June 2010

Social Anonymity

Thanks to the miracle of RSS aggregators, I occasionally read Prokofy Neva’s blog. Part of it is because I still log into Second Life on occasion (if nothing else, it’s an online world entirely unlike my day job) and he is one of the few commentators on that. Part of it is because it’s just randomly fulfilling to see exactly how ad-hominem someone can go in one’s undying hatred for the net.intelligentsia that Prokofy roundly loathes. And occasionally, part of it is because he gets something right.

Like today, in the midst of yet another flamewar with another well-known SL blogger, Prokofy writes:

Of course, despite the always-on, always-share, Exposed Me quality of social media, we’re not supposed to ask what is behind what already seems like a deep exposure. We don’t Need to Know whether someone is 20 pounds less or ate burritos or clumps of spinach for lunch, but we’re told this Too Much Information and then…we’re supposed to shut up.

This is what I mean by social media as being such a burning lie — such a subterfuge even as it discloses and exposes.

In real life, your very close friends who would tell just you — and not the entire world — that they were losing weight because their doctor warned them of a heart attack or because they needed a new girlfriend. That is, their valiant acts would come bundled with other relavant just-for-you news.

In social media fake life. somebody broadcasts their diets all day and their health eating and you feel like you’re getting bulletins from Susan Powter and Richard, the sweating to the oldies guy, but you aren’t hearing what’s *really* up. And you don’t dare comment or ask, except in a superficial way, because then you’re rude, etc.

Social media like Second Life (which I clump together with this phenomenon, although they’re different) also creates such fake and false friends. You think someone you’ve talked to nearly every day pleasantly, with understanding, with solidarity, with shared insights, with cameraderie is your “friend,” but they aren’t really. Of course you don’t know them and can’t see their *real* setting.

Whis is true. We post things daily, hourly, minute-by-minute about our lives, not to reveal things about ourselves, but to throw out chaff so that the radar of other people can’t lock on to us. I dare say that most of you know very little about *me*, the person, because I don’t care to reveal much beyond the public persona. If you’ve friended me on Facebook you may know a bit more. If you know me in RL you may know a bit more still.

I’m pretty sure the count of people who know I’m trying to lose weight right now, and why, number at about 3.

And I don’t think the Internet, or social media, or any other buzzword, harbors responsibility for this essential alienation. I think our culture in general teaches us that we keep our enemies far and our friends farther. We don’t know our neighbors. (I’ve spoken to mine only a few times; when the police came by to inform us that one was a fugitive and asked if we had any information on him we could only shrug eloquently) We fear revealing too much online, entirely correctly, and then reveal entirely inappropriately too much at random moments (such as myself, one paragraph above this one) that, because of the shock of the reveal, is ignored and perhaps filed away to solve later, like some sort of mystery.

And tales of the sordid everyday lives of others are some of the most popular entertainment that we have. It’s not that we don’t want that connection, it’s just that we don’t particularly know what to do with it when we have it. And this is also why we flock to online worlds, for at least some of us – because it gives us very low-impact and low-danger social connections; communication outside of ourselves and our little packets of worlds.

And which is why ‘guild drama’ are some of the most compelling stories from online worlds – because we want the soap opera. We want that participation in the lives of others, even when – especially when – it all goes sour. Because it’s something outside of ourselves.

Or we could just go outside and meet other people and talk to them about things. But that’s overrated. I mean, it’s HOT out there this time of year.

You Got Your Facebook In My Orc Game

Blizzard rolled out a social network yesterday. Really! Here’s the overview:

– Ability to make initial friend connections through exchanging email addresses. This exists entirely independently of WoW; your friend displays online as their real name, and shows what server and character they are on. – Ability to make subsequent friend connections through browsing the friend lists of users on your own friend list and sending requests. – Ability to set your “What am I doing?” status.

That’s it.

Notice anything missing? You should.

The below assumes that this feature will become popular. Which, in fact, I suspect it will. There has been some thought put into the interface and chat features of this system – in fact, far more thought than has been put into World of Warcraft’s own friends list and chat system. And friends and chat are why people play MMOs. So, assuming everyone gloms onto this as the new default standard for friends listings within the community and it doesn’t, say, wither and die like “meeting stones” – consider these points.

– A minor point to most – Blizzard has abdicated from enforcing any sort of cross-team chat protection. There’s nothing protecting you from hopping on an alternate-side alt and doing your bit as a realm spy. Of course realistically, nothing prevented you from doing the same with an IM program. But this is different in that it goes counter to systems that are already in place. Why bother scrambling cross-team chat if you’re going to enable it in a different interface? It sends a mixed message, or more accurately the message that Blizzard forgot they were doing this in the first place.

– With this feature, Blizzard essentially disengages the player from the avatar. Now, World of Warcraft is only very, very peripherally a role-playing game in the sense that your character may or may not be human and may or may not cast spells at mobile bags of improvement called “monsters”. However, to this point, players have had the ability to be anonymous. That is gone. You see, the “RealID” system is keyed automatically – and unchangeably – to the name listed in Blizzard’s billing system as the owner of your account. If I wanted to be known as “Lum the Mad” – which, in every MMO to date, I have had that option to do – to protect myself from people who, just as a random casual aside, may have an unkind word or two to say to the real person behind the author of many of these blog postings – I would either have to change my name in Blizzard’s accounting system (which I’m not even sure is *possible*) or simply shrug and say, oh what the hell, it’s not like there are unstable people out there on the Internet! I mean, it’s not like I’m female or anything.

– There are no opt-outs in this system. There is no privacy protection within this system. There is no option for me to turn off the ability of my friends to browse my friends list. This system, in other words, is even more draconian about its enforced disdain for privacy issues than Facebook’s. When you make Facebook look like a paragon of privacy defense, there may be an issue or two. You can’t even opt out from the system itself. To quote Blizzard’s FAQ on the subject:

To stop using Real ID, simply remove all of your Real ID friends from your friends list, and do not accept any more Real ID friend requests.

That’s right, the opt out is to simply, you know, ignore any request you get! Also, if you’d like to opt out of our marketing list, just don’t read all the marketing we send you.

Why would Blizzard launch a social network with no privacy protection and no opt-out features whatsoever? Because they think people who are concerned about privacy are stupid and worth laughing at. And because in Activision’s august halls, someone looked at World of Warcraft’s millions of subscribers and Facebook’s billions of advertising revenue and said “Hmmm.” And no one thought any of this through.


One Does Not Simply Purchase A Subscription To Mordor

Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online announces plans to go free-to-play this fall.

Today is an important day for LOTRO: we’ve announced that this fall, LOTRO will begin offering a Free-to-Play option! Players will be able to download the game and adventure in Middle-earth for free. With Free-to-Play comes the addition of the LOTRO Store, where players will have immediate in-game access to a wide variety of special items, account services, and convenience items.

Cue message board posts from pundits decrying the doom of the subscription MMO, message board posts from current LOTRO players ‘anticipating’ the flood of new players demanding milk in the Shire, and the head scratching from industry analysts wondering how this relates to the recent Warner Brothers buyout.

As for my take, it seems fairly simple. LOTRO is a game which, while fairly new (about 3 years old), is not likely to generate new subscribers. In addition, a not-insignificant amount of players are lifetime subscribers, whom Turbine will not see any more money from pending a boxed expansion. (Lifetime subscriptions in general are not a good idea for game companies – it’s the classic appeal for short term cash in place of long term income, appealing precisely to the hard core players who are likely to keep a subscription in play over years). Going free-to-play not only brings a new wave of players in who would not have considered a pay-to-play model (see: Dungeons and Dragons Online, Funcom’s experience with Anarchy Online) but also opens the way for cash shop gear that will appeal to all players – including the already-paid-for lifetime subscribers.

The key questions here are two. The first: Is transitioning to a F2P model sufficient to match the revenue that LOTRO’s not insignificant (300k or so?) number of subscribers were still generating? One suspects that DDO’s experience answered that question affirmatively, given Turbine’s now going effectively all-in (minus the venerable and lightly populated Asheron’s Call). The second, which is impossible to answer – does placing all of the company’s bets on F2P ensure enough income to fund future projects for the studio? Or is Turbine relying on cash infusions from their new mothership for that?

We do still live in interesting times.