Essentials of Virtual Community Building

No matter who you are, where you come from or what challenges you are hitting right now, there are a few things we all share in common.  We need a few basic things: food, water and shelter are followed by education and communication with others who share our experiences.  Deep down we want to bond and experience a sense of connection.

Connections thrive when we create solid and healthy communities and this is where virtual worlds excel: the immersive landscape is appealing to network weavers as it provides an infinite canvas for collaboration and experimentation.  My avatar In Kenzo wears her wings as a visible reminder to crosspollinate between the worlds and bring people together so that millions can come together and create the emerging 3D web.

When I first sat down with Douglas Thomas of the USC Network Culture Project he excited me with an idea:  Create a challenge to grow the communities of the virtual world.  Together with a stellar team we crafted The Second Life and the Public Good Community Challenge and successfully gave away a million L$ to winning projects chosen by a panel of experts.

Through the process of reading over 20 proposals and helping our panel through the process of picking their top five, I recognized that listening is essential to community building.  If there’s one secret ingredient to success from events to metaverse productions it’s deep engaged receptivity, not only to words but to actions and creations expressing the ideas that proposals sometimes struggle to capture.  Once you listen to what others say and do you are able to connect them with new ideas and resources to help them grow, which helps the whole community in turn.

During our event on Monday 11/17 I sat with our awardees and discussed the real world impacts that their communities have created in the last few months.  The awardees shared many triumphs including new sims and groups now hosting events along with challenges such as responsible research management in the nebulous terrain of virtual worlds.  Some tested the strength of virtual bonds as dynamic personalities make conversation a complex game about identity; one sim away excited groups at the Nonprofit Commons shared about the strength of their alliances built effectively in these networked spaces.

As avatars learning to work remotely for the first time our panelists for the challenge tested new tools including a graphic consensus-building device that allows groups to map themselves and see statistically significant data made by Alpine EMS. We relied on the talents of the Vesuvius Group to help us produce podcasts and content for USC Network Culture Project and many content creators throughout Second Life who brought their best to the table as artists and activists.  Global Kids, our virtual worlds collaborators for many events including the mini-conference this week, detailed their birds of a feather sessions and RezEd talks on their blog Holy Meatballs for youth audiences (and in the podcast below!).

Together we witness blooming artistic communities, machinima that tells stories of good created in virtual spaces that echoes into our daily lives.  Amazing storytellers like Draxtor Despres are now being recognized for machinima works; Draxtor is accepting an international humanitarian award for his work with the Virtual Guantanamo team who also brought us Wallsickness, a memorial to the walls that divide us and how we have systematically built them up and torn them down.  How do these virtual teams evolve over time as relationships extend beyond the platform?  The Wallsickness team is one example of a solid partnership sustained over years while other groups find their footing as new 501(c)3 organizations.

There are a few rare leaders who can gather a group of people and enjoy that space together over a long period of time, enriching each others lives in ways that we rarely reach in the real world.  Collaborations are more common, requiring great glue and gumption to form a sustainable community that grows and evolves with the people involved. Enrichment can take so many forms, like the support spaces created by the Ability Commons or the International Health Challenge created by the Texas Obesity Research Center.  The people behind these groups are just as fascinating as the beautiful places they create together; a conversation with Nany Kayo of Native Lands or Eme and Gentle of Ability Commons reinforced my belief in these spaces as viable for true social change.

The new Foundations asking questionssim brings avatars new life in a handful of ways, providing an encyclopedic museum of the various lifeforms we know and understand now while offering maps of conservation areas and local community building efforts throughout Chicago.  The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has been a unique presence in Second Life over the last few years as leaders in philanthropic exploration into virtual worlds, choosing not only to build their own presence but to give to other leaders to grow and explore what we can do together.  Few institutions have the foresight to allocate resources to these brave new worlds and it has been a joy to learn and grow with the Digital Media and Learning staff at the MacArthur Foundation this year.

Craig MacFound welcomed attendees at Monday’s event, speaking about Doctor Ludovico (Douglas Thomas) and his definition of Network Imagination as it relates to the freedom and agency of invention shared with copresence available in virtual worlds such as the new Foundations sim.  “This notion of community and imagination and the way they intersect motivates our presence here”, Craig MacFound noted as he expressed gratitude for the work of Aimee Weber studios bringing “beauty, imagination and playfulness” to the new Foundations sim.

In Draxtor’s video seen above he hits on four key affordances as outlined by Thomas’ upcoming paper from the USC Network Culture Project.  The communities we work with in Second Life embody 1) Awareness 2) Desemination 3) Organization and Action and 4) Intercultural Dialogue that breaks through traditional media resources into the daily lives of their members.  Each of our communities has learned to leverage at least one of these affordances very well to grow a community of likeminded avatars who care about political advocacy, health or engagement with their tribal brethren like the Native Lands project has provided in these photos of their Veterans Day honoring dedication and drum circle.

We share a desire to connect people and resources with our friends at Global Kids who have created RezEd and the Justice Commons.  Barry Joseph and Rik Riel hosted a discussion at Monday’s mini-conference that speaks to the future of these platforms for community building; listen to their podcast below and stay tuned for links to the USC Network Culture podcast of Monday’s panel with these amazing community leaders.

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3 thoughts on “Essentials of Virtual Community Building

  1. Thanks for this.
    On the other side, we also need to remember our local business/retail communities because (at least in NJ) they fund the school systems. As consumer spending gets sucked out of communities by the Big Box stores, our downtown neighborhoods in many fine towns and cities all over the country are transforming.

    One of our small companies, Biz4NJ is an Advocate for community business in NJ. We are promoting a movement under the rubric of “Shop Your Neighborhood” a trade mark through which we rally retail business communities, one at a time.

    Therefore virtual fellow beings, shop mindfully this holiday and every day therafter. Balance virtuality with being rooted in community.

    Namaste

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