Those who attended the Virtual Journalism Conference at Washington State University this week may have glimpsed the future of global journalism in a brief documentary about an avatar-to-avatar news conference. The news conference, which took place in February in the virtual platform Second Life, gave eight Egyptian political bloggers a chance to directly question James K. Glassman, the public-diplomacy czar under form President George W. Bush.
“This is the ultimate situation of breaking down barriers of time and space,” said Lawrence Pintak, director of the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at the American University in Cairo—or, rather, his slightly-less-gray-haired avatar said that in the documentary. “We’re putting together people who are on opposite sides of the world for a real-time conversation.”
The Second-Life news conference was the final stage of a project, overseen by American University in Cairo and paid for by the U.S. Agency for International Development, that brought the Egyptian bloggers to the United States to cover last fall’s presidential election.
Technology that allows journalists anywhere in the world to connect with each other and with newsmakers could make reporting less costly at a time when many newspapers are cutting back on travel. And while some might dismiss a Second-Life meet-up as little more than a glorified conference call, Rita J. King, a former journalist, said the difference is tremendous. Ms. King is CEO and creative director of Dancing Ink Productions, which designed the virtual space where the news conference was held and also helped create the documentary.
First of all, “teleconferences put people to sleep,” she told The Chronicle. They’re also expensive. But most importantly, the experience of interacting in a three-dimensional space is much richer, sensationally and psychologically.
“Neurologically, people feel they are sharing an experience if the brain perceives that they are sharing space,” she said. “I have found that people are very likely to be candid in interviews that are conducted virtually, much more so than over the phone or even in person.… It is safe physically, first of all, but it also eliminates elements of discomfort that are part of the physical world, related to socioeconomic status, age, gender, race.… There are all sorts of limiting factors that prevent people from being candid with one another in person.” —Steve Kolowich