Non-Governmental Imagination


Is Second Life the new blogging for NGOs?
July 24, 2006, 7:20 am
Filed under: Donations, Imagination, NGO Blogs, Resources, Visionaries

About a week ago I went to a Net Tuesday event that featured Second Life, a virtual world that the residents build, which creates… well…a second life. There were about 20 people in the room, and about 50 or 60 avatars (virtual people) crowded around a stage, making it a “mixed reality” event. The room had a ton of equipment, cameras, lights, laptops, speakers, etc., and the speakers in real life talked into a microphone and looked at a camera so the folks in Second Life could watch the video feed of the speakers.

A number of people, both real and “in world”, spoke about how they use SL successfully for advocacy and fundraising. Groups such as the Library Alliance and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society discussed how they built tools for their constituents, raised money, and successfully marshalled people’s volunteer efforts.

As I watched that crowd of swaying avatars on stage, I couldn’t help but feel like a dinosaur. I was a little scared of this medium, in that it seemed so foreign to me and would require so much work to get a firm grasp of. I know SL is experiencing tremendous amounts of growth right now, and the people immersed seemed so comfortable flying around (literally) and building worlds and friendships that I had to ask myself “who are these people and where do they find the time to spend in Second Life?”. These same questions, mind you, are the same ones I asked about bloggers two years ago. Although blogging may have been a niche activity then, it’s not now. I guess I just reacted how lots of people do to new ideas they can’t wrap their head around. Will SL become the new blogging, a medium which is cheap or free and any NGO would be foolhardy to ignore as a means of raising awareness or money?

Jeska Linden from Linden Labs (the makers of SL) and Randall Moss of the American Cancer Society gave an excellent presentation at the Net Squared conference.The American Cancer Society seems to be the trailblazer in this SL. My understanding is that they just received a check in the mail for $2,500 from some folks active in SL. They hadn’t heard of it, so they poked around and found out that people were using the ACS logo and other materials without authorization and raising money. This was initially pretty alarming until folks (I’m guessing Randall Moss, he seems to be the main ACS-SL facilitator) started poking around and saw the potential. Instead of recoiling in fear, they began to accept it and treat this virtual world as they do the real one: a place full of advocates/donors and potential advocates/donors. They started a virtual Walk For Life, and raised $6,500. This year their walk is happening this weekend, and they’ve already raised $25,000, which means they’re basically tripling their money every year. That’s real money, and real growth, and there’s no reason to expect it to end anytime soon with SL itself experiencing similarly crazy growth.

Could it translate to any other NGOs? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly every NGO needs to find passionate advocates with the spare time, energy and heart to spread the word and SL seems like a great place to link up with such folks. And I don’t know too many orgs that couldn’t use an extra $25k.

ACS has a number of structural advantages over other orgs. Their cause touches everyone. 1 in 4 of us gets cancer, so unless you’re lucky or lonely, you know someone who has or will get it. That will make you care. Also, I bet that there are plenty of cancer patients that cannot leave the house as much as they would like who could really thrive in Second Life. These folks would be natural advocates, and their personal story would be really compelling. Lastly, ACS is huge and has tons of money. That allows them to hire really smart people like David and Randall and give them the time and money to take risks. It’s obviously paying off.

But as Jeska says, it’s not for everyone (excellent interview with her here). Comparing Interplast to ACS, our clients (poor children in developing countries) generally don’t have electricity, much less broadband. They’re not on SL spreading the Interplast story. And congenital birth defects and injuries are not as widespread as cancer. Maybe 1 in 700 kids is born with a cleft, and 1 in 200 girls in the global south gets a disabling burn (compared with 1 in 2000 in industrialized countries). That’s not 1 in 4, so it’s less people that have been indirectly affected. Lastly, limited resources. It always comes back to ROI, and its harder to find time to just walking around a virtual world talking to people if you’re in a smaller shop where everyone has a bigger comparative chunk of organizational responsibility.

But even with all this in mind, I wonder about the possibilities. Susan Tenby is a driving force behind the Tech Soup / Second Life interaction, and she wants to show everyone how successful this can be. There is clearly a huge potential benefit for NGOs. I guess what I would need to take the plunge is some sort of roadmap for how NGOs, large and small, can find supporters in a big virtual world, with time estimates clearly stated. I know Susan’s working on this, and maybe others are as well. Like usual, I need less convincing than my boss, who needs less convincing than her boss. Maybe I can convince a certain to-be house guest of mine to give me a little run through while we’re hanging out…

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Hey Seth,

If you want to know more about the possibilities for NPOs, Beth interviewed me for BlogHer too, and I elaborate a bit more on what I see as the potential for nonprofits in SL in that interview.

Thanks for coming along to the Net Tuesday event. Join us on Fridays in the TechSoup meetings in SL (8:30am PST, every Friday) and you can see that this is just the beginning. 🙂

Comment by Susan Tenby

Wow, Susan is promoting an interview I haven’t even published yet!

Great summary! And,yes I will give you a run through, get your avatar set up, etc.

Your in-house guest

Comment by kanter

The possibilities for using SL for NGO or non-profit work, inworld and outworld, should definitely be explored. There’s a lot unexplored, and I think anyone with a blog these days would do well to start their SL avatar to go with the blog, and plan weekly discussion groups or flight excursions, it really ads to the dimension of your blog. The blogosphere has its limitations in application to real life, despite its impact; the 3-D Internet will have limitations, too, but these may not be so visible in the first uncritical rush to master and use the technological capacity.

The battery of equipment that you witnessed does give you a sense of the costs involved. At one level, virtual worlding is EXPENSIVE! At another, SL is dirt cheat — free! — accounts can be made now without even a credit card. But you do need broadband, and a wireless laptop is not good enough for flying and doing things in SL; you need a serious computer and graphics card. The costs of server/simulators to take on any serious project inworld; and the enormous amount of manhours you need to throw at SL to make it work (which you do willingly, but still have to come from somewhere) all have to be factors that any non-profit on a limited budget have to study in SL. So far, a lot of the SL educational/nonprofit scene is more about showing the technology *itself* off and talking about the technology *itself*, so it has a superficial content-free quality about it. This is inevitable at the early stages, but bears pointing out, to get people thinking more about what they are really going to DO with this technology.

People tend to look at a virtual world and think two things about it: how can I reach its potentially massive audiences, those millions playing WoW or even just the 7,000 logged on at any one time in SL; or how can I re-enact or bring in for involvement my group serving those with needs?

I think these two approaches have their limitations which unfortunately will make people reject SL if they don’t have either huge budgets or huge technological enthusiasms like TechSoup. That’s why I struggle to think about how to use and explain SL in ways so that it could work for people effectively.

The audiences in SL aren’t big and are disaffected and atomized; there isn’t a mass media (yet) yet within the curious ‘mass media’ of SL itself, and only 40 people can fit on a server at any one time. Re-enacting the suffering of humans, especially in remote areas like Darfur, opens up a lot of questions of morality and appropriateness, of reductivist approaches that commodify suffering so that wealthy Westerners can have a feel-good cause to work on in between their shopping for avatar accessories.

I think the more tethered you can keep your non-profit cause to a real person, a real event, and use SL as a way to reach and talk about and store impressions of that cause, the more successful. For me, the fake campfire set-up with the crisp and pristine pixelated prim tents of Camp Darfur on SL’s Better World Island come close to demeaning the victims, though that was not intended; they diminish the real horrors of people who have no firewood, because they get raped trying to gather it — these are the criticisms Ethan Zuckerman made.

What’s more successful about the BW set-up elsewhere on the island is a picture of a RL teacher in Africa and his diary and letters; interacting with that one display about that one actual person; the thought that you are able to participate in his life, so remote from your own, and possibly donate something — a letter he could read to his students there; a dollar of your own money; a book that you might mail even in snail mail. The more singular interface gets you past the four walls of the virtual world.

I’ve written about how the Memory Palace idea of using virtual architecture to educate, explain, remember can definitely be explored, but if it is any sort of superficial or re-enactment of suffering or atrocities or deformities, it could really miss the mark. For me, a build that would involve an actual doctor who went and performed actual surgery on a child he helped, a build that reflected his experiences, what that village looked like; some elements of the story without having to risk reductivism or even atrocity porn by a fascile stage set — that might work. But I do think there has to be willingness to be critical about what works and doesn’t work at this stage.

You wouldn’t expect Flash or a new website to solve your NGO’s fund-raising or mission problems; only people dedicated to helping other people can do that; they can only raise money if their cause and advocacy is persuasive and just. SL and other virtual platforms should likely be viewed in the same way.

Last night, flying around SL, I found somebody’s “help Camp Darfur” display in their store, right next to their vendors selling their whips and chains and latex for the BDSM lifestyle popular in SL. I found this too much mixing of metaphors and logged off.

The charity work that dealt with actual avatar experiences, say in the 7/7 London terrorist bombing or the Katrina hurricane, seemed to work better in the SL context than more abstract causes about people — or even avatars — you couldn’t see or imagine.

Comment by Prokofy Neva

It seems to me like SL would be a good place to find people with spare time and money – ideal donors and volunteers for NPOs. But something about it frightens me… probably my own ignorance…

Comment by Archana

Second life: first things first for nonprofits…

My name is Bottesini Brockholst. My shirt (purple) and jacket (red) clash horribly. My nose has a distinct curve to the left. I can fly. I’m homeless and penniless. The other day, I spent about half an hour trapped in…

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