The Coming Storm: Digital Natives Will Redefine the Nature of Learning and the Future Course of Institutions

The following is a re-production of a document I’ve assembled with my team as part of FusionVirtual’s ongoing push to revolutionize online education.  You can view the whitepaper in .pdf format HERE.   I value your feedback and am eager for a passionate discourse on the topic.  Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts and observations in the form of a comment below or reach out to me on Twitter or by e-mail.




This project is led and coordinated by Alex Berger, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of FusionVirtual. Berger is a digitally-literate, self-directed Millennial with trans-generational experience and perspective. In 2003, he began sharing his insights into the ways institutions have to change to be viable. He shared his extensive knowledge of advancements in information availability, and breakthroughs made by the online gaming community in the use of virtual environments. His honors thesis, Not Just A Game: How On-line Gaming Communities Are Shaping Social Capital, was circulated and verified by many leading educators and business leaders. His blogs and communications on his site have kept him at the leading edge of change. He is an accomplished lecturer and delights in sharing his insights into the future.

As one of the most disciplined of the digitally literate, information-age leaders, Berger gathered together educators and business leaders and charged them with helping him focus FusionVirtual’s role in defining not only the future of institutions but, perhaps most important, identifying structural inhibitors to change. He stated that this must be done so leaders know how to make their way in the digital-information age.


“In human history there has never been a time when the difference between generations has been so vast. In the last two decades computer literate, digitally skilled, information-age youth have begun to function in ways never before imagined. They are developing a new operating system for the acquisition and application of knowledge. They are changing our understanding of how things work and how things can be.

The generational differences that divide the past from this new present are so extreme that those with pre-digital, pre-information age mindsets must replace their outmoded literacy with new information. If they do this, they will be able to communicate with their children and function in the world as it is now.”

-E.F. Berger, Ed.D. 2008

This quote from an educational leader may seem extreme to those who have not rethought the foundations of their knowledge and begun their process of reeducation.

Let’s examine an example of significant change: Up until a decade ago – the 1990s – some group, a religion, an institution, or a professor controlled information. Whether it was locked-up by a religious hierarchy, a government, or an institution of higher education, it was controlled and doled out to those deemed worthy. Within what can be described as an instant in human time, through the Internet, information of all types became available to anyone with basic computer skills. As technology has advanced institutions and individuals have quickly begun to forfeit sole access and control. Those institutions or governments that try to limit what their subjects can know are fighting a losing battle for control. While the degree of their success varies widely, they will destroy the lives of countless people before they learn that regardless of the actions they take, they are delaying the inevitable. The reality of complete control is dead and has been replaced by the myth of absolute control.

This one major change in what and how we can learn has shaken institutions and governments to their roots. Institutions up to this time were able to control the way people thought by limiting their access to information or setting themselves up as authorities due to their privileged access to “truth.” Although many institutions continue to function as if they have exclusive rights to information, their death-knells are too loud to ignore.

Higher educational systems everywhere are institutions unable to continue as designed. All are based upon one-way communication. Even those few that attempt to be interactive still rely on conveying information that is limited to the knowledge and intent of the tellers and the curricula. Digitally literate individuals cannot – will not – function in these outmoded schools. Learning has jumped over the barriers of past practices and a whole new threshold of knowledge has been crossed.

Epistemology is being redefined. Credits, degrees and measures of academic mastery no longer have the same meaning because the information they were based on has been shown to be too limited or skewed.

NOTE: The ways modern generations are able to communicate have increased as never imagined. The effects of web technology on social inter-relationships have perhaps more impact on society than the changes brought about by the invention of the telephone at the beginning of the last century. In a future position paper we will address the schism this has created between generations and identify ways for leaders to bring their organizations into the Communication Age.


The training aspects of schooling focus on essential skills which must be mastered. Most of these skills are developed in the early or elementary grades. However, training aspects are part of every level of learning. For example, the skills needed to access, analyze and apply law precedents are not taught in elementary school. They are part of the ongoing study of law. Training and mastery of skills is the key factor in the use of knowledge. Information without the learned skill sets necessary to analyze and evaluate the authenticity of data is useless.

Upcoming generations of learners must be encouraged to explore tasks – learning to read, write, and compute, using the scientific method, plumbing a house, building a device, preparing a meal, and so forth. With the mastery of foundation skills they have an unlimited ability to access knowledge that will allow them to gather and combine sources of information and apply what they have learned to solve problems or gain greater understanding.

We can access information far beyond what the brightest minds could access only a decade ago. To do that, the educational institutions must ensure student mastery of foundation skills, ensure self-direction through self-discipline, and inculcate ‘universal’ social and cultural values. For example, in the US, this is known as “Americanization.”

Dr. Mark Jacobs, Dean of the Barrett Honor College at Arizona State University, stresses that true education must be interactive. We agree. We clarify this concept by adding that reading a book and answering the questions at the end of a chapter may help one pass a test, but only through active discussion and practical application, where learners must demonstrate their ability to turn the concept in their heads and apply it to other situations, does true education take place. Berger’s point of view is that listening to a ‘teller’, reading a book, viewing a PowerPoint, or going through copious information on the Internet and then “passing the course” by answering questions is not the way education works best. What works is the interaction between students and teachers, students and students, students and research resources, and students and scholars from anywhere they can be found, within set parameters that require the application of all that information to real problems and situations.


One might assume that institutional changes are so obviously necessary that those in leadership positions will redirect their organizations to serve the new types of learners. In fact, many leading institutions have begun to make necessary changes. Whole bodies of knowledge once controlled by academic institutions which, in essence, charged for the selective release or access to this information, are available to anyone through the Internet. Many institutions of higher learning are examining the use of virtual space and avatars to enhance educational opportunities.

Increased access to once carefully protected research and knowledge has resulted in combinations of data that was previously impossible. The economics of this type of change is of great concern. If a university cannot charge for access to information or access to those who have spent their lives researching new insights, then what can they charge students for? What is their role?


To bring about the changes that will make systems and institutions viable, leaders and those who deliver the services must stand back and rethink and often redefine the structures they work within. In education that is very difficult. The conglomerate institution called education is vast, petrified by administrative facility, and peopled by workers who are reluctant to change. Political influences add to the dysfunctional aspects of schools. A century or more of habit, custom and self-protection supports an argument that, “It was good enough for me, it’s good enough for them.”

Some argue that the seeds of a nation’s destruction are within it. This is especially true of a nation that depends on a trained and educated populace. It is no surprise that in the U.S. those areas that are most regressive are the regions with skewed educational standards and inflexible religious strictures.

To assume that any amount of credible information will bring about change is naive. Many institutions and systems must be bypassed. Unable to deliver what is required, they will wither and die. It is no surprise that the largest competitor to traditional public and private universities are online higher education programs like the University of Phoenix. And it is not difficult to project that as these online, two- dimensional schools are not interactive, they have short life spans due to the lack of quality of their products.

This is a time of change. Those who do not identify their product and the nature of the students they work with, as well as the availability of information and the skills necessary to deal with it, not only kill their institutions, but severely damage the Nation. We must adapt and utilize a worldwide scope of knowledge. We must prepare students to interactively process, evaluate, and make a contribution by applying their knowledge.


There are phenomenal numbers of critiques of America’s schools. Few of these articles differentiate between elementary, middle, high school, and college, (although colleges are more often treated separately). Most articles reference schools as if they were all doing the same thing and need the same fix to be effective. Most fail to offer solutions along with their critiques. Unless each level of education and each area of subject matter (discipline) is examined and its purpose understood, change is impossible.

For our purpose we assume the reader understands the needs of the different levels of education. It is enough to say that necessary change at the elementary level may be quite different than changes needed in high schools.

We concluded that regardless of the nature of the changes, there are overarching structures, many put in place without consideration of training and educational needs, that block effective ways of serving learners. These are structural problems that affect all levels of education and are not specific to any one level or discipline. Rather than list structural problems that are in the way of effective change, we decided to identify those areas that must be adapted to education in the digital, information age.

As a guide to open, new thinking about overarching structures that inhibit or deny effective education for many children and erode the Nation’s need for an educated populace, let’s stand back and look at the K–12 structure and select one significant structure that must be changed.
K-12 education is mandatory except some children can opt-out of the system at age 14 (some states age 16) ending their education. With no place to go, these kids are turned loose to run wild in the streets. We understand that at one time kids could drop out because they were needed to work the family farm. Then things changed and there was no demand for unskilled, underage youth. It is interesting to note that in the ‘40s through ‘60s the military draft collected many of these young men and educated them. Then the draft ended. Dropouts run wild.

Today our core cities are filled with undirected, poorly educated, dropout youth who are a drain on society. The solution seems obvious. If a child did not survive in the traditional school setting, or if her family was dysfunctional and could not/would not support her, then what is needed to save her and children like her, and our society, are training and acculturation programs not unlike basic training and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Why haven’t programs for these damaged kids been created? Obviously because our society and its institutions are too entrenched and inflexible to change in response to critical issues. Why then will some assume that systemic problems that block what is needed for the digital, information age student be addressed and institutions modified? It would take forces greater than those allowed in a democracy to make it happen. Most institutions are so bound they cannot change. If they are unable to serve a changing population these petrified systems erode the competency of large numbers of citizens and gradually make participatory democracy impossible.

Hopefully, new leadership creates options that by-pass moribund systems. Perhaps through forced redirection? Perhaps through market forces that meet demand?
We believe the battle for change is half won when we are able to clearly identify the structural changes that must be made.


Please note: The following lists are in no particular order. Each identified change can and will have volumes written about it. Herein we simply tag some necessary changes.

  1. The role of the teacher: What must change to meet the needs of digitally literate, information age students?
  2. One-way communication ends replaced by interactive communication.
  3. Teachers connect students to world resources.
  4. Teachers set the learning parameters for specific levels (courses and units within courses).
  5. Teachers keep individuals focused and the assigned group “class” individually centered.
  6. Teachers learn about and provide desired outcomes for each student.
  7. Teachers utilize virtual space as an extension of the classroom and as a way to work with students individually and in groups.
  8. Teachers extend their accessibility through the use of avatars.
  9. Teachers know the essential skills necessary for mastery of taught material and train individuals accordingly.
  10. Teachers identify student mastery of identified data by observing how each student is able to apply the concept to other situations.
  11. Teachers work as part of interdisciplinary teams.
  12. Although training may be done in isolation, the educational programs are always interactive.
  13. Teaching emphasis is on student mastery of basic skills necessary to function in the course, and the application of readily available data, not how to find information.
  14. The nature of evaluation changes – teachers do not use tests to punish or motivate students. Teachers use evaluation (tests of many types) as a diagnostic tool to determine the educational focus for each student.
  15. Teachers (educators) break out of the ‘time block’ system and use time as necessary to meet goals. Time-on-task is determined by the teacher and student, not a set schedule.
  16. Course length, within realistic parameters, is determined by the teacher to address student needs and learning styles.
  17. Teachers build their courses and instruction methods around the Learning Path: Introduction, Association, Involvement, Application, Internalization and Contribution. (Dr. Edward F. Berger)
  18. Teachers are highly skilled professionals. Their time is focused on students and instructional coordination. It is not used for patrolling, policing, or administrative tasks best done by support personnel.
  19. Changing the concept of classroom (place-based) education.
  20. Interactive learning takes place in many learning environments. For example, a dedicated classroom space may be used for face-to-face communication, group, and one-on-one interaction, or it may not be needed.
  21. Lecture halls are replaced/supplemented by presentation areas in virtual space.
  22. Students are grouped by achievement level and need, not chronological age.
  23. Placing every student at a desk, in a room, doing the same thing has no purpose beyond administrative facility.
  24. Virtual space “classrooms” can be utilized for 24/7 instruction and one-on-one instruction.
  25. Virtual space can be utilized for testing and mastery evaluation as well as attendance, tutoring, and socializing.
  26. Students may never enter a “place-based classroom” if their needs are met in monitored studies through the Internet or in virtual environments.
  27. Educational delivery is not determined by proximity to a school classroom – students may be anywhere.

FusionVirtual has presented this position paper to stimulate thought, share ideas, and help leaders identify the directions they must take to serve future generations and our Nation. Our work has just begun.

-Alex Berger and the FusionVirtual team.

Need a copy that’s easier to print/read?  View the original whitepaper here.

Reddit, TED and Sir. Ken Robinson


In addition to my passion for travel, I’m actively exploring the professional and academic opportunities presented by virtual worlds and gaming technology.

I have written several widely popular blog posts (eg: Educating Millennials/my explanation of generational gaps). I’m also currently engaged in two major projects which you may not be as familiar with.

The first of these projects is FusionVirtual . While most of what I’m exploring through FusionVirtual isn’t public yet, I will share that I have the conceptual solution to many of the challenges facing web-based distance learning. A major component of this is the use of virtual space as an instructional tool. I am working with/seeking academic and development partners to bring the project to fruition and have recently been engaged in dialogue with a major community college, their President and upper administrative leadership. As well as members of the college’s foundation.

The second project is a book. I am a tech savvy Millennial, despite this and what common cultural dialogue would have you believe I’m not a Digital Native. I’m fresh out of a major university and the world of higher education, but also have nearly five years experience in corporate America. The sum of these experiences means that I’m a member of an incredibly small demographic. A demographic with a foot in both worlds and access to insights that would otherwise be elusive. My exploration of these insights has led me to a unique understanding of tech, education and professional issues. That understanding has helped me decode and identify the answers to issues which have baffled business and professional experts.

The Q&A

With that said, I was thrilled when I saw that two of my favorite resources and were teaming up to do a crowd-sourced Q&A session with one of my favorite TED presenters: Sir. Ken Robinson.

I submitted my question under my Reddit username (Glamdering) which was as follows:

Distance learning (web based education) is currently the new rage in education. However, the quality of the experience is at best sub par. As a recent college graduate, I cannot help but feel the three major types of online education (static html pages, pre-recorded video, power point slides with audio overlays) are missing the point. What are your thoughts on the future of distance learning, and have you seen any signs of a breakthrough that will replace the status quo, while delivering interactive, powerful, social and visually simulating learning?

After a week, during which users were able to submit and then vote questions up/down – mine made it into the top top 10. You can view the official blog post with all 10 questions and answers on HERE.

Sir. Robinson’s response was as follows:

I should just say: Distance learning isn’t the new rage in education. We’ve had it for years.

In the U.K., we’ve had the Open University, which was set up in the ’70s. I think it’s now the largest university on Earth. It’s a massive institution on a small campus. The purpose was to offer university-level education to people who were beyond conventional undergraduate aid. A lot of people in the Open University are in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, right up to their 90s. It’s a brilliantly innovative organization, designed to give people a second chance — or a first chance, if they missed it. It’s based on distance learning, with some residential programs built in. But all the programs were initially put on late-night television by the BBC.

So, distance learning itself is not a new thing. It’s the web that’s new.

But I think Glamdering is right. It’s not very good. There’s been a tendency in universities to try and cash in on the interest in web-based learning. A lot of them have been dumping programs online: lecture notes, videos of talks, and so on. They’re of variable quality. Some of them are great, and some aren’t. In a way, TED is a great example of how distance learning can work well. TED doesn’t have a formal curriculum. But it has new ideas about getting ideas across in a powerful, condensed way, with high-quality visuals, and then syndicating that. TED has shown us a dramatic appetite for new ideas presented in an interesting way.

Just dumping stuff online isn’t the answer to it. But there’s a massive thirst for ideas, for this sort of content, as illustrated by the mushrooming of social networking and user-generated content. There’s another interesting commercial organization called Blackboard which is growing very quickly and has been doing work that’s really worth looking at. I mean, I don’t think they would say they’ve got this whole thing sorted at all, but they’ve started to think differently about the best way to use web-based materials and distance learning both in institutions and outside of them.

Microsoft and Apple both have interesting educational programs. They both work with schools. They have educational leadership programs. They, I think, are looking hard at how the technology that they are developing and selling can really be used for distance education. And I think the work that both are doing is really worth looking at, although they’re approaching it in different ways.

As with what I was saying before about video games: I think there’s a massive potential that we haven’t yet fully tapped into. Most schools don’t really have contact with stuff. People who are at the leading edge of thinking about it are coming in with great ideas and possibilities, but the penetration of this stuff into education is still pretty limited. But I’m sure it’s the way we have to go in the future. And for a very good reason. Because we now have the ability to put the best thinking, materials, pedagogy, resources in front of everybody. This should be seen by schools as a massive opportunity to — not to replace what they do, not to replace their own teachers and curriculum, but to enrich and enhance it. And the really good schools know that that’s the way to go. And there are some great schools that are doing it. High Tech High is an interesting one in the U.S.


Sir. Robinson spends paragraph 1 discussing the origins of distance learning. I found this part of the response helpful. It reflects generational differences in terminology. Distance learning is old – very old – Sir Robinson reaches back to the start of the Open University. One might also reference the old Sears Catalog or any number of similar services. Where I used the term distance learning, I took for granted a web-specific context. This gap may suggest the need for a more standardized alternate term. Web-based learning works, but is limiting since it discourages the inclusion of platforms that blur the line (virtual worlds, VoIP networks, combination systems, etc.).

In paragraph 2, Sir Robinson highlights TED as a quality example of how online video delivery can work for education. I agree almost completely. What’s missing, however, is interaction. TED delivers incredibly creative, informative videos and has tried to increase involvement by adding a powerful comment system. Despite this, it remains fundamentally a one-directional medium. While that’s great for knowledge sharing, it is not interactive enough. The beauty of the internet is that it allows two-way exchanges. An outlet like TED is still limited by the old one-way exchange which plagues lecture halls in Universities everywhere.

In paragraph 3, Sir Robinson mentions Blackboard. As a recent ASU graduate I used Blackboard through the majority of my college career. Blackboard is an interesting beast. It serves as a great enabler. It replaced the horribly constructed geocities websites that leading-edge university professors were creating pre-Blackboard. Blackboard created a standardized platform that most professors have been able to use to upload notes and encourage discussion. That said, I detest Blackboard – a sentiment which most students share. While it’s changed slightly in the last two years it’s still largely the same beast. The Blackboard I used was based on an archaic forums system which was obtuse and largely irrelevant. The same can be said about the service’s chat and collaboration features. In truth, Blackboard was little more than a dumping ground for files and an awkward, outdated one at that. All that was made worse by the company’s monopoly on the industry which was illustrated in the DOJ’s recent anti-trust inquiry into the Blackboard/ANGEL merger. That said, I agree that Blackboard has laid the groundwork and helped validate an ideological shift in the way we view online interaction and collaboration.

In paragraph 4, Sir Robinson points to Microsoft’s and Apple’s education programs. Two that I’ve explored casually, but have yet to dive into completely. If anyone has more information on these projects please post it in a comment!

In paragraph 5, Sir. Robinson shares several thoughts which I was excited to see. His commentary on the wall between those at the leading edge and academic implementation is right on the money. One thing he hints at but doesn’t explore, is the resistance from old, entrenched faculty who are clinging to outdated technologies and academic structure while actively working to block new ideas and concepts which are both technological and structural. One of the biggest fears among entrenched academics is that they will be “replaced” – a point which I was thrilled to see him address. I was excited to see his mention of video games (virtual worlds) as part of the equation of the future.

His response is further affirmation of the concepts, observations and projects I’ve been exploring for the last 9 years. It’s exciting to share a vision of the future, and to stand at the vanguard of 21st century education in the company of great minds like Sir. Robinson’s.

I have the utmost respect for him and would like to thank him for taking the time to respond to my question while engaging with Reddit, TED and the community for this Q&A session.


How Would The Modern University Educate Plato?

Since the late 1770s education has made significant advances.  Matching the revolutionary changes that occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution, education for the masses has become commonplace in industrialized nations.

The United States in particular has seen fantastic improvements in its education system over the last hundred years.  2007 statistics indicate that some 84% of Americans have completed high school and a record 27% have completed a bachelors degree.  These figures are impressive and have contributed in a significant way to America’s dominant position on the world stage.

However, there is still significantly more that we can and must do to serve the educational needs of millennials and America’s future generations.  Despite the quality and scope of education that industrial era education and the associated systems have delivered, they are quickly becoming obsolete and in some cases detrimental.

21st Century learners live in a period where technology has created a powerful window of opportunity.  Pre-industrial education was limited to the elite and focused on intimate, specialized tutor-peer lessons or direct apprenticeships.  Industrial era education has focused on doing for education what the assembly line did for auto-production.  An ideal learning environment, however, is the synergy of these two models:  Intimate education, deliverable and scalable to all of a nation’s youth.

My alma mater (Arizona State University) is a classic example of Industrial Era education.  With 67,000+ students in the Fall of 2008, ASU delivers a university education on an incredible scale.  They have also proudly labeled themselves the “New American University” and recently released a promotion video advertising how they are breaking the mold and embracing the needs of 21st century students. You can view the video [here]. Yet despite their claims that they are “changing their identity” in response to the impact of the internet and Digital Era – they have barely changed.  For ASU and most major universities, 21st Century education isn’t about improving the educational process – it’s about improving the university’s reach and presence on the global academic stage.

This is a fundamental problem within modern education.  A problem that will continue to get worse as technology advances and true ‘digital natives’ begin entering the university system.   ASU has increased its global footprint – true.  Sadly, it has also increased its class sizes.  As an undergraduate student it was not uncommon for my classes to have more than 50 students.  For many of my general education classes, class size ranged between 150-500+ students. Which brings me to the title of this post.

How would the modern University have educated the Greek philosopher Plato?

Plato’s influence upon our society has been so profound that even the most uninitiated among us have heard his name.  Plato was one of – if not the most famous – of Socrates’ students and went on to become Aristotle’s mentor.  Consider – what would have happened if instead of living and being educated in ancient Greece, Socrates had taught at a major industrial era American university.  What if – as in Ancient Greece – Plato was Socrates’ student.  One of some 499 other students whose entire scope of interaction with their professor is limited to one-directional lecture-based classes.

  • Would Socrates be able to teach using the Socratic Method?
  • Would engaging discussion and debate be possible?
  • Would close student-instructor rapport develop with such power and influence that it would still be credited nearly 2,500 years from now?
  • 2,500 years from now would we know who Plato was?
  • Would the industrial era educated Plato go on to teach and mentor Aristotle?

This question embodies many of the challenges that face 20th Century education.  A system that we are heavily entrenched in and extremely defensive of.

What’s the alternative?  What will the true “New American University” look like?    By introducing modern technology and re-defining the way we design, build and educate in our universities, effective and necessary changes can be made.    The technology now exists to deliver the powerful, focused, specialized mentor-student experience so desperately needed by tens of thousands of students.

We stand poised to embrace education in the digital era.  Yet, to accomplish this transition we need new platforms, new technology and individuals with the vision and willingness to break free from the comfortable, established rules of industrial era universities.   Through my company, FusionVirtual,  I’ve begun planning a project to tackle these questions and challenges.  I challenge each and every one to do the same.  Don’t accept the status quo.  Stop enabling the continuation of 20th Century education – an education platform that has  begun to alienate digital natives.  Emerging learners are not only capable, but ready and waiting for new educational solutions that are not based upon the control of information and limited interaction.  The old models are broken. We have reached the point where we have the technology to truly educate.

Thoughts? Observations?  Eager to share your answers to the questions above?  Please leave a comment below.

Why The Term “Multi-tasking” Is All Wrong

The term Multi-tasking has become prolific.  If you have read an article about the millennial generation, Web 2.0, or the power and impact of the internet recently, you’ve no doubt come across it regularly.  It’s often referenced as the great enabler of the world’s tech savvy youths and just as often it’s fiercely debated as the great quality inhibitor. Prominent efficiency blogs like Lifehacker deride the term and lambaste multi-tasking as a quality and efficiency reducer. Surveys have been done, books written, and a ferocious flurry of debate has arisen around the benefits, negatives, and great undecideds associated with multi-tasking.  A debate that has spilled onto this blog repeatedly with the most pronounced instance occurring in my 2 part series on Educating Millennials. Unfortunately, we have it all wrong.

The term multi-tasking has never sat well with me.  Sure, it seems to fit some of the behaviors and is close enough in definition and appearance to what’s actually occurring that it’s been the best and easiest way to describe what’s going on – but as a tech savvy millennial the shoe never quite seemed to fit.

Multi-tasking is the simultaneous execution of multiple actions. Juggling is multi-tasking, patting your head and rubbing your stomach is multi-tasking. The way I search the web, chat, watch a movie and write all at once — That is something different.  It is parallel processing. The difference is subtle, but significant.

What is Parallel Processing?

First, clear your mind of any pre-conceived definitions you may harbor for the term parallel processing. What I’m talking about has nothing to do with parallel computing or Amdhal’s law. The fundamental difference between multi-tasking and parallel processing is the way our minds respond to, and deal with, the actions we are handling.  Using my previous examples, when juggling or patting your head and rubbing your stomach you’re performing two actions simultaneously.  As I’m sure most of us will agree, that’s incredibly difficult and our performance decreases exponentially the more tasks we add.

Parallel processing, in contrast, deals with a cycling, structured, hierarchical list which is continuously executed at a comfortable pace.  The speed with which that list is executed and repeated depends on an individual’s familiarity with the tasks and the time/focus each task requires.  A juggler can’t stop to take more time with one ball without losing the other 2.  An individual switching between browser tabs, a movie, and several conversations can. The advantage that millennials and tech savvy individuals the world over have developed is not the ability to do more at once, but rather the ability to handle more tasks almost simultaneously in a more time efficient and effective fashion.

The Skill Set

One of the fundamental components of parallel processing is task familiarity. If I sat you down in front of a massively multi-layer online game and you had never played before, your entire focus would be consumed by trying to move forward while interacting with the spatial environment. Chances are the degree of your familiarity with the action would be so small that it would consume almost all of your attention to execute it. However, fast forward a bit and you’ll have gained familiarity with the process and be able to automate most of it subconsciously. Before long you’ll be carrying on 5 conversations through the in-game chat channels, interacting with other players, traversing the virtual world and engaging in complex actions all seemingly simultaneously. In these instances, there are simply too many actions to be able to manage and participate in them all at the same time.  You can, however, cycle through actions based on the immediacy of their need and respond to each fully in lightning quick bursts.

One of our most incredible abilities is to take certain tasks, develop a familiarity with them, and then transition them into a familiar ‘second nature’ skill set.  When you write, you typically don’t have to think about how you hold a pencil or what muscles make the letters you want.  Further, as you write words, the familiar ones come to you naturally almost without a second thought.  It’s only the ones you’re unfamiliar with that you have to pause and spell out letter by letter, sound by sound. There are thousands of every day tasks we take for granted as developed skills and hardly notice. If you wear glasses, have taken them off, but still gone to push them up on your nose, you’ve experienced a perfect illustration of how our brain is capable of executing and automating ‘second nature’ behaviors almost subconsciously.

Why It Matters

The modern business environment is not the only thing changing.  The world we know, perceive, and interact with is being driven forward by powerful, expansive new technologies.  Understanding the way in which we interact with these technologies and how they change our behaviors is fundamental to understanding what’s really going on around us. The process followed while writing a hand written letter in the 1800s is almost unrecognizable when compared to the steps and process employed by a modern individual writing an e-mail or research paper. Significantly more has changed than the technology.  The very way we relate to, formulate, and execute actions has evolved.  Unfortunately, despite changing our behaviors, our perception of how the processes should work and the advice we offer on how to execute it, has not changed drastically.

This also becomes very significant in our understanding of what looks like a social disconnect. If you’ve ever walked up to someone engaging in heavy parallel tasking and had trouble engaging them in conversation or getting a response from them, it’s because you’re disrupting the process they’re comfortable with and the rate with which they’re executing the sequence. Chances are, whatever activities they’re carrying out are balanced near the uppermost end of what they can comfortably process. They’re in a rhythm, executing a sequence of actions and able to perform at that rate. Enter the parent or roommate who wants to talk about their day in real time, without consideration for the other 5-15 processes the individual has going on, and you end up disrupting the flow of parallel processing. The end result is always a general break down across the board.  I find it interesting that social norms tell us it’s rude to walk up to a conversation two people are having privately about African swallows and begin talking to them about astrological geometry, but not similarly rude to effectively do the same thing when an individual is using a digital device.

I invite you all to join me in changing the dialog surrounding technology and multi-tasking. Before honest dialogue can move forward it’s necessary that we adopt descriptive language like ‘parallel processing‘ that accurately identifies and describes the phenomenon.

Agree?  Disagree? Thoughts or comments?  Please share them in comment form below.  As always I love your feedback and discussion. Additionally, I’d like to thank Dr. John Crosby for his feedback and collaborative ideas on this subject.

Are Virtual Worlds The Harbingers of The End of Society?

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When people discuss the future of online communities and virtual environments it’s the question that nags at the back of everyone’s mind.  Even among virtual world evangelists it’s a topic of concern, apprehension and uncertainty.  A concept and concern so powerful that mega hits like the Matrix have been based on it.

The question begs – are virtual worlds the harbingers of the end of society? Will, as most people fear the eventual march of technology result in environments so immersive, so powerful, and so socially disconnected that our species loses its ability and desire to interact, reproduce and perpetuate itself?  Will virtual worlds and their progeny result in the eventual death of civilization? Experience tells me that most people believe it will.

I disagree.

In fact, not only do I disagree, but I’m not worried in the least. The forward march of technology is an interesting dilemma.  Especially since, with each new invention things previously unimaginable become a reality opening the gateway to future inventions and technology so far beyond the scope of our current understanding that they are, by today’s standards, unfathomable. The side effect of this forward moving evolution is change.  Sometimes a change so fundamental, it re-shapes our very lives. Fire. The wheel. The written word.  Change can make the topic a very difficult one to explore, after all – change is scary or at the very least something that requires a transition period before it becomes comfortable. So, where is the fine line between what we’re afraid of because it’s new or different, and what we’re afraid of because it’s detrimental?

I believe the answer lies in our core nature as a species.  We are, fundamentally, social creatures.  We reach out, build communities, and seek out companionship.  We are not a-sexual and as such by our very biological makeup are hardwired to seek companionship.  Community is at the core of who we are, and our success as a species.  It powers our communities, which have enabled us to overcome great obstacles, eventually becoming the dominant form of life on earth.  It’s for that very reason that the thought of technology breaking down those social bonds is so alarming.  It’s also for that very reason that I’m not concerned. Humans – as a species – will always seek out other humans. In fact, the lengths we will go to are spectacular.  A point I am continually reminded of when I look at gamers behavior.

A few years ago when I was spending a lot of my time playing Everquest and other online games,,, I was constantly amazed at the lengths guild/group members would go to in order to meet each other in person.  It’s not uncommon for gaming guilds to hold meet-ups and while the lions share are more regionally oriented many are international in scope with members from all over the country (and world) flying in for small & medium sized face-to-face gatherings. There’s an important lesson here – even in one of the web’s most immersive environments people still reach out to each other.  Another example of the power of community presence is LAN parties where groups of 3 or more gather in one location and all play/chat/etc. for hours and in some cases days. At these events it’s not uncommon to have X people in a room silently focused on their screens for surprisingly long blocks of time without verbal interactions.  Despite their apparent lack of social interaction, they are using Skype-like technology to communicate with each other and others throughout the world, chatting constantly, and interacting in a rich world with their avatars.  So, why gather at all?  The comradship of being together.  The power and appeal of being in the presence of other humans and enjoying the face-to-face socialization that happens during downtime.  Again, these behaviors make it clear that as a species we thrive on, and hunger for, social interaction.  We are social creatures.

Confident in our social nature, I’m not concerned about the growing influence of technology because fundamentally we will always reach out to connect physically.  The dynamics may change, but the physical presence of someone, especially a romantic partner, is an experience that technology can’t duplicate.  In cases where it comes close it may temporarily satiate our needs, but ultimately even in these instances real world social interaction will always win out.  That’s why – to me – the fears about virtual world technology are a non-issue.

So, what happens if technology does move to the point where it can imitate and replace social interactions and the benefits of face-to-face interactions? That is the imagined matrix paradigm, a virtual reality so complete, real, and believable that you can’t tell the difference between it and the real world.  If, or rather when, technology evolves to the point where it is able to flawlessly imitate the real world, where does that leave us? Staunchly embedded and fiercely loyal to the world we know. It’s a scary thought, but realistically would that world be any less real, albeit different, than what we now classify as the “real world”?  Would it truly be a bad thing if it satiated all of our needs and fulfilled us every bit as completely as the “real world”? I don’t believe it would be bad.  In fact, at that point I believe it becomes every bit as real, valid and perhaps even essential as what we take for granted today.

So, are virtual worlds the harbingers of the end? If you believe that humans are fundamentally social animals and that we need that social interaction to survive, then your answer should be a confident no.  If, on the other hand, you do not believe that we are fundamentally social – what are you concerned about to begin with?

As always I value your feedback, thoughts and discussion.  Please take advantage of the comment feature below and share your thoughts!

Educating Millennials – Part II

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This post is a follow up to my original post: Educating Millennials – Why We’re Doing It Wrong

Since it was posted Part I has received nearly 22,000 views and 80+ responses. At this point in time I think it’s safe to say I hit on a major issue…one we have only just begun to dive into. I’m thrilled by the reception the post received and the opportunity I’ve had to begin dialogue on the subject. The purpose of this post is to serve as an update and to work to clarify several points. Please take it as such.

On the subject of data – I’ve reached out to several government officials and other contacts within academic circles in an effort to locate source educational data to check my hypothesis. However, before I share an update on the progress/issues I’ve had with the data I want to address some background questions.

Background Information

My original post was made as a hypothesis based on observation. I am not an academic researcher, nor is it appropriate that I include all of my research & thoughts in these blog posts.  This is not a research site or news outlet. It is a blog and as such my posts must be limited in length and cannot be as in-depth as many of us might otherwise like. Nor am I a full time academic researcher affiliated with a research institution.  Rather, I’m a curious, passionate millennial observing the world around me, the way my fellows and I interact, and looking at alternative explanations.  It is a place for sharing observations, thoughts, and interesting information. It is my sincere hope that these thoughts and ideas will be picked up by my readership and pursued further.   As mentioned in my previous post, I am more than happy to discuss any concept expressed on this site further/privately.

The Sexes

I received a number of comments accusing me of sexism or being grossly mistaken about the distribution of the sexes in online environments, particularly the realm of video games. While, in most instances, it was obvious from the reader’s comments that several of my main points were missed, or they failed to read the post to its conclusion. I want to take a moment to address this concern. First, I am very well aware of the female presence in online gaming and on the web. I founded and lead one of the oldest/longest running online gaming guilds for 8 years. I am familiar with most of the statistics cited in the comments about web demographics. In fact, I used some of the very same data in my Honors Thesis which I completed a year and a half ago. That said, the male/female demographics of the online gaming community have changed exponentially in the last 3-5 years. That’s not to say that there have not been female gamers for as long as there have been games.  Rather, that the audience who grew up utilizing these games (from an early age) has – until recently – been mostly male and that as a result these individuals will be the most heavily effected.

In addition to the issue of demographics, research has shown that males and females relate differently in social situations.  That same research shows that conventional one-way, top-down, information exchanges like that in most classroom environments is more compatible with the learning styles of women.

The combination of these two factors – as previously explained – is part of why the topic focuses on males. The other part stems from the nature of the post as a response and alternative hypothesis to the commonly accepted arguments for why young males are under represented in higher education. The conventional arguments have revolved around a difference in capability between the sexes and are largely based on notable gender bias. The proposition in Part I of this post, if anything, is far from sexist.  Further, as I’ll discuss later in this topic, one of the greatest issues I’ve had with exploring the data is the lack of unbiased, relevant source data. Many of the official tables provide female percentages and numbers while neglecting their male counterparts.

The Author

Attacking the author is a fundamental part of Internet culture, a fact I completely understand.  While I did not want to spend much time on myself in the original post as I feel it distracts from the actual subject, my credibility and background seems to be a major, relevant, component for a number of readers. Some were concerned I was someone who hadn’t made the cut and wanted to justify my failure. Others assumed it was a complaint written by a frustrated millennial unable to find a job.  Several readers even suggested that my passion and focus for virtual technologies and their impact implied a lack of reading or cultural enrichment on my part. Others suggested that I must inherently suffer from a lack of social skills and connections.  While I’ve responded to each of these concerns independently in the comment section of the previous post I will briefly respond to each of the more frequent comments.

I actually preformed quite well in University. I graduated with a 3.38 GPA from Arizona State University with degrees from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication and the Barrett Honors College.  My honors thesis is available for review on the blog roll to the right. It focused on MMOGs and their social impact. In High School I was engaged in the We The People constitutional debate program as well as a Key Club Officer. In addition to my academics, I come from, and grew up in a family heavily involved in academics.

Professionally, I have enjoyed significant success. In the spring of 2005 (summer of my sophomore year of college) I began an internship with the #3 commercial real estate company in the world. By the end of the summer the position grew into a part time position during the school year/full time job in the summer. I was with the company in various capacities (Research, Mapping, GIS, IT) until I graduated in 2007 when I was offered a full time position which I declined.  After a 3 month trip through Europe I returned to the states and immediately accepted a position as an Analyst with one of Arizona’s premiere mid-market mergers and acquisitions groups. In addition to my current position in the M&A industry, I founded the company FusionVirtual.

Socially I have regularly been referred to as a social node.  I’m lucky to enjoy an extensive social network all developed outside of the Greek system.  To use Facebook as a social benchmark, my friends list currently has over 600 contacts virtually all of whom I’m in semi-regular contact with. In fact, I periodically prune the list to keep it up to date and relevant.  To those with doubts, I can assure you I am both socially competent and active.

Culturally I have always enjoyed reading and have tested as post college since 6th grade. I enjoy regular reading, though my recent schedule has made me cut back significantly.  In addition to classic texts I enjoy poetry and the arts. I’ve seen theater on Broadway and in London, opera in Vienna and ballet in Prague. In addition to these experiences I’ve been an avid ballroom dancer for the last 4 years and salsa dance on a weekly basis. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to travel extensively. I’ve been to Europe three times (once for a year, once for 3 months, and once for 6.5 weeks). I’ve also spent a year traveling across the U.S. and been to Alaska, Mexico and Hawaii.

It is important to point out that despite my background and life experiences, the observations raised about the educational system in Part I of this post are every bit as relevant for me as they are for other male millennials. I drilled down and forced myself to complete the higher ed process, but make no mistake, I found myself consciously making the decision to work within the system for the social validation and professional benefit that the degree “check mark” on job applications offered. The system did not serve my needs. It could have done more to challenge on multiple levels. In fact, it also did very little to prepare me for the real world.

So, to those of you who asked, I say;  No, this is not an apology. It’s not a justification.  It’s not an excuse. This is an observation of a failure by the education system. This failure has affected me personally and has affected a large number of my acquaintances and friends.  Read through the comments, look at what the young males of the millennial generation are telling us.

The tragedy is that we are squandering the potential of hundreds of thousands of America’s best and brightest, all because of bureaucracy and outdated tradition. All in a time when we need them the most.


It’s taken over a week for me to make this post in large part because I’ve been having difficulty tracking down relevant data. At this point in time, I’d love to be able to post a few graphs and several tables of data showing clear snapshots of what’s going on in our education system.  The unfortunate reality is, it doesn’t seem possible with the data available.  This would be a great graduate research project. As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve contacted the US Census Department, the US Department of Education, and IPEDS (The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System). I’ve also worked with several other contacts in trying to find/analyze the data in a way that gives real, relevant data.

It appears that the data collected by the U.S. Education System is in such a confused state and so poorly documented that it’s nearly impossible to find standard enrollment and completion numbers broken up by sex and institution type and relative to U.S. population statistics by year.  The data has been gathered and stored in such a way that anything beyond micro analysis is nearly impossible for the casual researcher. If you have information relevant to the discussion please post it in a comment or forward it to me and I’ll add it to the post. Additionally, if you do any statistical analysis please share your results and methodology with us.

Noteworthy Data:

  1. Degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: Selected years, 1869-70 through 2016-17
  2. Total fall enrollment in degree-granting institutions, by attendance status, sex of student, and control of institution: Selected years, 1947 through 2005
  3. Historical Educational Attainment Reports from 1940 through 1998
  4. US 1990 Census: Population Figures
  5. US 2000 Census: Population Figures
  6. US 2007 Census: Population Figures

Things to note:

  • There is a major data shift in 1995.
  • Enrollment figures provide a % female, but no mention of a % male.
  • Enrollment figures fail to distinguish between the gender breakdown in full/part time categories.
  • Enrollment figures fail to distinguish between higher education programs.
  • Degrees conferred can not be accurate compared to enrollment data.
  • Degrees conferred are not broken down by type of institution, only level of education*.
  • Population figures: I was unable to locate credible year-by-year projections. Only US Census data by year was publicly available. The 2007 figures were generated through a private information vendor and forwarded to me.
  • Population figures: Should be adjusted based on generational differences in population.

*This is relevant because of the widespread success of web-based Universities like University of Phoenix. If included in the above material (which I believe they are) these web-based Universities have been extremely popular over the last 8+ years. The type of education these programs offer (web-based) is drastically different from the class method and environment utilized in major colleges and universities. As a result, I’m concerned that these may offset significant shifts in the brick and mortar institutions this article focuses on.

*EDIT* – Just saw this and feel it’s very relevant given my mention of University of Phoenix above. UofP was ranked as the #1 recipient of federal assistance/aid for FY 2008. According to the list, Arizona based University of Phoenix has received $2,810,085,079 in aid so far in this fiscal year.

Closing Thoughts

Ultimately the data is important, but may be more of a distraction. The theory discussed herein is nothing new. We’ve known since the days of Aristotle and Socrates that instructor-student interactions are the best way to learn. As humans we learn best when we can interact, exchange thoughts, and question. After all, what is a question but the search for information and clarity? When the written word was invented we transformed the way knowledge was shared from the telling of stories to a system of written words. Modern technology allows us to increase the level of interaction between student and professor.  It offers the potential to make the material more engaging, informative, and to increase students’ investment in their education. Sadly, that scares a lot of people. Luckily, the demand for multi-level delivery systems will continue to grow until educators respond.  While we can disagree on some of the details and the execution, ultimately ask yourself if a more interactive, ‘immersive’, and vibrant educational experience will be good for the students.  If your answer is yes, I urge you to stop making excuses for a system that no longer works as-is. I ask that you help work toward a modern, 21st century educational system.

Each day we wait another brilliant mind falls through the cracks.

As always, I value your feedback and will respond to all user comments. Please share your thoughts, reflections, and any additional information you might have in a comment on this post.

*If you’ve enjoyed this post and want to share, please vote for the post on reddit/digg/delicious using the links below and help me spread the word.

*EDIT* I was just linked this amazing video by Mike Wesch which really does an amazing job hitting on/discussing some of the same issues.

Educating Millennials – Why We’re Doing it Wrong

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An educated populace is the cornerstone of a successful, affluent culture and a necessity if the United States wants to remain competitive. Our education system is the framework that enables and prepares America’s youths to support, lead, and drive America’s future.  Education, more than any other factor, is responsible for America’s success. It is for that reason that the current shift in enrollment and completion rates among males in higher education may be seen as a crisis. It is immensely disturbing and potentially disastrous.

Virtual Worlds: Exploring Common Objections

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I’m a firm believer that virtual worlds are a major part of the future.  I am confident they will play a culture-shifting role in our society and re-define the way we interact, carry out business, and perform various key actions.  Though it’s much more difficult to see, they’re probably already impacting you.  In fact, you most likely enjoy technology or are at least familiar with technology that was initially introduced, and which proved itself, in the gaming arena. Software like Skype and Flash may not have been made exclusively by the gaming community, but the technology they are based on and their widespread success depended on it.

Thankfully, the national dialogue on gaming and virtual worlds is starting to shift. The media, probably clued into the size of the demographic, has paired back their perpetual assault on the gaming community, games, and gamers in general.  That said,  the general populace and the media still operate based on several fundamental fallacies.  These misconceptions have resulted in resistance to the development and support of virtual environments.

The issue was brought to my attention most recently on the PR Junkie blog on The site is a social networking resource for communicators and public relations professionals.  The article was titled “Virtual Worlds Will Never Catch On” by Michael Sebastian. While I don’t mean to single Michael out, his post and some of the justifications outlined in it/the philosophy behind it, is an excellent illustration of the mainstream arguments and biases against virtual worlds.  Some of you may be familiar with my honors thesis work. For those of you who are not, my research focused on the social impact of virtual worlds while exploring their demographics and benefits.  Written a bit over a year ago, the environment has already changed drastically.  Despite the recent controversy associated with Grand Theft Auto and several other titles, and in part due to the success of SecondLife, the media and mainstream research has finally begun to look at some of the benefits of games. I feel it’s necessary to dedicate a post to looking at a few of the main misconceptions and addressing them.

Sex and Pornacopia

Sex.  It’s always a big issue. It’s a big part of our lives and unsurprisingly a major complaint that comes up again and again when discussing virtual worlds.  There are two main parts to these arguments.  The first stems from objections to the prevalence of sexual imagery and pornographic content. The other is tied to concerns raised over the nature of non-real world relationships and romantic interactions.

From Fox New’s embarrassing coverage of Mass Effect which eventually led to an apology and retraction, to the MSM’s coverage of GTA IV, virtual environments are constantly under attack for sexual content or violence.  Sebastian summed up the the mainstream sentiment when he labeled SecondLife a, “hive for sex and drugs” while echoing a article which noted,

It turns out that avatars seem more interested in having sex and hatching pranks than spending time warming up to real-world brands. “There is nothing to do in Second Life except, pardon my bluntness, try to get laid,” blogged David Churbuck, Web-marketing vice president for computer maker Lenovo.

The issue of Virtual Worlds and sex hasn’t just been limited to the virtual realms.  E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) has recently been facing it’s own bad press over their famous and now former booth babes.  All of this is relevant because the argument is made, and the implication is, that virtual worlds are fringe communities populated by fringe individuals.  Perverts, sexaholics, and the stereotypical, overweight, socially limited nerd. They conclude that as a result, the technology is somehow not viable and that the formation of more “mainstream” communities isn’t realistic.

Interestingly, these arguments in opposition to virtual worlds are many of the same ones that the internet initially faced and is still responding to. VHS is another wonderful example of the positive, if uncomfortable role adult content plays in developing new technology.  Open up your e-mail’s spam box and it’s a safe bet it’s got at least one offer for male enhancement or Viagra. Surf the web long enough and you’re bound to stumble onto some sort of inappropriate content. As the web has caught on, these annoyances have become commonplace and acceptable.  Similarly, the multitude of porn sites dedicated to any number of countless obscenities that in many ways are the web’s dirty secret don’t undermine the validity, authenticity, or usability of professional and social sites. Keep in mind that up until just few years ago was an adult website. Believe me, I know, I made the mistake of accessing it in the middle of a computer lab in high school while doing homework.  As the web has matured, so too has the filtering and the community makeup. is no longer an adult site, Google has safe search options, and email is used for all sorts of correspondence.

The Pedophile Myth

A favorite subcategory of the sex discourse is that of child molesters.  Virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and social networking sites like MySpace seem to be perpetually under media-based attack, projected as hotbeds for sexual abuse and assault. Often these articles are loaded with condemnation with little/no understanding of how the environment/software actually works or what’s taking place.

In his article, Sebastian notes: “Sex and drugs … fake penises … pedophilia … are there any rational-thinking people out there who really—and I mean really—believe this will take-off?” All of which ties into an erronious basic assumption or belief which is too typically implied and occasionally stated outright. People assume that when individuals log onto the internet and find virtual worlds, a switch is flipped, they give into temptation, and become corrupted and turn into pedophiles.  This line of reasoning frustrates me to no end.

These individuals aren’t some ultra rare types of socially defunct recluses that reach out across the internet to prey on children.  These individuals are capable of entertaining the same thoughts in a virtual environment as they do as they sit in a work cubicle next to you, in mass on Sunday, as a Police officer, or any other mainstream activity. The delusion that somehow there are two spheres of morality, one for the web and one for the real world is false.  People don’t change when they log onto the internet. Their behaviors do. The shocking lesson we should be taking note of is how many people are only moral if they fear getting caught.  We should be taking note of how many of the people we assumed were good, moral, decent citizens who, when provided some degree of anonymity, offer us sad and disturbing insights into their corpse personality.

Defining Real Relationships

A second major argument in opposition to virtual worlds is the claim that virtual relationships lack real interaction and cannot accurately be counted as real social exchanges.  In a follow up discussion to his post, Sebastian shared the following which I believe does an excellent job summarizing many of the concerns I commonly hear raised:

For me it doesn’t come down to technology or even, necessarily, the people using it, but insead this continued withdraw from face-to-face communication and contact. I appreciate that people find spouses and lovers online, but it’s a slippery slope I think. Where will the virtual relationship stop?

What I’m suggesting is will couples have sex in Second Life? Will family dinners become Second Life experiences because we’re all so busy.

It’s a tough issue, one about which it is difficult to gain perspective .  I feel very lucky. I’m both a digital native and someone who’s interests and experiences have allowed me to analyze the process, it’s impacts, benefits, and the relationships that have come out of my virtual world experiences.  I’ve made real world friends through virtual worlds, spent time in both worlds as first a shy, quiet, geeky teen, and then seen the flip side as a confident, socially competent, social node.

Interestingly, I’ve learned more about people’s social behavior, motivations, and personalities through virtual worlds than I ever have through my communication and sociological curriculum at ASU. To those who believe that it’s not possible to reach out and make meaningful, powerful connections through virtual environments let me ask you this: How many suicidal friends and acquaintances have you been able to help through difficult times? As a guild leader and casual friend there were at least two instances with two separate individuals who I’d never met face to face who I was able to help.  These individuals were able to reach out to me and others within the community in a way they were not able or comfortable to seek help in their real world interactions. They were able to get help, support, and advice.  While I can’t attest to where they phycally live, I can attest to the fact that a year later, both are still alive, have transitioned to healthy states, and become better people.  If a relationship and communication occurring in/through virtual worlds is strong enough to save a life, it has established itself as a powerful and effective medium for interactive communication.

Sebastian asks where do we stop?  My answer is that we need to re-frame the question.  What defines a real relationship?  Physical intimacy is a wonderful and necessary component in romantic relationships. The regularity and duration of that interaction varies widely. Physical connection and presence offers certain instinctual and primal bonding benefits that other forms of communication lack.  The presence, the things we say with our bodies, but which never get formulated into words, and just the general feeling of companionship are all very real.  So, Sebastian’s concerns are legitimate, but I think his question holds its own answer. We are at our core social and communal creatures. That is why the degradation or undermining of those behaviors scares him and others so much. We need companionship and interaction, both physical and social to be healthy and happy. For that reason we’ll always reach out to each other and strive to supplement our remote interactions with physical ones.  Most gamers do this. They meet  and get to know each other through virtual worlds.  They organize physical get togethers and, as a tribute to the strength of the bond made in the virtual world, many gamers travel thousands of miles, sometimes even internationally, to attend conferences, meetings and get togethers.

In a more specific sense, let’s look at relational dynamics. I don’t have the research on hand, but a few years ago a study found that 1 in 8 adults in serious relationships had met online. Initially, I found this information somewhat shocking.  Yet, when I paused and actually thought things through, it makes perfect sense and should give anyone concerned with the loss of face-to-face interaction insight and hope.  Without going in-depth, the internet has been a wonderful tool for single people everywhere. Sites like or craigslist personals have allowed individuals too often confined to seeking love in bars, through groups of friends, or in their workplace to reach out and tap into a near endless world of opportunities.  The acceptability of online dating sites has skyrocketed in the past few years, and their usage numbers are fantastic. Despite all of the opportunities these sites offer, they’re still fairly awkward and do not allow significant interaction. That’s where virtual worlds come into play.

Virtual worlds allow individuals to immerse themselves in a creative, engaging environment with thousands of other individuals all working, interacting and playing together. While dating sites offer compatibility profiles and facilitate a quick chat, individuals who meet their romantic partners through virtual worlds have a huge advantage.  They have the opportunity to spend hours a week together engaged in a co-operative activity while casually and socially chatting about the game, life, and each other.  All the while, games like Everquest and World of Warcraft , which are adventure-based, place these individuals in co-operative, high stress environments and allow them to monitor how they interact with each other and others, giving insights into the views, personality type, and wiring of potential friends. With the advent and widespread adoption of VoIP software like TeamSpeak, a more powerful predecessor to Skype and other virtual VoIP software, real voice-2-voice conversations become both regular and common place.

Does interaction through the internet change a person’s behavior, or are the insights gained a window into core behavior and personality type? Obviously, it’s the latter. The opportunity to observe – access behavior – when external controls are not threatening to “catch you,”  is an accurate way to learn about someone’s core values. Behavior based upon fear of being caught or fear of consequences is not healthy or moral.

I mentioned previously that I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum.  As someone who now enjoys a very active social life, I can say, both from experience and analysis, that one of the things I find truly exciting about virtual worlds and social networks is their power to enable healthy social behavior.  Time is a valuable commodity, especially when you add in a few projects, a 9-5 day job, and the need to sleep.  It makes it very difficult to maintain even a small group of close friends.  Add in one or two additional cliques of good friends and squeezing in regular face-time with more than 20 or 30 casual friends on a monthly basis, and it becomes difficult if not impossible. Until the spread of e-mail it was impossible.  Now add in que, facebook, twitter, friend feed, etc. and utilize the logical evolution of communication – an immersive, interactive, virtual world.

With nearly 600 friends on facebook, I’m able to keep in contact with hundreds of people a month.  These are individuals I’ve met in the last decade during my travels, social activities and academics. All of whom are people I’d happily stop and spend time with.  Social networking tools allows me to maintain my relationships, keep up on current affairs, and to chat/exchange thoughts on a regular basis regardless of their location.  So, while Sebastian and others are fearful that we are losing our ability to interact socially, I would say the exact opposite is happening.  It just LOOKS like our face-to-face interactions have gone down, while in reality they have stayed the same or increased, while our pool of active contacts has skyrocketed exponentially. The exchanges I have with friends over facebook and other social media outlets are often every bit as meaningful, valuable, and rewarding as those shared with best friends on Saturday afternoons. The key is that people interacting and exchanging thoughts and energy is the important part. These tools, and the increased interaction through virtual worlds, allow me to enjoy a significantly richer social experience and network than those who have yet to partake in/embrace digital exchanges.

This post has gotten far too long. I invite you to post your questions and feedback in a comment.  I’d love to explore the concept further with you and answer questions or offer points of clarfication where necessary.