Digital Citizenship


5
Nov 18

#BTSxCitifield Part 3 – The fans, the show, the experience – so awesome

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About to enter Citi Field stadium, at the front of the line chatting with some awesome fans.

I try to talk about my introvert nature at work a lot, especially with the students on my team, because if they are also struggling with it, I want them to know it isn’t a curse.  I like to say that I’m an introvert who has learned to fake it because people sometimes don’t believe me, but it’s true.  Some people are energized by social interactions, but for me, anything more than a one-on-one conversation can be draining, and the larger the group, the faster my battery runs out.   If I don’t get periods of solitude to recharge, it can be so exhausting that I get physically sick.

This basic fact about my personality has caused me so much angst and unhappiness.  Especially because I also paradoxically feel the need to make useful contributions, whatever the conversation or interaction may be, so there is forever a battle going on with part of me wanting to conserve energy and stay on the side, and part of me wanting to be in the center of the room participating in what’s happening.  It has taken a very long time to find a good balance.


I mention my introversion by way of introduction to this third and last post in my #BTSxCitifield series (read Part 1 and Part 2 here) for two reasons.

First and most obviously because the theme of BTS’s Love Yourself: World Tour is about learning to love yourself, and learning to love my introversion instead of hating it has been one of the hardest things for me to do.  It was only after I stopped fighting it and gave myself permission to be that way that I learned how to balance my life’s social flow in a way that feels sustainable and good.  Ten years ago, flying to New York City and attending a stadium-sized concert like #BTSxCitifield by myself would have been unthinkable.  That I was able to not only go to the concert, but truly enjoy the experience – in part because of the huge crowd – is a personal triumph that seems worth celebrating.

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Enjoying the show with 40,000 (!!) other fans.

And second, because I am such an introvert myself, I’ve often wondered how the artists, creators, and professionals I admire deal with the pressure of fame and the sometimes crazy emotional demands of their fans.  Fame is such a double-edged sword. Attracting passionate fans is a source of success, but losing anonymity, especially today when everyone everywhere has a camera in their pocket, seems to mean losing the ability to just be in the world.

And when does being a passionate fan tip over into being a crazy fan? 

Is it “crazy fan” territory to buy tickets this expensive?

It may be weird to worry about what it means to be a “good fan” but I think Stephen King’s novel Misery must have made a big impression on me when I was young because I’ve always thought the most respectful way to honor an artist is to support their work from afar.  Pay for their work and share/evangelize their stuff to others, but don’t bug them. [1].  There is a natural desire to express appreciation and gratitude when someone’s work has made a positive and meaningful difference in your life, but that should never come at the expense of respecting the boundaries of the real person behind the fame.

I thought about that a lot when BTS released a series of provocative concept photos for their S version of the Love Yourself: Answer album.  It turns out there’s a Korean word specifically to describe obsessive, stalker fan behavior, 사생팬 or saseang fan [2], and they have obviously experienced that.

It makes you wonder how they are really doing.  Not their stage personas, but the real 20-something year old guys behind the scene (see what I did there?).  Is this insane hype-train of record breaking achievements actually good for them?  Are they being exploited?  How are they handling the intense glare of the spotlight, and is my participation in ARMY fan culture hurting or helping them?  The introvert me would have withered and died from that kind of intense pressure in my 20s, as so many of my favorite childhood actors actually did die.

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River Phoenix and Corey Haim, two of my earliest fan-crushes.

I want to hope that the real people in BTS are doing ok, that they have each other and their families, and that they are still young and resilient enough to enjoy the wild ride that they are on.  I have to hope they, and the people who love them, will know when to get off the crazy train when (if?) the time comes.

In my last post, I described how my interest in BTS began and deepened enough to call myself an ARMY and there was a moment, a series of moments, before I clicked the buttons that sucked a ridiculous amount of money out of my bank account, when I wondered if it was crazy-fan territory to sit for an hour in a virtual queue to buy expensive concert tickets, and an expensive plane ticket, and an expensive hotel reservation, just to see a bunch of 20-something boys from Korea for just a couple of hours.

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Sitting in a ridiculous virtual line to buy tickets, only to be unceremoniously dumped out to this error message.

Ultimately, I decided that I enjoyed their music and appreciated their art so much that I wanted to be counted among their fans for their first stadium-sized concert and their last show in the US.  It wasn’t just about attending the concert, although I was of course excited to see them perform live, but symbolically, I think every fan who came to Citi Field was there to show them and the world just how much their work inspires us.  We wanted to give them another win, another trophy for their bag.  That super-fun feeling of winning together, ARMY+BTS synergy, is what tipped the scales enough for me to actually purchase the tickets. [3]


The Night Before the Show

I flew out of Cincinnati on the Friday evening before the concert, with just enough time to land at LaGuardia and get settled into the hotel for a good night’s sleep before the show.  Hilariously, the first ARMY I met in the wild once I got to New York was another person from Cincinnati!  Queue that old joke about flying a thousand miles to meet your neighbor.  Our hotels were in opposite directions so we split up shortly after meeting, but we followed each other on Twitter and re-connected after we got home – and now we’re set to watch Burn the Stage together when it comes out in a couple weeks!

That chance encounter with a friendly ARMY was the first of many happy meetings.  I saw groups of ARMYs everywhere I went as BTS fans descended on New York from all over the US, and really all over the world. It’s hard to describe the feeling of meeting strangers who don’t quite feel like strangers because you already share a common interest, the instant smiles when we recognized each other, the excitement that everyone felt about arriving for the show.  I really didn’t know what to expect the next day, and after agonizing over what to stuff in my no-larger than 16 inches backpack to comply with the venue rules [4], I managed to sleep like a rock.

Arriving at Citi Field Stadium

I had no idea what it would be like at the venue, so I didn’t really have a plan, but part of the reason I made the trip was to experience the ARMY fan culture, so I took a cab from the hotel around 6:30 AM and got dropped off right at the stadium.

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The first picture I snapped after arriving at Citi Field, ~6:45 AM.

The first thing I noticed as I walked across the parking lot was the merch line (the line to buy official merchandise from the band like the t-shirts, bags, etc.), and it didn’t seem crazy long yet, so without even looking around at anything else, I headed for the back of the line.

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That big group of people on the right side is the merch line, which hadn’t started moving yet, ~ 6:45 AM.

At that moment, as I approached the back of the merch line barriers, I felt .. nervous.  I’d met a couple of fans at the airport and at the hotel, who were all super nice and friendly, but I wasn’t sure what it would be like in the REAL ARMY crowd.  Would there be crazy sasaengs?  Would it be weird that I was by myself?  Was I even a big enough fan to deserve to be there when so many fans couldn’t get tickets?  My introvert nature and all the anxiety that comes with it suddenly popped out and I felt.. shy.

I needn’t have worried.  I got in line and spent the next couple hours chatting with the fans around me, gawking at all the hand-made signs, watching the merch line grow and grow and grow..

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ARMYs behind me in the merch line..

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Can you tell how diverse the crowd is?  Young, old, men, women, every ethnicity.. 

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JOON FOR PRESIDENT!

It turned out that the whole day before the show was a series of waiting in one line or another, and universally, the crowd was friendly and cheerful and happy to chat about BTS endlessly.  It was terrific!

Entering the BTS Village

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The “Village” is what they called the cordoned off area where you could buy the “merch” and visit a bunch of different booths to pair your bluetooth-enabled light stick, take a picture with a hologram of your favorite BTS member, donate to their UNICEF LOVE YOURSELF campaign, etc.

Once the merch line started to move when they opened the Village, everyone ran in to.. get in yet another line for whichever specific area or booth you wanted to visit.  I stuck with the merch line, and got handed an order form to fill out while waiting with a new group of ARMYs.

I can’t remember how long we stood in that line, but it seemed to move pretty quickly.  I was super disappointed that the official concert t-shirts sold out within the first 15 minutes, since that was the main thing I wanted to get, but there were plenty of other (way overpriced!) things to buy to commemorate the experience.

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An example of available merch and the crazy prices.  There were like 6 or 7 pages of things you could buy.

Talking about it with the other ARMYs around me, I was surprised to find that everyone hated the new Americanized “Beyond the Scene” branding and didn’t want any of the t-shirts if it didn’t have the original Korean 방탄소년단 (Romanized as Bangtan Sonyeondan) wording.  Not that Big Hit Entertainment asked for my opinion, but I think the sincerity and authenticity of BTS is one of their biggest selling points even with American fans, so I’m not sure the “Beyond the Scene” re-brand is gaining traction.

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I ended up with t-shirt version 1.  No one around me wanted to buy version 2 because it said “Beyond the Scene”.  The lady behind me reeeeealllly wanted a hoodie and was afraid they would sell out before she got to the counter.  I think she was successful in her quest but I’m not sure, I lost track of her in the crowd.

With my merch in hand and my wallet further emptied, I wandered around for a bit trying to decide which booth to visit.  Suddenly I remembered that I had won an express “skip the line” ticket from Big Hit to visit the “BTS Studio” booth where you could take a picture of yourself with a hologram of your favorite member, so I headed over in that direction.. and got in the express ticket line. (Which was only like 10 people long, but still, another line!  lol)

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The Korean tour staff were all very nice and seemed super amused at the Americans saying 감사합니다 (kamsahamnida – thank you).

While I was waiting to get my picture taken, I noticed an ARMY who had just come from the merch line struggling to juggle all of her purchases. Because the “shopping bag” merch item was the cheapest thing on the menu at $5, I bought 3 of them, which was the maximum allowed, so I stepped over and asked her if she wanted a bag to hold all of her stuff. I was glad to have an extra to share! We snapped a picture together once she got her stuff all sorted out.

Then suddenly it was my turn to enter the little BTS Studio tent!  I have to say, the “hologram” technology they used to make it seem like your favorite BTS member is walking up and sitting down with you to take a picture was pretty freaking cool.  I was so flustered trying to sort out my bags and all the stuff I was carrying that I didn’t get a video of that (that’s one time when I really wished I hadn’t come alone), but it was fun all the same and sort of made your heart beat a little faster even knowing it wasn’t real.  I also had a little panic trying to pick which member because at this point, I really do love them all (OT7!), but my original favorite won in the end.

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Quick, pick your favorite BTS member!

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A picture snapped with my phone of the slightly blurry picture I got in the BTS Studio booth. Me and Jimin!

After that I wondered around the Village a lot taking pictures and videos and just enjoying the scene and the freedom of not being in a line for the first time since I arrived.

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Fans dancing in the Village..

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Another dancing fan… You can see the merch booths in the background.

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Tour staff would watch your bags and take a picture of you with your phone at the various sign boards and photo backdrops..

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Making a donation to the UNICEF #BTSLoveMyself campaign to end violence against children..

I’m not sure what time it was, but by that point, my feet were starting to hurt a little and I was ready to take a rest.  See my note below about the awesomeness of the Trekology YIZI Go Portable Camping Chair – which I promptly pulled out and set up to rest my weary bones and have a drink and a snack.

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Having a rest and filming people entering the Village area..

I thought it was pretty irresponsible of the lady yelling at people to run to the lightstick tent because they were selling out, they didn’t sell out the whole day as far as I know.

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Lots of people started to sit down and eat things they had brought at that point.

There seemed to be no food or drink vendors anywhere, which I thought was nuts.

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A short video I intended to send to my sister but for some reason it wouldn’t upload so I never sent it..

Finding my Gate and Observing the Front of the Hard Core “General Admissions” Line

Shortly after filming that clip, I left the Village area thinking I should at least figure out what gate I would be entering and where the line (surely there was another line!) would be for that.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but it turned out that the private box seat ticket holders would be using a gate in the same vicinity as where they were letting the General Admissions line form up to actually enter the stadium.

Now keep in mind that some of the General Admissions folks had been camping out for over a week to get closest to the stage, so as I approached them, I had a feeling like the General Admissions line were the “real” ARMY and the rest of us were just baby ARMYs.  We still had hours to go before the show started, so I set up my awesome little camping chair again and watched all the hoopla at the front of the GA line.

Periodically you would see fans who had stepped out of line to get merch or something come running up frantically worried that they had missed their spot, so I started posting short video clips and tweeting them out in the hopes that it would help keep things calm.  There were definitely a couple of moments there where it seemed like the crowd might get shovey and pushy, but for the most part, it stayed orderly and calm.  After watching them deal with one situation after another, I thought the security staff did a great job of being kind yet firm to keep everyone safe.

Somewhere in the midst of the GA line drama, I started to feel really hungry and decided to go off in search of food.  I walked and walked and walked and finally came upon what may have been the only food cart out there, a Nathan’s Hot Dog cart.  I hate hot dogs, but boy if you’re hungry enough, even a hot dog can taste delicious.  In fact, I had two!  The Twitter timestamp says I posted this at 3:04 PM, and the stadium opened at 4, so this was shortly before they let us go in to get our seats!

Entering the Stadium!

Phew, I feel like I’ve been writing this blog post for eons, and we’re just now getting into the stadium!  Picking up from the last section, once they let all the GA folks through, they finally called for our gate and I managed to be like the 10th person in line for that. It was definitely a very buzzy excited feeling getting ready to go into the venue.  After months and weeks of planning and then waiting in lines all day, everyone was ready to get inside.

Of course there was one more line to go after they opened the big fence – the security line.  I apparently didn’t take any pictures during that period, but they had big K-9 dogs, and a seriously armed police presence at the concert.  We saw groups of officers in full riot gear, and some with what looked like long range rifles.  It was pretty intense, but given the death threats against members of the band and all the recent public shootings, everyone in line with me agreed that we’d rather have more security than less.

The security check was pretty intense, too.  They really did search every single compartment of every single bag I had.  I can’t remember if they physically patted us down, but I did have to remove my jacket and sweatshirt and fanny pack, and they definitely wanded us in addition to going through metal detectors.  It felt as thorough as any airport screening I’ve been through recently.

And then suddenly we were inside!  I must have gotten so excited to actually get to our seats that I forgot I had a camera for a while, because I have no photos of the super posh Porche suite at all.

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GA folks getting in place around the stage, before the music videos started.

I did take a few snaps of the GA folks still streaming in around the stage though, and shortly after that they started playing BTS videos on the big screens.  The screaming and cheering began in earnest at that point, and it didn’t stop until the show was over.  It was sooo loud, you really can’t imagine it.

Somewhere around here, I started streaming live on Periscope, with the intention of streaming the whole show if I could.  I know it’s against the rules, illegal, etc. etc. but.. well, there are a lot of people who really can’t afford the crazy expense of attending a live BTS concert.  As concerts go, it is one of the most expensive shows on the planet.  Seriously, Billboard says it was the most expensive tour of 2018, and that’s just for the tickets.  That doesn’t event count the cost of travel, hotel, food, and the aforementioned expensive merchandise, which I guess isn’t a necessity, but who goes to a concert without buying the t-shirt to prove it?

In any case, I watched a lot of live concert streams in preparation for going to Citi Field, and I was always grateful to the people who risked their seat to stream for all the ARMYs around the world who couldn’t attend, so I intended to try my best to stream, too.  Which I did, for a couple of hours.  Until security came. 🙁   Having the security guy breathing down your neck and risking getting kicked out of a show you really want to see, waited forever to see, and paid a bazillion dollars to see.. Well, I put my phone away.  When I looked at the stream playback much later, it said over 100,000 people had viewed it.  *gulp*  That’s a lot of people.  I’m sorry ARMYs, I really tried.


Another great thing that happened around this point was the arrival of my most awesome seat buddy, Chris.  Like I said before, for the most part, I was fine to attend the concert by myself and I really enjoyed everything solo all day long.  But when Chris showed up, a guy around my age, also by himself, and just super friendly and fun to chat with.. it really made the concert just that much more awesome. We chatted through the whole show and he even helped shield my phone from the security dude for a bit when I was still trying to stream despite the stress of it all, bless his heart.

Chris, I hope you read this post!  Super thanks for being such a fun seat buddy!!  If you’re ever in Cincinnati, definitely ping me and I would go to another show with you anytime, anywhere!  🙂

I don’t have many other pictures of the pre-show since by this time I was streaming, so now it’s on to the show itself!!!  FINALLY!!!!!

And the Show Begins… Breathing the Same Air as BTS!!

I know, I’ve written a whole novel and half and haven’t even gotten to the actual live concert yet.  What can I say, it was a long, fun-filled, busy day!

By the time the show actually started, the crowd was so amped up, with huge swelling screams and cheers and ARMY bombs blinking.  The start of the show was LITERALLY explosive, like fire shot out of the stage!  And it was so LOUD!  And so high energy!  And we’re seeing Idol performed live!  Right in front of us!

I don’t have any pictures because I was still streaming when the show started.  I  hoped to have some of my video footage edited by now to include, but I think it will have to come later or I won’t get the post up this century.

Fake Love from outside the stadium..

I do have a few clips that I filmed after I gave up streaming and after the security dudes departed, but my crappy phone cam footage doesn’t even begin to do justice to what it really felt like.  Singing along to your favorite songs with 40,000 other fans who love it as much as you is really something else.  The energy was insane, I can still feel the vibrations in my chest if I close my eyes and think about it.

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The twinkling ARMY bombs everywhere added so much to the atmosphere..

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I didn’t get even one single great shot of the band. Even though the screens were huge and we could see clearly in person, the light noise and cables and whatnot made it impossible to get a great photo with a phone camera from where we were sitting. That’s ok though, the experience itself was the reason for being there, and the memories are more than enough.

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Seesaw nation rise!

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Serendipity!

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Sparkly Jimin!

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The Truth Untold!

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The best pic I took of V! (That one’s for you Chris!) 🙂

I cried a couple of times.  When Jimin cried, I bawled like a baby. Not my footage, but thanks to the ARMY that caught this on camera. *sniffle*

I cried again during Namjoon’s ending comments.. (JOON FOR PRESIDENT!)

If I’m in the right mood, hearing Magic Shop still makes me cry because I can hear the echo of 40,000 ARMYs singing back to them in one voice.. it was really beautiful. I sang, and screamed, and danced, and cheered, and enjoyed the hell out of those 2.5 hours.

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By the end of the show, we all said our good byes, wished each other safe journeys home, and parted ways. It was really a magical experience.

End of the Show & Heading Home

I’d read about post-BTS-concert depression from other ARMYs, but what they don’t tell you is it starts the very second the show is over.

I felt like I was in a shell-shocked daze as we started herding out of the stadium, and by the time I got outside and back out to the parking lot, I think I stood there for I don’t know how long, just too overwhelmed to even move.

Believe it or not, I didn’t realize until right that moment that I’d planned every detail of my arrival TO the venue, but I had absolutely no idea how to get back to my hotel FROM the stadium.  40,000 people were all trying to leave at the same time, it wasn’t like I could call a cab.  I was so disoriented, I didn’t even know which direction the hotel was in from where I was standing. As more and more people poured out of the stadium, I got swept up in the moving crowd, and just ended up going with flow with no destination in mind.

That was the only moment the whole day that I felt somewhat vulnerable and a little afraid to be alone.  The crowd was still very friendly, but it was dark and chilly and I suddenly felt like I could get lost or disappear and no one would even notice.

Once we got to the outer edges of the parking lot near the street, I sort of came back to my senses and started looking on my phone for options.  There were already huge lines forming for Uber and Lyft drivers, but then Google suggested a ride service I’d never heard of, Juno, so I downloaded and installed it and like MAGIC – even in that insane crowd – a driver in a big black SUV was there in less than 5 minutes to pick me up.  It was fantastic.

I honestly don’t remember much after that.  I know I made it back to my hotel, and I think I was too late for room service so I just crashed.

The next morning, I wandered downstairs to get coffee, where I met some young ARMYs with their dad getting ready to head home.

And a little later at check-out, I met one of the stagehands who had traveled with BTS for their whole North American tour.

I took one last selfie sitting outside the hotel waiting for a cab..

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And then I headed for the airport and flew home..

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Back in Cincinnati with the #CitiFieldFlu

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, I got so sick within a day or two of coming home that I basically didn’t get out of bed for a week.  I saw someone on Twitter call it the #CitiFieldFlu, I guess loads of people picked up whatever nasty bug was going around.  By the time I recuperated from that enough to go back to work, I was too busy playing catch-up to write much, so that’s why it took almost a month to get this posted.

I sent a few messages to some of the folks I met at the concert once I’d recovered to thank them again and wish them well, and got back a bunch of nice replies.  And I was super delighted when the Cincinnati ARMY I met at the airport DMd me on Twitter to ask if I wanted to go see Burn the Stage in a couple of weeks.  She was so awesome, she even bought an extra ticket!  Thank goodness, because they sold out while I was too sick to even notice anything.  I’m really looking forward to meeting up with her to see the movie!

At this point, even I’m tired of this post, so I’ll wrap it up quickly.

It’s hard to describe, even with all these words and pictures and videos, just how much I enjoyed the show.  The fans, the concert, the music, the love, the whole experience.

At a time when the political climate in the US feels uglier than anything I can remember in my lifetime (the election is tomorrow as I write this, I am desperately hoping for positive outcome), it felt sooo good to be with sooo many people from soooo many different places and walks of life, all coming together to celebrate and enjoy good music.  It felt soooo good to support a bunch of young guys from the other side of the world and send them our love and appreciation and admiration and all the best hopes for their future.  It’s really a tribute to the boys of BTS, and to Big Hit, and the entire team of professionals who produce and support them that we could all come to New York City and enjoy the show like that.

It made me feel and remember that Obama-style hope, and I’ve really missed that.

Thanks to all the ARMYs I met on my journey for making the trip so special, and to BTS for a concert that I will never forget. I purple you.

💜


 

[1] As a lifelong Constant Reader and huge fan of King’s work, it really wigged me out when he joined Twitter and I realized I could actually send a message to one of my favorite people on planet Earth.  I never did, of course, because that would violate my “don’t bug them”  principle, but I’ve been tempted a time or two.

@stephenking if you ever see this, I’ve loved your writing since I was 8 years old and got grounded for reading The Dead Zone. Thank you, sincerely super thank you, for a lifetime of awesome stories.  <3

[2]  I saw some crazy sasaeng behavior at Citi Field, but thankfully not too much.

[3] I actually purchased tickets THREE times.  The first time, I bought tickets on Stub Hub after losing out in the virtual queue, but I didn’t realize the ticket I bought was for wheelchair users only.  Stub Hub wasn’t very helpful when I contacted them, their only advice was to put the ticket back up for sale and buy another one, which is what I did.  Then a week or so before the concert, Citi Field released a block of box-seat tickets, and even though it was much more expensive, I snagged one of those and then re-sold my second ticket.  I didn’t want to be a scalper jerk, so I always set the ticket prices for what I myself paid, but I lost out on transaction fees and whatnot each time.  I never did the math to total up how much I really paid in the end to see the show, I don’t want to know.

[4]  I bought a couple of items for my trip which I’d like to recommend.  It took hours of scouring Amazon to find a backpack that met Citi Field’s size requirements.  I ended up with the Red Rock Outdoor Gear Drifter Hydration Pack and just left the hydration pack at home.  It was a good purchase, for such a small backpack, I managed to cram a lot in it, and clip a lot on it. I also packed two Jackery Portable Charger Bars (6000mAh) and a Solar Charger RAVPower 24W Solar Panel which clipped to my backpack to keep me fully powered for the whole trip.  My phone never ran out of battery even with constant use and lots of filming.

And last but definitely not least, my favorite purchase of all was something I almost left in the hotel room.  Right before I walked out the door, I clipped the Trekology YIZI Go Portable Camping Chair to my backpack and I spent the rest of the day so grateful that I had it.  Two thumbs up, it really saved my feet!  I even had several offers to buy it from me throughout the day!

The lightweight Trekology camping chair that saved the day and my feet/back.

 


22
Oct 18

#BTSxCitifield Part 1 – The Backstory: How Trump and #MeToo led to finding #BTS and joining the ARMY

It has truly been an age since I’ve written an actual blog post. [1]  I may even have forgotten how to do it, I guess we’ll see.  It’s not so much that I haven’t felt the urge to write from time to time, but once you get out of the habit of blogging, it feels insurmountable to start back up again.  And yet here I am, trying to remember my website password on a Saturday morning.

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The impetus for this blog reset was that I wanted to write about the experience of going to see BTS at Citi Field in New York a couple weeks ago. (If you need a primer, here are a few from the Guardian, Rolling Stone, NYT, and Vulture).  Like many, I picked up the #CitiFieldFlu while I was there, so I’ve basically been bedridden or trying to catch up ever since I got back into town, but I hope I can remember everything because I think it might be one of the best trips of my life.  It was not only a great show, the whole trip was the kind of awesome, life-affirming experience that makes you see the world differently when you come back home, and not many concerts can do that.

PART 1:  THE BACK STORY

But to back up a bit, I feel like I have to explain how I got into this Korean boyband in the first place…

It actually starts with the election of Donald Trump, the #MeToo movement, and the absolutely paralyzing trauma I felt near the end of last year.

By mid-2017, as the daily insult and injury of the Trump Administration took my breath away, and every American media outlet, news program, channel, and pop-culture reference  everywhere became All Trump All the Time, I began to experience a kind of cognitive overload and emotional upset that I’d never felt before.  Then in the fall of 2017, the #MeToo movement broke open with one horrific story of abuse after another.  Coupled with the shock and complex emotions that came with each days’ news cycle, I also began to feel a sense of shame that I was having so much trouble even coping with the news.  I’d be heading into work listening to NPR, and suddenly find myself bursting into tears of anger, sadness, fear, horror, and sooooo much disappointment, it’s still hard to comprehend.  Until one day, I just couldn’t cope with it anymore.

Magazine cover picturing all the women accusing Bill Cosby of sexual abuse, with an empty chair representing other women who had not yet come forward.

I turned the radio off.  I turned the TV off.  I canceled my subscriptions to the New York Times and the Washington Post.  I un-followed hundreds of accounts on Twitter.  For many months, I was pretty much offline but for what I absolutely had to do for work and I told everyone in my personal life that I was on a complete news blackout and that I did not want to know what happening.  No, that’s not quite right – it wasn’t just that I didn’t WANT to know, it was even worse than that.  I couldn’t even force myself to look at what was happening.  [2]

My family and friends were shocked and confused, I think, and concerned.  For anyone who knows me at all, tuning out and ignoring things is an extremely uncharacteristic response.  And since the day I first discovered the internets back in 1994, most of my personal hobbies and interests, not to mention my whole career and professional life, has revolved around the internet, activism, and using technology to improve the human condition.  And yet suddenly I found myself unable to engage with any of it.  All of it. I felt compelled to shut the internet off.  [3]

That was about a year ago, in November of 2017.

So what does a person DO when the thing that occupied all of their waking life for all of their adult life suddenly becomes toxic?

A SLOW-SIMMERING INTEREST IN KOREAN HISTORY/CULTURE TURNS INTO A REFRESHINGLY DIVERTING MINI-OBSESSION

How do any of our obsessions begin?  Some tiny niggling seed that takes root and grows into something strange and unexpected.

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My grandpa is in the center kneeling, with Korean children wearing UN hats.  Not sure of the year, 1953 or 1954.

My most recent one has deep roots, if I think about it.  My grandfather on my mother’s side, who I called Dad, served in Korea when he was in the Army, and it’s one of those episodes in the family lore that holds myriad meanings and significances.  Family rumor has it that Mom and Dad got married because she got pregnant after (before?) Dad went to Korea.  Not sure about the timeline there, maybe my mom will correct me. The cherry lacquer wooden bowls that Dad sent back from Korea were a source of bitterness for my aunt Mary when Mom and Dad passed away and we couldn’t find them.  My uncle Frank probably still hasn’t forgiven me that I wouldn’t give up the photographs of Dad in Korea.  (In my defense, I kept them to scan them in so everyone could have them. :P)

After Dad died, I spent many hours scanning in photos and tracing through his life story, and I never could determine exactly where he was stationed in Korea, but I had the thought that I’d like to go there some day.  He didn’t talk about his military experience much, but it obviously helped shape who he was, and if the family rumors were true, I was indirectly a product of his Korean adventure.

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With Dr. Youngkyun Baek and Korean National University of Education graduate students at the University of Cincinnati, 2007.

Another root of my new obsession was a wonderful experience many years ago meeting Dr. Youngkyun Baek, who at the time was an Asst. Professor at Korea National University of Education.  In 2007, he joined the University of Cincinnati with a Visiting Professor appointment and arranged for me to lead a week-long seminar with a group of his graduate students from Korea to discuss the use of Virtual Worlds and Second Life in higher education. That was my first sense that Korean society is far more accepting of and quicker to adopt technology than the US.

IMG_0072

Having a traditional Korean meal with so many side dishes it blew my mind!

It was fascinating and so much fun to spend time with them.  The  language barrier was only a mild impediment to a fun-filled week of exploring virtual worlds during the day, and exploring Cincinnati and Korean culture after class.

IMG_0907

Canoeing the Whitewater River with my new friends.

I’d say it is one of the great regrets of my career that I didn’t stay in better touch with them all.  Maybe I’ll try to reconnect now that I’m less ignorant of Korean culture than I was back then (I feel embarrassed now to think of how much I didn’t know).  If any of them happens to find this blog post, I hope they’ll say hello!

In any case, a few months before my Great Media Blackout of 2017 began, one of the news headlines that contributed to my sense of panic also re-ignited my interest in Korea.  You may recall in August 2017 when headlines like Trump Threatens ‘Fire and Fury’ Against North Korea if It Endangers U.S. began to appear.  For a split second, I was afraid Trump might get us into a nuclear war, and thinking of my conversations with Dr. Baek’s students way back when, I wondered what it must be like to live in South Korea and have that worry constantly.

One thing led to another, and I began reading about the Korean War and South Korea’s military enlistment policy, and then an online friend suggested that I watch a Korean drama on Netflix called Descendants of the Sun if I was interested in how the military experience and North/South relations are portrayed in Korean popular culture.  After that completely addicting experience, I discovered I could add Rakuten Viki and Dramafever apps to my Amazon Prime/Amazon Firestick, and well, let me tell you, once I fell down the K-Drama rabbit hole, there was no turning back.

Next thing I knew, I was ordering books from Talk to Me in Korean (highly recommended!) and getting monthly deliveries of Korea Box (also highly recommended!) and scouring the Cincinnati area for soju.  (I never found it in Cincinnati, you have to go over the river into Kentucky at Party Source.)

It was all a marvelous distraction from the Trump/#MeToo madness, and though I have a lot of critical thoughts about the conservative, patriarchal parts of South Korean culture, it was still a welcome respite to leave the American mediascape behind and learn about a faraway land with their own history and myths and fabulous cuisine.  As you can imagine, once I entered the world of K-Drama, then the music of K-Pop wasn’t far behind.

 

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One of my favorite songs, so good. #Eagles

A post shared by Fleep (@fleep513) on

My musical tastes are as weird and varied as everyone else’s.  I cut my teeth on a combination of bluegrass gospel from my biological father’s Kentuckian side of the family, and 50’s/60’s bubblegum pop, the Beatles, and “classic rock” from my mom and step-dad.  The Eagles (who I just saw in Cleveland this past weekend!), CSN(Y), and Jackson Browne are in my childhood DNA, and then as an adult, well, it’s too varied to categorize, but I can say in the last decade or so, pop music and hip-hop were not really in the mix.  I remember a couple years ago having the realization that I was Officially Old because I didn’t recognize even one single artist who won a Grammy that year.

So K-Pop was really a field afar for me, and I think I started with some generic “Top K-Pop Hits” playlist on YouTube, as one does these days.  It all sounded kind of the same at first, and then one of the songs starts to grow on you, and then another one, and then you realize, hey, those two songs are by the same group, and then.. and then..

So yeah, that’s how I discovered BTS (Hangul: 방탄소년단; RR: Bangtan Sonyeondan), translated as Bulletproof Boyscouts, also known as the Bangtan Boys, a seven-member South Korean boy band.

For any ARMYs who might be reading, the first song was Save Me.

The second one was Dope.  I had to know who that red-headed dancer was.  (Once you Jimin, you can’t Jimout, as they say.) ((Now OT7 for life.)) =)

This seems like a good place to take a break.

Coming soon:  #BTSxCitifield Part 2 – Finding BTS + Joining the ARMY = Going to Citi Field


 

[1] I looked it up, my last sincerely written, totally original content blog post was in January 2014 about Edward Snowden.  Wow, that’s even longer than I thought.
Re: Snowden – Whistleblowing & Its Consequences and Part 2: Snowden – Whistleblowing & Its Consequences

[2] In the interest of full disclosure, I want to say publicly that I am also a survivor and a victim (even though I hate both terms) of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.  #MeToo.  Part of my shutdown was undoubtedly related to those past traumas that I thought I had overcome. Obviously not. It’s clear to me now that the way that the Trump election and #MeToo became entwined in my emotional response has as much to do with my personal history as it does with my political identity.

I also want to say that if any other person out there also had a total shutdown response to Trump and/or #MeToo, just know that you are not alone.  I think we’re human and there are limits to how much trauma a person can process.  We all have our own roads of recovery.  I remain truly really grateful for the men and women who had the strength to speak up when I myself did not.

[3] Relatively speaking, of course, I really couldn’t maintain a 100% blackout even with great effort.  In this modern day and age, there really is no total escape no matter how hard you try.

[4] Dramafever was just shut down last week after Time Warner/AT&T bought them, and there was a great wailing heard round the world by K-Drama fans everywhere.  =(


19
Mar 16

Morning Coffee Reading – 3/19/16

Blogging became too time-consuming.  Formatting, linking, embedding, bad copy pasta that has to be fixed.  But I’ll try again, because my network continues to inspire me so much, I feel I should make the effort as they do.  Bless their hearts, what would I read in the morning if they got lazy like me?

And, I remain forever amazed at how wonderful tripping, linking, chasing, stumbling through others’ thoughts on the internets can be, and how sharing our thoughts can further other people’s trips in (hopefully) meaningful ways.

Here’s my latest trip to go with your morning coffee.

Badges and evidence, the “reputation economy”, and data used to make decisions

Sparked by insomniac reading of Stephen Downing (@oldaily) at 4AM earlier this week, I saw that he gave a keynote address on the AvaCon grid at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education 2016 conference, wherein he speculates, “about the future of virtual worlds in learning when they are mixed with mobile devices and performance support systems.”

Scanning past Stephen’s blurb about the VWBPE keynote, somehow I came across Alan Levine’s (@cogdog) recent post “Seeking Evidence of Badge Evidence“, wherein he explores the usefulness of gamified badging systems if they don’t link to actual evidence that the badge was earned.  Metadata about the evidence isn’t the same as linking to the evidence itself, right?  Right.

This sparked a memory of an older post of mine, Twitter and the Reputation Economy in 2014, wherein I mused about how to measure “reputation” and suggested that Twitter Lists provide a non-obvious measure of something.  Alan subsequently pointed out that a Twitter list wordcloud may be an indicator,  but it is not a measure.  Good point.

My tweet about Alan’s post sparked D’Arcy Norman (@dlnorman) to point to Cory Doctorow’s (@doctorow) recent post about what a terrible currency reputation would be.

I agree that Whuffie would be a terrible currency, so be sure to read that @doctorow post, as well as “Wealth Inequality Is Even Worse in Reputation Economies“.

My tweet also sparked Alan to go down a deep, technically complicated but fascinating rabbit-hole of what my Twitter list wordcloud means, whether it’s useful, and how to generate one using docker, which I still don’t really understand.

But go read his post “Measurement or [indirect] Indicators of Reputation? A Twitter List / Docker / iPython Notebook Journey“.  It’s good stuff.

At the end of all that chain, I summed up my current take-aways about data used for decision-making on a comment to his post:

1) measurements and indicators are not the same thing, important point.

2) reliability is key, whether of a measure or indicator.

3) the use-case (type of decision you’re making) should drive the type of data used to make your measurement or indicator.

4) a measurement or indicator created for one use case may not transfer to a different use case.

Metaverse Vocabulary Words – Metaxis, Liminality, Stygmergy

Somewhere in checking out that tweet stream, I also came across Mark Childs’ (@markchilds) recent post exploring words that describe transitions, edges, limits, and perceptions of spaces, or places, or feelings of being present in a space or multiple spaces even.  

Just go read the post, “Metaxis and Liminality“.  

These concepts seem important for not just educators to understand, but also those of us working to create the Metaverse and places in virtual worlds.

My tweet about Mark’s post then sparked Leon Cych (@eyebeams) to share that they had local drama students acting out roles in Minecraft:

 

..the video of which relates to Midas’ golden touch played out in Minecraft, and that perfectly captures and visualizes the idea of stygmergya word I came to know and love through Sarah Robbins (@intellagirl) years ago when she was exploing using virtual worlds for teaching.  See her “Using a Faceted Classification Scheme to Predict the Future of Virtual Worlds”.  (I should link to her dissertation, but I can’t find a good link.)


Machine Learning, AI, and Science Fiction

After clicking through all that, I went back to Leon’s Twitter page to make sure I was following him (I am), and saw that he referenced the above tweet and forwarded Mark Child’s post on to Martin Robinson (@surrealanarchy), who apparently has changed his main Twitter account to @trivium21c (I followed that account, too).

 

I then ended up reading Martin Robinson’s tweet about machine learning and “When AI rules the world: what SF novels tell us about our future overlords.”

 

There are several books mentioned in there that I surely must read, now.  I might come back and list them, but I might not, so read the article and see for yourself which books you also need to read.

David Foster Wallace, which never gets old.

And in that AI & SF article, there was a link to a David Foster Wallace quote, which takes you to his “This is Water” commencement speech, posted, of all places, in the Wall Street Journal.

The perfect, beautiful hilarity of reading that speech on the WSJ website was so awesome, I thought, this is where I end my trip today.

Enjoy your morning coffee.


19
Jan 14

Part 2: Snowden – Whistleblowing & Its Consequences

Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some thoughts about clemency for Edward Snowden and whether I thought he was a hero.  My main point was that I was grateful to know the information he gave the world, but I felt that fleeing the US was an immoral choice, that whistleblowers who make the decision to “go public” have a responsibility to stand by their decision whatever the consequences.  I said that even if I could understand the choice to run, that that didn’t meet my standard of “hero”.

The post generated a lot of comments, and I’ve been thinking about some of those responses.

First, I have to acknowledge the insensitivity of referring to Chelsea Manning as “he” and by a prior name.  I fully 100% support everyone’s right to define their own identity, and it was thoughtless of me to do otherwise.  I suppose that the name “Bradley Manning” had become somewhat iconic in my own mind and though I was aware of her choice to become known as Chelsea, it was almost as if the whistleblowing icon and the actual person had become separate entities in my brain.

But of course they aren’t separate at all, Chelsea Manning is an actual person, and its exactly these kinds of careless and unthinking errors that expose cisgender privilege and, however unintentionally, perpetuate prejudice and discrimination.  Many thanks to those who pointed this out and I will be more conscious and thoughtful in the future.

Regarding the discussion about whether or not Snowden is a hero, everyone who commented here or on G+ or other places universally disagreed with my position. I have a lot of respect for the people in my network and when my perspective is completely out of step with the majority view, it definitely gives me pause.  Even more so when virtually everyone thinks I’m wrong.  😉

I think it speaks very highly of the folks who read my blog that though they disagreed with me, passionately even, no one was disrespectful or rude, and I appreciate that. For me, blogging is a form of processing, of trying to think through issues and problems, and I’m always ready to acknowledge that I may be wrong.  The whole point of posting publicly is to get feedback and to have good dialogue with people who are also passionate about the issues I care about, and I’m happiest when we’re really digging into an issue but doing it kindly and civilly with each other.  So thanks to everyone for keeping it cool.

I can’t say that I’ve been completely swayed from my position by the arguments everyone made, but it has made me think more about the complexity of Snowden’s particular situation.  My mother and many others asked if I thought Snowden should have paid with his life for his actions, and the answer is no, I don’t think he deserves to die or spend life in prison for trying to expose the wrongdoing of the NSA.  I also agree that both of those scenarios were plausible outcomes if he had chosen to stay instead of leaving the US, and by that logic, then he would be justified in trying to protect himself from that fate.

Despite that, I still feel resistance to the idea that it is a moral choice to blow the whistle and run.

I may be persuaded that Edward Snowden’s, or to some extent, even Chelsea Manning’s, specific circumstances were extraordinary.  That they were not exposing your run-of-the-mill malfeasance or wrong-doing, but rather they were exposing wrongdoing of such a horrific scale and magnitude, and perpetrated not by some low level official or small corporate concern, but by our own government across many branches and departments, and therefore that deserves some leeway.  I think that’s a fair argument and it’s forced me to reconsider my position.

I would still argue, though, that universalizing Snowden’s decision to flee is ultimately NOT the best outcome – for whistleblowers OR for the society a whistleblower is trying to protect.  In the best of worlds, what should happen is that the whistleblower should be safe, should be protected, should be given safe harbor until the disclosures can be digested and the situation investigated.  Edward Snowden shouldn’t have to flee his own country, rather our government and our society should have better measures in place and better systems to protect those who make the brave choice to expose wrongdoing.  We should be demanding better protections for the Mannings and Snowdens (and Swartzs) of the world.

And I guess that’s where it shakes out for me.  If we universalize Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle and flee, and say that’s ok, then we run a two-fold risk:

1) We open the door for anyone claiming whistleblower status to get a pass whether it’s deserved or not.  I maintain that making a public accusation of wrongdoing carries with it a responsibility to stand behind the claim. We all must have the right to face our accusers, and whistleblowers are not and cannot be exempt from that.  Due process matters, it protects us from unfounded accusations and (in an ideal world) acts as a safeguard against vigilante justice, by the state OR other people.

2) We let ourselves off the hook for failing to provide the protections that legitimate whistleblowers deserve.  While I’ll admit that Snowden likely had little rational choice but to leave, don’t we all agree that he shouldn’t have had to?  I think in some way, blessing Snowden’s decision to flee is a form of ignoring our own complicity in a system that we know is terribly unjust.  Instead of arguing about whether or not he was justified in running, we really should be expending that energy on making it so he doesn’t have to – not just for Snowden, but for all the legitimate whistleblowers out there who don’t have international visibility and media scrutiny to protect them.


That’s where my reasoning is at the moment, but I’m sure I’ll keep thinking on this for some time to come.  Thanks again to everyone who commented, and as always, feel free to disagree!  🙂


11
Jan 14

Twitter and the Reputation Economy in 2014

Back in 2009 when Twitter Lists first came out, I had a little epiphany about the reputation economy.  It isn’t just what you say about yourself online, but what others say and post about you in the aggregate, and all the associated metadata of your online life, that can define “who you are” in the Metaverse.  That only seems to be more true as time has gone on, and despite the over-hype of the “reputation economy” buzzword, I still find it interesting and potentially meaningful, but only if the measures of reputation are accurate.  We’re definitely not there yet, and I’m not sure we’re really any further than we were in 2009, either.

It’s hard to do an analysis of accuracy for anyone but myself, but if I had to say which system seems to currently have the best measure of “who I am” based on what others say about me, I’d have to say it’s not Klout, or LinkedIn Endorsements or any of those obvious attempts to measure reputation.  The best measure as far as I can tell is actually Twitter.  What Twitter Lists people have placed me in, which isn’t obvious at all, and isn’t even something Twitter seems to explicitly leverage as a measure of reputation, is actually a pretty good measure!

[A brief aside, I’m sad that Twitter seems to have buried Lists and made them almost non-obvious, since as far as I’m concerned, Lists are a crucial component of making Twitter useful at all.  Many folks who joined Twitter after Lists came out don’t even seem to know they exist!  If you happen to be one of those unfortunate souls, get thee to your Twitter page > Me > Lists > Create List and start categorizing people.  Or click “Member of” to see what lists others have added to you to.  I bet you’ll find some of them very surprising, hopefully in a good way.  And after you’ve made some lists, tools like TweetDeck will suddenly make a LOT more sense to you, and your Twitter stream will become much more meaningful, relevant and less.. ephemeral.]

But back to the topic.  So what does my Twitter network say about me?  Some pretty good stuff, actually:

Twitter Lists Word Cloud for Fleep

When I boiled the List Names down, I got 191 unique terms and, though I modified the frequency to make the word cloud readable (if I hadn’t, all you would see is: Second Life, Virtual Worlds, Education, Immersive, Cincinnati, which were the top 5 list names), I’d say that’s a really accurate representation of my online life.  It accurately reflects my professional and geeky interests, and if you dig in there a bit, it tells you my gender, where I live, what I do for a living, some of the books I’ve read, games I’ve played, conferences I’ve attended, that I’m old enough to be on someone’s BBS list, and if I can say it humbly, that overall people have a pretty positive opinion of me.   

I am of course quite biased, but I think I have a pretty awesome network of super intelligent people who love digging into the future of technology and education, and who like to think about what all this emerging tech will mean for the future of society, so it’s all the more interesting to see what kinds of categories they create for themselves and where they place me within that context.  (I confess to having some warm fuzzies after seeing how the word cloud came out, so thanks Twitter peeps!)

LinkedIn’s Endorsements are another interesting measure, though of a slightly different sort.  I’d say it’s also fairly accurate, but it pretty much captures only my professional interests and misses all the personal, quirky, or other interests I have.

LinkedIn Endorsements for Fleep 2014

Some folks I know have also complained that they get endorsements for skills from people who aren’t even in a position to know whether or not they have any expertise in that topic, and that happens to me, too.  But in general, I’d say LinkedIn Endorsements are less a measure of what you are actually skilled at doing and more a measure of what people think you are skilled at doing.  They aren’t the same thing, but both are interesting and useful measures.

By comparison, I would say Klout is the least representative of the various “reputation economy” or influence measures about me.  I don’t know how they weight stuff, but it looks like the Klout list was probably fairly accurate about 5 years ago, but as my focus, interests, and activities have changed, Klout hasn’t seemed to have kept up.  It captures the same top 5 categories as Twitter Lists, but that’s about it.  None of the nuance, history, and none of the topics I’ve become interested in since.. what, their initial calculations?  I’m not sure.

I should also admit some bias here, I became very aggravated with Klout when they sent me what seemed like an email every few days to tell me my Klout score was going down, when at the time I was helping take care of my grandpa who was dying of cancer.  The insensitivity of it really struck a nerve, like I should really give a hoot about my Klout score at a time like that?  And how meaningful a measure could it possibly be if I’m less influential because I’m offline doing something important?

No matter what Klout says, I know my network values human life and knows what is and isn’t truly important.  In fact, my guess is that my network would probably rank my reputation higher for having been a dedicated caregiver, not lower.

And of course that’s the big problem with all of these reputation or influence measures – the algorithms can’t yet measure what’s REALLY important: trustworthiness, competence, honesty, reliability, compassion, dedication, clarity, ability to synthesize and make meaning from complexity.  These are the measures I really want to know about someone, and as far as I can tell, there’s nothing out there like that yet.

The Twitter List names that people create for themselves, some of which touch on values not just buzzwords, are the closest I’ve seen to anything like those kinds of measures, which for me makes Twitter a potentially overlooked but pretty important tool in the reputation and influence measure toolkit in 2014.


4
Jan 14

Re: Snowden – Whistleblowing & Its Consequences

Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning

I was very surprised to read the New York Times editorial calling for clemency for Edward Snowden, less so to read Slate’s piece about why he won’t and shouldn’t get clemency, since it is difficult for me to imagine any scenario in which full clemency would be granted by this administration or in this geo-political climate. I expect Snowden to be on the run or in exile likely for the rest of his life.

Without knowing all the details of what he leaked, how he leaked them, and the explanations for his actions afterwards that led him to China and then Russia, I can’t in good conscience call for his clemency either. Even if I acknowledge that his leaks have better informed a critically important debate about the surveillance power of the government and the constitutional balance (or lack thereof) of the NSA’s programs, even if his stated motivations as a whistleblower are 100% true, and even if I acknowledge that, like Bradley Manning, there likely were no “legitimate” paths he could take to take to expose the truth to the public, I still can’t go so far as to say that they deserve clemency because I’m not in a position to have enough information to make a good judgement, and my guess is, if you’re reading this blog, neither do you.

My own (very small, insignificant except to those of us who were affected) experience with being a whistleblower was a wholly terrible and unpleasant experience. Exposing misconduct and bringing to light what (some) people in power do not want revealed is a dangerous undertaking, even when the stakes are much less than national security. It is fraught with difficult ethical and moral decisions about how much information and when to disclose and how to proceed, and at least in my experience, I had absolutely no way to fully appreciate all of the unintended consequences of my actions, and how many other (innocent in the scheme of things) people would be hurt by my choices, no matter how well meaning and good my intentions were when I started.

I’m not comparing myself to Snowden or Manning, of course, the situations were completely different and on a completely different scale of importance, but I can only draw from my own experience. I certainly felt that I had an obligation take responsibility for the fall-out, and I guess that is where my own, however insignificant, experience as a whistleblower leads me to feel critical of both Manning and Snowden’s decisions to hide and run from the path they chose.

Yes, it stinks that whistleblowers are often punished for trying to do the right thing, but if you choose to do battle with the powers-that-be, then you have a responsibility to stand up and say, “Yes, I did this, my conscience demanded I take action to right this wrong, and be damned the consequences to myself.” That is what sacrifice is, that is what a “hero” does, and that is not quite what either Manning or Snowden did. Even if their initial motivations were largely for the right reasons, even if there have been many good things to come of their disclosures, they still failed to see it through by trying to hide from or escape from the consequences of their choices.

What makes that a “wrong” is that all the untold number of (innocent in the scheme of things) people who paid a terrible price for their actions had no choice in the matter. The co-worker who gave Snowden a password because of trust or because he thought Snowden’s request was legitimate as a sysadmin who was later fired. The diplomats or soliders or, heck, full on spies whose careers were destroyed or lives were endangered by Manning’s or Snowden’s disclosures. Those people had no choice in the matter. They didn’t have an opportunity to hide or escape from the fall-out of those decisions, so why should Manning or Snowden?

When you set the ball in motion, you have a responsibility to see it through to the end, no matter how bitter that end may be. To do less may be only human, but it doesn’t meet my standard of “hero”.


23
Feb 13

Must Watch – Lessig’s Harvard Law Talk About Aaron’s Law

I found this both moving and inspiring. I’ve come to believe that academics and researchers have a moral imperative to fight closed publishing, and this talk by Lessig only makes me feel that more strongly.


16
Oct 12

An Ada Lovelace Day Essay: Why Didn’t They Tell Me a Technical Career is All About Helping People?


Me blowing bubbles on my grandpa’s back steps, age 3 or 4?

. . .

When I was a little girl, back when most girls my age were dreaming of being ballerinas, princesses, or veterinarians (a popular choice in my rural community), I dreamed of being the President of the United States.  I’m not sure when or why I came up with that idea, I just knew I wanted to help people, and in my little girl mind it seemed like the president got to help all kinds of people.

Then one day, I think maybe in 2nd grade or so, we were assigned a class project to draw a picture of our future selves at work in our dream jobs.  I drew a picture of myself in the White House behind a big desk, probably with some rainbows and pink and purple hearts.  Anyway, as we took turns sharing our pictures with the class, it was finally my turn and I was pretty excited that no one else had wanted to be my dream job yet.  So you can imagine how upset I became when a classmate interrupted me to say that could never happen because only boys could be presidents.  I promptly started crying, but it was an angry kind of (embarrassed) crying.  That kid probably unwittingly planted some of the earliest seeds for my lifelong feminism.  I was sure I’d prove him wrong – some day!

. . .

I never made a conscious choice to work in the field of Information Technology.  What started as a student worker position in my university IT department eventually turned into full time job, but even though I was working full time, I spent many years thinking my day job was just a placeholder until I could graduate and get on with my real career. Eventually I realized that the calling for public service I felt from a very young age has been realized by a career in IT, it just took a different path than I expected, and I didn’t think of it that way for so long in part because the narrative society tells us about what it means to work in technical fields is all wrong.

Working in Engineering and Information Technology is all about helping people.  It isn’t some abstract, impersonal problem solving exercise.

I was fortunate to have had early access to a computer and other kinds of technology even as a pretty young girl.  My grandpa was an engineer, and the day he taught me how to load up games on his Commodore 64 was life altering.  Load “*”, 8, 1 became a passport into whole new exciting worlds and I can directly trace my current job right back to that very first experience.  I also knew one of my uncles was a computer programmer, and as I got older, I certainly understood that his job was high paying, challenging, and high status.  Another uncle was an engineer too, and I knew he also had a good paying job and everyone seemed to respect his work and his career.  All these men in my family, who I loved and respected, who seemed to be judged as some of the most successful career-wise in the family, and yet I had absolutely ZERO interest in doing what they did for a living.  Why?  Because it all sounded so darned boring.

My first game addiction, Ultima III Exodus on the Commodore 64.

When I think back to what that young version of me thought of their jobs, I associate all kinds of very dry, abstract concepts and words to their work.  It seemed to involve a lot of math.  It seemed to be about working with tools and machines and metals.  It seemed to have nothing at all to do with other human beings, other people, or about solving the kinds of social problems that I found interesting and compelling as I got older and more conscious of the wider world.  Somewhere along the line, I got the idea that technical fields like engineering and computer science were not only off limits for girls, but they were about inhuman, mechanical things, which I had no interest in anyway!

What’s funny is that you could excuse this misconception from a young girl growing up in the 80s, but it’s a lot harder to understand how I could still think that way even as an adult actually working in an IT job, and even though my mom worked in IT too!  The difference was, my mom’s work stories were always about the people and relationships, so even though she also worked in a technical field I guess I didn’t associate her job in the same way – I thought of her as a people problem solver, not a technical problem solver, and somehow never made the connection between the two.

Connecting the purpose of our work to the tools we use to do it

I think what happened is that the information I absorbed about what it means to work in a technical field was focused on the tools used to do the work, not the purpose of the work.  And frankly, a hammer just isn’t very interesting.  But if you talk about how using a hammer can help you build houses, and building houses helps families have stable, happy homes, then suddenly that inanimate hammer object is placed in a human context that’s tied to something relatable even to the youngest of children.  Focusing on the tools used in technical fields is obviously appealing to some people, but it certainly wasn’t appealing to me.

Because of these misconceptions about IT work, I spent the early part of my career avoiding the more challenging technical aspects of the job.  Partly it was out of fear that I wouldn’t be smart enough to figure it out (girls can’t be system administrators or programmers!), and partly because I was under the mistaken impression that becoming more technically adept would take me further away from the human interaction that I loved most about my job.  It took me years to discover that I was wrong on both counts.  Perhaps if someone had helped me connect the dots, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to discover how thrilling it is create something new that people find useful or valuable, or how wonderful it is to empower others to use technology for their own goals.

Me explaining the architecture of the University of Cincinnati’s OpenSimulator grid.

I think the way we frame the narrative of technology work has a lot to do with why girls and women choose other career paths.  Even today, I doubt many people would associate working in technology with public service, even though in large part, the purpose of our work is about solving human problems, improving living conditions, and making society better. We just don’t talk about it that way.  And we should, because for all the little girls (and boys) who are drawn to the human elements of a particular career, we want them to know that IT and engineering jobs can be very human centered!  Yes the programming and software and protocols are necessary to do the work, but that’s not why we do the work – we do the work to make the world a better, safer, more interesting and beautiful place, just like doctors and veterinarians and ballerinas – and (hopefully) presidents.

Ada Lovelace Day aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire. This international day of celebration helps people learn about the achievements of women in STEM, inspiring others and creating new role models for young and old alike.

Ada Lovelace is widely held to have been the first computer programmer. Close friends with inventor Charle Babbage, Lovelace was intrigued by his Analytical Engine and in 1842, she translated a description of it by italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea. Babbage asked her to expand the article, “as she understood [it] so well”, and this was when she wrote several early ‘computer programs’. Ada Lovelace died of cancer at 36, her potential tragically unfulfilled.  

Learn more about Ada Lovelace and do your part to support women in science, technology, engineering, and math!


24
Aug 12

Why Anyone Who Cares About the Metaverse Needs to Move Beyond Second Life; Now, Not Later

tl;dr:  If we want to see the metaverse happen in our lifetime, we need to invest our time, money, creativity, and resources into making it happen.  It isn’t going to come from Second Life or Linden Lab, and the metaverse can’t wait.

Five or six years ago, you could not have found a more enthusiastic and engaged supporter of the Second Life platform than me. Like many, I was inspired by the technology itself and especially by the vision of a company who promised us a new world built from our imaginations. Back then, the leadership of Second Life actually said things like “I’m not building a game. I’m building a new country.” (I love that Gwyn keeps that quote from Philip Rosedale in her sig line.) While I was always skeptical about that “new country” bit, I was completely and passionately in love with the idea that we were creating a new world – a new KIND of world – that exploded with possibilities and opportunities for those who were open to learning how to use them.

I’d read Snow Crash too, of course, and it wasn’t just the idea of Second Life itself that excited me, but rather the idea that Second Life was a seed, a prototype, a very rough but crucially important first step towards the creation of an open metaverse. Even back then, my imagination supplied me with a thrilling vision of what the metaverse could become. I could see it in my mind’s eye, this online incredibly complex 3D universe of people, places, and things, of not just one new world, but many new worlds, connected to one another, traversable with our digital bodies, varied and wonderful and full of commerce, educational opportunities, entertainment, creativity, and all the magical things that we could collectively unleash from our imaginations. The metaverse would be the next iteration of the net and the web, moving from flat, mostly static, two dimensional pages to dynamic, live, and action oriented 3D online places.

Most exciting to me, this digital variation of our physical universe would not be limited by so many things that constrain us in the physical world – lack of capital, limits on consumable resources, the difficulties of physical distance, and the incredibly stale and inflexible institutions and legal structures that are cracking and groaning and failing to adapt even to the exigencies of the real world, forget being able to address the digital world.  It wouldn’t take millions of dollars to build a company headquarters in the metaverse, no need for lumber and concrete either – pixels are limitless. And it wouldn’t matter if your colleagues lived in Dubai or Dublin or Dallas, you could still work together side by side in a virtual space and collaborate on a shared design in real time, in some ways better even than you could in the real world. And maybe, just maybe, all that plasticity and the ability to visualize things in new ways would help us discover new angles to solving intractable old real world problems, too.

I became absolutely convinced that those of us pioneering these new digital worlds would have the opportunity to do better in the virtual worlds we create than has been done in the real world we inherited, and that we could learn from our experiences in virtual worlds to make the real world a better place, too.

And in those early days, forget the technology or the company or the leadership at the helm, the most wonderful thing about Second Life back then is that I kept meeting people who were thinking the same thing. Logging into Second Life was like mainlining a drug, everywhere you teleported, you might just bump into someone brilliant, thoughtful, someone as excited about the possibilities as you were. Everywhere you looked were fascinating projects: scientists playing with visualizing data, artists creating experiences that were just not possible in real life, regular everyday people starting new businesses and finding financial success, professors and educators holding classes in the clouds and building a community of practice that made even the most isolated innovator in some corner of the physical world feel like they had finally found the colleagues and collaborators of their dreams.

Everywhere you looked was innovation.
Everyone you met was experimenting, trying new things, pushing new boundaries.
Anything seemed possible.  Maybe even probable.

I became so inspired, so excited by the possibilities that it quite literally changed my life. Trying to understand this prototype of the metaverse, and figuring out how to achieve those goals became the focus of my career.  I was travelling all over the US speaking about Second Life and the metaverse at conferences and lectures, and I was deeply engaged in my own projects in-world, too. Learning not just how to twist a pile of prims into something beautiful, but how that pile of prims could be used to facilitate a community like Chilbo, a classroom at my university, or bring people together for a conference like SLBPE or SLCC. The more I learned, the more sure I became that great things were possible because this rough little prototype of the metaverse had already enriched and changed my life for the better – I was quite certain it could change other people’s lives for the better, too.

I had a vision of the future and I worked very damned hard to help bring it to life, not in isolation, but with thousands of other people who were working hard to do the same thing. And the most wonderful part was that we had found each other, from all corners of the physical world, we discovered in each other a passion for making the metaverse a reality.

It was an exciting, heady time. I miss those days. And if you were one of those people, I bet you do, too.

That Was Then, This is Now

The road from there to here has been an interesting one. I was incredibly lucky that my personal circumstances and the university where I work gave me the space, time, and resources to dive deep into the topic. I spent the next several years fully engaged in the work, the space, the people, the projects, the platforms. I’ve read hundreds of academic articles, thousands of blog posts and news stories and editorials. I’ve had the opportunity to work on so many fantastically interesting projects, I’ve organized conferences and participated in scores of events to bring people who share this passion together in real life and virtually, and I’ve explored as many worlds and spaces as time has allowed to see what others are doing too.

And while there will always be someone more technically gifted than me, more knowledgeable, more connected.. I think it is fair to say I’ve developed some expertise in this topic, some genuine experience in understanding how and when a virtual world application makes sense and when it doesn’t, what the challenges and opportunities are, and some inklings of what the future may hold now that I’m not just wide-eyed with wonder, but seasoned by the trials and tribulations of not just starting projects in the fledgling metaverse, but leading them, staffing them, maintaining them, supporting them, marketing them, and finishing them. To be sure, some of my youthful naivete has departed, but I’d like to think it’s left some wisdom in its place, and here is what the view looks like to me now.

It would be fair to say that no single company or single platform could ever have lived up to the kinds of expectations that I described in the beginning of this post. Linden Lab and Second Life could never be all things to all people, and I give them credit for even trying to address the needs of so many diverse use cases and such a passionately vocal and creative userbase. And I do believe that they tried. For a very long time, I think they did try, sincerely and genuinely, to help bring the visions of Second Life’s residents to life. I personally worked with many folks from the Lab who were as passionate and committed as I was, and who tried their best to facilitate the projects and events that I worked on.

And while they were of course always working for Linden Lab and had to keep the company’s interests in mind, there were hints that some of the folks at Linden Lab also shared our passion for the metaverse itself, beyond Second Life. For a time, there seemed to be at least the possibility that Linden Lab might grow into a larger role, not just serving as a provider of a world called Second Life, but maybe they could become a steward of that burgeoning metaverse, sharing their technology with others in service of that broader goal in a “rising tide lifts all boats” kind of way. Before so many brilliant engineers and thinkers left the Lab, they took concrete steps in that direction, even – they open sourced the viewer code, they participated in research with IBM to test inter-world teleports, and when Philip spoke to us, the residents, he painted that kind of picture. This was not a game. This was about changing the world, real and virtual.

That was Linden Lab then. That is not Linden Lab now.

The Metaverse Will Not Come From Linden Lab or Second Life

I still see the Second Life platform as that first crucial step towards the metaverse, but anyone with two eyes in her head can see that it’s been many years and many changes in management since there was even a hope that Second Life itself would be anything but one world whose sole purpose is to make one company a profit. Linden Lab isn’t even a publicly traded company, for that matter, so we who have invested countless hours, poured thousands and thousands of dollars, staked our reputations and careers, and devoted our creativity and passions to the Second Life platform – we who made Second Life what it is – we can’t even see into the black box a tiny little bit. In truth, we don’t own even a tiny piece of this thing that we helped create.

It has always been that way, of course, even back in the beginning. But back then I also had some.. let’s call it faith, that the people in charge at Linden Lab shared at least some small part of the same vision that I had. Even if they went about it differently than I would do, or chose to prioritize different things than I would have chosen, I had some faith that both we the residents and Linden Lab the company were in some way working in concert with one another. At times it was discordant, and cacophonous, and certainly chaotic, but what complicated and pioneering endeavor isn’t?

And don’t forget, I was seeing these people, in person, at events and conferences all over the country.  I could look into their eyes and see my own passions reflected in them, and that sustained me even when I disagreed, sometimes vehemently, with their decisions and choices. They were good people making a good faith effort to do something good, and I was willing to endure all manner of inconveniences, indignities, and even embarrassingly horrible failures in the middle of important-to-my-career presentations, all because I felt that good faith effort deserved my patience and my loyalty.

I do not feel that way anymore. You shouldn’t either. It’s not because Linden Lab has become Evil or something silly like that (though I’ve long and often thought the dictionary definition of “mismanagement” should include their company logo), but simply because their priorities are no longer our priorities – not even close. If there was any question, the recent announcement about adding Second Life to Steam should put that doubt to rest. Linden Lab is pivoting, as they like to say in start-up land, and they’re pivoting to gamers. They’re no more interested in expanding or creating the metaverse than EA or Blizzard is, the only world changing thing they are aiming for now is better monetization of the entertainment and virtual goods sector.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with gaming – I am a gamer myself, and unlike Prokofy, I don’t think all gamers are idiots or griefers. I have a Steam account and play lots of games on there, and right this moment, I’m anxiously anticipating this weekend’s release of Guild Wars 2 like I haven’t looked forward to a new game in a long time (I’m going to start a guild if I can’t find one, come join me!). And a bit ironically given my last professional experience with Linden Lab, I actually like what I’ve seen of Rod Humble the person; he seems genuine and thoughtful and deeply knowledgeable about the game industry. I look forward to seeing what the newly re-focused Linden Lab comes up with, and I hope it is entertaining and interesting and successful. I’ll even hope that it continues to push the envelope technologically.

But game worlds are not the metaverse. They don’t want to be the metaverse, or participate in the metaverse, or have anything to do with an online universe where people can travel freely, create freely, start their own companies, or do their own thing. Game worlds are about sucking us into someone else’s world, where they endeavor to create an entertainment experience that is so enthralling that we willingly fork over cash to keep experiencing it. Which is great, sometimes really great, and fun and addicting and all that good stuff. But any game experience, no matter how thrilling, pales in comparison to what we who have lived in the fledgling metaverse know is possible, what we know could be possible if the kinds of resources, talent, technology, and effort that currently gets invested in game worlds were to be invested in the metaverse instead.

The thing is, once you’ve made your own world, you can never go back to being satisfied only playing in other people’s worlds. Or at least that’s the way it is for me.

Now someone out there is going to argue that it’s not like Linden Lab is going to turn Second Life into WoW or something, that they are at least trying to pivot to something of a hybrid between game worlds and virtual worlds. That seems to be what Gwyn thinks, and I’ll agree that there’s truth to that, but it’s important to remember that virtual worlds are not the metaverse either. Virtual worlds are some step before the metaverse, before we figure out how to connect everything up. It’s another intermediary step, and while we’re working on learning how do that, we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Whatever hybrid Linden Lab intends to make, they’ve signaled very strongly that they are simply not interested in having their virtual world participate in any of this metaverse stuff at all.

Which means for those of us who want to see the metaverse become a reality in our lifetimes, their goals are not our goals. Their priorities are not our priorities. The metaverse is not going to grow out of Linden Lab or Second Life, it’s that simple.

But I Can’t Leave My Inventory!  And My Friends!  And My Awesome Builds!

Does this mean you have to leave Second Life? No of course not, even I haven’t done that. I still have projects for work in Second Life and though Chilbo has changed to a mostly private landowner model, we’re still there and I still have a strong connection to my friends, colleagues, and communities in Second Life.

But I have tiered down, way down, and I have begun to invest my time and money largely elsewhere – in Opensim, in Unity, in exploring other nascent platforms and technologies that might be a step in the metaverse direction. I think if you care at all about making the metaverse a reality, that’s what you should do, too, and there are several reasons why:

The first reason is that Second Life is not a safe place or a good place to store your work. At some point, maybe not this year, maybe not even next year, but at some point you will have the epiphany that you have poured your creativity into a very, very fragile jar that is held by someone who does not give one hoot that they hold your most precious efforts in their hands. Worse, you will also realize that you have paid a ridiculously high price to have your creativity held in a jar owned by someone else. Worse still, it will break your heart when they drop the jar and all your effort shatters into a million pieces that you can’t easily pick up, if at all. (Ask the educational community, they will tell you.)

Imagine you are writing that novel you’ve always dreamed of writing, the novel that will change the world. And it’s early on in the development of software for writing novels, so there are only one or two platforms that allow you to even do it. One of the downsides of these early platforms is, you can only ever work on your novel on their servers, and the only copy that exists of your novel only exists on their servers. But hey, there aren’t any other good options out there, so you dive in, pouring your heart and soul into writing the best novel you can.

The more you add to your novel, as the years pass, the more attached you become, until one day something terrible happens. You lose your job, or you get sick, or the stock market crashes, whatever the reason, suddenly you can’t afford to pay for access to your novel. And just like that, all that work, all that effort, gone in a blink. Or one day the company changes its mind and decides it doesn’t even want to host novels anymore, novels are not their target market now, who needs these novel writing people! And just like that, all that work, all that effort, gone in a blink.

How many writers would choose to write their novel on a platform like that? None. NO ONE. Only someone insane would choose to do that. Only someone deluded would choose to do that and pay through the nose for the privilege once there were other options available.

Unfortunately, you sometimes pay a really high price for being an early adopter. Back then, Second Life was the only virtual world game in town, and you didn’t have any choices. That is no longer the case.  Linden Lab should allow you to make a copy of your work, but they don’t. And to continue the analogy, they don’t want to give you a copy of your novel because they need you to keep paying the hostage fees to access it.

My advice is: Stop being a hostage. Or at least stop being blind to it. And think about what it means for Linden Lab to decide for you, for us, whether we can have a copy of our own stories.

The second reason you need to shift your focus elsewhere is because other platforms need your passion and your creativity and your help. We all benefit when there are choices, when there are options, and when there is a healthy ecosystem of competition. Five years ago I would have guessed there would be many platform choices by now, but there aren’t, and it’s my fault. And your fault. We’ve remained so focused on one platform that we’ve allowed the virtual world ecosystem to atrophy to the point where you could hardly even say there is an ecosystem at all. And that’s bad – for businesses, for educators, for artists, it’s bad for virtual worlds, and it’s bad for the metaverse to come.

We need there to be a million laboratories and experiments happening, we need to have different options for different use cases, and we need to continue to grow the virtual worlds and metaverse “space” even if it isn’t the hot media darling it once was. In fact, we need to do it especially because it is not the hot media darling it once was. All those VCs and angel investors looking to drop a few million bucks on the hot new thing are so wrapped up in mobile and tablets and whatnot that the metaverse doesn’t stand a chance in hell of getting attention from anyone but the people who passionately believe in it. That’s us.

And what we lack in monetary capital we make up for in intellectual capital and the patience and perseverance to click through fifty bazillion checkboxes if that’s what it takes to figure out how to do something. We are not deterred by horrible user interfaces and inconvenient re-starts, by constant patching and broken viewers. We have put up with more trials and tribulations to make our visions a reality in Second Life than obviously most sane people were willing to do – so what is holding us back from moving beyond Second Life to continue to grow the space? I can’t believe it’s because it’s too hard, SECOND LIFE IS TOO HARD, for god’s sake.  Still!  After all these years, it still takes a ridiculous amount of effort to do anything in Second Life. So I don’t buy the difficulty argument, or the lack of features argument. That’s baloney.

No, other things are holding us back, and mostly I think it is that we’ve forgotten the vision. Well, remember it. Think back, remember what you hoped for, and let that sustain you as you move beyond Second Life to explore and help create new worlds that desperately need people like us to invest our time and talents into growing the virtual worlds and metaverse of tomorrow.

My advice: The single easiest thing for you to do is to begin with Opensim. Forget what you’ve heard or read about Opensim, forget all the frothing over content theft and copybots, and forget whatever experience you had with Opensim a few years ago. Opensim (and by extension OSGrid)  is the closest thing to what Second Life should have become, could have become if the Cory Ondrejka’s of the Lab hadn’t left. The only thing it doesn’t have is the monetary capital that Linden Lab has squandered in bad management and bad decisions, and the intellectual capital required to hit that tipping point of adoption necessary for there to be “enough” people using it to find the collaborators, content, and creativity that you need for your projects.

I’ll save a big treatise on Opensim for another day. It isn’t perfect, and it has its own set of issues, but it is actually more stable and more feature rich than Second Life in many ways, and any excuses that it’s too hard or too confusing fall upon my deaf ears. It isn’t. Stop making excuses. If you care about virtual worlds and the metaverse, you need to be taking at least some portion of your time, money, and efforts from Second Life and investing it in Opensim instead. You’ll be able to put all the years you’ve spent learning Second Life to good use, since it’s not like learning a completely different platform from the ground up, and you’ll be contributing to a community of people who deeply care about the future of the metaverse. Heck, you need to get into Opensim if for no other reason than you will learn more about Second Life than you ever have in all your years on the main grid.

Most importantly, Opensim’s whole raison d’etre is about growing the virtual worlds and metaverse space. Unlike Linden Lab, who have chosen to keep their one world for their profit, Opensim is all about your world, your imagination – quite literally, you can run your own world. (And you should, even as just a learning exercise. I’ll help you personally if you want to try, and if you haven’t, go visit my little personal world FleepGrid.)  I think you might be amazed at what you find, especially in the open hypergrid personal worlds rather than the InWorldz and SpotOn3D closed worlds, who, just like Second Life, want to be one world for their own profit*. Skip those and seek out the smaller grids and open grids and find your passion for the metaverse rekindled.

(* I can already hear Prokofy’s rebuttal ringing in my ears. I am not saying that for-profit projects or motivations are bad, in fact I think they can be good, and they are definitely necessary. I’m merely pointing out that some people are motivated by things other than profit, and I’m primarily addressing the audience of readers who, like me, are in that group. Call us naive do-gooders, or copyleft crazies, but we also contribute many good and meaningful things to the space and have a right to seek out like-minded projects and people.)

The third, and most important reason, you need to move beyond Second Life is because we’re getting old, and the metaverse can’t wait. Some time ago I came across an interview with Philip Rosedale where he said something about how he’d spent his 30’s doing Second Life and it was time to move on. It struck me because, while I’m a little younger than he is, I’ve now spent the majority of my 30’s working in this space, too, and in that time I’ve developed both a better understanding of just how long it can take for a technology to mature and just how intractable some of the technical and social barriers we face are.  Making the Metaverse might not be rocket science, but it isn’t easy either, and we still have a ton of work to do.  We have a lot of technical problems to solve, for sure, but we also have a lot of cultural work to do, and in my opinion, the cultural and social stuff is actually harder.  I can teach anyone how to click through a menu, it’s much more difficult to teach them why they should want to.

It’s going on 20 years since I discovered this thing called the internet, and from those very early days, I’ve always felt my personal talents lie in the ability to bridge gaps between different groups of technology users – to play the role of a translator.  Back in the 90’s when my role was primarily tech-support, I translated programmers’ intentions to end-users, and end-users’ needs to programmers.  Then in the early 2000’s when I was teaching workshops about using technology in education, I translated Gen-X/Y students’ behaviors for Baby Boomer faculty, and vice-versa.  These days, I find myself trying to translate to those living with today’s technology what we who have lived with tomorrow’s technology have learned, and at times it’s an immensely frustrating experience.  But equally frustrating is the stagnation I see even among those I admire and respect, who seem to have lost a little bit of that edge, that desire, to see more, much more, than mesh, and pathfinding, and whatever new shiny thing Linden Lab has bolted onto the same old broken chassis.

When I think back to where I started, I would have predicted we’d be much, much further along the road to the metaverse today than we actually are.  I’d have expected not just incremental improvements in tools, but whole new revolutions in how we translate our visions into pixels.  That hasn’t happened as much as I’d have liked.  I’d have thought that culturally, more people would be able to see and appreciate the benefits that virtual reality provides and would have embraced the opportunity to take advantage of it.  Surprisingly, people’s imaginations are more limited than I’d have guessed (including my own), and while we have seen things like Facebook and Twitter adopted more broadly, those are still flat, largely textual pages, not places to explore and experience together.  They are just iterations of the first webpage I saw back in the early 90s, not the revolution that Second Life once was, not the revolution that the metaverse needs to be.

Which brings me back to the whole game thing.  Back when Philip ran the Lab, Second Life was not a game. Under Rod’s leadership, a game is exactly what he’s trying to turn it into.

My advice is:  If you want to see the metaverse we imagined, then stop playing the perpetual hoping and waiting game that Second Life is.  Because if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that the metaverse won’t spring forth from hoping and waiting.

 

Update:  I had a super busy week at work, so I’m still stewing and thinking about all of the comments.  In the meantime, I wanted to add links to the various responses and side discussions that were posted elsewhere both for myself and for other interested readers.  Many thanks to all for the food for thought!  (Please let me know if I missed any, too!)


13
Jul 12

Personal Perspective Part 2: Questions About SLCC

I have to say, I’ve been really.. surprised and overwhelmed by the response to my previous post about why there wasn’t a Second Life Community Convention this year.

I was afraid I’d get chewed out from here to kingdom come, but the responses have been far more thoughtful, reflective, kind, and understanding than I expected, and I’m really grateful for that.  I just want to say thank you to everyone who replied, who offered sympathy for my kitty, and for the kindness and care I saw not just in the comments on my blog, but in other places too.  It did my heart some good, and I really, really appreciate that. I’m sure the other organizers do as well.

I thought I’d try to address some of the specific questions and comments both on my own post and from the conversations I see taking place elsewhere.  Again, I’ll repeat my disclaimer from before – this is purely my own opinion / interpretation / understanding of events, and doesn’t represent the position or opinion of AvaCon or the Board or any other organization or person I work with.  I didn’t consult with anyone else in writing this and my goal is to provide the Second Life community with some fair comment and criticism about the state of our user-based community convention.

About AvaCon’s Silence on the Problems

In my original post, I was obviously in a sort of “vent” mode, all these pent-up things came pouring out when I started writing and it was like the dam breaking. But please don’t think that I feel like I or AvaCon are completely blameless.  We made mistakes, for sure.  To be fair, the mistakes we made were largely innocent ones, the things you don’t figure out until you learn the hard way.  But of all of our mistakes, I feel like our biggest was in not better communicating some of these problems sooner.

Crap Mariner’s comment I think is a fair one, from Ciarian Laval’s post SLCC 2012 Looks Like It Will be Just Like Blizzcon 2012:

AvaCon and its people are all good folks, meaning well, and tried really hard to make it work, but they were screwed by the Lab at every turn, didn’t want to admit it or give up, tried to deal with increasingly bizarre and decreasingly supportive behavior and terms, and in the end were doomed by their own enthusiasm or refusal to give up on the Lab… all in silence and no communication with the people they were wanting to serve while calling for volunteer.

If only we had known, would we have shouted at the Lab to put up or shut up?

I guess all I can say is, it’s not that we didn’t want to communicate what was going on, but that we inherited something of a PR nightmare when we took the convention over, and our initial strategy was to hunker down and just try to do a good job.  I do not want to get all critical of The Future United folks, this organizing community conventions gig is a very complicated, very difficult, very thankless job for whoever does it, and I’m sure just like us, they did the best they could with the resources they had.  But I think it would be fair to say that by the time we (AvaCon) came into the picture, tensions were very very high and there was already a lot of resentment, anger, personal politics, and all sorts of fraught relationships between the convention and the community already.

At the time, we thought the best way to turn that ship around – given our lack of  financial resources and the short time frame – was to keep the format simple and try to execute it as flawlessly as possible.  Instead of getting mired in flamewars on SLuniverse, or endless dithering about which city, and who what when, we made some executive decisions based on our previous experience as track leaders and volunteers.  The hope was, if we could try to rise above some of the ugliness and get a couple years of not fancy or spectacular conventions, but _successful_ ones under our belt – to show the community that we were capable partners, trustworthy, and well meaning – then that would give us a foundation to build on.

That was the hope.  Obviously for many reasons, things didn’t turn out quite that way, and for that, I really am very sorry.   🙁

About the Name Itself – “Second Life” Community Convention

The first comment I want to address about the name comes from Yordie Sands, who commented on a post from Inara Pay entitled AvaCon declines SLCC 2012.  Yordie writes:

 Speaking from my personal interest, I’m only concerned with Second Life. So an actual Second Life Community is still very valid to me. I might be interested in a broader convention at some point in time, but if the group’s name is Second Life Community then they’ve defined themselves. just sayin

Yordie has a fair point, and I think reflects how many people feel – there may be some general interest in what other platforms are doing, but their main interest is still in and about Second Life.  I can understand that, but here’s the thing; the name “Second Life” is trademarked and that trademark is owned by Linden Lab.  I can’t speak to what happened when The Future United ran things (actually since I started this draft, FlipperPA Peregrine posted an excellent comment about his experience as a founder of SLCC), but for the two years that AvaCon organized the convention, we were unable to sign any contracts with hotels, plan any marketing campaigns, or really start planning or working on the convention at all until Linden Lab gave us a signed contract to use their trademark.  

Having the platform name in the convention name, while it makes sense in a “common sense” kind of way, gave Linden Lab an enormous amount of leverage over us and the convention.  We had to agree to all kinds of terms and conditions that did not sit well with us (like not being able to even mention other platforms, like giving them approval over the program, content, merchandise, and everything else) and deal with their time frames instead of what the community needed – simply in order to be able to use the name “Second Life”.

It completely hamstrung us.

Another related comment comes from Eboni Khan over on the SLUniverse forums, who writes:

 Every convention I have ever attended in a professional capacity announces the next location and dates at the end of the current convention. If there was more stability like this there could be more sponsorship. SLCC could skip a year and come back better than ever in 2013.

And similarly Grandma Bates writes in the same thread:

Most recurring events do this not just professional conferences. It is standard operating procedure to schedule a meeting during the conference with the board to take proposals and take a vote for who will take on the next event. Anything less is guaranteed to fail since every year you have a non-trivial probability for things to fall through when you do not have a serious commitment for the next event.

We always wanted to do exactly that, but both years AvaCon organized the convention, Linden Lab would only give us a contract to use the trademark until December 31st of whatever year the convention was in – not even a full year. So every year we had to re-negotiate anew, and every year they would hold up the process and we wouldn’t get a signed contract until late May, which led us to have to scramble like idiots to do everything in a few short months, and endure lots of (justified) irritation from the community that we didn’t give them earlier notice – because we couldn’t!

That was one of the non-negotiable terms for us after last year. We wanted a 2 year contract so we could make the bi-coastal convention plan a reality – so everyone would know in advance exactly when and where the convention would be held and we wouldn’t be left trying to plan, market, and execute everything in 12 ridiculously short weeks. But because of the name and trademark issues, we were stuck.

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So, my first question to you guys:  Is the name “Second Life Community Convention” so crucial that you couldn’t live without it, even knowing that it means Linden Lab has complete legal control over every use of the term if it’s in the convention name?

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There’s also another aspect of the name, besides the legal stuff, that also raised a lot of concerns.  As I alluded to in my original post, the folks who couldn’t come to the convention always felt left out, and some felt very angry that what we were calling the “Second Life Community Convention” wasn’t actually that since so many Second Life users couldn’t come.

Chimera Cosmos in front of the Help Wanted sign on SLCC11 boards.  Image courtesy Chimera Cosmos.

I think Kate Miranda on the SLED list best represented those who felt that way when she writes:

Well as I pointed out many times it wasn’t really an SL community conference. It was a US meet-up of some sub-section of SL community members, mainly Americans. […] Please don’t tell me about how it was possible to stream video content inworld and watch the cool kids at the conference. That is NOT participation.

While I often felt there was some element of sour grapes in that position (if I can’t have it, no one should), I think there’s a fair criticism in that calling it SLCC when not everyone could participate equally was a difficult and thorny problem.  Ideally, in my mind, we’d have had more in-world volunteers to help put on an equally full program of fully in-world events, too.  Instead of just streaming real life to Second Life, there’d be a full program in BOTH real world and in-world locations, and we’d be able to stream each to the other.  A truly mixed reality program where it wouldn’t matter which you attended.  But the sad truth is, we never had enough volunteers or time (see above re: the contract mess) or money to make that happen.  It could happen though, with more time and more planning, and especially if we weren’t stuck on the name/contract issues.

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So my second question is, and especially to the in-world folks who can’t or don’t plan to ever attend in person:  If we had an event that had better equality of programming both in-world and out, would you be willing to help organize the in-world piece, and perhaps more importantly, would you be willing to help share the costs of all the tech for the streaming?

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About the Money and the Cost of the Convention

Another issue that only became more problematic over time was the cost of the ticket itself.  As I described in my original post, at a certain point we entered the “vicious cycle” of declining attendance = higher prices = fewer people could afford to come = higher prices = to infinity.  That cycle would have to be broken to make any convention or event sustainable.

As Shirley Marquez, one of our most fabulous organizers and track leaders (hugs Shirley!), wrote in a comment on my other post:

When compared to a typical professional convention SLCC was cheap; those things often cost $1000 or more for a full convention pass. But hardly anybody actually pays for a professional convention pass out of their own pocket, and even the people who do (consultants and freelance workers) get to write the amount off their taxes as a business expense. Compared to a typical leisure convention (such as a science fiction convention) SLCC was expensive; a weekend SF convention typically costs $50-60. The fact that business and academic people were the bulk of the attendees is partly because people outside those categories looked at the cost, compared it to other things they might do, and passed.

[…] Dramatically increasing the non-professional attendance level of SLCC would have required a drastic price cut; I think we would have had to find a way to get it under $100 for the weekend. I’m not sure whether there was enough interest in the convention to get the number of attendees necessary to reach that price point, and it’s even more clear that the much larger number of volunteers that would have been needed was not available.

That’s a pretty fair comment and you should read her full comment to see what else she says about how typical fan conventions work and how they get better economies of scale.  We always hoped for that eventually, too, but for many reasons (including, I’m sorry to keep harping on it, the timing issues with the contract that messed up so many things!) it never happened.

I’m not sure folks had a sense of how the convention finances worked, but I’ll try to explain in broad strokes.  When we started (we as in AvaCon, again, I can’t speak to what happened in the years before with The Future United folks) (er Update:  Read FlipperPA’s comment about writing a $139,000 (!!!) check for SLCC 2007!), we had 0 dollars. Zero.  I paid for the incorporation of AvaCon and all the legal fees and applications for us to start the non-profit out of my own pocket.  Once we got approval and incorporated and chartered and all that legal stuff, we still were not a recognized 501(c)(3) non-profit with the IRS, which meant we were not a tax-exempt organization yet.  We started that process in 2010, and in the irony of all ironies in this situation, I’m very happy to say that our application for non-profit status with the IRS was approved just this spring. But at the time, we didn’t have that status, so we didn’t get non-profit discounts from hotels or any other vendors or services we used.

If you’ve never organized an event before, here’s how it works.  You have two options, option one, you can hold the event at a non-hotel venue like a convention center or something – and pay rental costs for the space up front, but this does not include any other services or benefits, all of those are a la cart.  The second option is to hold the event at a hotel where they will give you the “venue” space for free IF you contract with them for a certain number of rooms booked PLUS a certain amount of food and beverages to be purchased by or for your attendees.  That is, we can use the ballroom and breakout rooms for “free”, but in exchange, we contract with the hotel and guarantee X number of rooms will be rented and X number of food+beverages will be bought by or for our attendees when they come.  And if they don’t, if fewer people book rooms or eat less food than we thought, then we, AvaCon, have to pay the hotel the difference.

Remember the first year, we had no start-up funds, so, option one, to rent a non-hotel venue, wasn’t an option.  So we had to go with the hotel option, and try to guess at how many people would show up and how much food we thought they would eat.  It was pretty scary that first year, we were really taking a gamble that enough people would show up to not bankrupt us in our first year out of the gate.

In general the cost for hotel + some guaranteed amount of “food and beverage” (the plated lunches) is in the $20,0000 – $25,000 range for a 150 – 250 person conference.  This is pretty much a fixed cost.  The upside of going the hotel route is that we can then try to negotiate much better room rates for you guys so you at least aren’t paying full cost.  For example last year, we were able to get the rate down to $109 a night for up to four people in a room (plus free internet!).  If you got roomates, that’s $25/night and you can’t get much cheaper than that.

But of course the cost of the hotel or venue is not the only cost. The next biggest cost is the tech.  Hotels often have contracts with internet providers and A/V companies with relatively non-negotiable price lists.  They charge for every little thing, too, one year we had to pay a ridiculous rental fee for easels!  (The next year we brought our own darned easels, of course.)  Because the nature of our convention is very tech heavy and needs high bandwidth internet and lots of A/V support both for the presenters themselves and to stream, record, and mic everything for sound into Second Life, the tech costs are not cheap.  In general, for the ballroom + breakout rooms for the track presentations, it costs between $10,000 – $20,000 for the technology required to put on the convention, depending on number of break out rooms.  This is pretty much a fixed cost. 

Printed Program SLCC 2010.
Both years Lenni Foxtrot donated all of the printing for the custom name badges.
Thank you again Lenni, we <3 you!

Then there are other, smaller costs that add up.  Some of those you might consider to be “extras” and those are the only areas where we had really much discretion at all in choosing how much to spend and what quality, etc. etc.  Those are things like the Tshirts, the printed program, the signage and banners, the lanyards and nametag holders, and all that “stuff” that convention attendees receive as part of attending the conference.  Nearly all of  these items get cheaper in bulk and are one of the few areas where the pricing scales by attendance, in general we spent between $8000 – $10,000 for all of the associated “schwag/signs/printed program/stuff” part of the convention.

The last real cost to putting on the show is the costs of running AvaCon itself.  We have to buy a million dollars in event insurance, we have to pay annual filing fees and other fees for keeping the corporation itself alive, we have web hosting costs, pay an accountant to help with the tax stuff to make sure we’re doing everything right, pay for marketing costs, and the general costs of just doing business.  We also pay ourselves back for our costs in travel and food for the convention.  That was our only monetary compensation, you guys footed the bill for our airfare and food, which, considering the amount of work we put into the conference, I hope you would agree is fair and reasonable.  Our annual operating costs were budgeted to $8000 – $10,000 per year.  This is pretty much a fixed cost.

Note which things went up in costs and which things went down in costs compared to 2010 when we had 250 attendees, and 2011 when we had 170 attendees.  Hotel costs went UP even with fewer people because there weren’t as many people booking rooms!  This is why we always ask people to stay in the hotel we contract with instead of going somewhere else!  Also note that A/V costs were halved in 2011 in part because we reduced the number of conference tracks (break-out rooms) to save money.

So add that up and do the math.  Just in basic estimates, it costs about $60,000 to put on a 200-300 person event.  If 200 people show up, that’s $300 for the cost of the ticket.  If 300 people show up, that’s about $200 per ticket.  The more people who come, the lower the ticket price gets, until at some point the scaling math changes and the fixed costs go up another tier. Of course, there are things we can do to lower SOME of those costs, like cheaper bags, single color printing on tshirts, things like that, but that only saves you a little bit here and there.

The only other way to lower the cost of the ticket is to get sponsors or donations or to charge in-world attendees (which we never did) – in general, the more sponsors we get, the more that shaves off your ticket price.  Every sponsor of the convention also gets some benefits for sponsoring, which also costs money, so for example ad space in the program costs money – each full color printed page costs about $100 (if I remember right), so a $500 sponsor who gets a 1 page ad, $100 goes to the printing of their add, and $400 goes to lowering your ticket price.

So there you have it, that’s the convention math.  There’s nothing tricky or shady or sneaky about it, and all the folks who keep saying it’s too expensive must not understand how the real world works.  There are many variables in the equation, and there are many judgement calls about which things to emphasize or pay a little more for if it raises the quality of the experience enough to justify the cost, and we did our best to be as cost-conscious as possible, but considering the costs that we CANNOT control plus the costs of flights, and food, and etc, we only have so much wriggle room – and we definitely want to be able to deliver the quality of experience people expect.

What sense does it make to pay for an expensive flight to go to a crappy hotel somewhere, with broken or not the right A/V to present or stream, and not even a nice tshirt when you’re done?  That doesn’t make sense at all, so we tried to strike a reasonable balance between reasonable price for reasonable quality.

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Third question for the audience:  Would you really prefer to be at a lower scale venue with lower scale tech to make the convention cheaper?  What if it only lowered the price by $50-$75 or so, since there is some bottom floor of costs for an event of this size?

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AvaCon is Just in this for the Money (or Glory, or Fame, or Because We’re Evil)

I also want to address the (not very nice) comments of Truth Teller, who commented on Inara Pey’s post:

 Anyone who has spoken to any of the AvaCon folks in the last year knows they are and have been planning on starting a new “meteverse” conference that would include not just SL, but ReactionGrid, Unity 3D, and so on because that’s where they think the money is. […]they didn’t want to do the work, or even allow someone else to step in because they had already made other plans. This was a blatant bold face attempt to kill SLCC, in order to give them time to establish and launch their new conference.

First off, to suggest that we are in ANY way “in this for the money” is completely freaking absurd.  You couldn’t pay most people to go through this stress, nevermind that none of us has made a single penny and in fact have paid out of our own pockets for this.  I don’t know who “Truth Teller” is, but if  s/he had ever spent even a millisecond of time with either myself, Joyce, or Kathey – s/he would know none of us are focused on making money at all, we were just trying to break even!!  (I mean seriously, ask Chilbo residents if you don’t believe me, I’m a terrible capitalist.)  My professional hourly rate is about $75/hr, so if you calculate how many hours I spent on SLCC just last year, I GAVE the conference about $30,000 worth of my time – certainly in opportunity cost to make money doing something else.

Second, to suggest that WE killed SLCC is just wrong.  See my previous post.  Lots of things killed SLCC, but primarily Linden Lab did by offering us a contract we just couldn’t accept.   

Third, to suggest  we made that decision, or the timing of any of this was because we’re lazy or trying to prevent someone else from doing it or any of those kinds of motivations is equally absurd.    We agonized over this.  We probably drove our families and partners crazy, in fact.  The delay in the announcement wasn’t about some secret strategy to kill SLCC, it was about exhaustion, and feeling bad about letting everyone down, and trying to weigh personal and family needs versus the community, and trying to decide if we had it in us to try to forge ahead despite all these problems.  The sad answer in the end was no, but we didn’t wait to tell everyone because we’re greedy jerks, but because we’re only human.  And the fact remains, even if some other group wanted to do it, they’d be dealing with exactly the same kind of issues that we are facing.  Calling us lazy is so off the mark, I can only lol at that.

Fourth, yes we talked about the “metaverse” concept last year, but nothing has been decided and we’re not secretly planning something behind your backs.  How could we?  If the last couple years have taught us anything it’s that we can’t do this alone.  There’s nothing sneaky or malicious in thinking the community might be better served by ditching the “Second Life” name because of the contractual crap that goes along with having it, and uou’d have to be either crazy or living under a rock not to know that Second Life is no longer the exciting hype machine it used to be.  Things have changed. A lot of the SLCCs you remember were cheaper because there were still corporations and academics and lots of other folks subsidizing the price, but those people are gone. They don’t come anymore, and I don’t think they’d come back even if all the other issues I’ve mentioned went away.

Yes, we asked some folks after the convention last year what they thought about the “metaverse” concept, but that’s because we were already dealing with all of these intractable issues – with the contract and trademark name, with the declining attendance that made the convention math very dicey, and because we genuinely wanted to know what the people who actually come to the convention thought.  Stop trying to portray that as if we were doing something shifty by acknowledging that things are going to have to change to be sustainable if we want to have a convention at all.

So What Happens Now?

The short answer is:  I don’t know.

Despite all the rocky stuff I’ve just discussed, I personally am still as committed to AvaCon’s mission as I ever was, and I still feel there is a need, a desire, and an opportunity for the kind of annual convention that many people would all like to see.

We (AvaCon) also have two years of experience we didn’t have before, and AvaCon now has 501(c)(3) non-profit status, which means donations to us are now tax deductible (that was a major showstopper for lots of corporate donations who thought about sponsoring the event but didn’t because of tax reasons), and that makes us eligible for all kinds of discounts, special programs, and price breaks on services that we were not eligible for before, which means we could probably save some substantial money on some of those “fixed” costs.

When we incorporated, the members of AvaCon had “lived” in Second Life for almost the whole time it existed and we believed as strongly in Second Life as it was possible for anyone to believe.  Some folks still do (though as I said, my personal opinion has changed over time) but the interest is NOT in being anti-Second Life at all, it’s just in trying to figure out what makes sense for an annual convention that is actually affordable, fun, exciting, and interesting for people.

Here’s what I wrote at the end of SLCC 2010:

But more than the logistics, and venue, and schedules, and updating the website and all that .. stuff that goes into making a convention, we were far more worried about something less tangible.  Something invisible that it’s harder to put your finger on, that’s hard to even describe – that amorphous “community spirit” that threads through a diverse group of individual people to weave a sense of belonging together, an identity separate from one’s own that makes you feel a part of something larger.   Was the “community” still out there?  Did they still want to come together in person, and especially after such a difficult roller coaster ride of a year for the platform?

The question I heard so many times over the last few months as we planned the convention is why, if the virtual world is so powerful, do people want to come together in person in the first place?  The answer isn’t so simple, but it has something to do with the fact that those of us living simultaneously in the metaverse and the physical world are living complicated lives.   Life itself has no guidebook, but virtual life has even less of one, and there is something inordinately powerful about being in the presence of hundreds of other pioneers in this space who know on a deep level some of the challenges you yourself have faced.

Second Life is a platform, a technology, a tool.   But it gave us a glimpse of the future, and in one way or another has forced all of us who have immersed ourselves deeply to ask fundamental questions with a new perspective – Who am I?  Who is Fleep?  Who do I want to be if I can be anything?  What is real?   What is virtual?  What do all these technological changes mean for the future – for me, for society?  And where is this all going, anyway, this platform called Second Life, and this concept we call the metaverse?  Is it stalling?  Is the vision we shared breaking apart or are we just hitting some stumbling blocks?

My personal goal for SLCC was to provide a space for that conversation to take place.  Nothing more, nothing less.

At the end of the day is the convention REALLY about Second Life, or is it about the people?  I can’t help it that after all these years, and all these experiences with organizing events and communities (NOT just SLCC, also SLBPE/VWBPE, Chilbo, etc. etc.), I’ve come to think that maybe widening the conversation beyond just “Second Life” would help make a large annual gathering more interesting, more financially feasible, and more self-sustaining for all of us.

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So my last question is:  Would it really be so bad to invite other people to that conversation?  To invite the Opensim folks and others who might be interested?  Aren’t we all asking some of the same fundamental questions about what it means to live in our virtual world(s) after all?

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 As I said before, this stuff is all my own opinion and perspective.  I’m not sure what’s going to happen, or what the other organizers think, or what you guys think about what should happen next, but I am trying to help answer questions people have and trying to give the straight scoop on what I think went wrong or didn’t make sense so everyone can learn from our experience and not make the same mistakes again.

Thanks to all for your thoughts and comments, and for so many folks I haven’t talked to in a while who commented and reminded me of very happy memories, lots of xoxoxoxo’s to you.  🙂