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.