Wednesday, April 30, 2008

MMO Gaming: (Not So) Wasted Time

In my last post, I highlighted what the terms Social Media and Web 2.0 really refer to, as well as some mild predictions of what is to be produced by this new means of media consumption. (I promise that the next time I am compelled to write a treatise of this length, I'll bust it up into smaller posts.)

I ran across this link on LifeHacker, talking about where the time to be a participant in this new media will come from. This is a question I've faced many times from people . "Where do you get the time to read everything you do?" or "How can you spend all that time playing MMO games?".

Clay Shirky does a much better job detailing it than I could here.

His presentation also touches on many of the nuances of what Social Media is, so it's worth checking out, as is his book _Here Comes Everybody_.

So did I waste all this time on building and selling blasters in Star Wars Galaxies, or raiding dungeons in World of Warcraft? Not entirely. Here's some of the valuable business lessons I've learned spending my leisure time in online games:

Gently Dominate
Being the early adopter amongst my peer group, I frequently found myself in leadership roles in most of the MMOs I've played. By sheer virtue of greater exposure, I was looked to to provide expertise for newer players. But the adventuring party is a fickle beast, and leading a group of friends can cause tension. Arguments over what characters to play, who to invite to the group, who should get what loot, and simply managing playtime and coordinating an attack strategy based on the strengths of players and their characters can cause serious social trauma. I learned that having strong knowledge and producing results consistently over time lend to your credibility in leadership and decision-making roles. People are willing to submit themselves to your decisions if they know that you can produce rewards for them over time. Pick your fights, and know which decisions to let slide for the sake of the group's happiness. "Sure, I'll bring my mage instead of my paladin if you want to tank."

Know Your Role (Right Now)
The converse of Gently Dominating, is to know when to shut up and follow someone else's orders. (How do you think I got all that knowledge in the first place? I tagged along with those who knew better than me.) However, just because you're good at something doesn't mean you should be a one-trick pony. Learn to be flexible, and do what the team needs you do do *right now*. My favorite class in Warcraft was the Paladin. Paladins are built to take a tremendous amount of abuse through a combination of 1) sporting some serious armor, 2) being naturally as tough as nails, and 3) the ability to heal themselves and others. Paladins, hoever, aren't particularly skilled at dishing out the pain. Most of the time, this meant my job was standing in front of the Nasty Thing and drawing it's attention while those better suited to putting the hurt on it dealt damage from safety. Sometimes battles don't go as planned (usually when there's more than one Nasty Thing and it just killed your priest), and you have to know when to stop dancing with a bad guy and start healing your friends. The ability to switch roles in a team at a critical moment can mean the difference between success and failure. And you better have the goods to perform more than your traditional role.

Message Boards are better than Surveys
One of the things I learned from Star Wars Galaxies wasn't even while playing the game. MMOs have extensive community involvement by their very nature. To be certain, much of this involvement occurs inside of the game. However, a great deal of it is played out on the forums and message boards. MMOs make frequent changes, adding new content, fixing bugs, and balacing gameplay. Many of these changes are welcome, many are controversial. The player community hashes out these issues and airs their grievances on the game's message boards. Posts range from "Thank you!", to carfeully constructed ideas on where the game developers should concentrate next, to hate-filled ranting against the developers or other players. Message boards are not pretty. They are not controlled (much) by the developers. But getting constant feed back from the customer in direct conversation with the company (through PR representatives on the forums) or by watching the commentary between players, tells the developers what they've done right, what they've done wrong, and what the community wants to see more of. This kind of interaction is essential to the MMO, and in the future it's going to be essential to all corporations. Listen to your customers, give them more of what they want, ditch whatever isn't working, and keep the customer informed about what you're doing and why throughout the process. In this way, you don't just build a consumer, you build a member of your customer community, making them advocates who can take their message out to their friends and the market.

Focus On The Core Competency
The MMOs that have flopped have mostly tried to do too many things, attempting to please all of the people all of the time. One of the strongest features emerging from Social Media is the room to thrive in service to a niche market. Whatever your endeavor, focus on what you deliver best to the customer, and get other people to do what they're best at in service to your ancillary needs. In the early days of Star Wars Galaxies, there was a thriving economy. My character made guns for all the happy spacefaring adventurers who wanted to run around and blow things up. (A task I was particularly unsuited for). In fact, I spent so much time building weapons, what I wasn't particularly good at moving the products themselves. Luckily, a friend of mine, due to their class as an Entertainer, spent all their time in front of large groups of people gathering in cities. I stopped trying to peddle my weapons, and instead offloaded them straight to him at wholesale price. I didn't have to manage a supply chain, I took his orders from halfway across the galaxy and delivered to him in bulk to offload to the customer base. I went on to cultivate similar relationships with many others in the same vein. My goods had become so widespread that retail customers started coming straight to me with their orders. I stuck with what I was good at (manufacturing weapons), and my network of entertainers stuck to what they were good at (interacting with people during non-combat time, and peddling my wares for a profit to themselves).

These are just some of the lessons I learned from my gaming experiences on the Internet. Now it's off to waste some time, playing games and learning more lessons.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

On Social Media: What is Web 2.0, and What Does It Mean?

I dislike industry buzzwords, and how quickly they get usurped by those who don't fully comprehend them. "Web 2.0" is a buzzword that has been being tossed around ever since O'Reilly and MediaLive International coined the term to isolate who survived the bursting of the dot-com bubble and why. Yet most people are still unclear on the concept, at best. "Web 2.0" doesn't refer to a platform, a particular set of tools, a programming interface, or even really a design methodology. It is an emergent effect, flowing naturally from the how the Internet works. It's only coming to light recently because, with the dot-com bust, we've separated the wheat from the chaff. As the speed of networks rise and the price of storage falls, the emergent behaviors are simply more evident than they were a decade ago. Universal Mccann International refers to this emergent trend with a better distinction, "Social Media", and defines it as "Online applications, platforms and media which aim to facilitate interaction, collaboration and the sharing of content." See Universal Mcann International slideshow here.

"Web 2.0" is the concept surrounding what the Internet has always been at its core: cheap, fast and sturdy communication leads to collaboration and connection. This collaboration, in turn, leads to ideological community. These communities band together and produce amazing things, akin to the old-fashioned phenomenon of barn-raising. This process has been a potent force on the Internet since its inception. (One of the first "barns" to be raised on the Internet was the Linux operating system, delveloped through collaboration of various Open Source communities). But it's only now emerging on the World Wide Web. This emergent behavior, identified in general by the terms "Web 2.0" and "Social Media", is simply the World Wide Web catching up to the Internet.

---Web 1.0---
Once upon a time, the World Wide Web was just a particular protocol riding on the Internet. It grew to dominate the Internet, so much so, that today "The Web" and "The Internet" are practically synonomous terms. How did this happen? First, the Web itself was user friendly. You didn't have to participate in it, you could simply consume it. This is the crux of Web 1.0. Participation in the web was largely passive. Its content quickly became "top-down" like traditional media, as the platform it rode on became vastly more accessible to "consumers". (The cost of connecting home PCs to the Internet got cheaper. Service providers like AOL could bring the web to your desktop, and the TCP/IP stack was brought from the college UNIX systems to Windows and MacOS users at home for the first time.) Thus, with the demand for consumption of Web content coupled with the cheap delivery of it into the home, to most users there was no functional difference between "The Web" and "The Internet". The Web was the window (pun intended) through which most people saw everything they knew the Internet to be. But people were largely still consumers of the Web's content, not participants in the Internet.

---Web 2.0---
As the base of web consumers expanded, so did web producers, largely in the form of organizations and corporations that were seeking to further their brand in this new media. However, technology and technique advanced on the web to take advantage of the untapped avenue for two-way communication. The Active Participant, ("Active Participant" is the terminology I prefer, as it embodies the individual that both produces and consumes web content) who started with a simple personal webpage found herself with newer modes of interaction. Blogging sites like LiveJournal started to promote social networking. Facebook and MySpace distilled it down and moved social communication, photo sharing, and music to the center, and pushed blog commentary to the peripheral. Sites like allowed us to bypass the middle-ground entirely and feed internet content to our friends without the need for visiting a middle ground. Speaking of "feeding", RSS feeds allow us to aggregate our content and bypass the form (or branding) of that content, making it ever easier to keep up on the news and commentary we want, be it from the New York Times, or the blog of my old college roommates (who frequently write better than the Times).

"Old Media" provided 4 essential functions:
  • Some form of centralization to build or aggregate the information
  • A means to distribute the information (which was neither cheap nor easy)
  • Authorities to edit the content to give it context
  • Authorities to inventory and catalogue the content to separate the "noise" from the "signal".

    So how do we achieve all of these functions with Social Media?

    The production and distribution of content should be pretty self-explanatory, this is what Web 1.0 brought us. Editorial contextualizing is being brought about by the blogosphere, and the choices we make regarding which RSS feeds to subscribe to, who to add to our friends lists on social networking sites, and which blogs we visit regularly. Finally, the inventory and cataloging has been replaced with tagging and searching. Again, thanks to advances in hardware and software, we can search massive amounts of information. This is Google's core competency. But beyond this is that we no longer have to pay people to index, catalogue or identify this content. We're doing it for each other. Next time you have a hard time nailing a subject down with a google search, try You may be surprised at what millions of the web's Active Participants can do. Here's a wonderful video by Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University that sums up Social Media quite nicely.

    ---What does it all mean?---

    So what practical effect will this new conceptual framework have on our society? I would argue that it is profound. We're only at the very tip of the iceberg in terms of the changes this will render on our world. I'm not one for hyperbole, but I would argue that the mature Internet (by way of Social Media finally coming into it's own on the Web) rivals the printing press in its revolutionary utility. It will change the way we organize, learn, vote, consume, volunteer, work, play, and act.

    It will change how we act as consumers. Web 1.0 allowed us far greater freedom in the goods we could purchase, and the ease with which we could acquire them. It allowed producers of niche goods and services to reach markets big enough to sustain themselves. The best example of this has been used book stores. While has been horrible to brick-and-mortar sellers like Borders and Barnes & Noble (who have had to pepper their stores with coffee shops and sell their customers an "experience"), it has been a tremendous benefit to used book sellers who can connect their inventory with Amazon in real time, allowing internet customers around the world access to their rare out-of-print books that may not have a market locally.

    If Web 1.0 changed how we buy, Web 2.0 changes how we decide what to buy. If you tag any website with the label "wishlist", and your friends can see what to buy you for your next birthday (If you care to contribute to my happiness and well-being, you can find mine here ). To see if I really want that next Jim Butcher book, I can check out the reviews on Amazon's page before I buy it, or I can see the reviews in the iRead widget on my Facebook page to see what other readers are saying about it. Moreover, iRead may suggest books I would like by comparing my book-ratings and my library with libraries similar to mine.

    Sites like Angie's List can help me find reviews written by other people about their experiences with everything from plumbers to mechanics. And Craig's List may help me determine if I need to buy anything at all, if someone out there is looking to get rid of something I've been needing for only the cost of hauling it away. With all of these choices, combined with the thoughful participation of fellow consumers, businesses will have to learn how to navigate and participate in Social Media. Again, I quote Universal Mcann International's report on Social Media:

    All companies and brands should consider employing them to create open and honest dialogue. Any blog that spins he truth will be found out. In a world of social media, honesty is the only policy. The future of marketing is about acting how you want to be perceived instead of talking about it.

    Social Media has already changed the way we organize, work, and volunteer. The Open Source Software movement is the earliest and finest example of how many hands make light work, producing stable operating systems and applications for free, simply by having the tools to collaborate easily on such projects, and the desire to volunteer some small amount of time, effort, and brainpower to them. Though the Open Source people are the natural earliest adopters of this methodology, we're starting to see its use in all sorts of community organization, from relief efforts to political campaigns. Speaking of which...

    Social Media will also change how we act as citizens. Old Media allowed political campaigns to craft thier brand as well as any corporation. In simpler terms, money on advertising in traditional media outlets could put the proper message forward, polished to a high-sheen, and tailored for consumption by the target demographic. Beyond simple advertising was the implicit trade-in-favor of newsmedia, which due to it's role in editorial control and distribution, would trade a certain level of compliance in order to gain access to candidates.

    Social Media is just now starting to short circuit this. The first stirrings were 4 years ago, when Howard Dean managed to raise boatloads of cash on the Web. But boatloads of cash isn't going to drive the campaign of the future, Active Participants will. (See my post, The Campaign of the Future.) Active Participants aren't just going to promote their candidates and platforms blindy, however. Barack Obama found this out the hard way when talking at a San Francisco fundraiser a few weeks ago with his now infamous "Guns And Religion" comment. That fundraiser had no traditional reporters in attendance, and if they were, they surely wouldn't have risked future access to Obama's campaign by offering up the information that Mayhill Fowler did, breaking the story. If you think I'm exagerrating the news media's compliance with campaign wishes, Jay Rosen's article here may change your mind. In it, he sums up what Social Media means to political campaigns quite succinctly:

    Before she was airbrushed out by Tim Russert and changed into a leaker by Jay-Newton Small, Mayhill Fowler was an Obama supporter who sometimes found it necessary to be a critic of the campaign. She is also a citizen journalist with a platform: OffTheBus, which resides at the Huffington Post. Now if the term "citizen journalist" drives you nuts, or gets you up on your high horse, then call her a writer with a page on the Web that can reach the rest of the news system. The point is Fowler is a particular kind of Obama loyalist, a particular kind of contributor to his campaign. The kind with a notebook, a tape recorder, friends in the campaign, a public platform of decent size, plus the faculty of critical intelligence. The campaign doesn't know what it thinks about such people.
    The category into which she fits is not an existing one in journalism, which generally forbids contributions to candidates and open expressions of support. It is not a familiar category among donors, either: Citizen journalist for a pro-am site who may or may not publish something if you invite her?

    You say "Citizen Journalist", I say "Active Participant". Regardless, it's the way that campaigns will work in the future, so we better get used to dealing with the foibles and missteps of imperfect candidates, and they had better learn that they no longer have complete control over information. This will be a Democracy practiced in a more perfect form, with transparency on the part of governments and campaigns, and a deeper understanding on the part of the constituency, including tolerance of the ugly bits that we're going to have to recognize and put into context once we are no longer accustomed to having information pre-scrubbed for our palatability.

    In the world of Social Media, actions speak louder than words, for both the Consumer and the Citizen. The technology, access, and tools are in place for the general population to create, edit, distribute, and catalogue all media. And in this new world the phrase, "The Truth Will Out" has never held so true. We'll have to be more honest with ourselves and each other, and more nuanced in our understanding of our world. Talking points, soundbites, corporate slogans, and product taglines all become meaningless when the conversation is a two-way street and widespread for the the first time in human history.
  • Friday, April 4, 2008

    Phoenician ASCII

    All communication, since the dawn of language, starts as synchronous communication, and tends towards the asynchronous. Oral histories disappear from cultures once writing and literacy is common enough to allow it. Orders delivered though synchronous communication (verbal conversation) can run a tribe but not an empire. Voicemail, e-mail, and text messages replace phone calls and face-to-face meetings. Having to be in the same place at the same time, let's face it, is inconvenient.

    Some 3500 years ago, in one of the great and shining moments of human achievement (cue the monolith from 2001), the Phoenicians reprogrammed the human mind.

    In the beginning, distinct sounds represented distinct thoughts. Words were the fundamental atomic nature of communication. I say "horse", and the idea of the equine quadruped pops into your head. (Computer scientists still honor this tradition when talking about PC architecture. The smallest chunk of memory that can be addressed is referred to as a "word". This is what "32-bit" refers to--a PC with 32-bit architecture can't address pieces of memory smaller than 32-bits in length). As language became more complex, so did the words. The first forms of asynchronous communication to develop all over the world were pictographic in nature. Just like spoken language, a visual symbol is a placeholder for an idea. Simple ideas were simple pictograms, and simple words. Complex ideas became combinations of pictograms or words. If a language had a massive vocabulary, it also had, by necessity, a massive collection of pictograms to represent it. This is the state that the Egyptian heiroglyphics are in at the height of their civilization. Writing was an absolute necessity to govern an empire so large, but the writing was so complex, that only very few were truly literate, and only those that held power.

    The Phoenicians were a maritime trading culture--merchants that traded all along the Mediterranean Sea. Asynchronous communication was even more essential to a seafaring populace, where geography and slow travel makes synchronous communication nearly impossible. Wouldn't it be amazing if we could be witness to the moment in history when it dawned on that first Phoenician thinker that the number of possible sounds made to form language was far more finite than the number of distinct words that form the vocabulary of that language? That with just a few dozen symbols, every "word" in thier language could be constructed in an easy to remeber visual shorthand? What an incredible shift in thinking! That conceptual leap, from direct symbolic representation, to another layer of abstraction is nothing short of miraculous-- translating the "idea" into the "word", then into component simple sounds! (The Phoenicians, of course, is what gives us the term "Phonetic", if that wasn't obvious by now).

    The human mind is good at internalizing a vast vocabulary by binding sound to ideas. Our brains are wired for it. So that first moment of genius, where the sounds themselves were broken up into simpler building blocks was akin to the splitting of the conceptual atom. The words "horse" and "house" sound similar to the ear, but evoke vastly different ideas in the human mind, but the sound that "h" makes doesn't evoke much of an idea at all. Who was the Phoenician mad man that first thought to build in that layer of abstraction, and encode distinct ideas ("words") into a compressed and easily transmitted format? I am humbled by the insight that that moment in human history must have taken.

    We have so altered the way that human consciousness works that the very idea of "words" being atomic to language seems alien to us. We can't help but think that letters make up words, and words make up ideas. But in reality, this isn't the case! Letters are wholly abstract, they are nothing more than an auditory shorthand that carries no meaning in-and-of-itself. Letters, as an idea, rest on top of words, not beneath them. The irony of trying to convey this notion, while using a phonetic alphabet isn't lost on me.

    Further tunelling down the rabit-hole, think about this... Right now, the letters on this page were conveyed to you in *even yet another* layer of abstraction. It only takes 8 little on/off switches (bits) to map to a number between 0 and 255, and those numbers are mapped to our phonetic alphabet, each number producing a specific letter on your screen right now. This is what the ASCII code is. (Of course, you're probably reading this on a 32-bit computer, so each letter is wasting alot of memory space, because it takes only 8 bits to represent a letter, but your computer is using 32-bits to store each one since it can't address anything smaller that a 32-bit "word".

    A phonetic alphabet is the basis for the earliest compression algorithms, and this paradigm shift in human language and thought is nothing short of a monumental development in human evolution.