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Class 7: Online Communities and Relationships

November 14, 2019

Gentle Heron and the Virtual Ability Island community hosted our class this week.

Visiting an active community in Second Life is a privilege and always an interesting and informative experience. Gentle Heron, the founder of Virtual Ability Island, hosted us along with residents James Heartsong, Sullen Heartsong, Dorie Bernstein and Eme Capalini.

Gentle told us of the founding of the community and the necessity for such an organisation. She started by explaining that they usually communicate with voice and text because there are deaf and blind community members. Gentle was an educational researcher before retiring due to multiple sclerosis. Virtual Ability (VAI) is an international cross-disability peer support community of over 1,000 members. People in the community come from six continents and may have a physical, mental, emotional, development or sensory disability, with many having multiple disabilities. Because it is sometimes important to communicate with someone who understands and ‘gets’ your concerns, your language and point of view, the community offers peer-to-peer support and education. However, the community does not live in isolation – it is not a virtual ‘leper colony’ – and about a quarter of the members do not (yet) have disabilities. They are referred to as TABs, temporarily able bodied. They may be a parent, spouse, child or friend of a person with a disability; a professional or non-professional caregiver; an academic researcher; medical professional; or an educator. The community has been in SL for over 11 years and won the first Linden Prize in 2009 for a project that has ‘a tangible impact on the real world’. It is also one of the original Community Gateways into SL authorised by Linden Lab. So, it is well recognised beyond its own community.

VAI is supported in virtual worlds by a US nonprofit corporation, Virtual Ability Inc, to assist people with all kinds of disabilities enter and thrive in virtual worlds like SL. Virtual Ability offers educational and entertainment activities daily and encourages member to explore all that SL has to offer. Some of the most popular activities are campfire chats and dances. Healthinfo Island focuses not on disability and impairment but on health and wellness. There are educational exhibits and displays, a pavilion listing research opportunities and the Path of Support which gives information about the more than 120 disability support communities that have been identified in SL so far. On Cape Able there is an art gallery and Cape Serenity hosts a library. Both gallery and library offers only works created by persons with disabilities.

Although a community, VAI is not based on geographical proximity nor cultural homogeneity. It embraces diversity and recognised that people with disabilities form the largest minority group in the world, while being the most varied. This requires a group value of respect and accommodation. Members form both close and informal relationships and the group promotes mutual support. Potential new members are asked what the community can do for them and what they can do for the community. The emphasis in on Ability rather than DISabilty.

Gentle referred to the nine elements and three principles of digital citizenship that are outlined in the reading material for this week’s class, suggesting that they apply to virtual community membership. VAI involves members in various projects and encourages them to stretch their capabilities. The community also enforces standards of virtual world etiquette while helping members understand their rights and live up to their responsibilities. This is not always simple. Sometimes the needs of community members conflict. For instance, some cannot type because they are paralysed, others cannot read due to dyslexia or blindness, and others are deaf and cannot hear. Therefore, communication often requires an intermediary, either technological or human.

The community educates beyond itself through two annual conferences. The beginning of the month saw the 8th Annual International Disability Rights Affirmation Conference.

Gentle asked the other members of VAI to introduce themselves and students to type their questions into local chat.

Suellen Heartsong helps the estate managers and supports conferences and events by voicing for those who need that help. She is also editor of the VAI Facebook page She is able to do things in SL like dancing and being a DJ that she could not do in RL and also met her now RL husband in SL.

James Heartsong is a US Army Veteran whose disabilities include MS and PTSD (from both military and civilian tragedies). He found SL after reading an article in an MS magazine suggesting that good peer support was available but was completely lost in the large world that is SL. Luckily, he met Gentle and was welcomed into the community. He also met his wife in SL and brought her to VAI. They eventually met in RL and have now been together almost seven years.

Dorie Bernstein’s avatar is a black wolf. She joined SL over 14 years ago looking for an early community of autistic individuals but never made it to their island instead finding a home at Dreams, a community started by The Sojourner. She was a speech/language pathologist who discovered that learning to use SL helped with her recovery from strokes. She was also raising an autistic son. Dorie now runs Dreams and is getting more involved with VAI. This gives her a safe place to socialise while creating and learning new skills. Her current leadership position pushes her outside her comfort zone on a near-daily basis but is as rewarding as it is challenging.

Eme Capalini has been in SL for 12 years and works for VAI creating virtual environments for the community and and for its real life clients. She finds virtual worlds a great way to connect with others socially and to engage in research.

The questions from the class came in rapidly! LouHug wondered about how safe it felt meeting somebody from SL in RL. Suellen responded that as a retired 911 supervisor she was able to do a good background check on James in advance. It is important to be as careful and responsible as possible when moving from SL to RL. Dorie added that her mom and stepdad met in a comquserve chartroom in 1995!

John told of a former participant in the module who met their partner during the final presentation of the group project and they have since become engaged. MsBenediction noted that she might not share that story with her boyfriend.

Kebab asked about finding suitable members for the community. Gentle replied that people now find VAI rather than the other way around. It is a closed group so people must apply to join. The community needs to be wary of devotees who prey on PWDs (People With Disabilities) or those who pretend to have a disability and want to role-play. So newcomers are invited to visit for a few months so that their suitability can be tested.

ChataMari wondered why VAI chose SL as a platform to connect with others. Gentle said as the largest and most active SL was the best choice.

John reluctantly drew the discussion to a close as James said he was just getting warmed up. Thanking Gentle and friends for their generosity and time he noted that students had been welcomed at VAI for many years now and TU Dublin is very appreciative of the continuing engagement.

John offered an invitation to everyone from the community to join next week’s class when guest speaker Glenn Loughran (aka Joseph Jacotot) will lead what promises to be a very interesting discussion on the 1973 short-story The One’s Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K Le Guin.

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Class 6: My Avatar and Me – virtual identities

November 7, 2019

Who’s who in the digital environment and how do we know? The question posed by Locks Aichi in this week’s class.

Locks Aichi started the discussion by asking us ‘Who are you?’ She qualified it by suggesting we could respond as our avatars or our real selves. All the replies were short and to the point with some of you giving your avatar names and others your class name or the subject you are studying.

Locks continued by asking us to consider the pieces of data that make up your identities in the virtual space and this produces a range of replies:

  • what you post on your feed
  • putting out a reflection of yourself
  • in SL you can choose how to display yourself – the visual aspect makes it different from the limitations of text-based social media apps
  • the Green Team noted their decision to share a single identity as dogs. (Is that your only identity? Is there anything beyond the pack?)
  • Exposing your identity
  • recalling Sitearms comments a few weeks ago you suggested that people can create different personas
  • present differently online from how you are in RL
  • present the best part of yourself.

It was suggested that social media provides a curated or crafted version of yourself, it also presents the highlights of your life. In RL we are so used to reading body language that it can be harder to hide aspects of yourself than it is online, which provides the opportunity to be more deceptive, perhaps.

Then Locks asked ‘Who owns your digital identity?’ You thought that there is much less privacy now than before – we tend to be more open and post everything that we do. We don’t really have privacy.

In RL who owns you? Nobody. Why is it different in the digital space? In the early days of social media we frequently heard the aphorism

if you are not paying for a service you are probably the product.

Data is sometimes referred to as the ‘new oil’ because of how valuable it can be. How often do we read the terms and conditions before signing up for an app or a service? Do we take the time to understand what data we are handing over? In Europe GDPR legislation (General Data Protection Regulation) has come about to protect our data. Organisations are not permitted to hold our data without permission, nor are they entitled to use it for any purpose other than the one for which we have given explicit permission. It also gives us the right to be forgotten – digitally.

By not making a choice we are actually making the decision to give our personal data away. If you share too much without giving consideration to the consequences it makes it harder to shape your online or virtual identity later. So, for instance, Locks made the decision to use her twitter account solely for professional purposes. It is not possible to glean anything of her personal life from it.

Do you think about the shape of your digital life: socially, personally, professionally?

LouHug said that he posts less online now than he used to two years ago – part of the reason for this is that he doesn’t want to appear foolish in front of his kids later on in life. Others suggested that you could use multiple accounts for different personas and/or purposes.

Locks suggested that it is becoming more difficult to live outside the digital world. So much commercial transactions are now carried on digitally that it has become necessary to link digital identity with our real world identities. For example, banking legislation is increasingly resisting anonymity to ensure trust and reliability and to counteract laundering and other illegal activity. The data trail is now becoming an asset.

Locks asked us to take five minutes to think about how you would present yourself as a professional online and post your response in 140 characters or less. When you had all posted your responses in local chat she asked how you had made the decision about what information to share?

  • started writing about the future but then reverted to describing the present
  • gave abilities rather than personal details
  • personal perspective – tried to look at it from a client’s perspective
  • professional – present as diligent, dedicated, reliable and experienced in team work
  • professional but with one personal trait for balance
  • look like the best professional possible
  • factual

Virtual identity is something you create. Given time and careful curation it can become a valuable asset. So, for instance, if somebody retires from an organisation their profile may well remain. The identity is transferrable – it has become a quantifiable asset. Therefore, we are now seeing an increasing interest in laws around privacy, intellectual property and ownership of digital assets.

Impersonation is also a greater problem because it can be easier to present a false identity in the digital environment. Hence the rise of accredited identities such as the blue tick used by Twitter, although the service has been put on hold.

All of this underlines the importance of trust in the digital landscape. You should decide what you are trying to achieve with your online digital or virtual identity and allow that to guide your approach to developing it.

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Class 5: From Hammer to Pixel

October 24, 2019

Dudley Dreamscape led the class discussion on Marshall McLuhan.

This week we were joined by Dudley Dreamscape who led the class discussion about the influence of Marshall McLuhan on our thinking about digital media, online and virtual environments in the 21st Century. Introducing Dudley, John noted that along with Sitearm Madonna, he had a perfect score when he participated in the module some years ago. Not surprising, perhaps, for a communications professor at the University of Akron! Also joining the class was a fellow graduate of Dudley’s, Inish Karu who had a reputation as a fearsome SL pirate but, judging from her current avatar, has since mellowed somewhat.

Inish Karu, who participated in the module with Dudley some years ago.

After introducing McLuhan’s basic ideas to the class Dudley asked you to consider how they might be interpreted today. His remarkable prescience was noted – he foresaw the internet 35 years before it was developed – describing the transformation of our disconnected 20th Century world in a Global Village facilitated through an electronic nervous system. Of course all tools developed by humans can be used for good or ill. You gave many examples of the downside of our always-on society and the attention-grabbing power of connected devices. This can lead to the  echo chamber effect whereby our sphere of understanding and experience shrinks as the dissenting voices are silenced or eliminated.

Dudley explained McLuhan’s belief that while humans develop tools to help us with our tasks the same tools change us and our society. It is difficult to predict the type of change that will come about therefore vigilance is crucial. That is why it is so important not to overlook the medium while digesting the message. The medium (ie, the tool) has a longer lasting and deeper effect on our lives than the message it carries. Although McLuhan’s thinking can be difficult to grasp at times the basic concepts are quite clear and seemed to resonate with the class. This was due, in no small part, to Dudley’s generosity as he led us through the complexity, distilling the essence and encouraging a deeper engagement with the propositions. Please continue this as you begin work on your projects.

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Class 4: Team Project – Future Work

October 17, 2019

The discussion started with students reporting back on the Team meetings you held during the week. Most teams had been able to make contact and commence communicating using a variety of tools. It soon became clear that the different parts of team work demand the use of different sets of tools.

Brief for Team Project – Future Work

Forming and Storming: Finding your team mates and commencing a dialogue is the first hurdle. Second Life’s use of avatars with different names from your real selves resulted in some confusion as you tried to identify each other! Some of you asked me for email addresses to facilitate the first connection. You searched Facebook and other social media platforms for your classmates and, for the most part, did not resort to real world encounters.

The first meetings were arranged and this presented the next challenge. Some of you met in SL, some chatted on Facebook, Skype was mentioned as a useful platform but I am not sure if any team actually used it. The ‘forming’ stage of team work, developing the team and getting to know each other, is actually a social activity and therefore social media apps can be useful for virtual teams. They allow you to find out something about your colleagues and open conversations. As your teams coalesce and working together becomes normal tools such as SL and Skype will support the interaction needed to brainstorm ideas for your project and make progress.

Performing: Although this aspect of team work did not emerge until later in the discussion John asked you to consider how ensure your presentation will be completed in time for delivery. Managing your individual commitments on the project and the overall team success is a very specific activity. You need to ensure that the work is divided fairly among the team members and then ensure that everyone does what is expected. There are many productivity and management apps available to support this. For example, trello.com provides a simple yet effective platform that everyone can access without cost to monitor your commitment and progress.

Production: When it comes to producing your project you will need to create and/or source images, movies, sound recordings and so on. We will review these in later classes. In addition, creating the script is so much easier with online collaborative tools that work in real time. Google Docs allows many people to write and edit simultaneously.

Presentation: Finally, when it comes to the presentation of your project there is a wide range of tools from which to select. YouTube and SlideShare are just two of the most common and we will also look at them in more detail in a later class.

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Finally, we spoke about the project. Everyone had read the brief and was aware of the context. John referred specifically to the assessment criteria for the project noting that of the six, two were for the team and the other four were individual. He asked that you also read the assessment rubric very carefully and review it regularly to ensure you keep on the right track and don’t waste time doing unnecessary work.

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Class 3: Teamwork and Collaboration

October 10, 2019
Sitearm Madonna talks about teamwork

Sitearm Madonna shares his insights on teamwork with the class.

Sitearm Madonna joined the class this week to talk about teamwork and collaboration, both generally and virtually. His experience in the global oil industry and also in virtual worlds has enabled him to formulate a practical approach to collaboration which he supports with references to the vast amount of academic writing on the topic. As the graduate of the module who received one of the highest marks ever awarded he is well-positioned to understand your particular needs in working on the Team Project that will be introduced next week.

His developing interest in musical composition informed the opening of his presentation and he gave us a link to a YouTube video:

Sitearm went on to discuss the stages of a project and the roles required of the team members as the project work progresses towards completion. He asked for examples of good experiences of team work and poor examples and you had some great examples to share. The most common poor experiences were where one member tried to dominate and control the project, not letting others explore their contributions. Sitearm noted that where the dominator also has power and/or authority there is very little the other team members can do and the results of the project are going to fall very far short of the potential. The positive experiences were mostly concerned with successful brainstorming where the team relished new ideas and develop an approach that truly was better than any of the individual team members might have achieved on their own. You also noted that in a well-balanced team each person is supported in contributing according to their skill, leading to a satisfying experience for the whole team.

Sitearm also referred to the theory of persona. Speaking about the different personalities we might present in different social situations (eg, at home, in college, at work) and relating it to the avatars we use in SL, he suggested that the various roles that need to be filled for a successful team can be inhabited by any individual member – they are interchangeable and may be temporary – even though some people might be particularly suited to some roles. He also referred to the Greek origin of the term persona and how it relates to your purpose, asking you to consider ‘where your purposes come from?’ John reminded everyone that we will be picking up on this idea again in Class 16 when we look at virtual identities.

To conclude Sitearm told us about a recent paper he read suggesting that we all have 150 meaningful relationships in our lives. That breaks down into five people in our inner circle (family); 15 good friends; and 50 friends. It expands into 500 acquaintances and 1,500 people we can recognise.

[Note: Sitearm Madonna has subsequently provided this edited video (47 minutes) of his presentation]

After thanking Sitearm for a most stimulating presentation, John directed you to Brightspace where the Team Project groups are listed. Here they are again.

Project Teams

You will work in these teams for the rest of the semester. John will introduce the Team Project in next week’s class.

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Class 2: Blogging to the World

October 3, 2019
Forest walk

Strolling through a forest in Second Life

Many of you have submitted your blogs which are now listed on page 9 (see the link in the right-hand column). You should have a look at each others blogs and post comments on them. You might even have a look over some of the blogs by past participants on the module. John asked those who have not yet sent him a link to their blogs to do so now. He also reminded you to ensure you posted a bio (for your avatar) to the ‘about me’ page on your blog.

We discussed your experiences travelling around SL and visiting different locations. Many of you found interesting places but were struck by the lack of people there. This may be due to the time difference between here and North America, where the vast majority of SL residents are based, or it could just be that the places were built by residents who enjoy building for its own sake and are not interested in attracting visitors. Many of you remarked on the curiosity of avatars engaging in sunbathing and other ‘human’ activities which seem pointless for an avatar. This opened some musing on how and why people use SL: is it purely social? is there an opportunity for business activity? does the ‘reality’ of the environment help social lubrication? when you can teleport between locations why build roads and railways? are vehicles purely ornamental? why would anyone bother?

Beach

Do avatars enjoy sunbathing as much as people do?

Arising from the final point John suggested it would be worth considering why spaces such as SL, or other online environments, might be preferable social spaces for some people. For example, people who find it difficult to engage with others in RL due to shyness have found confidence in virtual environments where they have more control over the interaction.

We spoke about the need for clarity around our interactions: avatars don’t do body language (beyond some very basic movements) so that means we have to add the subtle layer of communication into our interactions very deliberately. Even reassuring each other that we are still online and paying attention is necessary. Giving regular feedback to indicate our presence is essential in all online engagement.

John introduced this week’s assignment to meet other residents in SL and try to engage in conversation. Some of you have already done this so you can record the results in your blog post. Be careful in this exercise because SL, just like RL, has all sorts of individuals wandering around. If you feel uncomfortable at any time just quit immediately. Don’t forget to set the classroom as your Home Location so you can return there easily.

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Class 1: Welcome to SL

September 26, 2019

We got off to an excellent start this semester. All of you found your way to the virtual classroom in SL on time and seemed well settled in by the time John arrived. In fact, it was John who had a little difficulty getting his mic working but before long everyone had settled down and making friends. In online virtual environments ‘making friends’ is a specific action rather than the vague relationship development it can often be in Real Life (RL). Whether you are active on Facebook, Snapchat or any other social media liking, following or otherwise hooking-up with others is an activity that requires an offer followed by acceptance or rejection. In spaces such as SL this gives you access to otherwise private conversations and locations. It also allows you to track each other’s location and communicate more easily.

John also gave you membership of the module group which confers additional privileges in the TU Dublin campus. More on this later in the module. We also shared real names so John can match your avatars with your student records. And after all that we had the class photo!

Class photo

Class photo – all eager to get started on our virtual journey …

 

The exercise of moving from the classroom to the balcony was useful as it provided practice in controlling your avatars, which is not as easy as it seems!

Following the photo John introduced the content of the module, explaining what to expect over the course of the semester. He emphasised the importance of independent learning in the module. We meet for only one hour a week but you need to put in the preparation to ensure maximum value can be extracted from that hour. Expect to devote an hour to preparing for class. You should also expect to put in at least another hour-and-a-half on the assignment for each class. This time will increase somewhat when you start working on the Team Project after the fifth week. If you put in a solid effort each week you won’t find yourself overwhelmed at the end of the semester.

The class meetings are intended to be discursive. In other words, we will be discussing the topic of the week, on which you have reading and viewing videos. Your input is what makes the class so be prepared to contribute.

The supporting material in Brightspace is essential to the module so make sure to use it regularly and wisely.

These class summaries are not intended as a replacement for class attendance. Experience indicates that if you attend regularly you can expect to do well in the module assessment. If you miss one or two classes this summary will help keep you up to date but any more regular absence will make it extremely difficult to understand what is required from the assignments.

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