Nothing is more inspiring than the idea that anything is possible. This open-endedness is what makes the Future beautiful; its inherent uncertainty mixed with perfection - a screen on which to project our dreams. Often these dreams get dashed on the rocks of reality; but not always. The hope that someday, maybe, these wishes will come true, is universal. This post will look at the ways online environments are affecting how we construct our identities and tell stories.
We called it "What If We Saved a Chimp from the Medical School and Let it Hang Out with Us?" It was brilliant - over time it took on a life of it's own. What if we dressed the chimp in really hip clothes and let it develop a taste for good beer? What if we taught it drive? Soon we began telling girls at parties that we'd actually done this and that the chimp was at the party with us. "Don't say anything" we'd tell them. "He's kind of self-conscious and flies into a rage if he thinks you're looking at him funny".
This story may seem like a bizarre sideline but I tell it because the game "What If" has stuck with me for years. Over time, I've realized the game’s significance is related to the essence of stories.
Why do we tell stories? There are tomes written on the subject, so I'll stick to my simple opinion. I think we do it to "make meaning" - to place ourselves within the larger context of society, of history and the world around us. The fine-grained answers to the question inform Western Literature, Social Sciences and Philosophy. Joseph Campbell has explored this in the context of Mythology and Heroes, Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, Jung in terms of Archetypes, and countless others through thousands of lenses.
I think something lies at the heart of the “What If” game that goes beyond just stories or wondering about the future. The word that comes closest to describing it is Imagination. Imagination is the process of suspending disbelief and throwing away the constraints of reality. It’s the magic that happens when we lose ourselves in a movie or book. When we create. When we dream.
A critical part of the imaginative process involves an alteration of how we view ourselves. When disbelief is suspended, we buy into the notion that anything is possible and we do so in a way that is incredibly personal. In other words, during a beautiful movie, one “disappears”, almost forgetting that “you” exist in the here and now. The same occurs during role-playing games.
Because these are “fictional” examples, it seems natural that we imagine the fantastical. For me, the more magical experience occurs when the notion of “what if” is applied to our real lives. Whenever I think about this junction between the virtual world and the real world, I remember a meeting I had with Sean Parker in 2007.
I had left Second Life 12 months earlier and started a company called Millions of Us which built virtual worlds for a variety of real world companies. Our clients were both brands and entertainment companies. This was before Zynga had started and therefore the idea that mainstream audiences would spend billions of dollars on virtual goods was still a very far-fetched notion. But we knew that early adopters were spending heavily in Second Life (and in more mainstream social networks in Asia) so we asked, if these worlds are about creating identity, won’t users aspirations in them mimic the real world? It made sense that if real people want to emulate rock stars and valued Prada, they’d do so virtually as well. It made sense, so we set out to start a company (it’s called Virtual Greats but that’s a different story).
In the process of fundraising, I was introduced to Sean Parker - tech world wunderkind/ savant/ enfant terrible. Co-founder of Napster, Plaxo and former President of Facebook. When I met him, he was still in his twenties and running the Founders Fund with Peter Thiel. Anyway, I arrived at the office and waited for about an hour and a half while he finished up his previous meeting (I think this is called “Sean time”) When we finally sat down, I pitched him the concept.
We talked for about 2 hours, covering subjects from religion to the Enlightenment to economics. I remember thinking that he was very smart. He also passed on the investment and his logic was interesting. What he said was that Second Life was “interesting” but Real Life is infinitely more interesting. At the time, I thought that I’d say the same thing if I owned 10% of Facebook. In retrospect, he was both right and wrong as is usually the case with anything interesting.
I’ve been asked hundreds of times what people are doing on Second Life; in fact for several years I made a living answering the question. My approach was to demystify it, to say that exploring different parts of one’s identity is a natural, healthy and age old process (This is also a subject for another post)
But here it’s interesting to wonder what are people "doing" on Facebook? One way of looking at it is that they're constructing Second Lives. sure they're not living out alternate identities but they are creating a mask to show the world and experimenting with changing it. Every post is a new installment in the story, every choice of what to share, which photos to show, what profile picture to use.
This is actually more profound - the persona we create is an identity that we constantly groom - a character we manipulate. it matters more to us than anything - how we're viewed and perceived within the larger social drama of life. the brands we buy, the friends we associate with, the houses we live in.
This logic obviously has philosophical elements to it. But I'd take it a step further - it is, perhaps an indicator of the largest untapped opportunity in online commerce today -- truly understanding the nuances of the social graph, twitter firehouse and taste graph to get an accurate picture of what's (Google) is going on when (Twitter), to whom (Twitter and Facebook) and Where (Foursquare and all of the preceding)
This is of course a vague observation (in other words, more philosophical than pragmatic. And that's OK for me. There are many companies forming around it - some analyzing social influence (Klout et. al) , others like Pose building apps that allow people to photograph, bookmark and share styles they love in the real world.
"What If" is really the interesting point for me. We all have a first self, the regular person that we think of as "myself". Then we have our "Second Self" - the person we wish we were. This person lives in some strange dimension between the ordinary and the fantastical. Most importantly, our Second Self exists in the aspiration future of "What If" and we go to great lengths to make it real and tell people about it through our styles, musical tastes and preferences.
Somewhere between commercialism and art, there lies beautiful answer to the question "What If"?. The key is asking the question. So what's your "personal "What If"? And do you have what it takes to explore it, tear it apart, connect the dots and write the story of your life?