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

Difference and the Same

‘Blogosphere luminary, Larísa, thinks I’m smart. In capitals, because the word itself evidently lacks sufficient emphasis. Her implication, that this is a good thing.

Yet it’s driving me mad.

This article tries to explain why. It defines aspects of intelligence as difference from average, and then quantifies this as degrees of shared reality. The article provides a model where genius and stupidity are almost identical, where the closer someone is to the join, the closer they come to insanity – the “reality of one”.

It explains why wider human society continues to believe extremes of intelligence can be a positive attribute, in spite of the social disconnection associated with this. The article shows how perception-based, consumerist social structures have built reward structures upon this delusion. The nature of illusion is then considered, with particular reference to aesthetics, and the role of empathy in maintaining illusion among humans.

The article lastly introduces the concept of social gravity – the tendency of humans to the same – and then challenges the idea that everyone should be dragged back towards that single point of gravity: Rather, by maintaining multiple illusions, a social structure emerges where multiple extremes of difference can be maintained, while still averaging to the same.

Like some of my more abstract writing, this isn’t terribly well researched. Equally, the topic so broad, it isn’t practical to consider every counter-argument or divergence of thought within the text, and still maintain some form of readability. It may be helpful to first read Michael Gazzaniga’s Science of Mind Constraining Matter, which provides the rationale for some of the statements made in this article. Read More

Nation of Adoration

World of Warcraft’s seasonal holiday events temporarily reduce player interest in fishing. It’s always been the case, but the decline in fishing seems to be becoming more extreme over time:

Decline in Fishing Activity due to Holiday Events

The graph’s y-axis is the percentage decline in page views at El’s Extreme Anglin’ from the 7 days before each event, to the first 7 days of the event. Pageviews are a good proxy for overall angler interest. El generates hundreds of thousands of page views each week, so even small changes are significant. The x-axis orders events by date, from January 2008. The axis isn’t scaled correctly to show time, but holidays are fairly evenly distributed throughout the year. Events are shown by green dots, with a shortened date (month and year) and the name of the event.

The data is expressed as a percentage of the previous week, because while interest in fishing “waxes and wains” from year-to-year, changes week-to-week are normally minor.

All the events included last at least 7 days. Where one holiday runs concurrently with another event (for example, the “Lunar Festival” and “Love is in the Air” often clash), only the first event in the sequence is included. Interest in fishing also changes dramatically in the month new content is added, so events that clash with major fishing patches have been excluded (Noblegarden 2008 with patch 2.4, Hallow’s End 2008 with patch 3.0.2, and Noblegarden/Children’s Week 2009 with patch 3.1). Winter Veil is also excluded: The period leading to Christmas is particularly unusual – first students stop studying and have a lot of time to play, and then many players stop playing to spend time with family. This causes large changes in activity from week-to-week, which makes it hard to isolate Winter Veil in the data.

Only 12 separate sets of data can be compared. There is one out-lier – Midsummer 2008 – perhaps the early stages of Wrath of the Lich King testing may have caused a small traffic spike in the week before? The pattern shown on the graph is not certain. But I’m growing confident that events are increasingly impacting on fishing activity.

But why? 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

Paying for Points

Dominante's WeeWorld avatar and room. This article examines the sociological implications of the different reward systems used in virtual worlds.

The original WeeWorld article attracted a lot of feedback from WeeWorld’s users. One common question was, why do we have to pay for points? Or even, “WHY DOWE HAVE TO PAY FOR POINTS!!!!”

Why indeed?

  • WeeWorld has 2 kinds of points: Gold points we buy with Dollars (“monetary rewards”), and green points we earn by doing things in the world (“achievement rewards”).
  • Gold points can buy more things in WeeWorld than green points. So the things we want most, tend to be bought with gold points. In other worlds, achievement rewards (like green points) are more important.
  • The things we want are things that not everyone has. We want those things because it helps us make friends. To stop everyone having them, those things cost points. If those things were free, everyone could have them, and then we wouldn’t want them.
  • Gold points are bought with our parents’ money. So some of our friends have less points, because their parents don’t have as much money. We may want to help them by giving them some of our points. That helps us keep friends.
  • Unfortunately, in WeeWorld, gold points cannot be easily shared. So WeeMees with lots of things tend to have those things because their parents’ have lots of money to buy them. This is “unfair”.
  • In other worlds it is easier to earn achievement rewards (like green points). This means we could earn our own rewards, instead of our parents earning them for us. But those rewards cannot be shared. That means we cannot help our friends who have fewer rewards. That might also become “unfair”.
  • Perhaps gold points would work better if we could share them, and we could earn gold points ourselves?

That’s the simple answer. With apologies for “we” and “our”. This article explains and expands those ideas. Read More

Why We Travel

If we could eliminate transportation from our daily lives, would we want to? Or do we still need to travel, even if we have nowhere to go?

This article explores the desire to travel – to make economically irrational transport journeys. It ponders the apparently unnecessary role of travel in virtual worlds. It considers how travel contributes to immersion within the world, and how such travel can be substituted. Finally, the article addresses some of the difficulties in bringing lessons from the virtual back into the physical world. Read More

Financing Hyper-Virality in the Clouds

This article probes the implications of cloud computing for financing very rapidly distributed internet-based services and products. It contains rough, inadequately researched thoughts, sparked from discussions at the recent CloudCamp Scotland. Read More

Exploration is Dead. Long Live Exploration!

Dalaran. Hard to miss, it seems.

Something happened at the start of July 2008 that only happens once every 2 years. For a brief period, everything about the world was not public knowledge. A handful of people worked day and night to fill this chasm of information. To document everything that was suddenly new and uncertain. Meanwhile the world filled up with hardened veterans, many of whom seem to struggle with, well, everything:

“How do I get to Northrend?” – Well, perhaps that new harbour or zeppelin tower that’s been built might give you a clue?

“Where’s Dalaran?” – Did you try riding to the end of the road and then looking up to see what’s blocking out the sun? (Dalaran is pictured right.)

The world is, of course, the World of Warcraft. And the 2-yearly occasion is the start of public testing of the latest expansion, Wrath of the Lich King: The only time a significant proportion of the game world changes.

What’s alarming is that these questions are not from new, inexperienced players. These are from people that have already played the existing game for months or years. They clearly want to know, but seem to have lost the basic ability to explore the game world themselves.

This article explores the concept of “exploration”, and tries to explain how one of the most complex virtual worlds ever created has become popular among players that are not natural explorers. Read More

Notes from Disneyland

Tim at the HP garage, 367 Addison Avenue, Palo Alto. Credit: John Lee. I was finally talked into visiting Silicon Valley, the region of California at the heart of many of the technological innovations of the last 50 years. This is what I came back with.

“It’s the little differences. I mean they got the same shit over there that they got here, but it’s just – it’s just there it’s a little different.” – Quentin Tarantino

Everything is bigger, of course. The exit ramp from the aircraft, the portions of food, the hotel rooms, the sprawl of the city. That might go without saying, but it hits you like the cars should when you forget to look the right way before crossing the street. Actually, drivers are remarkably careful.

Technology is deeply embedded in the local economy. From the local food delivery service’s pickup trunk emblazoned with the domain name “waiter.com“, to the head offices of businesses most will ever only experience via a website. The results are obvious too. Ramshackle houses occupy land worth millions of dollars, while local commercial centres seem to consist primarily of restaurants and bars. An alien might struggle to understand what everyone did to earn a Dime.

So why liken it to Disneyland? It isn’t just the inherent unreality of the place. Or the fact that it makes me feel about 25 years younger. (That’s almost a negative age.)

For an explanation, take a trip up Judah Street on the San Francisco tram. At each stop the doors open and the mass of humanity that didn’t make it hobble on board. Inequality isn’t an American phenomena, but it is far more extreme than I expected. Yet the society seems to function strangely oblivious to how the “other half” live.

There was just one moment when I felt a real pulse. Enough to convince me that Disney magic wasn’t complete. Paul Saffo commented that the biotech revolution would ultimately lead to a divergence of the species, as the wealthy became able to extend their lives. That was enough to silence the room.

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?

Networks of Trust in Personal Information Management

In an earlier article, I mused on the role of “thought leaders” in indirectly influencing the popularity of websites. These are further rough thoughts on the topic. Caveat: this text is not well researched.

My basic premise is this: ‘Web authors and ‘bloggers are creating trust-based filters for information. Many online writers are looking to evoke discussion and change. But most readers, most of the time, are just trying to get through the day, and aren’t too interested in discussion and change. For them, the author “sounds like they know what they’re talking about”. That creates a sense of trust, and validates the author as a reliable filter for information on that topic. Even the most objective and discerning people don’t have time to review everything themselves. They merely spend more time determining which source to trust. Likely, others will trust them, which makes the source they trust a very important actor indeed.

So we create a network of trust for information. If I want to know something about topic x I might follow the recommendation of author y, because I trust their depth of reading on that topic.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that all webmasters and bloggers are automatically trusted. Far from it. The internet or “blogosphere” is so easy to publish to, it fills up with low-grade content faster than any other media in history. Authors have to earn trust, at least from their early readers. Subsequent readers may be more prepared to trust because others are already trusting (a herd or celebrity mentality).

Why is this happening? Take Herbert Simon‘s statement that, “the rapid growth of information causes scarcity of attention.” The sentiment is repeated in Davenport and Beck’s “The Attention Economy“. We simply can’t manage all the available information any more.

Is that really a new problem? It probably hasn’t been possible to know everything there is to know since the early Victorian era. In some cases there are now technical barriers to knowledge: Simply being well educated isn’t enough to allow one to understand most cutting edge scientific developments in depth. In most cases the prime problem is volume of information: In our World of Warcraft example, more information is written than is possible for a human to read. Finding the important or useful information within can be immensely time-consuming.

Trusting people one barely knows to filter information does not automatically turn these authors into celebrities. In a few cases it may do – some readers will feel the need to trust only those who appeal to many. However, if there is a trend towards writing in narrow niches with in-depth content, rather than content with mass-appeal, an individual author may never be known to millions of people, because the topics they write about aren’t sufficiently mainstream.

Those narrow niches will similarly prevent most authors from emulating the role of pre-internet mass media, notably newspapers. They do, none the less, retain the same duty to their readers: Their readers may be inclined to trust them, but that trust will be eroded if abused. Of course, much like modern mass media, readers can still be subtly manipulated…

As I noted, Google’s biasing of sources by the number and strength links to the source. This automated approach fails to value who is creating links, so has become less valuable as the internet has become more mainstream and prone to abuse. There does not yet seem to be an effective automated equivalent of personalised networks of trust – perhaps because emulating humans is hard to do?

El’s Extreme Anglin’ – 2007 Retrospective – Part I

El, a gnome fisher-woman. El’s Extreme Anglin’ is a guide to fishing in the game World of Warcraft. This article contains some of my observations from running El’s Extreme Anglin’ during 2007. Further analysis of trends, and commentary on the introduction of advertising to El’s Extreme Anglin’ are contained in follow-up articles.

Virtual Fishing

Fishing games have been around for a long time. Fish Tycoon is one of the top selling “casual” games. The popularity of fishing in the first major modern MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game), Ultima Online, even took designer Richard Garriott by surprise [1].

Unlike most fishing games, fishing is a relatively minor part of the world’s most popular current conventional MMOG, World of Warcraft (WoW). It is not fundamental to the game’s design: Players can play the game without knowing how to fish. Like much of WoW, the basics of fishing are exceptionally easy to master, yet fishing becomes exceptionally complex, the further players get into it.

El’s Extreme Anglin’

El’s Extreme Anglin’ was launched in August 2006, as a guide to fishing in WoW. It was initially written to fill knowledge gaps in that complexity: Nobody had previously explored issues such as what skill is required to cast in different areas, or how pools of fish appear, or the extent to which catch rates varied by time of day.

The guide has always tried to cater to a wide audience – from the beginner to the expert. Both are important in developing such a guide: The beginner material is primarily what gets read. But, the expert material is crucial, even if it is rarely read:

  • It gives the beginner confidence that the material they are reading is reliable, because the author has clearly explored the topic in far more depth than the beginner needs to know.
  • It impresses the “thought leaders” in the community.

Why are thought leaders so important? They are the key to viral marketing: Allow me to explain…

Thought Leaders and Virality

El’s Extreme Anglin’ was never actively marketed. I posted a couple of links to it in forums, and made it as accessible as possible to search engines. Yet within a year it was attracting over 60,000 individual people each month, and had attained the top spot in Google searches for key terms like “WoW fishing” (beating over 250,000 other sources [2]). Where did all that traffic and search-engine karma come from?

Thought leaders: A very small group of influential people within communities, who other players instinctively respect for their knowledge. Perhaps a hybrid “connector-maven”, to use Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point terminology: They don’t just know; they are able to communicate what they know down to the masses. WoW examples include the forum gurus (like EU’s Highlander), the bloggers and virtual world aficionados (like Alice Taylor and Tobold), and webmasters of community sites (people like Thott and Teza). These are people who generally know everything already published, recognise that what you’re publishing is better, and rapidly link to, recommend, or generally promote your material.

Thought leaders themselves won’t generate much traffic, but the people they influence will in turn influence others. From them, the recommendations spiral out and down the pyramid. The further down the pyramid you go, the more the recommendations are likely to be personal, and highly “viral”: For example, one-to-one using in-game chat channels, or posted on small guild forums. Those are far less tangible, but ultimately create the bulk of traffic, not the links from the flagship sites (the value of links from larger sites is explored below).

The realisation that so much influence is in the hands of so few should not come as a surprise. However, the value of certain people in filtering information for the rest of us is still hugely underestimated on the internet, even if the principal underpins the success of search engines like Google [3].

Quality

Quality matters because it is crucial to the decisions of thought leaders. They will only recommend the best they know – their reputation depends on it. But does it matter to the average reader? My basic philosophy when writing is to do something different or better. I certainly can’t do it cheaper, since it is already free to the end user, and I’m not yet able to convince myself I can sell a guide to fishing, even though some WoW guides do sell commercially. I wrote about fishing in depth because at the time, nobody else had. And ever since, I’ve tried to keep the guide as definitive as possible.

It works. Players do actually trust what I write. I wrote a response to Blizzard’s Black Temple Attunement April Fools joke: Detailed instructions on how to catch Djakar, which included references to two +75 skill fishing poles, both entirely fictional. For months afterwards, people would refer to these poles in forum posts, like they were “real”. Along with trust comes responsibility…

I could have written a dozen mediocre texts about WoW fishing in the time it took to write El’s book. I opted for quality, while trying to accommodate the differing levels of experience of readers by offering a mix of articles. This is where it becomes hard to resolve the contradiction (in my mind, at least) between thought leadership, the long tail, and the cult of the amateur [4]. Perhaps I’ll return to that one in a future article…

There is a misconception that being linked to from one of the flagship WoW community sites like WoW Insider or MMO Champion causes a “slashdot effect” – a dramatic increase in traffic the day the link is posted.

It doesn’t.

At the end of October I wrote a detailed article about fishing changes in patch 2.3. I tagged a link onto the bottom of a forum thread at World of Raids, made it to their front page the next day, and then bounced round most of the WoW community news sites (and a few podcasts and blogs) over the next week [5]. The total number of visitors spiked at 10,000 per day on two occasions, which was only just over double the prevailing traffic at the time.

Articles like that on patch 2.3 are of fleeting interest, and within a month hardly anyone was reading about it. They don’t create many additional page views. But they are excellent “loss leaders”: People will follow the link it, mentally log the fact that they’ve found a website about fishing, and a few weeks later when they actually want some information about fishing, they’ll come back and read other parts of the site.

Continue reading part II of El’s Extreme Anglin’ 2007 Retrospective

Notes

  1. The Tabula Rasa website used to contain the following quote by Richard Garriott: “I was struck in the early Ultima Online days by how many people were engaged in the profession of fishing, despite the fact that the simulation was a mere 50/50 dice roll with each use of the fishing pole.”
  2. Although most of these transpire to be either a re-hash of Highlander’s Cooking and Fishing levelling guide, a doorway for a gold seller, an affiliate link farm, or all of the above.
  3. Google’s pioneering search technology, Page Rank, effectively ranks content based on how widely it is linked to on the internet. Before Search Engine Optimisation became mainstream, links between web pages were generally a measure of how much real people rated the content on the linked site. Today the approach fails outside of mainstream popular culture, because links can be purchased or spammed (popular culture is immune only because the cost of spamming your way to the top becomes prohibitive). If the actual person placing the link could be traced, and their level of knowledge of the subject assessed, we would recreate the matrix created by thought leadership automatically. Currently, only us humans can make that judgement, and probably only the more discerning of us: Do we trust the author of the link as an expert in this field or not? I find myself disagreeing with Larry Page, when he said that, “The ultimate search engine would understand everything in the world.” The ultimate search engine does not need to understand anything. It merely needs to know who to trust.
  4. What contradiction?
    • Thought leadership demands quality…
    • Yet the long tail tells us that the more choice we offer, the more we will “sell” overall…
    • While the cult of the amateur implies that the lowest common denominator will eclipse everything else.
  5. Competition for “news” between WoW websites is intense. Many increasingly appear so desperate for content (my opinion) that they will post almost anything even remotely newsworthy. And the moment one site has covered it, the others follow.

Appendix: Timeline

  • January 2007: Launch of The Burning Crusade expansion, including plenty of new fish. Over the next three months, traffic almost doubles, as players reach 70 and start fishing: Not least for the famous, but hard to catch, Mr. Pinchy. I had painstaking documented how to catch Pinchy a few months before during beta testing.
  • April 2007: Fish Finder added to El’s Extreme Anglin’ – a database of fish. Information is presented differently to other WoW databases. The Fish Finder grew in popularity over the year to become the most popular section of the site by December.
  • May 2007: Blizzard comes under pressure to make +30 stamina buff easier to find, but pulls back from introducing a vendor-based alternative to cooked Furious Crawdad in patch 2.1. The process of fishing became faster, and Highland Mixed Schools were subtly tweaked to improve yield.
  • June 2007: El’s Extreme Anglin’ runs its first reader poll: Did patch 2.1’s changes made fishing more enjoyable? A resounding yes!
  • July 2007: Advertising appears on El’s Extreme Anglin’ for the first time, all affiliate-based.
  • November 2007: Patch 2.3 adds a few extra fish and a pool-tracking ability, and accidentally forces cooks to use fish (rather than meat) to level above skill 275. Interest in fishing increases to an all-time high. However, daily cooking quests gradually start to erode the value of many valuable fish at the auction house.
  • End of 2007 (31 December/1 January): El’s Extreme Anglin’ moves to a new dedicated domain, elsanglin.com.

Thoughts on a Socio-Economic Environment based on Nothing

One of the first economists to seriously examine virtual worlds (Edward Castronova) makes the observation that scarcity is fundamental to the environments that thrive. Utopia is boring. That’s a common theme of a lot of subsequent academic studies: The underlying patterns of human behaviour and motivation don’t fundamentally change from the physical to the virtual.

We have to “exist” in the real world (“eat, drink, breath”). We are highly likely to continue to “live” in it too (that is, perform social/economic/spiritual functions, in addition to biological existence). But it is not necessary to rely on it quite as much as we do now. Critically, living in virtual environments opens up some avenues for society’s development that may otherwise close.

Start at the “peak oil“-type resource analysis. The idea that up to this point, western culture (in particular) has assumed increasingly easy extraction of resources, but from this point forward will have to start dealing with the implications of increasingly hard extraction of resources. It follows that any “standard of living” (social status, economic income, etc) that is based on rampant consumerism and resource use, is likely to become highly unstable.

The fact that telecommunications and computerised technology is generally much more resource efficient than physical networks and products is almost a secondary consideration. The most interesting thing for me, is the creation of a sustainable socio-economic environment largely based on nothing.

That statement sounds like nonsense. But it has already mostly happened in highly developed western economies. Some examples:

  • The majority of a city like Edinburgh’s economy is tertiary (service sector). A significant proportion of that economy is knowledge-orientated (finance, research), where people never need deal with a physical product. Ever. Their work is often defined by their minds and their interaction with other minds.
  • The British “High Street” retail trade doesn’t really sell products, it sells “the experience of shopping”. In a broad economic sense, the actual sale of the products isn’t what makes most shops profit. Rationally, if they were only selling products, those products would be far cheaper.
  • Of a typical physical product made in somewhere like China, the minority of the cost is resource and manufacture. Much of the cost is in areas like the intellectual property rights of product designers, who typically live in the west.

So the most advanced types of work (which are also the ones generating a disproportionate amount of wealth), and the crude capitalist motivations of most western societies (the accumulation of stuff we don’t need) are already mostly based on “nothing”. It isn’t such a quantum leap to move those processes into a virtual environment.

We will never leave behind the physical world. But consider that once almost everyone in western society worked in agriculture, and now a tiny proportion do. There has always been a logical progression of society’s development which have led to progressively fewer people working in older sectors of the economy. This may simply be the next iteration. We are unlikely to understand it any better than an 18th century agricultural worker being shown a steam engine. As Charlie Stross’s Unpacking the Zeitgeist demonstrates, the present would be hard for us to have understood 30 year ago. Indeed, his description of the present is still a mystery to most of those living now.

But “our” children seem to embrace it. Many of the kid’s virtual worlds (such as Gaia Online) allow their young customers to buy virtual collectables using real money – these items don’t physical exist, but still represent something “of value”. These are not geeky male niches. Barbie Girls gained 3 million online users in its first two months – which from a discrete market of US teenage girls, probably numbering less than 20 million in total, is impressive.

There is still a big gap between making trivially small payments for virtual goods on glorified online social gaming/networking platforms, and the integration of these concepts into mainstream society and economy. However, these children are now developing some of their life skills in these virtual environments. Perhaps they will naturally accept what we will struggle to comprehend?

This topic evidently requires a lot more research and consideration. I’ve posted it here as a record of my current thinking only.