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  • Writer's pictureJena Ball

I recently had the opportunity and pleasure of presenting at the Association of Blended Learning conference where I spoke about what it means to be an avatar and how creating, identifying with, and having experiences as an avatar can affect how we see ourselves and our world.

The process of preparing for the presentation was informative and eye-opening. I was reminded once again of how much I've learned by being an avatar. I hope you'll take a few minutes to watch the presentation and share your thoughts and experiences.

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  • Writer's pictureJena Ball

"By what reason or justice does the rain weep its joy?" - Pablo Neruda

Never have I felt more alive, more present, more myself. I am standing naked atop a rocky outcrop as the sky darkens with water soaked clouds. The ozone infused air is gathering strength, inhaling and exhaling in explosive gusts that nearly knock me off my feet. As I lean into the wind, the sky ignites with lightning and the first warm, wet drops plop against my skin.

Laughter and sudden tears open my heart. I'd forgotten what it was like to meet the Earth head on with nothing between us - nothing to disguise the fact that we are both the miraculous results of the universe at play.

I lift my arms over my head and shout. There's no one to hear - no one to tell me to keep my voice down or mock me as I hop and stomp and spin in dizzying circles with the storm egging me on.

Yes, I am computer generated, my pixels dancing on a virtual boulder created from mesh. But I am also the child who escaped my mother's notice at the age of five and sneaked out of the house to greet a storm wearing only my birthday suit and flip flops; the summer intern caught in an unexpected thunder storm huddling beneath a tree that was hit by lightning years ago, praying that lightning won't strike twice. And I am the older, though not necessarily wiser daughter sitting by a hospital bed watching the sky darken as she waits for her mother to awaken from surgery.

In my avatar I have found a link - a trail of pixelated breadcrumbs back to myself - back to raw, unfinished, unedited memories that remind me that I am someone who feels a deep and visceral connection to the planet - someone who loves with abandon and grieves with unexpected ferocity. I am grateful.

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  • Writer's pictureJena Ball

Update in the Middle of a Pandemic: I should probably know better by now. This is the second letter of its kind I've written to the CEOs of Linden Lab over the years. I have also met and had what I thought were intelligent and encouraging conversations with 3 of those CEOs about the educational, creative, and money making potential presented by Second Life (see below). However "The Lab" has continued to make decisions that actually make it harder for residents to use the platform. The source code and graphics engine are a mess, problems that have been identified and acknowledged by SL employees languish unfixed, and those whose lives could really really be improved by using SL are basically ignored. In the middle of a global pandemic, when alternatives to traditional education classrooms, meeting places, and support systems are desperately needed, you would think that Linden Lab would be looking for ways to empower its users.

I personally, would love to be working on immersive, interactive training programs for educational institutions and businesses. If you agree, consider sending your own letter to Ebbe Altberg.

Ebbe Altberg, CEO Linden Lab

945 Battery Street

San Francisco, CA 94111

Dear Ebbe:

Welcome aboard our ship of dreams. I hope you’ll forgive me for taking so long to drop you a line. I knew you’d be busy putting faces to names and untangling the snarl of “best-laid plans” left by your predecessors. I picture you hunched over a desk drawer, sorting through the contents, looking for some common thread - an encryption key perhaps or a ghost of the founder’s vision.

I wonder how you’ll make sense of all that stuff – find a way to look past the numbers and projections to what Second Life™ itself has to say about its future. Personally, I’m not big on numbers, though I’d never tell you not to crunch, munch and otherwise manipulate them to help you understand your job. I just know that one person sharing a compelling story has the ability to capture hearts and minds, and that Second Life™ is the most powerful platform for storytelling I’ve ever encountered.

What if instead of being so concerned about the number of users, you focused on improving the tools content creators need to tell their stories? What if you saw avatars as nodes in a giant network and each avatar's story as a thread being woven into the fabric of our collective life? Isn’t that how true success and sea change happen – one person, one story, one imagination at a time?

The good news is that Second Life™ is full of storytellers and content creators of all kinds. I think of it as a living, breathing, fermenting brew of ideas that is constantly bubbling with possibility. The bad news is that it’s almost impossible for us all to stay in touch with one another. One of my biggest frustrations is that I have no reliable and efficient way to find and experience others’ work. Instead, and quite ironically, I am forced to use clumsy and time consuming tools outside SL to keep abreast of what people are doing.

But I’m not writing to chastise you about a problem you inherited and undoubtedly know about already. Instead, I’d like to weigh in on a topic that I believe lies at the center of the debate about the value and future of virtual worlds in general and Second Life™ in particular. There are those who argue Second Life is just a business and as such we – its users – are simply customers, consumers of a product. As such, we have no right to complain about or expect to have a say in the decisions Linden Lab makes about that business. Our only power lies in our buying power – our ability to refuse to consume. I couldn’t disagree more.

Second Life™ is not a quaint phenomenon, game or toy. It is a step in human evolution and communication – a way for us to safely expand and explore what it means to be human – to experience ourselves and express our creativity in ways that simply are not possible in physical space.

To give you a simple but profound example, let’s talk about Nick Dupree. In Second Life™ Nick is known as Namav Abramovic – a camel trader by profession. I first met Nick while volunteering to help the disabled get into SL. Nick was the one who recruited me. He was passionate about the subject and trained me well. So well that it was weeks before I thought to ask anyone why he typed so slowly. “Oh, I thought you knew,” the person I asked replied. “Nick has Muscular Dystrophy and he’s on a ventilator 24/7. The only part of his body he can move is his thumb.” To say I was stunned was an understatement. But that discovery was only the start of my education.

Over the next two years I watched as the Second Life™ community rallied around Nick, raising the money needed to move him from a private home in the rural south, where he was being cared for by his mother and grandmother, to New York. Not only did Nick make the move successfully – always a challenge for someone who cannot breathe for himself – but he met the woman who became his wife in his first and Second Life as well.

Nick’s story is dramatic, but it is by no means the only one that illustrates the power and importance of virtual worlds. The largest and most versatile of virtual worlds, Second Life™ is much more than a money-making endeavor. Whether intentional or not, its founders stumbled upon a way to literally give human beings second lives. In doing so, they also empowered them to dream – providing the freedom and tools to examine and re-imagine what it means to be human. The implications, both for financial success and problem solving are mind boggling. So too, I would argue, is the responsibility. In order to experience and embrace all that their Second Lives have to offer, its residents must feel empowered and have the ability to help shape, direct and change their world. Moreover, they are doing much much more than simply consuming your services. They are creating your product, your world, as well.

My question to you is, how can you build a living, responsive infrastructure that will support the growth and creative output – both in SL and back out to the larger world? This is an especially compelling question in these unprecedented times when physical interactions can be deadly. Meeting and collaborating as avatars is an ideal and potentially transformative way to empower, console, and support one another. Here's my wish list:

  • Think entertainment, education and innovation not real estate

  • Invest in the platform - fix what’s broken

  • Expand and enhance creative tools

  • Engage the community before making changes

  • Be systematic and consistent when making changes

  • Encourage, promote, and reward content creation

  • Help export content to the world at large so that Second Life no longer exists in a bubble

If I had to distill it all down into a simple bit of advice I would say, "Be a keeper and enabler of dreams Ebbe, and the rest will follow."

All the best,

Jena Ball/Jenaia Morane

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