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Metaverse U conversation: Raph Koster, Cory Ondrejka, Howard Rheingold

Barb Dybwad

We headed to the Metaverse U event at Stanford University this weekend to hear a smorgasboard of prominent thinkers and workers in the fields of virtual worlds and online gaming have a meeting of the minds. Below is a recap (caveat: some paraphrasing involved!) of one of our favorite sessions featuring a conversation with Metaplace's Raph Koster, former Linden Lab CTO Cory Ondrejka, and social media and online community guru Howard Rheingold.

Henrik Bennetsen (moderator):
(Introduces 3 panelists and asks Raph to kick off with his thoughts on virtual worlds)

Raph: From the beginning, virtual communities has never been about the "virtual." All the oddities come from the mediation, not from human nature. We build trellises, and communities are plants growing on them... you get to shape them a little bit, and sometimes in very bad ways if you're not careful. We tend to think we have more power than we do when architecting these things. I wince at the title "community manager" ("relations" would be better) because it perpetuates the myth that we have power to control what users do. Mediation gives us a window into things that in the real world can be hard to see. Virtual communities are an opportunity to see how people tick.

Cory: Having spent 7 years building Second Life, the interactions and collisions with the real world are what make it interesting. We had only 400 users at launch and we were ecstatic! Can you imagine that today (especially for companies with big name investors)? I think about virtual worlds as communication technology. I agree there's a need for customer service and arguments about the declaration of avatar rights are important but yet I feel there's something off in these arguments... (he's referring to earlier conversation about declarations of avatar rights)

Gallery: Metaverse U 2008 | 40 Photos

Raph: Providing backstory on the declaration of avatar rights: it was in context of a lot of abuses by companies. There was suppression of speech and all kinds of things between disturbing and fascistic. In that context it really is a question of rights. It was advice to virtual world admins: don't screw your users. Avatar to me is somewhat a crummy word because we get caught up in arguments about the definition of that is. You reach a point where the boundaries get really blurry. Could a character in an RPG fall under privacy law? Maybe.

Cory: A 1995 David Johnson cyberlaw paper first exposed these issues. The European commission has started talking about a common set of laws for EU ... currently the same regulatory environment doesn't apply everywhere and that's problematic to users.

Howard: I've learned the hard way that rhetorical devices get away from you... would the word "persona" be better than "avatar"? George Hillary found 94 definitions of community. The words we use early to describe these phenomena we create -- we tend to get stuck in them. I'm interested now in the intersection of places like this, a brick and mortar university, and this (points above to SL feed on the screen behind him) where people can log in and be here too. Understanding this takes more than just a course -- there is so much in here to study.

It's not that multitasking is bad and deep focus is good (we need to multitask, otherwise we wouldn't be able to drive!). The internet is there in your lap without any training at all as to where to put your attention. Mythology of the "digital native" is somewhat misplaced -- because they can figure out software without reading the manual doesn't mean they always know exactly what things mean in all domains.

I'm very much a novice still but not so much that I'm disoriented. There is huge opportunity to use social media to figure out "is this stuff good for us?" Collective action and larger social forms: are we deteriorating or making them healthier through virtual worlds? Sociology, psychology, economics and political science should all be concerned with these.

Raph: These questions are all related. In RPGs it was your character, then we start having avatars which were just visual, then we get into reputation and other associations. Now the big thing is presence -- we see people here in this room whose physical presence may be here but mental presence is elsewhere.

Cory: When Linden started we had a few people in one room. We encouraged a high interrupt rate in our culture -- pop your head up and just ask. This contributed 2 positive things: broadcasting what you're working on, and broadcasting geek credibility -- you're smart and asking smart people questions, which helps bind teams together. Building positive social capital. Challenge: how do you extend that to multiple offices and locations? Presence discussion becomes very important -- how do you know when it's appropriate to interrupt? Are you logged into AIM, are you Twittering, are you playing WoW, and what are your privacy rights to that type of data?

Raph: That's the thing about Twitter -- if you analogize your online identity -- it's like the rise of the word "toon" which I think came from The Realm -- at this point tossing something out on Twitter is like seeing a bit of an avatar's elbow. It's not a complete picture.

Cory: You're Twittering and your friends have your Dopplr account so they know where you are. Overlapping portfolios of data with different audiences exposed to different sets. Who gets access to my information?

Raph: Presence and identity in general on the Internet is so performance-driven. Interesting you used the word "broadcast" so much -- that's a little bit weird. It's weird in real life and historically weird. In interpersonal communications it isn't always about the broadcast, lots of stuff is deeply ingrained that might get glossed over. So much broadcast may actually be unnatural.

Cory: But the flip side is the unnatural act of technology is why a lot of us are here.

Howard: To what degree are the very rich set of assumptions surrounding this discussion going to leak into vernacular and to what degree is it going to be an expanding elite? I assumed you could say to a modern Stanford student "if you have my Twitter and my Dopplr you know where I am" but to those out of the loop you may as well be speaking Martian.

Cory: Through research we get some good insights about where we're losing people in the technology and the terminology.

Raph: If you're on Sandhill Road, please go visit Cleveland because the world isn't really like that. It's very easy for us to lose sight. It is sub-1% of the people I know who know what Twitter or Dopplr are. Even with all the kids using Facebook etc., their usage patterns are not like ours.

Cory: Email is for old people.

Raph: There are studies showing once those kids reach "old people" stage their practices change too. For a lot of people it's not just the question of "is it hard", and it's beyond "is it useful or valuable" to really just "is it there?" A lot of people are blissfully unaware still.

Cory: I don't think anyone here would argue that virtual worlds have reached mass market. Even if it's only the early adopters right now or whatever subset, if you have the set of people who are starting to self-identify it's another set of divides between community and not. It is changing... we're in the very early stages of it still.

Henrik: I heard Jimmy Wales say about Wikipedia in the mid-90's all the tech components were there but it wasn't started until 2001 -- it was a social revolution that needed to happen first. Howard -- what's your gut feeling about where we are on the virtual world front?

Howard: I think one of the questions is whether these worlds can translate and come to a mobile environment. People have been experimenting in small enclaves for a long time... back in the day of The Well is was USENet that was old school. Millions of people are participating in these things now and it's still early. In terms of literacy: will it require a whole education in itself? Will it take place outside of institutions or within them? Will we see many diff. kinds of linguistic tribes?

I'm fascinated by the spread of video terminology vernacular -- how many teens are talking through computer screens right now? Face and voice are things we carry from our basic primate humanity but at the same time we have all these ways of doing things we aren't able to do by using voice, etc. Terrence McKenna used to talk about communicating by making small mouth noises. We're all building abstractions on tools we already have. Will the entire human race come along and assimilate that whole pile? Very different from a scenario in which we have huge divides between worlds.

Cory: There are still parts of the world that have no literacy whatsoever, much less getting to the point where we can talk technical literacy. Some of the best aspects of virtual worlds will feel the same on mobile devices -- like sharing music experiences in SL will still feel the same.

Raph: Despite the prevalence of phones, they're not universally advanced. The march of technology helps but we shouldn't forget there are still people out there who've heard of SL but have a Pentium 3 and no video card so can't log in. With the spread of mobile platforms we're still going to be running into that. Of course it's going to be driven not by just cellphones, but by your in-dash car monitor or anything that can put out something on a display. Virtual worlds on your iPhone is not a crazy idea.

Howard: I recently saw a woman with a $1000 stroller and a 2-year-old who had a video iPod and headphones... parents are totally swayed by the digital babysitter.

Henrik: (reads a question from an attendee in Second Life) Is there a difference between synchronous and asynchronous community?

Cory: Difference between monologue and dialogue... it probably changes what communities form as a result.

Raph: Communities that stay only asynchronous stop existing after a while. That's just what happens.

Howard: They can exist if they need to exist.

Raph: But it's not the norm. A lot of the time asynchronicity is a supplement to when we can't do it the other way. Synchronicity is our default mode, it's how we're wired. Everything back to cave paintings is a workaround to the fact that we can't co-locate.

Howard: You can communicate for someone for years in asynchonicity and when you start IMing with them they have a different voice. My wife started using IM recently and though we've been together for 40 years her IM personality seems like someone totally new to me. Back during The Well people had a script to run the "U" command to see who was online at that moment so you could be synchronous with them.

Raph: Do college students still have a white board on their door? It was all over my college... so people could leave messages when you were out. It was about using the async to set up the sync later.

Cory: People kept mentioning the irony of physically coming here today to talk about virtual worlds -- look, these aren't a replacement for face to face. It's not 1992 where we think one day we'll have VR pods and never have to meet each other. No one is making those claims anymore. But maybe as methods of collaboration and community, these could be good tools or could supplement other tools.

(Lots of joking around about the SL in-world meeting going on behind the speakers.)

Henrik: Let's say we're the canaries in the mineshaft -- what does it mean if the vernacular of non-academics invades Stanford...

Howard: We wouldn't have texting if it wasn't for 15-year-old girls in Tokyo discovering pager codes before SMS existed. Over and over again it's almost like a Darwinian ecological niche thing -- people want to communicate in all kinds of ways. If there is a way we couldn't use before and now we can, we will use it.

Anecdote about MINItel trying to dictate user behavior and failing -- a phone directory turned into sex chat.

We think we know what we're talking about here but we'll come back in 10 years and find that people have worked this stuff and tie it together in ways that seem obvious in retrospect.

Raph: It's teenagers wanting to find a way to hook up that drove Myspace and Facebook.

Cory: Also fringe speech migrates to where it's not being blocked, observed, censored.

Howard: Teenagers could suddenly communicate without parents knowing about it.

Raph: Teens used to want their own phone line in the bedroom for the same reason. One of the things about all of this is that we think it's gone quickly but it really hasn't... there were virtual worlds running in '78, we've had avatars since '85 -- it's really not gone all that fast. When we look at the pace of how other media was adopted, virtual worlds are looking a little pokey. Compared to cellphones, e.g. It may be in part because we haven't figured out how to get it into enough teenagers' hands... and then virtual worlds will take off. But we've had some of these preconceptions about what it is virtual worlds need to be -- so to some degree we've actually prevented some applications of it beyond our narrow view. We go in with assumptions and have put up hedges inadvertently.

Cory: (Talking about SL development going in lockstep with Spore in terms of time-line) They spent a lot of money and time to make a game as open as possible... but it's still not nearly as open as blogs and wikis and text things that are completely open. We may have lopped off the killer app already without knowing it.

Raph: Part of the reason I rag on 3D is because it isn't the default state of things on cellphones. "Bring back the text" isn't that bad a rallying cry.

Cory: We've been over this before... in the switch to 3D we can only draw 2 characters at the beginning so what do we make them do? Punch each other -- and the fighting game took over the arcade. It's a progression we've been through before. We're only getting to the point where 3D is able to do more complex things in terms of representation. It took a long time to get to that place in FPSs for example. All that being said, I don't think the answer is to make it about 3D or not 3D. Is the creative space for the users enough to make up for all the challenges we've faced in the 3D space?

Howard: Will people be able to use those technologies to do ritual together? If so, then yes it's worth the trade-off. Have been reading a book by Rich Ling -- he's bringing Durheim into the age of the cellphone. He's asking the question: do mediated communications dissolve the glue that holds societies together, or are they a new glue? He has a theory that people are using phones for ritual among small groups of people. Ritual meaning there is distinction between who is in and who is out, there's a change of consciousness, and everyone can see everyone else who's in it. If you can achieve that feeling of ritual the technology sort of falls by the wayside.

Raph: In UO we had really fascinating ritual stuff come up. You have online weddings common nowadays but I haven't seen a lot of stuff recently that was as crazy as what we saw in UO with guild induction ceremonies and so forth. Lots of weird stuff happened.

Cory: That same motivation in SL we see as part of the 350 developers who have spun out to do development in SL. They employ about 4000 people most of whom have never met in real life. I wonder how that relates to trust rituals in other contexts...

Raph: To some degree too much variety can undermine ritual and trust. Something in our limbic system wants to spot our tribe.

Howard: The likelihood they'll cooperate with you is higher if they're in your tribe. It's been important to identify who is in your camp.

Raph: It's easier to form synchronous communities of interest than it used to be. It used to be really hard to find your tribe... on the internet we see the inverse. It's really easy to find your tribe of interest. That's a pretty big shift in human culture historically.

Cory: This is a technological discussion as well -- is there random pollination, will you bump into something unexpected?

Raph: That's the thing about communities of interest -- it tends not to happen. People choose not to go outside, they choose what they want to see and hear.

Cory: If you physically go outside your flat, you will encounter Other and that's good. The thing about the web is you can spend your whole time on Fox News and you're never going to find out about NPR. In the real world you can see the world wander by.

Raph: The more we collapse geography to what degree are we going to lose that one interesting thing we had in the tyranny of geography? I think it's a great tension and one of the great virtues of virtual worlds -- they provide opportunities to do cross-cultural bridging in a way that BBSes didn't and IRC channels don't, because there's more random bumping. Even there, they're still extremely vulnerable to ending up more like IRC.

Cory: This gets back to the search problem too.

Howard: I've found you can architect some degree of interestingness if you make a common space subcommunities have to go through to get anywhere. Bumping into people you don't already know or have affinity with or agree with is maybe one of the central challenges of the next stage of online communication. That's the big issue with democracy -- are we only listening to people who agree with us and therefore becoming more extreme? To what degree can the design enable people to encounter diversity rather than flee from it?

Cory: Ironically, commerce can be a really good tool for that. As much as buying books in 3D may be the stupidest use of 3D ever, bumping into the proprietor of the book shop and talking could actually be beneficial.

Henrik: Raph, tell me your projections of what is going to happen moving forward.

Raph: There will be significant legislation that will change everybody's work life in significant ways. There are a lot of easy predictions to make like that but I think it's not quite it... I don't think the user content revolution is over by a long stretch -- there's a lot more coming. There will be rethinking of all forms of content. Guilds, fan groups -- you'll be able to find your soulmates easier (as opposed to the opposite fear view of fractured culture where we share nothing). Some folks will see the future of this as the collapse of common culture, others will think it's just pretty damn cool stuff. The end result of that is we're going to see a lot more arguing. If we think public culture today is full of flames, I think we're going to get a lot more of them. The result of everybody speaking their minds is not increased civility, it's increased contentiousness. More contention of all sorts in public spaces. When I feel optimistic I feel that's going to be a resurgence of attention to public policy... when I'm not I feel it means a morass of spam.

Howard: Are we going to be overwhelmed by spam, porn and email forwards or will we have an explosion of culture? The answer is it depends: on what people know and what they do with what they know. I'd love to see institutions begin to be the places where this education occurs, but I don't think schooling and education have to be synonymous. There's a lot of room for hope here.

Henrik: Cory: how have the past 6 weeks been since leaving SL? Plus the future question.

Cory: I get lots of looks at things I couldn't have seen if I were still at Linden. There's a lot of stuff worth getting excited about. We barely are starting to figure out how to use virtual worlds. Look at how long that took with the web, 30-40 years to get to that point where people are really understanding what it's about. User-generated content tipped far sooner than any of us expected but there's so much left for us to do.

On the future question, I think net neutrality is hugely important. There's incentive for people who own the pipes to not be supportive. The web as platform has to be taken for granted. Also, the infinite horsepower of distributed design is going to change how we think of manufacturing. Things that businesses can only create now in SL, for example, they'll be able to create in real life in 5 years because of things like 3D fabrication. That's going to be a real transformation in business.

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