Today, I took a look at Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam Through Virtual Worlds today, written by Rita J. King and Joshua S. Fouts of Dancing Ink Productions for the Carnegie Council. Their article was the result of a year-long study analyzing the role that Second Life can play in the realm of Public Diplomacy.
Much has been made of James Glassman’s Second Life discussion (at least by him and not so much by the media, I’ve noted) as a way of engaging foreign audiences and presenting a new perspective on the United States. At the time, I neverr bought into it, noting that it was things like Facebook and Myspace that had a larger share of digital audiences. Turns out, that may have been a bit of ethnocentrism on my part. According to Wagner James Au, who maintains the “New World Notes” blog on the Second Life “metaverse,” the number of consistent users could be all over the place this year:
Some think the user growth plateau of 500K will continue, or even decline into outright loss; others see the usage base growing even past a million. Here’s two data points to consider:Sales of laptop PCs now greatly exceed sales of desktop computers, which are in steep decline. (And since laptops aren’t usually sold with robust 3D graphics power, which Second Life requires, the potential market will shrink.) On the other side, tech insiders believe the incoming Obama administration will earmark billions to expand broadband penetration in the US. (Which will also grow the potential market for SL.) How will that change the user base for the metaverse?
The role that second life plays worldwide is evidently not something that many Americans truly understand. (I should take moment to give Professor Bruce Gregory at George Washington’s School of Media and Public Affairs and former head of the Public Diplomacy Institute a bit of credit here, considering he lectured about Second Life and I thought he was out of his mind.) However, the user base is global, diverse, and open-minded. The use of avatars, alter-egos that allow a person to create their own identity and reality is more than just a method of escapisim. It allows people to have conversations with people they would otherwise not be able to speak to, ask questions that they would otherwise be ashamed of discussing, and to learn directly from the experiences of individual citizens instead of relying upon the words of information gatekeepers of certain motives.
Returning to Glassman and his consistent discussion of “Public Diplomacy 2.0” (referred to by King and Fouts as “digital diplomacy”), there is a unique opportunity for the democritization of information through Second Life and many other social networking platforms. Glassman’s interviewers did not need a press pass or a security screening, and were able to ask him about the mission and values of the United States. Now, it’s coverage in media worldwide is scant, and it appears to have been organized at least in part by the authors of the paper I’m discussing, so it’s important to be mindful of motives and potential exaggerations.
Anyway, asking Ambassador Glassman questions as a representative of the United States Government can only go so far. What is most important is the opportunity to explore the world as foreign publics see it, and speak to them and create new perspectives. It is nearly impossible to speak to people in the real world like this logistically, and there are people on both American and Middle Eastern sides who would want to serve as a barrier to this kind of direct contact. Second Life serves instead as perhaps the safest, most personal, and most impactful (you can even be asked to take your shoes off in a user’s mosque, King and Fouts note) way of understanding the world that we can only see on paper or on screen. Pixels may in fact be the best view we have.
Please feel absolutely free ot share your own Second Life experiences and avatars. I think I might create mine tomorrow.