Smallworlds and related thoughts

Ive just been looking at Smallworlds and some of the ideas behind it.

Smallworlds is a virtual world environment that has just struck up a deal with Ning to allow Ning users to embed a Smallworlds interface into their Ning sites.

Smallworlds claims:
“1. SmallWorlds offers greater accessibility than download-based worlds
2. SmallWorlds offers a richer visual experience than web-based virtual worlds
3. SmallWorlds is really easy to use”

They describe their business model as “Virtual item sales, premium subscriptions, advertising & sponsorships.” I know, I got cross when I saw this in Habbo Hotel, and baiscally this is the same sort of thing, with VIP options (ie more choice fif you pay a subscription) and paid extras. But at least this allows the basic software to be available free.

It is hosted on Amazons Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and written by Outsmart in Auckland, using Adobe Flex and Flash and lots of capitalised Rich Internet Application.

At this stage its clunky (for example Ning seems to have lost all links to it, and Smallworlds takes a long time to load and to respond to mouse movements once you have loaded it It seems to freeze my PC while its loading, though that may just be because Im using an elderly PC. The white on blue type in the avatar set-up screens is almost impossible to read.)

One of the people behind it, Mitch Olsen, has a blog which talks about a:
“meta-trend of increasing real-ness…. in 4 ways;
1. Helping us connect to more meaningful content
Through technologies such as RSS, the tracking of attention data, the harnessing of collective intelligence, and improvements in search & matching algorithms, we are steadily improving our ability to lay our hands on more personally relevant information, plus participate in more rewarding online relationships. In short, we are improving the signal-to-noise ratio between ourselves and that which has meaning or value to us. This is helping us build more fact- & value-aligned versions of our areas of concern and interest….
2. Helping us participate in real-time shared experiences
One of the key facets of Web2.0 is the so-called participatory or read-write web – in short the shift from traditional authority-authored monologues to community-authored dialogues….IRC & Instant messaging are basic examples of synchronous communication which have been around for a long time, but to date have not made significant inroads into the basic underlying infrastructure of the web. In the next 12 months we can expect to see a growing number of web-based applications and services that provide a venue in which shared digitally-mediated experiences are synchronized in time…. The key point of the Synchronous Web is that it brings conversations into the same time-space, and in doing so not only imbues them with the more subtle aspects of what we take for granted in our real-world interactions, but also facilitates experiences that are not otherwise possible.
3. Helping us entertain ourselves
…helps us tap into more of our creative & immersive potential and in doing so you might say makes us feel more real to ourselves.
4. Helping us explore & express our identity
… the web is acting as a medium through which people are experimenting with the very fabric of their own identity…..While many see this trend as evidence of an unhealthy narcissism, I believe that it is an important stage of development as we experiment to learn more of who we are (& who we aren’t).
….Gradually more and more of the essential aspects of real-world representation is being encoded and digitized. The potential value these sub-trends bring individually, and even more so collectively, is to make for the creation of a more compelling Internet…. ”

He also talks about Web 2.0 involving 6 intersecting trends;
“The web as an application platform …. the web browser emerging as a favorite platform for hosting Virtual Worlds. …..existing web content starts to merge, integrate and influence Virtual Worlds and vice-versa.
“The Read Write Web… also known by the synonymous terms “The Participatory Web” and “User Generated Content” (UGC). …..To my mind the more interesting facet of UGC in the context of Virtual Worlds is how powerful but easy-to-use tools can be applied by users to creatively combine primitive elements to create higher-order creations.”
“Digital Self Expression (DSE)… sites like Myspace and Facebook….At the intersection of Virtual Worlds and DSE is a more richly textured canvas where the expression of identity has so much more room to breath.”
“Social affiliation… the sister of DSE in a world run rife with Social networks… to date, digital identity has almost exclusively been expressed as a singularity – ie. each person has only a single identity/avatar. Will this potentially expand in future Social Network constructs to recognize that most people have the desire to express at least a separate personal and professional persona?”
“Being online vs going online is the very essence of Virtual Worlds as the Internet and technology gradually digitize more and more of the dimensionality of our experience. The Synchronous Web, where people meet in real time and virtual space, is the heart of a Virtual World. In conjunction with always-on-connectivity via web and mobile technologies, presence, interaction and expression – no matter where you are – are becoming more and more universal and immersive in our daily lives”.
“The rise of casual gaming … not strictly a recognized element of Web 2.0 but it is none-the-less a very strong growth trend at present. Products like the extremely successful Nintendo Wii console, and the increasing recognition of the significant part that web-based casual games and game portals play in many many peoples lives are testimony that gaming is going mainstream. Who would have thought that women in their forties comprise the typical casual game player?”

I found this fascinating at first but when you look at the reality (if I may use that word in this context) behind it, it looks like Habbo Hotel all over again. More techincally impressive ways of doing the same limited subset of things over again. Lets have avatars, and sell clothing for them, and rooms, and little games and puzzles, and a chat room. Oh, and lets link to Twitter and Facebook and YouTube… If only someone would come up with something more interesting to do with all these (clunky) technologies. Its not only Smallworlds that clunks, either, see also (for example) comments Second life such as: ” the Second Life interface sucks…. the newbie orientation experience sucks… I still don’t understand how to set perms. The debug permissions settings are a mystery to me. I have no idea what the “V” stands for. Deeding land and deeding objects to groups baffles me. …It took me 4 weeks to learn how to fly above a few hundred meters. It took me 6 weeks to learn that you could disable camera constraints. …I have no idea how to use the camera settings, how to zoom, how to get my avatar to stand still if I’m trying to take a photo of myself…..” (etc etc!) Even Smallworlds, which claims it is “effortless and enjoyable, even for first-time users”, asks me to do a training mission when I create my avatar and first enter the site.

The thing is, though, that Olsen is basically right. It will change the way we use the web, and even the way we think and act. It just hasnt done so yet.

I havent mentioend Sherry Turkle for ages, but I see she has a new book out. I need another long flight somewhere so I can settle down and read this.

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