16 Jan

The Geography of Virtual Worlds

I’m editing a special issue of the journal Space and Culture on the “Geography of Virtual Worlds.” Here’s a draft of the introduction. It’s still in process, but it might give some sense of what I think will be a very interesting issue.

This evening I am home in front of the fireplace, chatting with friends and looking out the window onto a wide expanse of ocean. Not far from my beach house, there are dance clubs, art spaces, snowy mountain peaks, and classrooms. I am only seconds from London, Berlin, New York, Dublin and Tokyo. And without much effort I can summon my friends from around the world to join me in my spa. You’re probably wondering how, on a professor’s salary, I can afford all this. The answer: log onto Second Life.
Second Life is a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE). But it’s not a game. Unlike other virtual environments like World of Warcraft or even The Sims Online, there is no built-in objective to the Second Life world. And yet, millions of users have “moved in” and participated in creating it – from building homes like the one described above, to building natural landscapes, and even entire cities. At the time of this writing, the world is composed of nearly 900 square kilometers of virtual landscape (Linden, 2008) used for everything from simple chat to collaborative work, performance, education, commerce and of course, sex. Corporations such as Nike, Toyota, and IBM have created presences there. The Center for Disease Control and the Red Cross have set up services. Universities are teaching classes. Entrepreneurs are selling everything from virtual real estate to physical paintings. And pornography abounds.

So while Second Life is not a game, it does seem to have a dominant objective – commerce. Real money is traded in the form of “Linden Dollars” – an online token that exchanges at 270 per US dollar. And unlike other virtual environments with less formal economies, Second Life users don’t need to rely on third party trading sites like eBay. All currency transfers take place on the company’s website. Second Life has enjoyed rapid growth since its launch in 2003 largely because the motivation of market exchange is built into the business model. It is for this reason that some commentators have characterized it as a three dimensional extension of the Web (Kirkpatrick, 2006). But these views seem to ignore the rather important peculiarities of the three dimensional platform. While MUVEs like Second Life, There.com and Metaverse are direct descendants of text-based multi-user domains (MUDs) and their graphical counterparts (MOOs), the 3D immersive qualities of these contemporary spaces suggest a significant divergence from traditional chat rooms and message boards. MUVEs provide a level of engagement that is quite different from the 2D Web. It is for this reason that a number of commercial spaces in Second Life remain empty. Many of the companies and services that initially rushed to build virtual stores and offices have failed to bring people to their sites. For these companies, the strategy was simply to reproduce their web presence in three dimensions –building flat product panels dispersed in space and not considering the specificity of user experience in the virtual environment. What was ill considered in these ventures was the centrality of the spatially located avatar in all interactions. In other words, instead of searching for a product, clicking on it, reading reviews and then purchasing, my avatar has to first walk through a space and find the product. Or instead of a chat room, where communication is represented as words in a browser window, avatars in a MUVE have to organize themselves in a pattern conducive to conversation. They have to stand next to each other, sit on a park bench, or fly to a far-flung corner of the sky. In short, MUVEs re-introduce space into digitally mediated communication.

The way bodies are organized in space is determined by multiple factors, including gender, design (street, church, club, etc.), event (art installation, class, wedding, etc.), ownership, and many other vertices of spatial organization. Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell (2007) refer to this as infrastructure. While they write specifically about pervasive computing, or computing in physical environments, their thesis applies quite well to MUVEs. They argue that spatial organization, including distance and presence, informs the meaning of individual spaces and, in turn, informs the nature of communication within those spaces. This general concept is well supported by research that has investigated the nature of communication in virtual environments. In a particularly interesting study about spatial infrastructure in MUVEs, Yee et al. concluded that offline personal space norms applied to avatar interactions in Second Life (2007). By measuring avatar movement, they learned that female avatars tend to stand closer together than their male counterparts. In addition, they concluded that males tend to stand farther away from each other outside than they do inside. These conventions are parallel to real-world, physical behaviors. Beyond Second Life, extensive research has been conducted in various other MUVEs. Martey and Stromer-Galley (2007), in their study of the The Sims Online, conclude that the metaphor of the “house” is primary in shaping a player’s sense of “appropriate behavior.” And Taylor, in her study of Everquest, points to the centrality of the body metaphor: “Bodies,” she writes, “act not only as a conduit through which we participate in society but as a mechanism through which communities themselves are performed. They facilitate not only the production of identities, but social relationships and communication” (2006, 117). Bodies, and their relationship to objects and structures (including other virtual bodies), are generally proscriptive of user behavior and social interactions in MUVEs. Dourish and Bell’s concept of infrastructure adds the organizing context of space into all of these studies.

Understanding the context of virtual space is no simple task. Considering that virtual space is infinitely malleable, how is it that it comes to affect communication? One would think that, because of the open-ended nature of the technology, virtual space would emerge in a manner unconnected to physical space. Unbounded by physics, space could assemble within any organizational principle – color, time, number, or emotional register. And yet, within most MUVEs, there is an abundance of metaphors to physical space. Why do avatars need houses, beds, or even chairs? They don’t get cold, they don’t need to sleep, and their legs don’t ache from standing all day. Second Life, for instance, is filled with familiar habitations, from bedrooms, to lounges, clubs and swimming pools. Virtual houses have kitchens and showers, parks have benches, and beaches have towels to protect against virtual sand creeping into virtual bathing suits. While it is possible that in the early stages of adoption, MUVE users, like users of any new technology, gravitate towards the familiar (consider the Web’s heavy reliance on desktop and room metaphors), it is more likely that physical space, as a socially vetted context, will remain the most useful metaphor for the navigation of MUVEs. While operating systems only suggest space (i.e. the desktop) as an organizing principle, MUVEs are fundamentally built around that principle.

But the utility of these metaphors extend beyond spatial orientation. The abundance of city sims (simulations) in Second Life suggests that users are also drawn to familiar places. One could walk the streets of London, Tokyo, New York, Boston, Berlin, Dublin, and Zurich, just to name a few. “Debs Regent,” the owner of the London sim and UK ex-pat living in Portugal, explained that the project of building the Knightsbridge neighborhood in London was a labor of love. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have [London] in SL so I don’t get homesick. There are lots of ex-pats out there. Not just ex-pats in other countries, but in the UK too – people who miss their roots just like I did. So we recreated Knightsbridge in SL” (Gordon, 2007). Debs assembled an all-volunteer team to build the city, which currently includes everything from true-to-life detail on all the buildings, several double-decker buses and a working Underground that moves from Knightsbridge to the under-construction Chelsea neighborhood. The long-term goal of the project is to recreate the entire city of London. There is no completion date set – because completion is not really the point. The group of people that gather in the London sim are there because they enjoy the process. It’s a collaborative building project that has reconnected a number of people to the city. And my conversations with the people involved in Berlin and Dublin revealed very similar stories. These people are using Second Life not to escape the confines of physical space, but to work collaboratively to create a familiar environment. The familiarity of the represented space is central to the user experience. And the immersive qualities of the technology, facilitated by the spatial parameters of avatar-led navigation, offer a sense of presence not possible in traditional Web media. In this sense, place becomes yet another potential infrastructural component of virtual space.

Spatial practices within Second Life, and other similar MUVEs, are much too varied to characterize in a singularly cohesive manner. From the touristic impulses of city sims, to collaborative workspaces employed by corporations, to elaborate fan communities, art spaces and classrooms, to real world design scenarios, the technological affordances of MUVEs provide new frameworks for social interaction that are fundamentally organized around space.

This special issue of Space and Culture brings together scholarship across disciplines to better formulate questions that need to be asked as virtual worlds integrate with the 2D web. Rebecca and Charlie Nesson describe a class taught at Harvard University in the spring of 2007 where Second Life was combined with the physical classroom to organize local and global populations around a single curriculum. The articles by Eric Kabisch and Lily Chen are each concerned with deciphering the correlation between virtual and physical spaces. Kabisch describes his own project called Datascape that merges physical and virtual in what he calls a “hybrid environment.” And Chen argues for a greater emphasis on “social spaces” in virtual design as opposed to what she sees as the currently dominant one-to-one correspondence between the physical space and its reproduction. The article by Shaowen Bardzell and Will Odom explores the function of virtual space by looking at a particular Gorean fan community in Second Life. The article addresses how 3D space facilitates the creation of “emotional places,” and makes the argument that the design of MUVEs should be influenced by these kinds of practices. And finally, Gene Koo and myself contribute an article about a program we started in Boston, Massachusetts that employs Second Life as a means of engaging people in the city’s neighborhoods in a collaborative design process. Ultimately, we argue that enabling groups to engage simultaneously in virtual and physical spaces opens up possibilities for group identification and communitarian action.
Each of the articles in this volume seeks to explore the complex geography of virtual worlds. But what’s apparent in all the work is the lack of emphasis on virtuality. More important is how the virtual interfaces with the physical. While MUVEs are worlds unto themselves, they are both windows and mirrors of the embodied world of physical space. Untangling this relationship is the task at hand.


Dourish, P., & Bell, G. (2007). The infrastructure of experience and the experience of infrastructure: Meaning and structure in everyday encounters with space. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design.
Gordon, E. (2007). Personal communication with “Debs regent”. Interview in Second Life
Kirkpatrick, D. (2006, November 10). No, second life is not overhyped. CNNMoney.com. http://money.cnn.com/2006/11/09/technology/fastforward_secondlife.fortune/index.htm.
Linden, P. (2008). Year-end updates, and thanks for the emmy. Retrieved January 8, 2008, from http://blog.secondlife.com/2008/01/09/year-end-updates-and-thanks-for-the-emmy/
Martey, R. M., & Stromer-Galley, J. (2007). The digital dollhouse: Context and social norms in the sims online. Games and Culture, 2(4), 314-334.
Taylor, T. L. (2006). Play between worlds: Exploring online game culture. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Yee, N., Bailenson, J. N., Urbanek, M., Chang, F., & Merget, D. (2007). The unbearable likeness of being digital: The persistence of nonverbal norms in online virtual environments. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 115-121.

17 Dec

Hub2 Launch Big Success

Virtual Key
The key is presented to Mayor Menino

Key in Hand
The virtual mayor takes the key to the virtual city

The Hub2 kick-off event was a big success. We had a packed room, both in first and second life, and there was an overall positive reception to the work we are doing. Bill Oates, the Chief Information Officer of the City of Boston, was in attendance to receive the virtual key to the city and the deed to Boston Island. While this was a presentation of very real work done by the participants in both classes, it was also a symbolic event that directed attention to the potential of our methodology and mission. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had some promising conversations with both the BRA and the Greenway Conservancy about integrating Hub2 into some aspect of the physical and/or social design process. At the event, we pointed to these potential collaborations and suggested that the work already completed points to the immense potential to harness new and emerging technologies for the enhancement of public life in the City of Boston.

Mayor Sits
The Mayor sits down to talk with his constituents

At the end of what we’re calling the alpha phase of Hub2, six project teams were able to present their work and discuss the implications for urban life in Boston. One of the groups produced this video to capture the intentions of their process and offer suggestions for the urban redesign of City Hall Plaza.

Collaboration Group

click here to watch video

03 Dec

Hub2 To Present Mayor’s Office with the Keys to Virtual Boston

Below is the press release for our event on December 13. Should be a good time. We’re going to say a few words and symbolically hand Boston Island to the service of the City of Boston. There will be a virtual key, and real food.

BOSTON, MA – Hub2 (www.hub2.org), a project involving the City of Boston, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), Emerson College, and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, will showcase virtual models created by Boston residents to improve the city’s public spaces and present Mayor Menino’s office with the keys to the virtual city.

The event will take place on Thursday, December 13 at 12:30 P.M. in the Charles Beard Room at 80 Boylston St., Emerson College. Guests should contact Eric Gordon at Eric_Gordon@emerson to attend.

In September 2007, Hub2 began hosting workshops at Emerson to foster civic engagement using the virtual world, Second Life. For three months students and residents have been creating three-dimensional immersive models of sites in the Greater Boston Area. Their work will be used by the City of Boston to assist in future development plans for the city.

A total of six projects will be on display ranging from designs of Government Center to the Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston. The Mayor’s Chief of Staff, Judith Kurland; the Chief Information Officer, Bill Oats; and BRA officials will also be in attendance.

# # #

About Hub 2:
Hub2 was founded in 2007 by Emerson College professor, Eric Gordon, Berkman Center Fellow, Gene Koo, and Special Assistant to Boston Mayor Menino, Nigel Jacob. The organization enlists Boston residents to articulate visions of public spaces using virtual three-dimensional worlds. With partnerships and support from members of Emerson College, Harvard University, the City of Boston and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), Hub2 began its work in September 2007. The project aims to help Boston residents take ownership of their public space and facilitate civic engagement with their community.

25 Nov

Urban Communication Foundation Award

Last week I was in Chicago at the National Communication Association conference. I never used to go to this conference, but over the past several years I’ve been attending a pre-conference seminar with this group called the Urban Communication Foundation. It’s an interdisciplinary group of folks who are concerned with the various aspects of communication that are created by or create the urban form. Because of this group, I’ve kind of adopted the NCA as an annual tradition. This year, I was privileged to receive an award for the Hub2 project. I got the “Research Incentive Award,” which carried a $1000 cash prize. It was given to me in recognition of the article Placeworlds (co-written by Gene Koo), and as starter funds for the next phase of the work. This is very encouraging news as we find ourselves in an interesting transition period with the project. The alpha phase is coming to an end. The workshop at Emerson College will culminate in a presentation to city officials on December 13th. We hope to use this event as a launching platform for the next phase – a couple of things are in the works, but nothing is definite at this point.

In any case, I want to extend my gratitude to the UCF folks and thank them for giving us a much needed charge as we seek to build momentum for this project.

26 Oct

Community Networks

In class last week, we spent about 90 minutes arguing over the merits of community networks. The real question was: why would we want network technologies overlaying physical space? Don’t we have enough “connection?” Shouldn’t urban planners and architects help us figure out ways to “disconnect?” The argument I offered against this proposition was a harm-reduction model. I suggested that networks WILL in fact overlay our cities – they do already. The problem we have before us is not whether we should appropriate new technologies for urban life, but how we should shape those technologies to urban life. With that in mind, I find Michael Arnold’s recent article in The Journal of Community Informatics to be quite instructive. Entitled “The Concept of community and the character of networks,” the article begins with the assumption that there is too little theoretical work being done in the field of community informatics. While there are several empirical studies, few have contextualized their findings into broader theoretical frameworks. Arnold adopts what he calls an “a-modern” approach – “community networks are both technical devises and social arrangements; they invoke the identity of a network and a community, and manifest both hierarchic and heterarchic structures” (3-4).

His point is simple, yet surprisingly understated in the field. Digital networks create conditions for personal and hierarchic structures. They supply perfect conditions for surveillance and self-interested interactions. At the same time, they provide opportunities for dialogue, participation, and engagement. As such, when these networks are integrated into geographical communities, they are neither a good thing or a bad thing. Rather, “the hybridisation of the social and the technical changes the basis upon which we make judgement about social goods and about outcomes” (5). Or put another way, adding technology to existing communities changes the way we evaluate what good is.

Arnold acknowledges that community networks “legitimize governance.” He confirms that the modernist state is founded on rationality – and the implementation of digital networks onto community life reinforce the infrastructure of governance. He suggests that “last century’s answer to this challenge was the school, the hospital and the prison provided by the State, and this century’s answer is the Community Network we build ourselves” (11). The community network is the participatory arm of state power. On the other hand, and as most of us assume, it also challenges state power – making it possible to “talk back,” “re-engage,” and “re-imagine” community identity and democratic processes. Arnold makes the point that both of these things are true – and that understanding community networks within this binary is the most productive strategy with which to proceed. In his words:

“Policy makers, local governments, funding agencies, ICT system designers and Community Network coordinators have a “top down” interest in stability, coherence and efficiency across the system, whereas users, community activists and local groups have a “bottom up” self-defined interest. Holding on to this binary and playing out the tensions that emerge is one manner in which the Community Network shapes itself, and is one manner in which it can be understood, rather than priviliging one over the other. Each must be embraced simultaneously” (14).

So, in any implementation of Community Networks, it is important to understand how competing interests are integral to their function. As an example, we recently had a meeting with the Boston Redevelopment Authority to discuss the possibilities of employing Hub2 in certain of the city’s design processes. The interests of the Authority are not necessarily the interests of the represented community – but this should be understood as a given, as opposed to a problem technology can solve. In the case of Hub2, the use of Second Life for spatial visualization by the community gives order to the design process, while it also complicates it by inviting more direct feedback and communication from individuals and groups. The possible benefit of employing this technology into the design process emerges from the back and forth between order and unclassifiable expression. The challenge is in orchestrating the space between this binary into consensus. It is my opinion that Community Networks, thusly understood, provide the transparency of power relations required for that consensus to transpire.

05 Oct

Hub2 – Entering the Design Phase

SL platforms

For the last four weeks, we’ve been doing some general thinking about how cities, digital networks and virtual worlds might fit together. We’ve talked about the relationship between play and urban spatial practice, and we’ve pondered the general success of the spaces we daily occupy in the city of Boston. Everyone in my class is going to focus on Government Center – the rather unimpressive public space that sits in the city’s center. But, in accordance with program’s methodology, we needed to divide the participants into organic groups. They needed to congeal around certain issues about which they care strongly.

To address this, we created six platforms in Second Life, each with a unique label (play, control, collaboration, dialogue, conflict resolution, and expression). The participants went to the platform that best described their vision for the space. Their avatars assembled and had conversations, and then they went to other platforms to have different conversations. As a means of breaking a large group into smaller groups, I found the process to be absolutely successful. I was impressed with the targeted nature of the dialogue and the spirited debate that ensued. The hour-long exercise resulted in a fairly strong identity for three groups – expression, play, and collaboration.

The discussion will continue in a forum for the next several days, but we hope to have the groups finalized by next week.

14 Sep

Hub2 gets under way

The Hub2 initiative started this week in the form of an upper-division class at Emerson College. The community class is set to begin next Tuesday. At this point, we are enrolled to capacity, and are quite eager to get started. The Emerson class is conceived a little differently than the community class. For one thing, instead of having groups organically decide on the space they wish to explore, I am assigning a space to them. All the groups in my class will focus on Government Center Plaza, the windswept product of mid-century renewal that is universally maligned in the city. Originally, I was going to have them focus on the Boston Common, but it occurred to me that there would be little utility to their design ideas because the city has no intention of altering the Common. Government Center, on the other hand, is on the mayor’s short list for reconstruction and re-conception. The hope is that the outcome of the class will actually spark debate.

Even though the class is only one-week old, I’ve had some concerns about the implementation of technology. While Second Life is easier to learn and use than most CAD programs, it still has a rather steep overhead for beginners. There are specific things we need the technology to do – the problem might be that Second Life does too much. We need groups to be able to design social spaces, without first having to learn the nuances of 3D modelling. We need something like Virtual Community Design (VCD) software that affords users the ability to: build (in groups), socialize, connect to external maps, and export. It would function more like a 3D wiki, where users could collectively move, shape, produce objects without any advanced building procedures. I don’t believe anything like this exists. If anybody knows of anything, please let me know. It would have some of the functionality of Google Earth, some of Second Life, and some of YouTube. I envision a VCD application enabling groups and communities all over the world to engage in local design processes, while also being able to learn from other cities and neighborhoods.

Is it worthwhile for Hub2 to move in the direction of application design?

28 Aug

Putting Theory into Action

Everything is going full speed ahead. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has agreed to fund the first phase of the Hub2 program. They’re going to pay for student tuition, evaluation, TA support and design. It’s great news and we’re thrilled that they’ve taken a chance on this experimental program. Now that the money is in place, we actually have to contend with the realities of starting and managing a successful program. This is the “oh shit” moment. Gene Koo and I have spent countless hours thinking about the theory behind the Hub2 initiative – we have written an article entitled “Placeworlds” that lays out the general theory behind what we’re trying to do, and we have developed a curriculum that will deploy the theory. Now all there is left to do is implement.

This is where all those uncontrollable factors come into play. For instance, there will be sixteen students in the class, all with divergent agendas, there will be snags in the technology, and we will find ourselves in the position of having to compromise the theory for practical application. I know this is all part of the process – and there is much to learn about how people learn and engage with new technologies – but this all becomes more difficult when the theory or methodology is so clear at the beginning. We have to be willing to adapt to unforeseen conditions and more importantly, we have to be willing to acknowledge inaccuracies in our theoretical agenda.

As Labor Day approaches and school begins, we are at the precipice of that exhilirating and horrifiying collision point between theory and practice. I just hope I have to time to process the exhilarating part as I’m sure I’ll be spending much of my time gazing at “the horror, the horror.”

03 Aug


As we consider our theoretical justification for using Second Life to facilitate civic engagement, we’ve come up with the notion of placeworlds. Below is a sketch of the concept:

Place is experienced space. It is what happens when geographic space takes on meaning of any sort – as an object of memory, or desire, or fear. Place can be produced through happenstance (the space of a first kiss), through narrative (the space of childhood that is persistently articulated with story), through familiarity (the space one lives each day), or through representation (the space of art or advertising). Places can be fleeting or lasting. Just as quickly as spaces are marked with meaning, they can be unmarked, forgotten or replaced with something else. This can be the product of literal transformation (an apartment building torn down and replaced by a parking lot) or personal preference (a park shared with an old friend who is no longer a friend).

The identification with place is an important method of organizing personal experience and social actions. While it may seem like a nebulous construct, place is arguably the most concrete marker of lived experience. Meaningful encounters with the built or natural landscape are necessarily a part of every life; yet, these encounters, when not cultivated through social processes are fleeting – either through gradual fading or aggressive erasure. Place is how people make sense of their social lives; yet there is little built into our civic organization that acknowledges this. American civic life tends to focus more on what Habermas calls systems –economic, social, political or cultural logics that determine and organize patterns and flows of social existence. Communication and transportation infrastructures, markets, political processes – all of these systems, according to Habermas, are in the process of colonizing what he calls “lifeworlds.”

The concept of lifeworld has a long history. It has phenomenological roots in Schutz and Husserl as an individually recognized form of “being in the world” or a kind of pre-interpreted reality that can be subjectively grasped at any moment. Husserl suggests that every experiencing subject operates within a horizon that is constantly altered as perspectives change. What is natural and familiar within an individual’s horizon at any given time is the lifeworld. Habermas takes issue with the phenomenological definition of this concept: “In the frame of the philosophy of consciousness,” he argues, “the ‘experiencing subject’ remains the court of last appeal for analysis” (1987, 130). Habermas’ intervention repositions lifeworld away from the experiencing subject and towards the social situation. But situations are not sharply delimited. They come into relief by “themes and articulated goals and plans of action” (1987, 122-123). In other words, a lifeworld comes into being when a group of people can come to a mutual understanding of something. A lifeworld is the ability for groups to share and build upon a common understanding of “who we are” (Friedland, 2001) through the cultivation of a sense of common goals and purpose.

That common goal or purpose is often place. Most lifeworlds exist in space (with the possible exclusion of network spaces, which we will address in the next section). Therefore, most situations produce place. Whether this is a street corner, a favorite hang-out, a neighborhood, or a playground, places are particularly well-suited for establishing common purpose among groups of people. When places are manufactured through communicative action, we can refer to them as placeworlds. Put another way, places become worlds when they are established and reinforced through deliberative dialogue. Placeworlds are more persistent than places alone – while place is simply experienced space (individually or collectively), a placeworld is formed when a group brings a place into shared relevance through communication. When a community organizes around a park that the city has earmarked to transform into a parking lot, they gather and deliberate over a given space and form shared understandings of themselves in relation to that space. This is a placeworld. When youth gather downtown to see and be seen, they create a shared understanding of that space’s function. Even if not consciously, the social actors in that situation all contributed to defining the rules and norms of the space, and have arrived at a common understanding of its meaning. This is a placeworld. Placeworlds matter for a group’s sense of purpose, social status and ability to organize as a political subject. But as we stated in the introduction, in areas with heavy poverty that are in most need of services, interventions are focused almost exclusively on repairing systems – economic, social or political organizations that have fallen into disrepair. The function of placeworlds are rationalized into the function of systems, and as a consequence, put into the service of systems. In Habermas’ language, they are colonized.

While this don’t address the use of Second Life, we believe that our intended use of the application is capable of producing the kind of group identity around place described above.

This will be tested and put into action this Fall. There will be two courses offered at Emerson College. Download the flyer here: Hub2 Flyer