Sep 102008

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 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.

  22 Responses to “Virtual worlds in the ambient cloud”

  1. Virtual worlds in the ambient cloud…

    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…

  2. I can definitely see how the cloud leads to homogenized groups, but I don’t know that people get totally insulated (yet). The individual members of the group aren’t so identical that they all have absolutely the same set of links/books/music/etc, so there is still something new coming into each of their worlds. I guess it could get that way over enough time though.

    I wonder if being able to exist in this bubble from day one might make some members of the next generation more open to new ideas in some twisted sense? When one is out in the ‘wild’ and cannot seek refuge in a self-identified group with similar ideas, and feels ‘under attack’ by the world much of the time, the human instinct is to ‘turtle up’ mentally. Whether through naivete or comfort, the next group who starts out in a relatively conflict-free cloud of ideas might come to crave some conflict. And the cycle continues!

  3. Two old sayings that seem to apply here:

    “Choose your friends wisely.”

    “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

    There’s an interesting affect here. Communication has lost many boundaries. We’re no longer just the kids at school, or the patrons of the bar, or the employees, or even the people of the city. We’re world wide now. With that comes a social abnormality (at least compared to the past that we developed in, which in time will change). You can see this clearly in that, as “the kids at school”, there were always those few “geeks” who seemed somewhat different. Now, those “geeks” are all over the place, and widely accepted to the point that most everyone sees a little geek in themselves. But as you point out how people coalesce into like elements, even the smallest groupings seem very, very large. And this can be very deceiving when the voice of “many” is loud.

  4. I can definitely see how the cloud leads to homogenized groups, but I don’t know that people get totally insulated (yet).

    The phenomenon is very widely reported. I haven’t seen any studies that actually investigate it or prove its existence empirically, but I expect it has been done, especially in the political blogosphere.

    It’s definitely natural for people to gravitate towards people they’re similar to. But I also think it’s important for place designers to encourage cross-pollination; it’s a pretty well-known topic in architecture, AFAIK, to set up places such that serendipitous encounters are possible and encourged. That’s something you can’t do in the me-centric “ambient cloud”: there’s a doctrine of the user being allowed to filter the world as they want, if possible.

    It is, however, something you can do in virtual worlds. You can provide crossroads and courtyards. Forums actually end up being a nice compromise in this respect: they seem to do both, having properties of the cloud without necessarily becoming me-centric.

    Dick Meyer calls this “not multiculturalism, but Balkanization”, a term that anyone who’s read Raph’s posts on community has seen before.

    Still, while virtual worlds might filter by colocation, like many modern places, you can easily ignore everyone else around you by sticking in the equivalent of a pair of earbuds and dancing like no one’s watching on the subway. (Come on. It’s an entertaining image to see those iPod commercial people… on a subway.) And the only way I can see to address that is to provide more motivation for talking with people than for ignoring them.

  5. Thanks for a thoughtful post, Raph.

    I don’t fully agree with the role of “place” in your post. First, I don’t see “filtering by co-location” as fundamentally different from the other filtering by interest you mention. Co-location is a symptom of some other common interest or characteristic – interest in playing the same game, in your example. Common interests or characteristics can be shallow or deep – certainly being in the same public park physically reflects a very shallow common interest most of the time, while being at a rock concert reflects a deeper, or more specific, one.

    Similarly, to use your example, my facebook connections reflect almost the complete set of political viewpoints because they’re there due to other common interests or shared experiences. My point being that I see co-location as just one part of associations due to commonalities.

    One thing that places, virtual or real, enable that the filtered-feed information streams do not is a much greater sense of shared experience. I believe virtual worlds will be most successful where they provide remote experiences that aren’t just communication – that will have clear unique value. I believe that will be enough to make virtual shopping for real world goods wildly successful, but will it be enough to cause people to have everyday meetings in virtual meeting rooms?

    I’m not so sure. I do believe, as you indicate, that the psychological effect of feeling like we’re seeing and being around a human is a powerful one, but without associated practical benefit that may not be frequently chosen.

  6. I agree with Sibley. Places are contextual frameworks that contain the commonality (intimate metadata) for community members. Place can be anything as long as it’s recognizable by the community members. It may be utterly unrecognizable by others.
    The difference between an avatar and a twitter stream is that the avatar carries richer metadata that helps maintains context (intimacy and differentiation) between two people when they communicate. A twitter stream is “faceless” except in the accumulated intimacy over time and familiarity. Twitter streams also look exactly alike between two people.

    Avatar metadata is portable “place”, and can communicate the community context behaviorally, by status, and by appearance (deferential, alpha, teacher, student, plumber, electrician.) So perhaps the reason for a virtual world is the human need to communicate intimately using readily visible cues and context. The next best thing to being there?

  7. You think you are choosing your choices. You aren’t. Your choices are choosing you. So fascinated with the technical wiring of the machines, you don’t know how your brain wiring works and therefore, why the feedback made possible by the network is wiring you silently, willfully replacing your own will.

    The heroes of the last generation and next are people who became self-aware of that wiring process and took responsibility for it. They are almost never the people you think they are because the ultimate power over this process can only be held by those who remain outside of it.

    They live quietly focused lives far from the strange attractors of culture that hold you all so tightly under their control.

  8. Len, you’re officially weird. 🙂

  9. I never thought len would be a conspiracy theorist without a conspiracy. I think it’s kinda endearing.

  10. There’s things going on that you don’t know.

    Think about it: nothing scares the wired up generation more than the thought that there are wires they aren’t hooked up to and that work actively at not being hooked up to them, except possibly that the wiring they are hooked up to is taking them over and changing them without their permission or volition.

    You can’t cheat an honest man, but where would you find one of those these days?

    Just for fun, search for Hebb’s Theory of the dual trace mechanism. All the truth you think you know may just be the echo chamber and that metaphor is more physically real than you think. We ascribe power to the social network but network research says that the oldest connections tend to be the most powerful. Dual trace offers an explanation for that.

    Thanks Michael. From this perch, you’re all kinda quaint.

  11. len:

    nothing scares the wired up generation

    Who comprises the “wired-up generation”? Generation Y and back? Generation Z is clearly the “wireless generation.”

    You can’t cheat an honest man, but where would you find one of those these days?

    Honesty has always been relative. The statement “I am honest” is meaningless. One can only be “honest to” or “honest about” but never “absolutely honest.” The self-proclaimed “honest man” is simply lying to himself — about himself.

    search for Hebb’s Theory of the dual trace mechanism. All the truth you think you know may just be the echo chamber

    You do realize that most people have no clue what you’re talking about, right? Big words do not make a smart man. Big words make a smartass. I’ve been trying really hard ever since I met Raph to use smaller and smaller words. *sigh*

    Plus, I prefer an epistemological treatment of the philosophy of perception as such treatment more readily complies with my Sartrean existentialist orientation. 😉

  12. Thank you for your insightful post. The serendipity one can enjoy in virtual places is widely used as an argument in favor of virtual worlds, but I particularly liked your statement at the end of your post: “knowing that our family cared enough to show up is more important than what they have to tell us.”

    It is the feeling I have when I cannot log in for a certain time in Second Life or when our Metanomics group interrupts its activities for a while: I do not only miss the content or the activity, but the virtual presence of the other avatars.

    I guess there are straightforward psychological explanations for this, if one sees other people on a regular basis, there is often a feeling of loss when they suddenly are no longer there. But it is also a very touching thought, because it tells us something about what it means to be human…

  13. […] just have been reading a very insightful and touching post by Raph Koster on his website. One can consider his post to be a meditation about the notion of “virtual space”. A key […]

  14. I think Len’s trying to say that our interactions with other people and/or concepts create a physiological feedback loop that effectively conditions us to accept and believe in, and be directed toward, the cultural systems that we come into contact with. If I’m following correctly anyway.

    Sadly, this isn’t particularly useful information. That theory in particular applies to *all* sensory input, not just culturally related ones, and that means that you can’t be outside the process period. You can go down different paths by avoiding coming into contact with various concepts, but this also isn’t particularly useful, because all things being equal, the source of the conditioning is mostly irrelevant. You may have more or less impact on existing systems, depending on how compatible your own conditioning is when you smack up against them, but this isn’t inherently a good or bad thing.

    Honestly, the most useful thing you can do is come into contact with as many different and incompatible “attractors of culture” as possible, rather than trying to studiously avoid them. Integration of disaparate systems is vastly more useful than being able to operate outside the influence of any given one. There’s always SOMETHING that’ll establish that echo chamber; you can’t get away from that. Better to embrace it and then force the echo chamber to include as close to a total world view as the human mind is capable of comprehending.

  15. Plus, I prefer an epistemological treatment of the philosophy of perception as such treatment more readily complies with my Sartrean existentialist orientation. 😉

    That’s all make believe, dude. 😀

  16. It may be that the perceived incompatibility between the asynchronous, user-centric model of the web and virtual worlds is just a life-cycle problem.

    The current set of data on the internet is predominately two-dimensional in its content and organization. In the medium term, as inter-operability between the real world ™ and virtual spaces becomes more tightly integrated, the desire and need for three-dimensional organization of data will rise. This would be the same kind of data as is on the web now – user centric asynchronous communication, but in a consensus reality mirror world that kind of data could be tagged onto any object or location in 3d space.

    As examples, the line at Rubio’s for burritos is backed up? Tag the store with comment. The photocopier on the 3rd floor is out of ink? Tag it with a comment. If all this information were surfaced through a virtual world interface, we’d be swimming in a sea of asynchronous data.

    The nice thing here is have the opportunity for incidental asynchronous contact. Maybe a stranger tagged your car with a comment that it’s got cool tires.

  17. Len – that’s an interesting paper on Hebb’s Theory and you’re normally a smart guy and all, but in this case, what do you mean to suggest we do? Are you trying to say it’s a good idea to avoid virtual worlds, by which one could ‘remain outside of the process’ and ‘live a quietly focused life away from the attractors of culture?’

    As it is, you just come off like you’re trying to sound cool as Philosophy 101 students are inclined to do. I know (or rather, I hope) there’s more to it than that, so tell us more about how these ideas you have presented should change the reader’s decision-making process in that area.

  18. Amaranthar:

    That’s all make believe, dude.

    Although perception is reality, I’m not obligated to share yours, bro. 🙂

  19. I’d drop over dead if you did, Morgan. heh

  20. I want to live in Sean’s world. 🙂

  21. @john you can live there, but there may be a monthly subscription fee.

  22. “Big words do not make a smart man. Big words make a smartass.”

    See Idiocracy. That would almost be a quote from the lawyer.

    It is a matter of understanding the physical wiring and how statistical populations emerge from that. You might call them ‘movements’. They have their own sense of right and wrong and not only won’t understand a different movement, they physically can’t at large.

    @Eolirin: That’s close. Reinforced feedback strengthens the connections, but co-incident events cause them. Thus, much of what we think has a superstitious quality and if someone is skilled, they can manipulate that effect. From political races down to the local bake sale, the connotative/denotative relationships are sold as facts. Total immersion is to the human brain what a network node is without Trend Micro.

    It isn’t new information, but it isn’t useless. Awareness is not trivial. It’s vital and it has to be developed. For the philosophy 101 crowd, the quote is, the enemy is sleep. Don’t bother to Google it. The indices for this are garbage. And so it goes.

    As a matter of fact, there is a lot an individual can do by coming into contact. To take a snapshot of the symbol/sign/signal set. Some would call that the dominant memes but that term is more pop than science. It is immersion one would avoid because then the wiring effects become moreorless fixed as, for lack of a better term, habituated thinking.

    The practices of eastern meditation, zazen, etc., as the next generation of Hinduism evolved precisely to unwire the brain from immersive meditative techniques (worship of divinities). The mind isn’t capable of absorbing totality. To use a database metaphor, without an index, it becomes goo. The quality sought is fast signal recognition to determine engagement. There are ways other than total immersion to do that but the trick is fast recognition with minimal information and slow/fast reaction triggers. A matter of training.

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