There is something messy about the relationship between users and corporations. (Petersen, 2008:1)
This spring, together with a colleague, I’ll be running a class on “Audio-visual and digital media as communication tools” for our 6th semester communication students. My perspective will be on the changed conditions for marketing, production, and consumption in relation to new media, and as part of this, I’ll be using a paper by Søren Mørk Petersen entitled “Loser Generated Content: From Participation to Exploitation” (2008). In this paper, Petersen offers a critical perspective on the pros and cons of user generated innovation and content creation, and his main point is summarized in the abstract:
For many years the Internet was considered an apt technology for subversion of capitalism by the Italian post–Marxists. What we have witnessed, however, is that the Internet functions as a double–edged sword; the infrastructure does foster democracy, participation, joy, creativity and sometimes creates zones of piracy. But, at the same time, it has become evident how this same infrastructure also enables companies easily to piggyback on user generated content. (Petersen, 2008:1)
What puzzles Petersen is how at the same time new, so-called participatory media enabling user generated content can cause both very positive and very negative user experiences, and Petersen finds some explanation in combining basic principles behind the technologies in question with the logic of capitalism. The paper is good in explaining how we, the users actually pay when using “free” services, technologies, media – something that always seems to surprise the majority of students.
In preparation for this course, I’ve collected case examples from different types of SNSs, external corporate blogging etc. such as Google and Facebook, who – involuntarily – keep feeding into these kinds of discussions. Sometimes I actually appreciate talking about other media than SL, and I had not planned to include it. However, then on February 7th Linden Lab (LL) posted a call for bloggers. The call spurred quite a controversy in the SL related Twitter- and blogsphere, and I think it’ll make a perfect example of the “messy relationship between users and corporations”. So, let’s first have a look on the call:
Basically, LL invites bloggers to submit original posts with “exposure” as only the only payment. This marketing approach isn’t unusual in the Web 2.0 economy, but it soon resulted in some vey negative tweets among some of the SL users I follow, and if you take a look at the comments, people were not impressed by this initiative. Lack of payment was, however not the only reason why some SL users reacted so strongly. The guidelines for submission (depicted below) also caused concerns, and I also think that the history between LL and its users had an important impact on the (negative) reactions.
Before returning to my own take on this, let me just mention some of the reactions that quickly came about in parts of the SL blogsphere. Besides these authors’ interesting and very different perspectives on this issue, the comments are equally worth reading. One of the first reactions, I noticed was actually a comment made by Crap Mariner on the call – LL decided to delete! the comment, but prior to this, he managed to photo document it. As you can tell, this was a prickly, but satirical comment as was this one posted by Botgirl Questi, which also was deleted! Evidently, any site owner has the prerogative to moderate and even delete comments, but there are better ways of handling the process, and I’ll return to that. Inara Pey’s post “LL calls on bloggers, bloggers call out LL” fits in the more negative category, as does Chestnut Rau’s “ LL says “Calling all bloggers“, and Hamlet Au’s “SL bloggers wonder about blogging for SL on an unpaid basis“. Prokofy Neva’s “What, the Lindens do an open call for bloggers instead of a closed fic thing and you’re bitching?!” was one of the first posts I read in favor of LL’s approach, and Gwyneth Llewelyn’s “Working for free for Linden Lab’s blog” was also quite positive. Though not wanting to contribute herself, Tateru Nino also applauds the initiative in “A good effort“, and even though I don’t agree completely, I agree that the idea was good, but very, very badly executed. As an academic, I’m not used to being payed (at least not directly) for writing, and I do “love to write about Second Life”, but I will not be contributing, and this mainly has to do with the guidelines and LL’s general approach to its users.
In terms of payment, I’m not so dismayed as other SL users. From a strictly economical point of view, I think the “exposure payment” is defensible, given that for some SL users, this could actually be of great interest. When Hamlet Au contacted LL for a comment on the lack of payment, the answer confirmed that LL thought such an arrangement would be “appealing” to some of its users. However, from a PR point of view, I do think LL (again) is out of touch with some of the more critical SL users and that paying even a small sum would have bought LL a priceless amount of good will.
As an academic, I’m used to “submission guidelines”, but when reading LL’s Community Participation Guidelines, there’s a lack of transparence in terms of by whom and based on what criteria, potential submissions would be assessed. Even though this blog mainly is a manifestation of my personal views, I do try to follow general academic practice, and furthermore I try to maintain my academic integrity. Part of being an academic means providing a critical perspective on given phenomena, and I would seriously doubt that LL would accept posts pointing to some of the more critical issues concerning the use of SL. Since, the LL initiative clearly is a marketing effort, and that LL, in my opinion, suffers from a rather severe “fear of critique”, as they so clearly demonstrated by deleting Crap and Botgirl’s comments, my concern would be that LL would only want “Hollywood pretty painting pictures” – just as their marketing material in general. The great irony being that if LL admitted to certain critical issues, new users of SL probably would be better prepared for the SL experience and maybe wouldn’t leave so quickly due to unmet expectations. LL rightfully reserves the right to review and edit, and that is normal procedure when you pay somebody, however since LL doesn’t, a more sympathetic approach would be to do this in collaboration with the author(s), and an additional benefit would be that LL actually could learn something from this experience by connecting with its users.
Sadly, I’m no longer convinced that LL really wants to connect with its users, and what really sickens me is the way LL has handled this affair. Moderating posts is ok, but deleting posts that have already “aired”, and ignoring criticism only gets the opposite effect of what was wanted. It exposes a company afraid of critique and in desperate need of a PR person, and in general it adds to a very unprofessional image. I’ve been in SL for almost five years now, because despite all its shortcomings, I still consider it to be an amazing platform for all sorts of purposes. Nonetheless, I’m still surprised when LL repeatedly fails to communicate and connect with its users. LL really needs to hire someone to come and clean up this “mess” to avoid further feelings of exploitation – someone who’d genuinely appreciate the beauty and potentials of user generated innovation and content creation!
About a month ago, I spent one week at the Universidad Nacional (UNA) in Costa Rica participating in two research projects, and on some level this Mimi & Eunice strip sums up my experience:
I don’t mean to say that I went to Costa Rica thinking that my colleagues there are doing anything wrong, but I did have a rather naïve presumption that the greatest challenge for facilitating change would be pedagogical. However, as it happened there were other just as important challenges, and the research stay turned out to be very educational for me.
The first project is called ” Curricular Innovation of Study Plans in the disciplinary area of System Engineering at the Universidad Nacional, considering POPP (problem oriented project pedagogy) as a methodological approach”. Dra. Mayela Coto and Máster Sonia Mora are the local researchers in this project. Maylea Coto received her PhD from Aalborg University (AAU) in December 2010, but is back living in Costa Rica with her family.
My role in this project is fairly limited. I was invited to give an introductory lecture on the Aalborg PBL model (incl. the particular POPP approach) and to participate in a couple of workshops and research meetings focusing on implementing PBL.
My AAU colleague, Professor Marianne Lykke, will go to Costa Rica in January to continue this work.
The second project is called “AVATAR: The use of Second Life as pedagogical approach”, and Máster Carmen Cordero, Máster Willy Castro & Máster Dinia Rojas are the local researchers in this project. My AAU colleague, Post Doc. Heilyn Camacho, who also is from Costa Rica, and I are working together in this project, and this is the context for the UNA-AAU course in SL that we currently are running. In the UNA-AAU course, we are also lucky to collaborate with Danish SL designer and educator, Inge Knudsen.
Before leaving for Costa Rica, Inge and I had tried to kick off the UNA-AAU course in SL, but we experienced quite a lot of technical problems and language challenges making it difficult to figure out exactly why things weren’t going as expected. Originally, Heilyn and I were supposed to go together to Costa Rica, but due to unforeseen administrative issues, I ended up going alone. Heilyn went a couple weeks later and experimented specifically with the Lego Serious Play concept to help the participants understand the course assignment better.
In relation to the UNA-AAU course, the participants and I spent two days in the lab mainly doing hands-on exercises, and we had a lot of fun. Introducing SL is always such a pleasure, and I really enjoy helping participants discover the many possibilities of this medium.
There are nine participants in the UNA-AAU course, and for the course I’ve asked them to work in three teams. In one of the in-world exercises, each team had to go to a representation of a specific country (Denmark, Costa Rica, and China (Inge is also a Sinologist)), explore, find facts and take pictures, and finally present their findings to the rest of us. Not only did this exercise demand the mastery of basic SL skills, it also highlighted the inter-cultural aspect of the course, and it seemed to work very well.
Setting up the three presentations in the sandbox.
On the second day, I gave a short talk about my research in SL, tried to elaborate on the pedagogical underpinnings of the course, and we continued exploring and trying out different SL features.
I was truly impressed by how fast the participants understood the more technical aspects of SL, but it was also very apparent that the majority of the participants did not understand English very well. Another challenge was the time that the participants are able to allocate for the course. In Costa Rica there seems to be little tradition in Academia for giving the faculty time to participate in Professional Development (PD), and because the salaries are low, many teachers actually hold two jobs to make ends meet. In the UNA-AAU course this means that the participants can only allocate 3-4 hours/week, and anyone who has been working with and in SL knows that it takes time to learn the basics and time passes quickly once you have logged in. Therefore I decided to cut the course literature (for many it would take more than 3-4 hours to read one English text), and focus on giving the participants some good and relevant experiences in SL. I have designed the course based on some of the fundamental principles of PBL (problem orientation and formulation, student control, open-ended curriculum, and qualitative assessment), but given the above-mentioned challenges, I have found it necessary to play a more instructional role than I usually would do. By the end of the course, the participants still have to present an analysis of SL as teaching and learning environment in relation to a self-chosen target group, but I have asked them to use a particular model for their analyses to ensure that they cover some of the most important didactic/instructional elements. For the presentations, each team has its own sandbox in the air above the Danish Visions Island.
Sandboxes in the air.
In both research projects, UNA has asked us to collaborate in terms of teaching and research. Though the projects are different, they are both aiming at implementing new pedagogical strategies and technologies. Making the change to start using a PBL framework and SL as technology is a big change in itself, but based on my experience in Costa Rica, I would say that the biggest challenge has to do with culture.
Ready to embark a gondola ride into the rainforest.
All of the teachers I met in both projects were eager to change and to learn about new kinds of pedagogical practice, and I feel confident that they will. I do, however think that there are several challenges that need to be addressed. Certainly, my colleagues and I will do our best to support these Costa Rican teachers, but unless the management of the university recognizes that PD demands time (and credit), I fear that the changes they are all hoping for may take many years. A very interesting – and somewhat paradoxical – perspective on this, is the fact that education per se is highly prioritized in Costa Rica. There are more than 50 universities in this small country with only approx. 5 mio. people! Changing a pedagogical/academic culture is obviously not something that happens over night, but it does seem like the appropriate place to start, and at least the context is something that we (from the outside) need to consider very carefully when designing for change.
And yes I still do believe that education is what’s needed – perhaps just not only as in “teacher training”, but also on a more complex level and for all of us involved in this process. Thinking about this, cultural anthropologists, Bates & Plog (1990)’s definition of culture comes to mind:
[Culture] is a system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that the members of a society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.
Bates, D.G. and Plog, F. (1990:7): “Cultural Anthropology”. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.