Shawn Graham got the ball rolling with his discussion of applying Second Life as an instructional platform for archaeology. It seems to have had some resonance with other archaeo-bloggers (see ClioAudio, and ArchaeoGeek). ArchaeoGeek noted some fascinating work attempting to link GIS-type capabilities in Second Life. They even have an elaborate model of downtown Berkeley, including BART station.

Shawn also rightly discusses some concerns that people have voiced. These comments show some worry that we’re in danger of putting our data eggs in one basket, aand becoming dependent on yet another commercial platform (as in my previous discussion of Google, and how much we’ve come to rely on it). Given all the data preservation problems caused by closed-proprietary file formats and software, these are valid issues.

However, Linden Labs is pretty good in this regard, and I wouldn’t put Second Life in the same realm as Microsoft or even Google. Mitch Kapor (of Lotus fame, and now Second Life’s major investor) recently gave a talk at the UC Berkeley ISchool about Second Life (link to podcast). He talked about how Linden Labs is doing much to open up its infrastructure, and has “open sourced” both its client and will do so soon with its backend infrastructure software. Others will soon be able to run a Second Life server on their own. I think portability of the data in virtual worlds makes using Second Life and investing some effort in playing with it much more worth while and less risky.

In any event, while reliance on any one system is probably dangerous, there are good immediate and practical reasons for avoiding such digital mono-culture. Certain systems are best for certain types of applications. Second Life is great for visualization, and offering rich and shared experiences. But it’s probably not the kind of thing I’d use to run a statistical analysis of pot-sherd distributions. That said, Second Life doesn’t have to do that, because Linden Labs is making it easier to integrate with systems that do offer such capabilities.

I think a lot of interesting things will happen in systems like Second Life (and GoogleEarth). However, I think the most interesting things will happen between and among such systems that work together as an ecosystem exchanging data. The capability to draw upon a diverse array of powerful web services (delivering XML-encoded data, or similar formats like JSON) from data providers such as Nabonidus, Open Context, Freebase, GoogleDocs, the Portable Antiquities Scheme and others.

Of course, all this leads directly into standards questions. I tend to favor simple, incremental (or “gracefully degradable”) standards, since this approach seems like the most feasible way of exchanging at least some data. I’ll write some more on the standards question shortly.

I just finished installing COinS metadata into parts of Open Context. COinS is a lightweight, relatively easy to implement standard for expressing Dublin Core metadata (or “information about information”, as in a library catalog). Dublin Core is a very widely used set of metadata. It’s found in RSS feeds and it is the standard used by the pioneering Archaeology Data Service (UK).

Much discussion about metadata centers on interoperability of services and making information easier to find. To these ends, we’re also working on making Open Context compliant with the Open Archives Initiative Protocols for Metadata Harvesting.

Besides being important for back-end interoperability, there are also much more user-center applications of metadata. RSS really popularized Dublin Core. It made it much more than a librarian issue, and turned virtually everyone with a weblog into a Dublin Core metadata author.

Zotero, a break-through project out of George Mason University, promises to make digital metadata much more a part of the daily lives of scholars. Zotero is a free, open source, citation tool that plugs into the Firefox browser. It scans every webpage you view, ranging from weblog posts to articles in JSTOR, and looks for metadata. It uses this metadata to automatically capture bibliographic reference information. That saves researchers a great deal of tedium and reduces annoying typographic errors in building up their reference databases.

COinS is one of the standards for expressing Dublin Core supported by Zotero, and that’s why we use it in Open Context. And we’re not the only ones to realize the significance of Zotero’s automatic bibliographic tools. The Pleiades Project (an NEH funded open access initiative developing scholarly resources and community around ancient geography) is also compliant with Zotero.

These types of tools will do much to bootstrap digital dissemination of research. Easy capture of bibliographic information makes Web resources very convenient. It’s also amazing how some of the simple features (COinS is very easy to implement) make such a difference in easy of use and relevance for scholarship.

It is very exciting to see these developments come together!