Friday, June 22, 2007

Virtual (real?) platforms for good

Today's discussion between Jonathan Fanton (President, The MacArthur Foundation) and Philip Rosedale (CEO, LindenLab) was a breakthrough event.

But not because of the technology, nor because it took place in SecondLife, was live-streamed on BlogTv and covered by IM, chat, and bloggers while it was going on. Nor because it gave some teenage resident of Teen SecondLife the opportunity to ask these two CEOs a direct question about ethics and society.

It was a breakthrough hour because it was a public, accessible*, not "insider-baseball" discussion of what philanthropy can do to improve the world. Real world issues were brought up. Misters Fanton and Rosedale were asked: What about the Iraq war? What about environmental damage? How can kids hold adults accountable? They answered honestly. Sometimes the answer was "Nothing. There is nothing we can do." Sometimes the answer was "Maybe virtual world residents can come together, develop an organized movement to advocate for U.S. participation in the International Criminal Court, and then move that into the real world - get the U.S. involved." Those are real, meaningful answers. Well done.

(Several participants did a great job of capturing the event, including the questions asked - check these blogs and notes.)

Philip Rosedale has spoken often and eloquently about the role of SecondLife as a platform for its participants. As he puts it, "It is the residents of SecondLife that make the world work." SecondLife is trying to be, as Rosedale says, "an empowering platform for individuals."

This strikes me as both a compelling metaphor for - even an aspirational, structurally different - goal for philanthropy. Imagine if philanthropy sought to be an "empowering platform for individuals (and organizations) to make change."

I realize this might sound easy. In fact, it almost sounds like the Ford Foundation's old tagline, "A resource for innovative people everywhere." Michael Milken also speaks to this point when he describes his philanthropy, so maybe we are headed in this direction.

But to really be a platform for individuals, where the participants decide how to do things, where the successful organizations are only those that help residents succeed, where feedback loops are tight, fast, and respected - these are new ways for philanthropic institutions to act. A good start, a conversation with anyone who could get there, was made today. I hope the Foundation and its partners are successful in achieving their goals: listening to new voices, providing means for isolated groups to get together, offering support for creative solutions "in world" that might transfer to "real life." The conversation started - lets hope (and help) it continues.

*It wasn't accessible to everyone. I spoke with at least two people who tried to get into the conference and found that SecondLife crashed their computers. These are folks with good hardware. So hats off to MacArthur/USC for making the webcast available and here is a multimedia reference to the event. And, to those who didn't/couldn't get in, try again. Its a whole new world - it takes some practice. In true acts of altruism, there are lots of avatars waiting to help you learn your way around.

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