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Ready for your first ride in Second Life?

A Second Life Field Trip

I was quite looking forward to our Museum Informatics class that was going to be completely held within the Second Life space – it would be a virtual school trip.  I hadn’t been this excited since I went on a school trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  To prepare, we were told we had to sign up for a Second Life account, create our personified avatar that we operated as in their virtual space, and practice in the Second Life.

Second Life’s Wild Wild West

Once I had built my avatar and entered into Second Life’s public intro spaces, I was exceptionally naive to what would be taking place in those spaces… and to me!  I’m just an innocent lamb in virtual space and I had come to the virtual slaughter so to speak.

Some Second Life areas felt like being in the "Wild, Wild West" of a Star Wars Cantina.

I was appalled that in the SL Intro area there were an extraordinary amount of XXX avatars, activities and experiences that I was assaulted with.  When I was in the intro training area in SL, I thought I was in an orgy setting – avatars were picking each other up, exchanging XXX comments and activities, and I was propositioned and accosted several times – this in the introductory learning SL space!  Needless to say, even though virtual,  I felt fear and disgust. From what I learned in class, SL is an ADULT community, with all its connotations.

I wonder if there are any papers (or guides) on the preparation of the “assault” one can experience in the virtual space.  Our ever-faithful Teaching Assistant Ingbert Floyd even spoke about being “assaulted” by virtual drive-by shootings.  Egads!  All I wanted to do was to go into LAM (Libraries, Archives and Museums) environments that in the physical world you don’t have to worry about being propositioned, attacked, or even bothered.  I mean, has anyone really been cornered by a lout in front of the Mona Lisa, whispering, “How about coming over to my Second Life pad?” or chased by a gang of virtual hoodlums in the British Museum?  I tend to go to LAMs to get away from the intrusion of our crazy world.

So, here the rub… We want to extend the LAM experience but can the LAM experience be now distorted in the virtual world by social assault and improprieties.  I understand that one can set ratings such as G or PG to Second Life sites, but my question is, if one can do that, will it stop it?  There are no virtual security guards protecting us virtual visitors from virtual nasties.

This brought up interesting issues – in a library or museum setting, none of these XXX and violent activities would take place, but in the virtual world – it’s the Wild West.  I’m not a prude but if I go into a library or museum, I’m not interested in prostitution or XXX activities happening there.  Aren’t libraries and museums third spaces where these activities are not allowed?  If anyone can comment on this further and what SL spaces are “safe” and if there are SL libraries that are set up for safety, I’d appreciate it.It’s a point to think about and address.

Our Much Needed Tour Guide

We truly needed a guide during our 2-hour SL museum class tour experience.  Graduate student and SL impresario Richard Urban was a life-saver and he highlighted key places to look and investigate – thanks to him a few of us got to explore the planets in our solar system.  Comparing it to real life, it was more like taking a group of 1st or 2nd graders on a field trip – pure chaos and organized fun.

Second Life Wayfinding Exhaustion?

Copyright by Chia Ying Yang (

Everyone roamed around, the guide attempted to gather us together but some of us (me!) were uncontrollable or lost our way, and I spent most of the time bouncing walls, swimming in the ocean, flying, and navigating versus learning from the objects.  Nicolleta Di Plas and Paolo Paolini observe this in their Museums and the Web 2003 paper “The SEE Experience: Edutainment in ED Virtual Worlds.”  They state that “interest wanes from enthusiastic beginnings… the attention curve drops sharply as the users find the space either too difficult to naviagate or not satisfyingly engaging” and success relates directly to the ability to “hold a critical mass of users in real time.”

Well, I was literally exhausted from all the navigation, “teleporting,” wayfinding, etc.  Again, I was a newbie.  It was also very fascinating to see all my classmates’ sub-personalities through their avatars and avatar names.  I actually met a couple of twins of my avatar.  I have to say, it felt a lot safer and conducive being in an organized class group in SL.  I think tour guides and organized groups are an excellent idea (as in real museum spaces) to introducing visitors to the virtual museum (that means real people as guides still!).

Does and should Second Life emulate the Real World?

The Matrix vs. the Real World?

It is really amazing what worlds and LAMs have been created in Second Life.  For me, though, I still need to feel that I am in a virtual world that feels somewhat real, and it still feels too artificial for me.  I’m sure this will continue to develop.  Blass, Gobbo and Paolini discuss how important creating a virtual presence is in their Museums and the Web paper 2005 “3D Worlds and Cultural Heritage: Realism vs. Virtual Presence.

Their findings related in how to make a virtual presence effective include the following.

  1. Understanding how a real place is or was.
  2. Conveying the emotion of being in a real place.
  3. Creating the illusion of being in a fantasy place.
  4. Creating an immaterial situation.

And they highlight that a virtual presence is not truly achieved by “reproducing a virtual copy of a real-life place, but rather by focusing on what goes on in the situation, and trying to put users in the pest position to feel part of the situation.”

Urban, Twidale and Marty write how Second Life is not the real world in “A Second Life for your Museum: The Use of 3D Collaborative Virtual Environments by Museums” (Museums and the Web 2007), and that “what is intutive in the real-world does not always translate into SL settings.”  I think that helps to define “reality” needs in a virtual world – which are real indeed.


A screenshot of the Van Gogh Letters Blog:

Peereboom, M. et al., Van Gogh’s Letters: Or How to Make the Results of 15 Years of Research Widely Accessible for Various Audiences and How to Involve Them. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted April 29, 2010.

Read more: Archives & Museum Informatics: Museums and the Web 2010: Papers: Peereboom, M. et al., Van Gogh’s Letters…
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives

This scholarly article from the currently held Museums and the Web 2010 nicely dovetailed into my Olympia project, as the online Van Gogh Letters project played a part in my “inspirational bibliography.”

The paper addresses the 15 years of academic research by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to the complete Vincent Van Gogh correspondence and documents that were “re-transcribed, annotated, dated, translated” and then digitized.  The collection encompasses 902 letters (819 written by Van Gogh, 83 written to him).  What makes them additionally wonderful are the sketches of his famous works that are embedded in the letters.

A cross-media strategy (in book form and on website), including mixing in new media that included a blog, an iPhone application, and a multimedia tour, the strategy was to bring access and life to Van Gogh’s letters, his world, and the man himself.

The component of the article that was most relevant to the Olympia Project was the discussion on the Van Gogh Blog and its mission to make it current and dynamic by presenting Vincent Van Gogh’s letters as blog postings to be submitted on the month and day of their original writing.  What was quite edifying was their idea of how Van Gogh would address a blog today.  Their answer: “If Van Gogh had been alive today, he would probably have been an active user of blogs and social media.  After all, he wrote very personal letters, often several a day.”  This is was exactly my thought – the critics of the Paris Salon in 1865 would have been blogging like mad, and their denunciation of Manet’s Olympia would have been viral.

The Van Gogh team used WordPress also and attempted to use as many letters with sketches to give visual appeal.  Because his letters were so long, excerpts were provided with links to the Van Gogh Letters website to read further and look at the originals at the same time.  New posts were given notice through RSS Feeds as well as Twitter and Facebook using to generate interest into other social network avenues.  The blog was successful in generating as much interest in it as the website of the Van Gogh letters.  A key lesson they learned from the process was that the blog was very time-consuming (can relate) and that a blog can attract a lot of spam (need for anti-spam plugins, Akismet).

One aspect that was not brought up in article though which I observed in visiting the blog was looking at the tag cloud.  Part of my argument or idea for my Olympia blog was that the tag cloud is telling about the discussion and ideas of Olympia.  The same can be said about the things that Van Gogh talked about the most and this I find most fascinating – the primary one being “colour.”  Now, that was very delightful for Van Gogh is not only known for his incredibly tactile brushstrokes, but for his incredible color that sweeps over you and engulfs you.  Also other primary tags were Gauguin, Millet, painting, sky and trees.  How very telling.  That alone can speak yards regarding the content of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters.

Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum is an incredible resource, another jewel provided in our Museum Informatics course.  She writes on her Museum 2.0 blog how she wrote this book on a public wiki (reminds me of our use of the wiki in class), how she vetted public editors, though she found most participants were only involved during the formative parts of the book.  She practiced what she preached about participation: “So when people contributed, I always felt that they were helping me, supporting the project, sharing an insight or critique for me to use.”

I focused on reading Chapter 1:  Principles of Participation.  In this write-up, I’ve sprinkled numerous quotes from Nina Simon because they are so good and they speak for themselves.  I couldn’t believe what excellent advice and information was jam-packed in just one chapter.  Of course, some of these chapters are length (45+ pages), so she also offers the option to purchase the book.

She brings up the fact that sometimes museums want to just create any participatory activity or application, yet can run afoul by making a poorly-designed participatory experience.  She highlights a poor one immediately in the first paragraph:

A Poor Participatory Design:  An Anonymous Chicago Museum

“I’m in Chicago with my family, visiting a museum.  We’re checking out the final exhibit – a comment station where visitors can make their own videos in response to the exhibition.  I’m flipping through videos that visitors have made about freedom, and there are REALLY, REALLY BAD.

The videos fall into 2 categories:

  1. Person stares at camera and mumbles something incomprehensible.
  2. Group of teens, overflowing with enthusiasm, “express themselves” via shout-outs and walk-ons.”

Results: Unsuccessful.

Why unsuccessful:  Museum only issued mandate to create without providing “scaffolding.”

Simon offers the wonderful quote from Orson Welles which puts it aptly: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

Now, let me compare this to an example she gives of a good participatory design…

A Good Participatory Design:  Denver Art Museum – 2009 “Side Trip” Gallery for The Psychedelic Experience Exhibit

In the exhibition space highlighting psychedelic rock music posters, visitors were encouraged to make their own rock music posters in the Side Trip gallery:

“Rather than giving people blank sheets of paper and markers (and reaching a narrow audience of self-motivated creators)… visitors were offered clipboards with transparencies attached.  There were stacks of graphics – cut-out reproductions from real rock posters on display… could place under transparencies to rearrange and remix into poster designs of their own choosing.”  Posters took approximately 25 minutes to create.When completed, the visitor gave to a staffer who made a composite by copying it on color printer.  Then, the visitor was given the final poster and provided with option to post a copy in the gallery.

Results:  Out of 90,000 attendees, 37,000 posters were created.  That verges to nearly 45% participation from total number of attendees!

Why successful:  Visitors didn’t have to start with a blank slate.  They were provided “scaffolding.”


Nina Simon stresses the critical importance of scaffolding to participatory design.  We have seen in class the example of a good one in the Victoria and Albert Museums “Make an Arts and Crafts Title.”  We don’t have to create from a blank slate.

What exactly is scaffolding?  Simon elaborates on this and its formation from “instructional scaffolding” with its roots in education and contemorary learning theory.

Some good quotes about scaffolding:

  1. Instructional Scaffolding is where “educators or educational material provides supportive resources, tasks and guidance upon which learners can build their confidence and abilities.”
  2. “The best participatory experience are not wide open.  They are scaffolded to help people feel comfortable engagin the the activity.”
  3. Example of an open-ended, non-scaffolded experience: “What if I walked up to you on the street and asked you to make a video about your ideas of justice in the next three minutes?  Does that sound like a fun and rewarding casual activity to you?”
  4. An open-ended, non-scaffolded experience can “feel daunting to would-be participants.”

Another juicy gem is her presentation of the 5 stages of social participation…

The 5 Stages of Social Participation (from Me to We):

Stage 1:  Individual Consumes Content

Stage 2: Individual Interacts with Content

Stage 3: Individual Interactions are Networked in Aggregate

Stage 4: Individual Interactions are Networked for Social Use

Stage 5: Individuals Engage with Each Other Socially

Simon applies these 5 stages wonderfully in the case study of the successful incorporation of all 5 stages in Nike’s product Nike+, a combined iPod/Shoe product to track one’s running.  It is too good to highlight and I’d suggest if you have the time to read it.  It illustrates the five stages and is directly applicable to designing the participatory museum experience.

Other good gems from this article is how she describes how YouTube is a successful participatory experience and the real reason it is successful, that encourages “diverse forms of participation.”

These diverse forms of participation are elaborated in her discussion of what participation looks like:

1. Creators

2. Critics

3. Collectors

4. Joiners

5. Spectators

6. Inactives

What is quite fascinating is that only .16% of YouTube visitors upload a video and only .2% of Flickr visitors post a photo.  Wow!  She stresses that although the quantity of creators are small, participation (and why social media, YouTube, Flickr, etc. are popular) and mini-creation takes place in the form of collectors, joiners, critics, and even spectators.

Attribution: Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010.

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