The hypergrid is a social web

I’ve been listening to Vanish Seriath’s interview with OpenSim core developer Justin Clark-Casey today and I was struck by Clark-Casey’s pessimism about the growth of the hypergrid.

He was worried about scalability, security, and whether or not it even serves any purpose. He expressed surprise that people would want to use the same avatar on multiple grids.

But then Seriath — who runs the TGIB blog, as well as the content sharing site OpenSim Creations — asked Clark-Casey about how he first got into OpenSim, and whether he originally started out in Second Life.

“I’ve been in Second Life a little bit before, but not enormously, not a lot,” he said at the 5:35 mark in the interview. “I’ve done a few little scripting things. But I’m not a big social person. I wasn’t in a lot of groups and stuff.”

From left: TGIB's Vanish Seriath and OpenSim core developer Justin Clark-Casey.

Myself, I am a big social person. If I have a problem, I prefer to ask someone for help than to look it up. Which isn’t a bad attitude for a journalist to have, by the way.

Developers like Clark-Casey often tend to be more data-oriented. They’ll check the manual first, or Google the question. So it kind of makes sense that Clark-Casey said that the hypergrid won’t replace the Web because the Web is so useful. It is very useful — for anyone looking for data.

In retrospect, it’s a miracle that we have OpenSim at all — the people who get the most value out of virtual environments might well be the kind of people who are least likely to become software developers.

But then again, Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook, and he’s not exactly a social butterfly, either.

According to standard surveys, about 75 percent of the U.S. population are extroverts and 25 percent are introverts. In the software development community, however, the ratio is the reverse — 75 percent are introverts. (See research by Marti Olsen Laney, such as the book “The Introvert Advantage,” and “Information Technology Project Management” by Kathy Schwalbe.)

So if you’re a developer reading this blog, here are some ways in which the hypergrid is a wonderful thing for people of a more outgoing personality type.

Looks matter

The way I look is a reflection of who I am, and how I feel about myself, and how I want to present myself to the world. I judge other people by how they look. If I see people in a hospital dressed as nurses, I assume that they are nurses. If I see someone at McDonald’s dressed in the chain’s uniform, I assume they work there. If I see someone on a street corner wearing fishnets and a fake wig, I know not to ask them for the time.

I often decide whether or not to talk to someone based just on how they look. Are they in my age bracket? Are they dressed too conservatively — or do they look like they’re on their way to a party? Are they clean and well-groomed?

If I walk into a bar or club and nobody looks like me — everyone is dressed differently, or is a different age — I will probably walk right out again.

All of this applies to virtual settings, as well.

My appearance matters to me. And it takes time — a lot of time — to get an avatar looking right. And then you have to look different, for different occasions, so you have to have not just one outfit, but a whole selection of clothes.

 

Will I ever find a perfect pair of heels?

So I have an absolute allergy to going to any grid that requires that I create a new avatar. Seriously. Unless a grid has something super-duper-super special to offer, I’m not creating a new account. If I can’t visit with the avatar I already have, I’m not going.

By the way, if you’re an introverted developer reading this to get some business ideas, here are a few related to being an extrovert, that the other introverted developers might be overlooking:

  • The inventory sucks. I don’t like arranging things into folders and subfolders. I want to be able to see things. I’m willing to pay money for an inventory organizer that lets me preview my outfits. I would even — gasp! — create an account on a new grid and keep my primary social avatar there if the grid offered such a feature. Seriously. It’s that important to me.
  • I want to know how I look to others. If I can see my clothes — but I’m naked to everyone else — that’s a big problem! I don’t know how you’d go about solving this, but it’s something I care about. If you have a product that includes a solution to this issue and other, similar products don’t — I’ll pick yours over theirs, even if it costs me more money.
  • I want to be able to look at people when I talk to them. I would like an easy way to turn my head to face the person I’m speaking with. Without having to adjust sitting pose balls. Eye contact is important. If I meet someone who stares off into the distance while talking to me, it kind of creeps me out a little bit. I don’t want to be the one creeping people out!
  • I want brand-name labels on my stuff. Designers — seriously! If I pay a lot of money for an outfit, I want there to be some indication of this. A unique visual style, trademark colors, something! Otherwise, I’m indistinguishable from someone who shops at Goodwill or the corner freebie store. Not that there’s anything wrong with incorporating stylish yet vintage pieces into your wardrobe…
  • Oh — and I want to be able to buy things! On the hypergrid, I’m stuck with freebies. Sure, some of these freebies are fantastic and wonderful. (Linda Kellie rocks!) But going into an important meeting, I get a confidence boost from wearing new, expensive clothes. Even if “expensive” is just a couple of bucks. If I’m walking into a new club, or meeting new people for the first time, I want to wear something nice. Something fancy. Something special. And I’m willing to pay for it. There’s money burning a hole in my pocket right now. Not much money — the economy is what it is, after all — but some money. And I’m not alone — the hypergrid population is growing fast. Tip: the first things I want to buy are hair, shoes, and nice jackets. I don’t mind wearing freebie slacks or tanks — for now, at least. But eventually, I’ll want to upgrade those, too. And designers, you don’t have to worry about me giving stuff away. I don’t mind passing along freebies, but if I paid good money for something, I’m not going to just give it to someone, unless I buy it for them as a present.
  • And I want to be able to give things to people. Not give copies. Give the thing itself. Practically, this would be the same as giving the item, then deleting the original in my inventory — but without the emotional cost of having to go and deliberately delete something. I know that the current permission system allows for this. But when I buy something, I want to be be able to make copies for my personal use — in case I modify the original and break it. If I buy something to give as a present, yes, I can copy it first, then give the original — but again, it would require a deliberate act on my part. I would know that I was cheating — that I was giving someone a present that, in effect, cost me nothing. The virtual equivalent of re-gifting. And you just don’t get the same emotional satisfaction from that. People cement social relationships by exchanging gifts and favors. And it’s hardly much of a favor if it requires zero effort or cost on my part.

The social net

The World Wide Web is all about bringing data together. All kinds of data, including, of course, data about people — as with Facebook.

The Hypergrid is about bringing the people themselves together in shared experiences.

For maximum usability, we need tools that can help us find the people we want, when we want them. So if we feel like dancing, we want to know where the people we want to dance with are currently dancing.

This is going to be a tricky challenge for developers to solve, by the way. A solution will bring together a Facebook-style social graph (or maybe Facebook’s social graph itself) and combine it with events listings and traffic patterns.

The hypergrid is unique in that it allows a person, a group, or an organization to create an experience, host it on their own servers, and share it with the world.

That experience could be a virtual book signing. A live music performance. Virtual theater. An artist giving a tour of a virtual art installation. A movie opening. A building or scripting class. A language lesson. A store opening. A fashion show. A charity fundraiser. Or a bike race (like on the Miki Kiti Tiki grid).

The Miki Kiti Tiki grid is a fun place, but it's just not the same without people.

Note that it’s not enough to just have the location. The location itself is almost irrelevant — the language lesson could be held in any meeting facility on any grid, or can be even be conducted in the form of tour of a new grid. If learning materials are needed, the teacher can simply whip them out of inventory.

Similarly, a dance party can move around from grid to grid, visiting different dance halls on different nights.

The hypergrid makes this possible. But it is the people who make it real.

And, of course, some business opportunities:

  • A social map of the hypergrid. Where are your friends now?  What groups are your friends in?
  • An events calendar, searchable so you can find the sales, classes, or parties you’re looking for. If you find an event you like, what are some similar events at different times, or in different languages, or in different groups? Also, what’s happening now — or happening on Friday night — in the groups you belong to? What events have been popular with your friends in the past, and you might want to check out in the future? And, of course, what events are being heavily promoted now? After all, there’s got to be a way to promote an event to someone who doesn’t yet know that they would be interested in it. This is what advertising is for.
  • And I want to see more ads. I know — weird, huh? But I like seeing movie previews. I like hearing about new products, about sales, about stuff going on. And I like to be surprised by them. So I’m driving along, and I see a billboard for a new kind of pizza — cool! I don’t want too many ads. I’ll probably avoid locations cluttered with them. But I like going to places like downtown Shanghai or Times Square and seeing all the lights and the billboards. It feels … exciting. Like I’m in the middle of things. We don’t have any advertising networks on the hypergrid yet that I’ve seen, but there’s room for both commercial and non-commercial ones. For example, educators could get together and set up an ad network to promote educational events. Anyone who wants to can grab a billboard and put it up on their land, and the billboard will randomly cycle through upcoming events. In fact, this would be super easy to do with Google Forms — I’ll post instructions for it later on tonight.
  • Event planning agencies will probably be springing up right and left, helping companies organize and market events on the hypergrid. They’ll have to be able to navigate the new social networks, tap into various advertising opportunities, form promotional partnerships with key groups. Everyone and his brother will be rebranding themselves as a virtual networking expert — quick, get in first! Plus, they’ll have to hold the event itself — build the right environment, provide security, manage traffic flow, ensure that all systems run smoothly, and so on.

Hypergrid vs. the Web

I don’t think the hypergrid will ever replace the Web, since the two serve very different fuctions. The hypergrid is a way to distributed experiences — the Web is a way to distribute information.

So if you’re looking at something from the outside — sports scores, a news report, a 3D model of a jetliner — then the Web is perfect. Just as you wouldn’t replace your phonebook with a system of driving around randomly looking for the right store, so you wouldn’t throw out the Web in favor of trying to find the right information by navigating a 3D space. A phonebook — whether printed on paper or delivered on line — is a great time saver.

And you can also use a phone book to look up the store’s number, call it, and place your order. The hypergrid isn’t going to replace that — the Web does that very well.

But the hypergrid might replace the experience of driving to the store and trying on clothes, especially if you do it with your friends.

So yes, what few stores the Web hasn’t already killed off, will be finished off by the hypergrid. Sorry about that.

And the hypergrid and the Web work very well together. The Web will be used to convey information about virtual events and locations — on top of all the information it already conveys — and will be used in-world, as well.

For example, a couple of weeks ago I did an experiment where I spent the day working in my virtual office. I created virtual computer monitors and used media-on-a-prim to bring in my company databases and my Google apps — email, calendar, and docs. I had my browser up. In fact, I had more monitors on my virtual desk than I do on my physical desk. Then I wrote an article and filed it to my editor — all without leaving the virtual desk.

What’s the advantage of doing it that way? After all, it is is a little bit slower than the traditional way of doing the same thing, running the browser natively.

Other than the coolness factor — not much, because I was working alone. But imagine if the rest of my colleagues were there, with me. My editor could drop by announced and ask me how the story was coming along, peer over my shoulder, make tsk-tsk-ing noises. You know, the way editors do. Make some completely unnecessary editing suggestions to my copy.

I could edit my employees’ copy while they watched. If they had trouble with the database, I could come over and help them with it. Visiting vendors could tour our virtual offices, and be impressed by the awards we had up on our walls, and by the busy bustle at our desks. And by the gorgeous virtual views outside our windows.

We could have our weekly editorial meetings, and our pitch meetings, and all the other millions of meetings you have in a physical office.

In other words, we could all be telecommuting, without missing out on the social aspects — and the career advantages — of being present in the office.

If you’re reading this and you fall into the 25 percent introverted category, you might be saying to yourself, “Those social aspects are what’s keeping me from my work! I don’t want to go to a meeting — just send me the memo, thank you!”

But if you’re in the 75 percent extroverted crowd, you know you’d ignore the memo — you’d rather get your information face-to-face. If someone doesn’t tell you about it, it’s probably not that important. And you need to meet with people in order to develop a connection with them, and feelings of trust.

And it goes beyond the work place. Since many managers are extroverted, they will often decide on promotions not based on just work performance but on external, social factors — especially if the new job will depend heavily on interpersonal skills. That’s why many employees, when climbing the corporate career ladder, will participate in sporting events, charity events, religious and other social groups, and non-profits in order to further their relationships with senior executives — and with key customers.

As more of these events become virtual, telecommuters will gain access to them, as well.

That, in turn, will help lubricate business, speed up deals, and, of course, make career opportunities and business partnerships accessible to people and companies who aren’t located in the key cities for their industries.

The hypergrid — like the Web — will give a boost to every industrial sector that it touches.

And the business opportunities here — well, there are too many to even imagine the tip of this iceberg. But here are a few ideas:

  • Consultants will come out of the woodwork to help companies go virtual. How do you transition employees to the new virtual workplace? They’ll go kicking and screaming! But think of the savings on facilities, on transportation. The time workers spend commuting to work, they can now spend at their desks. Bwa ha ha! And no more sick days. No more “family emergency” days. No more snow days. If your Internet connection is working, and you can type — you can work.
  • Management book authors will have a field day. “The One-Minute Virtual Manager.” “The 7 Habits of Virtual Success.” “In Search of Virtual Excellence.”
  • A new industry — the virtual meeting industry — will be created overnight. Companies will temporarily rent virtual facilities for company off-sites, conferences, trade shows, and other major events. Facilities vendors will be expected to provide not just the meeting venues but also ensure accessibility, security, and provide ancillary experiences such as networking events and trivia competitions and virtual sports and team-building and community outreach activities .

The hypergrid can already do this

It may come as a surprise, but the hypergrid as we know it today can already support all this.

I’m sure there will be many improvements before it actually goes mass-market — connections will get faster, the graphics will get better, we’ll have more in-world tools and better viewers, and so on and so forth.

But even if none of that happens, the hypergrid is already pretty darn good.

But — you might ask — what about content security?

See, here’s the thing. There’s no security to speak of on the Web. You can copy-and-paste entire Websites. Nobody will stop you. They’ll just step in after the fact and make you take stuff down. And it didn’t stop the Web from growing.

At the end of the day, anything you can see with your eyes, and hear with your ears, you can copy. It’s the one big inevitable flaw in every single digital rights management system out there, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.

You cannot prevent crime.

We can’t even prevent murder, the worst crime there is. I can come up to someone with a rock or a stick — or I could choke them with my bare hands. You can’t stop me. Nobody can stop me. And this is a crime much, much, much worse than copying digital content.

The best we can do is change the situation, so that the likelihood of crime goes down. And have punishments in place, for people who commit crimes anyway.

So, when it comes to digital content, we can make it as easy as possible for people to buy stuff legitimately. This is the iTunes approach. There’s no DRM (content protection) on iTunes music. If you want, you can copy it and distribute it. But it doesn’t matter. Because whether or not iTunes had DRM, hackers could still copy and distribute any music they wanted. DRM just makes life harder for legitimate customers — it makes it harder for them to play their music on different devices, or to make backups in case their computer crashes. DRM does nothing to stop the hackers.

And when other people distribute it illegally — like MegaUpload did with movie videos — and DMCA isn’t working because the bad guys just keep reposting stuff — the authorities can step in and shut the whole thing down and put the criminals in jail. Which they did. Even though the bad guys were scattered around the world.

Sure, the guys who steal virtual shoes are small potatoes. Nobody is going to create a multinational task force to go after them. But we have mechanisms in place to deal with them right now. If they take their stolen shoes and put a stolen shoe shop on any major grid, a simple DMCA report will get their store closed, and the backers banned from the grid. Every major grid has a DMCA policy in place — whether or not they’re based in the US — because they want to stay open, and they don’t want to deal with lawsuits. Lawsuits are expensive. Complying with DMCA requests is cheap.

So the bad guys set up their own grids to sell their stolen shoes, right? The grid has to be on a server somewhere. A report to their hosting company will get the entire grid shut down. If they run the grid from a home computer, they can lose their Internet access. If they host their grid in China somewhere — well, first of all, the connection will be really really slow. Second, China is cracking down more and more on digital piracy because they’re starting to produce digital content themselves — and don’t want people stealing their stuff.

By the time their Internet connections are good enough for foreign hackers to host pirate grids there, their legal system will have matured to the point where its ready to deal with it.

Finally, how are people going to find out about the availability of stolen shoes on this grid in China? The hackers can’t advertise — if word gets out, their grid will be shut down. They’ll have to use word-of-mouth.

And if you’re a typical, average customer, are you going to go to the nice, brand-name, well-promoted, heavily-advertised store that’s got outlets on every major grid and has reasonable prices and helpful staff and support and guarantees? Or are you going to go to some shady store on an unknown grid with a slow connection where you’re likely to get infected by worms and viruses to give money to a stranger?

Yes, some folks will deliberately seek out the pirated stuff. But those folks aren’t anyone’s target customers, anyway.

The thing that many introverts fail to realize is the social value of goods.

You might look at an inexpensive, man-made diamond, and the same diamond in a jewelry store selling for millions, and say to yourself, “Why would someone ever pay millions for a diamond when the fake is absolutely identical even to a professional?”

People buy real diamonds — and real designer purses and real designer dresses and real brand-name shoes — because it makes them feel better. It makes them feel fancy and dressed up. Classy. Elegant. Not because of the intrinsic value of the products themselves, but because of the social value.

I can’t drink anything but Diet Coke. I can’t taste the difference between Diet Coke and any other diet soda when served in a plain glass in a restaurant. But if I’m drinking it from a can, generic soda — or Diet Pepsi — tastes bad. Because I know what it is. I’m a Diet Coke person, and I will pay extra for Diet Coke. I’m more than happy to buy Diet Coke on sale. But if there’s anything iffy about the packaging — anything that makes me suspect that it’s not actually Diet Coke but a knock-off — I’m not going to buy it. I want the real thing.

It’s no different for me when it comes to virtual goods. I feel better wearing expensive stuff than freebies. Even though neither I, nor anyone else, can tell the difference. People say they can tell the difference, but I suspect they’re lying — like the people who say they can taste the difference between different sodas or different wines. Remember how expensive French wines used to win all the awards before they started doing blind taste tests and cheap California wines started winning? Even the experts can’t tell until they see the brand-name label. We’re conditioned to place more value on expensive stuff.

So if you’re a designer of virtual clothing — start selling on the hypergrid. The 75 percent of us who are extroverts will pay you money for your goods and will be happy to do it. And the other 25 percent — well, they’re not your target customers anyway. Let them wear freebies. Or, if they’re smart, they’ll let their mothers, fashion-savvy girlfriends, or gay best friends do their shopping for them.

As the hypergrid grows, more and more of its user base will be average people, instead of the cutting-edge technologists who were the early pioneers. And the customer base for virtual goods producers will only grow.

 

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