April 29, 2007

Mixed Thoughts on the Metaverse

Last week, I spent a few days on Second Life and read The Unofficial Tourists’ Guide.

Probably the most interesting discovery I made was the fact that Second Life’s goals are actually quite ambitious: rather than being merely “a social MMO”, it aims to be an implementation of what Neal Stephenson calls The Metaverse–essentially an evolution of the World Wide Web.

Looking at the way SL has evolved, this makes sense: businesses and organizations like Dell, Adidas, Disney, IBM, Toyota, BBC, Reuters, and Wells Fargo have (or have had) an in-world presence. Prominent musicians such as Ben Folds and Suzanne Vega have held concerts there. Harvard Law School holds a course in-world. The American Cancer Society holds a “virtual walkathon” called the Second Life Relay for Life in-world. There’s even an exchange rate between Second Life currency and the U.S. dollar.

Like the World Wide Web, Second Life has plenty of junk, too: imagine visiting the Web for the first time without a tour guide of any sort, and you might find it to be a fairly lame and pointless place. The same holds even more true for Second Life, because it’s quite young and there aren’t yet any in-world authoritative sources on what’s useful in it–at least, none that I’ve found, anyways. This is where The Unofficial Tourists’ Guide to Second Life came in quite handy, though.

On one hand, the “evolution” of the Web into a metaverse makes a lot of sense: in fact, the vaunted Web 2.0 seems in some ways a precursor to the metaverse, as it adds a number of democratic, community-centric aspects to the Web, many of which are properties of real-world communities. The metaverse feels like a literal extension of this, bringing into the mix a concrete concept of geography, as well as a consistent, persistent representation of identity.

On the other hand, the evolution of the Web into a three-dimensional metaverse is something that I’m not sure I’m comfortable with. For instance, in Second Life, the only way to read textual information is by either picking up in-world “notecards” that open a window containing text, or by looking at massive in-world plaques (the kind you’d see in museums) that say what you want to read. As such, the primary medium is really visual and auditory rather than textual, which raises some interesting McLuhan-esque questions about whether this will result in something akin to the regression in public discourse that supposedly came with television (and which was subsequently countered, in the McLuhan world-view, by the textual nature of the Web). At present, my first impression of someone online is heavily influenced by their use of the English language; in a metaverse, will this be replaced by the appearance of one’s avatar?

Perhaps it’s due to my experience as a video gamer, but I tend to view 3-D graphics as a bit of a fad, and as such it’s something that’s often used in place of a more appropriate solution. For instance, while the potential for social creative expression and Bricolage in Second Life is enticing, doing the same kind of thing in a text-based virtual environment like a MOO is much less resource-intensive for the same reason that writing a novel is cheaper than making a movie. And as far as a navigation environment for information goes, I think a Zooming User Interface may be more humane than a three-dimensional one. Still, there’s no denying that the concept of a Metaverse is intriguing–especially one with as much sheer momentum as Second Life.

From my experience with this Metaverse, though, there are some pretty big downsides.

From a usability standpoint, the interface is very difficult to learn, rife with modes, and particularly hard to use for social interaction. In fact, social interaction is much more difficult in Second Life than it is in online games that have been around for years, like Everquest.

At a book club meeting I attended last November, Kevin Guilfoile, the author of Cast of Shadows mentioned that he was approached by a Second Life book club to speak at one of their virtual meetings; he was quite excited about the prospect, until the book club representative told him that he’d have to spend an enormous amount of time learning how to use Second Life’s interface–an amount of time that the author didn’t have at his disposal. At first I was apalled by the amount of time the book club author suggested–making a social visit to World of Warcraft, for instance, wouldn’t require much learning at all–but having used SL’s interface for a few days, I can understand the time commitment. So Second Life doesn’t do a very good job of keeping simple things simple.

The world is also plagued by a variety of technical problems: for instance, many panels containing textual information are actually transmitted as bitmaps in a format similar to that of an interleaved JPEG, which basically means that they appear really blurry and slowly come into focus over the course of anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Sometimes certain core functionality, such as search, stops working, and the program provides no feedback to indicate that things are amiss, which leads the user to think that they’ve done something wrong (even though it’s not their fault).

There’s also a number of social problems with Second Life. One major disadvantage–though, to Second Life’s credit, this is a hard one to avoid–is the fact that no one under the age of 18 is allowed in. This effectively makes the metaverse rated NC-17, in a sense: while the world does have the ability to tag certain areas as being rated “PG” and others as “Mature”, the vast majority of them are rated “Mature”. I imagine I’m heavily biased here: for one thing, my mother always told me that a world without children is a horribly depressing one (many would tend to agree). And the World of Warcraft community I’ve been involved in for over a year, The Sleeper Cartel, is a family-friendly guild with a good deal of kids in it, some of them accompanied by their parents and even grandparents. As annoying as some kids can be sometimes, I’d much rather be in a community with them than without them. And unfortunately, such a community is impossible to have in Second Life.

Yet another social downside is that the world just feels really, really deserted and empty. After visiting a number of prominent locations mentioned in the Unofficial Tour Guide, I only ran into a handful of other residents, if any. I’m not sure if I just wasn’t going to the right places, though.

What amazes me the most about Second Life, though, is the sheer amount of momentum this particular virtual world has gained. It’s kind of like the MySpace of metaverses: it looks like ass, its interface sucks, but for some unfathomable reason, tons of people and businesses think it’s awesome.

Despite this, all the drawbacks make it something that I don’t see myself spending a lot of time in anytime soon. But the visit was interesting, at least, and I highly recommend checking out The Unofficial Tourists’ Guide if you have the slightest bit of interest–it’s only $10 and it makes for a pretty quick read.

© Atul Varma 2020