The Metaverse’s Biggest Obstacle

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A firm friend of mine whom I met via Second Life has recently shared a fascinating interview with himself and Suzanne Aurilio of San Diego State University, discussing what’s still a very hot topic on the Grid: what lays in store for the metaverse? (Raph Koster too lends his thoughts in this insightful interview from the same series)

Much to my glee, the academic world appears to be positively placing identity and environment at the forefront of criteria which will allow virtual worlds culture to grow. As time capsules go, this seems a poignant one and some good questions have been asked. The fourth is the one for which I feel most confident in having an answer of my own; it’s not a positive one, though.

What barriers will metaverse technology never overcome?

My answer? Drama. Although I’ve only been exposed to such behaviour in an indirect fashion, it is nevertheless distressing, whether I’ve been in an immersed state or at a distance from a particular world or community. It seeks either to toy with well-meaning folks’ emotions, or to sully the reputation of virtual worlds culture itself, depending on your perspective. Sometimes, melodramatic activity comes from users quite conscious of what they’re doing. It’s a rare practise, but one would suspect it’s not beyond the scope of an ambitious ‘griefer‘. It is more often the case that we, the victims, reach a sympathetic conclusion, though. There’s fear that serious problems lay beneath that avatar and their human presence.

It is, of course, a phenomenon which is not just limited to virtual worlds. Web forum moderators will probably know of it, and anyone who’s entered into an ‘anonymous’ instant messaging chat may well have had such a night when an emotional individual reveals a little too much for comfort. I believe that’s a very real threat to metaverse use and growth; users who are exposed to too much of that drama may decide to leave altogether. It’s happened a lot inside Second Life, and is one of the reasons I vacated what was once MSN Messenger. With social tools it’s really not hard to imagine that users will quickly be turned off by any channels in which they’re asked to conduct emotional contortion. The trouble is that while the metaverse is most certainly not a cause for drama, I believe that it is by its nature an amplifier, and as such acts like a catalyst towards those with social problems.

Take for example a topic of still fairly recent note in the headlines – digital infidelity. A couple meet via a world like Second Life, the partners probably a little beaten from ‘First Life’ emotional trauma. Often we hear that couples who’ve met online and subsequently married in the physical world too did so after a breakdown of more conventional romances, and so it is a relief to be able to trust somebody in this space so wholly. Now, relationships like that may break down for a number of reasons, but any quick eye cast over an Avatars United forum or some of the more personal avatar blogs out there will tend to throw up the idea that digital partners may easily be caught cheating. Looking deeper we may find that a polygamous trait in one partner is being let loose a little in such a free environment, but also that there are cases of extreme paranoia from the other side. Such instances have been known to confound those bystanders who’re involved, and the classic ‘soap’ story of a boyfriend kissing another woman in the street is seen to pale in comparison. In a world where much is still accomplished via text-based chat, a cautious avatar may find it difficult to even stand in the same room as a complete stranger. When an insanely jealous partner takes to their blog or a forum, then reputations may be sunk in the space of one night thanks to drama.

We see extremities too in what I like to call “pathological trolling” – causing manipulative social grief not just for occasional fun, but as a way of life. Second Life houses one such infamous troll, with whom I’m sure most SL residents will be familiar, and of course we even harbour the occasional slimey blogger in celebrity circles, too. It takes a strange talent to be able to keep this attitude up in non-digital societies, but something in the way our metaverse runs allows folks like this to cause utter havoc. I’m no longer sure that it’s simply because internet users tend to be so passionate about their medium. A single act can spawn hundreds of hateful comments, from people first having overexaggerated the situation to themselves. They may band together temporaily into angry mobs of like opinion, and for a time the metaverse becomes an ugly place indeed. All this because somebody at the root of it all has found a quiet desire to manipulate and cause harm, and employed the metaverse as a megaphone.

It is a very negative angle for me to be taking on the metaverse’s future, but of course there is a flipside. For my own experience, there are subtle sides to me which have found a much bigger voice too. Much of the worth in having a second life comes from being able to set certain ideas loose, toy with them a while and reel them back in to a whole if the result would be an improvement. Artistic ideas may find freer expression, trusting friendships may be founded within mere hours and, on the whole, we users can be left feeling rather good about ourselves.

It’s this contrast between pure and vile which appears to lend the metaverse its jaggedness, though.

Despite my hope, I’d be hard pessed to imagine a cultural shift any time soon which would allow this world to brighten up a bit, and so long as there is a risk of gut-wrenching drama plaguing the dedicated and keen metaverse resident, I believe that many of the sensibly cautious folk may be put off ever trying. Then again, if the very cautious and paranoid types were so put off by metaverse culture, we might be better off for it.