I recently consulted for a startup that is trying to advance and combine social networks with virtual worlds. You’ll have to use your imaginations for the details. But I shared some advice with them (gratis, during the interview process, so I’m not double-dipping) that I’ll share with you.
The reason I don’t use social networks is that there are simply too many people in the world.
Yes, I know that’s ironic. And it probably sounds odd for someone who grew up, lives in, and loves New York. But New Yorkers are simultaneously the most accepting (not to be confused with ‘polite’) people and the most distant, at least when we’re "alone" on the street. That distance is a coping mechanism for dealing with the sheer number of people we encounter each day. Humans are built for living in small tribes, not giant cities. So we simply act as if we’re alone in public, on the subway or on the street, which explains why we don’t typically make eye contact or say hello to strangers. It breaks that bubble of unreality. But if someone needs help, even if they’re ‘different’ than us, then we generally treat them as one of our tribe.
Anyway, I advised that stealth startup that what we need are not more social networks to occupy our time, but more anti-social networks – networks that are designed, not to make a million "one-click friends," but to offer services to large groups of people while filtering out the effects of everyone we might not want to see, so that city bus becomes our limousine, and that crowded office elevator becomes our own personal Wonkavator.
In other words, I want to see something that gives me the whole world, while not making me compete with everyone else for time or space or attention. I get enough of that in the real world. And I can play WoW if I want random annoying battles.
What makes a site like Digg good, for example, is the distributed wisdom. What makes it annoying are the people who think that conversation is a ‘winnable’ contact sport, or that being able to type makes you an expert on something. Digg provides a way to ban or block the comments of specific users who abuse the system, but not their larger effects, such as their diggs. It provides no way to ignore "behavioral groups" of people whom I might personally find annoying (e.g., ignorant, immature…), forcing me to do the work that a computer could probably do to improve my on-line experience.
Now, filtering out groups of people has its risks. Genocide, ethnic cleansing and racism have similar goals in the real world, with only the most violent technologies available to ‘achieve’ them. And I don’t take that lightly.
But what I’m talking about is being able to put your car on the virtual highway and have no traffic at any time of day. I’m talking about visiting a virtual bookstore, where all the people you see are pre-filtered to be interesting to talk to, or ask their opinion about a book, or actually get to know. Imagine if you could walk into a bar and know that every person there is already compatible with you, and your only task is picking which one you want to talk to first… Imagine how empowering that would be.
Is there a danger I might never interact with hard-core Neocons, for example, or that they might never talk to me? Yes. That already happens on sites like LittleGreenFootballs, where liberals dare not (or at least care not) tread. And that’s fine — most of the time. But I don’t get much out of talking politics with people I totally agree with either. There will be times I’ll want to enter into political debates, and times I simply want to be confident I can talk freely without offending anyone’s world view or making them leave the party.
That’s something the real world can only do by catering to select groups: bars for gay men, country clubs for rich people, etc… And we see that echoed on-line. But virtual worlds can actually do that in a much more egalitarian way, offering different instances of the same worlds to different people, what I call the solipsistic experience. It’s done by duplicating (forking, in technical terms) the world so that two people can in fact be in the "same" place at the same time and have no interaction. if they don’t want it. They could essentially walk right through each other, like virtual ghosts, until they decided to connect. However, a well-designed system would give people options for revealing who else is nearby that they might want to include.
The solipsistic experience is something that massive multi-player games have done since the beginning, but perhaps only because they couldn’t handle the load of everyone in one pool. They put up multiple instances of some world — shards, servers, realms — and you self-selected which one to visit based on the stated rules (e.g., no player-vs-player killing) or where your friends were. A computer should be able to do that in a much more seamless, automatic way. The challenge, in technical terms, is to handle persistence of objects that might be shared, and to handle people who might be in more than one group at a time. But those are solvable.
So it’s not anti-social in the sense of I vant to be alone. But it is anti-social in the sense that it’s trying to create stable groups of people for interaction, vs. challenging us to build up cliques of one-click friends.
Now, when I say I don’t use social networks, that’s not entirely true. The one social network I use, though not with any real purpose, is LinkedIn. Now there’s a system that does try to filter people in and out. Unfortunately, it’s based on who you know or where you worked, not on any sort of satisfying matching criteria, unless you’re simply looking for a job. Dating sites do try to match by appropriateness, but are similarly limited. Netflix tries as well, not so much with their friends system, but with their movie ratings. They try to understand in some sense what I like and show me those options first, as if the virtual movie rental store was reshuffling their shelves just for me. Amazon does this with my purchase and browsing history. And Second Life tries to give users ratings which can be used to meet or avoid people — but there is no filtering at the level of perceptual reality. You see everyone.
I have yet to see anyone take this concept to its natural end, with the kind of virtual worlds I’ve touched on. The core technology is not the 3D rendering, but the matching engine that can determine who and what I’m most interested in at any given time. The other technical problems all have solutions. But what I want is an on-line world that’s designed for the 90% of us that don’t want to see the other 90% of us now and then.
I’m curious as to what you would think of something like that.
[p.s., I'd previously covered more of the virtual worlds side of things back in February.