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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Meanwhile in Second Life...

Following up on Slag's post, today's Personal Journal brings (free!) news of the latest in corporate colonization of the Second Life virtual world: virtual job fairs and virtual job interviews.

Pace Slag, I don't really wonder why people neglect their First Lives. I've done it plenty in various less-than-immersive virtual realities, if much less so since I've had kids and a spouse to keep my spare time occupied. A commenter likewise suggests you might as well ask why people enjoy passive entertainments such as television. I have little doubt that my own preference for interacting — up to and including use of virtual weapons of mass destruction — with 'bots instead of remote humans (*) will eventually be viewed as an odd side-effect of computing youth in the pre-intertube age.

Two of this year's Hugo best novel nominees in fact explore worlds in which people with interactivity preferences like mine would end up grievously future-shocked. A minor plot point in Peter Watts's Blindsight [full text!] involves a shift of norms such that in-person sex is considered deviant; Charlie Stross's Glasshouse is set in a far-future in which the ability to save one's (biological) state vector easily, combined with an ability to manipulate it virtually at will, makes radical body modification commonplace. Merely living in a virtual reality as, say, a talking velociraptor is old hat technology from the prequel-ish Accelerando.

Nor is the arrival of business activity to SL any surprise. Back in the Summer of '94, some summer school classmates and I had agreed that a central problem for creators of immersive virtual worlds would be getting clients to engage in enough productive activity to pay their (mostly First Life) bills. (**)

The more interesting question is whether mainstream society is up to the technology. The W$J article suggests maybe not.

A handy sidebar offers hints for the SL job hunter. The first is, don't go to an interview as "a troll or a mermaid" when interviewing with an employer with a "conservative workplace culture." I might'a thunk that employers with really conservative workplace cultures don't recruit in Second Life, though there's a danger that some such firms may step out on the wild side to establish cool cred with Generation Z. Anyway, while sensible, the Journal's advice conflicts with Linden Lab's "be who or what you want to be" pitch, evidenced by the three avatars I saw on successive visits to the SL home page: a blue-haired young woman with a cybernetic outfit suitable for Exo-Force, an angelic (as in winged) young woman in a diaphanous dress, and a man with comically exaggerated pecs and shoulders wearing a zoot suit.

One interviewee is reported as having gone through a training class prior to a recruiting session, and nevertheless gives his interview avatar a name other than his real name. Interestingly, while applicant pseudonymity — vanishingly rare in most real-world employment searches — it seemingly was expected of this situation; another fair-goer underwent a virtual sex change. This underscores a fundamental WYSINNWYG problem with the medium. The article relays predictable stories of applicants and interviewers alike comically unable to control their avatars. The flip side is someone whose expertly designed and controlled avatar conceals some sort of repellent personal characteristics. (***)

Nor does the medium necessarily test relevant aptitudes. The fellow with the pseudonymous applicant-avatar was seeking an executive chef job, for which skill at typing in an IM setting is not obviously relevant. Nor, for that matter, is possession of a computer capable of meeting SL's system configuration recommendations, except for occupations where the associated signal of technodorkery might be informative. For everyone else, the Journal helpfully suggests not to run other apps along with SL. You don't want to get pwned because the SL client bogs down your obsolescent computer.

The bottom line, naturally, is that virtual interviews economize on moving around recruiters, interviewers, and interviewees in meatspace. Operators of overstuffed airliners, take heed: business travel demand is not inelastic.


(*) Possibly without good cause, I put the array of blog-related dealings with various people I've never met or even interacted with at closer range than e-mail exchanges (including but not limited to all of my co-bloggers) in a separate category.

(**) I don't think we would have foreseen that the price of SL-level immersion would be trivial relative to that of an extensive cable TV package, but that was back when Doom II was the state of the art and the (superior) Marathon was yet to be released.

(***) One memorable job talk I attended was given by a candidate who raised suspicion by failing to get tenure at Snowbelt State despite being a student of a Famous Professor; delivering the talk half-concealed behind the whiteboard led us to doubt his client-interaction skills.

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