In Baja California, on the way to Ensenada, there is an exit marked “Salsipuedes.” You can’t really see where it leads — the exit turns steeply off the highway, and the area is tall mud cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Somewhere down below, you can catch a glimpse of dusty pickup trucks and maybe a few dwellings.
Salsipuedes means “leave if you can” in Spanish. It struck me because of the possible readings: you can’t leave because it’s so beautiful; you want to leave because it’s so horrible; you can’t leave because it’s too hard to get out.
Seems like most virtual worlds are kind of the same way.
It’s interesting how environments created as consumer spaces are designed to be as close to Klein bottles as we can get. Casinos don’t give you line of sight to the doors, even though from the outside, the doors are glaringly large and provide great views of a tantalizing interior. Grocery stores place tempting impulse buys at eye level right where you are most obliged to move slowly: rounding corners and standing in a queue. World of Warcraft places quest hints right in your path to keep you from straying. It is all very “Hotel California” — you can check in, but you can never leave.
From the designer side, of course, there’s reasons. It’s about retention, it’s about force-feeding the consumer activities and purchases. Once you have managed to entice your customer to set foot in your space, you want to ding them as much as you can before they leave. There are no straight lines in theme parks, and instead around every corner, there’s a new zone with new challenges.
There’s a few curious effects from this. Theme parks become a bit of a chore after a while. “Have we done this one? And this one?” A checklist of places to visit. Grocery stores become obvious in their tapping of hunter-gatherer brain stems, until we learn to control our impulse for that candy bar. The endless chiming of casinos wears on you. And so does the grind.
This makes for an interesting contrast to social networking services, which are premised not on you hanging out there, but on your leaving and then coming back. Oh, don’t get me wrong — they are still like Klein bottles. The difference is that instead of stuffing yourself into the bottle, you stuff all your friends in the bottle, and then you get visitation rights. You hear their plaintive cries — or pokes, or twitters — and stop by to peer in the opening, and maybe toss a few notes in and some stale bread.
It strikes me that third places in the real world aren’t flypaper. There’s a few characteristics that set them apart from the way we build all these environments:
- They aren’t events. Events happen there from time to time, but they aren’t “peak moments” the way something like a theme park is.
- They aren’t driven by content. Content is the lubricant for social interaction. No one speaks of running out of content at the bowling alley or the bar.
- They aren’t exclusive. You don’t have the issue of stuffing your friends in one bottle. In real life, we have many overlapping social circles that we interact with in many different ways; we don’t maintain categories or tag systems for people, and our friends surprise us.
- They aren’t desperate. By this I mean that they don’t go to absurd lengths to keep us there. There’s a lack of fear, essentially, that the people will leave. Provide a great experience, and don’t worry about blocking the exits.
One wonders why it is that we don’t seem to create that sort of experience for most of our users. Why are we more like theme parks than the neighborhood bar? Is it because we pursue volume? (Inarguably, these Klein bottle spaces seem to maximize revenue; arguably, over user satisfaction).
And one also wonders whether the “stuff your friends in the bottle” effect is something that we don’t understand when we try making synchronous spaces. A lot of it is just about presence — knowing that your security blanket of people interested in you is out there, listening, knowing that you can hear them rustling around. It’s like the comfort of hearing other people moving about your house. That’s a very different sort of “interaction” than raiding together.
One core feature that differentiates real life from all these spaces is the insistence on the part of stores and services that they are the only space that matters. In practice in real life, we place-hop without losing our network of friends. We intersect with them in surprising locations, we try new places for the sake of novelty.
Would the experience of virtual places of all sorts be better if we were less hung up on getting people to stay, and more hung up on getting them to come back, more hung up on serendipitous encounters, more interested in creating a space which operates socially like real life?