What does it mean for a famous real world figure to enter Second Life as an avatar, and what value does it bring to either world? Those are still contentious questions, and after covering several such appearances this year, along with helping host several others, I have to say it varies from person to person. The logistics of making the event happen at all are nightmarish, especially if it requires step-by-step, in-person handholding for someone who has little prior experience with computer games. (And how many major personalities in arts and letters, let alone academia, politics, or business, will cop to being a gamer?)
At its most ideal, you have someone like Lawrence Lessig, who was instrumental in the development of Second Life itself, and whose appearance led to a lasting presence in the community-- in his case, through the creation of a Creative Commons headquarters in Second Life, with regular events and even more in-world appearances. (Which, full disclosure, I subsequently became a regular consultant to.)
Things don't usually work out that way, however. When the staff of Governor Mark Warner first contacted me last summer, their intent was to make his first appearance in Second Life a warm-up for a series of regular events, both by him and his political action committee, creating a kind of virtual world meet-up which could potentially become a small but passionate base of supporters throughout the country. The appearance itself provoked a slew of outside media coverage, and for a few surreal weeks, it seemed like the press was more interested in talking about the Governor's avatar, then his, you know, potential bid for the US Presidency.
Reality interceded when the Governor dropped out of that race. That plus the limited attendance of the event-- held on a single sim, it was confined to some fifty Residents and members of the press-- led some to suggest the whole thing had been a gimmick. I tend to disagree there, because even apart from the novelty value which brought the big media, the blogged transcript of the event (where he spoke on several important policy issues) has been read tens of thousands of times. (Perhaps as much an audience, say, as a speech aired on CSPAN.) But would there be just as much interest in a second appearance? Probably not. But if you look at the longtail of political campaiging in the Web 2.0 era, where individual blog entries and YouTube videos are generally read and seen by a relative few, but culminate as an aggregate into a potent democratic force, you have to wonder What Might Have Been.
Appearances by real world figures have become so frequent, they've already generated two schools of thought on the best way to conduct them. My preference is to keep them as immersive as possible, so that the avatar interacts as any other Resident normally would-- for example, to eschew a streaming audio interview, preferring text-based chat operated by the person the avatar represents. Others opt for a realistic avatar combined with a streaming audio conversation with the actual person-- even if this means a disembodied voice emanating seemingly from everywhere, while the person is only represented in-world by a motionless or puppeteered avatar. This does has its advantages, to be sure, especially when the voice is the person's most important quality, as with Suzanne Vega.
But while I didn't attend the subsequent event, I have to wonder if Kurt Vonnegut's streamed audio-plus-avatar appearance in Second Life provided more value than a standard radio interview would bring.
Fortunately, when it comes to an author appearance, the essence is the written word (and the virtual autograph), which is why, for NWN Book Club events, I personally put more value not in the actual event, with its crosschat and confusing digressions and irrelevant server announcements, but in the edited transcript that's produced afterward. As with Julian Dibbell:
... and with Chris Anderson:
At its very best (for me at least) the interview is as strange and unpredictable as the world itself, and in the emergent wackiness, you learn something crucial about the person behind the avatar. Or as William Patry, a senior lawyer with Google, put it:
The interview with Judge Posner... is a window into why Judge Posner is our country's most exciting legal figure: his curiosity and willingness to take the time to personally be involved in and learn about cutting edge of issues is awe inspiring. Being in Second Life isn't a matter of opening a book or writing an article; it involves a mastery of a new technology and the rules of a distinct community. It is a testament to Judge Posner's eternal youth that he has done so.
So it is, as reflected in the record: a profoundly influential jurist fast approaching 70 received a world of fireballs and talking raccoons with an engaged curiousity and playful willingness not just to willingly suspend disbelief, but swim in it.
Senator Obama, I hope to meet your avatar here in 2007.