Virtual Worlds Help Demonstrate Root of Public Apathy

Bytegang Sim in Second Life

Fleep recently summarized the promise she saw in the Second Life community, the change that transpired there over the last few years, and her decision to focus her involvement in a different virtual community or platform. (You can read her article here: Why Anyone Who Cares. . ..) And based on the comments she received and what I have read online, her experience seems to be one shared by many who followed a similar path in that virtual world. But at the root of her article, I saw something else that was intriguing and provides great insight into public apathy.

In local government we are constantly bemoaning the lack of public involvement in the community. We can't understand why no one seems to care, becomes involved, or attends meetings. If you have ever wondered this I suggest you read Fleep's post and imagine she is talking about any city in the the physical world. Because she could be describing exactly what happens to those who try to get involved and make a difference in their own cities and towns.

It all starts out much in the same way it started out for Fleep in Second Life. A person becomes excited about the promise and the opportunity to help create something different – something that could be so much better. In the physical world this could come about because there is a change in leadership such as newly elected officials or a change in a prominent and influential community within the city. Or it could occur because of a major change that brings about a significant shift in management or development of that city. Whatever it is, it's enough to motivate someone to invest time, perhaps money, and for some, their heart and soul for the cause. This person does this because these new leaders seem to share their dream or vision and by doing so they inspire the person's dedication and commitment. They also provide opportunities for involvement and contribution to the cause. The foundation of this effort is to make the world a better place. For some of us, this is almost an impossible opportunity to pass up.

If someone chooses to go down this road, they begin to share thoughts and feelings similar to those expressed by Fleep:

"Everywhere you looked was innovation.
Everyone you met was experimenting, trying new things, pushing new boundaries.
Anything seemed possible.  Maybe even probable."

As Fleep said, it is "an exciting, heady time." Perhaps you know of someone who has made this type of commitment for your city or town or perhaps you have done so yourself. If so, you might be able to guess what happens next.

Eventually things begin to shift. Perhaps there is a change in leadership. Or someone who has a lot of control in the community and had only up to this point been watching becomes involved, possibly because all this new innovation and change is starting to negatively impact the good thing they had going on for themselves. Unfortunately for all the obvious challenges to innovation, change, and progress, there are many more forces behind the scenes that will make sure change does not happen if it starts to actually make a significant difference.

So eventually  the person who had invested everything in this cause starts to realize something has changed. They begin to hit roadblocks or look around and realize no one left shares that dream or vision. Or perhaps the new leadership makes sure they are no longer able to contribute or help out. For many of the reasons Fleep has given, the person will most likely give up and move on. And most do. Those of us who have been this person or those of us who have known people who have gone down this road will most likely not allow ourselves to be sucked in again by promises and dreams. We have come to the conclusion that it's not worth it. Primarily because no one else seems to care and all our work and effort is undone by others. And apathy takes root.

But there is another profound point to all this in a great post by Botgirl that was written in response to Fleep's: My take on the future. . .. In the end, the person who has given it all only to see it carelessly cast aside might be tempted to blame those who grabbed the helm and changed course. But as Botgirl points out, "if there has been a failure, it is ours."  The true failure is because the majority will not make an effort to do anything to prevent it. And they will not even recognize or acknowledge they have the power or ability to do so. Or if they do, they do not know how. We have allowed this apathy to become ingrained in our culture by beating down those who try to make a difference until they give up and others witness the futility of their efforts. 

Apathy has been our legacy in our physical space. Will we allow it to become our legacy in our virtual communities too? Or will we create the opportunity to overcome apathy in both spaces by following Fleep's vision to "learn from our experiences in virtual worlds to make the real world a better place, too."







Modeling a City

Pegasus Global Holdings is planning to build a full-scale city somewhere in New Mexico "to test and evaluate technologies in conditions that most closely simulate real-world applications." According to the project's website, CITE-CITY, the company proposed building the model to overcome challenges related to access, long waits, and costs that they faced in carrying out testing of technologies in actual cities. Last August, Pegasus Global signed a  Memorandum of Understanding with the New Mexico Economic Development Department in which they indicated the model will be built with private funds and create 350 new jobs. The company and State of New Mexico hope to draw vendors, investors, partners, and users from six specific areas of interest: Energy, transmission systems, transport, economic development, resource development, and security.

The company planned to break ground by this summer, but based on a recent article in, the project has been placed on hold due to land acquisition issues. However, it appears development plans for the model community will continue while the company searches for a new location. 

The Frontier Project in Second Life

The use of full-scale models for training and simulation is not a new idea. Many police and fire departments use existing structures for training. And the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) provides emergency response training at Disaster City – a 52-acre full scale "mock community." But not everyone chooses to model cities in the physical world. Increased computing capabilities offer a more efficient and low cost method to run simulations and training. A couple years ago, IBM launched CityOne – an online game people can play to explore how technology can impact cities. And over the last several years, Crista Lopes has been involved in some amazing work involving simulations in a virtual setting. One of her blog posts, Simulating a City, describes a traffic simulation/visualization project she has been working on. There are also many other examples of virtual simulations throughout Second Life and other 3D immersive worlds. The image in this post is a photo of a simulation of a stormwater collection and groundwater recharge facility that was built in Second Life.

Because of the tremendous cost of building physical models (in the case of the Pegasus Global project costs have been reported anywhere from $200 million to $1 billion) it would be interesting to see a study comparing the benefits, costs, and effectiveness of both physical and virtual simulations. And based on that type of study, a guideline could be developed to assist people in choosing the best, most economical, and efficient model for their purpose.


SL9B and Community Planning


This month, the community in Second Life celebrates its 9th birthday, otherwise known as SL9B. This seems to be the first year that the celebration is not sponsored or hosted by Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life. Instead, this year, Linden Lab announced the theme of the birthday would be community and that the community should host their own individual celebrations. The reaction from many people at first seemed to be disappointment, but it quickly changed over to a determined effort to put together a central location similar to what was done in the past. This was thanks to the efforts of a group of organizers and sponsors who donated space and time and talent to get the land set up for the event and a website to support the activities. They quickly put out a call for exhibitors and volunteers that has been answered by hundreds of people. This is one of the many aspects of Second Life that fascinates and captures me – the ability of the people there to get something done in an organized and collaborative and efficient and quick manner. If only we had this capability in our offline communities.

Anyway, I had not participated in a Second Life birthday since I think SL5B. And I wasn't sure about participating this year until I saw how the community pulled together to organize this event and really thought about the community theme and where I might fit into all that. It seemed the perfect time to begin putting together a community plan!

If you've read my previous posts on this, you're probably aware I have thought for some time a community plan is exactly what we need at this point in our development. Normally in an offline community, this process would be started by city planners. But there's no virtual planners on staff at Linden Lab so there's no one to reach out and suggest we start the process. Over the last few months, I talked about the idea with some other members of Second Life who also thought it would be worthwhile. But I don't think any of us were sure it could be done without their involvement. 

But after watching SL9B unfold, I thought, if we can have our own birthday celebration, why can't we create our own plan? Something else that inspired and convinced me to apply and volunteer was a set of videos created by Crap Mariner. Dressed as "Death" he put together a series of videos to promote SL9B and explain what was going on. Glossing over these, someone might at first dismiss them as goofy fun, but I would encourage people to really watch them and think about their message. What he has accomplished with these deserves a whole other blog post by someone who is more adept at analyzing motivation, marketing, and promotion. Here's one of the first videos (so far he has created 18 videos):

Anyway, I ended up applying to exhibit and fortunately was accepted! Basically the community plan exhibit, which is named Virtual Vision 2020, explains and promotes the idea and development of a community plan for Second Life. I'm hoping people will stop by to share their thoughts and ideas about the community, where they'd like to see it go, and how they think we can get there. There's also a website set up to support development of the plan and to offer a place where people can leave feedback: Virtual Vision 2020 

I am also hoping that a friend of mine, Vanish Firecaster, will add more information to the exhibit that will help people explore what it means to be a citizen of a virtual world. He recently posted, World of Democracycraft, highlighting an essay by Cory Doctorow: "Why Online Games are Dictatorships." If you are a member of Second Life or any other virtual community, I'd suggest checking it out.

SL9B will be open from June 18-27. Make sure you stop by to visit the Virtual Vision 2020 Exhibit, share your thoughts and ideas, pick up a mini Avatar Birthday Fountain, or just say hi! And be sure to thank the sponsors and organizers – they have put together an amazing event!

SL9B Exhibit



The Time for a Comprehensive Plan for Second Life is Now!?

Today I read a great article about digital citizenship, Digital Citizenship and the Forward Edge Transference, written by Mike Langlois, LICSW. In his post, Langlois discusses many similarities between online and offline behavior. This was interesting to me because as a local government employee, I've also recognized many similarities between offline communities and online spaces. But my focus usually tends to be more on how the community functions as a whole. Langlois is in the psychotherapy and social work fields, so his perspective seems to be more targeted at the individual and interpersonal level. But both of our observations meet at the same very important point in all this – people are viewing, approaching, and behaving in these online spaces as though they are in an actual place. They rely on and feel loyalty and obligation to the digital space where they hang out, and this sense of responsibility extends to the people there with whom they interact.

The significance of these observations to offline and online governance should not be underestimated. It will eventually have major impacts as digital populations increase. One example is the current sign of unrest among the population of the virtual world of Second Life. If this were occurring in an offline community, the solution would be to develop a comprehensive plan. And if we acknowlege that people in a digital space are behaving as they would in an offline space, there is no reason to believe we should not apply this same solution to Second Life. If we do not, past experience in the offline world has proven we risk diminishing the success of our community.

While a comprehensive plan is not a cure-all, the practice of going through it and the final document can go a long way in helping move a community forward. These plans are viewed by professionals to be so important that grants are commonly offered to help fund their development. Unfortunately at this time, grant providers have not yet come to the same awareness as some of us that digitial spaces also need these plans. So moving forward on a plan for a virtual community would have to be self-funded or be developed through volunteer efforts. 

Another challenge in developing a comprehensive plan for a virtual space like Second Life is that there are no models to follow. But due to the similarities between online and offline spaces, I believe it would not be too difficult to modify a typical plan to meet the needs of a virtual one. Because I feel so strongly about this, I went ahead and developed a proposal for implementing the comprehensive planning process in Second Life. And I went so far as to have it peer reviewed by an experienced planner. Then feeling confident it offered a well-thought out approach and reasonable solution, I emailed it to Rod Humble. Of course, in the back of my mind, I didn't really expect a response and never received one. I just don't think a private company wants to believe they have anything in common with government. And many private managers or CEOs probably aren't very familiar with how local government actually works and why.

The problem with Linden Lab not choosing to at least consider this solution is that in an offline space, I don't think development of a comprehensive plan is usually undertaken without the "city" being involved. So I am not sure if it would be possible or worthwhile to attempt this without the involvement of Linden Lab. But I do believe this type of exercise and plan would help  address many of the current concerns in that particular virtual world. And I think some group needs to provide the lead that many online communities might eventually have to follow. So I decided to post the proposal here and ask if anyone in the Second Life community sees value in this or believes it would be worth the time and effort or even a discussion or if it is even possible to implement on our own. If not, I suppose it will eventually be another online company that in the future forges this path.

Second Life Comprehensive Plan Proposal 2012


Are Second Life and Other Virtual Worlds the Coffee Houses of the Future?

Last year when I attended the APWA Expo in Denver, one of the speakers shared his view of how the rise of coffee houses played a major part in the advancement of mankind. It seems that prior to the introduction of coffee as a beverage, most people just drank alcohol. 

Medieval Tavern

And if you're familiar with history, this probably doesn't surprise you because as you know, back then, the other alternative, water, was usually contaminated and unsafe to drink. Unfortunately while alcohol at moderate doses did not kill as water might have, it definitely was (and still is) a depressant. So people really were not too motivated or even had the presence of mind to innovate and discover new ways of doing things. Then along came coffee and the establishments in which people congregated to drink this new beverage. I suppose in a way it could be looked at as a wakening of the population. People discovered others with similar interests, and they learned about or developed new ideas. To me this seems similar to what I see occurring with people today – but this time it's not driven by a change in consumption of a beverage, but instead is being advanced by a change in consumption of media. And it seems to be particularly accelerated in the virtual world community.

Just about everything new that I have learned or been exposed to over the last 5 1/2 years has been because of my involvement in Second Life and other virtual environments. But when I try to explain this to people who are not involved in this technology, I don't think they really understand why this is possible or the incredible rate at which learning happens in that environment. Probably because I do not explain it well enough. But I was thinking about this today and realized perhaps I should be comparing it to the coffee house story to get my point across. But in my example, television would take the place of alcohol. This is because, like alcohol in the past, television has kept our population complacent and accepting of the status quo. The hours spent sitting in front of that box kept us from reaching out to each other and discovering and sharing new ideas or inspiring each other to reach beyond what we know today.

Cafe in Second Life

In my example, the technology making virtual worlds possible would be the new "beverage on the block." And the immersive 3D environments where all this takes place have become the new "coffee house" where any of us from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection can meet, share ideas, learn, motivate, and inspire each other to expand our horizons. I would compare the community congregating in these new meeting houses to those who first started hanging out in coffee houses in the late 1700s/early 1800s. Just like the traditional coffee house, some days you might just find everyone sitting around enjoying the company; other days there's an excitement or buzz in the air because a new topic has been introduced, and people are excited about its potential to change our lives. All of us who spend time there usually leave with much more than what we brought to the table. And the people who have not yet realized what's in the coffee house or what it offers, avoid it and follow their traditional habits not really knowing or understanding what is really going on in there.

In a way, I suppose other online communities and environments could also be considered to represent virtual coffee houses. Just like not only Starbucks serves up a great cup of coffee, so too online tools other than virtual worlds offer technology and a platform where people can meet and share. Over time, I like to think that as coffee houses eventually evolved to become ubiquitous and frequented by a large number of our population, virtual worlds will one day become a common hang out spot for public discourse, discussion, and expression. I wonder if people will look back at this time in history and be able to attribute our future advances to the rise in technology and 3D immersive environments.