Second Life hype

I just posted another bit about Second Life a little while ago, and though to myself, “Why are you posting so much about it? You hardly even go there!”

It’s true. I really don’t actually use SL much. I love thinking about it, reading about it, and checking out the occasional amazing build there, but I haven’t found it consistently engaging enough to really spend a lot of time there.

There are several reasons for this, in my case:

1. I don’t especially like socializing there, because I don’t want to go into that sinkhole. I’ve had experiences in my past where a virtual community of one kind or another has drawn me in, and it keeps me disconnected from my present life. Some people are better at balancing this, but not me. And it’s even worse in some ways than an IRC channel or a MOO/MUD situation, because it’s so highly visual. There’s so much to keep track of visually that you can’t take your eyes from the screen, while on IRC or a MOO you can do other things online while ‘hanging’ out with your chat friends. But I don’t even do that anymore. I’ve tried hanging in some friendly spots like the Elbow Room in SL, but after a while it just gets to be so repetitive.

2. I honestly prefer *building* things in virtual places like this. When I messed around more in MUSH and MOO environments, the biggest draw for me was designing stuff, figuring out the kludgy but learnable code, and creating interactive objects, or even just lushly described environments. But even if you didn’t know the code, you could modify others’ objects or make really cool stuff mainly by just describing it in text. It was a collaborative storytelling tool, with real-time “third-place” community as the other killer ingredient. But in Second Life, you can’t just write up something cool and put a bit of code with it and make an enveloping, narrative experience. To do something that effective in SL, you have to understand 3D motion geometry, have a gift for 3D CAD work, and be willing to learn a full fledged programming language (LSL). It’s frustrating to not be able to just create great stuff without having to become a full-time craftsperson. Even the thrill of describing your character (writing your description in a MUSH) is ruined in SL, because you either have to know how to create your own clothes (using very advanced Photoshop techniques, hard to find textures, and 3D modeling skills) or you have to buy the stuff other people make. Which essentially makes it so much like real life, I figure, what’s the point? I learned just enough to make some tattoos and t-shirts, so that I could at least feel like I had a hand in my avatar’s sartorial expression, then I stopped, because it’s not like somebody’s paying me to do this stuff.

3. Which leads me to the last issue. Money. SL has been hyped like mad as all about the money. Which makes it very different from the Web, in many ways… because the Web is about openness, which it has in its DNA, to make a web page, you’ve always been able to just look at someone else’s source. Even now, with AJAX and other technologies making it more complex, the leaders in these techniques (Yahoo, Google) are publishing their source code openly, in the spirit of the Web. Second Life, however, encourages people to keep everything a secret, to lock their source code because they may be able to sell something for a few hundred Lindens. True, on MUDs and such people can lock their objects as well, trying to make some virtual cash in whatever MUD they’re on, and hide the source. But if they really want bragging rights, they know they should make something that works really well and share it with others, because that currency is actually worth more in the long run — social currency. With SL, however, the virtual money is *real* money — because it’s exchangeable with US dollars. Nothing wrong with capitalism, of course, but it’s caused hundreds of people to glom onto SL and turn it into a giant, ugly shopping mall — not a nice one, but one of those nearly-third-world bazaars where you think you’re driving by a giant junk pile but it’s actually stuff for sale. The worst part of this, to me, is that it makes so many people in SL protective and closed, and paranoid, about the stuff they made… and every little bauble someone comes up with is something they think they’re going to get rich by selling.

So… there you go. Does that mean I hate Second Life, like (otherwise very pleasant friend of the IA community) Matt “Blackbelt” Jones and cohorts at http://www.ihatesecondlife.blogspot.com/ ? Well, no. I actually still think it’s fascinating. But only as a sort of initial foray or experiment. I don’t see that SL is the ‘future of the web’ — I believe the real future of the web is in simple, basic interfaces that connect us more easily and cheaply and ubiquitously wherever we happen to be. This is quite the opposite of having to be glued to my desk chair in front of a computer powerful enough to push the software and content streaming from Linden’s servers.

That said, I think SL is a fascinating *archetype* for what that future of ubiquitous, simple, cheap computing is going to be. (As I’ve said in “We Live Here” and other places.) I don’t think it’s taking over the web, but it could very well infect our imaginations. That’s really its key power… that it’s opening thoughts, conversations and possibilities about what else we could do with technology, how richly it can connect us, and what it might feel like to walk around in a world where every object has a unique id and talks to every other object, including us.

It’s also useful in more concentrated, planned ways, as a place where distantly connected people can meet “in the flesh” — there’s an interesting psychological effect that’s different in SL that you don’t get in text chat. The corporeal presence of the other person, even though they may be dressed like a fairy or a robot — it’s just a more exaggerated version of wearing a particular cologne or cool sunglasses, things we do all the time to express ourselves. I’ve been in meetings with people from organizations I’m part of, people whom I rarely or never meet in person, and there’s an intimacy to the conversation when looking around at their avatars and talking that you just don’t get in a text-only experience. Also there’s a sense of “place” that feels more substantial than a mere website — having a presence in Second Life, a company or organization can provide something that expresses “if we had a building you could come and visit to get to know us, this is what it’d be like” and that’s pretty powerful.

That’s why I think Clay Shirkey’s post is kind of missing the point. Shirkey will have plenty of people jumping in to agree or disagree with him, so I won’t go to great lengths.

I’ll just say I think he’s dead right about the hype: Linden is overplaying it. Philip Rosedale has gone on record saying SL is like the new Web, and that it’s like Burning Man… a utopia of which he is the visionary and lord. That’s fun for him, but not so much squared with reality. Linden Labs is a business, and SL is proprietary and limited to a giant warehouse of servers in California. Not quite the open Web of Tim Berners-Lee. And corporate America is having its field day for now, but it’ll wind down soon enough. At this point everyone feels obligated to have at least a kiosk there, just so they don’t look like squares.

But SL or something like it will continue to be there, and will grow, and will likely morph into something much less literal and (as Shirkey puts it) “conceptually simple” and much more a hybrid of walking around in real space + walking around in virtual space + using more efficient interfaces when appropriate for all the things that the virtual/real merged layers present us.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets

Google now has spreadsheets and documents (from Writely) combined… and awesome Discussion and Collaboration capabilities baked right in.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets

A combined list of documents and spreadsheets
You can see, create, and share all of your web-based documents and spreadsheets in one place. As your collection grows, you can manage and find them using tags, stars, and searches.

Bigtime advertising lands in Second Life

SL old-timers are already getting antsy about all this branding happening in-world. But it’s part of the deal, really.
What I’d like to see? Advertising from big brands and corporations supplementing the more or less free activity of others — allowing regular people to be able to have more objects on their land, for example. Watch me not hold my breath.

Adweek Magazine In Print – Advertising News – Advertising Information

Last week, Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s virtual office, created by the agency’s London headquarters and London production company Rivers Run Red, was officially up and running. And Leo Burnett Worldwide and its marketing-services partner Arc Worldwide are developing an “ideas hub” in Second Life that is expected to be operational by next month. Both agencies expect their virtual offices to offer both private and public spaces, and see the possibilities for client and agency involvement as “limitless.”

Thanks E, for the link!

Ethnography in Business Week

The Science Of Desire

The beauty of ethnography, say its proponents, is that it provides a richer understanding of consumers than does traditional research. Yes, companies are still using focus groups, surveys, and demographic data to glean insights into the consumer’s mind. But closely observing people where they live and work, say executives, allows companies to zero in on their customers’ unarticulated desires. “It used be that design features were tacked on to the end of a marketing strategy,” says Timothy deWaal Malefyt, an anthropologist who runs “cultural discovery” at ad firm BBDO Worldwide. “Now what differentiates products has to be baked in from the beginning. This makes anthropology far more valuable.”

BBC and the social software revolution

There’s a lot of buzz about the BBC’s recent announcement:
MediaGuardian.co.uk | Media | BBC unveils radical revamp of website

The BBC today unveiled radical plans to rebuild its website around user-generated content, including blogs and home videos, with the aim of creating a public service version of MySpace.com.

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately about the difficulties newspapers and traditional broadcast news and information outlets are facing due to the explosion of the Web. And by explosion, I mean not the ecommerce fixation of 6-7 years ago, but the sort of afterboom of the social web. How Craigslist is eating the lunch of local newspapers, because (according to Craig, and I’m paraphrasing him here, from the very excellent interview I heard via podcast) newspapers are supposed to be a community service, and that’s how they work best and how a community values them most.

The authority they derive in their news coverage is an after effect of how well they make themselves into an essential social organ.

The BBC sees this clearly and is doing something about it … rather than whining about the changing world and trying to sandbag against it, they’re adopting the new paradigm.

And that new paradigm is the peer-to-peer world. A relatively new book, “The Wealth of Networks,” takes Metcalfe’s law seriously, and explains the point that many others have been making for a while. From an interview at Open Business:

By “commons-based peer production” I mean any one of a wide range of collaborative efforts we are seeing emerging on the Net in which a group of people engages in a cooperative production enterprise that effectively produces information goods without price signals or managerial commands.

The interview goes on to cover the non-monetary incentives for this kind of co-production. Any enlightened HR person will tell you, though, that similar non-monetary incentives have always been primary drivers for workers; it’s what makes people care about what they’re doing. Getting paid is necessary, but it’s not the immediate incentive every minute of the work day. (If it *is* the main incentive of most workers in an organization, the organization is doomed.)

But enabling people to work this way is something most organizations aren’t used to doing. Which is why there’s an exponential increase in interest about “social software” and how to use it for business. I’m a big fan of the stuff, but it’s only as good as the organization using it: like any other software, it doesn’t fix anything on its own, it only gives people more opportunities to fix things together.

Maybe this is why CFO magazine has an article just a few days old about “Office Collaboration, the Wiki Way.” Maybe it’s why Kleiner Perkins is backing Visible Path’s vision to take social software to the serious corporate world? And maybe it’s why Forrester has an online session happening tomorrow called “Social Computing: How Networks Erode Institutional Power, And What to Do About It” with a blurb like this:

Easy connections brought about by cheap devices, modular content, and shared computing resources are having a profound impact on our global economy and social structure. Individuals increasingly take cues from one another rather than from institutional sources like corporations, media outlets, religions, and political bodies. To thrive in an era of Social Computing, companies must abandon top-down management and communication tactics, weave communities into their products and services, use employees and partners as marketers, and become part of a living fabric of brand loyalists.

(The report from February is for sale here.)

A lot of this might be a little far-fetched. People and institutions don’t change overnight, and certain pockets of corporate culture have more inertia than others. Still, it’s one thing to talk about it like it’s the sci-fi future: then it’s just theoretical and not especially pressing. But it’s another to see it happening all around you. That’s when it’s time to at least have a strategy.

IA Summit 2006 – "Clues to the Future"

Evidently, my proposal to this year’s IA Summit has been accepted. Now comes the tough part of actually having a presentation.

I have plenty of stuff to present on … that’s just the problem. The challenge is getting it all winnowed down into something coherent and useful.

The conference organizers say I need to have my presentation materials to them by 2/1 so they can go onto the CD-ROM. But my PP decks usually have a lot of filler that only makes sense with the verbal narrative — so it may make more sense to provide an abstract, an outline, bibliography/links to research, and a link to a page here where people can download the latest-greatest if they so please.

Here’s the final version of the proposal/description (which I’m not sure if I got in on time, so this may not be identical to the actual conference info):

Clues to the Future: What the users of tomorrow are teaching us today.

What might Wikipedia have in common with World of Warcraft? And how might that affect design and business strategy today?

According recent academic and business research, there is an enormous wave of people on its way to adulthood that may very well take us by surprise. And while many designers may be aware of this, we still face the challenge of making it clear to our clients and stake-holders.

Beyond the hype and more obvious implications of the “net generation” are key questions that affect how business and design plan for the future. For example: the shift from hierarchical to nodal paradigms; the rise of new kinds of literacy (and authority); the blurring boundaries between ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ economies; the splintering of identity; and users who, frankly, expect your web environment to be as well designed as the best games on their X-Boxes.

It’s important not to focus on the surface gadgetry, but to understand what is different about how these users think, how they solve problems and manage resources, how they socialize and organize, and how vastly different it may be from the assumed conventions of most business and design decision-makers (i.e. people born before 1985).

This presentation will:

1. Survey some of the current research and insights on the issue;
2. Explore some of the more challenging theoretical questions raised;
3. Discuss the practical business and design implications of those questions; and
4. Suggest how those implications might help make stronger cases for innovative design.

Hopefully this won’t just be a retread of stuff people already know. The basic theme is that by studying how the net generation uses things like social networks and multiplayer game environments, we can see what their mental models are going to be like when they’re full-fledged adult users.

This theme may sound obvious to many… but I haven’t heard much of a call for looking to these sources for planning business and design strategy for the near term.

If it takes most coporations about five years to get any truly ambitious technology shift into a mature state (and that’s if they’re in the quick crowd), why not go ahead and think about what that mature state should be once seventeen-year-olds are starting their careers? There’s amazing research and theory-making going on about online games, especially. They seem to me to be perfect laboratories, e-petri dishes, for seeing how an electronically mediated community (and that specialized community — the market economy) functions.

Here’s a separate page where I’ll be keeping info about it, links to related articles and research, and the final version of the presentation (eventually).

Oldest .com's

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing shares a link to the 100 oldest .COM names in the registry, and wonders about the “visionaries” who might’ve realized they needed a “.com” domain in 1985.

But many of those companies likely weren’t thinking about commercial Internet possibilities. They just happened to be involved in the academic, scientific and defense contracting fields, either directly or tangentially, and according to the rules in the registry, they had to be “.com” to show they were commercial enterprises, unlike the majority of the Internet nodes at the time, which were .edu or .gov (and a few .orgs I guess, might’ve been the minority? Hm. )

Anyway, I mention this not just to be persnickety, but because I think it’s interesting how easy it is to forget what the context was 20 or hell even 12 years ago. I’m fascinated at how quickly the ‘net became a “land of opportunity” as opposed to an under-the-radar propeller-head network, and how to some degree we’re all coming back to the ‘net’s DNA of community (which has always been prevalant, it’s just not gotten the press because the ‘real’ community happening online isn’t necessarily connected to any IPO’s).

The market isn’t using the net for its own ends. People are using the market to utilize the net for their own ends… and as always, people are mainly interested in connecting with, sharing with, creating with other people.