A couple days ago I sent a virtual world memo to a casual acquaintance. In the course of catching up we discussed real-life geography, as in “I’m not sure where I’ll wind up”. Having jumped from place-to-place all my life, I’m not actually sure I could live in any one location for long, and the conversation got me thinking. Again. It refueled thoughts of living on a boat. It also got me to once again consider moving outside the country for an extended period of time, which got a real reaction out of the California-based, East Coast-raised “homebody” with whom I was chatting. Why I don’t head overseas is perhaps based more on personal issues than anything, but I honestly wonder, especially after this person’s reaction, what keeps others from not packing up the mule and venturing over. Well, I should say I wonder up until the obvious presents itself: it’s Fear.
I won’t go into all the kinds of Fear that keep people from exploring or resettling. What I would like to do is relate this to virtual spaces, because I think there is likely to come a very real need for what I think of as “protected cyberspace”. And to start off I’d like to point to an earlier post in which I brought up the issue of griefing – the virtual world equivalent of bullying – and a pseudo follow-up in which I wanted to restate something I’d commented on elsewhere. The point here is: virtual worlds are going to feel more and more real, and the more real they feel, the more likely people will react emotionally to these virtual spaces. And there are few emotions as raw and powerful as Fear. And sometimes, it’s more than just an emotion.
Let’s carry this forward a bit. If Fear is one of the more powerful emotions, then it’s also worth noting that in this case it is one of the more reasonable. In a real world increasingly tied to virtual activities it’s perhaps significant that these virtual activities can and do expose real user vulnerabilities. Online financial transactions are vulnerable to many kinds of abuse. Real world services increasingly tied to the internet are subject to cyber-attacks leading to identity theft. Scammers and predators on bulletin boards lure the gullible into traps. And it doesn’t even have to be more than what happens through other methods (e.g. dumpster divers finding personal information and selling it) since the media will report on this medium because it’s newsworthy, thus amplifying the issue; ratcheting up the Fear.
So what do we have at the moment? Well, right now we have a largely unregulated internet where real world laws are easily circumvented by moving a server across some line on a map (and little chance of universal agreement to remedy this situation). We have people from different cultures locking horns in philosophical debates about cultural norms. We have people clashing online often only because they have different definitions for or understandings of certain words… and these are people who speak only English! Mix in the English-as-a-second language crowd and the net is increasingly ripe for misunderstanding and animosity and anger. I’m not even going to get into other languages and dialects and people trying to interact in those linguistic spaces. The point is, if anyone wanted to see how Babel fell apart, the net is increasingly an interesting parallel. In some eyes this looks like a wonderfully opportunistic environment (especially to the technically-savvy). In other eyes this looks like moving half-way around the world and settling down in some rural village among people you don’t know and whose language is incomprehensible. And they’re carrying machetes.
So what’s the solution? Well, one solution until we all learn to behave more civilized might be protected spaces. The net may be a melting pot of global entities, but there is certainly no reason why a plethora of subsets cannot exist on the net (AOL is the best example I can think of for such a protected space). In the virtual world of Second Life, if someone doesn’t want to deal with the relatively lawless behavior of their main grid neighbors, they purchase an island away from the rest; a controlled virtual space. Similarly, if Linden Lab were to ever make the SL code open source, they could continue as hosts to the current grid. They’d ensure the servers stayed online and safe from griefers, spammers and other grid-locking types. They’d provide a place for safe commerce and social interaction while refraining from enforcing any non-grid threatening behavior. Second Life would, in all the ways that are truly important, become a bit like a country or a state (or like the ad-supported version of Anarchy Online). The price for security could be born by those buying and selling goods – whether real or virtual – through a kind of sales tax. Or perhaps ad dollars could provide the basis for a system similar to network television (and AO).
Now let’s shift slightly and take a look at the recent news and events transpiring in the Google vs Microsoft world. As most everyone knows, Google makes money through advertising. Microsoft makes money selling software. As software becomes increasingly net-centric and open source, the Google business model looks to me more viable over the long-term. Add in Google’s efforts to host community sites (like Blogger), build 3D virtual spaces and perhaps tie them together with a wireless network, and the threat to Gates is looking pretty ominous (which probably explains Microsoft’s restructuring move). Imagine if Google coded up a nice version of Linux that had all the core familiarity/functionality of Windows and gave it out for free. Ouch. I’d say Microsoft has to rethink their business plan in a hurry (maybe it’s not about the software anymore guys).
I read an article on C|Net yesterday that is the first time I’ve seen any indication of what I’ve been thinking and brings us full circle:
As part of a management shuffle, Microsoft said Tuesday it would make hosted services a more strategic part of the company and fold its MSN Web portal business into its platform product development group, where Windows is developed.
That’s extremely interesting. Where once it seemed Gates was intent on using the internet to set up his own media empire ala ABC (Disney), it’s now obvious that MS recognizes it can’t actually control the net – regardless of how many PC’s run Windows with IE grafted into it. This brings to mind the XBox platform; supposedly the box that would morph into the media hub of the average home. XBox is itself part of a hosted service MS provides. Developers create games that run on the infrastructure provided by Microsoft. Consequently I’d venture the people in Redmond are more than prepared to consider becoming hosts, and perhaps what they’re learning from their XBox division may feed into the moves they make in their overall corporate strategy. That, and pulling the AOL rug out from under Google’s feet might buy them some time. But I think the game is afoot. And the race to create a safer space for everyone is the goal. Well, the revenue that space could generate. But what that space looks like seems to me to be something more and more like a protected virtual island… and less like another channel on the dial.