Meet SteelJade Yun, my avatar in Second Life. I have finally signed up, nearly a year after I was introduced to this online, user-created, interactive world. I have been hesitant to start playing around in virtual worlds out of concern that it would prevent me from getting any work done ever again... But Professor Charlie Nesson at Harvard Law School and founder of the Berkman Center (where I'm still a Research Fellow until the end of this year) has finally given me an excuse to join. He'll be teaching a course both in real life as well as in Second Life, called Law in the Court of Public Opinion. I'm hoping to sit in for as much as I can, at least virtually. (On the right is a picture of SteelJade in front of the poster announcing the class.)
If we do say so ourselves, the course will be unlike any that has ever been taught. It is a course in persuasive, empathic argument in the Internet space. Throughout the course we will be studying many different media technologies to understand how their inherent characteristics and modes of distribution affect the arguments that are made using them. Students will be immersed in this study through project-based assignments in which they will be using these technologies to make their own arguments.
Should be fascinating - not only to learn about persuasion and the use of online media, but also as an exploration in how to use Second Life as an educational tool.
Strangely enough, within 30 minutes of my showing up on Berkman Island, I ran into Andrew Lih (avatar: Fuzheado Commons), whose shoes I will be unsuccessfully attempting to fill teaching New Media at Hong Kong University.
I first learned about Second Life last year when I helped moderate a panel about virtual world journalism at a fascinating conference called "State of Play". I knew almost nothing about virtual worlds or the journalists who cover them, so I was brought in to ask questions from the perspective of a journalist who is generally more concerned that the real world isn't covered well enough as it is - and concerned that the last thing we need is more distractions from covering the real world of real human beings in a thorough and responsible manner. Still, I met some fascinating people like Wagner James Au who spoke about his experiences as an "embedded journalist" in Second Life. Interestingly, U.S. politicians are starting to make appearances inside SL. Pretty wild.
One disappointment about Second Life - in my view, anyway - is that while you can use their handy text chat function to talk to other people you meet in the game, the chat function does not support Chinese characters (some characters appear and some don't), so you can't have conversations in Chinese. It would be nice to use SL as a place to meet up with some of my Chinese friends who can't travel very easily, but I guess that won't happen. I wonder if there are any plans to make Second Life compatible with Asian character sets.
Second Life is a fun and fascinating place where one is only limited by one's own creativity (and time). It has great potential as a virtual meeting space, bringing people together in new kinds of communities. But as my friend and colleague Ethan Zuckerman points out, hanging out in Second Life is unlikely to be helpful in solving most of the world's most pressing problems. He has spoken very critically of those who believe they can use Second Life to raise awareness about the plight of people living in conflict-torn and impoverished parts of the world. Read his whole post, it's very important, but here is a small excerpt:
In conflicts not consistently on the editorial page of the New York Times, there’s often no journalists on the ground capable of transmitting data to an international audience. And citizen’s media requires citizens who have access to the Internet…
When I consider the issues I’m most interested in, collecting information - especially from people who are actually affected by these issues - is a much higher priority than presenting this data in a 3D format. Given that roughly 100,000 people log into Second Life in a given month - compared to roughly one billion using the Internet as a whole - I suspect people trying to call attention to global issues are better off making a website than a 3D space.
Second Life is also not immune to the same social predjudices and inequities that exist in the real world. My friend Andy Carvin found this out when he created an African avatar - modeled specifically after a Somali child soldier. In an excellent article about Second Life, the Boston Phoenix quoted Andy about his experiences:
Another real-world person experimenting with an entirely different SL persona is Boston-based blogger Andy Carvin. Last fall he joined SL as Andy Chowderhead, but he got “bored with it” and decided to create Abdi Kembla, an African refugee he modeled after photos he found online of former Somalian child soldiers.
“Previously, when I used my old Andy Chowderhead avatar, I found people were more likely to come over, say hello, and start a conversation. But with Abdi, people tended to just act as if I just weren’t even there,” says Carvin, who estimates that he spent between 20 and 30 hours in February and March exploring as Abdi. “The more I traveled through SL, the more I realized I seemed to be the only African-looking character around anywhere.” He adds, “I encountered gnomes, floating beams of light, characters that were shaped like boxes, elves, everything you can imagine — but no African-looking characters.”
Alas, virtual societies are no better and no less biased than the sum of the people who create and populate them. That doesn't mean I won't spend some time in Second Life exploring ways that I can use it as a tool for communication and teaching. But it's important to remember: ultimately technology will not change human nature, and it will not enable us to escape all aspects of our human-ness, both the good and the evil - no matter how much time we spend roaming cyberspace as sci-fi action figures.