party like it’s 1993

April 26, 2007

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.


dangers vs. pitfalls

April 24, 2007

I’m in a session on digitizing newspapers at the Digital Library Federation’s Spring Forum, in which one of the presenters (Tom O’Brien of Global Business Development) has just defined the difference between dangers and pitfalls very neatly. He showed a photograph he had taken of the city of Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background. The volcano, he explained, is a danger, but it’s not a pitfall, because you can see it clearly.

okay, but I’m not calling it third life

February 26, 2007

This post started out as a comment to Bryan Alexander’s post, “Towards Third Life,” but it got way long so it’s here instead. I recommend reading his post, and the comments there, before you read this one.

Holy cow, what a great conversation. I’ll just leap right in the middle, shall I? As Mike points out, the griefing issue is a big deal in virtual worlds, and it will always be there, as it always is in any social gathering other than a private party. That’s just people; if you don’t take tickets at the door, you’ll get all kinds of folks, and some of them have the agenda of messing up whatever you are trying to do. In the real world we use laws and police and peer pressure to limit this, but those tactics are less effective in virtual worlds, where laws don’t work and no one can afford to pay the policemen. The peer pressure angle doesn’t work for at least two reasons: first, too many people feel that their avatar is somehow a wholly other entity who can adhere to any moral code (or lack thereof) without consequence; and second, because it’s hard to figure out what exactly constitutes appropriate behavior in a world where you can drop in on a conversation out of the sky, copy and paste other people’s words without their knowing, or represent yourself as something entirely other than what you are. Note that I’m not saying any of these acts are necessarily bad; just that the moral code is still under development, and peer pressure depends on having a lot of people who all agree on the basics of interaction.

I don’t think you can have an unwalled garden without any weeds. It’s true that some MMOGs have gone a long way toward solving that problem, but they are not unwalled by any means, and they have access to tactics similar to the real world ones. In World of Warcraft, for instance, the game is built in such a way as to prevent most griefing from being possible, but that goes hand in hand with the fact that the players can’t fundamentally change the world in any way. For the situations where it is still possible to get in someone’s way, they have police: there are invisible game masters who could be anywhere, and who can take away your account permanently (think of it as being incarcerated, it’s basically the same; you have to start from scratch to rebuild yourself if you still want to play). Second Life, and the Third Life vision we’re talking about here, can’t resort to those methods. It’s too limiting and restrictive to forbid people from changing the world, and it goes against the purpose of the world in the first place.

This is one of the tougher problems that will need to be worked out. If we create invitation-only spaces, we are missing out on one of the best features of massively multiplayer worlds: the masses of players (or people, if you object to the term “player”). If you have a world where only 30 people have the keys to the door, you’ll spend a lot of time waiting for people to show up, and the serendipitous aspect of discovering what’s happened in your absence will be greatly diminished. You can’t lock out the griefers without also locking out a whole lot of smart, creative people who would contribute to the world in meaningful ways.

With respect to Bryan’s comparisons between virtual worlds and text-based social spaces, I want to point out that the difference between meeting people on a wiki and meeting them in a virtual world is a lot like the difference between seeing fox tracks in the snow and seeing the actual fox. The tracks are great—someone’s been here, they were here a few minutes ago, maybe they are still somewhere nearby—but it’s a different experience to be right there with the fox, see how it behaves, maybe chat with it a little and feel the connection of being in the same place at the same time. (Okay, I transmogrified the fox into the online person there, but you get the point.) I’m not sure yet whether there is direct benefit for education in the second kind of interaction, but I think there is. I think it might turn out to justify the effort.

Owen’s comment about the incongruity of holding a professional conversation with someone representing as Flighty Moonsparks or something similar is right on the money. I think LL made an error in assigning a limited number of surnames, and I think our Third Life will have to be a little more flexible. There’s a very real feeling of identity that comes from customizing one’s online presence—from name to appearance—and if virtual worlds are to be successful, that needs to be as flexible as possible. On the other hand, we also need to be willing to accept that someone may choose to be (to pick an entirely random example) Ninmah while online even if her real name is, say, Rachel. Names are just convention, after all.

I have to disagree with Alan a little about how easy it was to make web pages in the beginning. It was technically simple to create a web page, yes, but it was conceptually incredibly difficult for many people, much in the way that it’s really easy to set up a Second Life account but it’s conceptually very hard to work out what to do next. I do think that virtual worlds are going to become easier to access, prettier to look at, and more common to be in. I think there are huge obstacles to work out before they are everything we want them to be, but I think that we’re on the road to get there, just by playing around with the ones that we have now, and by having conversations like these.

The name’s gotta go, though. “Second Life” is bad enough—you only get one life, period. Spend it online, offline, or both, it’s the same life.

tiny prims

February 23, 2007

Ninmah wearing the new jewelryI’ve been working and playing in Second Life, and wanted to learn more about building with prims (primitives, the basic building block shapes of the virtual world), so I set myself a little project. I wanted to make some jewelry. To that end, I tried to make a gem-shaped prim and shrink it to an appropriate size for a ring, but I ended up with a diamond the size of a teacup: every girl’s dream, maybe, but not exactly wearable. Lucky for me, my co-worker Ravenelle Z. came to the rescue, and sent me a link to this video explaining how to make tiny prims.

Talk about a revelation! There are a dozen little numbers you can play with, and if I had paid more attention in geometry I might have glommed on earlier. In any event, after examining some very well-made prim jewelry, I made my first set. Well, my first wearable set, anyway. Here’s a picture of me in my new gold and pearl jewelry.

The earrings came out very well. The necklace needs a little tweaking — I’m not entirely happy with the chain, and if your avatar is taller than mine (very likely, since my avi’s height mimics my RL height) the necklace will rez invisibly inside your chest. I made a “tall” version, but I need to find out how to attach a necklace so that it automatically finds the avatar’s neck. The earrings work on any height.

What do you think? The birth of a new jewelry line? Do I have that kind of time?

there are more things in heaven and earth

November 16, 2006

I’m deep in research and writing for the Horizon Report, and I am, as always, humbled and amazed by the sheer quantity of stuff that there is in the world, and the sheer number of other people who know a lot about any given bit of it. There are 12 topics on the Short List, of which six will make the final report; each of the twelve is a little world unto itself of knowledge, tools, and ideas. Writing them up in brief descriptive papers is daunting and exhilarating at the same time.

You can follow some of my progress by peeking at my 2007 Horizon link list on It’s not comprehensive, but I’m adding to it as I work my way through the topics. Many of the links in there were supplied by our Advisory Board. Some were found via search or serendipity (which is my favorite aspect of this part of the project).

the myth of reuse

November 10, 2006

Yesterday, during Brian Lamb’s excellent session on mashups, I had a little epiphany. Brian made a throwaway comment about learning object repositories and my mind wandered for a moment, and suddenly a shaft of light pierced the dusty fog in my brain and I realized this truth: reuse isn’t the point.

Back in the mists of time (technologically speaking) I wrote about learning objects, and one of the things I wrote is that learning objects should be designed to make it easy for the creator and others to reuse or repurpose them. This was the conventional wisdom of the day, but I don’t think it holds true any more.

The important thing now is not reusability. The important thing now is customization. It needs to be easy — really, really, ridiculously easy — to create something new. To reverse engineer. To change your mind, customize your message, substitute a different flavor, get the sauce on the side.

Back when I preached reusability, it was hard to make learning objects, and the amount of effort that had to be put into one justified the claim that reusability was desirable. But it needs to not be hard. We need ways that people — and not just geeky people — can decide one afternoon that they want to make a learning object (or call it what you will) and have it ready by dinnertime. It needs to be point-click-drag-click-clickclickclick easy. The tech isn’t there yet, at least not for everyone, but it’s getting very close.

Like Brian’s mashups, these things will have little existing pieces of other things pulled into them. This means the barrier we face isn’t just technological. We need to rethink ideas of ownership, permissions, fair use, and copyright. We need a model that works, so people can grab stuff, make stuff, and share stuff, and assemble it into a learning-object-of-the-moment. These things don’t have to last forever. I want something that responds to my instant need to communicate information by letting me pull words and sounds and clips and pictures and stuff together instantly. Let’s call it the Teachable Moment Authoring System.

somewhere in Vancouver

September 25, 2006

“Please remember, this is a nonsmoking flight. If we find you are smoking, we will ask you to kindly step outside.”
— Flight attendant on very, very delayed Alaska Airlines flight, successfully trying to lighten the mood

Hello from lovely Vancouver, where it is at least a time zone I recognize (or did, before last week’s trip, which I like to call “My Luggage Is Back in Newark and So Am I”). I’m attending a grantwriting workshop, which is delightful not only for the content, but also because I really really like school. I know, I’m weird. The instructor had to start pretending not to see my raised hand after the first two hours. She is handling it graciously, but I’m a nightmare student and I know it. I’m engaged with the topic in a way that verges on manic. Even combined with the lack of afternoon coffee, not even the fact that my body is just certain it’s seven pm when it’s really only four could slow me down. Maybe it’s time to think about getting that PhD…

Then again, some of those sentences are pretty hairy, structurally speaking. Do they frown on that when you write a dissertation, or is that considered a bonus?