“Loser” generated content – and LL

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:


The blog call from LL.

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.


LL’s guidelines for submission.

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!

/Mariis

What’s needed is education!?

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:


Source

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.

From the UNA campus – very exotic seen from the eyes of a Dane.

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.


Kick-off session in the UNA-AAU course.

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.


SL participants in UNA Virtual’s computer lab.

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.


Visiting the Poas Volcano.

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.

/Mariis

Bates, D.G. and Plog, F. (1990:7): “Cultural Anthropology”. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

The Purpose of Education, Human Rights, and New Media

Recently, a really interesting initiative about the purpose of education was launched by UK educators Doug Belshaw and Andy Stewart in the social media sphere. Their plan is to facilitate a critical mass of people all talking about the purpose(s) of education, starting with 500-word blog posts and Twitter campaigns, and culminating, with simultaneous large meetings/conferences further down the line. As I understand it, this initiative has been inspired by a UK election decisive for education set to take place in 3 year’s time, but Belshaw and Stewart are aiming for an international debate, and have set an ambitious goal:

From the website: Purpos/ed

The blog initiative was kick-started on February 1st on the Purpos/ed website, and so far a number of bloggers have contributed in raising their voices and joining the debate. Some of these contributions can be found in the archive, while others may be located by following the hashtags #purposed, and #500words. Furthermore is is possible to connect through a Facebook page. If you have an interest in education this is definitely an initiative worth following.

As for my own take on the purpose of education, I’ve always been inspired by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in particular article §26, (1,2);

Everyone has the right to education. (…) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

Education may be a human right, but for many different reasons becoming educated within the existing educational system is sadly not a given. Stephen Downes highlights this in his contribution with reference to his own educational path, and Lou McGill points to the challenges for kids with special needs. Unsurprisingly, many of the purpos/ed contributions echo thoughts similar to those in the declaration, the tricky part is of course how to promote, facilitate, and obtain these goals. Several authors point to new media as a means to broaden the scope of education and to tear down walls whiter these are mental, physical, or virtual. Dean Groom advocates the idea that education should extend beyond the idea of schools/institutions as being the sole places for education, whereas Fred Garnett calls for education aimed at participation.

Shifting perspective to my own current research within the 3D virtual world, Second Life (SL), I see a huge potential in using this particular kind of edtech to tear down several “walls”. Ever since I first logged into SL back in the spring of 2007 one of the aspects I’ve come to appreciate most about this virtual world is the participatory affordances enabling both me and my PD-students to connect, communicate, and collaborate with people in general, and educators in particular from all over the physical world. We have been given the opportunity to meet, and discuss cross-cultural differences in education, and to interact with a variety of educational designs – all of this contributing to new perspectives on education, teaching, and learning. Informal encounters and spontaneous activities are other very positive aspects of SL, and as it is the case in many other new media, the users of SL quickly respond to current affairs – something that recently could be witnessed during the Egypt crisis. Having heard of activities on the Egyptian island I went in to have a look on Friday February 11th shortly before it was announced that Pres. Mubarak would step down.


Protesters on the Egyptian Island, Friday February 11th 2011

Hamlet Au of the New World Notes blog and Rik Riel of the “Betterverse: Nonprofits in the Virtual World” blog have covered several of these activities on the Egyptian island, and Chantal Harvey has captured some of the ambience after Pres. Mubarak’s resignation in this short machinima:

Virtual worlds have previously been used in protesting, expressing thoughts and hopes of freedom, and in general just to direct attention towards different causes as reported in Mashable by Rita J. King co-director of the Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds project. What’s interesting here is the role not only Virtual Worlds, but new media in general play in distributing and sharing knowledge, something that also Pres. Obama noted in his remark on Egypt ; “a new generation emerge – a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears; a government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations.

In a very interesting article on the correlation between social media and political changes, Charlie Beckett asks how this new media landscape could/should change the way journalists “report on revolution and feed into the post-revolutionary politics and general political communications”. As an educator I could ask similar questions about new media’s influence. I’m currently experiencing the way new media change the way we think and practice education, and I must say that I’m overall optimistic. New media bring along affordances of participation, collaboration, and ultimately of empowerment. Most importantly new media force us to rethink, reframe, and reform – and this current Purpos/ed initiative is one of many interesting ways to get involved …

/Mariis

Different aspects of Being There Together

On February 1oth Dr. Ralph Schroeder of The Oxford Internet Institute will be giving a talk entitled ” Being There Together: Social Interaction in Virtual Environments” on the CAVE island at 9AM SLT.

The talk is organized by the Applied Research in Virtual Environments for Learning Special Interest Group (ARVEL SIG) as part of their ongoing in-world discussions.

This talk will be of particular interest to me given that different ways of being there together are some of the core concerns in my PhD, and the first book I read in relation to my PhD research was in fact “The Social Life of Avatars” (2002) edited by Dr. Schroeder. Since then I’ve been following Dr. Schroeder’s work, and especially some of the articles he has published in The MIT Journal, “Presence – Teleoperators and Virtual Environments“. In my opinion the different ways of being there together are closely connected to different perspectives of the perception of presence that humans potentially get when interacting with computers (the HCI perspective), and in this regard I think it is possible (at least in an analytical sense) to distinguish between

  • a sense of being – related to self-presence
  • a sense of there – related to tele-/or virtual presence
  • a sense of togetherness – related to co-presence

In so far as you define a “virtual environment” to include the affordance of creation, I would add a sense of doing, which then in turn also could relate to doing together (co-creation), and then could relate to social presence. However, these are my preliminary thoughts, and it is important to stress that there is no consensus in the literature as to neither definition nor use of the terms of presence. When I’m done with the final analysis of my data, I’m hoping to be more articulate on this matter. An interesting challenge here is also that I’m hoping to connect Wenger’s (1998) 4 components of learning (practice, community, identity, and meaning) to the different aspects of presence, and this will be tested in my analysis. Regardless of this outcome, I find it important to emphasize that when dealing with virtual environments such as 3D virtual worlds doing together becomes just as – if not more – important as being together. And I have a strong feeling (not very academic yet, I know ;-) that becoming together may be even more important … anyways, these are some of the issues I’m currently struggling with in my PhD-work.

As I understand it, Dr. Schroeder will focus on results from his latest 2011 book (with the same title as the talk) “Being There Together. Social Interaction in Shared Virtual Environments“, which I haven’t read yet. Nonetheless, Dr. Schroeder’s slides for the talk have already been put up for viewing on the island, and judging from these, the talk will include some of the ideas Schroeder expressed in a 2007 paper entitled “Virtual Environments and Other Media for Being There Together: Towards a Convergence of Technologies, Uses, and Research Agendas.” In this paper Schroeder compares “virtual environments” (VEs) with three other technologies: 1) videoconferencing, 2) online spaces for socializing and gaming, and 3) online awareness and social networking technologies. One of the things that puzzle me about this is the way Schroeder defines “virtual environments”:

VEs are defined as providing the sensory experience of being in a place other than the you are physically in, and being able to interact with that place [1, 2] A shorthand is to say that these are technologies for ‘being there’, and multi-user VEs for ‘being there together’ [3]. (Schroeder. 2007: 1 – see original for references)

And in the video below Dr. Schroeder repeats at least the first part of this definition of VEs :

It is in fact not so much the definition that puzzles me, but rather the way Dr. Schroeder uses it to differentiate between VEs and other media. In the 2007 paper Schroeder summarizes his comparison of the four technologies in this table below:


Figure 1 from Schroeder. 2007:5

When looking at this table actually a couple of things puzzle me. First of all, I’m wondering what kinds of technologies Schroeder would label as VEs? In the above mentioned 2002 book Schroeder links VR and VE tech closely, and that could perhaps explain the “face with limited expressiveness, and body” in the Appearance cell, but I’m honestly not sure … Secondly, when I look through my SL-avatar-based glasses, I guess a medium like SL would best fit in the column of “Online spaces for gaming and socializing”, but again I’m not sure. However, if this is where Schroeder would place SL it brings forward new questions/comments. As a general comment I would say that SL fits the definition of a VE in that it also gives the user the experience of being in another place, being able to interact in this place, and of being there with others. Schroeder does in fact point to an increasing overlap between different technologies, and so I wondering why he doesn’t reserve VE as an overarching concept or definition. In more specific terms related to SL I would comment on some of the claims in the column;

  • ad. Realism: judging from the rest of the paper I think Schroeder mainly refers to fidelity here, which would explain the “low” claim. However, whiter or not something is perceived “real” in psychosocial terms remains highly controversial.
  • ad. Object and environment interaction: here I’m simply not sure what Schroeder means by “restricted field view” – at least not if it refers to the user’s control over different POVs?
  • ad. Communication and interaction: while it is true that much communication in SL is synchronous (text/voice chat), the asynchronous aspect should not be neglected, and this is something that has improved with the Shared Media feature that enables users to communicate in web-based systems outside SL from inside SL, and this of course does not have to real-time.

I’m fully aware that a general comparison can’t and shouldn’t capture more system specific nuances, and Schroeder recognizes that this comparison may “be drawn too sharply – in reality many of them overlap” (2007:2). Even so, I’m really looking forward to meeting Dr. Schroeder in-world later this week, and I’m hoping that I get the chance to ask him to elaborate on some of these issues – and meanwhile I’m impatiently waiting for his new book to arrive :-)

/Mariis

Reference

Schroeder, R. (2007) Virtual Environments and Other Media for Being There Together: Towards a Convergence of Technologies, Uses, and Research Agendas. Proceedings of Presence 2007, Barcelona, Spain, October 2007.