How relevant is an avatar?

What does it mean to be an avatar? Or should we say to ‘have’ an avatar? And what is an avatar: the thumbnail on a Twitter of Facebook account? The 3D characters in World of Warcraft or in Second Life? The textual description of a character in a text-only roleplaying environment?

In a comment on ‘The Metaverse is dead, long live shared creative spaces’, Caliburn Susanto says:

There are those of us (definitely a minority) who acclimate quickly to enjoying the 3-D online environment AS an avatar (as opposed to USING an avatar). Some people — the “niche market” everyone speaks of — have a Gestalt moment early on when the avatar stops being “it” (a cursor with arms and legs) and becomes “me.” From that point forward the humanity comes through and immersion becomes possible. The person’s character and emotions flow through his or her individualized puppet and the environment stops being a game (for lack of a better term) and becomes a place, a world. For most people (and I’ve tried with friends and acquaintances with very little success!) such immersion is foreign and even unpleasant.

I have the feeling that representation of self in digital environments is important – but how to learn more about it? One way to study this could be ethnography, so I bought Ethnography and Virtual Worlds, by Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce and T.L. Taylor.

Bookcover Ethnography and virtual worlds

The publishers at Princeton University Press say this is a concise, comprehensive, and practical guide for students, teachers, designers, and scholars interested in using ethnographic methods to study online virtual worlds, including both game and nongame environments.

The focus of the handbook is on ‘virtual worlds’, meaning:
– places that have a sense of worldliness
– multi-user (shared environments, synchronous communication and interaction)
– persistent (they continue to exist also when players log off)
– allowing players to embody themselves (usually as avatars)

Which means that for instance Facebook is not a virtual world, because of the lack of worldliness and embodiment (even though in Facebook or linked to Facebook there are virtual worlds). So a possible tension is that the results of research in for instance Second Life are only relevant to that particular environment (or maybe even relevant to specific communities in that world). So will such research learn us something about for instance online collaborative learning on forums and blogs, rather than in a virtual world as defined above?

Chapter One, Why this Handbook, concludes by saying:

Many of the many contributions of virtual world ethnography is to broaden this conversation by showing how forms of technologically mediated sociality shape and are shaped by the contemporary context.

Which sounds nice, but the question remains: will data about how people use avatars in World of Warcraft learn us something beyond World of Warcraft? If I find out, I’ll post it here – and don’t hesitate sharing your experiences in this regard!

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UK to ease rules for tech share listings | Reuters

“Britain plans to make it easier for technology firms to list their shares in London, the government said on Thursday, in an attempt to stem the flow of high-growth companies heading across the Atlantic in search of capital.”

Interesting. Countries in a competition to keep their tech wizards at home. But how important are stock markets for innovation? And nation-states?  
via Diigo http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/09/20/uk-ipo-tech-idUKBRE88J0AP20120920

While I’m writing this, we’re covering a 1.96 billion euro ($2.56 billion) bid by US-based cable operator Liberty Global for the shares in Belgian peer Telenet it did not already own. There is quite some discussion here in Belgium about the transfer of important corporate decision centers to other countries such as the US. Globalization and nation-states, it remains an interesting combination.

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The metaverse is dead. Long live shared creative spaces!

Linden Lab, the company behind the virtual world Second Life, is about to launch two non-Second Life products: Creatorverse and Patterns. Creatorverse is an iPad-app:

Patterns will be a ‘new 3D creative environment’. Virtual World-watcher Wagner James Au says on New World Notes that Linden Lab no longer has as mission to make an online world ‘that advances the human condition’ but rather specializes in ‘shared creative spaces’ – not in facilitating the emergence of the metaverse. For those who forgot about the metaverse – which seems these days a bit like an antiquated idea – Wikipedia defines it as thus:

The Metaverse is our collective online shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the internet. The word metaverse is a portmanteau of the prefix “meta” (meaning “beyond”) and “universe” and is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.

Second Life is stagnating, at least not growing like Californian tech companies are supposed to growth (that being said, it seems to be profitable). I’ve been fascinated by that virtual world since about 2007, as it allows to transcend geographical and maybe even cultural distances. It enables people to meet, avatar-wise, in shared and persistent spaces. It has a creative and liberal culture – the world is almost entirely created by its ‘residents’. For a while I thought that maybe the future internet would look like a sophisticated Second Life, and that 2D-objects such as websites would simply be a part of that metaverse.

In the meantime I realized that it’s a niche culture. At first it was believed that Second Life, as a user-generated, free culture for (mainly) adults did not go mainstream because of management and marketing errors. There were other attempts to create a open-ended, user-generated worlds, such as Lively (Google), Metaplace.com (Raph Koster), Blue Mars, which failed. Other worlds are still very much alive such as OpenSim (like Second Life, but open source), the very new Cloud Party (browser-based) and Jibe (an embeddable virtual environment, visit Reactiongrid’s new site). I like projects such as OpenSim and Jibe, but those are even more niche than Second Life (and often the users/residents are former Second Life people).

Moya museum in the virtual world Cloud Party

Patrick Moya museum in the virtual world Cloud Party

Some think that virtual environments will gain traction once they are browser-based (no hefty downloads) and are made easier to use. I’m sceptical: while I feel comfortable in a virtual environment and as an avatar, for many others it’s an uncanny experience, especially in a professional context. I have the feeling that it is about the representation of oneself and others, about identities, not about technical hurdles.

It seems to be different for online games which of course did go mainstream, also for adult audiences – but then again, these are games, not open ended user generated worlds. Minecraft is very popular, but it’s more a game (while there are game environments inside Second Life, the world itself is not a game). As it is explained on the Minecraft site:

I strongly believe that all good stories have a conflict, and that all good games tell a good story regardless of if it’s pre-written or emergent. Free building mode is fine and dandy, but for many people it will ultimately become boring once you’ve got it figured out. It’s like playing a first person shooter in god mode, or giving yourself infinite funds in a strategy game.. a lack of challenge kills the fun.

Still, I do like this notion of virtual shared creative spaces. It is exactly what we’ll need in many different contexts, as globalization increases dramatically and the technological possibilities multiply exponentially. But there is competition. Just suppose you want to link up with other people, elsewhere in the world, for a project or even a joint venture. You don’t have the budget for a high-end videoconferencing system. I guess that Google+ Hangout – with its videoconferencing features, screensharing, chat-possibilities, apps, network, possibility to save the conference and with links with the other Google goodies would do a very nice job. It even is free.
My guess is that you’ll mainly use the Google-stuff. A virtual environment? Maybe to create 3D-objects together, if that would be your line of business or educational project. Or as a fun experiment. Or for a simulation.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of these possibilities. Especially not because I’m a firm believer in the importance of developments such as 3D printing. Creating 3D objects together, or at least experiencing 3D prototypes in a virtual environment might very well be very interesting. But I would not call it ‘the metaverse’.

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How artificial intelligence is changing our lives – CSMonitor.com

“The idea that AI must mimic the thinking process of humans has dropped away. “Creating artificial intelligences that are like humans is, at the end of the day, paving the cow paths,” Mr. Saffo argues. “It’s using the new technology to imitate some old thing.””
via Diigo http://www.csmonitor.com/Innovation/Tech/2012/0916/How-artificial-intelligence-is-changing-our-lives/(page)/3

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Book Event: Steven Johnson on the Rise of the “Peer Progressive” | Personal Democracy Forum

“Is there a new political philosophy emerging from things like open source software development; massive community sharing hubs like Wikipedia, Kickstarter, and Reddit; peer-to-peer social networking; experiments in “Liquid Democracy,” and the rapid spread of resource sharing tools like ZipCar, AirBnb and Car2go? Is it time to start talking about replacing the “welfare state” with the “partner state”?

On Monday September 24 at 7:30pm at the New York Law School, we’re looking forward to exploring all those questions and more with noted author Steven Johnson, whose new book Future, Perfect is must-reading for people who believe in the power of open, collaborative peer-to-peer networking to achieve real social progress.”
via Diigo http://personaldemocracy.com/event/special-book-event-steven-johnson-rise-peer-progressive

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Gamification by design

There are not that many books available about gamification, I learned at the Coursera Gamification course. A colleague at the newsroom wants me to read the O’Reilly book Gamification by Design, by Gabe Zichermann & Christopher Cunningham. The publisher’s description:

  • Discover the motivational framework game designers use to segment and engage consumers
  • Understand core game mechanics such as points, badges, levels, challenges, and leaderboards
  • Engage your consumers with reward structures, positive reinforcement, and feedback loops
  • Combine game mechanics with social interaction for activities such as collecting, gifting, heroism, and status
  • Dive into case studies on Nike and Yahoo!, and analyze interactions at Google, Facebook, and Zynga
  • Get the architecture and code to gamify a basic consumer site, and learn how to use mainstream gamification APIs from Badgeville
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Coursera doubles number of university partners, increases focus overseas — GigaOm

Coursera grows fast, and looks – rightly so – overseas. For the moment, almost all courses seem to be in English. Will that language become even more dominant in higher education, because of the rapid expansion of American platforms? Or is it just the initial phase? 
via Diigo http://gigaom.com/2012/09/19/coursera-doubles-number-of-university-partners-increases-focus-overseas/

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Sometimes, the reputable university press wins out

Interesting. George Siemens, together with Bonnie Stewart and Dave Cormier have agreed (and been contracted) to write for Johns Hopkins University Press. George Siemens launched the first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in 2008 (with Stephen Downes). His book, about the scope and nature of higher education (HE) change, will not be open. So how does a believer in open education such as Siemens deal with this? Easy: by publishing the field notes on a blog (http://www.xedbook.com/). In the discussion about the publication decisions the ‘admin’ answers to objections:

We made a tradeoff between openness/impact and reputable press. Based on who we are hoping to impact with this book, the reputable university press won out. It may well be a non-sensical decision.

(hat tip to Stephen Downes for mentioning this development on his blog/newsletter).
This being said, Siemens together with Rory McGreal facilitates a real MOOC about Openness in Education. It started on September 10 and runs for 12 weeks. The MOOC ‘will explore openness in education – its roots, its growing influence, and economic and systemic impact.’ There is still time to register.
Still confused about what a MOOC actually is? There is a page about MOOCs in the peeragogy.org handbook, and here is a video conversation between Howard Rheingold and George Siemens. A nice quote about that memorable first MOOC in 2008 (which also had a cohort in Second Life): ‘It’s the internet. People did what they wanted to do.’

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