Field Report: OneWorld's Virtual Bali
Kate Schuler, Research Fellow, Center for Social Media
This is the second in a series of "field reports" that the Center for Social Media is producing as part of the Future of Public Media project, funded by the Ford Foundation. The field reports examine innovative media projects for public knowledge and action, with a particular interest in exploring how publics form around such projects.
One notable development in interactive spaces over the past few years has been the emergence of popular social networking tools and sites. Such sites allow users to connect with others interested in similar issues, and to share media, information and prompts to action. Social networks can make interconnections between members of a public visible in unprecedented ways—showing the formation of publics in real time.
Virtual worlds have also been growing since the late '70s, evolving from text-only chat spaces to 3D interactive worlds like Second Life (which launched in 2003), boasting millions of "residents" and elaborate rules and customs. Such immersive digital public spaces allow members to share information and interact in ways that often surpass the participatory functions of blogs and discussion boards.
While social networks and virtual worlds have largely been used for entertainment and personal interaction, they have at times demonstrated the potential to serve as powerful platforms for public media. This field report assesses a project that involved the use of a commercial virtual world, Second Life, and a niche nonprofit social network, OneClimate.net, by a nonprofit media producer, OneWorld UK. By operating a public forum from the 2007 U.N. Climate Change Conference via these platforms, OneWorld was able to expand participation in the conference and create an ongoing conversation among members of a global public interested in environmental issues. While the number of online participants was limited, this experiment drew significant press attention and served as a benchmark for nonprofit and public media uses of these online tools. The OneWorld organizers noted some skepticism on the part of both reporters and other advocacy groups, but hope their example will break down barriers as they continue to use these platforms at subsequent U.N. gatherings. Questions of scale, budget and digital divides still remain.
The project also demonstrated the blurring of boundaries between journalistic coverage, nonprofit advocacy and online communication, an ongoing concern for creators of public media. The Virtual Bali experiment shows how publics interested in communicating about a shared issue such as climate change now have many more options for both learning and communicating with one another and political actors, online and off. Access to newsmakers—previously restricted to gatekeepers in journalism and leaders in the advocacy world—is becoming more common, fluid and interactive.
OneWorld, launched in the UK in 1995 by Peter Armstrong and Anuradha Vittachi, split in 1999 into an international network consisting of 13 autonomous centers around the world. The OneWorld Network is governed by the OneWorld International Foundation, with an overarching mission "to harness the democratic potential of the internet to promote sustainable development and human rights." Within that shared mission, each autonomous center has its own, which underlines its unique contribution to the network as a whole.
Vittachi and Armstrong now direct OneWorld UK, the specific mission of which is "to leverage participatory media innovatively for a fair and sustainable world." OneWorld UK has launched the OneClimate initiative, designed to connect individuals and organizations concerned about climate change issues. It includes a social networking site, OneClimate.net, and a presence in Second Life—an online, 3-D virtual world—called OneClimate Island. The organization launched its island on September 16, 2006; the original island has now expanded into an "archipelago" of three islands.
OneClimate Island offers Second Life visitors a range of meeting places. There, participants from around the world joined delegates and participants from the 2007 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali to ask them questions and discuss environmental issues. This Second Life event, which ran every day for two weeks (December 3-14), was dubbed "Virtual Bali."
The U.N. conference involved about 10,000 participants, including representatives from 180 countries and observers from non-governmental organizations, intergovernmental organizations, and the media. They met in Indonesia to discuss a "Bali Roadmap" that would allow them to reach a pact to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, as well as national emissions targets, emissions reductions for industrialized nations and an Adaptation Fund to help impoverished communities in developing countries meet the high costs of adapting to their changed climatic conditions.
More personal than online chats, cheaper, and significantly more carbon-neutral than a plane ticket, the environment of a virtual world allowed for exchanges that brought new perspectives and possibilities for public interaction to that conversation.
The audience within OneClimate Island for the Virtual Bali events numbered about a hundred for the largest event, while viewership of the broadcasts of the events on the OneClimate site totaled in the thousands. Participants in the forums logged in from around the world—representing countries that included the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Austria, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Turkey, Australia, Japan, China, the United States and South Africa.
Second Life technology limits the number of participants at one place to 40-70 avatars. Once a gathering reaches 100, the site begins to slow significantly, so traditional metrics are less useful in assessing the success of a Second Life event.
When looking at numbers from the Virtual Bali event, "The qualitative side was a bigger success than the quantitative," OneWorld US CEO Michael Litz said. Those who did participate were highly engaged. The level of debate and discourse was higher than expected, organizers said, which has a far-reaching impact on the types of audiences the project developed.
For example, U.S. Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) had previously been planning to attend the Bali conference, but instead addressed the U.N. gathering through his "avatar" (i.e., his graphical representation in Second Life). This appearance by the Chairman of the House Select Committee on Global Warming on OneClimate Island was also projected live to the delegates and observers gathered at the U.N. conference, an event that drew both press coverage and positive comments from those on location.
Daniel Terdiman, a senior writer at CNETnews.com and author of the book The Entrepreneur's Guide to Second Life, notes, "One way of measuring is seeing people who come back for interactive visits—to come back and visit again and again. They enjoyed it and grab their friends."
Visitors to OneClimate Island could gather at a "virtual conference center" set up as an amphitheater where avatars sat on numbered benches gathered around an outdoor screen. These interviews occurred at specified times throughout the two-week conference. In the wake of Virtual Bali, a group of about 8 to10 meets on OneClimate Island to discuss the issues and learn from each other about the kind of grassroots environmental efforts that are happening around the globe.
By using the emerging technology of Second Life for nonprofit outreach, OneWorld organizers are hoping their efforts will show other non-profits that the virtual world can be an effective tool to draw in new global publics and connect existing ones. By providing online coverage of and access to the event, Virtual Bali also combined both reporting and organizing tactics in a way that challenged traditional norms of journalistic objectivity, increasing access and participation.
Background and Mission
The OneClimate Initiative grew out of the OneWorld UK staff’s belief that climate change should be the highest priority of their center’s work. OneClimate Island and OneClimate.net work in tandem to create both an immediate community and meeting space on Second Life and long-term community development on the social network. There, individuals and groups can store information, policy documents, images, footage, and records of their work. The social network also links to several other OneWorld UK platforms and sites, including the Tiki the Enviro-Penguin site for children aged 7-12; the Climate Change Guide, a reference site for students and educators; and the daily Climate News service.
Vittachi was an early adopter of virtual worlds. She explains that she grasped the potential of Second Life to create transformative experiences when she observed the change in the mood in the room when her team experienced it for the first time on September 1, 2006. She bought their first island that very night.
"It has the potential to really move people. It’s a much more profound, complete and holistic experience than simply reading something linear, like an email," Vittachi says. "My team wanted to work on the social networking site at once and think about the island later. For the first time in the 14 years since we started creating OneWorld, I actually pulled rank and said, ‘The island is it.’ "
"The global meetings on the island go back to the original meaning of media. It’s about ‘mediating’ between global citizens and the people who govern us—it’s a facilitating and democratizing process," she adds. "What we always like to do is to create platforms that are ‘fertile spaces’—emergent spaces that empower people through dialogue."
Susan Tenby, Senior Manager for Online Community Development at TechSoup, has a similar experience with running the Non-profit Commons in Second Life that gives non-profits "storefront" space on an island. "There are real world non-profits, there are real world actions and partnerships that have emerged," she says, noting that "a lot of them may not see the impact from the awareness that they’re building until months later."
The OneClimate area in Second Life launched on September 16, 2006 – becoming the first space dedicated to climate change in the virtual world. They held their first event in November of that year. Following the 2006 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Nairobi, the OneClimate team facilitated a meeting with returning participants on the island, while a group of avatars—logging in from Singapore, France, Croatia and points beyond—gathered to listen and ask questions. "It was pretty rudimentary, but very exciting," Vittachi said.
While Vittachi and Armstrong initially developed the concept for the island, Armstrong eventually took a more hands-on role with the help of two Italian graphic designers he met in Second Life. The island now contains an exhibition area created in partnership with the UK’s environment ministry that shows short videos about what individuals can do to reduce their carbon footprints, and a "house of horrors" that displays the energy costs of various household appliances as an avatar walks through it. Avatars can also test different wind turbines and alter the controls to see their energy outputs at different wind speeds. The simulation demonstrates graphically, for example, that doubling the wind speed of a turbine could mean a ten-fold multiplication of the energy output.
The rest of the OneClimate team jointly developed the social networking element of OneClimate.net. Described as a "Facebook" for climate change, it allows users to connect and share information, and to link organizations together so they can collaborate on environmental issues.
Throughout the following year, they began to experiment by having meetings with others in Second Life. For example, in August 2007, when Vittachi was asked to attend a Women TechLeaders conference in Florida, she attended their conference through OneClimate Island—saving time, money, greenhouse gases "and jetlag!" she notes. "Of course nothing beats meeting face to face," she says. "But in a few years’ time, people are going to realize that they cannot go on flying around the world as they do now. And they will start to explore different kinds of virtual meetings." (The OneWorld staff has a carbon-neutral policy that limits all staff travel.)
So, when the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference came around, OneWorld UK felt the organization was ready to broadcast and interview participants from Bali itself. Despite the thousands of attendees from around the world, OneWorld staffers believed that many of the people interested in and affected by climate change were still being left out. The hundred thousand tons of carbon emissions that attendees would reportedly generate (translating into roughly three times that tonnage in greenhouse gases) was another selling point for the project.
OneClimate staff conducted the interviews from the U.N. conference— a triumph for the team that that took several months of negotiation with the U.N. by Armstrong. Daniel Nelson, OneWorld UK’s editor, and an award-winning veteran journalist, conducted the on-camera interviews. Jeffrey Allen, managing editor for OneWorld US, produced the interviews and handled the technology involved in broadcasting and setting up the Second Life events.
For viewers who could not, or chose not to, enter Second Life, Armstrong devised a way to broadcast the sessions from the OneClimate.net website. Although users could not interact as fully as they could on the island, they could still type in questions for the interviewees. The interviews were also archived on this website for later viewing.
OneWorld UK invested in a promotions coordinator for three months, who helped to ensure the Virtual Bali project was covered by mainstream UK outlets and the blogosphere. Two months after the Virtual Bali event, there were some 1,700 Google links to the event.
OneWorld has been building relationships with partner organizations since its inception and this also helped spread the word. Without these partners in place, the marketing and funding would have been significantly slowed. Vittachi worked with a range of OneWorld centers – for example, with OneWorld South Asia, which spans NGO and grassroots networks in 7 countries (including Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka). "The enthusiasm shown by the community workers in these networks was inspiring," she said. "They were desperate to get the views and voices heard of the people they worked with who were suffering severely as rainfall patterns changed as a result of global warming."
Satu Dunia – OneWorld Indonesia – took a notable role in the collaboration. After Vittachi discussed the consequences of climate change to the people of island nations like Indonesia (which comprises some 3,000 islands) with Satu Dunia’s director Rini Nasution, Nastution helped to form a 25-strong Indonesian network of NGOs all working on climate change, which was given pride of place on the front page of the U.N. conference’s website. The OneClimate team also persuaded Unimondo (OneWorld Italy) and OneWorld Netherlands (OWNL) to visit the Virtual Bali event.
OneWorld is a nonprofit organization. The total investment in the OneClimate Initiative has so far been around $300,000—around half in cash and half in unpaid (voluntary) staff time, according to Vittachi. OneWorld UK had 17, mainly part-time, staff—totaling a fulltime staff equivalent (FTE) of around nine people—five of whom worked intensively on the Virtual Bali project, with two others also contributing to the OneClimate Initiative as a whole.
Two anonymous donors contributed a total of c. $75,000, the Guerrand-Hermes Foundation for Peace gave a $30,000 grant, and individuals contributed a clutch of small, personal donations. A further $10,000 was supplied by the International Institute for Environment and Development and the same again was raised from the Energy Savings Trust, for whom OneWorld UK built a special kiosk on the island.
Cisco Systems, a leading supplier of internet networking equipment, donated the last $40,000. Cisco had been a longstanding supporter of OneWorld UK and is a funder of one of its long-term projects in the global south, so the company was familiar with the way that OneWorld UK works. According to Vittachi, they were briefing their Cisco contact on the progress of their southern work when, almost incidentally, they showed him the OneClimate platforms they were developing. "He was so impressed that, although he had already finished allocating his budget for the year, he scoured every source and by some miracle found more in order to support what we were doing here too," she said.
Vittachi noted that procuring funding for the virtual platform is difficult, not because people don’t like the work OneClimate.net is doing but "because people in big institutions are often nervous it might be seen as frivolous, or they worry that they will be attacked by the mainstream media for taking it seriously, or that the phenomenon of virtual worlds is just a flash in the pan. Not everyone dares to see how important and serious this is—though all the artists we have shown it to get it at once," she said.
"One international academic I spoke to, the president of a global Theater Studies network, immediately understood the significance of the three-dimensionality of the space, the importance of the exaggerated, jester-like hyper-reality of the characters," she continued. "Like Shakespeare’s Fool, the avatars can transgress boundaries, be witty and tricksterish, in order to express what is half-hidden. People need to see that Second Life has metaphorical possibilities like theatre, like opera, like certain kinds of film – you need to see it in terms of experiential arts, not merely in terms of the cerebral communication of flat information."
Other experiments suggest that Second Life holds the potential to create "stickier" connections between users and issues. Peggy Weil, a professor of interactive media at the University of Southern California and filmmaker Nonny de la Peña created the "Gone Gitmo" site in Second Life, where avatars are guided through the experience of being a prisoner in a virtual Guantanamo Bay to learn more about habeas corpus issues.
Weil says that Second Life "allows people to participate in ways that they wouldn't otherwise. It allows more community to form, with that added visual spatial component. It broadens the potential community to a larger global community." Though they are only at the beginning of their project, de la Peña notes that "there's research on identifying with your avatar, people feel an actual physical connection with their avatar," a phenomenon that can leave visitors with a more heightened awareness. "We’re pushing the medium such in a way that your avatar has to go through the experience" of a prisoner, de la Peña says. Their hope is that people will then talk about, and blog about, their experiences there.
OneWorld UK took the lead on the OneClimate project and drew support from several other centers as described above, as well as several key NGO partners, notably the UK’s Climate and Development Working Group (popularly known as the "Up in Smoke" group), including the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), Greenpeace, Oxfam International, ChristianAid, ActionAid, Practical Action, TearFund and the new economics foundation (nef). The OneClimate team also drafted Jeff Allen of OneWorld US in the ramp-up to Virtual Bali.
As part of their core mission, OneWorld works with over 3,500 nonprofit partners that advocate for a variety of issues such as international development, gender equality, children’s issues, and the environment. Staff targeted specific partners to train in the use of Second Life in the hope of getting them involved and excited about Virtual Bali.
The Virtual Bali project targeted and attracted several different (while sometimes overlapping) audiences. This was not just a process of traditional public relations or outreach: The nature of the platforms meant that attendees became active participants. By coming together and forming communities around a shared issue—climate change—these stakeholders demonstrated the role of OneClimate.net and OneClimate Island as public media.
Grassroots Environmentalists: The OneWorld team wanted to give activists and members of affected communities who were not participants at the U.N. conference a chance to be heard and interact with the NGOs, government officials, and other attendees present in Bali. To reach these global citizens, OneWorld targeted environmental groups already established within Second Life, promoting Virtual Bali events such as the daily interviews with participants at the U.N. conference. These groups were not always familiar with OneWorld, but were proficient with the virtual world, and were able to draw in more people through word-of-mouth networking.
Nonprofit staff and volunteers: The nonprofit partners that OneWorld has long-standing relationships with had little experience with the technology of Second Life. For this audience, OneWorld UK held face-to-face training sessions to teach nonprofit staff members the ins and outs of virtual worlds and to encourage participation in the Virtual Bali forum.
Conference attendees: As time went on during the two-week conference, the Virtual Bali booth attracted participants who began to hear more about the project and regard it as a serious enterprise. In this way, participants who stopped by for interviews did begin to see the quality of the questions and the level of discourse that was also taking place outside of the official conference. OneClimate.net and OneWorld’s coverage also served for attendees as an alternative to official and mainstream media coverage of the conference.
Traditional Media and Bloggers: Bloggers took an interest in the innovation that the Virtual Bali project represented, and OneWorld UK also reached out to its partners who have blogs and to the sites that take an interest in climate change.
Outreach to traditional media included press releases, but the project received little coverage in mainstream press until Rep. Markey’s involvement sparked the media’s interest. At that point, mainstream media began to take more of an interest – and some moved beyond noting Second Life as a gimmick and treated it as a serious undertaking, with a Financial Times columnist even suggesting that delegates consider participating in the next conference through a virtual world.
Audience: Attracting an audience to an online event requires at least as much marketing and outreach as bringing people to a real-world event does. The OneClimate team had to learn quickly about a new audience segment and reach out to them. Organizers were tasked with finding Second Life journalists, contacting Second Life environmental groups, and using other grassroots organizing techniques within a new medium, as well as working with conventional media and organizations. One advantage OneWorld found during the Virtual Bali event was that the daily series allowed the audience to grow as time went on, spurred by word-of-mouth both at the conference and online.
Digital Divide: While the goal of Virtual Bali was to bring as many people as close to the Bali talks as possible, the organizers realized that much of the world would still be shut out because of the technology required to access Second Life. Access to a modern computer, broadband internet service, and a download of the Second Life software are required to access the virtual world – as is an understanding of the interface, which many find challenging, and a tolerance for disconnects. While these barriers to entry were a concern, OneWorld believed that the project broke down many of the walls that existed for access to the U.N. discussions in that it did not require attendees’ physical presence in Bali or expensive video-conferencing equipment.
But most importantly, the interactive nature of the online environment allowed for unprecedented communication both with the participants at the conference and among the activists logging in through Second Life. The Second Life experience allowed users to ask questions of activists, journalists, and other participants at the U.N. conference such as Marita Hutjes from Oxfam, Dominic MacCormack from SustainUS, Shruti Shukla from WWF India, and Diana Duarte from MADRE. And OneWorld UK also created avenues for submitting questions via chat, a less cumbersome technological challenge. Vittachi is a blue-sky optimist about digital divide criticisms. Criticism about the use of advanced technology such as Second Life resembles "things people said to us 10-15 years ago when we were working on the net," Vittachi says. "We were told the Internet would never spread beyond a few elites and geeks in the richest northern countries."
Yet Second Life currently does require a high-level of technical know-how and updated computer equipment.
Rik Panganiban, the Second Life Producer for the Online Leadership Program at Global Kids and the author of "Best Practices for Nonprofits in Second Life", noted, "It still requires a fast internet connection, a modern computer, and tech savvy to figure out how to get around."
Vittachi suggests that these difficulties will be overcome soon. "You have to see the issue with fresh eyes. And then you can see that they could use mobile phones instead of desktops—as millions of impoverished people now do," she says. "By 2011, according to some net researchers, 80 percent of the people now using the net will be using virtual worlds of some kind. That is only 3 years away. Once China comes on-stream with ‘metaverses’ strong enough to take hundreds of millions of avatars� who knows how fast all these obstacles will melt away?"
The interface, however, can be especially difficult for new users. "There’s probably a large percentage of people who try Second Life who give up after a few weeks, it just doesn’t make sense to them. That’s probably not going to change over the near future," Panganiban adds. Although he believes the technology is headed in the direction of projects like Virtual Bali. "Could you imagine doing that with hundreds of people to follow the G-8? I think its possible, it think that’s where the technology is going."
Skepticism: News coverage of Virtual Bali was mixed, with some news reports outright cynical about some parts of the project—one story referred to Rep. Markey’s avatar as a "cartoon".
Similarly, many traditional philanthropic and nonprofit organizations have been slow to join OneWorld in embracing the idea of using virtual platforms in their sector. This requires OneWorld to be out in front of the movement to integrate virtual worlds into the non-profit sector, experimenting with successes and failures on their own.
- Forming publics: A core group of about 5 to 15 people from around the world now meet regularly in OneClimate.net’s Second Life space for a "Susty (Sustainable) Thursday" conversation by the beach, led by Presidio School of Management graduate student Jessica Williams and often joined by members of OneWorld UK. This gives organizers an ear to the ground about grassroots environmental issues in places from Canada to Turkmenistan. This group is an example of a convened public, or as Litz puts it, "They are global citizens who give a damn."
- Setting an example: The Second Life/virtual world platform has now been proven to be effective as a way of bringing stakeholders together to discuss ideas about social issues. OneWorld is hoping to serve as a model for other nonprofits to use this platform.
- Generating buzz: The novelty of the use of Second Life, especially Rep. Ed Markey’s speech, brought significant media coverage to the project. The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Financial Times, Reuters, the London Times and the Times of India, and CNN’s Larry King Live were some of the major media outlets to mention the Second Life component of OneWorld’s coverage of the event. Others pointed out the unusual gathering of people the virtual world allowed. Agence France-Presse reported: "The website has brought together everyone from a US congressman, who traveled virtually as a 3-D animation, to anonymous participants hailing from Japan to Turkmenistan and Romania." The ability of people to create outlandish costumes for their avatars even resulted in delegates answering questions from squirrels and birds. The Guardian Unlimited gave voice to the excitement felt by many of the delegates discovering the virtual world set up by OneWorld in Second Life. "There has also been a genuine buzz around OneClimate activities, as virtual delegates experience this new form of communicating."
- Attracting online coverage: In the virtual world, Second Life’s blog – New World Notes – featured the Virtual Bali project, and a video created by Bernhard Drax was picked up by Second Life television show Life4U. Indymedia, Oxfam, Rikomatic.com, and tech.blorge.com were among the blog sites talking up the OneClimate Island events.
Blog coverage is particularly important in assessing the impact of a Second Life project. As Terdiman points out, "It’s a community that’s got a disproportionate number of bloggers," so one way to judge how people are reacting to a project is to "see whether bloggers are writing about it."
- Potential for Second Life’s Impact on Climate Change: Several outlets made note of the fact that Virtual Bali itself was in keeping with the theme of preventing climate change. A Reuters report pointed out the environmental impact of working virtually: "Instead of jetting over to Bali for climate talks, Edward Markey (a Democrat from Massachusetts) will use a 3-D animated version of himself to address the conference at 9.30 am on Wednesday Bali time. It is estimated Markey will save 5.36 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by doing this."
OneWorld plans to use Second Life again at the next two upcoming U.N. climate change conferences—in Poland in December 2008 and in Denmark in December 2009 —as well as planning standalone events like the InterAction meeting, and possible global conferences in Burkina Faso on conditions for African farmers, and in Northern Italy on women’s solidarity. The organization is also discussing a series of "Virtual Round Tables" aimed at bringing together leaders such as Rep. Markey and his counterparts from around the world to discuss global topics. They will focus on climate change and climate justice and will aim to represent diverse voices.
As OneWorld makes these plans, the organization hopes other nonprofits and NGOs will also begin to use the platform.
OneWorld’s innovation with Second Life paid off in the eyes of Vittachi and Armstrong by connecting concerned but distant individuals with delegates to the U.N. climate change conference. The virtual island that OneWorld set up allowed individuals to meet each other and discuss climate change issues while at the same time giving them new agency to reach international officials and environmental activists who were on the ground at the U.N. conference. And reciprocally, it offered participants at the conference a chance to see how people are thinking about the issue beyond the confines of NGO and government agencies.
While the numbers of participants were not large by a real-world scale, Virtual Bali has paved the way for the use of Second Life in a series of upcoming climate and development conferences. This could serve as both a communications pipeline for nonprofits to connect with and an organizing model for advocates coalescing around issues besides climate change.
OneWorld has an advantage in being able to maneuver nimbly in response to emerging technologies. Its experiment with Virtual Bali and the resulting press coverage, the connections made, and the revelations about the publics following climate change issues, suggest that such experimentation opens up new opportunities for nonprofits and public media projects to engage new audiences and reenergize existing ones.
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