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Can Virtual Worlds Help Society?

by Meghan Laslocky

Joshua Fouts, director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy

Photo/Philip Channing

The USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the USC Annenberg School for Communication has been awarded an unprecedented grant to explore how philanthropy might function in virtual worlds such as Second Life and There.com.

The $550,000 grant was made by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which last year launched a $50 million initiative to build the field of digital media and learning.

Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation, made the announcement during a virtual discussion hosted by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, the first in a series of activities designed to help the foundation devise strategies for using virtual worlds to benefit society.

“One of the key tenets of our mission is to explore how technology can be used to build bridges and understanding between cultures, be they between or within virtual worlds or between countries,” said Joshua Fouts, director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. “We’re delighted to play such an important role, as the MacArthur Foundation launches a yearlong series of conversations within the Second Life community. We hope at the end of this year to have a far better understanding of how activities in virtual worlds might better the real world.”

With grant funding, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy will:

� organize and host conversations in virtual worlds about pressing issues and how a foundation can help address community needs;

� produce virtual world simulcasts of face-to-face conversations on issues such as migration, education, and global and civic engagement that impact both the real and virtual worlds.

“This project is key because it’s promoting genuine dialogue with the residents of virtual worlds about what really matters, taking the conversation beyond branding, marketing and profits,” Fouts said.

From a computer, individuals can access three-dimensional, vibrant participatory communities and interact with millions of residents in virtual worlds, which are created by and for residents inspired by their imagination. Each member creates a virtual self, called an avatar, that interacts with others in virtual settings.

Virtual worlds, as they become more user-friendly and popular, are considered to be critical tools for business collaboration and social activities.

In a June 22 New York Times article on the MacArthur Foundation grant to USC, Second Life was credited with more than 7 million members, about one-third of them American.

The USC Center on Public Diplomacy studies the impact of private activities � from popular culture to the Internet � that have an impact on international cooperation, foreign policy and national security as well as on trade, tourism and other national interests.

The MacArthur Foundation is a private, independent grantmaking institution dedicated to helping groups and individuals foster lasting improvement in the human condition.

Can Virtual Worlds Help Society?

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