one of these for my office? I just can’t think of a situation that wouldn’t be improved by having a great big basket full of pillows and blankets in it.laundry basket cat nap

Or, possibly, one of these.
cat nap

I’m really happy to see these kinds of very comfortable spaces and poses in Second Life. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t like to see her avatar standing for too long, or sitting in a way that appears uncomfortable. I’m also the kind who always offers a seat to people who drop by, because, while technically we’re just as comfortable standing as sitting, standing around just makes it feel like a less committed conversation. Someone somewhere is probably writing a master’s dissertation on the qualitative and quantitative differences in conversations between avatars who are standing versus sitting.

Now, here’s something you’re unlikely to ever be able to do in real life, unless you have a much wackier real life than mine:
bathing in milk
Bathing in a bowl of milk. My avatar’s skin is flawless, I tell you.

Diving into the Metaverse

Diving into the Metaverse

For the last week or so I’ve been spending some quality time getting to know Second Life. It seems to be all the rage right now in librarianship; in fact, what pushed me in that direction just now was a combination of collegial enthusiasm (from Jason) and a variety of presentations and teasers from libraries all over the place that made me feel like, gosh, I’ve missing something crucial while I’m running around implementing a learning management system; I should look up and see what’s going on.

Full disclaimer: immersive virtual environments is how I came by my honest love of things interactive, so this has been something I’ve been meaning to do for a while. Some of my personal interests have been relegated to the lowest tier of my attention lately, because a lot of my thought and time is dominated by what those around me want and need. Synchronous environments are my first true love, so it was just a matter of time before I dove into Second Life to see what was going on.

What I knew about Second Life before I logged was that it was based on the Metaverse, a fictional vision of the internet found in Neal Stephenson’s 1990 book, Snow Crash. The Metaverse built on the sense of place fostered by MUD, IRC, and BBSs, and took it a thousand steps farther; while characters in Snow Crash are logged on to the internet, they are in a shadow world, where their status is different than their real life ones, their connections are in the room with them while logged in from across the planet, and the digital streets were filled with billboards and strip joints. That book inspired a lot of people from the moment it appeared, and I’ve been seeing echoes of it in text-based environments for years, but Linden Labs took the concept extremely literally when they designed Second Life. While I always felt that the Metaverse’s commerciality was a wry commentary on the inevitable polution of captialist encroachment into the internet, a tool which was originally the result of a scientific and academic gift economy. But Linden Labs took Stephenson’s description dead seriously and fostered a real economy inside Second Life, based very much on that original vision. While I lean toward the far left of the political spectrum and tend to turn my nose up at captialist ventures inching into interactive online spaces, the Second Life economy appears to work pretty well, and benefits a large portion of its population.

Watching the Sunset in Second Life

I’d like to say I’m ready to pontificate about the pros and cons of Second Life, but I’m really not. I’m going to be sitting with it for a while, because there’s a lot to get to know about it, and I don’t think this kind of experience can be rushed. So I’ll keep my comments fairly general, and I must give you the caveat that my ideas are subject to change at any moment.

First, it’s very, very familiar to me. Second Life appears to be not only the digital child of Snow Crash, it’s also a sexier descendant of the MUDs of the 1980s, and, to be more specific, very much a close cousin to the MOOs of the 1990s (sorry Jeremy, but I think it’s true). To clarify: MUDs are games; they are game spaces with a select group of wizards doing all the building and crafting of the game elements, and a much larger group of users getting into character and role playing through that world. I haven’t played it myself, but from what I understand from friends is that World of Warcraft is a natural descendant of MUDverses. Of course they look extremely different; MUDs are text-based, and WoW is, well, not. MOOspaces were the same kind of environment as MUDs, but they had no required game elements. You could use it to game, but the general point of a MOO is that all users can build, not just the wizards. It’s a co-constructed space, still with a set of wizards, but the rules of the space are different. It’s not necessarily all about staying in character; the point is whatever you decide the point is. MOOs (and, yes I know, IRC) were the mass chat rooms before the web-based ones appeared. The difference between IRC and MOO was that MOO a place rather than a channel. A MOO was a place where you could build yourself a room and put furniture inside it, though everything you did in MOO was text. So your creation was based entirely on descriptions. But still; in MOO, people would enter a room and have a seat, because otherwise they would be standing in a room with friends chatting, and their virtual legs would get tired. Second Life, it seems to me, is the pretty young sibling in the MOO/MUD/MUSH/MUSE world. Finally, they replaced all those text descriptions with three-dimensional images.

So, Second Life is a place, or rather, a series of places, built by users. Unlike the text-based spaces I’m familiar with, Second Life is fully multi-media. And when I say fully, I really mean it; there are videos on screens in there, there’s streaming music you can listen to with your friends if you’re all sitting in the same room. There are auditoriums where masses of people can listen to a speaker speak live. There’s a voicechat in beta. Not only is your 3-D self in the space, your experiencing it, hearing it, running into it and (ouch) whacking your head against it at times. Second Life is so fully immersive that it’s very hard (in my experience) not to get emotionally involved. I mean, you’re right there. How can you not?

The first afternoon I spent in Second Life, sitting in one room together, we got up after 4 hours and realized we hadn’t moved in all that time. We’d just sat there on the couch. But we all felt like we’d be running all over the place. Because part of us had.

Sitting in the water in Second life

I’ve been very lucky in my introduction to this space; I have some friends to help me along the way. I have a few ideas so far, but I’m going to wait and see how much I can learn. It’s to easy to come to a quick conclusion about how to manage in Second Life as a librarian, and there’s lots of evidence of that in there. It’s fairly easy to rebuild the real world in there, but is that the best thing we can do? I don’t think it is. More when I’ve digested it a bit more.