Raise your hand if you remember the web in 1993-94. Did you know anybody with a web page? If you did, was it bug-ugly? Based on a flat text file? Full of large irrelevant photos? Rings a bell, doesn’t it. The web had been around for a while by then, but it wasn’t in popular use (I’m talking about the web, not the internet). A few people were beginning to experiment with web pages, but most of us had no idea what to do with them. The most common uses were “Hello, world!” and résumés and pages that talked about our pets (guilty! you can still find mine in the Internet Archive). The web was sort of a place to list flat files. Companies that had a web presence — and there were not many — had a “virtual storefront” where the most useful thing was usually a phone number so you could call and talk to a person without having to lug out that big, inconvenient phone book under your desk. The metaphor we all understood was the paper page, so web pages started as paper pages.
Flash forward 15 or so years, and the situation is totally different. Instead of “You have a web page? Are you a geek?” you hear “You don’t have a web page? Have you been living under a rock?” You can do all kinds of useful and fun things online, like banking and gaming and shopping and keeping in touch with faraway people. But 15 years ago, we were still trying to work out what the heck to use this web thing for.
Right now is the 1993 of virtual worlds. They’ve been around for a while, but people are now beginning to notice them. A lot of people have a presence in a virtual world, but it’s still (for many) the equivalent of “Hello, world!” or a pet page (some people ARE their pets in virtual worlds; who am I to throw stones?). Companies that have a presence there are in the virtual storefront stage: they maybe build a replica of their building or campus, maybe duplicate their existing online shopping experience, maybe staff an in-world help desk. The metaphor we all understand right now is comprised of two parts: we understand buildings, and we understand the dynamic 2.0 web, so that’s what virtual worlds look like at the moment, mostly.
That’s not the end of the road. Just like the web right now is a completely different space than it was in 1993, virtual worlds will be completely different in 5, 10, 15 years. People are starting to experiment with what makes virtual worlds different from physical spaces and different from the flat web. When I talk about virtual worlds, I almost always get the question, “What can you do on a virtual campus that you can’t do just as well on a physical one?” My answer — still — is I don’t know.
I don’t know what all you can do there, but I know that what you can do there now isn’t the whole answer. I don’t know what it will look like. All I know is it won’t look like it does now, and it will make now look like flatland in 1993. But the only way for us to get there (and find out if there is a place we want to be) is to play around, experiment, try it out, learn new things. Fail a little, succeed a little more. Connect with educators, students, coders, librarians, museums, designers. Start with what you know: make an avatar, fiddle around until you are pleased with the look. (How many times did you redesign your first web page in the first week you had it? Identity is important.) Make a building. Make a cup of coffee. Discover scripting and create an object that does something. As more people do this, and as our expectations of what is possible expand, so will the technology.
So party on: it’s early days, and we’re inventing as we go.