Art and Exploration, metaplace, Virtual World Platforms

The Emphemeral Build: Metaplace Closing

I’m incredible saddened that Metaplace is closing, and on the heels of news that Forterra has also been struggling and is looking to sell off its assets I find myself, well, kind of angry as well – primarily because I wonder why these things have to be announced before the holidays.

Is there something magical about getting the news out while people are focused on other things? Is it some kind of press strategy or something? Or maybe it has to do with payroll cuts ahead of all those days off over Christmas. Maybe it’s better to do lay-offs so that you don’t need to foot the bill for vacation days or something. I shouldn’t jump on Raph Koster for this – by some accounts, this might not be news to people working at Metaplace – maybe the ‘shoe dropped’ some time ago.

What strikes me about Metaplace in particular is the loss of so much creative content. Metaplace will probably emerge as some kind of development platform for 3D games or something, maybe a stand-alone Facebook development application without the economy or the stores or the badges or meeps….a software company rather than a world-builder.

Blockbusters and Micro-entertainments
And it’s in Facebook that I see the roots of what happened: with 40 million people planting virtual crops in Farmville and spamming their friends with invitations to grow beets or updates on their corn crop, who has time to develop animation sprites on Metaplace? And how do you draw people there from the vast river of, well, of the casual.

Metaplace was built on the concept of casual experiences. On fun, and joy, and user-generated content. But in a world in which bite-sized pieces are everywhere, it’s hard to stake out a space for those 10 minute little chunks when I could be poking my friends , watching a youTube video, or playing a quick game on my iPhone.

We’re surrounded by bite-sized entertainments, and the field is crowded, and today’s Mafia Wars is tomorrow’s Farmville which will be the vampire game of next year.

Tyler Cowen pointed out on Metanomics that bite-sized entertainments and activities are not necessarily proof that Google is making us stupid, nor that longer form entertainments are dead.

Movies have actually gotten longer. Harry Potter clocks in as lengthier than War and Peace. What Cowen worried about was the “middle of the curve on the Long Tail”, a point made in a recent Economist article about the film Avatar: on the Long Tail there are all the small little bits of sales and entertainments, and there are the huge blockbusters at the top of the curve, but god help you if you’re in the middle, if you’re merely “good enough”, your ability to compete is hampered by the attention to large-scale spectacle on the one hand, and a constant stream of bytes on the other. In other words, both Cowen and the Economist point out that we’re trending towards a world of blockbusters and single sales.

The Age of Forgetting
But the argument about whether Google is making us stupid is better framed as a question of whether we’ve become better at forgetting, a topic also covered on Metanomics by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, author of ‘Delete – The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, who said:

I suggest in the book, and I believe that’s the case, that we have a biological mechanism by which we forget, and therefore, we humans try to hold onto memory, but the biologic of forgetting enables us to focus on the real important things that we do want to remember. And we remember them either in our mind or by externalizing memory, that is, by creating an external artifact, by writing something down, by painting it, by telling stories over and over again, like the great epics. And that enables us to hold onto the memory. But, by and large, by default we forget the rest.

Remembering has been in the analog times for thousands of years relatively difficult for human beings, time consuming, took some effort. Nothing in the analog past has changed it. Neither the movies nor the phonographs nor anything like that. Remembering always remained a little more extensive than forgetting. And that exactly has become the reverse in the digital age, where now remembering is the default and forgetting is the hard thing.

Take the digital cameras that we use. We connect them to our computers, and most of us press the button to upload all of the photographs, irrespective of whether they’re good or bad, onto our hard disk because just the three seconds that it takes to consider whether a photograph is good or not are too costly for us, and it’s cheaper to just store everything. That way we become digital packrats.

But the closing of Metaplace is, I think, evidence that forgetting is just as easy in the digital space as remembering. Because the artefacts by which we remember are ephemeral, and the digital footprints we leave behind are held in guarded spaces: in endless walls on Facebook, in the names of friends protected by avatar identity, in worlds that come and worlds which depart.

The great artefacts of our age will be washed away: Facebook will be a different thing three years from now, and even though it might be archived on the Wayback machine or whatever, we won’t be able to pull it out from storage like an old record or a dog-eared novel. The spirits we’ll remember are the Raph Kosters or the friends we once spent time with in Caledon.

I’m reminded of a post I wrote a few years ago, and I’ll close with this excerpt:

The Ephemeral Build
There is a rich vein of therapeutic, spiritual, artistic and personal benefit to virtual spaces that’s slowly being tapped, and I suspect if you gathered a group of virtual world users and asked them to describe their experiences in spaces limited almost entirely by imagination, you’d hear a range of responses ranging from the astonishing to the frightening.

These experiences would range from discussions of the fluidity of identity and gender, sexuality, the value and peril of role-playing, fantasy, immersion, addiction, despair, hope, faith, and imagination. You’d hear a lot of talk about balance, and you’d hear a lot of discussion about the membrane between the real and the virtual – how strong the magic circle can seem at times, and how real the virtual can become.

You’d hear from people who have chosen to live in Second Life, and those who simply work there. Concepts of objects and self, identity and verification, age and permissiveness would come into the picture, and perhaps new forms of acceptance and community.

Builds in SL and their impermanence can be seen to represent either the product of rampant consumerism and fads – the sense that in a fast-paced, disposable world nothing is permanent. Everything comes and goes. And there is a lack of ‘rootedness’ and community. The public library or museum of yesterday was built from marble with sturdy columns and walls that would last the ages. The public library of today is a click away, and the Web site may or may not remain.

The librarians and museums of today are grappling with a new reality – that the wealth of knowledge is becoming digital, and its preservation as historic documents is as important as the preservation of books and yellowed manuscripts. Until the Library of Congress and the universities catch up, today’s digital artists have, I believe, a responsibility to safeguard today’s art so that we can examine it, explore it, and remember it when the time comes to take stock of how far we’ve travelled into these new worlds.

But this impermanence is also part of the strange loop – like a Buddhist mandala, blown away on completion:

“Mandalas are seen as sacred places which, by their very presence in the world, remind a viewer of the immanence of sanctity in the Universe and its potential in his or her self. In the context of the Buddhist path the purpose of a mandala is to put an end to human suffering, to attain enlightenment and to attain a correct view of Reality. It is a means to discover divinity by the realization that it resides within one’s own self.”


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