Thursday, June 28, 2007

Philanthropy in Virtual Worlds

A conversation with MacArthur Foundation President Jonathan Fanton and Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale

Having braved Australia’s lossy networks and early morning chill, I find myself (or my avatar, in fact) walking, and occasionally flying, about Annenberg Island on 1am Saturday in Second Life (which is our subtropical translation of Friday 9am SL time). I’m here to attend a discussion on ‘Philanthropy in Virtual Worlds’ between Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation, and Philip ‘Linden’ Rosedale, CEO of Linden Labs, makers of Second Life. As with the virtual iSummit ’07, the surrounds are welcoming: all the refreshments that a conference attendee would desire, accompanied by apposite information about the organisations on didactic clickable boards surrounding the venue. The turnout is impressive: approximately 250 avatars are being rendered in the stadium where the address is to take place – over 100 people on each side of the sim. (Some more successfully than others: I, embarrassingly, begin by being ejected by Sitearm Madonna, as my network is so slow, I’m doing a ‘lag dance’ right into the speakers’ forum. Had Philip’s avatar also not ‘crapped out’ during the proceedings, I would have felt bad. Amusingly, people are vying for space to such an extent that seats are being occupied by more than one avatar at any given time. It’s so nice to be here together!)

Having gained this critical mass, ‘The community is ready for this conversation,’ the speakers observe: individuals, groups, and non-profits are now engaging with serious issues of support. Jonathan Fanton begins proceedings via a video address streamed onto screens above the stadium. He speaks of the Global Kids’ Digital Media Initiative, and the extent of investments being made in virtual worlds. It is time for in-world discussions on reform, global conservation, education, community development, economics, and housing reform: ‘There’s a lot of idealism in virtual worlds,’ Fanton observes. ‘The global network is committed to greater things: to achieving a just, humane virtual world.’

The question thus becomes, ‘How can we help migrate these projects to the physical ‘real’ world?’ The MacArthur Foundation seeks to develop a resource for people in Second Life to learn how to connect to issues. The Foundation is donating $L to develop and migrate projects into the real world. Currently, the MacArthur Foundation works in 60 countries, and supports more than 1,000 local civil society groups. It seeks to create a civil society in the virtual world to mirror that of the real world. The advantages of operating in a virtual world are that it’s multimodal, and one can undertake simultaneous interactions. In virtual worlds, people work, play, and go about their everyday lives as families, communities, democracies. MacArthur seeks to have engagement with, and contribute to community – working through civil society groups, the Foundation is good at convening people, at connecting people with similar goals, through, for example, internships. Today is an illustration of the force of community awareness and good will.

Appearing as rather convincing avatars in the round, Jonathan ‘MacFound’ and Philip ‘Linden’ discuss the trajectory of Second Life. Philip reveals that it has been his dream since young to simulate a world – to recreate the 3D world with which we are familiar – with a tonne of computers. As far as the site’s development is concerned, he is surprised by almost everything. Second Life has been designed to be fundamentally under the user’s control, and to be the users’ creation.

What are the notions of public good in this realm? Second Life was started in 2003 as an empowered, enabled community environment, designed to make people close. Opportunities for public good soon became apparent, and thereafter the movement of this into the physical world. Philip notes that there exists significant potential for alliances to form – people have even been married in Second Life! Connections are made, and businesses formed having relations to the real world. We should look to effective bond formation between product and business ideas from their earliest stages to have them transferred into the real world. The earlier the interaction, the lower the barriers to entry into real life.

Jonathan asks what we can accomplish in this domain. In response, we can learn about Second Life as an area in education, and understand its impact on the formation of students’ knowledge, skills, and attributes. The role of schools going forward is to understand the importance of gaming, and the roles able to be adopted by virtual worlds for pedagogy and to encourage civic engagement. Take the example of the International Criminal Court, to which the USA is not a signatory. Feasibly, Second Life could be used to lobby for the nation’s inclusion. Unfortunately, in US education, schools appear to be resistant to reform. The time has come to consider the role to be adopted by schools, libraries, museums. In a seamless blending of first and second life, people are rebuilding the history of the world in a virtual space.

How do we emulate best practice from the real world? Do we rebuild first-life buildings? (The audience reacts strongly against this suggestion! Why not be more creative and entrepreneurial?) Second Life is rapidly being built at a rate greater than construction in real life. The contribution virtual worlds can make is to have better tools to make life better, and thereby to empower the citizenry. Organisations which are successful in real life transfer their strategies – obviously, if you’re not aware of how to structure your business in real life, you’re not going to succeed in the virtual sphere. It’s not a question of ‘build it and they will come’.

What of security, breaches, pornography? How is Second Life reacting to these? What of companies pulling out? Philip replies that Second Life has reached a scale where everyone’s watching. It is interested in the redeployment of traditional media – to see what works in real life and what doesn’t. Most companies are in the stage of just setting up and are not yet bringing in people. Look to the example of Borders and Amazon online – only one remains. The entrepreneurial success of individuals is growing.

Free and open places on the net have to empower people, together with having tolerance for people’s actions. People have the right to choose what to do in a new medium, Philip asserts – they are the stewards of their own choices. The Internet space contains many things, but in aggregate, there is a public good. Linden Labs decided that at the highest level they were not going to control interactions, what people do.

The moderator Connie now opens up the debate to questions from the audience of avatars. The first question states that the philanthropic world’s incorporation of Web 2.0 technologies into practices has not been that good. Jonathan replies that his hope is that MacArthur will learn lots in Second Life – how to develop projects, to speak to their objectives in the physical world.

The Teen Grid residents ask about how to use power morally. There is a high degree of transparency in virtual worlds; it is more transparent than real life. For example, it’s easier to travel around SL than it is in RL. If one looks to the success of eBay, their philosophy has been that it would work because people are basically good, and would engage with legitimate attempts to sell. Linden Labs does nothing to make people do good – rather, it’s self-moderated: it’s a ‘very very transparent environment’.

What is the ratio of civic to commercial life in Second Life? Second Life has a greater proportion of commercial activities than the real world, but this has been hyped to an extent, as the media are sensitive to brands. In Second Life, of the 7,637,212 registered residents, approx. 70,000 individuals currently own land; however, big brand communities are hard to find. (An individual building something does not constitute a community, although the virtual world network is clearly expanding.) Second Life is seen as an empowering platform. The question now is one of how to go about branding, to reproduce the indicators of credibility in a virtual world (such as reputation, trust, etc.). This is what is at the core of what MacArthur Foundation aims to do as a knowledge network: to build systems for reputation and trust. The Foundation is seeking to convene study groups for this purpose, to investigate micro-lending and the formation of trust, for example.

What of the role of non-profits in Second Life? To date, $80,000 has been raised by the MacArthur trust fund for war-affected children in Northern Uganda. We can directly overcome the problem of communities existing in isolation by cutting out the middleman. The collaboration between Second Life and MacArthur Foundation is an example of cooperation in which barriers are reduced. This cuts the cost of contact, and provides a context for people to come together as a group for assistance.

An observation comes from the audience: the classification of Second Life as a ‘game’ hurts access and corporate acceptance of the platform.

In sum, the message is this:
“When good people who care have good information, they do good things.”

We must educate ourselves in the strategies appropriate to Second Life to harness its good, and to figure out appropriate policies.

In the after party, Hep Shephard donated $L1500 to the foundation, and everyone had a great time discussing the Non-profit Commons movement etc. (discussion archived)
Broadcast on

1 comment:

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