Online Tools As Space

It’s late, I’m tired, and I have a workshop I’m hosting tomorrow. But, I’ve got to get this off my chest now. You can thank my old partner in crime, Chris Dent, for initially instigating this with his blog post entitled, People in Social Software Systems.” What closed the deal for me was reading Wendy Seltzer‘s piece, “Facebook: Privacy versus cross-context aggregation.”    (MOZ)

I’ve been playing with this metaphor of Online Tools As Space for about a year now, and I’ve been threatening to write an essay on it for about as long. The premise is simple. We have a natural intuition for space and how it affects the way we work. Whether or not we leverage that intuition is another problem entirely, but the fact of the matter is, we do a better job of leveraging that intuition in meatspace than we do in online space. And we can leverage that intuition in online space.    (MP0)

Online space is mostly equivalent to physical space, except the physics are slightly different. The folks at Linden Lab have this saying about Second Life: “It’s just like real life, except you can fly.” That’s not quite what I mean when I say the physics of online space is different, and the statement itself is wrong in subtle, but important ways. (Yeah, yeah, I understand it’s a marketing slogan.)    (MP1)

Time is essentially equivalent in both online and physical space. What’s different are the notions of proximity and presence. There is still the notion of distance in online space, but it’s fungible. I can bridge gaps by modifying the presentation layer or by linking content, and suddenly, distances disappear. Moreover, we can take an existing online space and munge into something that looks entirely different. Since we don’t have the notion of physical presence, we have to create a digital representation — essentially Digital Identity.    (MP2)

What are the ramifications of all of this? First the good news. Once we get past the mental roadblock that technology seems to create in all of us, we can find that — for the most part — our intuitions about space applies both to physical and online spaces. I can identify a good intimate or public space just by looking at it, whether it’s a physical room or a web site. We just have to leverage this intuition.    (MP3)

Now the bad news. The fungibility of online space and Digital Identity creates social havoc, largely in the area of privacy. People’s blogs feel like private spaces, and so people treat them as such, but they’re not actually private. People make contributions to Wikipedia, not expecting these to reveal much about their identities, yet some researchers discover that if you aggregate all this data, you can create visualizations that reveal a startling amount about a person’s identity. And all of this stuff is easy to do.    (MP4)

I’ve got a lot more to say on all of this, and perhaps one day, I’ll be able to say it coherently. But now that I’ve gotten it off my chest, I’d love to hear people’s feedback.    (MP5)

Authentic Empathy and Trust

The Kathy Sierra fiasco seems to have reached a nice conclusion. There was plenty of thought-provoking discussion and some personal bridging between the parties involved. Perhaps this will catalyze a higher-level discourse on the Web. Even a microscopic improvement is better than nothing.    (M2X)

I don’t know the parties involved personally, although in this business, you’re two degrees away from everyone. I was also in the middle of work hell when the madness started. Yet somehow, I found myself following the various threads closely. I was especially struck by Lisa Stone‘s analysis (including a mention of BlogHer‘s community guidelines) and Min Jung Kim‘s commentary.    (M2Y)

Empathy, diversity, and humanity are values that are core to me and my business. It’s easy to toss these words around without really thinking about what they mean or, more importantly, without living them. For whatever reason, this particular incident struck a chord and reminded me of several stories, including one that happened a few weeks ago.    (M2Z)

I was having lunch with my friend, Nick, who was describing his short-lived Second Life experience. Nick is a public interest lawyer, but he spent many years in technology, and he’s not naive about these things. However, he doesn’t spend eight hours a day in front of a computer either.    (M30)

A colleague convinced him to try Second Life, so he logged in and started exploring. Almost immediately, someone approached him and handed him a penis. Nick was not amused (then), and he couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it. That was the end of his Second Life experiment.    (M31)

We both got a good laugh out of the story. However, I couldn’t help wondering how a woman — especially one who had previously experienced sexual assault — would have reacted under the same circumstances, despite the fact that none of this was technically “real.” I know I certainly wouldn’t have been laughing in that situation.    (M32)

Truth is contextual. Is it possible to make misogynistic or racial comments without being a misogynist or a racist? I’m certain the answer is yes, but it’s a tricky line to walk. I’ve laughed at Asian jokes told by some (sometimes even me), and I’ve been miffed by the same jokes told by others. Am I a hypocrite, or is there something truly different about those two situations? The difference is trust. I trust that certain people are not racist, and hence, I tolerate, even laugh at the things they say. But that trust is not universal, and it’s not always mutual.    (M33)

The bottom line is that we need to learn how to walk in each other’s shoes and truly understand and value what people who are different from us feel and experience. It’s easy to be satisfied with our individual levels of tolerance and empathy, but all of us can do better. I’m not advocating a culture of extreme political correctness, either. What I’d like to see is authentic empathy, a greater understanding and appreciation for the worldview of others. With that empathy will come greater trust, and in turn, a much richer society.    (M34)

The Varieties of Second Life Experience

I liked Clay Shirky‘s commentary last month on Second Life, along with Howard Rheingold‘s qualifications in the comments. More than anything, Clay seemed to be lashing out against thoughtless discourse, which is a big pet peeve of mine as well. Of course, posts like these generally generate more thoughtless discourse. It’s the cost of having open conversations on the Internet. The benefit is that the few gems that emerge generally outweigh the noise.    (LND)

I particularly enjoyed Mark Oehlert‘s response to Clay and others. I had the pleasure of listening to Mark evangelize Second Life over lunch a few months ago, and it was almost enough for me to dip my toes there for the first time, something I’ve resisted for almost two years now. I’ve continued to refrain for reasons I’ll explain some other time, but when I do finally decide to check things out, you can bet I’ll be asking Mark for a tour.    (LNE)

Despite my own skepticism, Clay’s commentary, and the fact that I haven’t played with it myself yet, I think Second Life and 3D MMOGs in general are important, and I will continue to pay attention to them. I’m reminded of William James, who in The Varieties of Religious Experience, writes of the relationship between intense, religious experiences and our minds, how we live our lives, and truth itself.    (LNF)

Regardless of what the actual numbers of users are, regardless of the sum impact these environments have actually had on the world today, one thing that we can’t dispute is that some nontrivial number of people have had intense, important experiences within these environments. This fact alone suggests that there is something transformational there, something that is worth further exploration.    (LNG)