Before I get my feet deeply into my mouth with some observations, I do want to promote a wonderful guild, and encourage any of you who've been tempted to try WoW, as well as my friends who're WoW veterans, to come join me in a guild - Metaverse Explorers on the Arathor server, Horde-side. Come on in, or if you're not sure how, just ask me and I'll give you a hand.
The guild was started by my friends Rissa Maidstone, John Zhaoying and new friend CSharp Writer, as a congenial, welcoming and supportive place for people active in the metaverse to network and play together. Rissa calls WoW "the new golf," and it's been that - a chance to get to know people better through play.
WoW is really well suited to that: what races and classes people choose, and the play styles that go with them, are profoundly revealing of character. Rissa's always a beautiful Blood Elf; I'm often a striking tall troll. Ali most always plays a healer; I'm happiest as a "tank," rushing into a fight and drawing attention onto myself while cooler heads pick their shots from a distance. You'd never guess, huh? :P
As this might be a guide for digital worlds community formation, here's what I've seen as the core principles underlying what the founders have done with the guild. Of course, please understand that these are my impressions, and in no way represent their opinions, values, politics or intentions!
- Empower, Don't Impede. From what I've seen, this may be the key distinction between the atomic mindset and the digital.
Several times I've seen people with experience at atomic world professional/academic conferences come into digital worlds with a foundational principle of "sit down, shut up and defer to the speaker." The underlying structures of the atomic world support that: physically, through the raised stage and podium, the single-point microphone; and culturally through millennia of training people to kneel before the king, the pope, the professor, the boss. The structures of digital worlds *don't* support that, which I think is their greatest virtue.
Digital worlds are important because they provide an attractive alternative to the artificial, forcibly imposed and maintained hierarchies that plague the atomic world (yes, Second Life land controls are a huge exception to that principle - that's a post for another day, or for somebody more knowledgeable than me). Digital worlds at their best give creative power to people: the power to tell stories, make art, build businesses, share their knowledge. The atomic world is full of institutions designed to take that power from most people and concentrate it in the hands of a few - from the university to the state to draconian intellectual property laws.
Importing hierarchical structures into digital worlds fails on two accounts. One, hierarchies based on artificial scarcities - of resources, of authority, of talent - have failed in competition with free systems, with democracy, with freedom of exchange of goods and ideas. They're inferior and unpleasant, and whenever and wherever possible, people build alternative systems to provide fair access to resources and open sharing of production.
They also fail to use the digital medium fully: importing the "sit down and shut up" event into a digital world is like filming a stage play. You can do it, but the power of film comes from using its *own* language by freeing the camera and the editor from a fixed point and linear progression. Likewise, digital worlds free us from the fixed point of the silent spectator, allowing the collaborative, multi-threaded creation of knowledge and meaning.
I strongly believe that the best thing that I can do is to nurture and support the talents and passions of others. Digital worlds are wonderful for that, even, or maybe especially, for atomic people. They can try on any number of things - jobs, interests, styles, identities - at very low cost, to find what suits them best. In a guild, or in a community like Extropia, those of us with resources can make them available - we can provide means for people to learn the game, to run events, to organize, share knowledge, find their best role. The atomic approach would say, no, give the resources to the credentialed expert and let everyone else be a "consumer" of their production.
- Identity Equals Reputation, Not Credentials. In the WoW Science Guild, I had a clash of principles, which, thanks to the good heart and generous nature of the person I debated, ended up in generating more light than heat (rare for internet debates!). A fellow guild member came inworld with a set of values from science and academia. They took the principle "the scientific community requires full disclosure in experiments in order to verify claims of results" and wanted to apply that to identity in digital worlds. It's clearly a terrible analogy, of course - more "apples and Tuesday" than "apples and oranges." But I understand why people would reflexively try to apply a powerfully enculturated fundamental principle as broadly as possible.
The thing is - and a lot of people either fail to get this or do get it and are deeply upset by it - anonymity or digital personhood are *rejections* of claims based on status in the atomic world. If I said "You should believe my conclusions about the nature of digital worlds because I'm a computer science professor at MIT," you have the right to ask me to prove that I am. But if I say, "I refuse to use claims of identity or status to back anything I say," someone indoctrinated into the system might *want* a claim of status to back my rejection of status ("Well, if a professor at MIT says status doesn't matter in digital worlds...").
But it doesn't work that way! In the digital world, you don't get to dismiss my arguments because the atomic person behind me might be a part-time clerk at a game store, or accept them because that person is "actually" a professor. You have to engage with my ideas - and with me - for what we are in *this* space, by the values of *this* culture.
What I've seen of academia in digital worlds suggests that for many, credentials are at least as important as content: what matters is less what I say and more my status within the atomic academic and social hierarchy. You'll listen to me if I'm from MIT, and maybe not if I'm from Mediocre State U, and definitely not if I'm a shop clerk. Business seems to place less emphasis on the credential and more on the portfolio: who cares who you are - what have you *done*?
Here's an example. In a discussion with another Science Guild member about guild leadership, I was asked to disclose my atomic credentials. I declined, and instead provided links to my business and community, my blogs, a list of the digital-worlds events I'd run, and provided several character references. The person was angry and upset that I'd violated reciprocity: they had told me their atomic name, and that of their atomic-world employer, who they regarded as very prestigious.
I replied, "We're trying to find out if we want to work together to put on events in digital worlds. Here are the legitimate things we need to know about each other: have they done a number of digital worlds events before? were those events satisfying for the participants and the audience? what are they like to work with? I gave you the material to answer those questions: my portfolio and references. In return, you told me you have an unrelated job in an unrelated space. Who provided full and useful disclosure and who didn't?"
What we were arguing over was *the source of legitimacy.* For me, that was in actions: I claimed authority because I've organized good digital worlds events. The source of my legitimacy is my portfolio. For them, the source of legitimacy was institutional: they claimed authority because they had high status among atomic institutions.
There's plenty of good work on reputational systems in Web2.0 out there. Rissa, John and CSharp walk the walk: Metaverse Explorers is a guild of people deeply embedded in digital reputational systems. We all know each other through a degree or two of separation from various groups in SL, from Twitter, from our blogs. We don't need to post brag sheets in order to be accepted in the door: our reputations precede us and speak for us - better and more usefully than any CV or bio could.
Two, Metaverse Explorers is a fun place for people who've established reputational capital to hang out and play together. Come on in - I promise I *won't* talk politics, but I *will* rush headlong into fights, so you don't have to! :)