The CDC’s Second Life

There’s nothing very unusual about two red-headed women chatting in the headquarters of a Federal agency…unless one of the women is actually a man, and the headquarters actually exists on a server somewhere in Linden Lab. That man is John Anderton, who is responsible for bringing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) into Second Life. I met John’s avatar, Hygeia Philo (pictured on left talking to my avatar, Sheva Weeks), when I happened to see an announcement of a CDC Health Fair listed in New World Notes and decided to find out more about what the CDC is up to in Second Life.

John first started exploring Second Life last March, and by July he had convinced the powers-that-be at the CDC to let him establish an agency outpost there, which he built with his own virtual hands. John seems to be the CDC’s go-to guy for their health communications “Special Forces” missions, having been detailed to work on public health crises like the CDC’s response to the anthrax scares, the flu vaccine shortage and setting up new communications offices in various parts of the agency. He currently (at least until next week) is working in the Office of the CDC Director with the charge of exploring how social media can be used to promote public health, and he plans to continue to serve as the CDC’s virtual face in Second Life.

When we met, John graciously agreed to do an interview, which we conducted by e-mail, phone and in Second Life.

Can you tell me about the Center at the CDC where you work, and what your role is there?

I am presently on detail to the Office of the CDC Director, Office of Enterprise Communications. I am the lead for Project Fulcrum; an initiative to advance public health using new media, to recruit new persons into public health careers, and to reinvigorate old public health brands that have fallen by the wayside. Before this assignment, I have served for the last five years as Associate Director for Communications Science in the Center at CDC that deals with HIV, STDs and TB (called NCHSTP, for short). In that role, I was charged with lead responsibility for managing campaigns, media, special projects, contracts, issues management, exhibits, and clearance of communications products and materials for the Center. I have worked at CDC in a variety of communications positions, in several areas. I have a PhD in Health Promotion and Behavior, and a Masters degree in Public Administration.

How widespread within the CDC is knowledge and interest in internet-based applications like Second Life and other social media?

CDC is always looking into better ways to understand its audiences and the public, and to communicate its messages in timely, credible, and relevant ways. An internal blog was started recently, and podcasts began last month for outside audiences. The internal newswebsite is in its second year of daily publication, and it featured a story about CDC in Second Life a few weeks ago, so I think the knowledge of what we are doing internally is growing. I have presented on it a dozen times to various internal constituencies to build inertia around expanding our presence in world. I started looking into Second Life (SL) last March, when only 175,000 persons were in-world, as a way to advance the CDC mission using this new medium, for this specialized audience. We acquired our avatar formally in July, and introduced the space in August. The SL presence has been continuously evolving since that time.

How did you personally become involved as a CDC representative within Second Life? Are there others who are doing work in-world from your Center or other divisions of the CDC?

I began exploring YouTube as a means of disseminating CDC health content, and ran across a machinima presentation on Second Life, in March, 2006. Intrigued, I wrote a white paper to make the case to management for CDC to enter SL, and was authorized to explore and begin involvement. I created an avatar with purpose; Hygeia was the Greek muse of health, and the last name of Philo means ‘lover of,’ thus a CDC av with the metaphoric moniker of Hygeia Philo (lover of health) seemed perfectly appropriate. I waited until July 13 (CDC’s 60th anniversary) for her to formally enter Second Life for the reason that birthdays are rites of passage (drivers license, voting, etc.) and her birthday into the new world, as CDC celebrated maturity in the real world, also seemed appropriate. Everyone I meet has been congenial and both surprised and pleased to see CDC in the SL space. I have been working in SL on a daily basis, part time, for almost 8 months now. As far as others at CDC – the National Center for Environmental Health is exploring how to educate about toxic waste in SL, and the Strategic National Stockpile is exploring training issues in SL. The Injury Center is also thinking about how to get involved, too.

I love the thinking behind Hygeia’s name. If it’s not too personal a question, how does it feel to be a man in real life but use a female avatar?

I think of working with the CDC space and Hygeia Philo like hosting a trade show booth with a colleague. I am there to represent CDC in the best way possible, professionally and personally. The Juwangsan address [the location in Second Life] and the avatar in SL are both parts of that image. The gender discrepancy between myself and my role in SL doesn’t bother me, and I don’t get much grief at CDC either, as I tend to thoroughly explain why the avatar was chosen before explaining my role. I don’t see Hygeia Philo as an alternate John Anderton, rather I see her more as the face of the Agency that I am working with to disseminate health information. More of a partner than a puppet, and I do not hide my true identity when asked, interviewed by the press, or during discussions. When I attended the Second Life Community Conference in San Francisco this past August, the distinction between myself and Hygeia caused a little amusement for a few people, but no apparent consternation.

Please tell me about how the CDC’s presence in Second Life came about. How much resistance did you encounter from others at the CDC to the idea of building a virtual office?

I met with Randy Moss, at the American Cancer Society to learn about how the ACS was raising money with the in world Relay for Life, and then attended the Second Life Community Conference in San Francisco to continue studying how people were playing, interacting, transacting, and studying the possibilities of SL. Both contact experiences were transformative; I came to see this as neither a fad nor a game, but as a social movement and a glimpse into the future of social interaction, learning, and even being. The blended reality aspect of real and virtual worlds is fascinating to me. I wanted to build a space that could both educate and foster/enable dialogue. I routinely change up what is offered, based on interactions with residents who stop by, or whom I meet when I am exploring. The transience of the space is also marvelous; one can change on a dime, if something new presents itself. The day the E. coli scare occurred, I posted a “Real Life Health Alert” in the space for persons to learn about what was going on, and what to do about it. To those who saw it, it was very favorably commented upon; as a bridge builder between real life health threats and virtual education opportunities.

Everyone at CDC has been saying “Go go go!” there is not internal resistance; rather a chorus of support that is also a little agitated that I cannot go even faster! In world, after an interview with the Metaverse Messenger [a Second Life-focused newspaper downloaded by almost 50,000 people each month], the Editor responded favorably to my request to publish health info in her pub, so I have contributed a weekly column to this news outlet for the last 5 weeks. That has been great too, as a learning tool about virtual media, and the intersection with real world media.

I found out about the CDC in Second Life during a “health fair” you were offering there. How often do you do those, and are there any other virtual activities in which the CDC is involved?

You came on the first day of the first CDC health fair. Events drive interest among SL residents, and I had marveled at how concerts and fashion shows rivaled presentations by the Lindens [the staff of Linden Labs] as both entertainment and information dissemination opportunities. Rather than a big press conference (which we will do later, when we expand), I decided to go the highly localized route of a community health fair. In the real world this is a nice, local platform to display health information, to educate on specific issues while building community and establishing credibility of source. I was delighted at the attendance, and content of discussions. It was surprising to me to be at the top of the list in Rik’s Picks, in New World Notes, and kind of exciting to receive coverage from the Second Life News Network on the Fair. I’m not sure if that is due to the novelty of the event, an interest in what CDC is doing, or some other factor, but the interest has been wonderful. CDC is ramping up a variety of offerings, and will require us to expand and complicate the space a bit, but I don’t have a timetable for these upcoming developments.

The CDC’s National Center for Health Marketing’s director Jay Bernhardt is one of the first I know of in a Federal health agency to write a blog. While it is not updated very often, I think it is still a significant milestone and an indicator of the CDC’s desire to use the latest tools to communicate with its audience. Are there any other examples of how the CDC is using newer internet/social media or other tools (e.g., mobile phones) to reach its audiences beyond just offering a static website?

I would suggest that you contact Jay with that question – I’m not in a place to be able to answer that effectively.

What has been the response of SL residents to the CDC’s outreach in-world?

Almost without exception, I have been warmly greeted by old and new SL residents. People are kind of amazed that CDC would treat it seriously, and that we are not there for profit. I hope that CDC can continue to grow and evolve in the SL space, as it grows and changes itself. With such rapid development, it forces us to stay on our toes!

Are there specific health issues that you tend to focus on that are more prevalent among Second Life residents because of their demographics and behavioral risk factors?

I would like to gradually introduce the topic of sexual health into the space, as a way to promote discussion about the links between what one says and does in Second Life, and then one’s actions in real life. Liaisons in real life, foreshadowed and even pre-enacted though virtual spaces have led to documented disease transmission, and discussion about this seems generally absent from SL. On the demographic side, there are all kinds of opportunities to introduce topics relevant to persons in their 30s about screenings, health and emergency preparedness, childhood milestones, and other topics. On the behavioral side, there is also plenty of room for talk about good eating, active lifestyles, eye strain, and other health topics relevant to persons who spend significant amounts of time sedentary in front of a monitor. The possibilities are hard to count, there are so many.

How do you see Second Life fitting into an organization’s overall social marketing strategy?

Second Life joins the list of audiences, interests, and channels that link the American public with their public health infrastructure. Given that half of residents are international, it also broadens and deepens the CDC communications portfolio into addressing wider audience needs and concerns. I suppose that it is a tactic, and not a strategy in itself, but one that suggests that attention to new media requires constant vigilance, and willingness to experiment. If SL fails, for some reason, the movement of persons into online congregate social settings will probably continue to expand, and understanding how to reach these audiences will continue to be important.

For people at other agencies or organizations who may be considering establishing a presence in Second Life, what advice would you offer?

Do it. Now. In my career at CDC, which spans a short 15 years, four new technologies have emerged and merged with mainstream communications. My first business card had my name, title, address and phone number on it. Then came a fax machine number, then an email address, a website, and most recently, a metaverse designation and avatar. These are all ways that I can receive contact from the world and matriculate therein. They have gone from slow, to fast, to real time. One must be in all of these modes to communicate effectively with the audiences with whom we participate, and to understand the places they inhabit. Galileo reminded us that one sees farther if one stands on the shoulders of giants. There are plenty of giants out there to partner with, in this new medium, and most of them are friendly. Also, and importantly, establish excellent relationships with the IT department; with all of the updates coming from Linden, internal firewalls, network up and downtime, and corporate/governmental IT security issues will cause frequent calls for assistance.

Have you hooked up with any groups of nonprofits that are working on how best to integrate their causes into SL like

No, other than the American Cancer Society and some exchanges with the New Media folks, I have not begun to run with the big dogs. I am still studying how to best interact with persons, groups, and constituencies to best participate in this wondrous landscape. I hope to continue to learn, evolve and adapt to the space in fruitful ways, and if it goes really well, to lead trends.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on yet?

Second Life is part of one’s first life; not separate from it. Even the immersionists have to sleep, eat, and interact with the Real World. If one can merge good health practices in real life with the fun and play of Second Life, then physical and psychological realms can be enlightened and good habits enacted, to personal benefit. If this happens collectively, then public benefits are achieved, and public health becomes a reality, in virtual and actual ways. Thanks for the chance to talk about these issues.

Thank you to John for providing such an insightful and compelling glimpse into the process he has gone through to keep the CDC in the position of leading trends among Federal agencies. I hope that when other organizations and agencies see that even the CDC, with all its bureaucracy and generally slow uptake of new technology, is taking Second Life and other social media seriously, that they should too. I predict that the CDC’s entry into SL will open the floodgates for other people working on health and social issues.

If you are in Second Life and would like to visit the CDC’s virtual offices, you can click here to teleport directly. If you are not already in Second Life, you can first download the software and get a free account.

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Searching for Charity

GoodSearch smaller logo

I just got an e-mail about a new search engine called GoodSearch that will send money to your favorite nonprofit each time you search. I checked it out and have added it my Firefox toolbar (they also have it for Internet Explorer) so that my kids’ school can earn money while I work. Here’s what their website says about it:

GoodSearch is an Internet search engine with a simple concept and unique social mission. GoodSearch enables you to help fund any of hundreds of thousands of charities or schools through the simple act of searching the Internet.

The company was founded by a brother and sister team who lost their mom to cancer and wanted to find an easy way for people to support their favorite causes.

It’s simple. You use like any other search engine (we’ve partnered with Yahoo! to ensure great results), but each time you do, money is generated for your favorite cause.

Last year search engines generated close to $6 billion in revenue from advertisers. Think about what your favorite cause could do with even a fraction of that money!

Definitely worthwhile to check out, especially if you already prefer Yahoo as your search engine of choice. In any case, earning a penny or so for your favorite charity or school each time you search could end up bringing in big bucks if you spread the word and get other supporters to use Goodsearch too.

Excuse Me, My Cause is Calling

Since I last wrote about YouthNoise in June, the social activism networking site for teens has continued to innovate new ways to appeal to youth. The Wall Street Journal (online subscribers’ access only) on Saturday describes a new partnership between YouthNoise and Virgin Mobile USA to send a text novella in 160-character installments to cellphone users who sign up.

The story is aimed at raising awareness of teenage homelessness, and was written by copywriters rather than a published author. Here’s how they describe it:

Ghost Town is the first interactive text novella from Virgin Mobile and YouthNoise. It’s the gripping story of a teenage football player named Ghost who is hiding a dark secret—he’s homeless. This secret will shock his classmates as he tries to manage the ins and outs of high school, an uncertain future, and just trying to stay alive.

The characters from the story each have a profile and blog on, interacting with readers and each other in the comments. They also each have a MySpace page.

In the past week about 10,000 people have read the beginning of this text-message fiction. It’s not free, though, costing anywhere from $.025-.05 per message (depending on the messaging plan they have); those who sign up will receive two text messages a day for five weeks.

This is a novel way of getting the message out (yes, pun intended), and I expect that we will be seeing more of this type of text messaging and/or interactive fiction directed at teens through the media they use most.

And while we’re on the subject of social activism via mobile phones, I just read at Strategic Public Relations about a line of mobile phone personalization products called Just Cause from Airborne Entertainment. These products include “socially-relevant, environmentally-concerned and politically attuned ringtones, ringbacks and wallpapers.”

Sample “Protestones” include “Hell no, we won’t go!” and “Viva La Revolution!” while “Stop and Thinktones” include “Every 3.6 seconds someone dies of hunger” and “Nearly one in four people live on less than $1 per day.” Ringbacks include factual information about subjects as diverse as the depletion of the planet’s rainforests and cruelty to animals, while wallpapers include graphic illustrations accompanied by statements such as “Pollution Stinks,” “Change Your Habits, Not the Climate” and “Dissent is NOT Un-American.”

Over and above its basic messages, Airborne will work in conjunction with socially-responsible groups across the continent to create cause-specific products. In addition, the company will select one group to which it will donate 10% of all Just Cause net proceeds each month.

Kids love to be able to personalize their phones, and this presents an opportunity for nonprofits to be able to give their teen supporters a way to express their affinity for the cause. YouthNoise knows this too, and they just had a contest to design a phone charm that embodies the site’s philosophy. If you are working with youth, how can you make their mobile phone — one of their main methods of communication — into a way of getting your message out?

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Two Birds, One Stone

The best social marketing products are ones that people would want anyways even if they were not good for you or helpful to others.  Clever product designers take a desirable product and figure out how to attach a secondary use that might ordinarily be more difficult to get people to adopt or do in a different way.

I love the concept of the PlayPump pictured above:

It’s a simple idea. As children spin on a merry-go-round, water pumps from below the ground.  It is stored in a tank just a few feet away, making a safe, plentiful supply of water available in the community.

Nearly 700 PlayPumps have been installed in South Africa, providing safe water to a million people living in rural communities. Thousands more PlayPumps will be installed throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, bringing the many benefits of ready access to clean drinking water to millions of underserved people.

It’s brilliant.  Having easy access to water improves so many other health and social issues:

  • Children can play and stay in school rather than hauling water.
  • Women no longer have to risk injury from carrying heavy containers of water over great distances, and have more time to care of their children and even start their own businesses.
  • The PlayPumps can have public health messages on two of their sides.
  • The other two sides can be leased for consumer advertising, with the revenue paying for pump maintenance for up to 10 years.

This goes beyond the cause marketing model used by a brand like Ethos water, which was recently sold to Starbucks.  For every bottle of Ethos they sell, Starbucks donates five cents toward helping children around the world get clean water.  They recently announced a $250,000 grant to fund water-related projects in Ethiopia.  But the Ethos model is still pretty much standard cause marketing.

What I’m talking about is a product that serves two functions simultaneously.  Like a shirt that has microelectronics built in that can monitor the health of the wearer (i.e., blood pressure, blood oxygen, temperature and ECG) and trigger a call for help in case it is necessary.  Or a version with built-in gyroscopic sensors to determine whether the patient has fallen over.

Or a program in which volunteer health workers in South Africa care for their neighbors who have AIDS, while at the same time learning to read, write and solve math problems. They are part of an adult education program called Reflect, which is “an education methodology developed in the mid-1990s that connects education with community action in hopes of making learning relevant to adults.”

Or a cell phone that comes with a built–in pedometer and digital music player — three things that you might take with you when you exercise anyways, but in a convenient combination.

Or a UV sensor watch that tells you when it’s time to protect yourself from the sun.

There are many more familiar examples of dual purpose products:

Your promotional materials can also serve another purpose besides getting your message out.  This is nothing new — think promotional pens, bags, baseball caps, first aid kits…  But if you can make your advertising into something directly useful in solving the problem you are addressing, that can make it even more effective.  Like these Salvation Army blanket/billboards that can be used by homeless people to stay warm.  Or illegally planting trees to protest trees being cut down illegally around the world.

As always, bonus points for creativity to those who can apply this model to their own product or campaign.

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Nonprofit Life in Second Life

I was recently interviewed by Beth Kanter about how nonprofits can use social media as part of their social marketing strategies. As part of the interview, we got together in Second Life to “meet in person.” That’s me on the right, though I’ve since changed my hair.

I found out that Beth is involved with a group called TechSoup that is compiling a directory of nonprofits that have a presence in Second Life. This includes organizations like the Friends of the Urban Forest, Global Kids, Live2Give and others.

The American Cancer Society is another nonprofit making good use of Second Life with their upcoming Relay for Life on July 22-23. According to Wagner James Au, who reports on interesting trends and events in SL, they have already raised the equivalent of $11,000 in pledges with a month to go. This is the second year they are doing this event, and it promises to be a fun one, with entertainment, activities, contests, and more in addition to the walk-a-thon itself.

If you are not yet on Second Life, I urge you to get your free account and check out what I think will be the future of online interfaces. If you are already on Second Life, let me know and we can get together (my SL name is Sheva Weeks).

UPDATE: If you are new to SL and would like to learn some of the basics to help you get around more easily, Beth has just announced that she will be offering a newbie mentoring session on July 14th at 2:00 pm Eastern time. You’ll then be ready to attend TechSoup’s next event on July 18th at 6:00 pm Pacific time (simultaneously in San Francisco and SL) and learn more about how nonprofits can use Second Life to further their missions.

What Would HAL 9000 Do?

On the timely heels of the Games for Change conference (which was covered so well by Beth and Marc) comes an article from the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab on the ethics of captology, the design of computerized persuasive technologies.

They lay out some principles to follow in designing these technologies:

The equivalency principle suggests that if something is unethical in the context of traditional persuasion, it is also likely to be unethical in the context of persuasive technology. This applies to motivations, methods and outcomes.

The reciprocal principle suggests that the creators of a persuasive technology should never try to persuade a user of something they themselves would not consent to be persuaded of. They must also regard users’ privacy with as much respect as they regard their own .

The big brother principle suggests that any persuasive technology which relays personal information about a user to a third party must be closely scrutinized for privacy concerns. This distinguishes between “big brother” technologies, which share information, and “little sister” technologies, which do not. A big brother might be a web site that transmits your purchasing history to a telemarketing firm, while a little sister might be a motivational scale that keeps your weight private while encouraging you to reach your weight loss goal.

The disclosure principle suggests that the creators of a persuasive technology should disclose their motivations, methods and intended outcomes. This allows users to assume their share of the responsibility for these outcomes, and reduces their vulnerability to persuasion that they might not otherwise notice.

In addition, the reasonably predictable principle reemphasizes that the creators of a persuasive technology must assume responsibility for all reasonably predictable outcomes of its use.

The article then applies these principles to case studies of the Amazon Gold Box, the Real Care Baby, the “Relate for Teens” software program and the US Army’s online shooter game that’s used for recruitment. For those thinking about using interactive technology to bring about health or social change, this article is must reading.