By Marja.

Are we humans entering the futuristic era where physical and virtual realities are blending and merging?  Are we about to step into the universe of science fiction and leave our everyday reality behind us?  What brought up these questions was an invitation to the IN* Open House which is going to be virtual in September 2020 due to the prolonged COVID** crisis.

Twenty years ago, it was the teenagers between 12 and 19 years that first discovered online communities to play, network and hang out. Habbo Hotel was among the pioneering frontrunners of the game developers who created virtual spaces which emulated real world businesses and establishments.  Habbo’s main feature is still the “Hotel” which consists of both public (available to all logged-in users) and private (limited access) domains. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habbo.) 

Habbo Hotel’s Public Rooms depict scenes such as restaurants, cinemas, and dance clubs. Most Public Rooms contain automated robots which shout pre-recorded messages and give members drinks and food items. Habbo Hotel’s Guest Rooms are special rooms which users customize with furniture,
wallpaper, and floor patterns to be purchased with credits.  They can be locked to allow access only to specific members or password holders. Many users create their own games in their Guest Rooms, which give furniture or coins as a prize. These rooms are categorized on the navigator in many categories such as “Trading”, “Parties”, and “Role Playing”. Virtual pets and bots can be bought and kept in Guest Rooms. Users can interact with the pets and program bots, which will obey certain commands the player throws at them.

To sum up, the millennials were designing interiors for virtual rooms rather than furnishing wooden doll houses. They were interacting online from their home couches rather than meeting face to face at cafés or community centers. Teens’ deep involvement in the pixel world made parents worry about its possible risks.

Today, we are so far that a dignified women’s association with traditions and a long-established, conventional agenda is launching a series of virtual events. Many of its board members and active attendants are senior citizens but thanks to their youthful spirit, they have an ear to the ground. In the best case, the new communication channel may open up exciting opportunities for creative experimentation, facilitating social innovations and organizational renewal. Perhaps it will also help reach out audiences that cannot participate in in-person gatherings. Hence, the necessity can be turned into a virtue so that the constraints of the current situation will become new strengths.

It is up to all IN members to make the best of this lucky chance. Hey, it is up to YOU, guys! Let’s create our own virtual reality that is as seductive and fascinating as Habbo Hotel’s. Please join the Open House and other online webinars in fall!

Three screens with faces (Source: https://pixabay.com/fi/users/alexandra_koch-621802/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=5352757)

Secrets to running a successful webinar

The global lockdown boosted teleworking, which, in turn, prompted the proliferation of guidebooks instructing people to organize effective and engaging webinars. One of their main challenges concerns how to ensure a participatory webinar which mobilizes all participants and stimulates a lively, fruitful discussion so that everyone is willing and capable of giving input on an equal basis. One should have a multilateral dialogue instead of a monologue. The prevailing trend relies on such conceptual pillars as inclusive interaction, bottom-up approach, nudging, and mutual learning from each other. At the same time, the facilitator should bring the meeting to the goal without derailing into a chaos and without slipping from the schedule.

While planning a common agenda or operational program in a transparent way, the first modest step in such a process is to ask stakeholders what they wish for. This bears a reciprocal responsibility. On one hand, the facilitator should be genuinely open to receive diverse feedback, unforeseen ideas and controversial views. I have faced all too often a situation when an eager instructor begins his/her workshop with an introductory round during which every participant is requested to express their expectations and aspirations concerning the given training course. As soon as I have told the instructor what I would like to achieve, I will see from the long face that my answer was “wrong”. That kind of attitude is a guaranteed motivation killer. On the other hand, participants should have enough guts, commitment and vigor to contribute to the joint effort by at least opening their mouth. Success depends on everyone’s input but requires flexibility, too. Although compromises are always needed to reach the final consensus, the brainstorming stage must “let a thousand flowers bloom”, meaning that no such thing as “wrong” opinion exists.

Heads with gears (Source: https://pixabay.com/fi/illustrations/opastaja-mentorointi-opetus-4205038/)

As for myself, I would love to compare and juxtapose my subjective observations of American society, lifestyle, mentality and way of doing things to other observers’ versions of the same reality. I would be curious to scratch the surface in order to figure out the rationales for certain conspicuous traits and track down their root causes. It might also contribute to the critical assessment of existing stereotypes and taboos in a constructive manner. Furthermore, I would like to understand better what is currently going on in Southeast Michigan and how these local phenomena relate to the big picture at a national level. (Please note, I do not mean local news). Comparative analysis of regional identities intrigues me, among other things. My primary interest is nevertheless directed towards the economy, real estate market, innovation and technological development. All in all, I could easily compile an infinitely long list of why questions, starting from my immediate neighborhood and ending to the practices for technology deployment.

Brown-haired woman talking to a man online (Source: https://www.humak.fi/henkilot/minna-rajalin/)

Despite many superior benefits of an in-person meeting, an online event offers a specific gain – in addition to saving transportation time. In my opinion, it is sometimes easier to focus on the actual substance in a web or telephone conference when redundant activities, disturbances and sensory stimuli are eliminated. The latter can refer to serving tea/coffee/refreshments, observing the venue, searching for a restroom, or reacting to people entering and leaving the meeting room. A successful online conversation may thus reach the level of in-depth discussion with less effort than a face to face meeting. It may also improve the quality of communication as shallow chitchat and small talk do not dominate the social intercourse at the cost of the serious content.

The online format works perfectly for large conferences where several parallel sessions are running simultaneously since it enables session hopping which resembles channel surfing on television. If you realize that the selected presentation does not match your expectations, you will quickly scan through alternative options to find something more interesting to listen to. If you sat in the middle row of a jam-packed conference hall, it would be difficult to sneak out without making an embarrassing scene. A virtual event allows freedom of choice in a neatly convenient fashion and empowers attendants with consumer sovereignty.

Easy attendance, flexibility and comfort of one’s home (e.g. no dress code) are commonly recognized advantages of online classes and webinars. If you are busy or tired, you do not need to wash your greasy hair or iron your wrinkled shirt in a great hurry simply to attend an interesting convention. Nor do you need to find a babysitter to leave home. Moreover, virtual events are environmentally friendly and enhance sustainability by reducing participants’ carbon footprint when unnecessary driving or flying can be avoided.  In a corporate context, sustainable events are already making the shift from the perplexing novelty to the preferred option while they also provide substantial savings in travel costs and time use.

The reliability of interactive video platforms means high quality digital events deliver a comparable impact on audiences versus traditional live events. Besides, we should not overemphasize the role of any given media or communication technology since the authentic message, accompanied by good interaction, is the key to a rewarding experience, not the platform. I use a metaphor to make my point below.

People have always written stories, recorded private memories and published official memoranda. The ancient Sumerians wrote on clay tablets in cuneiform script. The ancient Egyptians invented papyrus and used the distinctive script known today as hieroglyphs. In my childhood, kids used to keep diaries. At school and later at university, we took handwritten notes with a pen or a pencil onto a notebook with a light blue grid. Nowadays, the word ‘notebook’ stands for a light, thin laptop. When contemporary college students listen to lectures, they sit in auditoriums equipped with such laptops and smart phones. Teenagers publish blogs or vlogs in the internet, instead of writing journals.

Once again, we reach the same conclusion as above: it makes sense to attend IN’s virtual events. Although the online experience appears different, the essence remains the same. It can be equally fun and tempting as a live group. Check it out for yourself!

Blond woman sitting at a computer desk (Source https://pixabay.com/fi/illustrations/kotitoimiston-video-konferenssi-5230773/)

Legend to the abbreviations

*IN = International Neighbors, association/NGO

**COVID = coronavirus disease