Deep Thoughts, Second Life

Mapping Home: Virtual Worlds and the Geography of Desire

Linden Lab’s decision to create a continent in Second Life for explicit adult content had me picturing wagon trains loaded up with dance poles and avatar, um, attachments.

We had been told the frontier days were over, after all, and with new management it was time for a bit of geographic relocation, a partitioning of the States, newly articulated geographies and a bunch of self-governed cities behind the firewall, or on private regions at least, the days of “one world” had ended back when they allowed direct teleports, I suppose.

After my initial reaction it felt like things had settled down a little: maybe an adult-oriented continent wouldn’t be so bad, it was all about choice we were told, nothing was being banned per se, they were just trying to make it easier for new users to decide whether they really wanted to SEE this stuff…let’s think of it like a Google safe search filter, maybe, only in this case the really naughty bits wouldn’t only be filterable, they’d also be contained in their own little corner of the Grid.

But it’s all about execution.

Over on Sony Home, innocuous words get filtered out, and there was that whole Amazon ‘glitch’ of a few weeks ago when they accidentally de-prioritized 90% of gay literature to the back pages, so it’s not like this filtering idea doesn’t have its problems, and over on Massively Tateru is in a tizzy over algorithms and parsing what it all means…and she’s right, the devil is in the details…although I’m going to let that slide for a bit and assume that a lot of this is more like emergent game play: build something with enough flexibility to adapt, recognize that people will hack the system and find work-arounds and push the envelope, and then tweak and refine once it’s in the wild so to speak – our definition TODAY of explicit might be different after all than it is tomorrow.

Problem with emergent game play and letting policy sort of evolve is if you’re not careful you can alienate half your user base. So…we’ll see.

The Nature of Geography
The Lab held a press conference about progress to date on adult-oriented content and I’m not sure where I was headed but I asked a sort of weird question…it’s what occurred to me at the time, and I’m sure I took things off on a tangent a little, but Jack Linden was kind enough to amuse me with a response.

You just talked about different continents possibly having different uses, and I’m trying to get a read on what the Lab’s philosophy towards geography is. This is a very clear creation of a continent for a specific purpose – is that an indication of a trend that will continue? I’m also sort of fascinated with when you think about these things, are you always using terms like ‘use cases’ and ‘filtering’ and ‘search’ or do you think of this as, I think of this as a world, and if you think about it as a world, I’d be talking to urban planners and theorists over what makes a city a vibrant place. So two parts: is this part of a trend? And is your thought process around geography around use cases and filtering, or is there another level to it that addresses that this is a world?

Jack Linden:
These are things that come up quite often in office hours. I’m fascinated equally about geography, it’s something obviously that everyone has a good feel for in terms of the real world and the analogy with the real world. Let me answer the two sides of that. There is a philosophy that we want to provide more choice. That will show itself in various ways – one is obviously in the way land plays out. Giving users choice about the experience they have, for example how predictable the experience they have with land is, is a key part of that. One of the things we’ve learned very clearly from things like Nautilus and Bay City and other places, like Blake Sea, is there are some people who really value having a predictable neighborhood that doesn’t change much, that has infrastructure that doesn’t change. So for those people, those areas are a really good choice. For other people, they prefer the wild chaos of mainland as it used to be. There’ll always be that kind of mainland around where people have far less infrastructure around them and things are a bit more chaotic. So, from that point of view, the drive and philosophy is really around choice.

That obviously affects the geography. In some occasions, it makes sense to put in some geographic barriers between different areas – if you look at Bay City, there’s some separation by water. In general, real world analogies work well in Second Life, but there’s also a place for the bizarre as well. In other places, it makes sense for it to be tightly integrated. So for example zoning is something we are looking at – whether we can have an area of mainland that’s purely noncommercial, for example, and optionally so. That isn’t something that would probably apply to existing mainland, it’s something that would probably apply to new mainland, but there are people who would find that a compelling experience. Choice is the driver really.

There’s always a side to any policy or land decision which looks at the segmented kinds of users and tries to understand the different kinds of customers we have, but there’s also a balance of that – the community aspect, all the many and varied ways in which this is really a world, and we see it as a world. We have to balance the two. And when we think about it in terms of it being a cohesive, contiguous space, geography is very key to that, and we would love to do a lot more that brings out neighborhoods, gives better map titles, so that there could be districts and such over time. But geography is very key to us.

The Anchor and the Balloon

This is a nice answer, really. It says that land is important, and that people use the metaphor of land to anchor themselves…or not. Some people like having a sense of geography….having water and roads and continents and maybe even districts for specific things. I can start to picture an AO continent with a Japanese geisha district maybe or a “what happens in SLAmsterdam stays in SLAmsterdam” main road with neon lights and strippers standing in the door ways in fish nets or whatever.

Others don’t care about geography, but maybe zoning is this sort of background lens through which they see the world, although I can’t help picturing The Bonfire of the Vanities and with one wrong turn the speaker at some conference on investment models for derivatives ends up in Midian City and is never heard from again.

But what struck me after thinking about this a little more is that the Lindens are again trying to have their cake and eat it too.

The strategy might be sound: the Internet after all is a tent wide enough for distance learning and firewalled Intranets, for porn and youTube, so maybe a virtual world can be a wide enough that it can include both geographies in addition to disconnected spaces.

What Jack seems to be saying, you see, is that Second Life can have BOTH a sense of geography AND a lack of it. Just like it can accommodate BOTH the immersionists and the augmentationists, the schools and the beach houses, the enterprise users and the shoe makers.

We can be both anchored in a sense of communal place, or we can float above and past the idea of geography, of maps and worlds and contiguous land….there’s room enough for both.

Does Search Tie Us Together?
The Lab dispensed with the idea that the world would be one contiguous space when it allowed direct teleports, and when it started selling private islands. It’s now making a shift back to the idea that land, or geography, can be a metaphor for “use”: that geography itself can be a form of search….adult oriented continents today, another for educators tomorrow, a non-commercial land of hippies and beaded curtains tomorrow.

The deepest challenge, I believe, facing Second Life is the ability to find stuff, and under ’stuff’ I’d include both content and people.

The shift to an adult oriented continent isn’t just a shift towards creating distinct SPACES for different content types, it is being executed hand-in-hand with an overhaul of how search filters that same content. But going even further, the Lab is embarking on some pretty significant overhauls, preparing the launch of “Second Life 2.0″, a new user interface, while simultaneously shipping off “sims in a box” to companies and schools which isn’t such a bad thing on its own, although it does mean that the content that’s behind those firewalls won’t add anything to the ecosystem of information, people and insight which is the power of the Second Life technology.

David Weinberger, co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto, wrote in “Small Pieces, Loosely Joined” about the concept of space:

“We carry with us two distinct conceptions of space. On the one hand there’s the space we walk around in; this is filled with tangible things….On the other hand, there’s the space we measure with odometers and yardsticks. These two spaces, lived space and measured space, are quite distinct. Lived space is different everywhere we look…Our space is full of opportunities, obstacles, and dangers, or what the psychologist James Gibson called affordances and the philosopher Martin Heidegger called the ready-to-hand. This lived space is the opposite of the measured space composed of uniform segments like the grid on a map.

We invented measured space because it’s useful…and took (it) one step further and began to visualize a three-dimensional gridwork within which anything can be precisely located. We have so abstracted this grid that we believe the entire universe fits snugly inside it…(the) grid is supposedly always there, independent of the things in it. The grid, considered in itself, turns our attention away from the stuff of our world. Nevertheless, it has become the very definition of space according to our ‘default philosophy’, the set of beliefs about our world that we hold so deeply that it feels like common sense.

If the Web is a space, it’s incapable of supporting a gridwork…The Web space is composed of pages and sites that are located relative to one another but not in an abstract spatial grid. The Web is a special kind of space…On the Web we experience something that we can never experience in the real world: places without space. Instead of needing a containing space to enable movement, the Web has hyperlinks. Links are at the heart of the Web and the Web’s spatiality.

Since place and space have been inseparable in our experience of the real world until now, when we experience the Web’s place-ness, we assume that it must have the usual attributes of spatiality, including the accidental nature of geography. That makes it easy to forget that what holds the Web together isn’t a carpet of rock but the world’s collective passion.”

In other words, on the Web, our sense of ‘place’ is mostly illusionary. Our ‘default philosophy’ calls for a world that both has affordances AND a gridwork. The Web, however, is incapable of supporting a gridwork and so although we project a gridwork on it because that is our default philosophy, it does not need ’space’ to contain movement.

Yahoo or Google, and Does a Grid Matter?

The Map of Scientific Knowledge

The sense that the Web was a space was what drove Yahoo to the faintly Renaissance notion that knowledge could be categorized and “places” on the Web defined by what heading you fall under in the universal index of information.

As it turned out, however, the Yahoo model was an attempt to create a grid where there wasn’t one.

The success of Google was that it took the chaos as a given – “Sports” is not a neatly partitioned section of the Web with a bunch of little sub-sections like “soccer” or “bowling”. Google seemed to articulate the dream that the Web was driven by collective passion, and if you could track passion, you could track the Web….follow the threads of what I link to and you will find my heart.

In Second Life, however, there IS a gridwork. It is measurable, it can be mapped, and the universe has indeed fit snugly inside it, although that won’t be true for much longer.

Second Life, as a Grid, opened up the opportunity to be the Yahoo of content rather than a Google: being a Grid, content can be neatly ordered, a hierarchy of knowledge and content can be created, everything can be indexed and categorized and continents created.

With Mark Kingdon at the helm, there’s a notable shift BACK to this idea of categorization, both in the business model and in how things like the “Spotlight” or blog are organized: there are channels, there are continents, there is on-line commerce with nice neat categories, there is one group tackling enterprise and another tackling education and even the Residents are adult or mature with further sub-categories and zoning laws to follow.

But in the shift away from land as a contiguous space back in the days when the telehubs became less important with the advent of the direct TP, the Grid may exist, but the Grid will always have that random element of, well…you can call it chaos or you can call it serendipity.

But where this LEAVES the Lab is with a mixed metaphor: we are in both lived and measured space. We can manage to be both categorized and exist in “channels” and, layered under or on top of that, we can also be Grid-less and Google.

If the Lab continues to decide that it can be both it risks losing a deeper opportunity.

On the one hand, the Lab seems to be saying that it can refine the “Google-ness” of search so that maybe it becomes a little more accurate, but is nonetheless still built on the conceptual framework of hyperlinks. And on the other hand, it can build channels and continents, creating a “Yahoo-like” way to stream through content, with geography as an occasional rallying metaphor.

The deeper opportunity, perhaps, lies in neither.

My Avatar is My Home
Maybe we need to look elsewhere for a clue to how virtual worlds can be designed to create connections, allow us to find content, and provide a sense of ‘place’. Because aside from geography or where you have land-marked home, doesn’t something like this feel more like your map of Second Life:

These are maps of social connections on Twitter and elsewhere.

And Twitter is fine. Twitter lets us follow and share our passions, and then re-share the passions of others, a sort of rolling ecosystem of meaning (or lack of meaning).

And yet Twitter is ephemeral. (Although this explains, maybe, why the rumours of Google buying out Twitter seemed to get so much traction).

Virtual worlds, on the other hand, allow us to bring the connections we make with people into a persistent space.

As such, we need to move beyond the idea that the challenge is to make it easier to find places OR to find people. What we need to do is think of ways to allow people to find BOTH….not separately, but together. Our social connections, if they are anchored to PLACE, would allow virtual worlds to accomplish what much of the Web can NOT: to return our sense of both lived and measured space, and to anchor content and communities into places that we know.

If this can be done in a way that is reflected in how geography is articulated, how search functions, and how we find each other, then perhaps we can translate the three-dimensionality of virtual worlds into something that leap-frogs into new metaphors for information space, and perhaps opens the door to the mass adoption of virtual worlds.

Here, in Second Life and other virtual worlds, we have the opportunity to overcome the ephemeral by anchoring content in metaphors that go deeper than simply indexed categories of knowledge, primitive models of geography, or tenuous social connections.

And I’m not sure, but I believe that it’s the AVATAR that holds the key to unlocking this more profound potential.

So long as the Lindens try to mash together the idea of land and channels and serendipity, so long as they’re trying to rebuild both Google AND Yahoo, while ignoring the fact that this is primarily a social platform, the deeper future will be discovered by someone else.

On the Web, we map our journeys, leaving behind little trails: a post here, a comment there, a cookie or a traffic stat. But, mostly, we make that journey silently, invisible behind the mouse, peeking our heads up now and then to post a tweet or update our Facebook status.

In a virtual world, however, we travel visibly. Our avatars interact, touch, look at, and meet each other. The repository of our journeys is the connecting tissue that makes sense of the world – whether in the photos we take, the chats we have, the memories we make, the communities we join, the land we buy.

These repositories do not need to be owned by someone else. They are our own, and they extend beyond inventory and objects into the realm of meaning, and the systems should be designed so that these containers are deep.

In the worlds of the future, our avatars are not just us, they are our search, our connections, our maps, and our homes.


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