On Monday, the MacArthur Foundation opened MacArthur Island to the public in the virtual world Second Life. Part of the foundation's $50 million digital media and learning initiative, the island is "an alternative space to educate grantees and others about the potential for philanthropy in virtual worlds and allow grantees and Foundation partners to showcase their work and connect with new audiences." As the press release notes:
Visitors to MacArthur Island can interact with installations created about the work of MacArthur and its grantees. They include a giant pair of 3D headphones that visitors can use to listen to stories by independent radio producers as part of Public Radio Exchange, and a map about Chicago neighborhoods through which visitors can learn about a comprehensive community development effort being carried out in Chicago....
Developed by Linden Research, Inc., and inspired by the fictional virtual world "Metaverse" in Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash, Second Life is an Internet-based virtual world whose "residents" can explore, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and trade goods and services. In a PhilanTopic post back in November 2007, Rich Polt noted that
Enterprising folk can become rich on Second Life (see this story from BusinessWeek), and charitable folk can generate some serious dollars for causes (the American Cancer Society recently raised over $128,000 through its annual Second Life Relay for Life)....
To commemorate the opening of MacArthur Island, MacArthur Foundation president Jonathan Fanton and the former co-creator of Second Life, Cory Ondrejka, held a public conversation about virtual worlds and philanthropy. The discussion offered thoughtful criticisms of Second Life, as well as Fanton and Ondrejka's thoughts about the challenges and opportunities for nonprofits presented by cost-effective communication tools like Second Life.
Much of the discussion centered on the topic of convergence. Ondrejka spoke briefly about the success of the music sector in Second Life, where hundreds of concerts and music events involving participants from around the world happen every day. Visitors can experience being in an audience (via their avatar) and listen to a performance, just as they would in the real world.
The $64,000 question is, Can things work the other way? Can the kind of civic engagement happening in Second Life be transferred to the real world? Yes, says Connie Yowell, education director at the MacArthur Foundation and the moderator of the Q&A portion of Monday's discussion. Yowell notes that virtual worlds enable young people to participate, produce, join, and engage in group activity. Instead of "pushing skills" on kids, educators can encourage students to actively participate in their learning experience. I Dig Tanzania, for example, enabled kids to participate in a virtual archaeological dig with real archaeologists in Tanzania.
The MacArthur Foundation believes Second Life has the potential to "open up" foundations and make them transparent in ways previously unimaginable. And Fanton said we will see more involvement by foundations and nonprofit organizations in virtual worlds moving forward. In fact, more than a hundred nonprofits already interact on the Nonprofit Commons island, a project managed by TechSoup Global.
After Fanton opened up the discussion to audience members, the presenters received a question that got my attention.
Question from audience member: "I encounter a deep fear of virtual environments within my circle of friends (i.e., the matrix will kill us all). Where I live in rural California many nonprofits I talk to have no clue, and seem to have no interest either in changing their models. What needs to happen to engage people who can really benefit from these platforms?"
Cory Ondrejka: I think there are parallel challenges here. The first one, as I think everybody sitting in this audience is probably painfully aware, is that Second Life has significant technological requirements. And so there certainly is still a disparity of broadband access, a disparity of high-end computer access. If you are thinking about how to apply Second Life to some of those challenges, it would behoove you to understand who you are trying to engage with so that you aren't in a position of trying to [bridge] a technological gulf.
You also have a [perceptual] challenge: Are virtual worlds serious places? Are they worth using? etc., etc. What MacArthur has done allows you to [say], "MacArthur is doing it." I think there are tens, hundreds, thousands of examples of fantastic public engagement, civic engagement that have happened in Second Life that you can point to... ranging from Katrina to NASA....
I think it's [important] when you're trying to bring people into something new...to be able to demonstrate paths [to success] -- especially for somebody who may be worried that if they bring it to their superiors they're going to get yelled at or fired -- it's important to be able to provide a safe path that says, "No, this is serious stuff, and you can really [use it to] change things for the better...."
You can watch a video of the hour-long discussion here.
Frankly, I'm not sure what to make of Second Life, but I have to say that that Cory Ondrejka is one cool cat. What do you think? Does Second Life have potential as a learning environment for a new generation of digitally savvy kids? Is it a preview of the future, or just a dead end on the road there, whatever "there" might be? Love to hear your thoughts....
-- Regina Mahone