25 Jul

Civic Engagement and Second Life

As city governments explore their role in burgeoning virtual environments, they should see the creation of engaged and active civic groups as primary to their mission. We recently spoke to a reporter from the Boston Globe, who, after getting wind of the proposed project, was hoping to report that the city was moving into Second Life. When we told him that we weren’t interested in getting people to move into virtual space and that we were going to use the tool to help people become more engaged in physical space, he seemed a bit disappointed. I mention this because it demonstrates that virtual environments are still largely powered by their “neat-o” factor. And while this might be an acceptable motivation for business implementation, city governments have to resist this temptation. The role of government in virtual worlds should be to establish public spaces for citizen use. This does not mean that cities should just buy an island in Second Life and let people put stuff there. Good public spaces are not empty spaces; they are structured and programmed to engage individuals and groups without putting extralegal limitations on behaviors and actions. Governments can use virtual worlds to create such spaces.

25 Jul


Second Life Emerson islandDespite the fact that the Boston Globe has declared that the city has plans for a full virtual conversion in Second Life, the truth of the matter is its goals are much more modest. Together with my colleage Gene Koo, we are offering two courses at Emerson College with the goal of guiding students and members of the community in the creative re-imagination of the city’s neighborhoods and spaces (using Second Life). From the very beginning of this project, our intention has been to use Second Life as a means of fostering real life civic engagement. We wanted to come up with a methodology that would allow individuals and groups to learn about their everyday spaces from the process of building and inhabiting the virtual environment.

We are calling this the IDEA method. The acronym stands for Imagine, Design, Engage and Activate. The strategy is simple: groups assemble to collectively imagine a particular space, they then design the “virtual equivalent” of that space in Second Life, they then test the space by inviting people to engage it, and finally, they activate that space by figuring out how it translates into real space. This process will unfold over the course of the semester.

We have every expectation that the IDEA method is scalable. During summer 2008, we plan to extend this program to Boston youth. But we understand it as having applications well beyond a single class. We hope that the method can be used by social, planning, neighborhood, or civic organizations who want to engage citizens in decision making beyond the standard yes/no template.

Thus far, we have received very positive feedback on the program. We are still waiting to obtain our first committed funder, and until then, we are riding on the fumes of moral support.

11 Jul

Tracking Kids

Appealing to kids is big business. This NPR story covers the various technologies meant to appeal to children – but more importantly, meant to give parents new ways of keeping track of them. Most interestingly, it introduces the concept of GPS enabled phones designed to appeal to kids under 12. They think it looks cool and does cool stuff, and it does. But it also lets their parents know precisely where they are at all times. Tracking through design – very clever.

11 Jul

Beyond Play

I just finished reading Thomas Malaby’s essay, “Beyond Play: a New Approach to Games” from Games and Culture  (vol. 2, no. 2, April 2007).  It’s a very insightful essay about the relationship between game, play and everyday life. He makes the following claim:

“A game is a semibounded and socially legitimate domain of contrived contingency that generates interpretable outcomes.”

This proposition is intentionally broad, rescuing games from the widely held position that they are a separate social activity. Indeed, games are any part of life that fits the above definition. Semibounded – meaning there is some structuration, but not in such a way that they everyday life becomes irrelevant. Socially legitimate – they are not outside of “serious” culture. And the notion of contrived contingency is of the utmost importance. Contingency means that games offer an experience of what might not have been. This, he argues, is fundamental to the game experience. As games are structured by rules, that contingency, that unique experience, is always contrived. Finally, he makes the point that games have interpretable outcomes. Even if there is no winning or losing, the experience of the game can be understood through some form of reflective process.

In general, this article supplies a fantastic overview of gaming literature and makes a convincing argument that games are an increasingly important category of social experience.

05 Jul

City as Social Network

I recently posted this series of prompts to the iDC discussion list.

Following Google’s acquisition of Feedburner, I want to consider how the threats to privacy that became apparent in that context extend to physical communities (neighborhood, organization, city) that are enabled/bolstered/fortified by social web media.  Many community groups and neighborhood organizations are using digital networking technologies to foster community interaction (http://www.ibrattleboro.com/).  And of course, what is widely known as citizen journalism plays into this as well – placebloggers (http://placebloggers.com) and Community Media organizations tend towards hyperlocal networked content (http://www.cctvcambridge.org/) with an aim towards reinforcing existing geographical connections.  The processes that bind non-geographical communities in networks are similar to those that are binding geographical communities – shared interests, practices, goals, etc.    However, unlike traditional online communities that have a basis in anonymity, digitally annotated physical communities often rely on the full disclosure of identity for their functionality.  For instance, when it comes to neighborhood issues – it is important to know one’s real name and location.

And as city governments are seeking ways to adopt “web 2.0” technologies into their existing “citizen management” projects, the lack of anonymity and the simple traceability of social actions open up new concerns.  Social media tools have the capacity to significantly expand participation in local governance, but they also have the capacity to trace citizen behavior and map social trends.  Cities are interested in this technology for the same reason that corporations are – it offers valuable user data.   Politicians can survey the concerns of their constituency; agencies can identify problems in neighborhoods; and law enforcement…well, there are many scenarios possible.  It can also be turned around: citizens can have greater access to their politicians, and government proceedings can at least have the impression of transparency.

While the conversations on this list have devoted considerable time to corporate surveillance, the question not often asked in this context is what should be made of local surveillance – from the people in one’s neighborhood to city governments?  In the wake of connectivity, discourse and collaboration, there is always documentation, processing and interpretation. From neighborhood chatrooms to local annotated mapping projects to virtual town hall meetings, participation equals surveillance – for better or for worse.

When I consider a digital future in which I want to live – it includes networked access to my neighborhood services, communities, city government and public spaces. However, there is little possibility for that to take place outside of the proliferation of data that would make communities vulnerable to excessive internal and external management. And as citywide wifi and mobile web devices proliferate, the outlets for that recycled data expand.  At the same time, American cities, like corporations, are glomming onto digital media because of its populist resonances.  They are paying attention to online neighborhoods and seeking to aggregate that data into meaningful information.  The ideology of digital media – as evidenced in the phrases “participatory media” and “user-generated content” – is accessibility.  Digital media directly aligns the rhetoric of progress with the rhetoric of populism.  Social web media makes explicit what has only been implied in the recent rhetoric of city governments – that anyone, regardless of social position, can participate in the ordering of city experience and politics.

From cities to towns to neighborhoods, the populist promise of social web media is transforming the nature of public space and civic participation.  I am referring only to the American context, because that’s what I know, but it would be great to engage in comparative dialogue in order to better understand the scope of how these technologies are being officially or unofficially implemented to change perceptions of cities and city life, not to mention public space and community engagement.

I suppose I’ll leave it at that for now.  I look forward to the conversation.

03 Jul



OurVirtualHolland (OVH) is one model of civic presence in SL. Sponsored by the financial firm ING, the space is designed to bring together entrepreneurs under the guise of business created community. The question is: what kind of community is actually created in this space? How does national identity play into virtual presence? And, as a business venture (or even PR-quality philanthropy), how successful is the project?