MiT5 – Second Life, the Nature of the News and the Second Plenary

One thing I noticed during the first session was that the woman sitting next to me was participating in the conference in Second Life. Second Life was a pretty frequent topic/theme during the conference so I decided to head to the session on it.

Mary Hopper from Northeastern described her efforts at creating a knowledge system for the community. I had the opportunity to speak with Mary before the session and then again on and off throughout the day. She talked about the fact that she had had a vision of how knowledge could be organized since she was a child but had never had a way from expressing that vision before Second Life.

For Mary, what is cool is that Second Life provides a platform that allows people to ask questions like: how do you build a world? how do you get people into the world? and how can you engage people in creating the world? Her work on developing a theory of knowledge within Second Life is an exciting example of the potential answers.

Burcu Bakioglu looked at how some of the antisocial behaviors (hacking and griefing) within Second Life can be viewed as creating “performance narratives” that help to create shared stories for the community. She talked about the fact that poaching is frequent but that the poachers themselves are often poached and have their words and actions turned against them. These were interesting ideas but they were not presented in an especially compelling way.

Brent Britton talked about the idea of virtual ownership and intellectual property within Second Life. He wondered if Second Life needed a separate set of laws to govern behavior within the community. While he didn’t explicitly answer this question (or at least I can’t recall it if he did), he did point out that there are two mechanisms for control in Second Life: the terms and conditions and the code.

He pointed out that the T&C are essentially a contract that all too few people take the time to read, but that it is one that lays out the rules for the community – including some that ought to give people pause, particularly in the area of IP. At the end of the day though, everything is controlled by the underlying software code that powers the environment. And, almost like the physical laws of the real world, have the final say of what can and cannot happen in Second Life.

The final presenter in this panel was Jeffery Bardzell. He spoke on the role of fashion as a tool for self-expression within Second Life. The only thing that struck me about Jeffery’s part of the discussion was his reckoning that he has more than 3,000 items of clothing for his avatar. That just seemed bananas to me.

As much as Second Life might be kicked around or derided in some circles it’s cool that it has provided a platform for someone like Mary to realize a longtime idea. As the ideas and technology behind social media are introduced we all need to be patient to see how they are applied and by whom.

The next session I attended was The Nature of News. I missed the start of the panel and came in while Claudia Schwarz from the Department of American Studies at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, was reading her paper, “Creativity, Ownership and Collaboration in the News Business.” Her points – which focused on the way the news media frames information as a means of asserting ownership – were interesting. What was more interesting though was the conversation that following.

This was focused on the role of the individual content consumer in terms of a potential contributor to the news process. The idea of citizen journalism is not new but it was interesting to hear perspectives from outside the US on this. The impression I got was that people in Europe assume that the US media is more narrowly focused that theirs (probably true) and that citizen journalism isn’t as active (probably false).

One attendee seemed to be arguing for a radically decentralized form of news gathering (built around citizen journalism and without much in the way of editorial oversight). The problem with this is that some stories need dedicated beat reporters in order to be uncovered and written – and this means focusing people not necessarily on a news story but rather on a news source that could produce stories. That is a hard commitment for a citizen journalist to make.

The other issue that came up during the conversation was around the potential death spiral that is happening in many newsrooms: lower circulation = less revenue = scaling back on reporters/correspondents = weak or non-differentiated news (based increasingly on the wire services) = lower circulation . . . It was not a new theme but always interesting to hear different people’s take on it.

Second plenary session – Collaboration and Collective Intelligence.

This panel started with Tom Malone, of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, discussing the idea of collaboration. He defined it as groups acting together in ways that seem intelligent. He pointed out that there have been examples of collective intelligence through time but that technology is allowing new forms that need to be considered and understood on a much deeper level.

The core question is how people and computers can be connected so that they can act more intelligently that any people, groups or systems have in the past. Doing this requires that you collect and connect the right people with the right computers. He cited NASA click workers and Gary Kasparov vs. the world as two examples of effective collective collaboration.

The first panelist to speak was Trebor Scholz, from the Institute for Distributed Creativity at SUNY Buffalo. He started by suggesting that the MySpace generation has a lot to learn about working for free. His point was that user generated content on sites like MySpace is what drives traffic (and ad-based revenue) without providing any sort of compensation to the creators.

He thought that the current climate of fear has led to more and more online interaction and that when we think about online interaction, we don’t generally think of the labor that this involves. This is in part due to the fact that people aren’t producing objects online, they are becoming “virtuoso speakers” and are doing it by posting, tagging and commenting.

Where does the value of online spaces come from? Scholz asked the audience. It comes from the collective intelligence of everyone that participates. Where does that value go? Into the hands of relatively few. Bacially, Tthe very few are benefiting on the backs of the many. He described this simply as capitalism moved online and wondered how people ought to be compensated for their participation and contribution.

It was a pretty interesting point. Especially if you consider that 40 percent of all traffic goes to a very small number of sites, that most of the content on the Web is still user-generated and that many of the companies crying loudly about their content rights aren’t talking about how they plan to compensate people for driving traffic to a given site . . .

Cory Ondrejka from Linden Labs spoke next. He mostly discussed their approach to IP, the size and growth of the internal economy and the volume of content being generated by members. (On a typical day, 34 user YEARS are spent on content creation!)

He then went on to talk about some of the collective intelligence applications of SL, mentioning the analysis on NOAA weather trend data for example. He described the collaborative/collective intelligence aspects of SL as being the main things that set it apart from the Web. As an example, he discussed what had happened with Aloft, a Starwood Hotels brand in SL. When they opened and began surveying users, they found that their design just didn’t work. They were able to redesign the space based on user feedback and input. He also discussed the rise and effectiveness of protest movements within SL as a means for members to reach Linden Labs with complaints and concerns.

I thought his points were interesting but I didn’t buy them all. For example, user feedback is often collected and used to improve the design of standard Web sites, so I didn’t think the Starwood thing was that compelling. The idea of protests cropping up though – and being effective – was very cool. Given the amount of time and effort people are putting into building SL (a privilege for which not only are they not compensated but for which they have to pay), I wish he’s responded to Scholz’s point regarding user compensation.

The final panelist was Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist on technology and kids who is currently at the Annenberg Center for Communication. She is doing ethnographic work around anime and games in Japan and how they shape the collective imagination.

Because Japan is in an age of media reference, media has become the mechanism through which they connect with more content than they could otherwise. This referencing of collective sources of culture provided by media has always been the case; but there has been a substantive change in the content and channels people interact with. Rich media content has become how we share and tell others who we are. Ito calls this hypersociality.

An example of this is Pokemon. What’s important isn’t just that it is abundant, but also about the relationship between various media forms – the mediamix – that allow content and channels to be combined to support each other. This illustrates the practices of sharing media and demonstrates how it is migrating away from static/stationary screens into the places and contexts of every day life

Pokemon brought the idea of content mobility to the fore and also demonstrated the ability of kids to comprehend and consumer high volumes of complex characters and dynamics. When kids get together w/ Pokemon, they find themselves participating in a collective imagination build around media and content.

As someone who’s played Pokemon with my kids and experienced it in all of its manifold expressions, I understand what Ito is talking about. Books, games, movies, clothes all are knit together to create a media-driven culture that its members immediately recognize and are able to participate in. I’ve heard complaints that the energy kids invest in understanding the world of Pokemon could be better applied elsewhere – but there are few other areas that offer this kind of complexity with the richness of evolving and interrelated media types.

This was the last session of the day and I left with my head spinning. The idea of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, the possibilities of SL as a tool for organizing information and the issues of compensation for content contributors were all really interesting.

[tags]brent-britton, burcu-bakioglu, claudia-schwarz, collaboration, collective-intelligence, cory-ondrejka, jeffery-bardzell, mary-hopper, media-in-transition, mimi-ito, mit, mit5, news, second-life, tom-malone, trebor-scholz[/tags]

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One thought on “MiT5 – Second Life, the Nature of the News and the Second Plenary

  1. marcus says:

    hi,

    i think what starwood did was cool! this brand never existed, and on websites you just have 2d images. in second life people were able to “see” the product, and then give their feedback, so it was much more realistic…

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