Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Virtual Worlds Expo: Togetherness--What Drives the Human Connection

Giff Constable, Electric Sheep Company; Beth Coleman, MIT; Betsy Book, Makena (producers of; Robin Harper, Second Life; Ron Meiners, Multiverse

Giff (moderator): Where are we falling down, where is human togetherness not working in virtual worlds right now?

Beth: Persistence of your network identity and a porousness .... on various levels I can carry my avatar in my pocket, it's not limited to a PC terms of scale of use, I think the player experience needs to be designed for various levels of engagement....not everyone will end up building things or running a store or business. The different platforms address this in different ways, but all need to have better design for different levels of engagement.

Ron: We're taking interactions that happen in a solid space and transferring them into 2D and digital spaces where there are differentne space and moving them to another. Technology that we have available to us and that's being developed affords new possibilities for interaction....people can experiment with social identity, with a "lower cost of failure" because there are possibilities that are not available in the real world.

Betsy: Virtual worlds are incredibly good at fostering deep human social connections because they are filled with a sense of presence. In a 2D or 3D space where you can see an avatar, there's synchronicity. You can connect in real-time, a level of engagement you can't get in email. The trade-off is that virtual worlds are incredibly cumbersome, it's a full process to log in, etc. We have to work to do to make our spaces user-friendly and make people comfortable. Virtual worlds today are too insular -- they are a deep meaningful experience, but how do you extend that experience out to other parts of your life? Facebook and MySpace are doing this so much better than we are right now. That privacy and insularity works for togetherness, but you need to be able to take it outside the virtual world.

Robin: Downside to being in an online community is the anonymity. There's some value to anonymity -- by pretending to be someone else you can be more of who you really are. But what that means is that the person who doesn't know me in real life doesn't know that aspect of me and that can lead to trust issues. The challenge is to help people who are in this pseudonymous space take advantage of those issues. Portable ID is probably where we are going with this, the ability to reveal parts of your identity in a contextual way. It's the ability to reveal parts of your real life and yet keep parts of your life hidden until you trust the other person.

Beth: We do this anyway....within each context (youtube, myspace, etc.), we reveal parts of our personalities that are appropriate for that place.

Robin: I'm not saying we don't do it, I'm saying that technology could help us do it better.

Beth: We are becoming more compassionate with each other because we know so much about each other.

People find it very frightening because they see it as a privacy issue....not knowing what to expect from other people because you don't really know who they are, these are big issues.

Those have always been problems. Some aspects are new, but we have another set of tools for creating the preferred presentation of ourselves. These tools give us more flexibility in how we present ourselves.

What does togetherness mean? In earlier communities there was a reason why people got together, and now people don't know what to expect. Historically, online communities were together for a reason. Now we have spaces and people just come there.

Giff: What are the key things that are working to bring people together on your platform?

Betsy: Technical and social things....socially, communications form around common interests. One of the most powerful is fandom, sports, entertainment, whatever. That is a common interest that brings people together. wWhat creates the community isn't the topic itself but the everyday sharing of your life. That forms the everyday social glue. Virtual worlds are spaces that really easily enable people to come together around a common interest and then stay together. It's fairly easy in virtual worlds to find your interest group, and people are finding them...features such as voice chat gives you that sense of presence.

Robin: When we introduced voice in Second LIfe, there was a tremendous unhappiness, we were surprised at the pushback. People felt that by using voice, it would interfere with the exploration. Another issue was the language issue, as we are increasingly international. Where we've seen it adopted initially has been with corporations, with educators, the places where you would expect voice to be beneficial.

Betsy: In, avatars create idealized versions of themselves and anonymity isn't such a touchy issue as it might be in Second're expected to move up the social ladder and use voice. I see people moving back and forth with chat and voice.

Robin: Chat is often being used as a visible backchannel in conversations where voice is used as well.

Ron: Multiverse is primarily a community of developers...most of our community dynamics is among developers, who are a worldwide bunch. In our world, people in voice rooms created songfests, prayers, a 24-hour AA meeting. Voice was a really powerful way for people to connect.

Beth: Does it matter what the tools are? In the different worlds, you get the world that you design. The tools have to be the ones you want. The virtual experience has to be meaningful for individuals, cater to their interests.

Tools that create a richer information stream can potentially create a more involving and presence-based experience. In the real world, we live in this information soup and that's not been translated online yet.

Communication enables socialization -- text, chat, im, voice -- the more options you can give users to communicate, that's what's going to sponsor that sense of togetherness. You have to pay attention to the style and the culture of the community you're working with...the set of tools for one group might not be styled correctly for another.

Also important are the kind of tools you provide users to manage their connections. The nature of the communities that formed in Second Life made us retool and give people a different set of tools, so they could manage things at a far more granular level.

Giff: What about globalization

Robin: One of the best tools in Second Life is a translator that the residents created, that you could type in English and it would come out in Japanese if that's who you were talking to. Overall, there are lots of opportunities for public diplomacy, for sharing your culture.

Questions from audience:

Facebook and MySpace are good at keeping casual connections alive -- how? It's the asynchronous aspect, looking for ways for people to let other people know what they're doing when they are not in-world.

Robin: What happens when a community goes from 75% US participants to 30% US participants in just a few months, as we did on Second Life....there's an opportunity there to bridge misunderstandings about culture, to share experiences.

What design choices has your world made to support togetherness? Robin: We're not interested in trying to micromanage different types of togetherness. We're trying to offer tools for collaborative creativity, allow people to come together in real time and create together.

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