A quickie with…Belmeloro DiPrima

Stefan Geens, project manager and Second Life guru at the Swedish Institute, gives Charlotte West a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the construction of the Second House of Sweden, the soon-to-be launched virtual replica of Sweden’s embassy in Washington D.C.. In the virtual reality of Second Life, he’s better known as his alter ego, Belmeloro DiPrima.

There’s been a lot of media hype over Sweden being the first virtual embassy. How does it feel to be beaten by the Maldives?

I’ve been wondering where all the other embassies have been. I think the idea is so good that there are going to be plenty more. The more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned.

The Maldives embassy is located on Diplomacy Island, which is set up to encourage small countries to set up virtual bilateral relations with each other. It’s an attempt to level the playing field. That’s a different goal or objective than we have at the House of Sweden, which is public diplomacy.

So Second House of Sweden is not intended to replace traditional methods of diplomacy?

No, it’s not a real embassy. It’s basically an attempt to use a brand new tool – the 3D virtual world – as a way to explain Sweden, talk about Sweden, to reenact Sweden, in ways that you can’t do with the web.

So is this just a PR stunt?

There is certainly a lot of hype around Second Life, but I think a lot of it is justified. We went in despite the hype, I think, because there is a sense that it is inevitable that in a couple of years this immersive reality that you go into is going…to be as big as the Internet.

What makes Second Life different than a regular website?

A regular website is very much a two dimensional space. In Second Life, you go into these spaces and you interact with the things that are there. You can also see all of the other people who are visiting the same space as you. That’s something you can’t do on the web. You can interact with all of the people who are there, which brings an extra layer of interactivity.

Second Life is good for four things that the web isn’t naturally good at: role playing, reenactment, group activities and learning by doing.

Role playing? When I think of role playing, I think of Dungeons and Dragons.

What I mean by that is, for example, soon we are going to have a whole series of costumes about Vikings and Abba clothes in an exhibition about myths about Sweden…

…Are you going to have the Swedish Bikini Team?

No, and we’re not going to have any nudist costumes either. But basically, you get to wear these things and while you’re doing it, you’ll probably be forced to read about how Swedes are not really like that. That’s one interesting way in which you can learn by role playing.

So in terms of public diplomacy, what is the goal?

We’re using Second Life as an extra tool in the whole tool box of media that we at the Swedish Institute use to do public diplomacy. In the future, for example, if we do a project on Linneaus, we’ll have a website, we’ll do an exhibition in real life, and do an exhibition in Second Life that you couldn’t really do in any other medium.

So you could visit a museum in Sweden when you’re in Guam?

Actually, we have an exhibit of paintings from the National Museum. Basically, the metaphor behind that is the National Museum regularly bequeaths paintings to the Swedish embassies around the world. So you can roam around the Second House of Sweden and just use it as a virtual museum.

This all seems a bit geekish to me. Could you say that Second Life is only used by people who don’t have a first life?

Geeks don’t automatically not have a first life, they just like to play with things that are not immediately useful – in the same sense that particle physics isn’t immediately useful – because it’s still interesting and playful and intriguing. That said, I think there is an extreme end of people who believe that you have to do everything [in Second Life] just like in your first life. I tend to think of these people as extreme experimentalists and they are perhaps a bit too enthusiastic.

Any advice for first time visitors to the Second House of Sweden?

Explore every corner.

Which is your favorite corner?

The Southwest corner.

What’s there?

Go have a look.

Charlotte West