Art and Exploration, Deep Thoughts, Identity and Expression, Second Life

Social Contexts and Telling Tales: Virtual Worlds and the Evolution of the Web II

I find myself tangled up on language. It’s my own fault really: I get off on a tangent and the bus doesn’t seem to stop.

I used to have this idea, for example, that open source was sort of a homogeneous concept where we’d all build barns together in some kind of collective “let’s put on a show” burst of creativity and effort until I realized that, well, someone needed to supply the tools and the roast chicken at the end of the day.

By flipping the language around a little, I’ve come to realize that open source is more of an operating philosophy than operating reality – most ecosystems of value don’t thrive on “free”, they thrive on some sort of exchange, somewhere, somehow, and that a central problem with open source is not being able to actually SEE where the money is trading hands, or the services being bartered. And so we replace one hegemony with another: entrenched corporate interests who have proprietary code but have share prices and annual reports you can refer to are replaced by economic interplay that you can’t really see unless you look really hard.

And so I start to gravitate to the idea of open systems, although I’m sure there are all kinds of other terms dreamed up in Silicon Valley like APIs or whatever, but the central premise being that there is a “system” somewhere with transparent control mechanisms and measurements and that there is openness within that system for us to craft our own value, and that in the ideal open system there is a balance between what we’re able to accomplish and the controls central to the core system.

In this view, Twitter, perhaps, has achieved the fairly stunning feat of having a reasonably transparent core system (although “monetizing” is a mystery) while the openness around it creates unexpected pools of value and balances the instincts that damage the ecosystem….call it “Facebooking the Value Chain”.

Linden Lab created a platform in which it was clear where the open part of the system lived: in the world itself, and in the viewer, while the economics, policy and governance were still fairly firmly in the hands of the overseers in San Francisco, which was all fine and dandy so long as they were technolibertarians but which felt dangerous every now and then when the need to actually make money overtook the fact that this was a WORLD they were managing not a profit and loss statement.

Algorithms and My Social Graph
Similarly, the language of ’social media’ is misleading. It’s kind of like government: at the broadest levels, we can complain and see how dysfunctional it is, and yet down at the front lines where someone is setting up a green energy pilot program or some bureaucrat is approving a new ’shovel ready’ infrastructure project there IS stuff that works, we just don’t see it very often – we’re all too busy being sucked into the metamemes of mass media while complaining that mass media itself has lost its relevance.

Likewise social media can and does WORK and work well. The Web is filled with little pockets of sociality where people are trading knitting patterns or whatever, they get to know each other, and maybe even grab a coffee one day.

But the thing is – regardless of whether you believe that information wants to be free or that the Web is liberating and leveling, power and commerce still abhor a vacuum, and while I have nothing against commerce, we still have an obligation to understand where it’s taking us, whether it’s in bundling mortgage risk or taxing our earnings on eBay.

And currently, commerce is taking us in the direction of the algorithm, and while the algorithm on its own has changed the world, making it easier for us to find, connect, parse and contribute to information, the algorithm is now being mapped to our social connections, and in so doing is supporting a cultural shift in which we spend more time tending to our social graphs than we do to each other – a poke on Facebook is more about the poke than the person, and we’re asked to map our feelings, sensations, experiences and connection to each other in ways that feel, to me at least, more like clicking and flipping levers in some sort of Rube Goldberg social connectivity machine than actually, well, connecting.

Mediating Our Experiences
You see, I can’t help wondering whether we’re at a phase on the Web where we’re looking for some sort of alternative to the interfaces by which we connect, and that some of us, anyways, are hoping that we can find different ways to remain social and sociable online without the background of that digital culture being the algorithm by which ads are packaged and bundled like so many late night ads for kitchen knives.

This is why mobile devices and augmented reality hold out so much promise, and why people drool over a Google phone or an iPad or the idea that some day we’ll be able to layer data on top of reality so we can craft our own journeys through both information and physical space.

We’re in search of a context for our experiences in which we’re not ON something but rather IN it.

“Are you ON Facebook” is different from “I’ll see you IN Second Life” and while the language may seem like a negligible difference, I’m not so sure it is.

As we increasingly realize that the platforms on which we connect create barriers to a more humanistic interplay with technology one of two things will happen: we’ll either find new ways to connect, or the algorithms will win and we’ll start mentally tagging our relationship status even though “It’s complicated” is an insufficient description to embody love and exploration.

What if We Reinvented “Social Media” from the World OUT?
So look, I’m fascinated by lots of stuff online. I love how Amazon graphs what I like to read to what other people read. I love the new Twitter-type sites based on photos alone. I love the ecosystem that Apple has built for applications.

But I still have a bias, and my bias is to think about how what I’ve learned in virtual worlds might be applied to larger systems of value and meaning, and to how we connect with each other.

In spite itself, Second Life is sociable. While most users are anonymous, there’s something about investing in our avatars that makes us slightly less likely to commit acts of drive-by anonymity. While the social functions of Second Life are a mess, we’re still often able to find each other (eventually) and share experiences with value and meaning.

But I think most important of all, we’re able to shape the CONTEXTS of our experiences, and by having control over those contexts, and by having the ability to modify, commercialize, create, and collaborate on new contexts we’re giving background to personal narratives, and can do so in a way that has a far wider range than any other media.

If only the tools weren’t so clunky. If only there were more of us. If only those narrative contexts could somehow travel a little wider.

See, I think the language that I keep stumbling upon is because we don’t quite have the words yet to fully describe that our sense of being social, and human, and connected embraces both our personal expression and our collective tales, the contexts in which those tales are told and the systems that support them, the tools we’re provided for connecting and the tools we’re able to create.

I’ve always thought of Second Life as a Story Box – and somewhere in that germ of an idea isn’t just the idea that the world allows us to tell tales, but that the world itself can carry a broader form of wisdom, one that perhaps can be carried further afield where we can be reminded that while you might be able to graph my friends or tag them in a photo, the stories that I tell of my self and my world are vastly more than that.


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