The Web is moving towards a user-centric experience. Whereas a few years ago, it was all about visiting destination sites, now it is about destination sites spitting out data that comes to you, via RSS. The attraction of things like Twitter or Facebook lies in the ambient information that flows out and about, and in your largely asynchronous, largely placeless, largely shallow updates on what your friends are doing. You come to know them deeply not by engaging deeply with them, but by building up pictures of lots of small actions they take.
Compare, for example, the destination-like IRC versus the ambient Twitter. Hardcore Twitter fans use it almost in realtime. They answer people, with their @fred syntax convention. They have a better history, perhaps, because they can search the stream in a way that IRC doesn’t really support. But more importantly, you follow Twitter by filtering it; it’s one big stream, and you take little bits of it out. It is as if IRC were all one channel, and you happened to build an aggregate channel of just the people talking that you wanted to hear.
This is similar to how LiveJournal puts together friend pages — an assembled stream of all of your friends’ updates. It’s what a MyYahoo! page looks like: an aggregation of data slurped from a dozen places.
It’s a bubble around you, of course. There are pros and cons. You hear what you are interested in. You keep track of your friends better. But you also don’t hear about stuff that you don’t know you are interested in. You don’t see the books that your circle doesn’t read, don’t hear the music that your circle doesn’t listen to. In the case of civic discourse, you (judging from the forums I have seen) outright don’t understand the other party, and think that they are fundamentally wronghaded or insane. You filter to only the things that validate your worldview, by and large.
There’s a difference between reading a newspaper and reading only the articles tagged with “politics,” a context that you gain with the former, just as you gain depth with the latter. Network theory has shown that to some degree, this can lead to a homogenizing of clusters in the social network, along with a segmentation of the network into fairly separate and distinct groups. Fortunately, most humans belong to more than one social group.
Virtual worlds are about place. And a key characteristic of places is that they do not filter by interest, but by colocation. Colocation happens for many reasons. In game worlds, the motive for colocation is that you are there for the game activity. Since the game activity cuts across many different psychographics in other senses — left and right wing politics, for example, or education levels, or real world physical geography — they have a couple of effects that an ambient info cloud does not: you meet people explicitly not like you, and you interact with them in a different way; you work together on tasks, whereas ambient info updates are more about status than collaboration.
It’s a lot harder to stay in touch with people solely via “place.” Hence the historical and rapid adoption of asynch methods of communication. In many ways, Twitter or Facebook replaces “correspondence,” the habit and practice of writing detailed and chatty snail mail letters to your friends.
To some large degree, however, the ambient cloud does seem to depend to some degree on a history of colocation. I could be wrong, but my impression is that we’re far more likely to have an ambient cloud data feed of people we have met, than of absolute strangers, because we use it as a way to “keep in touch” — and having been “in touch” implies colocation. Sure, we make friends online. But we don’t usually do so via status updates, but via sites and social systems that psychologically feel like “places.”
You don’t “go to Twitter” or even go to the feed on Facebook; you go to Facebook itself, and we think of it as more placelike in some deep part of our brains. Facebook’s “Wall” clearly suggests place, because it needs to in order to provide the context. And let’s not forget that Facebook was born out of locality — it started as a way to keep up with events on a campus. And more importantly, we really get to mutually know people online via things like forums, comment threads, places of more regular participation among a community.
If as many think, the Web is moving to far greater user-centricity than it has today, whither virtual worlds? The clear main topic of this last Virtual Worlds Expo was enterprise-level distance collaboration. Why, in an ambient cloud world, do you need virtual colocation, virtual places, time-sucking simulations of places, when so many other trends seem to point away from synchronicity?
In a world like that, what is a virtual world for? How do you feed a virtual world via RSS? Not its activity log, but the actual world, its sense of place and sense of centrality and destination? Or are there any destinations, in a world like that, where no one goes to CNN.com but instead everyone reads only the subset they have on their goggle’s HUD? What is the virtual world that you interact with in five second snippets rather than an hour?
I don’t have any answers — I just wanted to share with you some of the stuff we’ve been talking about here at work recently. But I personally suspect that the need to gather, to create colocation, to touch and stand next to and (even if only virtually) share the same air, is a deeply held human need. I use Facebook to tell people when I am going to be in town, so we can meet in person. It may be that we always have the cloud, but on the day where I know everything that my kids are doing away at college because I am subscribed to their lifelogging feed, I think I will still want to get together to have dinner with them. And if they are away in China or Africa, it may be a virtual dinner.
Virtual worlds may be the last gasp of an outdated notion of place, or they may instead be the way in which we trick ourselves into thinking that the cloud is the dinner table around which we share our day’s news, because knowing that our family cared enough to show up is more important than what they have to tell us.