First Impressions Of A Second Life

I was going to do it. I was ready to take the plunge. Hell, I could use a break from my first life.

So I did.

Meet Desdemona Breen. My virtual counterpart who timidly ventured into the ever-evolving world of Second Life, unsure of what — or who — to expect.

My first feeling in Second Life was that of complete disorientation. After crashing into random billboards, walking through other avatars, (creepy!) and running into pretty much everything that came my way, I decided to, ahem, fly.

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That was fun until I got lost over the ocean. That’s when Princess Zena-lookalike  came to my rescue and offered to ‘teleport’ me. I gleefully accepted her invitation only to find myself in what I can only describe as the seedy alleys of Second Life.

Several panic attacks and three teleportations later, I was relieved to find myself on the mainland again – thanks to a very helpful Olivier (who also threw in a lesson on how to teleport myself!). I decided I was not taking any chances of getting teleported by ‘helpful’ strangers and began looking for my own destinations.

Call me a geek, but I typed in ‘Apple’ in the nifty search bar and teleported myself to the unofficial Apple Store. It was eerily similar to the real thing. I looked around at the rainbow-colored nanos, sat at the genius bar and even browsed through the mac books! It was unreal. I can see why companies might want to invest in building a presence on Second Life. It’s a cool way of letting customers browse through your products just like they might do in the real world.

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Realizing — much like in my first life — that I could not afford any of the Apple products, I began exploring some of the other islands on Second Life. I searched for CNN‘s island.

Just as CNN asks its real-life audience to submit I-Reports, its Second Life counterpart encourages residents to share their own “SL I-Reports about events occurring within the virtual world.”

CNN’s in-world I-Report hub includes a news desk where CNN producers hold weekly editorial discussions, and an amphitheater for larger in-world events, such as training sessions and appearances by CNN anchors and correspondents.

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It was fun to look around, sit at the the news desk, browse the kiosks and fly around the island looking for other SL I-reporters. It was all very fascinating but I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I suddenly missed those annoying online customer reps that pop up to ask if you need help. In Second Life, you’re at the mercy of strangers.

I decided I had enough of navigating the shadowy corners of the virtual world for a day. I graciously excused myself from the island and typed a polite goodbye in my ‘local chat’ window.

I doubt anyone noticed. My first life was beginning to seem a lot more appealing.

While my first experience in Second Life swung from being creepy to boring to completely overwhelming, I won’t write it off just yet.

Perhaps when I’m feeling brave enough, I might venture out again.

This time, can someone please teleport me to freebie land?

Mumbai, You’re Not Forgotten

Photo Credit: Reuters

Photo Credit: Reuters

It’s been three months since the Mumbai attack and it feels like the incident has already slipped into the amnesiac conscience of society.

Not for those who lost their loved ones. Not for those who lost their city.

I think about the fear that paralyzed many of us as we watched Mumbai fall prey to vicious minds. About those mind-numbing three days.

My city had been under siege for sixty agonizing hours. Sitting at my computer, 8,700 miles away in the US, I watched in horror — helpless — as Mumbai was ravaged and scarred beyond recognition.

A friend had been shot. Brave friends risked their lives and made their way towards the terror scene to ensure his safety. I stared disbelievingly at my computer screen trying to make sense of the chaos. Where were all my family and friends? Were they okay?

Almost mechanically, I started dialing. I had done this before. On numerous occasions. The riots, the floods, the curfews… I was a seasoned Mumbaiite.

How many times had I visited Cafe Leopold for lazy conversations over greasy food and cheap beer? How many times had I walked by the Taj hotel, marveling at its majesty and grandeur each time I saw the iconic structure? How many times had I frequented South Mumbai for a reunion with friends, a good bargain and even a quick getaway? It let you disappear into the anonymity of the busy, carefree streets of Colaba — and emerge, rejuvenated. How could anyone think of destroying Mumbai? A million questions ran through my head — and I had no answers.

My city was being held hostage and I was helpless. Television channels in the US had just begun to cover the news but it wasn’t enough. I knew there was more going on because I was getting frantic text messages and calls from friends back in Mumbai. It was then that I turned to the Social Web — and never looked back.

I sat glued to Twitter and Monitter for those sixty gruelling hours, clicking every link, every news story, every picture — and every list of the injured and the dead — praying fervently as I scanned the names. Photographers like Vinukumar Ranganathan from Mumbai constantly updated Flickr with photographs of what was happening on the ground. Websites and blogs like Global Voices and Mumbai MetBlogs were putting up real-time information with helpline numbers, emergency contact information and even providing a forum for people to reach their loved ones with news of their safety. Twitter was an excellent source of real-time information that night.

Dina Mehta, a Mumbai-based blogger and social media consultant says: “We had a list of injured people — an illegible fax — and after tweeting that we needed help transcribing it, we were flooded with offers to help from all over the world.”

It was reaffirmation. Of hope. Of humanity.

The voices that emerged that night were real.

Of fear:

“Sirens outside my window. Can hear blasts and gun shots. Please make it a safe night.”

Of mind-numbing truths:

“Bomb blasts in Bombay as we speak.
Phones jammed. Can’t reach my family.
I’ve gone through this before.
Not panicking.”

Of hope:

“We didn’t feel alone anymore or scared. Fellow tweeters worldwide were experiencing and sharing in our pain and our anger during the prolonged siege.”

Of strength:

“And the firing still goes on outside, in batches of 4-5 rounds. As I am writing this, there are sirens of vehicles, police vehicles echoing in my ear… Only unity can fight this.”

Thousands of miles away, I held on to each voice of hope, tenaciously, for three gruelling days, praying for the safety of Mumbai.

I had never felt closer to my city.

Thank you to each one of you who tweeted, posted pictures and blogged amidst the terror, confusion and pain.

Social media, networking and citizen journalism were terms I use often as a social media advocate. But on the night of November 26, 2008, the social web had turned into something far more important for me:

A lifeline.

From Hits to Niches

“Route 7. Gas station near Baron Cameron. Stashed behind auto supplies. Released 10 minutes ago.”

I glance, gleefully, at the e-mail revealing the location of the hideout, making sure I had all the details before rushing out the door – and into my car.

Thirty minutes later, I have my very own copy of Harper Lee‘sTo Kill a Mockingbird,’ and I return home – a happy bookcrosser.

Thanks to the Internet, a group of about 750,000-odd people across 130 countries has found a way to combine their passion for books and the need for adventure in a unique way.

Bookcrossing.com is a book-sharing Web site that encourages readers to leave their finished books in a public place, log it as a release on the Web Site and track its journey around the block — or across the globe.

As I read Chris Anderson explain in The Long Tail how our economy and culture is shifting from mass markets to million of niches, I think about Bookcrossing and its small, niche community. It is a virtual lending library that would probably not exist in the the pre-web era. It got me thinking about some of my other hobbies and how much I depend on the Internet to feed my interests.

1087620_49949613Listen to a forgotten melody? ITunes

Give away an old sofa? Freecycle

Scavenge books? Bookcrossing

Rent an obscure international film? Netflix

My choices were not always mainstream. They didn’t always hold mass appeal. And they were certainly not limited to the tight confines of a retail shelf.

It was then that I realized that without knowing it, I had been spending most of my time out on the Long Tail. In fact, I was the Long Tail.

Anderson was right.

“Unlimited selection is revealing truths about what consumers want and how they want to get it in service after service… People are going deep into the catalog, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what’s available at Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, and Barnes & Noble. And the more they find, the more they like. As they wander further from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought (or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a lack of alternatives, and a hit-driven culture.”

Perhaps this is why Starbucks has 19,000 variations of coffee, ITunes offers nearly forty times as much selection as Wal-Mart and Amazon has forty times as many books as Borders.

Because I am uniquely me. I want alternatives. And I know where to find them.

Who controls my information?

If there was ever any doubt about whether the social web should have its own Bill of Rights, the recent Facebook fiasco certainly took care of that. After being harshly criticized for slipping in changes to their original Terms of Service, Facebook finally gave in (for now) and has reverted to its original terms.

Here’s what happened soon after Facebook altered their Terms of Service:

  • Public uproar grew and the blogosphere was abuzz with users lashing out against the loss of control over their personal information.
  • More than 73,000 people joined the group “People against the new terms of service,” which, along with several other user groups on Facebook, protested the new change.
  • The Electronic Privacy Information Center was set to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission about Facebook’s Terms of Service, according to PC World.

Taken aback with the online rebellion, Facebook – in an effort to dispel concerns about who owns user data –  did an about turn and reverted to its original Terms of Service late Tuesday, stating that it would come back with a “substantial revision.”

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Facebook‘s CEO Mark Zuckerberg also said that this time around, “Facebook users will have a lot of input in crafting these terms.” The company also set up a group for its “Bill Of Rights,” where people will be able to provide feedback on the Terms of Service changes. While this may (temporarily) give back users their sense of control, Facebook needs to be more transparent about privacy and ownership.

It’s interesting to note that these issues of privacy, control and freedom were addressed in the Bill of Rights for the social web, created by Joseph Smarr, Marc Canter, Robert Scoble, and Michael Arrington two years ago. The document asserts that users of the social web are entitled to certain fundamental rights:

  • Ownership of their own personal information
  • Control of whether and how such personal information is shared with others
  • Freedom to grant persistent access to their personal information to trusted external sites

While a universally accepted Bill of Rights sounds good in theory, putting it in practice is still a long shot. However, we are now seeing variations of it slowly being put into practice.

For me, the recent debacle proved two things:

  1. The power of the community. This, according to Clay Shirky, is what happens  “when people are given the tools to do things together, without needing traditional organizational structures.”
  2. There is no question that, now more than ever,  people are aware of their privacy and digital rights – and will not hesitate to demand those rights. The Bill of Rights may not be the solution but it definitely is a step in the right direction.

So, while it may be a little early to celebrate Facebook’s reversal to its original Terms of Service, we can be sure that should Facebook, or any social network, decide to abuse its user’s content, the community will be quick to bring them to task.

Like Michael Dortch, an independent IT analyst says: “While Facebook has the right to publish its users’ private information, you can bet that any hopes of remaining a viable business would disappear within minutes to hours after the company decided to do so without the permission of those users.”

That’s right. The people are watching. And they are not afraid to speak.

Help! Google is reading my mind…

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Back in May 2007, when Google’s chief executive Eric Schmidt said “The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask  questions such as ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’ people freaked out. The very idea was scary.  They didn’t want Google having that kind of control over their lives.

But that got me thinking. Wasn’t this the plan all along? John Battelle had talked about it extensively only his blog, referring to is as the ‘database of intentions’ — four years before Schmidt made that statement. The collective history of Web searches, according to Battelle, was:

“a place holder for the intentions of humankind — a massive database of desires, needs, wants, and likes that can be discovered, subpoenaed, archived, tracked, and exploited to all sorts of ends. Such a beast has never before existed in the history of culture, but is almost guaranteed to grow exponentially from this day forward. This artifact can tell us extraordinary things about who we are and what we want as a culture. And it has the potential to be abused in equally extraordinary fashion.”

He had been right.

Google, slowly but steadily, had begun working on predicting the future.

So at what point did this seemingly absurd idea become something uncomfortably real?

Google had tiptoed into our lives and seamlessly integrated itself with our daily routine. Almost our confidante, we give up personal information without a thought to how it may be used in the future. Like the way we volunteer to let Google use our web histories while using iGoogle. Ever wonder how those camera ads miraculously appear on Gmail minutes after you send an e-mail to your friend announcing your intentions to to buy one?

Like David Weinberger says:“There is an inverse relationship between trust and control.” The more we trust Google with our information, the less control we have over how they decide to use it. Imagine what hungry marketers – eager for a glimpse into the consumer’s mind – will  give to glean this kind of information from Google.

“It’s the connection to marketing that turns the database of intentions from a curiosity into a real economic phenomenon.,” writes David Leonhardt in an NY Times article. And that’s where things can get ugly.

The question is: Will Google give in?

If only there was a search for that…

Podcasts and video blogging

I got my first glimpse of what an iPod looked like three years ago – when I first came to America. As I marveled at its perfectly chiseled edges, I had no clue of just how indispensable this tiny instrument was going to become in my life.

multimedia_player_apple_ipod Fascinated and curious, I tiptoed around iTunes, trawled the corners of the Internet and stumbled across my first podcast.

Not only had I found a wealth of new information, I had also found a whole new way of accessing information in a format that was very different – and novel – for me. I have been hooked ever since. I try and listen to a variety of podcasts but my favorite ones are those that involve social media and technology.

Some of the podcasts that I regularly listen to are Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson’s For Immediate Release. It is a twice weekly, sometimes long, podcast on public relations, technology and social media. Other podcasts that I listen to are Susan Bratton’s Dishy Mix, Kamala Bhatt’s podcasts on the Global Indian, Mitch Joel’s Six Pixels of Separation and the New York Times’ Tech Talk. I follow Amber MacArthur on Twitter but never really listened to Twitcast until this week – and I must admit, I liked it. That’s one more that I will add to my list.

Another interesting podcast that I subscribe to is the National Public Radio’s This I Believe essays. These are usually three-minute personal essays that I find very inspiring. Most of these podcasts have a lot of interesting information crammed in them and I prefer short, bite-sized podcasts. Those that run over 40 minutes need to be really interesting to keep me listening. I like saving my podcasts for when I’m driving or riding the metro, both of which I do a lot of.

Another very fascinating medium of sharing content is video blogging or vlogging.

I think one person who is very good at vlogging is Gary Vaynerchuk. An Internet celebrity and wine expert, Vaynerchuk’s enthusiasm for social media is almost infectious. I also find  Chris Brogan’s video blogs very interesting. His ‘open invitation’ vlog post was very…unusual. I occasionally watch French blogger and Seesmic founder Loïc Le Meur’s video blogs as well. He does have some interesting things to say. Stop by to get some tips or just to drool over his accent!

Another really cool place to find interesting video blogs is 12seconds. Very similar to Twitter’s 140 character limit, 12seconds limits videos to, no surprise, 12 seconds. I  stop by to watch randomly selected vlogs and sometimes find some very creative videos. It’s extremely difficult to convey your message  in 12 seconds. Try it!

These are just a few vloggers and podcasts that have piqued my criousity. There’s a whole unexplored world of video blogs and podcasts out there – and I’m hoping to stumble across some new and interesting ones.

Until then — I continue to trawl the infinite abyss that is the Internet. With my iPod plugged in.

Regular people. Everyday tools. An influential voice.

Five years ago, Dan Gillmor chronicled the rise of an emerging social movement called citizen journalism in his book, ‘We the Media.’ The Internet was being used to disseminate information and it had changed the way we created and received news. Technology had given the ordinary man the tools to become a journalist, one with power—and global reach.

“The rise of the citizen journalist will help us listen. The ability of anyone to make the news will give new voice to people who’ve felt voiceless—and whose words we need to hear. They are showing all of us—citizen, journalist, newsmaker—new ways of talking, of learning.”

I recently read Gillmor’s book for a class assignment. I had read his book before. This time, however, it struck close to home. This time, I had witnessed first-hand what citizen journalism was all about.

The Mumbai attack was proof for me.

When India’s financial capital was under siege for 60 agonizing hours late last year, people around the globe turned not to the television or the radio for news, but to each other. Blogs and social networking sites like Twitter and Flickr buzzed with eyewitness accounts.

Photographers from Mumbai constantly updated Flickr with photographs of what was happening on the ground. Websites and blogs like Global Voices and Mumbai MetBlogs were putting up real-time information with helpline numbers, emergency contact information and even providing a forum for people to reach their loved ones with news of their safety. Twitter was an excellent source of real-time information during those grueling hours.

For information-starved people frantically trying to reach family and friends in Mumbai, while simultaneously struggling to process the impact of the situation, the social web had turned into a powerful force – one that traditional media could not compete with.

The voices that emerged that night were real. For me, it was citizen journalism at its best.

As I re-read Gillmor’s predictions for what news would look like in the future – in light of the Mumbai attacks – I was amazed at how accurately he had described what citizen journalism would look like today. “News was being produced by regular people who had something to say and show.”

Five years ago, Dan Gillmor was on to something. He had been right.

The lines had blurred.

The consumer was now the producer.

And yes, the ordinary man was writing the ‘first draft of history.’

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