Avatars pile into the outdoor amphitheatre on Annenberg Island, the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy's headquarters in Second Life. These virtual people represent audience members from around the world who have logged in to hear the first roundtable of CivWorld's fifth annual Interdependence Day conference. Visionaries such as Gilberto Gil, Brazilian Minister of Culture, and Peter Marx, former Chief Technology Officer for Vivendi Universal Games, have gathered to discuss "Making the Global Local: Virtual Worlds, Migration and Linguistic Diaspora." Though several of the panelists are logged in from the CivWorld conference in Mexico City, others are joining the conversation from remote locations around the world.
This panel is just one of many global forums held by USC Center on Public Diplomacy in Second Life. These conversations are made possible by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which in June 2007 awarded the center a $550,000 grant to study philanthropy in virtual worlds. Center Director Joshua Fouts serves as the Co-Principal Investigator of the grant, along with Dr. Douglas Thomas, who is an Associate Professor of Communication at USC.
Fouts and Thomas say the increasing popularity of virtual worlds provoked the MacArthur Foundation to take a serious look at the potential for philanthropy in these spaces, in spite of the U.S. media's insistence that these worlds are fraught with profiteers and pornographers. "I think that virtual worlds are going to become as ubiquitous in our society 10 or 20 years from now as the internet is today," Fouts says. "And for us to ignore it and say this is either a 'get rich' or 'corrupt our society' kind of space, we do so at our own peril."
The duo is staging a series of events in Second Life to explore what the foundation can do within virtual worlds. Thomas says, "Our goal is not to turn Second Life residents into philanthropists, it's to try to figure out how foundations can be effective in that space and to understand that they have to go in and engage the practices of the world as they exist, rather than trying to define what those practices should be. So, rather than saying, 'MacArthur's doing great things, how do we take that and shuffle it into virtual worlds?' it's more of an interesting question to us to say, 'What are people actually doing to make a social life in a social world, and how can that be used in productive, pro-social ways?'"
Fouts and Thomas believe virtual spaces have the potential to transcend geopolitical boundaries and facilitate intercultural dialogue and understanding, and they hope to explore this potential in provocative ways in the coming year. First, they plan to bring Saudi women, who are not allowed to meet or talk about politics in public, to Annenberg Island so they can freely discuss the issues that matter to them. ("Which they're allowed by law to do because they're not leaving their homes," Thomas notes.) They're also working on bringing two U.S. Congressmen and two Parliamentarians from Iran to the island to talk about what's happening between the two powers.