State Department dispatches virtual jazz ambassadors

In 1956, at the height of the Cold War, when the United States was engaged in an ideological battle with the Soviet Union, the State Department dispatched a new kind of ambassador to carry its message. In an innovative bit of public diplomacy, State sent jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and his band on an acclaimed tour of the Middle East, Asia and South America.

Last month, the State Department, in cooperation with the Voice of America and the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School of Communications, reprised the spirit of the Gillespie tour, not in the real world but in the virtual world of Second Life.

Charles Silver, director of the Office of Policy Planning and Evaluation in State's Bureau of International Information Programs, said the Second Life Virtual Vibe Jazz Fest '07 was part of a series of projects designed to determine whether virtual worlds could offer a new way to engage with international audiences. "We need to take a look at the technology [and] see what possibilities it offers us," Silver said.

William May, director of the Office of Planning, Budget and Applied Technology for BIIP and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said a jazz concert was as natural for Second Life because it "is a very hot area, and there are a diverse set of performers."

May enlisted the help of John Stevenson, director of the central programming division of VOA, and Charles Fishman, executive producer of the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival in Washington. He said the center stage for Virtual Vibe was placed in a virtual model of the National Mall in Washington; complete with video streams of performances from the real jazz festival concert alternating with live performances by Second Life jazz artists from around the world.

The program ran for eight hours and concluded with a panel discussion on the role jazz plays in the 21st century promoting American values overseas and how new technologies like Second Life can help. Panelists included Joshua Fouts, director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, Fishman and Stevenson.

Virtual Vibe drew a global audience of about 250 people "and took far less time and effort than if we had tried to do this in real life holding a real event," May said. The audience, May added, was not passive. They peppered the panel with questions and also engaged in dialogue with each other during the concert.

May described the Virtual Vibe event as the most ambitious of the three projects State has conducted recently in Second Life, but said he and Silver learned valuable lessons from two smaller projects. In June, May said, State held a discussion on student visas at the Center for Public Diplomacy with 20 students from Poland, Canada and U.S. consular officers in both countries.

Ken Hudson, the e-learning facilitator at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario, helped organize the Canadian portion of the session, and said the ability of the students to engage in a dialogue with consular officers "made the students feel they would be welcomed to study in the United States … much more than if they just watched CNN." Hudson said the session met the true test of any public diplomacy effort, "it highlighted the positive."

The student visa session was followed by a meeting in Second Life for the disabled for about 40 participants. Part of the discussion focused on Section 508 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which mandates ease of access to federal information technology systems, and how that law applies to Second Life. This session used both text and audio, and Silver said it served as a good pilot for using the audio channels to stream foreign language content.

Silver said he does not know where State will go next in Second Life from here. He described State's virtual world experiments "as down in the weeds ... on a nickel-and-dime effort … but at some point, we are going to need to make a decision on whether not this is something we need to fully engage in."

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