Behind a Royal Wedding

Zara Phillips enters Cannongate Kirk.

Zara Phillips enters Cannongate Kirk.

The marriage of the Queen’s granddaughter, Zara Phillips, to Rugby player Mike Tindall has been widely reported, especially by the celebrity press. It has been referred to as “the other” royal wedding, for its stark contrast with the marriage of William and Kate (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) a few months before.

That contrast isn’t just in the status of those getting married – Zara being 13th in line to the British throne, William 2nd. William and Kate’s wedding was a public spectacle, with all the pomp and ceremony of state, while Mike and Zara’s was a “quiet” family affair. Unfortunately the later wedding still generated significant public interest, and the result was a bizarre clash of family and celebrity, privacy and publicity. Read More

Thoughts on the Resolution of Nothing

I ponder nothing. Endlessly. Nothing in the intangible sense – the increasing dominance of things without physical form in society and economy. Nothing in the sceptical nihilistic sense – the “meaninglessness of existence”. Even the nothing inherent in the stupidity required for cleverness.

Nothing isn’t new. The problem baffled thinkers for much of the 20th century. In the 21st we may finally be being overwhelmed by it. Possibly without realising. How society resolves a potentially uncomfortable relationship with nothing is important. And intriguing. It’s possibly the most difficult problem to resolve, yet underpins many contemporary issues.

This article introduces 3 approaches to resolving nothing. They are an attempt to summarise various different articles I’ve written over the past year. Broadly:

  • Tangible Renaissance: Physical representations of nothing. Idols to communicate abstract values. Belief in certainty.
  • Virtual Illusion: Virtual consumerism. An economy base on nothing, happily sustained in the denial of the meaninglessness. Belief in who cares?
  • Post-Existential Skepticism: Understanding built from nothing. Presumption of illusion. Belief in uncertainty.

This text is poorly researched, incomplete, and, well, uncertain. But it might be an interesting summary of the extent of my current confusion. This is written from a Western, especially British-American perspective. Keep these quotes in mind: Read More

Valuing Nothing

In 2007 I wrote some introductory Thoughts on a Socio-Economic Environment based on Nothing. This article continues to explore the value of things in a highly intangible, knowledge-based economy. It wanders through internet-based payment systems, economic structure, role of government, organisation of information, community, and society, before disappearing into the realms of philosophy. It contains no answers, but may prove thought-provoking. Read More

WeeWorld

WeeMee. WeeWorld is a teen-orientated social network, best known for their customized avatars, “WeeMees”. WeeWorld has evolved into an eclectic mix of community, casual games, and virtual goods. Steve Young, creative director, spoke to a small group in Edinburgh. Steve discussed the motivations and behaviour of WeeWorld’s users, and explored the challenges of working with 2D WeeMees, particularly as they move into WeeWorld’s new virtual (synchronous) world.

Users

WeeWorld’s core market are teenagers, mostly in North America. Average age 16 (minimum 13, although younger users may simply lie about their age). 60% are female. The dominant market segment was characterised as “spoilt rich kids” – typically those with their own computers. Of the 23 million registered users, about a million visit the WeeWorld site each month, and 80,000 login each day.

Usage differs from other teen social networks, such as Gaia Online: Only 6% of logged-in users visit the site’s forums, while 80% alter their WeeMee. Teen worlds are evidently not generic.

WeeMees (from the Glaswegian, “little me”) can be placed within personalised 2D rooms (in the style of “cardboard theatre”), used as characters within casual games, or rendered as avatars in a new virtual world called, simply enough, “World”. WeeMees are also used on third party websites and services, including messenger services, such as AIM or Live. Initial ideas for WeeMees had resulted in a lot of avatars simply being copied. APIs now provide some control over how WeeMees are reused.

Users’ main aim is “to gather as many friends as possible”. And to chat in a variant of the English language that even JeffK would find almost unintelligible: $iNG-UL?

Virtual Goods

WeeMees can be customized for free: Body, clothes and accessories. However users can also buy “Points”, which can be spent on specific items.

Points can be purchased via PayPal transactions or pre-paid cards, which are sold in US stores. Kids tend to regard these mechanisms like free credit cards: They are not seen as real money.

People pay for “uniqueness”. However, items need not be complex: The most popular item sold is a simple Alice band.

The most fascinating revelation was that the introduction of the new synchronous (virtual) world doubled the sales of virtual goods. This “World” is not even out of beta testing yet. “World” places WeeMees in the same interactive space as one another. This contrasts to the other areas of the site, where WeeMees are not competing for space. I think that implies the more an avatar needs to stand out from the crowd, the more virtual “Bling” is worth to that avatar’s owner.

WeeWorld is keen to avoid its Points being traded as a virtual currency. Money can only be converted into Points, not back again.

Design

The key to WeeWorld’s success is “immersion”. The key to its revenue is “engagement”. These concepts guide development.

Although WeeMees are cartoon-like (in the style associated with South Park), customizations still need to reflect what people would wear in “real life”. For example, T-shirts branding needs to be subtle – a small logo on part of the garment.

The goal for user-generated content (customizations of WeeMees and rooms) is to make it hard for the user to create something that looks bad. For example, MySpace customisations can (and in my opinion, sadly often do) look terrible.

WeeWorld has adjusted to match conservative US culture. The cannabis plants created in early experiments are long gone. There are no alcoholic drinks. Negotiations with Walmart even forced WeeWorld to disable the customization of boob (brest) size.

The development of “World” posed an interest problem: How should WeeMees move? All the artwork and customizations had been designed for static display, without movement animations. The World uses embedded Flash objects to display information to users, so the amount of data transferred about other users’ movements needs to be minimal.

The solution was to make WeeMees hop. Users can also select a trajectory and fire their WeeMees in a particular direction. Navigating World’s 2D platform-ed environment is quite cereal, but strangely fun!

Development

Social networks are becoming more like virtual worlds, while virtual worlds are becoming more like social networks. WeeWorld is trying to steer a path down the middle. Like all the businesses involved, they are still “feeling their way”, finding out what works.

Development time-scales for WeeWorld (and similar products) are very short. Steve was somewhat frustrated that development of the “World” had taken a whole quarter (3 months). The contrast to video-game style virtual worlds is stark: Those typically take 3 years to construct.

WeeWorld use a Scrum/agile development process (which suits the constantly evolving product). Casual games (a commonly requested feature) are often out-sourced to other developers.

The ability to develop content quickly makes it very easy for good ideas to be copied by competitors. For example, Zwinky might seem remarkably similar…

Map of World of Warcraft Online Communities

Michael Zenke’s MMO Blogipelago map [via Tobold], based on the famous xkcd map of online communities, inspired me to create a map for World of Warcraft (WoW) online communities:

Map of World of Warcraft Online Communities.

Glider MMOwned Emupedia MaNGOS Project Baron Soosdon Olibith Oxhorn WoWJutsu Highlander's Profession Leveling Guides Cash Creating Guide (Advert) Zygor Guides (Advert) Brian Kopp (Advert) Team iDemise (Advert) Wowhead Thottbot Allakhazam Nihilum World of Raids MMO-Champion Roguespot Warlock's Den WoW Trading Card Game Elitist Jerks El's Extreme Anglin' WarcraftPets.com Petopia WoW Insider WoWWiki WoW Radio WoWAce Inc Gamers Curse Ten Ton Hammer Stratics Warcry Gamespot IGN GameSpy BlizzPlanet
Map of World of Warcraft Online Communities.

The article below explains the logic behind the map. Read More

Gravatars and Identity

Gravatars are “globally recognised avatars”. Here, an avatar is a simple image representing the author of a ‘blog or forum comment. The name is derived from Hindu philosophy, although the blog/forum avatars are the direct descendants of the avatars found in video games, specifically role-play titles. This article discusses the limitations of Gravatars, and hints at a future based on game-like automated customisation for forum avatars.

Be warned that this is another inadequately researched “thoughts” article, that covers a lot of rather well-discussed territory superficially, and perhaps needs to be developed further.

Gravatars in Practice

The idea is simple: Instead of uploading your image to every website you interact with, upload it centrally, and allow each website you use to retrieve your avatar from the central source. Gravatars are linked to your email address, which already uniquely identifies you on the internet. Gravatars are currently still the preserve of hardcore bloggers. And no, they are not installed on this site yet either (comments are infrequent here). While implementing the code to support Gravatars is straightforward, it is still rarely done on ‘blogs, and almost never added to internet forums. Like OpenID, it is the sort of idea that needs to attain a critical mass of widespread use before it will become truly useful.

I opted to try using Gravatars at El’s Extreme Anglin’ forums. Partly because (by design) BBPress has no avatar features by default, yet users still expect to be able to personalise their posts by using avatars. Partly because not allowing image uploads or remote image hosting removes a potential avenue of attack by hackers. Partly because it seems logical.

However, already some issues are emerging:

  1. Where users attempt to create a Gravatar account, they invariably fail to get Gravatars working, with the result that the default image shows.
  2. The majority of users don’t already have, or don’t wish to use Gravatars.

In my opinion, the first problem is a design failing of Gravatar’s website: After uploading an image, Gravatar needs to be told to use the image that has just been uploaded. This final step in the process is not sufficiently clear to most users because it should not be necessary – “I just gave you an image to use, why aren’t you using it?”

Multiple Identities and Avatars

The second problem in part reflects the tendency of ordinary internet users (that is, not the people that post a lot of blog comments) not to have Gravatars associated with their email addresses. That may change in time, particularly in tech-savvy areas such as gaming.

But one specific reason for not using Gravatars is the fact that a user may want to display a different image depending on the type of site they are posting on. Gravatar’s service allows multiple images to be uploaded, but only one image can be used at a time. The only way I know to attach different images to different websites is to use different email addresses. Sure, there is no shortage of free email services… but doesn’t that merely replace one administrative saving (an avatar that follows you) with another (a need to create and monitor a new email account)?

At the root of the problem is the premise that one person = one email = one identity = one avatar. In the sphere of online gaming, at least, that is a very contentious, and consequently dangerous, assumption to make.

It is worth analysing our perceptions on this.

Some people have a desire for separate visual identities, yet all managed from the same email address. Deep philosophical debate can ensue. Does that mean our emails are closer to us as physical entities than our avatars? Or is it just a purely pragmatic visual thing? A lolcat might look great on a casual discussion forum, but would be less convincing (or socially acceptable) against a formal piece of academic writing.

Sometimes it is very practical: On a service such as Facebook, I find it useful to see a picture of what a person physically looks like, because most of the people I have befriended there are people that I am likely to meet and talk to physically. (And I’m terrible at remembering names, so am frequently confused by friend requests from cute animals or blurry-looking groups of drunk people.) In contrast, on a gaming discussion forum, seeing an image of the actual person posting is not especially relevant, and can even be somewhat distracting.

Every online game that introduces something akin to Tabula Rasa‘s surname (where the surname is linked to the player, and shows on all their alts), seems to upset people that want to separate out characters/avatars from any link to other characters/avatars. Yet in Live Action Role-Play (like a Massively Multiplayer Online Game RolePlay-Player-vs-Player server, but without the computers), it was often said that most players end up playing themselves: While you can attempt to change your visual identity, your behaviour ultimately reflects who you are. Clay Shirky draws an interesting conclusion from the case of Kaycee Nicole, a famous internet hoax involving false identity:

“When the community understands that you’ve been doing it and you’re faking, that is seen as a huge and violent transgression. And they will expend an astonishing amount of energy to find you and punish you. So identity is much less slippery than the early literature would lead us to believe.”

Avatars of the Future

Are these perceptions changing over time? Personally I’ve found that over the last ten years my real and virtual identities have merged: I no longer actively try and isolate one from another, and pretend that one is a different person from the other. But that may simply reflect my growing personal acceptance of who I am, and not be related to physical-vs-virtual identity. At the other end of the scale their are the social networking virgins: Young adults who continue to refuse to engage in any for of internet networking with their peers, because they fear that they will no longer be able to hide the truth about what they really do from polite society, potential employers, or anyone else that might “use the web against them”. Will they change with time?

The key question remains, will multiple avatars always be a requirement of an online presence, or is this merely a transitional phase while people experiment with the concept? It might be argued that in either case Gravatar is the wrong approach, since currently there is a need for multiple visual identities – a mainstream need, not the need of a quirky few – yet the system struggles to accommodate that need. It follows that linking a visual internet identity to an email address is flawed.

A solution would be to add a further sub-classification of avatar after the email address: [email protected]:work would somehow determine that the site displaying the avatar was a work-related one, and display a sensible work-related avatar.

But avatars are still incredibly basic. On some forums, you will now find a line below the avatar that says “I’m feel a tired”, yet the avatar still shows a happy smiling face. Or the poster is on holiday in Florida… yet there is still snow in the background of their picture. Better to alter the face in the image to reflect the mood or alter the background of the avatar to reflect the place. (With appropriate alt and title tags, of course!)

The historic link between forum and game avatars is already coming full circle, with avatar generators for “games” like World of Warcraft and Gaia Online that allow the creation of forum avatars based on virtual-world appearance. It isn’t a huge step forward to make avatars a lot more “realistic” than they traditionally have been.

With all those customisation options, perhaps the old method of site-specific avatars wasn’t so bad after all?