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'Second Life', What About Our First Life?!

November 15, 2007

(With this post, guest contributor Rich Polt makes his PhilanTopic debut. Polt is president of Louder Than Words, a Boston-based PR agency serving foundations, nonprofits, and related businesses.)

I am incredibly conflicted about Second Life.Secondlife_1

On the off chance you aren’t in the know, Second Life is an Internet-based virtual world that enables its residents to explore, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and trade goods and services. Second Life even has its own economy and a currency referred to as Linden Dollars (L$), which is exchangeable for US dollars or other currencies on market-based currency exchanges. 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).

A few weeks ago, I attended a great conference in Miami that was sponsored by the Communications Network. The theme of the event was "What We Know (Or Should Know) About Effective Communications" in the philanthropic sector. As one would expect, much of the conference was dedicated to Generation Next and Web 2.0 strategies. The penultimate plenary session included a presentation from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, describing how they are using Second Life to build communities of interest (virtual and real) related to their grantmaking. This comes on the heels of a recent $550,000 grant to the USC Center on Public Diplomacy to examine the role online communities can play in fostering real-world activism.

So why am I conflicted?

Part of me thinks this is very cool stuff! Foundations are learning that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people are spending time in virtual worlds, and they are using this knowledge to leverage awareness of the sector and to harness real world generosity. Plus, the PR value for doing things on Second Life is still huge. As MacArthur is learning, there is tremendous opportunity and potential to be explored through this medium.

Another part of me is appalled in general by the virtual reality boom. It’s escapism to the nth degree and experts say it’s only going to become more sophisticated and pervasive. To quote from the movie Dazed and Confused: "Everybody in this car needs some good ol' worthwhile visceral experience." There are 193 results that appear when you type in "sedentary lifestyle" on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Web site. That’s because it is a leading cause of childhood obesity, which RWJF is dedicated to reversing. In other words, let’s go outside, let’s exercise, let’s interact with real people, let’s work on our first life before we get lost in a second one.

No doubt I will struggle with these opposing views as I try to inspire my son to "play outside" as he grows older and, at the same time, come to see the value that virtual worlds offer the philanthropic sector. In the meantime, here is some unsolicited PR advice for RWJF. Stage a childhood obesity symposium in Second Life (or even a passive demonstration) advocating for people to log-off, get outside, and lead less sedentary lifestyles. That would be great!

-- Rich Polt

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Posted by Bruce Trachtenberg  |   November 15, 2007 at 06:42 PM

I understand your concerns about lack of exercise, etc., but I think you are a tad too alarmist ... Frankly, I'd like to see evidence that virtual worlds are making people any lazier than they are already, or that by discouraging their participation they won't shift to other kinds of sedentary activities. Also, where do you draw the line...do you rule out reading books?

Posted by Sean Stannard-Stockton  |   November 15, 2007 at 07:10 PM

Mitch, thanks for offering up your blog as a platform. I hope you attract more smart voices like Rich.

Posted by Rich Polt  |   November 15, 2007 at 08:27 PM

Bruce, I believe that my being "alarmist" is in direct proportion to the fervor with which Web 2.0 evangelists predict "a mass exodus to virtual reality in the coming years." Part of what you're hearing from me is my fear of what Second Life represents for the future... not necessarily what it is now. Also, keep in mind that I am truly conflicted about this, and was expressing both sides of the debate. I see great merit to places like Second Life as well.

And for the record... I love reading. It's exercise for the mind.

Posted by Tateru Nino  |   November 15, 2007 at 09:40 PM

Pretty much everyone I know in Second Life has a rich, and active First Life - excepting the physically handicapped, or those too elderly to get out and about much.

Escapism? Surely some people use Second Life for escapism, but I don't think I've met anyone like that.

Posted by Barold Gellalino  |   November 16, 2007 at 10:16 AM

Rich - I think you're right on...in addition to increasing risks for obesity, the sedentary and escapism second-lifestyle is making social morons out of our youth. Kids don't play together, and when they do, it's parallel play, where they don't even converse or look each other in the eye. What kind of world are we creating for our kids?

Posted by Phil Bradley  |   November 16, 2007 at 12:45 PM

My point is moot because of the many other "second lives" children can lead online, but just to allay your fears of childhood obesity due to Second Life -- it's an adult-dominated game.

Back to your main point: I think you make some valid arguments, but I wonder if we're not missing something on the flip side. Perhaps the real world my parents' generation created is just not attractive enough?

The appeal of Second Life, where I can be who I want and set up businesses and social activities with ease, might in part be due to a world where social norms and social rules and laws are too restrictive.

For example: Our obsession with image might be forcing fat kids online, where they can find the liberty of association to form friendships in which image isn't a factor. Perhaps Second Life isn't a threat to the real world, but an opportunity to learn about its shortcomings and improve it?

(Disclaimer: I'm not obese and have never participated in an online world -- Second Life or other -- so this is just conjecture on my part.)

Posted by Rich Polt  |   November 16, 2007 at 02:24 PM

First off, I really appreciate all of these thoughtful comments. As someone who is relatively new to the "blogging" scene, I find it encouraging to know that my views resonate with some of you and irk others. That’s the point, right? To create a meaningful dialogue.

I agree with Phil that Second Life makes an important statement about what people don’t like in "first life" -– the social ills of the real world if you will (i.e., emphasis on image over substance). To be certain, there is a powerful collective idealism that resides in Second Life almost by definition. That is exactly why it is the natural medium through which the civic sector can tap social organizing/community building to affect positive change in the real world. These are some of the question MacArthur will undoubtedly explore in their work with the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.

All this said, part of me believes that our increasing reliance on virtual worlds to facilitate social interaction in some way perpetuates the very problems we are talking about solving -– childhood obesity being one example. Note: I am not making the causal argument that Second Life is responsible for overweight children (based on who is using Second Life, I think that would be a false and unfair claim). I am simply saying that as our society relies increasingly on virtual worlds to facilitate interaction en masse, I fear the net result for society at large will not be a positive one.

Posted by Philippe Bradley  |   November 16, 2007 at 03:47 PM

Sorry, I was being daftly pedantic about the overweight thing. I've always thought that obesity's growing prevalence is a knock-on effect of a society that consumes too much, alongside inactivity.

If true, could Second Life have an impact on how we consume? Would it wean us off our consumption habits as we re-learn what it means to be part of a community (albeit online and virtual) that collaborates and entertains itself -- or will virtual commerce (the kind that's making virtual entrepreneurs real fortunes, as you mentioned) proliferate and turn us into even bigger consumers!

As an aside: How long until a charity is setup to combat a virtual ill? Like online bullying, Second Life poverty, "illiteracy", etc...

Posted by Carolina Keats  |   November 16, 2007 at 10:19 PM

Rich, you said: "I am simply saying that as our society relies increasingly on virtual worlds to facilitate interaction en masse, I fear the net result for society at large will not be a positive one."

Your use of the specter of child obesity seems misplaced here, a separate issue.

The truth is, increasing segmentation and specialization in society and in professions has already created cultures in which (for example) a researcher in one field has no clue what's being published in another. Another example might be the lack of medical record portability, something that is also being addressed through technology.

As much as technology can impose isolation (a claim made more than 10 years back by Cliff Stoll in "Silicon Snake Oil"), it can also help to jump disciplinary, cultural, geographical, and other boundaries to enable contact between those who ordinarily would never meet. Stoll bemoaned the loss of a "front porch world" to one where we each sit silently facing a blinking monitor. He ignored the reality that as much as technology can isolate, it can also join together (as well as the reality that once change is occurring, it is too late to turn back -- but never too late to contemplate the meaning of that change.

I think that this contemplation and discourse about the change we are witnessing is of great value, and find at Second Life that I am made to think about the whys and wherefores more than I might have, without this virtual environment. I am confronted with how things are, and forced to wonder. Often, in our shared exposure to novelty, we learn new solutions to old problems -- simply because we are made to view the familiar through new lenses.

Second Life and other virtual worlds allow us to meet across boundaries. We simply have not found "best practices" yet, and are in the process of change, a profoundly chaotic state that creates great uncertainty.

Posted by Howard  |   November 18, 2007 at 11:28 AM

The kids have it right. They amplify their real lives, blending their 1st and 2nd lives into one integrated whole to: communicate, fall in and out of love, get in trouble, learn and live more richly and faster.

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