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The Virtual Charms of New Media

December 4, 2006

For those of us who know nothing of avatars or nodes, it may come as a surprise to learn that some computer users are spending significant chunks of their real life inside a virtual world called Second Life (SL). With some 1.6 million users—known as “residents”—and growing fast, the game is a thriving universe that allows characters to hike on beautiful exotic mountains, decorate their virtual homes, “talk” on cell phones, read the newspaper, attend meetings, have simulated sex, and participate in many other seemingly real activities. Why is this world so appealing? “It’s a mind-blowing amount of eye-candy,” says long time SL resident Deirdre Scott, who works, by day, as a technologist and visual arts curator. “And it’s the fact that people create this. It’s a constant amazement.” Earlier this month Scott spoke at a new technology conference sponsored by the National Black Programming Consortium, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and WGBH in Boston. Passionate about what was being called “The New Funky,” or African American participation inside virtual communities, her talk inspired lively feedback during the evening cocktail hour. Inside SL there are shopping malls where residents can buy Adidas and American Apparel, car dealers like Toyota and Pontiac, banks, and universities offering virtual classes. They use Linden dollars, which can be exchanged at a varying rate for U.S dollars. In fact, there is so much commerce going on inside the much-discussed Second Life economy that it has sparked the interest of legislators wanting to tax it. SL has also lured media outlets like C/NET, BBC Radio, and especially Reuters, which became the first mainstream news agency last October to establish a bureau inside of Second Life and to assign full-time, real life reporter Adam Pasick to its virtual beat. This month the first tabloid publication, “SL News,” from German publisher Axel Springer, will also launch its online editorial offices, recruiting a team of avatar reporters from the virtual community itself. Although she hasn’t yet “run into” Reuters or other news agencies inside SL, Deirdre Scott sees the rapidly expanding universe as a hopeful platform for creative entrepreneurs and technologists, and one that could help to change power dynamics for women of color inside the new media landscape. CEO of a company called DesignPolice, real-life Scott oversees the technology network for the Studio Museum in Harlem. But in Second Life, she has created a brown-skinned, silver-haired avatar trademarked as “Mint Powers.” Part superhero and part designer, Scott’s alter ego and business proxy in the virtual universe is, like Scott, interested in social and environmental issues. But mostly, Mint spends her time exploring new technologies and attending classes on how to build virtual architecture (called “rezzing”). “Mint is CEO of her own company, Mint Powers Organization, in the virtual world,” says Scott. “And DesignPolice does real life projects, some of which are also in the virtual world. So I saw how Mint’s work could filter back into my business model.” What does this mean for women of color in the media? “A lot,” says Scott. “It provides a gateway to advanced technology and the inspiration to feel that they can contribute to it.” While DesignPolice might not be able to find distribution mechanisms for an upcoming creative project, Mint Powers can publish and distribute her own work within SL, thereby reaching new markets and audiences. “It provides a low cost venue that doesn’t have to be approved by anyone,” says Scott. “If white women were having a problem in the media—looking for an agent and a publisher—then you know black women were having a problem. What is so wonderful is I can put out quirky things and say this tickles me today. They may bring a profit or they may not.” She can freely experiment and learn, says Scott, in an atmosphere where people may be “not quite sure who they are. Whether Mint is brown today or pink tomorrow, people interact with her. It demands another level of trust.” Major philanthropic organizations are also setting up shop inside SL, hoping to build bridges for new media entrepreneurs. Both the Knight and the MacArthur Foundations are offering millions of dollars for creative development, for example, monies that have been announced and reported from inside SL. And there is something more just beneath the surface of all this professional acumen and ambition. For some women—who are 40 percent of SL residents—there is kind of personal satisfaction, call it empowerment even, that may not be as readily available to them in real life. “Inside SL I own three parcels of land,” says Scott, unconsciously blending Mint’s identity with her own, “each with at least one building on it. My cottage, which is where I call home, is in a lakeside community. Last night I was working on a new project and I found a resort beach area nearby. So I sat Mint down and just let that sound effect wash over me. You should have seen it. It was beautiful.” Real life Deirdre Scott didn’t leave her Second Life until 2:30 a.m.