The Virtual Side of Fem 2.0

November 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?

By:   |   November 25, 2008


  1. christyjones says:

    Anne, you bring the viewpoint I hear most often when I tell my tale of being a newbie in SecondLife and all the amazing actions I found taking place there.

    Buffy, you bring the knowledge of an experienced SL individual who uses it to the fullest on behalf of non-profits world wide.

    I couldn’t help reflect on both RL and SL over the Thanksgiving holidays when I found myself with access to no tv or internet (and where the use of cell phone would be considered rude in front of others). It’s not that I don’t enjoy conversation or reading or nature, it’s just that I was reminded how these other communication vehicles can also add to everyday learning and enjoyment. Guess it’s all in how you approach each experience.

  2. Anne says:

    Thanks, Buffy. I’ll fasten my seatbelt and try to go with the flow!

  3. Buffy Bye says:

    Hi, yes there is definitly fun in Second Life and funny enough Hillary Clinton had an office space in Second Life where videos of her speeches of the day were streamed in, billboards with her platform policies available on a notecard, and on the night of her final race I happened to drop in to watch the voting results displayed live, all the while discussing with others the possibilities and the hopes they had for her win. I never did run into a Hillary ‘x’ avatar but her supporters were there in droves. I heard that Obama also had a space and even gave a rousing talk although never did confirm that.

    There are many conferences with real discussion on global issues such as climate and world politics happening all the time. I’ve ‘attended’ the UN Conference on Global Climate held in Bali and Second Life concurrently and plan to attend again this year, attended a week long conference on “Creativity in Second Life” sponsored by New Media Consortium (a collection of over 200 universities and colleges, and the recent one on women’s issues where I met Christy are but a few.

    The difference is, while one can email, chat, blog or find information on the web, there is a definite feeling of having a ‘presence’ while talking or typing to another avatar. This is a topic of many discussion papers on the ‘why’, although would not have believed it had I not tried it for myself.

    There are over 200 virtual worlds in existance, many of which are aimed at children, There, Webkinzs and Barbie to name a few. With Linden Labs, creators of Second Life releasing their code, called “OpenSim” business such as Microsoft and IBM are rushing to create secure virtual reality (VR) worlds for businesses. The talk on the street is VR is going to explode in the next two years and I believe it.

    Many asked why have a web site only a few years ago, and imagine a business trying to survive without one now. The same will be for virtual worlds.

    I’m happy to give a tour of Bridges virtual office, or help your org get involved with the Nonprofit Commons to try it out for yourselves. Christy just IM me anytime 🙂

    Take care and live with passion.


  4. Anne says:

    Thanks, Buffy, for your helpful response. It seems to me there are so many other ways to connect on the Internet that one wouldn’t have to use goofy names and cartoonish characters. I can’t imagine Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, discussing world peace issues with a fake name and an avatar, for instance. But I will take your word that this may be the wave of the future and wait to see what happens.

    Maybe this is just one more example of women multi-tasking. They can do serious work while still having some fun!

  5. Buffy Bye says:

    Hello, and ty Christy for mentioning Bridges, it was great to meet you, and feel I should respond to @Anne for an insider’s view.

    I thought that anyone using Second Life needed to get one until I read the same article Christy mentions from Gartner that virtual reality will be the social media tool of choice for a lot of people within 5 years, found out about the Nonprofit Commons (NPC) managed by TechSoup to provide free virtual office space for non-profits, and I tried it for myself. I get it now.

    A user picks from a list of last names so real names are not typically possible. However, each week at the NPC where I meet with other nonprofits from all over the world, we say our real name, and where in the world we are located.

    In 15 months the NPC has tripled in size, soon to grow to nearly 100 nonprofits. We are connecting in a way I would have not thought possible, and yes we discuss important topics. I say connected because that is how it feels to me now. I meet each week with like-minded people and despite the cartoonish feel and crazy looking avatars, we are real people sharing ideas, learning from each other, and collaborating on joint projects. I know the same is happening on the educational side as well. This would not be possible in real life given our geographical locations.

    This is an opportunity to not only test-drive emergening technology, but the growing collection of educational and non-profit sectors are making it a tool for real-time use. One example is the American Cancer Society raised over $100,000 US last year in Second Life.

    For Bridges, we have been able to spread an awareness of our program to a vast audience we likely would not have reached and we are collaborating on a international project for homeless with 4 others from the NPC, and continue to meet other women-focused organizations we would not have met otherwise for potential joint-effort projects.

    Hope this helps give some of the reasons, I know it’s not for everyone but I do believe this will be the future and it can only help to understand what the next generation will be using.

    For more about the Nonprofit Commons:

    Buffy Bye (Buffy Beale in Second Life)

  6. Anne says:

    Am I the only who just doesn’t “get” this? Why, if you are discussing real and important issues, do you need a false identity, such as an avatar? Why are these things simply talked about in RL even if on the computer?

  7. Kerri says:

    Great entry — the whole virtual world blows my mind. I can barely keep my real life in order — how do these people find time to manage a virtual one as well? Impressive….

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