Sunday, May 23, 2010

Virtual World Views

For me, the most compelling attribute of a virtual world like Second Life ® is the synchronicity of presence, place, and people that allows you to have a shared experience. One might argue that shared experiences are the underlying human engine that powers much of the Social Web - online shared experiences allow us to feel deeply connected despite whatever boundaries the physical world might present. Shared experiences can be most powerful when people share some resonance of situation such as cancer, or a shared belief, or culture. Online, the vehicles that enable shared experiences can be artfully designed and offline, businesses (such as Starbucks) can leverage the power of experience to lucrative ends. 

As I'm still exploring the edges of this concept of "a Second Life Culture" one thing has struck me, and that is how the very same experience can be perceived so differently by individuals. The unscripted nature of Second Life, the lack of structure and goals as it were, affords the abundance of world views. These world views are self-constructed and are based on either our past experiences or our vision of what the world should be; they become the lens through which we evaluate our virtual existence.

If you understand how someone came to discover Second Life, you may have some insight into their initial world view.  When a gamer wanders into Second Life they may start to evaluate the experience with a few questions:  What do I do? How do I level up?  What are the goals?  These are perfectly valid questions for a gamer to ask; they frame the essence of a gamer's world view.  

So when Scott Carmichael posts a great link bait headline "Why Second Life Will (& Has To) Die" the first clue to his world view is that the blog is boldly titled Scott Carmichael's Gaming Blog. His world view is largely if not completely framed by gaming and furthermore he's convinced that his view is the majority view. From the comments he notes (emphasis mine):
To clarify once again (in what will probably be my last comment on the post), here are the problems with Second life:
#1) It has no purpose. It’s a sandbox with no objectives for users. And 99% of internet users NEED a reason to use something if a company expects them to do so. Right now, SL offers no significant benefit over traditional email/chat/social networking/VOIP/etc. sites to facilitate communication/interaction.
#2) The guy in charge of SL thinks (as recently as a couple months ago when interviewed by Robert Scoble) that SL is actually doing well and on the right track and doesn’t plan to overhaul one iota of SL. From what I’m understanding, he — and the users right now — seem perfectly content to leave SL as-is. A niche program/site/service full of elitist, extreme-minority 3D modeling/scripting/animating-savvy users.
#3) If it ever wants to TRULY be a REAL, TRUE virtual world that could reach the level of popularity and usage the SL creators probably originally envisioned, they have to fundamentally change the way the world and its users operate. So, in effect, that would mean killing off the current version of Second Life. Since that most likely isn’t going to happen (that would mean admitting what SL has been since the beginning was a failure), SL is simply doomed to die and fade to irrelevance over the next couple of years (for the most part it already has).
Some of Scott's observations are intriguing, but when bundled up and justified in the cloak of a gamer world view, it's tough to see even the bright spots unless of course, you are part of Scott's 99%.  It's also difficult for Scott to see any other point of view than his own when it comes to Second Life.

What this means is that Scott and I may not have a happy shared experience in Second Life at all - even if we are at precisely the same virtual place, at the same time. While I may revel in the beauty of the place, he may be equally annoyed at the lack of goals or direction. What I might see as an intriguing emergent economy, he may view as an unfair or unbalanced playing field.

Scott has just one world view among many and in Second Life there are far more, certainly more than Henrik Bennetsen initially outlined in "Augmentation vs Immersion".  Some are based on past virtual experiences such as TheSims Online or, some on the notion of seeing Second Life as a "platform" verus a "world" (more on this in a later post) and still some are blank slates until people spend more than a few hours in world - this is why the poorly named "first hour" user experience is so critical.

One thing is for certain, your world view can have a direct effect on whether your Second Life experience is a happy one.

So the natural question is: Is there a way to make us all "happy" or at least "happier"?  Maybe not, but there are a few clues about the implications of shared experiences and how Linden Lab might help themselves at least for the existing non ex-user base.

Remembering Self versus Experiencing Self

One of my favorite talks from this year's TED conference was by Daniel Kahneman entitled "The riddle of experience versus memory". Daniel is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, Princeton University and won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his pioneering work in behavioral economics with Amos Tversky.

In his TED talk, Daniel talks about the cognitive traps we find ourselves in when we think about our own happiness - the reluctance to admit complexity, the confusion between experience and memory (or the difference between being happy in your life versus being happy about your life) and focusing on illusion.  The vehicle he uses to talk about these traps is a distinction of self he calls the Remembering Self and the Experiencing Self.

The Remembering Self is our inner story teller.  As Daniel describes: "Our memory tells us stories, that is, what we get to keep from our experiences is a story.  What defines a story are changes, significant moments and endings.  Endings are very, very important .."

In contrast to the reflective Remembering Self, the Experiencing Self lives its life continuously in each moment. The biggest difference between the two is with respect to time.  From Daniel's talk:
So we have the remembering self and the experiencing self, and they're really quite distinct. The biggest difference between them is in the handling of time. From the point of view of the experiencing self, if you have a vacation, and the second week is just as good as the first, then the two week vacation is twice as good as the one week vacation. That's not the way it works at all for the remembering self. For the remembering self, a two week vacation is barely better than the one week vacation because there are no new memories added. You have not changed the story. And in this way, time is actually the critical variable that distinguishes a remembering self from an experiencing self. Time has very little impact on this story.  
Now, the remembering self does more than remember and tell stories. It is actually the one that makes decisions because, if you have a patient who has had, say, two colonoscopies with two different surgeons and is deciding which of them to choose, then the one that chooses is the one that has the memory that is less bad, and that's the surgeon that will be chosen. The experiencing self has no voice in this choice. We actually don't choose between experiences. we choose between memories of experiences. And, even when we think about the future, we don't think of our future normally as experiences. We think of our future as anticipated memories. And basically you can look at this, you know, as a tyranny of the remembering self, and you can think of the remembering self sort of dragging the experiencing self through experiences that the experiencing self doesn't need.
Our world views are a manifestation of the Remembering Self and as Daniel explains, the two selves each have their own concept of happiness; happiness is completely a matter of what self you examine.  What does this mean for Second Life or virtual worlds in general?

Design for both Selves

If you were to apply Daniel's theory to Second Life's "first hour" experience, then you would design the new user experiences for both the Remembering Self as well as the Experiencing Self.

If you simply design for the Experiencing Self and overvalue usability, then at the end of the experience no matter how user-friendly, if the user is left without a trace of what they anticipated or are confused, or simply lost it will be the Remembering Self that sets the tone of that story for them and anyone that they tell - regardless of how powerful the user experience might be in the moment.

The Experiencing Self is a usability fan boy, but the Remembering Self gets to make the decisions about the experience. Any number of Second Life Residents, new and old, will tell you that the user interface is not the problem; it's not the predominant story that gets told post-experience. The stories that get told are about:  What do I do? What are the goals? What's in this for me?

To tap the Remembering Self of new users, you would want to know their world view so that you could create an immediate and resonate connection. You would want users to see what they expect, or in other words, deliver them their anticipated memories. This is more than some simple A-B testing (unless you have only two world views to serve) and would require a lot more thinking about the entry points into the world. You would design a first hour experience for Scott Carmichael differently than you would for someone coming from Facebook or TheSims Online.

The Resident Gateways may be part of the answer here, but it assumes that the new users' virtual world view is somehow shaped by real world geography, or shared pop culture. I would argue that a new user world view is shaped by their past online experiences and their built-in perceptions based on media, blogs, etc. This is a bit stickier to work out but for Second Life to become a great brand it needs to connect the Remembering Self with the Experiencing Self to make Residents (new and old) happy.

Could you devise a recruiting method that included a means by which to evaluate new user world views?  Could you construct something like the Bartle Test as part of registration, and develop complementary new user experiences based on the type of world views or archetypes you could accomodate? This would require a different type of thinking than Linden Lab is employing now but maybe it would help inform the evolution of new "World Viewer 2.X" in a more meaningful way.

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