Janurary 12, 2007

Weekend of January 12, 2007

*Editor's Note

*Opening Note: Beth Coleman on the Second Life Backlash

*Glancing at the C3 Blog

*Closing Note: Ted Hovet on The Fantasy of Screenless Projections

--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------

Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. As usual, this week's update includes links to all the entries published during the week on the Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog. Also, the site now features tools to favorite the blog on Technorati, so be sure to do so if you read on a regular basis.

This week's update features an opening note from C3 Principal Investigator Dr. Beth Coleman, who writes about the Second Life backlash stemming from Clay Shirky's recent commentary about the lack of validity in numbers being reported about Second Life users and the online fallout stemming from that piece.

The closing note this week is from C3 Affiliated Faculty member Dr. Ted Hovet from Western Kentucky University, who writes about the fantasy of screenless projection and how advertising for new media technologies are falling back on old cinematic myths of images coming out of the screen and into the real world.

If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at samford@mit.edu.

--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------

Second Life Backlash: Clay Shirky Blows Up the Spot
By: Beth Coleman

As the virtual world chronicles of the early naughts will be written, Clay Shirky's "A story too good to check" will go down as the shot heard round the world that started the Second Life backlash. I guess "backlash" is not quite as romantic as revolution or even counter-revolution, but part of Shirky's point is that the hyperventilation language around the Second Life virtual world platform needs to pause for reflection. Shirky, an influential media theorist and blogger, lit the flame, but it was inevitable. The rinse cycle on much things web 2.0 has been the early stories of 2007 from NYT to Wired. But to the plot...

2 million virtual residents was the problem. Or more pointedly, how Linden Lab, the creator and host of the virtual world Second Life, accounted for that number. And even worse, how the business and technology press, in the opinion of Shirky, had failed to maintain journalistic standards in covering this story. In effect, Second Life has been too sexy. In the business of virtual play, cyberdildonics definitely captures the popular press imagination. The other hot button of course is $$$$$. If the accounting in terms of actual users is chimerical, then what else is smoke and mirrors about this?

Shirky claimed in the mid-December Valleywag post that Linden Lab, if not directly lying about the number of users of its platform, at the very least turned a blind eye to the press reporting of numbers that could not be verified. Or could not be verified in a meaningful way. The tricky bit of business between Linden Lab, the press, and the growing number of critics is the grey zone between one-time visitors and regular users that the company gangs into one larger number and under one category, residents.

As Shirky writes, "Someone who tries a social service once and bails isn't really a user any more than someone who gets a sample spoon of ice cream and walks out is a customer."

He delivers a sensible and precise cautionary tale about previous hype around virtual world platforms and the second coming the 3d interface, even citing the beloved Howard Reingold reporting live from a computer-server city from a decade ago.

Many of the individuals involved in reporting on, developing in, or utilizing Second Life, which might also mean playing Second Life, have weighed in on this. Electric Sheep, terranova, CNN, danah boyd, GSD&M's Joel Greenberg--believe me, the list goes on. It's hit a sore spot.

The problem is not really the numbers, although reliable metrics for emerging platforms is absolutely a concern for those doing business in these spaces.

The critical question is what kind of a model is SL?

Shirky writes, "[V]irtual reality is conceptually simple. Unlike ordinary network communications tools, which require a degree of subtlety in thinking about them...Second Life's metaphor is simplicity itself: you are a person, in a space. It's like real life."

Second Life may turn out to be the Friendster of the "metaverse"--the first to disseminate the signal strongly but also fast to disappear once the My Space of this format appears. Last winter there were 200,000 who visited SL. Today, there are somewhere around 2 million who have at least stepped in to use the interface, to see for themselves what this is all about. WoW has already demonstrated a mass scale of technical application and popular interest for MMORPG. SL, Multiverse, and the growing numbers of virtual world platforms beg the question of future network use. It's not like real life. Not by a long shot. One is animating a proxy through multilayered terrains of information. Some of them might take the shape of cliché singles bars, but the procession toward ever more complex simulation in computing is there. Not every user can code, but certainly more users will learn to script (or edit video or stream media) as Flickr and Youtube have made clear.

It also seems incorrect not to recognize exponential user growth in regard to 3D virtual worlds. Let's not look at the U.S. for a moment but Asia, specifically the Korean Cyworld that is a 2D world massively used for social networking in the way that My Space functions for American youth. The all-encompassing metaverse that Philip Rosedale promises Second Life will become may be a fiction of the CEO's own virtual world fantasy. The potential of 3D search engines do not trump text-based and 2D formulations. But it seems short-sited to say that 3D imaging and spatial representation do not open doors for emergent use of communications networks. At the very least, the qualities of 2D social networks are mutated, amplified, and animated by these real-time moving image worlds. VW platforms, including SL, can claim the following qualities:

1. Community building of social networks that reach on and offline;

2. Communal projects that span systems designs to educational, business, and activist organizations;

3. Avatar proxies are not minor. Yahoo avatar, Wii's Miis, Facebook....every place where users are able to created multi-media profiles they do. The puppet show of virtual worlds speaks very strongly to a collective desire to play in this way.

We are still in the beta stage on this, a continuing beta from the 1990s, I suppose, but the tipping point from niche to popular use seems to have arrived. In 1990, how many people outside of computer scientists working in universities had email accounts? By 1990, how radically changed was the email demographic look? Does anyone remember squinting through CUSeeMe 2600-baud camera feeds in the mid-'90s waving at each other from across town? There is a little Lonelygirl15 embedded in that scratchy black and white feed. There are particular problems with the individual VW platforms that are glaringly apparent. But in a larger sense, there is no "final form" to the VW platform. As MySpace fades, other adaptations will grow to take its place--so with the virtual world.

I entirely agree with Shirky's point that the press media's coverage of SL has been about "provider adoption" (residents and creative industries making virtual money and staging marketing events) as opposed to "user adoption." Some of this is opportunistic and some of it is the difficulty of figuring out what to write about if it's not the recognizable, top-down stories that dominant standard press coverage. Julian Dibbell and James Au have set an excellent precedent on embedded journalism in the unreal. Nonetheless, to trash the whole set-up on account of media hype misses the basic message of the medium. I think it's a real one.

Beth Coleman is one of the principal faculty investigators with the Convergence Culture Consortium and serves as faculty director for C3 on game culture and mobile media initiatives. She is an Assistant Professor of Writing and New Media, in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies and Comparative Media Studies at MIT.

---------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------

Two New Products to Help Bridge Blu-Ray, HD-DVD War. A Warner Bros. dual format disc and an LG player that will play discs of both formats were unveiled last week for 2007.

iPhone, Apple TV, and Social Networks for Switching Contracts. The new Apple products launched this past week have people buzzing about issues from transmedia interconnectivity to gated products, as well as social networks being designed for switching cell phone plans.

Interactivity and Television Viewing Connected, While People Don't Know About 2009 Digital Deadline. A recent CBS study finds that the people who are connected to broadband and have a digital television are also more likely to watch broadcast programming, hinting that interactivity and television are connected instead of being in competition. What about the lack of broadband services to many and the lack of knowledge about the looming 2009 deadline for a switch to digital television signals?

Implied Interactivity in Fan Site Toolkits. Stefan Werning writes about toolkits for the creation of fan sites, as related to his research on implied interactivity.

Metacafe Producer Rewards Program Successful, Despite Various User-Generated Challenges. The video site Metacafe has had substantial success in rewarding users for their content, but how are people trying to beat the system?

Burnett to Produce MTV Movie Awards Live. Will the combination of the Survivor creator's theatrics and a live broadcast bring ratings back up for this MTV staple?

Update: Flash Gordon Television Series Announced. After readers from Warren Ellis' Web site started discussing the fate of comic strip and cross-media character Flash Gordon based on a C3 post last week about fan communities for comic strips of yesteryear, the Sci Fi Network has announced a new television series in 2007 is in the works.

Net Neutrality Legislation Proposed Early on the Floor of the New Senate. Only days into the new Congress, the Senate has picked up the Net Neutrality battle, in a piece of legislation proposed by both a Democrat and a Republican.

Showtime's Upcoming Broadband Gaming Service. The premium cable channel is launching an online games channel similar to Turner Broadcasting's GameTap. How much room is there for gaming competition in this platform?

Is Serial Programming a Format or a Genre? Slipper Language in the Popular Press. A recent New York Times article calls this fall's serial programming both, but the "failure" of serial programming could, in many ways, be a confusion of form and content.

New Study Reveals that 55 percent of 12-17s Are in an Online Social Network. A recent Pew report looks into gender and age divides in social network use, as well as the various reasons why and how these teens use the networks.

DirecTV Leads Announcement of a Variety of New HD Channels. Cable networks like USA, Sci Fi, Turner, FX, and MTV announced plans for an HD channel simulcast, stemming from a DirecTV announcement at CES.

HDTV Sales Soaring as Prices Lower. High-definition television sets are up over the holidays as prices lower on the HDTV sets.

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Don't forget - you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog: http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/.

--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------

The Fantasy of Screenless Projection

By: Ted Hovet

In Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (Edison, 1902), a country rube attending his first motion picture mistakes the images on the screen for reality: he flirts with a dancer, tries to fight with a rake he thinks is seducing his daughter and--tapping into the oldest myth of cinema--flees in panic when a train is shown approaching onscreen (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/edhtml/ujmps.html). While the myth of early audiences mistaking images for reality has been largely debunked, or at least refined to take into account its cultural and historical context (see for instance Martin Loiperdinger, "Lumiere's Arrival of the Train: Cinema's Founding Myth," The Moving Image, Volume 4 No. 1, Spring 2004), establishing its accuracy misses a key point. Whether they really existed or not, instead of manifesting hilarious naivety about a new form of technology these rubes express a deep fantasy about cinema and other visual media that has not yet been fulfilled: the fantasy of screenless projection, of an image not trapped or contained on a two-dimensional surface hopelessly separate from the viewer.

Indeed, one sees a strikingly similar dynamic in the promotion of current screen technology. Hewlett-Packard launched a multi-media ad campaign this year for its products under the tagline "Make the Computer Personal Again." In one round of ads, we see short films of artists and media figures making use of a notebook for work, for creativity, and for leisure. In the film featuring "Intergalactic Artist" Pharrell, spinning animated shapes representing his musical compositions float into the air while the material that goes into his scrapbooks emerges from his hands spread out in all its three-dimensional glory. In other films Mark Burnett pulls down charts out of thin air and Mark Cuban describes an e-mail he sent to his wife by conjuring up a dinner table with full wine glasses and a candle that he lights with a snap of his fingers. In short, to represent what is in their notebook, they literally hold things in their hands, displaying a three-dimensional materiality that obviously does not really exist on a computer (or any other) screen. [All films can be viewed at http://www.hp.com/personalagain/us/en/index.html?jumpid=ex_R11260_vanity/personalagain/psg/home]

In an even more direct echo of the old locomotive films, a new ad for Hitachi's plasma HDTV features a model walking a snow leopard held by a jeweled chain. As the voiceover describes how this product "unleashes" the most "life-like color and detail" ever seen on a TV, the leopard breaks from its leash and leaps out of the screen (http://www.hitachi.us/#). Thus in an important sense, the consumer of these new technologies is put in the same position as the mythic rube of the early years of cinema. Of course like those who watched the antics of Uncle Josh, we are too sophisticated to really think that an image on a screen has a real material presence, yet we are asked to succumb to the same sense of (false) magic associated with screen technology.

The films in the HP campaign mimic familiar gestures from stage magic--decks of cards fanning out, items plucked from nowhere, a snap of the finger transforming the physical nature of an item. The connection of screen technology with magic, dreams, and even satanic forces dates back at least to the seventeenth-century exploitation of the magic lantern by Athanasius Kircher (Maria Warner, "Camera Lucida," in Eyes, Lies, and Illusions: The Art of Deception [London: Hayward Gallery, 2004] 4). Yet the true magic seems not to reside in the relatively safe and contained borders of a screen, but in the possibility of images detaching themselves from the screen to enter into our own space in full materiality. Efforts at some kind of three-dimensional projection or illusion, from stereoscopes to 3-d glasses to virtual reality helmets are almost as old as photography itself and have always met with mixed success. In the years before cinema, showmen thrilled audiences with the stage effects and illusions that sent images of specters or demons floating out into the auditorium (Warner 20), suggesting that Lumiere's projections of trains might have seemed rather flat, limited, and tame in comparison. The most uncanny effect depicted in the recent film The Illusionist (Burger, 2006) comes in the magician's conjuring of full, three-dimensional figures of dead or absent standing on the stage or even walking through the audience (something that the film never fully explains even as it reveals other elements of trickery at the end)--an effect not found in a movie theater or in home viewing equipment, however much resolution in one's HDTV or power in one's notebook.

One expects emphasis on the novelty and power of new screen technologies, but it is quite fascinating that these recent campaigns fall back on the oldest cinematic myth of all: that images might magically jump off the screen to become real. As it turns out, Uncle Josh had it right. However big, however realistic, however portable, the screen is a rather limited, disappointing vehicle for the image. When will our fantasy of screenless projection be fulfilled instead of merely exploited?

Ted Hovet is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Film Studies at Western Kentucky University. He teaches classes on American studies, film theory, the history of narrative film, and composition and has published on early film exhibition, pedagogy, and film adaptation. His current research focuses on the ways in which various media create "lines of display" that distinguish the content from the context and the introduction of new technologies into educational settings.


Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (samford@mit.edu)

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