Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Wizards of Whyville

Still think virtual worlds don't (nor can) matter much in the real world? Think again. Not all virtual worlds are created equal. Just ask any 12-year-old if he or she has ever been to Whyville.

Odds are, that kid is one of the 3.5 million "tweens" aged 8 to 14 who spend, on average, at least a few hours a week on this 9- year-old virtual reality site--and has likely been doing so for years. Whyvillian Andy109, for example, has visited the site 2,304 times since he first registered on April 7, 2000. That's almost a rate of one visit per day for the past seven years, says Whyville cofounder Jim Bower, 55, the Caltech science professor who led the development of Whyville in 1999 and still runs the place. (I caught up with Bower this past week at this year's Digital Now conference in Orlando, where we were both presenting workshops on new trends in social media. Bower, aka "Super Id" in Whyville--a moniker for which he is famous among tweens--tells me that some 23% of all kids aged 6-17 already have a login in the virtual world, and that by 2011, that figure will more than double.)

But Bower and his cause-wired community of kids are just getting started, with a number of them now organizing clothing drives for the poor in Whyville, or waging nutritional action campaigns to fight anorexia and obesity among teens on and offline--based largely on what they've learned about economics, nutrition, and project planning in Whyville.

And don't be surprised if that 12-year-old you know also builds (or rents) a house in Whyville. Or drives a car there. Or is managing a virtual business--complete with employees, a payroll, and revenues to fuss over. Some even write for the Whyville Times (the virtual newspaper) about real-world social issues. When McDonald's first came out with its new line of salads to offer healthier fare, a Whyville Times reporter scooped the mainstream media a week later with a story proving that the line's nutritional value was as sparse as that of a Big Mac. "CNN did the story two weeks later," Bower says.

But what's really making cause advocates and organizational leaders take notice of Whyville is that it keeps maturing, expanding, and innovating--and with a cohesiveness and sophistication quite unlike other virtual worlds on the Internet so far.

Whyville is global. Kids log in from Afghanistan, India, China, Europe, South America, as well as from all over the United States. They share what's common among them more than their differences, Bower says. "In Whyville, kids mostly learn from each other about the impact of their actions on themselves--but they do so first in cyberspace, where the educational activities offered can promote socially responsible behavior," Bower says. ( Violating the community's basic rules of behavior, for example, can lead to a "muting" -- not being able to interact on the site for anywhere from 1-3 days.)

Not everyone is enamoured with Whyville: Some say Bower is building a cyberspace version of a "company town" -- controlled from the top and vulnerable to the whims of its creators. Bower, a passionate advocate for educational reform, vehemently counters by saying the site strikes a careful balance between self-government and adult "judicial" oversight to keep peace--not unlike a functioning democratic community anywhere. Better Whyville's participatory, grassroots "government" than no governance at all, he says.

A growing roster of organizations, schools, and corporations, meanwhile, are beginning to accept Bower's invitation to develop collaborative projects so that the learning can go both ways. (The U.K.'s EMI Music company, for example, has expressed interest in working with Bower to "build" a virtual recording studio in Whyville that would enable kids to write their own music, record it, and sell it to fellow Whyvillians for the site's virtual currency, called "clams.") Whyville's physical-world partners additionally include the National Science Foundation, The Getty art museum, Penguin Books, Scholastic, Toyota, Stanford University, and NASA--in all, 14 major national brands, eight nonprofit organizations, five governmental agencies, and six universities.

Says Bauer: "Virtual worlds do work, and have the potential to be the learning labs driving real change and more socially responsible behavior in the real world for decades to come."

Want to hear more? Tune into an interview with Bower aired by the Podcast Network. Here's that podcast.

What do you think?

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Smart Mobs

In his 2003 book, Smart Mobs, futurist Howard Rheingold predicted the next social revolution would be triggered by the ubiquity of mobile phones. Their ability to send text messages, photographs, videos, and other instant data directly to a computer, he predicted, would give people a powerful new way to organize themselves on the fly, battle social ills as they are happening and ultimately transform cultures and reshape communities—for better or worse.

Rheingold's glimpse of the future is now—and is being promoted by a rising new crop of mobile activists like Katrin Verclas, cofounder and editor of, a months-old Web site and community of about 8,000 people and NGOs from around the world. Verclas will be hosting a conference in Tokyo this fall to further promote the use of the technology and to "connect people and mobilize them for change," she says. Verclas estimates that about 80% of the world has cellphone coverage, and more than half of the global population has a cellphone—or has access to one. "We're at a critical time," she told me, " and 2009 will be the tipping point."

One recent example of where so-called smart mobs have already made a difference involves the National Democratic Institute, the U.S.-based nonprofit that promotes democracy abroad and sends volunteers to monitor polling places for corruption in potentially problematic democratic elections. A vote in Sierra Leone last August almost collapsed amid rumors of violence (also spread through text messages)—but order was quickly restored when some 500 NDI observers at the various polling places sent text messages to the central system saying that the rumors were false.

Cellphone activism is just getting started. Corruption will become even harder to hide as mobile phones improve their capacity as cameras able to capture police brutality, government corruption, or corporate crime as it occurs. The recent crackdown by Myanmar's junta on its Buddhist monks may not have been covered as widely had it not been for phone-toting witnesses who sent photos and videos of the uprising past censors to global broadcast networks and news outlets. "Mobile phones can get around the censorship controls that governments have been able to put on the Internet so far," Verclas says.

But the mobile-action movement is not only about playing the game of "gotcha." According to a recent story in The Economist magazine, shoppers in South Africa can now text-message the name of a fish to a service called FishMS and get an instant recommendation to "tuck in" or "think twice" about eating it, based on information telling how the fish was caught and whether the species is endangered. Similarly, the magazine reported, Londoners can now text a service called AirTEXT to get real-time data on air quality and alerts when pollution is spiking.

But will this increasingly cause-wired mainstream always work the upside? At a recent conference I attended at Oxford University, I asked Verclas about the odds that not-so-smart (or not-so-benevolent) mobs with cellphones could form surveillance squads or commit random snooping.

"Sure it could happen," she acknowledged. "But I figure it's an arms race. Better to have a wired version of a neighborhood watch out there to combat those who want to steal the civil liberties and freedoms and privacy of others. Mobile phones are empowering. With mobile phones, you have the choice to fight back."

What do you think?

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Pangea Day

At the Skoll Foundation's annual think-fest for social entrepreneurs at Oxford University a few weeks ago, Ken Brecher, a social anthropologist and executive director of the Sundance Institute—organizers of the annual Sundance film festival—defined good storytelling as an increasingly powerful tool for social change globally. "...Storytelling is the refusal to be laid low, incapacitated; it helps us to understand the meaning of things, not simply the value...The purpose of a good storytelling," he said, "is to assist us all to understand and to operate in the open and not wildly in the dark."

To be sure, documentary film—images, captured words, sounds—is the premier art form in today's globalizing world, Brecher believes: it is the medium of the moment. "At any one time," he says, "there is only one art form that is speaking. Once it was dance, then it was poetry, then the short story. Today it is film, and it feels to me that we need to make that connection now if we really want to see change happen in the world."

Indeed. This blog, Cause Global, is a new blog—one that will cover this art form-of-the-moment and the connections it makes (and attempts to make) globally. Ultimately, this blog will track some of the news and ideas and people in today's world who are seeking to use social media to to make a difference, affect change, and use the Web to make solutions to common social problems profitable—and real. Why this? I'm a journalist, and for me it's all about covering the unlikely alliances and conversations that serve as catalysts to social change and problem-solving around common challenges. Storytelling is a big part of today's social change movement—one that packs the emotional resonance to cut through the noise of everyday media. "In storytelling," says Brecher, "you have to incline the ears of your heart."

Storytelling moves to the masses this spring with Pangea Day, documentary filmmaker Jenhane Noujaim's 2006 TED Festival dream-come-true. Noujaim, whose 2004 film, Control Room, exposed the divergent ways Arabs and the West covered the onset and outbreak of the Iraq war, is one of the catalysts behind this spring's globally-produced Pangea Day, scheduled for May 10. The live event is planned as a simulcast of films, speakers, and music; sites in Cairo, Kigali, London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro will be linked live that day to produce a 4-hour program, which will air on the Internet, television, digital cinemas, and mobile phones.

Raised in both Egypt and the United States, Noujaim says her aim is to explore culture as a driving force for both conflict and possibility. "I want to use the power of film to bridge gaps between people," she says. "...How are people supposed to communicate with each other globally...or move together into the future...when their stories aren't being told?"

What do you think? Check out the official trailer for Pangea Day HERE.

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