I am Columbus Mint: beginning a second life

second_lifePictured above is the digital me, standing in front of the administrative building for the digital replica of my old college campus.

That’s one way to look at the shot. The other way would be seeing it as nothing more than a blocky computer image, no more a personal reflection than a doodle of me drawn in class.

Somewhere in-between lies the “reality” of Second Life, which I dove into last night for the first time. For an upcoming assignment, I’ll be designing a virtual classroom within Second Life for my Public Opinion and New Media course, so I’ve got a steep learning curve to figure out the possibilities of a world where many have already made small fortunes developing and selling property. CNN has a Second Life newsroom, and everyone from mega corporations to starving artists are looking to hype their brand in the virtual space. Wondering how this is possible? The first PR company to establish a major presence in Second Life would love to show you.

But this commercialization has alienated some of the original users, including my chance first encounter with another person in Second Life. After christening my character Columbus Mint (city where I was born + favorite flavor = Brook’s avatar name) I struck up a conversation from someone claiming to be a former Second Life regular dating back to 2005 who now laments what it has become. Back in the beginning, Second Life was a much tighter community, but free access and rising publicity have opened the flood gates to unsightly ads, lack of creative focus and obnoxious jerks logged on only to harass. I encountered all of these in my first hour-long session.

But there were some practical purposes as well, such as the replica UNC campus with a librarian you could contact for help and a spiffy classroom with stadium-style seating for virtual seminars. If professionals can network in these kind of spaces to share ideas, or folks can get virtual tours of far off lands to decide where to visit then there’s a real practical use for this kind of world without sacrificing our first lives in the process.

If it doesn’t get done in Second Life, (which is still pretty clunky and full of jerks and perverts) some virtual program will harness the technology for a better experience. It was amazing how diverse an array of experiences my fellow classmates had in their Second Life forays this week. Some met people from other countries and were guided to special events and locations by friendly avatars, while others had their clothes stolen, got stuck in a certain world or only encountered lewd avatars.

Hollywood is catching onto the trend and emphasizing some of the ethical dangers of this form of interaction with a slew of movies coming out related to virtual worlds. There are some scary possibilities out there as the virtual reality not only flawlessly reproduces physical reality, but actually enhances the real-world experience. We already have systems that show images and play sounds better than they look and sound in real life. Touch and smell are much harder to replicate, and for now make the Second Life experience a pale imitation of the real world. But as one of my professors, Ken Calhoun, pointed out on the first day of class: “we’re working on that.”

There’s always room for more details on the web

Note: the following is a short essay for One Web Day on how the web has impacted my profession. You can see a video of me reading an abridged version here.

In print, my words had no hope of reaching an audience.
Online, there was always room for my voice.
As a college undergraduate working for The Daily Tar Heel at UNC-Chapel Hill, space was tight to publish stories from the dozens of staffers working each day. But thanks to the paper’s website, space was plentiful to give every qualified story a platform. The web provided assurance that everything staffers wrote could reach an audience, while simultaneously motivating writers to improve their craft.
No matter how far we progress in the communications field, that appeal of the web remains just as strong.
In many ways, the benefits only grow with experience.
A good communicator, be they in journalism, public relations or filmmaking, will produce a volume of quality content that easily eclipses the available space in print. Photographers take hundreds of pictures at an event, filmmakers record hours of footage, advertising campaigns produce dozens of related marketing pieces. In the pre-Internet days, only the absolute cream of the crop could be viewed by the general public.
The Internet blew open the door of in-depth content for those curious about a particular topic, while at the same time empowering those compiling the information. Rather than just post the bare minimum that will fit in print, communicators strive to create as much compelling content as possible, knowing it can have life on the web.
It’s enlivened our consumption of media based upon specific interests. Rather than just hope the latest edition of Slate has a piece by insightful political writer John Dickerson, readers can quickly go back and access all his past stories or tweets. When entertaining sportswriter Bill Simmons hits on a great topic at espn.com, he’s not constrained by word counts and can link us to his sports and pop culture inspirations. While fans are waiting for the captivating television show Lost to start a new season, they can go to official sites or fan message boards for new content built around past episodes. When inspiring news columnist Nicholas Kristof posts a compelling piece in the New York Times, readers can check up on his blog or Facebook page to see all the news gathering and the thought processes that went into the writing.
This doesn’t ensure that all content reaches a mass audience, or even that it won’t just be ignored once posted online. But the web provides assurance that nothing of quality need ever remain buried, and that fans of any fictional or non-fictional piece can always dig beneath the surface for more details. No matter how constrained or restricted access to a traditional platform remains for up-and-coming media professionals, they always have a place to share their knowledge and let their talents shine through.

How maps survived the threat of GPS and even became cool again

The extroverted children played with action figures. The introverted ones sketched pictures.

I was a weird hybrid of the two archetypes. I charted maps of the neighborhood.

Now I might get to revisit that outlet of youthful imagination.

Just when it seemed that maps were dying a slow death at the hands of GPS systems, interactive media has opened up a limitless range of new possibilities to put visual representations of streets and terrain to practical use. These are uses that go beyond what Mapquest offers or even the voyeuristic appeals of Google Streetview and Google Earth. Now both the content and the design of each map can meet the unique navigational needs of each user. They can also help spotlight a particular subject and function as the perfect establishing shot to orientate audiences to a new interactive world.

Take North Carolina wine, a product that figuratively speaking really has struggled to get on the map against better known European and Californian competitors. Dozens of new wineries have popped up across the state in recent years, but they’re usually in remote areas and hard to discover navigating with traditional maps alone. Enter the North Carolina Wine and Grape Council, which put together this interactive map that makes it easy to plot out your own wine trail and compile info on each stop along the way. It cuts out all the clutter and simplifies the interface around the target objective — getting visitors to explore multiple wineries no matter where they live.

On a much more advanced level, the Los Angeles Conservancy is also using an interactive map to build awareness of the city’s historical attractions. It simplifies what is usually a crowded-looking metropolis on any map into an organized set of info that invites users to plan their own trips and see the city as a living museum. You can scratch the surface, go into details or use it to figure out which sites to see in person. In this map, they no longer have to compete for attention with L.A’s plethora of distractions, making it both a navigational tool and a promotional spotlight.

On the news side, check out this interactive map on the potential consequences of global warming. You can see what parts of the world will be underwater if the oceans rise by various amounts. At 1 meter, my brother in Wilmington is still safe. Beyond that, his city starts sinking.

These sites are just scratching the surface. Imagine being able to access an interactive grid of power lines or water pipes next time there’s a break in your utility service. Envision learning about military history by scanning  maps of old battlefields to see where troops were positioned and how enemy ranks were broken. Consider getting wrapped up in a fantasy/sci-fi tale by scanning a map of the fictional world to learn about the culture and zoom in on any location for more detail.

Maybe it’s just that kid in me who’s still charting roads while on his bike or marking down landmarks while  hiking trails, but interactive maps are among the most exciting and dynamic uses of the the communications technology already available to us. Over the next few months, I hope to come across countless more examples of their potential being realized, and reengage in my own love of map-making  all over again.

Universal access: the future of the digital divide

The pace of technological progress is constant, but not necessarily equal.

While more than a billion people worldwide have plugged into the possibilities of the Internet during the past decade, billions more remain disconnected, prevented by socioeconomic or educational barriers from experiencing the most recent advances. For some it’s a lack of infrastructure or resources to log online, while many others with all the tools to access the Internet fail to derive the benefits, harmed by a combination of inferior computer knowledge and a tech industry disinterested in designing programs and products catering to their needs.

The result is what has been termed “The Digital Divide,” a gap with profound influence on those left behind as the rest of the world accelerates into a digital age. The importance of bridging the gap has driven many worthwhile initiatives to provide laptops and Internet access in all school systems or to train displaced workers in computers. But the divide is a moving target. While studies show that the percentage of people with broadband Internet access is rapidly increasing, particularly in developing countries, many are tapping into the Internet without an adequate understanding on how it can lift them out of poverty and into the knowledge economy. Even in the U.S., where access to the Internet is widespread, a just released report from the Communications Workers of America shows that the average download speed varies dramatically by region with only 38 percent of rural residents subscribing to broadband, limiting the ability of some to leverage the web’s full potential. All the while, others who have long enjoyed technological resources are moving on to Web 2.0 and interactive mediums that will prove key in future opportunities for employment.

The purpose of my research project this semester is to look not just at how this divide exists today but whether it will exist in the future given the rapid development of easily accessible and affordable Internet applications. Will the devices and technologies ubiquitous in the society of the coming decades level the playing field, or will certain demographic groups be unable to adapt and utilize each new technology coming online? Will all youth raised in the current age grow up with the understanding of how to navigate the Internet, or will the training and knowledge needed to capitalize on future technology be exclusive to those with access to the best schools and teachers? What industries are tailoring their services and products for mass use across former knowledge and financial barriers, and which will only derive benefit to the previously initiated? Can innovations created for audiences in the developed world still be integrated into third-world cultures in a manner that can lift those communities out of poverty?

My research will examine current usage trends for various aspects of Web 2.0 to predict which are headed to universal accessibility and which will remain reserved for select groups. It will cite experts on the developments of Web 3.0 to determine whether the seamless blend of the virtual and physical worlds could be universally applied to all societies. It will look at ongoing initiatives to bridge the digital divide, efforts undertaken by a range of multi-national corporations such as Nokia Siemens Networks, public entities like the United Nations and non-profit organizations such as the Investor Group Against Digital Divide. It will evaluate the $7.2 billion earmarked in the U.S. federal stimulus package for increasing broadband access. The report will assess the results of these initiatives and what new efforts on the horizon are likely to yield.

The findings will be presented in a dynamic, interactive format that shows how widespread, or narrow, various technologies will permeate across different ethnic and socioeconomic groups. Viewers will be able to navigate through a selection of current and developing Internet technologies and see which are on the path to becoming universally accessible, and which still require more effort to ensure no one misses out on the tremendous opportunities offered by the Internet of the future.

Tapping into the stream

Last time I completed an assignment for school, the year was 2004. Social media had barely budded on college campuses, much less corporate offices or mainstream media entities. Smart phones were almost the exclusive property of the business world and had yet to puncture nearly every aspect of pop culture and personal recreation. Streaming video online was nowhere near a viable way to reach a mass audience. Video games were still tethered to thumb-operated controllers. Newspapers were still turning large profits.

Yet if the pace of communications seems swift during that span, it’s but a trickle compared to the rapid stream of progress the public relations, marketing and journalism fields are poised to face in the next five years. The possibilities are exciting and dynamic, but it will require tremendous diligence and curiosity to keep pace.

I’ve started this blog and a new Twitter account to maximize my engagement in learning and practicing the latest in interactive media as a student in Elon University’s M.A. in iMedia program. The stream of new discoveries will match the breakneck pace of new developments in communications, and I’ll chronicle my new knowledge, research, projects and opinions here. I can’t wait to accelerate my understanding of connecting with audiences in an age where acceleration is constant.