Friday, November 05, 2004

Catching up with Jenny Preece's work

I got the opportunity to meet Marc Smith a month ago at an Online Community Summit (where I also got to meet Lee LeFever face to face for the first time). Marc mentioned that Jenny Preece, who I already knew through her book, Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability, had been doing some work on evaluating communities. It took me this long to look up what she was currently up to and I now have about a months worth of reading. Papers on lurking(pdf), on empathy and trust(pdf) and examining a stalled online community(pdf). And much of her recent work have been in small communities that focus on health or technical self-support. So there is the potential this can have a direct impact on my daily work. Wow.

Wait, there is more! Dr. Preece mentored Diane Maloney-Krichmar whose disertation is an ethnographic study of mutual-aid health community. I haven't had a chance to find contact information for her to see if she has published that disertation yet. It's late on Friday and I have to wisk down to LA tonight to see the Body Worlds Exhibit. In the mean time, if this stuff tickles your fancy and you find some specific interesting things, please post them in comments or on your blog and I will link to you (damn blogspot and no trackback).

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Hello Kitty MMORPG

I recently read Richard Bartle's Soapbox: Why Virtual Worlds are Designed By Newbies - No, Really! wherein he argues that the pressure to appeal to newbies creates a downward spiraling cycle of Massively Multiplayer Online design. (Also reference Clay Shirky's A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy which I boil down to as "just because it's good and efficient for one member, does not mean it's good and efficient for the group as a whole".) But this post is not about that, at least, not directly.

No, this is about potentially the mother of all branded MMOs/virtual environments, the Hello Kitty World! Looking past the uber-cuteness, the worldwide brand recognition and the cute and fluffiness of it all, Richard's words seem like and an epitaph of a world that hasn't even been born. Even though I doubt there will be a direct connection between the newbies of Everquest II hoisting their expectations onto poor Hello Kitty and fluffy friends, the feature list is clearly influenced by the generations of MMORPGs (and their newbies):
  • "Special in-game telepathy". In other words, global shouts continue. I wonder if they will also have teleportation within a city or country. (An example from Richard's article.)
  • Players will be in one of three countries which are in competition with each other. That gives us shards (though players can travel between countries) and instanced in-world games (I'll bet money they are).
  • The economy play. Play games for in-world money, trade items, open shops. I'm guessing that running a brothel out of your in-world house might be frowned on. I'm personally more curious if they will try to squelch any emerging eBay market for in-world items.
This is not to say that Hello Kitty World isn't going to be huge and healthily line the pockets of Sanrio. It is to say that I highly doubt we are going to see much innovation advancing the art of virtual environment design. And with it's potential to give so many people their first impression of large scale multiplayer gaming, that's a shame.

(Original Hello Kitty World link from Tom Coate's plasticbag feed.)

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Speaking to your in-group

Judith Meskill digs into the past and finds a gem, in Social Hindrance or Social Necessity? Her post focuses on the 14-point "Social computing checklist" from At what cost pervasive? A social computing view of mobile computing systems. I admit my eye was drawn toward this:
At a fundamental level, humans think about social groups in terms of "us" vs "them," or the groups that "I am in" (in-groups) and those that "I am not in" (out-groups). Members and markers of an in-group are often favored and those of an out-group are often disparaged. Individuals may resist adopting a technology if it is associated with an out-group, and the technology itself may be a powerful marker in identifying group membership.
This seems obvious, but it's worth keeping at the forefront when designing for or interacting with a particular group. Group markers can include the language, patterns of speech and writing, colloquialisms, world-perspectives (religion, politics) and all the artifacts that may be associated with the group (hair, music, transportation, technology devices). Getting too many wrong and you can isolate members of the group you are trying to reach.

Once, I misjudged the marker of a group by a long shot. I was fairly new to managing online groups of any size and I had a group of volunteers helping out. One night, I wanted to talk to two (they had just handled a pretty sticky conflict resolution issue and I was all hot to get a report), but blew past two others and asked to be left in private. I should mention at this point that this was in the WorldsAway virtual environment so there was a physical presence. The social marker that had developed among my volunteers was to always stop, take a moment to say hello and let each other know what they were currently doing. Because I sped past two without a word and asked for privacy without explaining why, I had behaved as an outsider and undermined some of the trust they had in me. Well, I wound up spending several hours late that night sorting things out, apologizing and immediately changed my behavior to include writing markers (which included a *lot* of smilies and gestures that I was not used to using).

Luckily, this lesson has stuck and now, working with parents, I've learned that formal language is the language of the school administrations, lawyers, and officials--definitely an out-group. I've dropped formal language in all my communications with parents on our boards. I make sure that I participate in group congatulations (births, school placements, child successes) because it's a behavior that marks the in-group. On the other hand, I use very formal (but not disparaging) language when I am writing to someone so blatantly advertising or antagonizing others to establish they are not welcome.