What Second Life taught me about metaphors, friendship and the future of digital societies
There comes a time in the growth of every online society when its citizens start to question the metaphor. In their world, words like “platform” mean nothing, they draw no distinction between code and content. They think of it as their place and what matters is the land.
On Medium, the land metaphor moment came last week amidst the news of a monster funding round and the prospect of corporate content. Many folks weighed in but it was Tim Boucher’s post “Is Medium Good Enough to Advertise On?” that caught my attention. Worried over content ownership and platform control, he countered Ev Williams’ long held belief that the future of the web won’t belong to what he calls “Islanders”. Tim wrote:
“If I can’t own the platform (and be my own island), I will always be at a disadvantage to those who do… I think the future does belong to us islanders. It always has and it always will — because it’s *our* future.”
Ev Williams replied with a vision of the metaphor of Medium, one that blended geography, authorship and commerce:
“Medium’s aim is to create a great digital city, where it’s more convenient to interact with other creators and thinkers, where there’s a large audience for all types of content, and where it’s easier for them to find you (and maybe even pay you).”
As far back as Geocities we’ve tried to reify cyberspace. Each culture is different and needs a language that feels accurate and familiar . Whether we’re building castles in Second Life or Tweeting into the void, humans are designed as visual creatures and it shows in our metaphors. In an organic and uniquely human process we build our home(pages) and wait for friends to visit and write on the (walls). As we settle in and consider that this might be where we live online, we read the virtual condo association rules to find out if we’re buying into a “walled garden” or “open space”.
My tone is light but the questions are important. To be comfortable investing our real time, energy and identity in a virtual place, we need to know who owns it and makes the rules. It helps to draw up a map to see how the pieces connect both within this space and in relation to other communities. It is then that the talk turns to islands.
Islands can mean many things but they usually refer to control, access and sovereignty. In Second Life, an island would grant its owner privacy and the right to control who visits. Facebook’s islands come in the form of protected accounts but platforms too can “island” by controlling how the content people make can be exported across the vast seas of cyberspace.
For some, islands mean safety and to others, loneliness.
Williams great digital city is a beautiful vision that I hope will materialize but it will be hard journey. I’m not smart enough to recommend the best path but I can unearth some clues with a story about my years in Second Life. On this journey I saw a small virtual village grow into great digital cities and break apart again. I watched (and helped) brands enter (and leave) the world and along the way met a traveller named Molotov Alva. This is that story. (read the rest of an Internet without Islands here )