Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Defining Virtual Worlds, a Redux

The "harness a virtual world definition for the mainstream" meme has been revived, so I thought I'd dust off my April post and breath some new life into it and into the conversation.

Much of the recent discussion revolves around defining "social" virtual worlds and building a list of those that met a certain criteria. I'm not a list maker. I try to use lists for grocery shopping, but once I get to the market that list may be outdated or usurped by evolving conditions, which is why I prefer that more time be spent on a definition or context.

But before we get too far off in the Webster weeds, I personally think it's important to know why it's important to define something. Definition is important in a context toward understanding, and the context in which I've chosen is to understand or draw some insights is: What makes these largely ill-defined social spaces successful? You may not agree with that context, in which case you may want to stop reading here, but my intent is certainly not to build a list but rather learn something in the process of the definition exercise.

I found Onder's post on this topic particularly compelling in which his definition was within a context of comparing Second Life to alternatives. I was somewhat surprised that he did not throw in on the Metaversed post about the topic, but perhaps we share the same disdain for lists. Nonetheless, I want to highlight a superset definition which I've pulled from Raph's post:
A Social Virtual World has game-like immersion and social media functionality without narrative driven goals. At its core is a sense of presence with others at the same time and place.
[UPDATE: One correction/clarification to be made here. This was not Raph's definition, rather one which he pulled from the referenced Metaversed.com post. Thanks Raph]

This is lacking a key element from my perspective. It may be in hope to be a succinct as possible, but to me there are at least three critically important elements to a virtual world.
1) Socialization - There are adequate means by which people socialize, form and maintain affinity groups, communities and even whole new societies. Socialization is overwhelmingly the reason people are online and the enablement of such cannot be over-emphasized, over-supported or over-maintained.
SIDEBAR: I'll take out a brief moment and smack LL over the head with their product management road map. This is where all things start and end, and if you cannot get socialization right, you have failed. If group communications do not work efficiently, you've failed. If profiles fail to load, guess what? If my friends don't show on line and I can't teleport someone I just met ... do not collect $200, go directly to jail.
2) Immersive and Participatory Media - There is underlying dialogue and interaction with assets - whatever that may be - ranging from full scale user creations to game play and event to simple utterances of the Twitterdom type. Users must be able to create, but there is equal part to play in consumption and evolution of someone else's creation so that in the end, there is something to do.
Mediated or otherwise, creation and consumption is not one-way, but rather it depends upon both the immersiveness and synchronicity of the platform. I think these two are covered by Raph's definition but there is at least one critical element missing.
3) Marketplace - There is a marketplace that provides the ability for people to a) define value and b) transact on items of value in the world on many levels up to and including RMT. Currency can be defined and influenced by the world's culture and subcultures. In virtual worlds, there are two forms of currency - one that is only usable in world, and the other that can be traded outside of the world .
One non-trivial form of social virtual world currency is social currency. Social currency is earned according to the cultural rules defined by #1 Socialization; it is often of higher value inside the world in which it was earned and it is the fabric that ties points #1-3 together. It can inflate or recess, depending on cultural factors and it's value it entirely subjective, the market can shift and your ability to "cash out" is entirely dependent upon your ability to socialize, your participation and a market against which to trade.

Marketplace is a lynch pin of social virtual worlds - it is not only critical to the definition - it is largely the element of success or failure. Without some form of marketplace, a social virtual world will fade into oblivion for there must be some economy supporting the weight of those that choose the equivalent of "welfare", and it provides a foundation for those that are goal-oriented and motivated by whatever currency is defined, be it real money, celebrity, stars, trinkets, or spotted puppy dog tails.
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