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Second Life, real life, and online community

A virtual reality platform called Second Life has provoked quite a few jokes about the trouble we have managing our first lives. I’m intrigued by the fact that Second Life is a successful name—does this mean that real life is so rich and full that people need somewhere for it to spill over, or that their real life isn’t worth spending time in?

I’m always grateful for the last decade spent working in reference publishing because I have learned so very much about areas I never studied in school or college. I now know something about world history, community and leadership studies, and human-computer interaction. All these subjects help me evaluate new information and claims made during enthusiastic presentations about online opportunities. Of course at a conference like this, it’s human-computer interaction that it most useful.

Technology echoes real life in different ways, just as consumer products do (think of plastic paneling with wood grain patterns and hair fasteners made in mottled plastic reminiscent of the tortoise shell such things were once made of). In HCI there is what’s called “desktop metaphor”—Recycling Bins and Folders and the “Desktop” itself. What hasn’t yet been analyzed is the way new social media are attempting to replicate familiar historic patterns of human behavior and community building.

Several subjects have been discussed at great length here that could use this kind of analysis:

  • Community
  • Relationships
  • Trust
  • Research (called in the tech world “search”)

Analysis would help us understand why new services succeed or fail, and also why we often both like the intention of a service and yet find it frustrating or inadequate. There are a lot of comparisons we could make. Forum = street corner or coffee shop. Tagging = physical display. Blogging = newspaper column or soapbox or pulpit.

What’s funny is to go from the almost universal belief amongst the speakers, from big traditional companies, in user-generated content and Web 2.0 and social media to the conversations later amongst attendees who say they’re not really interested until they know there’s significant and sure return on investment. I’ve been told quite a number of times that publishers should give up on charging for content and switch to advertising because that’s the future. But why would we, or any company currently making money by selling books and databases and other content, switch now? The rational approach, it seems to me, is to continue what we’re doing, so we keep making money, and add some new things gradually and with discrimination. Video is more relevant to a company with travel information than with corporate regulatory data.

At lunch I asked a question that several people said was a good one, even if we have no idea who can answer it: How much spending power, either personal or professional, do the people who spend a lot of time online, using social media, have?

Could it be, I wonder, that there is an inverse relationship between time spent chatting and tagging and the person’s spending power? A nice feature of SIIA conferences are interviews held in armchairs on the platform. Tad Smith, CEO of Reed Business Information, was asked this morning what he did online for fun. I wasn’t there, but hear that he couldn’t name a thing. Admittedly, the same is true of me, with the exception of a little participation in a mosaic artists forum

I could write much more about what I’ve heard about community and relationships during the conference, but I think that’s going to have to be an article rather than a blog post. So I’ll close with a few comments I’ve heard:

  • “Every company needs a fairy”
  • “Follow unconventional thinking”
  • “Quality is subjective”
  • “If Google doesn’t scan books that are out of print but in copyright nobody will” (this was said as justification for what even the speaker, I think, admitted was a breach of current copyright law)

Here’s a photo of the beautiful Cipriani’s–best I could do, and more relevant than the other photos I took today of some homeless people’s living space on the sidewalk on Mulberry Street:
Cipriani’s, 42nd Street

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