The Virtual Side of Fem 2.0November 25, 2008
You know how it starts — you’re sitting at an event, waiting those last minutes before it begins, and you suddenly find yourself chatting with the stranger next to you. Before you know it, you’re exchanging stories, nodding your head, and appreciating the help they are giving you, especially since you’re new to this type of conference and they’ve been participating for years. Sound familiar? Well, all of that happened to me, except I was in the virtual world, attending a conference on women’s studies, and the person sitting next to me was a spritely, winged, green individual named Buffy Beale. I’ll get back to her in a bit.
The conference, held in Second Life (SL), an “online 3D virtual world imagined and created by its residents,” covered a range of topics focusing on women in the virtual world. I listened (literally listened via audio) to the executive director of the Toronto Philharmonia describe opportunities for women and all musicians in SL and learned of free weekly classical concerts. Mentoring appears to be a big component, where major musicians take beginners in hand and they play together in impromptu sessions — the power of technology allowing participation from a living room in Beijing to a studio in California.
I heard of several women’s communities, safe havens for women that nurtured, educated, and helped those who needed such an environment (and don’t we all at times). I listened to an assistant provost of the University of Kentucky tell of her research into the role of female avatars in racist right-wing groups, including those in SL. She quoted Katherine Blee’s Inside Organized Racism (2002), which states that women are heavily sought after by American hate groups, making up half of all new recruits (in the real world). The passion women have for causes, combined with organizational skills, makes them a natural target, apparently. She described going “undercover” in SL and how it took a long time to find these groups, since they have learned to hide themselves well.
And then there was Phylis Johnson, associate professor and interim chair in the Department of Radio-Television, Southern Illinois University, who talked about women involved in the creation, production, and distribution of news and entertainment for radio and newspapers in SL. CNN and NPR participate in SL, and HBO featured the first documentary produced inside this digital community in 2008. Johnson stated that women tend to frequent SL more than men do and that they tend to be well educated (at a university level) and consider themselves the “creative vanguard” of the SL community.
During breaks, my neighbor Buffy and I continued chatting (via text), and she helped me not make a complete fool of myself during the conference. (Yes, I inadvertently left my mike on, and it gave a horrible squeak during a speaker’s session.) She told me about a conference where she was a speaker, “Dropping Knowledge: How Virtual World Educators Change Lives,” sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, which launched a five-year, $50 million digital media and learning initiative in 2006 to help determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life. I attended and was amazed. Buffy, by the way, volunteers at the Bridges for Women Society in Victoria, British Columbia, and also is part of the NonProfit Commons SL initiative.
As AAUW and other women’s organizations prepare themselves for the Fem2.0 Conference (Feb. 2, 2009), a joint effort to bring together the leadership of major women’s advocacy organizations and online women’s communities, I took the time to explore the edges of this new universe — the women’s community in the virtual world. As one of the speakers put it, “Second Life is the first to mirror Real Life (RL).” An AAUW member, Jean Lotz, has already begun an AAUW SL group and in fact created an AAUW booth at a recent SL college fair. Is it time for you to go virtual?