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April 3, 2007

Filed under: culture»internet

Myspace is Terrible: Jealous Rage Edition

So what exactly is the protocol when another musician you've contacted through Myspace sends your significant other a friend request, but doesn't send one to you?

Inquiring minds want to know.

January 30, 2007

Filed under: culture»internet

Forum Fora

When I first started learning bass, I did what any young geek does during a new challenge: I went online.

My roommate was a bassist, and a pretty good one. Unfortunately, my roommate was also insane and didn't play well with others. I bought a used amp from him, but he wasn't much help for developing my skills. I also picked up a copy of Peter Murray's Essential Bass Technique, which had lots of pictures of how to use my hands--fingerstyle bass can be very technical, and I honestly considered myself too uncoordinated to learn. Beyond questions of physical movement, though, I had a lot of questions about what the bass does in a rock band, what situations I might want to prepare for, and how to properly set up the equipment.

I don't know how I found the Lowdown. I probably just googled a random topic, and one of its threads came up. I wasn't reading Bass Player yet, so I doubt that I realized that the Lowdown and the magazine were linked. But there was a lot of information available, and a lot of really experienced players. I practically read the whole archive, and I lurked on the main page for weeks before I made my first post.

I've been a member of the forum since late 2003--about three and a half years now, I guess. It doesn't seem that long. I don't post very often, and when I do it tends to be gear-related, since I don't usually have much to contribute to the theory or technique threads. But what has amazed me are the ways that I feel like I know those people, even though I've never met them in person. I've gotten help with buying wine (kind of hard when you don't drink it), learned to ask "What would Lemmy do?", and given someone money to buy a Swatch.

A few months ago, one of the oldest board members--a moderator, actually--died of a heart attack. It was very sudden. His name was Dave Brown, and he was a music teacher in Texas. Dave had been one of the calm, helpful members of the forum, and someone who could contribute to discussions of musical theory, which were always valuable even if the rest of us didn't understand all of it. Dave's passing became the forum's first sticky thread, and all the regulars (as well as a number of lurkers) gathered there to dig up our favorite quotes or threads. Bass Player took note, and an obit appeared in the February issue. Dave's family even got in touch with a few people, and posted audio from the funeral online for us to hear.

That an interpersonal connection could be created without face-to-face interaction (for the most part) is not completely new. But the speed of communicating over the Internet makes it easier. The structure of forums themselves--grouping conversations by searchable topics, while still retaining a chronologically fluid linearity instead of the heirarchy of threads that's more common in places like Livejournal--means that discussants can interrupt each other, wander off topic, and all the other noise-to-signal that nevertheless is a part of most human interaction. Over time, a forum develops its own personality, and people who join it have to learn its quirks and customs. I don't like to think of these as a "space," because I think that gives forums credit for more physicality than they deserve. It's more like an echo.

There's an article in Wired this month about MTV's virtual space, built to promote trashy reality show Laguna Beach. MTV's online environment, like Second Life and other massively-multiplayer online games, seems like it's meant to be the next step up from the text forum. Because I think part of my schtick is to be a luddite, I'm honestly a little skeptical. My main criticism is that they're not archived--newcomers can't search through the environment's past for bits of wisdom. Instead, most of what people tend to learn in avatar-based spaces has to do with the space itself--and they may resort to more traditional forums when it comes time to document those lessons.

By Internet time, text forums are old. They date back to BBS systems. I guess I'm just impressed that something so relatively simple can be such a powerful experience, one that seems hard to improve. I don't think adding polygons is the next step, but I'm stumped as to what it could be.

January 7, 2007

Filed under: culture»internet»second_life

Also: Dog May Have Bitten Man

I love the recent revelations in both gaming and mainstream press that Second Life might not actually have more than two million people in its "population." I practically quiver with glee for three reasons:

  1. Because uber-Libertarian symbol Linden Lab claimed to have this many "residents," and people just bought it, pardon my phrase. There's no more evidence of how powerful the myth of the Linden economy is, or how much technology commentators want to believe it, that people just took the company at its word. It didn't seem important to ask if maybe they had anything to gain from inflated numbers, did it?
  2. Because seriously: people are only now starting to ask--of a largely-unrestricted, multi-user virtual environment, and despite many years that these kinds of environments have actually existed, I might add--whether or not individuals in the real world might actually have more than one virtual persona? Or, how many of those people actually logged on repeatedly in the last few months? How many people are actual paying customers with active accounts? Come on, people--what happened to "trust, but verify?" Didn't that seem fishy to anyone?
  3. And finally, let's pretend that you're a tech reporter worth your salt, and you have to do a piece on Second Life. I would hope that you'd log in before actually writing it, since investigation and curiosity are important parts of being a journalist and not a corporate shill or useless overpaid commentator (before I attract nasty comments, let me add that I am a useless underpaid commentator). So you download the client, you create a persona, and you start looking around. There's a lot of empty space, isn't there? I mean, even a fraction of a couple million people, you'd think it would be really full in Second Life. Linden currently states that the size of the land is more than 65,000 acres, or around 100 square miles. That sounds like a lot--but with two million residents that's a population density of 20,000 people per square mile, which (if it were a real country) would rank just above Singapore (3rd most densely populated nation, with 18,645 people per square mile). Even if we give Second Life the benefit of a 200% inflation rate with one million "residents," they'd still squeak in at number six on the worldwide list. You tell me: did it seem like bustling Singapore when you logged in? Or more like Nowheresville, Kansas? I was watching carefully for the Children of the Corn, myself.

Now on that last one, technically I'm picking nits. After all, a population density is nothing more than a vague measurement spread out across all available land, whereas real people congregate. But I'll tell you something: I've seen a fair amount of photos of events in Second Life, like the U2 concert that was held there, or the town hall meeting on copybot, and frankly I've had more people in my apartment.

The simple fact is that for a long time, the population numbers from Linden Lab went unchallenged because reporters and commentators were caught up in the buzz about its markets. They were dazzled by the idea of a bold new Metaverse where smart people make money hand over fist by the mighty power of their frontal lobes. It was the worst kind of capitalist free-market spin-doctoring, and almost without exception they fell for it.

December 11, 2006

Filed under: culture»internet

And I Feel Fine

I dig this Apokalyptica idea--it seems like a holiday for the rest of us. Here are my contributions to the celebration:

  • Read: my terrible screenplay from college, Apocalypso--or don't, because it is pretty bad. Errors include pushy plotting, no understanding of the 5-act structure, clumsy dialog, and an obligatory "the police will never believe us" speech. I only post this because hating myself is the best love of all. Update: Although I haven't read it, I've heard good things about World War Z.
  • Watch: An Inconvenient Truth, because fictional world-ending disasters have nothing on the real thing.
  • Listen: Absolution, by Muse. With appropriate tracks like "Apocalypse Now" and "Thoughts of a Dying Atheist," this is my favorite Muse album.

November 20, 2006

Filed under: culture»internet»second_life

Welcome to Second Life, Comrades

Want to bring a wistful look to the face, and a tear to the eye, of any good socialist? Mention those magical words: post-scarcity. It's practically the definition of utopia to wish for a world where no-one lacks for anything, which most Marxists rationalize by pointing to automation and a (hopelessly optimistic) faith in the innate goodness of humanity. There, they daydream, real socialism would finally be possible.

Second Life, the online environment and cult favorite of "edgy" technology writers, is a similar utopia for libertarians. A virtual world that proudly trumpets its economic statistics on the front of secondlife.com (currently, US$622,731 spent in the last 24 hours), it also subsides almost entirely on user-created content--or, nowadays, on content created by enormous corporations and organizations hoping to cash in on Second Life's geek cred.

What happens when one utopia runs into another? Recently, Second Life fell victim to exploitation of Copybot, a reverse-engineered program that allows players to copy items without paying for them. Raph Koster, famed designer of failed-but-ambitious online economic systems, elaborates on the point of the copybot--being able to create anything you want, without asking permission or paying money--as practically the embodiment of post-scarcity Marxism intruding on Second Life's libertarianism. They're being hoisted on their own petard, he states.

Speaking for the vast majority of people who are sick of hearing how great Second Life is, I'm going to admit to a small, warm feeling of satisfaction--like I just ate a freshly-cooked spite burrito. Mmm.

Mandatory disclaimer: I don't play Second Life. I've logged in once, long enough to verify that yes, it's a very ugly place, and no, it doesn't run well on my laptop. So I'm invoking Pundit Privilege here--the ability to write about things even though I don't have direct experience with them myself, just a lot of acquaintances who do. If that bothers you, all I can say is stay as far as possible from the Wall Street Journal's Op-Ed section.

So someone I know, who specifically asks to remain nameless, calls me last night after her first logon to a Second Life server. Let's think of her, while I'm under Pundit Privilege, as a taxi driver who gave me the perfect transitional device for an article. The Second Life newbie, not being a gamer, is first of all having trouble moving. Also, she is confused about the sights of Orientation island.

"There's a person washing the sidewalk," she says. "They have a sign or something that says you can make money washing the sidewalk." We are both silent for a moment. I don't know what she's thinking, but I'm wondering why a digital sidewalk is dirty in the first place, much less why it would be profitable to clean it. It sounds like a scam, I say.

"But," she continues, "I don't understand. What do people do here?" And I have to explain that they don't necessarily do anything, that Linden Lab (who create and maintain Second Life) simply provide the tools for their users to create everything else. So if there's something to do, it exists because someone bought the land from Linden (using real money) and built something on it.

The newbie is in Second Life for a design class project--she needs to write a business plan, and had the idea of opening a Second Life boutique, because then she'll have the hippest business plan in the class. She'd like to actually have a storefront--or at least a "coming soon" sign--for her professor and classmates to see. But that would require paying for a premium account, then buying and paying rent on land. I tell her it might be easier just to make a web page.

Second Life is, as I said, supposed to be some kind of utopia where creativity is rewarded with a stream of virtual money, which can be redeemed for real money. It has no government. Linden Lab stays out of disputes as much as possible--their first reaction to the CopyBot fiasco, for example, was to tell people to prosecute under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Predictably, cyberselfish outlets like Wired trumpeted a lack of regulation as "a bold experiment in protecting creative work without the blunt instrument of copyright law." Meanwhile, merchants and a number of players have begun closing up shop, under the belief that there's no point in Second Life without an economic system of scarcity.

But to me, what's amusing about Second Life is what it reveals about poverty. Sure, the internal world is a meritocracy of sorts--assuming that you've got cash to rent space for your storefront. But even among the set of people who can cruise the grid for free, there's selection taking place--it requires a relatively new computer with a decent 3D card (my 1GHz laptop with built-in video chugged through even the most basic areas) and broadband Internet access. On top of that, those who can enter Second Life are presented with a world that has less legal baggage than many lesser-developed countries. One of my projects at the Bank has been audio work on problems of land tenure--when the poor don't own their land, they can't use it as collateral for development, and they can't rely on a secure legal situation. That's a serious problem. It is ironic, from my point of view, that when geeks had the chance to create their own private world, they immediately recreated land tenure problems--and saw them as a positive. It's a world where you don't have to eat or pay road maintenance or deal with the big, bad government. You just have to pay rent, and hope that the mob doesn't screw you over.

Implicit in the world of Second Life seems to be the primacy of value. How much are those shoes worth? How much could I get by designing my own shoes? How much would I need to sell in order to make back my land costs--or can I make money by land speculation alone? The concept that we might value something by non-monetary means--did I enjoy creating it? do I want to share it with others? does it make me feel good?--seems to have passed the community by. Or, at the very least, nobody talks about it. Blogs like Second Life Insider mostly seem to comment on commercial items that come across as utterly bizarre to those who don't actively take part--why would I want skates? What's the point of having funny-looking shoes, or a virtual dragon? CNN isn't commenting on the creativity of designers. They're more interested in the money Second Life is generating, and Congressional plans to tax it.

And the newbie asks me, finally, why this is any different from a video game. But it's simple, really. If I buy a game, even an online game like World of Warcraft, I'm paying for someone to entertain me. It's akin to a book or a movie, and the story or experience has non-monetary value to me. Joining Second Life is paying to take part in more commercial transactions, most of which will be less fulfilling than their real-world equivalents because of their intangible nature. It's no wonder people can be so addicted to accumulating virtual property--even in possessing it, you're reminded that you really don't own anything. Perhaps in the wake of that subconscious dissatisfaction, the need to acquire remains unsated.

I don't know which one gives me more cause to despair: that Second Life players think it's inconceivable that someone would be creative without financial incentive, or that they can't see how the system itself is reinforcing that viewpoint. The term "false consciousness" has never been so tragically appropriate.

June 21, 2006

Filed under: culture»internet»excession

Sorry, what were we talking about?

So the DVD finally starts playing the actual movie after forty previews, mostly for terrible Disney flicks you will never watch, and then--hey, who is that actor? You've seen him somewhere before. Fire up IMDB, check out his CV, add a couple of his films to the Netflix queue--and while you're at it, check your e-mail, because it's been five or ten minutes, and maybe browse a blog or two. Who's on AIM? And is the movie actually over already?

This is how it starts. Nowadays, I actually have trouble sitting down to watch a movie without a laptop or something to do while it plays--a habit only exacerbated by my taste in forgettable horror flicks. Now, I know I live a pretty varied, busy life with lots of hobbies and interests that I bounce between, but should I really be multitasking that much?

At work, I'm actually worse. I have my monitor in portrait mode. Lotus Notes is maximized in the background, with B-SPAN videos played at the top inch or so of the screen. The rest of the screen plays host to cascaded applications: tw.net webmail, a random browser window or two (including Pandora when I'm not watching video), the B-SPAN admin applet, notepad.exe where I keep my to-do list for the day, at least one instance of Word, and my SSH session to milezero.org off to one side, where I can add a few sentences every half hour or so. I alt-tab like a madman.

A long time ago, I read this editorial by Rands and thought "he's talking about me." He calls it NADD, Nerd Attention Deficit Disorder--not a name I'm particularly fond of, but you have to admit it describes the situation pretty well. And he thinks it's a good thing.

I'm not so sure.

It took me a long time to build the kind of self-organization structure (remember that notepad window?) that I need to keep myself on target. I make a lot of lists--you've probably noticed. I can hold a good, interactive conversation nowadays--but I still have a tendency to begin ranting and jump from topic to topic, which I have realized is not only frustrating for others but is also more than a little rude. And my inability to pick only a single area of expertise landed me a Comm degree and the realization that nobody wants to hire a generalist anymore. I got very lucky when I transferred to my current position, since they are more than happy to exploit whatever random talents I manifest in addition to my writing skills.

Did I mention the boredom issues? Seriously, I've got boredom issues. Gotta be doing something all the time. Drove a couple of ex-girlfriends nuts.

I wonder, sometimes, if people had this kind of problem before the Internet existed--and if so, how they handled it. More importantly, is it going to spread? For those of us in developed countries that don't face the Grim Meathook Future, we are going to continue being surrounded by information. Advertisements are everywhere--and I hate to reference Spielberg, but it is only a matter of time before they start interacting a la Minority Report. The Internet is on everything. Appliances are getting smarter, and more networked. Wireless is becoming standard. Bruce Sterling probably hears this kind of thing and practically has puppies from excitement, but I'll be honest: it frightens me.

I see this as a trend in two directions. The first is the sound bite, which we all know and love. It simplifies complicated issues, eases the production of misleading information, blah blah blah--not a good thing. On the other hand, I wonder sometimes if the modern fundamentalist movement, at its core, is a symptom of people who are just not wired to handle a high-information environment. And as it gets worse, do they keep getting weirder?

December 20, 2005

Filed under: culture»internet»emergent

We Built This City

How do we organize ourselves online? I'm not talking about writing style, or subject content, or even virtual spaces like Second Life or WoW. I want to talk about the message in the medium of the weblog, and compare it to something that I see as a contrasting approach: the big L word, Livejournal.

When I first started doing this, I was basically bored with the entry-level work that the Bank was giving me. The Washington Asia Press had just folded, meaning that I didn't have a regular writing gig any more--not entirely a bad thing, since I was burnt out on writing about anti-Communist Chinese-Americans and post-election politics. So I grabbed the least complicated CMS system I could find, tossed it onto the band's old server, and started dropping text files whenever the urge crossed my mind.

I specifically didn't choose LiveJournal or Blogspot. This is largely because I am a control freak, and partly because I don't like being part of a branded community. My experience with the former has come through reading Belle's LJ page. Unfortunately, you probably can't read it yourself, because she's made it accessible only to people on her friends list, and I doubt our readership overlaps much. I remember when I was introduced to the concept of that filtering, and I thought it was odd--I write mostly in a columnist's voice, so I am less concerned that I might be sharing too much with the audience.

But over time I've realized that the friends function of Livejournal is, in fact, its most important feature. Sure, it lets you lock a private diary away, and some people want that. But what it also allows the writer to do is create a friends page, which is basically an RSS feed that collects all those Livejournal streams into one convenient place. If you've got access to one of these for someone like Belle, whose friends are mostly well-educated and witty, it's like having a little Algonquin Round Table right there online. Instant community, albeit one that is pretty much isolated to everyone else firewalled away behind livejournal.com.

Blogs don't typically do that. I guess you could build an RSS reader into the sidebar of a Moveable Type or Blogger page, but it'd be a pain. Instead, you're expected to create your own personal stream, and a blog will have a list of links down the left side. The reader is not allowed to listen in, but has to become an active participant in following the conversation. The advantage is a wider range of inputs, but more work for both the reader and writer. Patches have been created to add more community interaction, like Trackbacks, but I think they're still pretty primitive.

Intrinsic in these two extremes are very different viewpoints--at a basic level, there's a disagreement in the end goal of conversations on the web. Livejournal doesn't want to be a new publishing apparatus, really. It wants to be a way of strengthening existing relationships, and building new ones. My Intercultural Comm professors would have called it a collectivist approach, similar to a lot of Latin American or Asian cultures. Blogs are individualistic: as my copy of Samovar and Porter's "Communication Between Cultures, 4th Ed" quotes, "The loyalty of individualists to a given group is very weak; they feel they belong to many groups and are apt to change their membership as it suits them." They want to be their own little magazine--whether about a given topic, or in some cases, all about the interesting parts of their own lives.

Neither collectivism nor individualism is superior, clearly, and these trends are not absolute between the two online styles. Sites like gameblogs.org, to grasp for an obvious example, serve as the glue between different Blogger-type content producers. Simultaneously, there are sites like Sisyphus Shrugged that do outspoken political writing from the Livejournal platform. And even individual sites will mix things up from time to time, forming communities or going off-topic. I'm also curious about the impact that seemingly hybrid communities, like MySpace, will have. As for myself, I like this approach, but it feels cramped sometimes, particularly as my interests bounce from topic to topic.

In the meantime, I think it would be really interesting to see the results of a study for personalities across the communities. Do people end up in one place or another based on how they want to connect? Does it change your writing style, and your general manner of interaction, to work within one network versus another? Do users of Livejournal really see the web differently than I do? And perhaps more importantly, how will these structures evolve over time? While I'm far too American (one of the world's most individualistic cultures) to feel comfortable as just another group member, I see the advantages as something that needs to eventually cross over. I think it's likely to be the next online killer app, when someone does it right. As more and more people move online, there's going to have to be a better way to organize them.

Future - Present - Past