After a restful weekend up in Vermont, I come back to find out that there has been a good bit of media coverage on former Virginia Governor Mark Warner‘s appearance in Second Life last week. Notably, the Washington Post has a humorous piece on some of the confusion and griefing at the event. Hamlet Au points to several other news stories on his blog, including CNN, and Daily Kos.
Meanwhile, I am still pondering what is the potential value of virtual world appearances by political candidates?
For those who haven’t been following along, below is the entire content of Governor Warner’s comments during the one hour Second Life interview, as taken from Hamlet’s transcript of the event:
[On Virginia] As a former high-tech entrepreneur and Governor of Virginia, I’m proud of the results we achieved in Virginia. We got named the best managed state in America by Governing Magazine. We were named the best place to do business in America by Forbes. And saw dramatic increases in our test scores, including the largest Math SAT score increase in the nation, and we finally started to crack the code on how to bring knowledge-based jobs to rural communities.
Now, at Forward Together, we’re trying to advocate that politics in this country is less about left versus right, or liberal versus conservative, but more about the future versus the past. So it’s exciting for me to be here today.
Clearly, how people communicate, what type of communities they form, is changing real time. At Forward Together, we want to use every tool — including virtual tools! — to communicate some of our ideas about how we get our country back on the right track.
[On Terrorism] Next week, I hope to lay out some immediate steps we can take to better protect our homeland and ensure that the resources we spent get real results. But I also think the fifth anniversary of 9-11 serves as an opportunity to challenge Americans to remember that sense of civic engagement we all felt in the aftermath of that tragic day. As I’ve said elsewhere, the fact that the President didn’t call upon that spirit to take on some of the major issues, from our energy crisis to restoring America’s stature in the world, was a missed opportunity.
[On Iraq] The real question is, is our ongoing presence in Iraq making us safer? Of course, getting out of Iraq without a plan is as bad as going in without a plan. Our goals must be to ensure that as we redeploy from Iraq, we ensure that it doesn’t become an even greater haven [for] Al Qaeda, or Iranian expansionism. And this has been made more difficult by some of the Administration’s policies.
[On the Democratic Party] I think Democrats need to lay out ideas that can be competitive in more than 16 or 17 states. That doesn’t write off, particularly some of our rural communities. And by the way, I’ve always been supportive of a woman’s right to choose, and even vetoed a ban on late-term abortions.
[On Abortion] I support Roe v Wade, and I think the challenge from this administration goes beyond an attack on Roe v Wade to an attack on science, from the stall tactics at the FDA on Plan B, to failure to acknowledge global warming, or failure to unleash the potential of stem cell research.
And that’s it. Probably less content than you would get from a five minute appearance on CNN or a one page press release. What have we learned about the man’s positions — he’s pro-choice, he questions how Bush has been fighting the war in Iraq (who doesn’t?), and he thinks he did a good job in Virginia. Not much of anything really during a one hour event.
Much of this was due to the clunkiness of having Governor Warner typing all of his comments in chat. There was tremendous downtime between him typing and the words appearing, which meant that it is likely that he was really typing in real time his thoughts. But it also meant that we were losing valuable time just waiting for his words to appear. I tried to truncate this in the video I posted of the event, but even then it’s a slog to watch.
That might be an acceptable trade-off if there were other advantages to Mr. Warner appearing in Second Life.
In college a long time ago I saw then presidential candidate Bill Clinton give a brief speech in Los Angeles. He might have spoken for 5 or 8 minutes. I don’t recall him saying anything particularly profound or eloquent. But I remember how he looked at us, how he seemed to be trying to reach every one of us with his message. And when he glad-handed people afterwards, you could tell how much he enjoyed touching people. You could not help but be impressed.
Great politicians can move us with simple messages delivered with great conviction. This can happen even over the radio as Winston Churchill showed, and over television as presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy first demonstrated. Does any of that charisma and magnetism and personal presence translate into virtual environments?
So far, the answer appears to be no.
At the Second Life event, I got no sense of the man Mark Warner. Does he seem to be genuine, strong-willed, smart, folksy, or wise? No idea. He can put on his avatar, but his avatar can not adequately represent him in a way that is compelling and convincing.
Adding voice via quicktime I would say would be the least that should be done to give a virtual audience a better sense that they are interacting with a genuine human being. You can form all sorts of impressions and feelings about a person just from hearing their voice, than from reading their words. And people can talk a lot faster than they can type usually.
Video of the politician addressing Second Life residents is of course another possibility. But this tends to create a jarring contrast between the video presenter and the audience as being in different places and realms. Whereas being in the presence of Warner’s avatar gives the illusion that we are in the same space together.
Gesturing is particularly tricky territory. Ideally, Mr. Warner would be controlling his own gesturing and body movements, to give his avatar more of the appearance of mimicking his actions in the real world. I was told by one of Mr. Warner’s aides that he controlled his avatar at all times, except for the initial fly-in, which was done by another slightly more experienced handler.
That of course makes sense. You wouldn’t want President Bush driving the limo that delivered him to the Capitol Building to make a speech.
But it creates more questions about the authenticity of the experience if you are watching an avatar of someone that is actually being controlled by a third-party like a puppeteer. This is very likely to be the case for most politicians, who aren’t going to be able to invest the time and mental space to learn the nuances of movement and gesturing in Second Life.
All of this is largely uncharted territory, which will be fascinating to observe develop.
At the end of the day the question comes down to: Would I vote for someone just based on the information and impressions I got of a candidate from his or her virtual world presence? No… not yet.