Archive for June, 2008

Meet Elaine Minotaur, AKA Me

Today is the first day of my Second Life. Second Life is a “massive multiplayer online game” (MMOG), or virtual world, where people from across the real world can create avatars that interact, buy land, create content, attend events, listen to live concerts, and participate in an online economy.

My Second Life personality is named Elaine Minotaur. She wears a fierce pink and white polka dot dress and her hair coexists with the island humidity much better than my real life hair.

But getting a Second Life wasn’t easy. I created an account only to be informed that my laptop doesn’t meet Second Life’s minimum system requirements. After installing the program anyway, I took my first halting avatar steps, somehow submerged myself up to my avatar neck in water… and then my computer froze. Not to be discouraged, I logged in again on my home computer and made my way around Orientation Island, a tutorial for newcomers to Second Life.

During my explorations I met Goldvald Enoch, a Second Life mentor, who helps newcomers to Second Life adjust to life online. He told me that Second Life has an entire culture of its own, complete with rites and myths. He also compared Second Life to a more developed version of MUDs and IRC. I never asked Goldvald what he does in real life, but based on his comments about MUDs, IRC, and wikis, I think it’s safe to assume he’s a technologically savvy person who’s emerged himself in social media over the past couple decades. He said he’s from Scandinavia and that he first visited Second Life to “attend” a lecture hosted by a local university. He never made it to the lecture, but he was hooked. Today is Goldvald’s one-year anniversary as a Second Lifer.

My burning question about Second Life is, “who has the time?” It took me a few hours to set up my account, complete a small portion of my Second Life tutorial, and chat with Goldvald. Work, classes, homework, errands, and my real-world social life eat up most of my time. It’s hard enough for me to fit in blogging, much less building an entire second life online. That’s a shame because I suspect Second Life becomes more rewarding the more you engage with it.

I asked Goldvald my time question and his response made me laugh. He suggested that many Second Lifers are jobless. He added that a number of people use Second Life as an extension of their real world social lives, where they can virtually “hang out” with their real world friends. He also said some people use Second Life as a way to build social skills for the real world. Goldvald finds time to log on during evenings after work and on the weekend.

While my burning question is “who has the time?,” my burning observation is the emphasis on buying “stuff” – such as land, clothes, and accessories – that pervades Second Life. Goldvald told me about money trees where Second Life newcomers can acquire Linden dollars – the currency of Second Life. Goldvald himself owns a land rental business to earn some cash. I suddenly found myself wondering whether my avatar’s outfit was quite up to snuff, or whether the pink polka dots immediately identified me as a naive Second Life newbie.

I think I need to explore Second Life more before I fully understand how real-world companies and organizations can harness it as a way to hawk their products, build their brand, and reach new audiences. The two youtube videos posted below provide some background on the possibilities. A quick disclaimer – the first video is about two years old, which is a long time in the online world. Needless to say, some things have changed since the video was produced.

Believe it or not, my real life collided with Second Life before this class assignment. I work for an international education nonprofit that produces professional development products and convenes workshops and conferences for educators. We also lead a campaign to encourage the public to support a broad-based education for all students. Surprisingly, the nonprofit’s execs are considering using Second Life to both drum up support for our campaign and better connect with our members. They got the idea from the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), which has it’s own Second Life Island where it hosts meetings and events for members and others interested in becoming members.

The possibilities are intriguing. I just wonder whether the required time commitment and technological know-how are barriers to reaching significant numbers or types of people via Second Life. It makes sense for ISTE to make use of Second Life: It’s a member association for technologically-minded people. On the other hand, the nonprofit I work for has members who barely know how to use email and listservs. Setting up our members on Second Life and actually getting them to visit Second Life regularly could be incredibly time and resource intensive.

June 29, 2008 at 10:33 pm 2 comments

Make More People Care

I don’t remember when I first heard about Wikipedia. It could have been six years ago, or maybe it was three. What I do remember was my dubious reaction. The idea of an encyclopedia editable by all seemed absurd – even stupid. Why leave the door open to the potential for complete inaccuracy?

But now I’m an occasional Wikipedia user and I think Wikipedia is a great free resource. So what changed my mind? It’s hard to say because it’s not as if I was even aware my mind had changed. Maybe it was the quality of the entries I stumbled across. It could have been the breadth and depth of topics the online encyclopedia covers. Perhaps I just had to get used to the idea of wikis themselves.

It’s likely that all of the above contributed to my change of mind. And after reading about Wikipedia for class, I’m only more convinced that the online, editable encyclopedia is providing a valuable service. It might not quite be the charitable humanitarian effort its founder, Jimmy Wales, envisions, but it’s become the fastest-growing reference work ever and an incredible example of how an online network of unpaid volunteers from across the world can pool knowledge and efforts to create an always-changing, living, breathing font of information.

My social media instructor asked us to consider whether we should trust Wikipedia or an expert-led encyclopedia more. My answer is that it depends. I actually think comparing Wikipedia to something like Britannica Online is comparing apples to oranges. Wikipedia is free and accessible to anyone with an internet connection. And for real-time information, it just can’t be beat. For better or for worse, Tim Russert’s Wikipedia page was updated with news of his death before any of the networks made the announcement. But if I had to do research for a paper or for a project at work, I wouldn’t rely solely on Wikipedia. I might use it as a starting point, though. The beauty of Wikipedia is that it requires citations, so following a Wikipedia page’s references to primary sources is a good way to track down information straight from the experts.

We were also asked how Wikipedia could be set-up to better provide accuracy. I started to brainstorm ideas, only to find that many of them are already in practice. Wikipedia’s organization and its system of checks and balances is a lot more structured than I had envisioned.  For example, any user can put an article on his or her watch list, which records all changes to that entry. As a last resort, particularly controversial pages can be locked in the face of constant vandalism or editing wars.

Actual studies have shown that vandalism of Wikipedia articles, such as mass deletions or insertion of obscenities, are typically corrected by users who care in a matter of minutes. And according to Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, “if enough people care enough about an article to read it, then enough people will care enough to improve it, and over time this will lead to a large enough body of good enough work to begin to take both availability and quality of articles for granted, and to integrate Wikipedia into daily use by millions.”

So my solution to providing better Wikipedia accuracy: Make more people care.

June 22, 2008 at 10:58 pm 1 comment

Vote On My Tagline!

It’s about time I assign a tagline to my blog and what better way to do so than have my readers – all 5 of them at last count – vote on their favorites. In case you haven’t figured it out already, my blog focuses on social media and web 2.0 through a communications/public relations lens. I’d love for the tagline to convey this theme in a fun and catchy way. This might be a tall order, particularly when you read some of the options below. But I’d welcome your thoughts on which tagline comes closest.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

Melissa’s Musings

A) A Girl’s Guide to Social Media

B) Web 2.0 from a PR Perspective

C) Beyond Press Releases: Your Daily Dose of Web 2.0

D) Communications in a Web 2.0 World

Please comment to submit your vote. And feel free to suggest your own tagline. I can’t promise cash prizes, but you’ll get a special shout out in a future blog post if I choose your suggestion. And thanks go to my coworker Kevin for coming up with this poll idea!

June 19, 2008 at 3:42 am 15 comments

Don’t Be Evil

John Batelle’s “The Search: How Google and its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture” describes how Google’s unofficial motto is “Don’t Be Evil.” Before I read this book I would have unequivocally said that Google was abiding by its motto. But The Search made me think a little harder about the capacity for a company with so much influence and reach to be evil, perhaps without even knowing it.

Batelle recounted the story of Neil Moncreif, a small business owner based in Georgia who sells big shoes – size thirteens and over. It’s hard for a niche business like Moncreif’s to remain viable in any one geographic location. People with big feet are spread throughout the world and don’t cluster in Georgia, or any other one location for that matter. (See Life in the Long Tail for more on niche markets.) So Moncreif launched www.2bigfeet.com and did a pretty brisk business without ever having to place an ad. Until November 14, 2003, that is, when Google tweaked its search result algorithms, which dropped www.2bigfeet.com from the first result on the search “big feet” to below the hundredth result. The economic – and, ultimately, psychological – impact on Moncreif and his family was huge.

So while Google may have had noble intentions when it tweaked its algorithms, it broke it’s motto about not being evil when it came to a small business owner who sells big shoes.

I wonder if it is even possible to be a company as large and powerful as Google and not be inadvertantly evil every now and again? Moreover, is it sometimes necessary to do some evil for the greater good? The Search described how Google bent to the Chinese government’s wishes and eliminated controversial links from its results (perhaps evil?) so that it could provide the Chinese people with its valuable service (perhaps a greater good?).

So should we all be afraid of Google? I think Moncreif’s experience shows that yes, we should be afraid of Google if we depend upon it too much. And I think more and more people are starting to feel the same way. A recent article in The Independent, “Discontent flares over Google’s ‘dominance’” describes critics’ concerns that Google is the “overwhelmingly dominant force on the internet.” A recent Washington Post article, “Will 2008 Be Google’s End of Innocence” starts, “2008 may be the year that Google’s innocence ends, as media and governments start to cast a less forgiving eye at the behavior of the company that controls 60% of the search market and perhaps as much as half of all online advertising revenue.”

With prominence and power come a lot of scrutiny. That, above all else, might be why I’m not yet losing sleep over Google’s dominance.

June 18, 2008 at 1:58 am Leave a comment

Adventures in Podcasting

My social media instructor recently tasked the class to watch a vlog or podcast and then write about it in our personal blogs. He gave us a short list of suggestions to start with: TWiT, Rocketboom, Web Alert, and Ask a Ninja. I tried watching TWiT, quickly grew bored, and moved on to Ask A Ninja, which, I’m not ashamed to admit, I just don’t get.

So I moved on to Episode 152 of Diggnation with Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht who discussed their ever-growing Twitter networks, shared the top 10 features of Firefox, and outlined Digg’s recent top stories which covered everything from heat sensitive wallpaper to Weezer’s new music video. Rose and Albrecht concluded the episode by dispensing some hilarious relationship advice in response to a fan email. I watched the entire program (which ran over 45 minutes) and I enjoyed it, even though there were a few long spans of tech speak that I barely understood.

During my podcast explorations I developed the impression that most podcasts are targeted to my boyfriend’s demographic – young, geeky male tech types. In fact, my boyfriend regularly listens to Diggnation on his commute to and from his job as a software engineer. So I did a quick Google search on “podcasting for girls” and discovered the Rumor Girls. I watched Episode 142 during which Karla and Karen Gilbert discussed Jimmy Buffet and debated the origins of the phrase “what have you.” I liked that the video podcast was short, snappy, and made me laugh more than once. What’s more, it turned out to be practical podcast viewing because the girls shared a code I can use to buy a discounted domain name – another class requirement.

June 16, 2008 at 4:18 am 1 comment

Life in the Long Tail

The March cover of Spin Magazine featured Vampire Weekend, a fast-rising indie pop band of Ivy League grads. The band was the first ever to grace the cover of Spin before releasing an album, and yet the Spin story described Vampire Weekend’s meteoric rise to fame. How can a band become so famous without ever having released an album?

Welcome to the Long Tail.

The latest book on my social media reading list is Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. The book describes how the rise of the Internet has transformed our economic model from one based on a limited number of hits (or inventory), to one based on millions of niches (and almost unlimited inventory).

Let’s take an example straight from the book. Rhapsody is an online music retailer that offered more than 1.5 million tracks at the time The Long Tail was published. Meanwhile, America’s largest physical music retailer – WalMart – carried only about 4,500 CDs at the time (roughly 55,000 tracks). WalMart’s inventory is limited by shelf and storage space in a way that Rhapsody’s isn’t. At first this might not seem like a big deal since music sales and downloads are highly concentrated on the top 5,000 or so hits. But virtually every one of Rhapsody’s 1.5 million tracks, even those far along the “tail” of inventory, will sell to somebody. In the words of Anderson, “A very, very big number (the products in the Tail) multiplied by a relatively small number (the sales of each) is still equal to a very, very big number. And … that very, very big number is only getting bigger.”

This means consumers have so many more choices and can tailor their purchases to meet their very specific interests and needs, which creates niche markets. This also means a band like Vampire Weekend can generate buzz and sales before it ever produces an album or goes on a national tour.

What are the implications of this shift from a culture based on hits to one based on niches? The Long Tail offers a few thoughts, including: more people will have the opportunity to create music and art, more watercooler conversations will take place online and across geographic lines instead of literally next to the workplace watercooler, and traditional media like radio and television will be forever changed. The Spin magazine story describes how bands and other creative acts could be “discovered” before they’re ready and how fame might be more fleeting than ever since bloggers quickly move on to the next big thing. As a consumer, I love how I can jump from Vampire Weekend’s website, to LILL studio where I can design my own purse, to niche education blogs like Eduwonk, Eduwonkette, and This Week in Education, which aren’t niche at all if you’re in the education policy and communications business like I am.

I think life in the long tail is a pretty cool place to be. I just hope we never fully lose the occasional and incredible synergy that happens when thousands of people experience the same cultural event at the same time.

June 13, 2008 at 5:36 pm 1 comment

Rilo Kiley and We the Media

I’m willing to bet Rilo Kiley and Gillmor’s “We the Media” haven’t appeared in the same sentence before. But I was at Rilo Kiley’s terrific show at the 9:30 Club two nights ago and I was reminded of the book’s points about cell phones with picture-taking capability and digital cameras that can shoot video. Gillmor describes the potential of these tools to capture and disseminate news, but he also cautions that we’re “only beginning to understand the consequences” of these technological developments and that they can be used improperly and lead to invasion of privacy.

Before being allowed entry to the Rilo Kiley concert, my bag was searched. Upon seeing my digital camera, 9:30 Club staff told me that pictures are “no problem” but the band asked that we not record any portions of the concert. I heeded that request, but as Rilo Kiley stepped on stage and the lights went down, out came dozens of digital cameras that were doing more than taking pictures. I overheard a concert goer next to me assert that a bunch of videos would be on you tube tomorrow. Sure enough, my quick you tube search yesterday brought up at least three videos from the concert. I won’t link to them here out of deference to the band’s wishes, but if you’re really curious you can search you tube yourself.

Who knows – maybe the videos will generate new Rilo Kiley fans. But I also understand the band’s wishes to keep their live concerts a privilage of their hundreds of paying fans. And the little digital cameras don’t do the best job of capturing Rilo Kiley’s great sound.

I’m curious what others think about the pros and cons of picture-taking cell phones and digital cameras with video capability. Do you think it’s wrong for concert goers to take videos and upload the images to you tube? If so, how can that behavior and other improper uses of such equipment be better policed without infringing on people’s rights?

June 8, 2008 at 10:52 pm 2 comments

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