Since even before entering the White House, the Obama administration has used a multitude of social networking and communications tools, such as Twitter, YouTube, and of course, blogs in order to better interact with the public.
The administration has been slowly starting to add virtual worlds to this list.
Last week, when President Obama spoke to a live audience in Ghana, his address was streamed to audiences in the virtual worlds of Second Life and Metaplace. After the speech there was a virtual discussion, led by a panel featuring Kenton Keith, the former ambassador to Qatar, and African historian Professor Tim Burke. Guests were also treated to the musical stylings of Derrick Ashong, also known as DNA, who rose to YouTube fame during the presidential campaign.
This event was announced by CBS News and organized as an official White House event by the U.S. State Department. It was documented by award winning journalist and machinimographer Bernhard Drax (aka Draxtor Despres in SL). We at Sand Castle Studios were privileged to be able to work on this project with Drax. You can see some of our photos from the event and behind the scenes, here.
The event was meant to facilitate discussion and offer an opportunity for everyone to take part, not only in the event itself, but also in the message. In the machinima, the avatar of William May, Director of Innovative Engagement Worldwide for the U.S. State Department explains further how they used these new technologies to establish reach. Underneath all of this, the event was also sort of a test run to see how this mix of virtual worlds and social media might be used and how effective they would be.
The mix obviously blended quite well, because it was one of the most tweeted, facebooked, and SMS discussed events since Obama took office and quickly became viral even topping the trending topic list on Twitter.
The impact of the event didn’t stop there though. Excerpts from Drax’s machinima were presented yesterday in Washington, D.C. by Scott Sechser (AKA Scott Linden in SL) in front of military and civil members of the administration. Present for the presentation, was White House deputy Chief Technology Officer, Beth Noveck.
Novek has since announced that she will be hosting her own virtual event in Second Life this coming Monday, July 20th. The event features a simulcast of Noveck presenting her new book, WIKI GOVERNMENT: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful. Following the presentation, Noveck will take these kinds of virtual events one step further, by allowing questions not only from participants there in person, but also from those viewing the presentation in Second Life!
No one knows yet what the future holds for the Obama adminstration and virtual worlds, but what we are sure of, is that they are actively seeking out, researching, and testing these opportunities.
It will be interesting to see the Second Life community’s response to these types of progressions from the US government. Already there has been some criticism from the “residents” of Second Life about these events. Avatar Crap Mariner voiced his disapproval in a blog post entitled, “Obama wasn’t in Second Life and Metaplace… just the manipulation machine that put him in office.” Writer Tateru Nino who has written for some of the most prestigious and well-read blog sites about virtual worlds including Second Life Insider, Massively, and New World Notes said, “Anyone can stream a video. We could have a famous political figure every week… Showing a video of a President in your house doesn’t mean that the President was there.”
What these residents seem to be missing is that we all should have an invested interest in the US government or any government for that matter using these types of platforms as a means to connect to the public.
Virtual worlds like Second Life offer a prime opportunity to engage using two-way channels of communication and by providing a collaborative environment in which people can come together on all levels, to form innovative solutions that can actually make a difference.
At this time, many organizations are not aware of the power of virtual worlds and like all new platforms it will take time for them to be completely adopted by the mainstream. During this time, organizations will begin to dabble in these platforms. You can not expect them to dive head first into something that is completely unfamiliar to them. In order to ensure continued growth, we must encourage, not criticize, their efforts in order foster these relationships which eventually will lead to the full on engagement that we are seeking.
These beginning steps by the Obama administration give us hope that soon we may all actually be able to take part and have our voices heard in an open government that is a true reflection of democracy.