Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Velvet Rope

First, a confession: I was late to the MacArthur Virtual World Event on Philanthropy with foundation president Jonathan Fanton and Second Life CEO Philip Rosedale (a.k.a. Philip Linden). Usually when I'm late to a talk or panel, it is because I was either a) in traffic or b) tied up at my desk. This time, it was because I was worrying about what to wear.

Now, I'm not very fussy about my appearance in general. At conferences, I'm the one dressed all in black taking copious notes. I used to be one of those dandyish academics, but in recent years -- although my teaching evaluations remain high numerically -- the written comments from students have gone from "nice specs!" and "cool threads!" to inquiries about whether or not I own a hairbrush or an iron.

But for some reason I wanted to get rid of my newbie avatar get-up. I knew that I would never be one of the beautiful people with sparkly outfits and anime hairdos, but I thought that at least I could give myself a basic make-over to transform myself into something more presentable in public. So I spent an hour dithering over what to wear before settling on a chain mail halter top, American flag skirt, and platform shoes. Critical time was lost while I fretted about the fact that my avatar didn't have glasses, and I do and consider it part of my identity. I didn't want to buy glasses to turn myself into a four-eyes, but I also didn't want a crash course in SL 3D scripting to make my virtual spectacles. Finally, I hustled over the the event, feeling naked without my frames.

It turned out that my delay was a critical error, because the server was full and no one could be admitted when I tried. During what must have been a lull in attendance I managed to sneak in, but -- without the friendly USC greeters who were outside the auditorium -- I couldn't figure out how to sit down and so found myself quickly feeling unwelcome, since I didn't want to block the view of others. It also was difficult to puzzle out how to make the streaming audio work properly. After eavesdropping on the chat of others I eventually figured it out.

It was interesting to hear about the "assumptions" made about Second Life residents by the foundation head, chiefly the generalization that people in SL were "people who care." The two men also spoke about recipients of charity in virtual worlds through Web 3.0 counseling and support groups. The most important case study for their discussion was the presence of the American Cancer Society in Second Life, which has been in the virtual world for three years. Although philanthropy is often associated with big donors, causes can also take advantage of large numbers of supporters who may be able to give little more than labor. Relay events in the massively multi-user space have been held, and volunteers have beautified their walkway.

Of course, during the question and answer period, the humanitarian crisis taking place in Iraq was also raised. As I have pointed out here in this blog, there are many virtual representations of Iraq, but as Fanton points out the situation does remain "challenging."

The Second Life Herald has good coverage of the event here, and Beth Kanter also provided live blogging. See also Joshua Fouts' essay on dialogism in virtual worlds and their rejection of enforced commodification, "Taking Second Life to the Next Level: From Monologue to Dialogue." It was hard to figure out how to dance, but I stayed around for the reception, where singer Hep Shepherd handed out prizes in Linden cash to winners of his trivia question contests.

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