Monday, March 26, 2012

Hell Hath No Fury, Like a Fashionista Scorned

Location: Duck, Cover, Rant

Especially when, in her blogger profile picture, she sports a tiara. My loose-cannon mouth has gotten me in trouble, again! Yay, me.

At Hamlet Au's post about the impending closure of a sim based on Firefly, I ranted without any evidence that if RP goes out of Second Life, Linden Lab will have to close the doors:
  • For all the fashionista angst over mesh doo-dads and the right eyeshadow, I'd wager that there's not enough XXX and play-Barbie customer base out there to keep the Lab open. 
I'll quote and, I hope, answer CronoCloud Creegan's return rant, with me as straw man taking a beating for all the "cranky oldbies" of SL who like to build stuff, increasingly prefer Open Sim, and once had, like many male educators in SL, epic bad taste in fashion and hair (our picture today is a fashion disaster that happened to me in the OpenLife Grid some years back).

Tophat v. Tiara, Round One:

It is partly true that I'm a cranky oldbie, because I'm actually a "midbie" who came into SL in early 2007, smack-dab during the Hype Era. Still, CronoCloud misrepresents me badly in some regards. I don't actually think women are 10% of the Internet or SL; in VWER, they represent more than 50% of the attendees and, yes, they are RL women too because they have First-Life info in their profiles and care about hair, clothes, and shoes.

But this post is not about me, or even women in SL, darn it! It's about how Linden Lab pays its bills. And at the end, I'll offer to place a bet with CronoCloud.

The Numbers, PLEASE!

I faced this claim at CronoCloud's blog:
  • Oh Iggy, the hardcore RP community in SL is miniscule. the clubgoing howlzers outnumber them 10 to 1 at least, even in the old days hardcore RP was a niche.
10-to-1 is a big margin. And not all "clubgoing howlzers" are fashionistas. That said, evidence please?

Let's begin with a journey to the bare-chested macho men and naked slave girls (does good skin make one a fashionista?) of Gor. The numbers may have changed, but over a year ago I encountered a statistic that 300 Gor-RP sims exist in SL.

As of yesterday, Tyche Shepherd's Grid Survey for Oct. 2010 (latest available data) shows this:
  • 17153 Moderate-Rated Private Estates and 2853 Adult-Rated Ones
  • 56.5% of Private Estate regions are Full Regions, 42.9% are Homesteads, 0.6% are Openspaces
  • 43.2% of Mainland owned directly by Linden Accounts (Contiguous Mainland is 6723 regions including Linden Home regions)
But back to Tarl Beefcake and his clingy Kajirae: Goreans must all use private estates and not mainland because of the adult-focused content of Gorean RP.  I suspect that many other RP regions are on the mainland, and they won't ring in at $295/month. I have not visited Zindra but I suspect that the Adult-rated continent does not include Gor sims.

Using my 300 as a baseline and Tyche's percentages, that means that 169 Gorean Sims are full regions (169 @ $295/month means $49,855 / month income to the Lab). The other 131 Gorean Homestead regions bring in, at $195/ month,  $25,545. Total for Linden Lab: $75400 per month.

I don't like Gorean philosophy or RP, but that's a tidy sum.  And how does income from Marketplace fees stack up against the sort of income that even 17K moderate regions generate?

Tiara v. Tophat, Round Two?

I'm going to assume that not too many fashion-related regions are Adult-rated and that all of the Gorean ones are. CronoCloud, show me those 3000 fashion sims!  It's possible, perhaps, that 17.4% of SL regions rated Moderate are for "clubgoing howlzers" who go shopping.

But I'd like more evidence.

Let's continue:
  • But, Iggy, The Barbie girls...they outnumber you and the people like you by a HUGE margin. Haven't you SEEN the HUGE number of SL fashion blogs?  
I have. I don't read too many, beyond Iris' posts at NWN and, on occasion, Slipsters and Juicy Bomb. I love shopping for suits and shoes. But I doubt that I spend more than 2000L annually on clothes or accessories for Iggy.  My skin is ancient! In 2007 (ah! where's my fake walker and wheelchair!) fashionistas pointed me to hair and skin stores to get rid of my early "Frankenstein Monster" starter look.

I suspect CronoCloud is correct about the "Barbie girls" outnumbering the rest of the SLers. But not about the role of land-income that goes to Linden Lab. Hamlet Au ran some data recently about Minecraft's success, and in that post he cited these numbers from about a year back: using Tyche's numbers at the time, he estimated that for Linden Lab's cited profit of 75 million dollars consists of 72 million from land, 3 million for everything else.

The Bottom Line: Tier is the Thing

So, I want some economic stats to show that fashion-focused SL residents exist in numbers that correspond to an income-stream capable of keeping SL viable, long term. That was my original point in replying to Hamlet's post. Even though I poked fun at virtual fasionistas, my claim was really about the economy.
  • Do you not realize that avatar appearance enhancements, drive the SL economy? In other words, the Fashionistas basically run SL behind the scenes. They have for quite a while now. They're the ones spending the money. Skin Fair? Hair Fair? Sin Fair? Fashion for Life? Vintage Fair? Fantasy Fair?
I love Hair Fair, and though I've not been in a few years, I really enjoyed the Locks for Love promotion done a few years back. I need lower-ARC dreadlocks, however. This will be part of my bet, if I am proven right.

But you are not correct when you say "drive." Even if fashion is the be-all and end-all of SL, it is tier that drives the SL economy. Otherwise, the Lindens would have cut it long ago to swell the number of residents owning regions.

Fashion might be the indirect driver of tier (places to shop, socialize, or just strut), but I need evidence. Fashion creators may or may not be renting server space, depending on how deeply Marketplace has affected their in-world traffic.

Without tier from sims and parcels, SL won't survive.
  • There's tons of old fashionista centric regions STILL going strong. Because unlike college students popping into SL for a class project. . .fashionfolk spend money. A LOT of money. 
I agree here. But enough to keep the doors open at LL? Evidence please?

As for college students? They are already young and fashionable, in my experience. They spend a lot of money, too, in the physical economy. They don't need avatars to be glamorous because they are avatars with profile info groomed fanatically at Facebook. But this is a digression in my counter-rant.

What I still need to be convinced of CronoCloud's arguments would be numbers.  How much money goes to LL, directly from Marketplace fees or tier from land rented by fashionistas or their suppliers? How does that compare with the RP community? Builders?

Can we even find out? Or do we keep swapping competing and sweeping generalizations?

The Wager: Dreads or 1000L on the Line!

This is fun. Let's see if we can get some answers, CronoCloud! What does it cost to keep the lights on?

Here are more numbers, in the form of a friendly wager. 1000L if you can get some hard numbers, so you can go on a shopping spree. If I am correct, you buy me some new dreadlocks at a hair store of your choice.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Technologies Overengineered, Ruined, or Abandoned: An Occasional Series

Location: Staring at the Shaving Mug

I'm getting ready to shave again. Some time ago, I switched from an expensive and over-engineered Sensor razor to my grandfather's 1920s Gem Micromatic razor.  I wrote about my reasons here and I still love it. With only one small nick in two months of fun, shaving has again become a manly and pleasant ritual, not a forgotten act as I prepare to do other things or--shudder--try the rapid task-shifting that some mislabel "multitasking."

Given the lack of news about virtual worlds, other than that reported well by other bloggers, and my lack of teaching there, I'm going to diversify the blog again.

I'm looking at an idea that James Howard Kunstler has popularized for a while, one that preceded my meeting Jim and getting caught up in his ideas. Jim is about to publish a new nonfiction book about the diminishing returns of technology. The idea of technologies done well and then forgotten has long captivated me, though I suspect that my Neo-Luddism has taken a different and more tech-friendly turn than Jim would make.  Both of us agree that "new" does not always mean "improved."

I plan to cover, in the next few weeks, several technologies that have been, in my opinion, perfected but then "improved" further or worse still, abandoned.  Here are some candidates:
  • Apple's iMovie software
  • The Saturn I and V rockets (you know I can't resist space stuff)
  • Light local rail networks of the 20s-60s
  • The fast-food restaurants of the 1950s and 60s
  • The Leathermantm Pocket Tool
  • The returnable-bottle soft drink
  • DeWalt and Porter Cable power tools, after Black & Decker acquired them
  • The Volkswagen Jetta TDI, Honda Civic, and Mazda 3 series.
I have personal experience with all but the Saturn rockets (pity!), Honda, and Mazda (near pity!).

My series will be opinionated (go figure) and open to critique and amendments. 

Got some other candidates for tech done well, then messed up or left to rust?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Technology & Learning: A Question of ROI

Location: Old-Timey Internet 1.0 & 2.0

Quite often, educators discuss the shortcomings of virtual-world technology or providers. These factors stymie or end good work in these environments.

But have we looked carefully at ourselves and our schools? Where do they hinder or stop our work?

Last week, I had to skip the VWBPE sessions after the first day.  The conference has always been inspiring to my work with virtual worlds, during the past three years, and I was certain it would be again.  Except things have changed.

Last weekend, instead of going to sessions at VWBPE, I turned my focus on a report to a granting agency, about a mix of Web 1.0 and 2.0 technologies we are deploying at Richmond and Furman University. Faculty like the demo pages, some simple thesis-formation exercises and a video by my colleague David Wright about the art of crafting an effective thesis. More such materials are on the way.

When I was not writing the report, I and two student assistants were putting finishing touches on several of the actual materials. They will be used in classes starting this Fall and will "count" in my annual evaluation. VWBPE, where I presented the last three years, has not seemed to count as a "real conference" with my evaluators. This year, I lacked time but also an impetus to submit a proposal because my latest article, on the politics of Writing Centers and curricular change, has been through no fewer than four drafts. It is about to go to a journal's board of readers.

About ROI and Educators

The irony of this change in my focus has not been lost on me. At one time, Immersive Public Virtual Worlds were labeled "Web 3.0" by many folks eager about the potential of Second Life. Many of these evangelists, including our own campus' Instructional Designers, created avatars and explored SL in 2006-8. Some of these folks are now either focusing on gaming or, like me, designing again with the first two generations of Web technologies. Many others are working on the integration of mobile technologies in education. Indeed, as Nick DeSantis reports in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the moment for online education and edu-tech start-ups has arrived.

Is this all a case of chasing the latest "shiny object" or, perhaps an older one that had been neglected?

For me, the decision to scale back work with Second Life and OpenSim comes down to "return on investment." Business folks think of this constantly. Many evangelists in the realm of virtual-worlds learning have not.  I cannot speak for many colleagues off campus, but for my local colleagues, these challenges have remained daunting after 5 years:
  • Time to learn the UI and world: I have long advised educators new to Second Life to spend a semester in world before bringing in students.  And for some colleagues I taught to use SL, even moving to a new viewer was troublesome. One just threw up his hands, when asked to put in grid information into Imprudence for OpenSim. "This is not going to work for me," he said.  And we were done.
  • Time away from what evaluators assess: For tenure-stream faculty, this sort of time-commitment to master an ever-changing set of applications is not possible. One reason that DeSantis is correct about a technological boom on campuses comes from ubiquity: many of the applications he mentions are common, stable, and familiar to students, staff, and faculty (such as digital textbooks or teaching tools driven by Facebook). When it comes to virtual worlds, however, even for faculty with tenure, engagement means time not spent attending to daily business for which we are evaluated. Tenured faculty might find the time, but that means time away from an article likely to lead to promotion.
  • Time to learn content creation. This is even more daunting, especially for those virtual worlds that require 3D content-development programs such as Blender or Maya.  Unless one already uses these tools as part of one's daily business, go straight to points one and two.
  • Eyes on the Prize(s). The work done in a virtual world cannot currently reach a mass audience, except by a YouTube Machinima.  Older-variety online content can reach a large audience because is searchable by search engines and can be explored by anyone already familiar with a Web browser.
Even for those on continuing contracts, such as this writer, it's not possible to do everything that can be done with virtual worlds. I kept my annual review in mind when Claudia, a talented designer for landscapes and buildings, offered to work on Usher in Second Life if I could only move it to another parcel at the GCU sim. She assured me it would take little time.

I said no. Beyond a bit of landscaping I'll do when classes here end for the year, I have no interest in spending any more time on Usher. I won't be teaching with it or being evaluated for that teaching for at least two years. I get zero credit for any other school using this resource that I brought back as a courtesy to those interested in it. In any case, in two years, Second Life may not even be in business. OpenSim's grids will. So will Apple, and in the coming academic year I plan to test the iPad as an e-reader for every text in a 200-level literature course. We have a grant to loan students the tablets, and unlike my last section taught under that course number, there will not be any virtual-world content in the course.

Of Time and Tools

Older Web technologies labor under many of the burdens listed, but they do so with a singular advantage for content creation. At a recent presentation on digital video, a tenure-track colleague in business admitted that the students in his entrepreneurship course enjoyed making documentaries. They also, however, needed to start their own small businesses as a class project. They preferred the latter, and he's considering digital stories as an alternative to the time-consuming work of filming and editing documentaries.

None of his students complained about lacking the tools needed.  Most of us have software for content creation we need on our laptops and we've used them for other purposes. With my colleague at Furman, in the course of about 20 hours' work, we got materials prepared on thesis formation and Toulmin Analysis.  We used the collaborative spaces of Dropbox and Google Documents to make this happen. When I needed to author new materials my students and I opened Dreamweaver, iMovie, and Photoshop.

If Maya or Blender or SL's building and scripting tools were to become easier to use and more commonly used, perhaps we'd see more uptake.

Oxford Bows Out, The Smaller Schools Take the Stage

While I'm not saying goodbye to teaching with virtual worlds, I am scaling back like many colleagues from schools like mine. There is hope coming for virtual-worlds proponents, however.

In a rather desultory way, I tried to track down a reference about small, and "hungry," schools being the ones to lead the way in virtual worlds. Oxford University gave up on CSteph Mariner's World War I Poetry simulation; Oxford has nothing to prove, I suppose. CSteph found a new sponsor. Increasingly, these sorts of sponsors are not places like Oxford or even my up-and-coming liberal-arts university.

Schools like mine, eager to make their mark among selective private colleges and universities, have a vested interest in being innovative. We can manage that, however, without the investment of faculty and staff time needed for excellent teaching in a virtual world. Instead, we can provide Millennnials with interactive learning experiences using off-the-shelf 2D Web technologies.

I would look to the smaller schools, the community colleges, the less-well known state universities for leaders in virtual-worlds learning. This is why Indiana's Ball State and not Purdue is running Blue Mars now.

Some schools don't expect their faculty to publish. They do assess innovative teaching and good evaluations, and I hope that will spur more of these colleagues to try virtual worlds over a summer's break or as an after-hours hobby, as they consider bringing in students.

And with that sort of start, the Internet 3.0 revolution may..just may..come to class in the near future.

Update: I am eating a most enjoyable helping of Crow, thanks to a notice by Sitearm at the SLED list. Forsyth County Georgia has signed a contract to bring OpenSim technology to every one of its 35 schools and, potentially, 38000 students.

Look to such innovators, far from Oxford or the liberal-arts universities of the States, for innovation in 3D immersive learning.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

VWBPE 2012 Begins

Location: Main Auditorium, Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education

Once again, I sit in at what has become an annual landmark for educators working in games and virtual worlds. Have a look at the conference schedule here.

Knowclue Kidd (Marianne Malmstrom) has begun our keynote as I write this. She's a dynamo. She challenges us to be epic, to push back in a time when state and federal governments in the US are tying educators' hands with more and more testing.

"Play" is not a four-letter word. But our culture thinks it is. That's my takeaway from her talk. It's time to push back and show students learning and having fun. It will take a lot of convincing to show the powers that be that wearing butterfly wings or playing Minecraft can help students learn.

But I'm confident that we must try.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

First Simulation in New Second Life House of Usher

The Return of the House of Ush...
Location: Virtual House of Usher

"What do you think of our home, my friend?" I asked this in character as Roderick Usher, as three students in Rawlslyn Francis' writing course at Florida State College at Jacksonville completed the simulation.

"It's big," one of my "old friends" answered, in character.

The SL build is the same size as the House at Jokaydia Grid, but I've made a few tweaks to the structure to add some interesting small rooms. That may well add to the sense of size.  Since I've not let furnished all the rooms, I improvised a bit of Usher madness when Roderick showed a guest an empty room and said "this is your room. I just had it cleaned."

"Where is the bed?" I was asked, so I answered "oh, in the corner," then wandered off in a daze.

I hammed it up a bit, and Professor Francis, in the role of Madeline, did a good job of her end of the roleplay.  I used an SL pistol to fire rounds at the rats in the Crypt, pretended to not hear obvious noises or startle at others no one else heard. In the end, my sister and the guests left me locked in the innermost vault of the family Crypt, where Roderick stood, by the door, mumbling variations of the password he'd forgotten.

This was good fun for one and all. The group did not find some of the new props and seemed hard pressed to find the clues notecards put everywhere. I don't quite know why, since my Richmond students bordered on the rude in seeking them out to "solve the mystery."

I had time to quickly send each student a motive for their visit, and two of them did well exploiting this during the simulation.

The short orientation out of character that my class had might have accounted for this difference. One of the visitors last night had only been in SL once before. She IMed me that she was struggling with the user interface, but I left enough hints that, in the end, she came up with the secret password to open Madeline's tomb.

I look forward to a guest post by Professor Francis here, soon.