The spread of technology allows people around the world to participate in events simultaneously. It’s remarkable to me how little this utilized. Why are we locked in our geographical containers for so many things? Time zones play a role, and language, but too often the barriers are broadcast rights and access restrictions. I think humanity is stronger and more tolerant when we share experiences and interact across boundaries. I seize the chances I get.
I had one on Sunday morning, when I went to my local art film theatre to watch a live simulcast of a play from the National Theatre in London. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is due to open on Broadway later this year, so it felt like an American sneak peak of a play that won 7 Olivier awards last year.
The next one I’m excited about is a production of Medea (with music by the duo otherwise known as Goldfrapp), to be simulcast on September 4th. Even if it’s not the same as an in-person experience, for $12.50 I can sit in a theatre near Detroit and watch a live show from London. The feeling is immersive enough that several people burst into applause at the end of Sunday’s performance.
Multinational sports also give us an opportunity to share experiences beyond borders. Americans are tuning in to the World Cup games in record numbers, to the dismay of some small-minded folks. Watching games while chatting with a friend in Germany, I’ve noticed a US broadcast delay that gives me psychic powers: he cheers the goal, giving me time to focus on the TV and see the entire play leading to the goal, though the surprise is ruined. We also share Formula 1 broadcasts. These seem to be shown without a delay, perhaps because fewer fans bother to flash their breasts at drivers speeding by at 200 mph. The Olympics don’t work out well because US networks time-shift and rebroadcast the events.
Video games and virtual worlds provide shared experiences, though not always without controversy. I’m not aware of international conflict in Second Life, where I can visit virtual Norway with my German partner, then go to a salon where the participants are signed in from the US, England, the Netherlands, Greece, and beyond. MMORPGs are another story. In Perfect World there were conflicts that involved Pinoy vs American groups, and in TERA and other games there is continual Brazilian/American fighting. Cultural differences combined with online history and being in approximately the same time zone don’t always work out well. Check out the Know Your Meme entry for Huehuehuehue (spelled “Huahuehuahue” there, but I’ve never seen that elsewhere) for more details.
Other forms of entertainment can be tricky. Numerous websites will teach you how to convince Netflix that you are in a different country, so you can see the same video list as a foreign friend. I’ve seen attempts at web-based movie theatres but none that were successful. I used to watch movies with a friend on Arkansas by using a video chat program on one monitor and Netflix on another. We’d do a countdown so we both pressed “Play” at the same time, but differences in buffering, processors, and network speed often got us out of sync in the first half of a film. Legally shared music and video can run into problems with broadcast restrictions; to share a YouTube music video, I sometimes have to link to a user-uploaded version rather than the official copy which is blocked in my friend’s country. One fun experiment I’ve seen in online music was turntable.fm, where themed rooms would allow people to DJ by playing music from their own machines, while listeners could chat and vote on how much they liked the tune. The mashup.fm room there was fantastic. Unfortunately, they changed their business model and shut down the service, in favor of hosting large concert experiences someday.
As we think about the future of virtual worlds, perhaps these shared experiences are something to keep in mind. Virtual worlds are not just the content that originates there (though there are many fun things to do with friends in-world), but can also provide a shared space for presenting or discussing outside content. I’ve seen notes about World Cup watching parties in SL where the game itself is not necessarily streamed in-world, but people gather to discuss the game while watching it in another medium. Movie theaters and dance clubs with DJs exist in Second Life; video or music can be shared with others (location restrictions can still interfere for video), while sitting or dancing as an avatar makes it more immersive. Some conferences take place simultaneously in SL and the offline world, occasionally taking questions from avatars during the Q&A sessions. Those might be more mainstream applications for a virtual space.
Speaking as an American, we’ve gotten used to our culture — though rarely the best parts — being exported to other countries. Ages ago when I was an exchange student in Spain, my host family relaxed after lunch by watching El gran héroe americano (The Greatest American Hero), which was mind-blowing to me. Unfortunately, we’ve gotten a reputation as idiots who can’t read subtitles, tolerate dubbing, or understand even the slightest cultural differences. Foreign TV shows, movies, and non-English speaking movies aren’t very available here and are often re-edited or remade for us. The truth is, we’re a lot smarter than we look. We can handle exposure to other cultures and it might even help us understand them, especially if there are opportunites for discussion with others who share our interests. These shared spaces and experiences make the world connected, informed, and more tolerant, a little at a time.