December 19, 2008

Submission for: The Learning Edge published by CASAE Winter, 2009 Issue

Topic: Digital Media - Who Benefits and Who loses?

Andrew Keen’s book, The Cult of the Amateur on how today’s internet is killing our culture was published by Doubleday in 2007. Since then, he has become a popular pundit on the subject. He warns of the grave consequences of today’s participatory Web 2.0, revealing how it threatens our values, economy and ultimately the very innovation and creativity that form the fabric of human achievement. This summer, he was a speaker at the annual Couchiching Conference on Public Affairs in Ontario, almost single handedly opposing the unbridled enthusiasm exhibited for the latest technological breakthroughs in cyberspace as the new digital age rains down upon us. The topic was “the power of knowledge as our new global currency”. The debate continues on January 28th at the University of Toronto Faculty Club when Angus Frame, group director of digital media for The Globe and Mail will lead a discussion on the future of newspapers in a digital age.

In Canada, we have already heard from the CRTC on the matter. Basically they’ve thrown up their hands and cling to their well entrenched view that regulation of the internet is an impossibility - at least for them. In 2007 they announced that, in response to digital trends, all regulation of advertising on television will be eliminated by September, 2009. Meanwhile, in December, 2008, the Campaign for a Commercial -Free Childhood, based at the Harvard Medical School in Boston released the following “Commercialization of Childhood Index”. Here are the figures:

The amount of money in purchases that children under twelve influence every year: $500,000,000,000.

The amount of money spent marketing goods to children: $17,000,000,000 , a staggering increase from $100 million in 1983.

Revenue generated by the Disney Princess brand in 2006 :$3,400,000,000. There are 40,000 Disney Princess items on the market today

Toys sold with kids’ meals at fast food restaurants in 2006: 1,200,000,000.

Baby Einstein videos sold by Disney through 2006 despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under two: 20,000,000.

The acts of violence, including 40,000 murders, that the average child will see on television by the time they are eighteen: 200,000.

Advertisements on television the average 2-11-year-old sees every year, a figure that does not include product placement: 25,000.

The number of product placements on the first thirty-eight episodes of American Idol: 4,151.

What else is happening to children with the advent of Web 2.0? Gerri Sinclair, executive director of the Masters of Digital Media Program at Vancouver’s Centre for Digital Media offered some clues when she wrapped up the Couchiching Conference last August, having just received a $40.5 million grant from the B.C. government to establish “a world-leading graduate degree program” in the field of digital media.

Not surprisingly, given her close ties with the business community and numerous awards, as a new media pioneer, she was billed as a “youthful, dynamic thinker whose passion embraces the knowledge and technology explosion”, and who believes it promotes the flourishing of human life. Actually that is not quite what I heard. She began by emphasizing the millions of dollars being pulled out of the real world and put into the virtual world as more and more young people abandon the world we are all familiar with for one with more lifestyle options to their liking. They adopt private avatars as the vehicles for their preferred personas and life experiences. These are basically icons of human beings. The user chooses one to represent him or herself as a kind of alter ego. One web definition for an avatar is”an embodiment of hope” or “incarnation of evil” as in “the very avatar of cunning”.

It is important to understand, said Sinclair, that practically everything that goes on in the real world also takes place in the virtual world - shopping, business, education, travel, bars and other leisure activities, clubs, sports, dances, dates, sex, crime. Virtual stock exchanges with their own rises and falls, are beginning to spawn millionaires and lawsuits, so far on the basis of sales (or thefts) of real estate, furniture and sex toys. Evidently over 700 universities now exist in cyberspace. In the realm of marketing, 300 major brands have shops in the virtual world. In the real world, Vassar, Princeton and Harvard now teach courses on the subject.

The two most popular virtual worlds were identified as “Second Life” and “The World of Warcraft”. The latter is an extension of video games with the same violent, “action-filled” themes. These enjoyed a 43 percent growth in sales last year to the tune of $17.9 billion. Sinclair explained that 40 million people are now using the virtual world, with 10 million subscribers to the “World of Warcraft” alone. They spent over $1 billion in 2007. “Second Life” evidently has 12 million subscribers with 1.6 million joining within the previous 60 days. The average age is 33 years with 43 percent of users women. Over 12 million children between the ages of 2-14 years are actively engaged. Many own virtual pets - with evidence that these are in some cases preferred to real pets. They are free but only for one year. Plush toys are sold. Walt Disney and Mattel Barbie dolls are moving in, along with every other major toy company. The market for electronic toys is estimated at 15 percent.

Reasons for this growth in popularity among children in the virtual world are attributed to fewer anxieties about cyberbullying and sexual predators. Some games offer points for brushing teeth and other good behaviour. Many advertisements cross over from the real world into the virtual world. One recent toy industry association study found that social entertainment in the virtual world involved a minimum of 16 hours per week.

On the whole, the virtual goods market is rapidly increasing. There are now over 25 million users of the Carton Dell Network in 25 countries. It is predicted that 80 percent of internet users will have their own avatar by 2011. Now, over10,000 children are spending more time in the virtual world than are watching TV. Eighty-four percent of them are spending more time entertaining themselves in the virtual world than reading and 54 percent of the girls would rather spend their money choosing a new dress for their avatar than themselves. Credit cards for this purpose are now being marketed by box stores like Walmart and Target.

The most savvy of the users have developed categories for people in the real world. Those of us born before 1945 are considered digital aliens. Digital immigrants are baby boomers born between 1946-64. Digital adaptives are the generation xers born between 1965-79 along with teens using video games and personal computers. Digital natives include generation yers, born between 1980-2000 who have grown up with “technological multi-tasked hybrid realities”.

Digital imersives are generation vers born after 2000 and those whose relations, communications and services take place primarily in virtual worlds, online games and social networks.

How will all of this impact on the real world? Sinclair and her associates predict that over 200 million people in the next decade will abandon this world and spend most of their money in the virtual world. No news thus far, about how the financial crisis which began on Wall Street in 2008 and rapidly spread to the rest of the real world has affected the virtual world. For more information on this “exodus to the virtual world”, log onto

I’m curious. Have I confused you with this attempt to provide some insight into what is happening in the virtual world, shocked you or simply caught up to what most of you already know?

Rose Anne Dyson, Ed.D.
Chair: C-CAVE and the Media Working Group - Science for Peace (University of Toronto)
Editor- The Learning Edge
Author of MIND ABUSE: Media Violence In An Information Age
Co-author of MEDIA, SEX, VIOLENCE and DRUGS in the GLOBAL VILLAGE and Terrorism, Globalization & Mass Communication