Metanomics: 2010 & Next – Second Life, Virtual Worlds & the State of the Union

I attended the Metanomics series on virtual environments Tuesday afternoon; this epsiode was 2010 & Next – Second Life, Virtual Worlds and the State of the Union.  I observed the virtual broadcast via NMC Teaching island ( though the chat, audio and video were all available via the Metanomics website.

One of the panel members was Larry Pixel (RL: Larry Johnson, CEO of the New Media Consortium); my primary interest in the event was to listen to commentary regarding the future of virtual worlds (and perhaps Second Life in particular) within the education sector.  A few notes, comments and thoughts follow.

A quick summary?  I believe Second Life does and will continue to offer unique benefits that other platforms and technologies do not; I believe the capabilities provide value-added benefit to education beyond what other platforms may currently offer.  If at all possible, I believe educational institutions should maintain their presence in Second Life while exploring other platforms in parallel; I understand that an institution’s presence may need to be reduced to meet budgetary limitations, but I do not believe using the elimination of the educational discount as a reason to leave Second Life is a good or rational decision.

Future of Virtual Environments

Larry commented that an exciting aspect of Second Life several years ago was that, “We all thought we were part of something for/from the future.” (paraphrasing).
He was asked as a followup, “Is it still something of the future?”
Larry commented that he heard, “Does Second Life have a future?”  He believes it absolutely does, but it’s more of a mature technology though.  The future will not be as much Second Life as he may have once thought.  It’s an important technology, but it may not be more of the landscape than it currently is.

My thought was then and still is now that virtual environments simply are not going away, and they’ll be an increasing part of the online landscape as we move forward.  I agree with Larry in that the technology may move into the mainstream MUCH more slowly than early proponents thought it might.  For me, there’s three key aspects of virtual environments like Second Life. First, as Larry noted, the magic of the space is the co-location of individuals; the perception of presence of individual people together in the same space.  That’s not something the current, typical web interface and experience can duplicate.  Second, virtual environments like Second Life “bridge the gap” between game developers and those of us with other areas of expertise; it’s much more possible now for educators to create an immersive virtual experience than it ever has been.  Third, Larry commented that the content makes Second Life stand out from other environments; the quantity and quality of work being done in Second Life just doesn’t exist at the same scale on other platforms, currently.  Plus, in comparison to project solutions or endeavors within education or beyond, Second Life is relatively inexpensive by comparison to an order of magnitude of 5 to 10 times cheaper; it’s possible to build in Second Life what is not affordable through other solutions.  Finally, I personally believe the increasing availability of kinesthetic interfaces – like PS3 motion, Wii controllers, XBox Kinect – will eventually spur future use of virtual environments.

Land Prices, Education & Second Life

Conversation turned pretty quickly to the announcement shortly after SLCC that discount for education and non-profits will be eliminated beginning in January 2011.  Terry Beaubois commented that it’s a matter of the economic times; Linden Lab is going through economic difficulties as well.  Larry seconded that thought with additional commentary.  Linden has taken a pounding in the marketplace; they’ve basically given education a subsidy for six years.  There should not have been an expectation that we deserve or are entitled to it.  Reality is that we are consumers; if we’re paying for any sort of other utility – we’re paying same as everyone else.  Admittedly, many projects will be hurt or hampered by the price increase, but the big projects will survive; they have individuals who can find or obtain additional funding.  NMC has focused on funding the smaller projects – to allow them to survive.  NMC has made arrangements to allow them to commit to their prices for the next two years for their sub-lessees of SL islands.

Alternatives to Second Life

There’s not much doubt that Linden Lab’s announcement regarding the education discount has spurred migration off of Second Life and lead to exploration of other platforms – particularly OpenSim, HyperGrid Business.  Pathfinder Lester has started the Hypergrid Adventurers Club which explores different OpenSim grids and spaces via Hypergridding.  The NMC has had OpenSim for roughly 18 months plus Second Life Enterprise Server; they’re exploring different platforms.  However, in Larry’s opinion, OpenSim is about 3 years behind Second Life in terms of community, development and content.  The NMC has decided to remain in Second Life, “If I’m going to be in a virtual world, I’d prefer one with the most utility.  That’s here [in Second Life].”  There’s too many people doing too many things extremely well.  With all of that said, exploring platforms is certainly encouraged.  Fleep Tuque commented that she “would encourage anyone seriously involved in Second Life to run their own OpenSim . . . You really should do it.  It’s a tremendous learning opportunity.”  She provides a step by step guide for OpenSim installation.


There was an interesting discussion regarding the value of “backchat” – the conversation beneath the conversation at conferences etc.  While that may be a separate post, I make two brief comments.  First, the back channel has become a critical part of the conference experience for me; if it’s not active or available, I find myself less engaged and more frustrated with a traditional presentation.  Second, I have witnessed and believe that projecting or disclosing the back channel as part of a presentation potentially chills the backchannel discussion; it’s a back channel; it does not want to be part of the main conversation – leave it alone – let it be the back channel.


  • Very interesting comment on the backchat.

    I totally agree with your feeling about being at a conference without the opportunity for text chat. Backchat is far outside the norms of business schools, but someday perhaps that will change.

    Since the early days of Metanomics I have thought of the backchat less as a “back channel” than as a channel back to the speakers, with lots of side channels as well. Simply for technical reasons we never got around to separating those two, but we certainly thought about it (using separate windows, perhaps having people use some keystroke combination to speak directly to the speakers.

    But I had never considered the possibility that having the speakers talk about the backchat would have a suppressing effect.

    Worth thinking about as we plan for the next season. Thanks!

    • RJB,
      I don’t believe having speakers *talk about* the backchat has a suppressing effect. I do believe a speaker projecting the back channel onto a presentation screen for all to see can very easily have a chilling effect. That may apply to a physical or a virtual space. I was at the ITC eLearning conference this past February in Fort Worth – a traditional, on the ground, face-to-face conference. @ajwms @evinsmj and I were sitting at a table together for @NancyWhite‘s plenary session, Online Facilitation 13 Years On: What We Learned and What Do We Need to Learn?. Of course, we were fully engaging the back channel; Nancy was using a plugin for powerpoint that dynamically loaded the most recent tweets with a given hashtag as a slide. So, every so often, the most recent 20 tweets in the conference back channel were on the big screen and became the focal point of the session. Honestly, that re-created the social inhibitions we might have speaking in front of a group; after the first Twitter slide, I started measuring my tweets more carefully – with the thought going through my mind of, “What if *this* tweet is shown on the screen?” – particularly since there was a significant contingent of faculty and other colleagues from my institution. I don’t believe my reaction to that situation is unique; I’m relatively certain others may react similarly. Thus, my belief that the display of the back channel could chill the conversation.

  • Interesting comments regarding the back chat. I too find back chat at physical world conferences to be engaging and exhilarating. At e-learn in Vancouver last year there was a large monitor set up at the registration desk that displayed the real time tweets (#elearn09). How fun to walk by and see my darling husband’s face on the screen, well his Twitter avatar anyhow. The conference discussions were richer for the outreach to and contributions from our various networks.

    I do run a twitter feed when I am presenting, but only when I am presenting about social media.

    The back chat at virtual world meetings, presentations, or conferences are another matter. The ability to text chat is value added and does not distract from the speakers, nor are we particularly shy about who might see our comments. As with real world sessions, I ask someone to monitor the back chat and direct questions and comments to me as needed. It is helpful to have direct questions prefaced to make them stand out in the stream, something like QUESTION.

    Thanks Rob and Chris. Always a pleasure.
    Lorraine / LoriVonne

    • The back chat in a virtual space often is an integrated, “normal” part of the experience, so the main chat going on in the back channel is already there for everyone to see. That’s quite different than a physical world presentation; the expectations are a little different. Asking for someone to relay back channel questions to you as a presenter, for me, would have less impact on the the back channel. The “threat” of being on display isn’t there – particularly if a moderator is specifically monitoring the back channel for a keyword like QUESTION. In that instance, if you don’t want to be mentioned in the presentation, simply don’t use those keywords and participate in the back channel as you normally would.

      NMC and Texas Distance Learning Association are two conferences I’ve attended which had in lounge and other common areas large monitors/projectors with the conference hash tag feed displayed. That really didn’t have the same effect on my approach to tweeting during the conference as did knowing that the entire conference might see comments at one time in a face-to-face space.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments will be sent to the moderation queue.