Giving New Worlds to the World

Almost a year in planning — but built in less than two weeks! — the Presidency of the Portuguese Republic officially launched on June 9, 2009, their first virtual presence in Second Life®. Commemorating the National Holiday of June 10 — Day of Portugal and of the Portuguese Communities, also celebrating the death of Portugal’s greatest poet Luís Vaz de Camões, who fixed the Portuguese language and grammar (similar to Shakespeare for English, Goethe for German, or Dante for Italian) with his epic The Lusiads — this is not a “media splash” or a “let’s build it and they’ll come” kind of project, that is here one day and gone the next when the buzz has died. It’s something quite different. But it’s hard to explain why it’s different 🙂


First and foremost, I should explain that I had absolutely nothing to do with the project — it’s a joint partnership between the Museum of the Presidency of the Portuguese Republic and the not-for-profit RL association CCV, which created, designed, and managed the whole project together. In the good tradition of Second Life’s most exciting projects, it has been done by a group of 40 or so enthusiastic volunteers and didn’t cost nothing. Well, almost nothing — but you get the point — since there are always some bits that have to be paid. My own company, Beta Technologies, just sponsored a little work. All the talent and creativity put into this awesome project, are, however, in the hands of independent, freelancer builders, who contributed their work to a project that meant something to them: keeping in touch with Portuguese and Portuguese descendants world-wide. And naturally Second Life is the best way to do this — it’s not merely about “promoting” or “informing”, but really about being in touch, and that means dialogue.

Most of my audience is international, so many of the reasons for the above might make little or no sense to them. It’s hard to explain. Portugal is a weird country, where most of its inhabitants actually live abroad. The exact number is not known, but the best estimate is close to 30 million — compared to the 10.5 million that live inside the geographical boundaries of Europe’s oldest nation.

Keeping in touch with all those people is hard, as they’re spread around the world. Communication is not always easy. It’s obvious that most of them watch TV and sometimes get Portuguese channels to play on their cable service. But there is a difference — getting their feedback and input is not so easy.

The Internet changed all this, as it’s the best medium known to Humankind that allows two-way communication to a vast audience. For a “nation” (in the broadest sense of the word, that encompasses a common heritage, a language, a culture, and a lot of traditions) that is so thinly spread all over the world, there is simply no better way to “keep in touch”. And it’s the kind of “keeping in touch” that is important: community-building in the best sense of the word.

For the past year or so, the Presidency of the Portuguese Republic has understood this point very well, and has been one of the few official institutions that has reached out using social networking. Perhaps unlike others they had real incentives for doing so: keeping in touch with the widely-spread Portuguese-speaking community is in fact one of the Presidency’s attributions. Other institutions — Governmental or not — might do it for the media splash or because “it’s something we have to do”, but the Presidency just sees as one technological tool to actually fulfil better their goals.

So, why Second Life? While Twitter or YouTube or similar technologies certainly enable two-way communication and an easier way to be in touch — as opposed to, say, airing speeches on TV — they lack the effect of actually “being there”. This is one of the reasons that the Presidency tries to arrange tours where they bring a retinue (which might include artists beside businesspersons — “being in touch” means not only talking politics and economy, but reforging the ties with a common heritage and culture) to far-away spots on the globe and let the local Portuguese communities get a taste of “being back at home”. Of course, it’s impossible to do that consistently every day, for every one of those 30 millions.

By contrast, a virtual presence in Second Life actively allows that to happen. This made the Presidency endorse this project, which has some oddities that are not obvious at first sight.

The first experience that a visitor gets when jumping to the “Alma” sim is visual impact. This gathered some comments from SL solution developers, criticising the whole building, since the age of building things to attract the media is worthless.

As a matter of fact, this is exactly what the team behind the build had very clearly in mind. So, instead of creating a new place to attract a new community, they actually subsumed an existing, active, dynamic community, which already had attracted a reasonable number of Portuguese-speaking residents, who gathered together on a virtual space targeted to cultural events. That was the important aspect of this whole project: building on the foundations of an existing, vibrant community, and extending its reach through an official endorsement. The re-building of the whole space, created almost exclusively by existing members of the community, just allowed it to forge stronger ties, and expand its reach by telling: “we can do it — together”. So it’s not as if someone external to the original project suddenly “took over”, pasted their logo over it, and claimed it as its own.

Rather, the endorsement by the Presidency was just a pretext to make this project grow and get some “official” recognition. Unlike Government-based projects, which so very often have to indulge in political relationships and struggles of power, the Presidency has a free hand in which projects it ought to support, endorse, or sponsor.

Why is official recognition so important? Couldn’t the project thrive on its own? The answer, looking at all the successful projects in SL, is naturally yes. However, there are two aspects which are also important to consider in this case. One is that so many SL projects are driven by an egotistical attitude to get “fame & glory”, and when these are not forthcoming, the owners simply get enraged with everybody else and shut the project down (this, of course, is not different from what happens in RL too; the major difference is that SL projects are usually far cheaper to create, and thus this happens more easily in SL than in RL). Having a responsible entity behind the project makes the project leaders more conscious of what their ultimate goal is — reaching out to a community, not self-promotion — and they will be “checked” to stay true to their goals 🙂

The other aspect, of course, is that building successful communities (even in SL) is hard. Starting from scratch could have been an option — people at the Presidency have been given training in SL for close to a year now — but it is something that requires much more commitment than “a few hours per week”. So it seemed obvious that sponsoring an existing community would make much more sense than starting your own. This model, now endorsed by such a highly respectable institution, is one that hopefully others will follow. This is important mostly for SL — not necessarily just for one or two people at this particular case — to give them a case study on how to successfully employ existing relationships in SL to work towards a common goal. Although certainly a lot of new communities were endorsed by organisations in SL, that actually worked out well (Orange Island and Metanomics are two examples that immediately come to mind), these have required an immense amount of effort to get established. The reverse model — starting from an existing community, giving them a free hand, but just rubber-stamb it officially — has even more reasons to succeed. Even though it might be a model that is not easy to replicate: not all communities might be happy to be “taken over” by existing entities. The entity itself must be above reproach and closely aligned to the communities’ current goals. In this particular case, this was definitely true: the “Tagus” group centred around the “Alma” sim already focused on promoting the Portuguese heritage and culture and reaching out to Portuguese speakers all over the world. They will continue to do exactly the same as before.

For the Portuguese taxpayer, this is also a very positive model to follow, since, as said, the cost was virtually zero. The sim already existed. A not-for-profit was already running it. The members of the not-for-profit contribute their work for free, and will continue to do so. Some costs inevitably occur, but the trick is to offset them by attracting official sponsors — companies that are aligned with the same ideas and goals and willing to contribute money or labour to be part of the project and help to carry the burden of the cost. All enjoy public recognition that way, and the usual criticism — “why are you wasting taxpayers’ money in the virtual world when the world-wide financial crisis is affecting us in the real one?” — will simply fall in empty ears. Perhaps exactly because there is a financial crisis going on, projects like this one shows that you can have a wide reach — using SL — without having huge costs. It’s the magic of social networking.

Speaking strictly for myself, I hope the project — and the model — is a huge success and actively encourages many others to do exactly the same. For the Portuguese market, of course, which has neglected SL completely, this was a very surprising announcement: locally, everybody thought that SL had “died” long ago, and such a high-profile entity suddenly announcing their virtual presence in SL came as a shock. For a little while, all the media, for a change, published news that were neither drama-filled (as it is the case with all the financial crisis-related articles and TV spots) nor gossip, which are the usual “juice” that keeps those ads being sold. For a short moment, a positive, innovative project captured the interest of the media and the population.

We need more of those. The world — real or virtual — is far more interesting and positive than the media likes to show. But it takes courage to write about positive examples. Let this one remain as a reference, and let’s hear about the forthcoming ones!

Good luck to CCV and to the Presidency of the Portuguese Republic with their own project 🙂

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