Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The lost origin of an online holiday

For the past three years, I have been wanting to tell my version of a holiday called Fern Day that is unique to the citizens of a virtual world called Dreamscape which is coming up on its 14th year of operation (I blogged about its 10th Anniversary before). It’s the story of how something I helped start was adopted by a community and became a custom or kind of cultural norm that is practiced annually without connection to its deeper origins.

What is Fern Day?
On Aug 1, 2009, Fern Day was celebrated over the course of two days by the inhabitants of the city of Phantasus on the island of Kymer in a dream-like world called Dreamscape. Two full days of games developed and run by the world-wide community with virtual items given as prizes. And by “full-days” and “world-wide” I mean there are multiple games scheduled each hour from 1am to 11pm which implies multiple time-zones are involved. Additionally, there is a parade through the streets of Phantasus, a dance contest, a blessing of the Ferns, several ceremonies and retellings of the True History of Fern Day.

How Fern Day Started
I don't want to take away from what Fern Day is for the citizens of Phantasus and the inhabitants of Dreamscape, I hope that this secret origin of Fern Day will help other community managers and facilitators see ways they can instigate cultural changes in their own communities that will be accepted and adopted by the community members and become part of the cultural make-up of how those communities identify themselves.

About a month before the first Fern Day was celebrated, Aug 1, 1996, I was one of three community managers (called Oracles) who was trying find a holiday to celebrate during the month of August. The Dreamscape had been operating for just under one year and we knew early on that we wanted to celebrate existing holidays in a way that separated the Dreamscape from the everyday, offline and modern, “waking world”. We recognized that there would be pressure from the modern people inhabiting this virtual world to bring with them the holidays of their culture, nationality and religions and we didn't want to become caught up in disputes (which happened anyway and is another story for another time). Finally, we wanted to recognize natural cycles we cannot avoid, the cycles of the hours, the days, weeks, months and seasons because such cycles help tie people to places, and each other. So, we planned early on to include at the very least recognize holidays on a regular basis.

It was the nature of the Dreamscape that members of the community could not create objects or artwork on their own as one can today in Second Life or as one could in Active Worlds in 1996. This meant that all artwork was created by our company. In order to avoid overloading the art pipeline with holiday artwork, we planned to celebrate holidays every two months for one year, shift one month and keep going for another year. That way, in two years, we would have 12 holidays and could recycle art each year (that ultimately was doomed because we needed to refresh or create new art every year to keep interest up). Thus, Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanza were rolled together into a month-long winter fest (which included a very secular Santa Claus (called Kymer Kringle) and a nod to C. S. Lewis’s White Witch) .

So it was in July of 1996, I was looking for a holiday or set of holidays to appropriate and remix to our budding virtual world. Not finding much, I learned about Australia’s National Wattle Day, held Sept 1. Learning that it was a fairly new (less than 100 yrs old) holiday gave me the inspiration to, uhm, appropriate it. I moved it to August 1st and latched on to the only local flora the Dreamscape had in abundance, the fern which was purchasable in a vending machine for 160 Tokens (the virtual currency).

At the next meeting of the three community managers, the question arose, "What are we going to do about a holiday in August?". I suggested we celebrate "Fern Day". My compatriots looked at me confused and, figuring that the only way this would work is to be so over the top that it will take root, I continued like a carnival barker. "It will be fernomnonal! A full day of fernvolity, celebrating the ferntastic fern-ness of the fern." I may have concluded with, "unless someone has a better idea". Having done my research into the dearth of non-nationalistic holidays for August, I figured there would be none. It took no time for them to start fern puns of their own and the idea took root. Planning for the first Fern Day started.

On July 31, we publicly announced Fern Day with this message:
What: Phantasus Fern Festival
When: August 1st
Time: All day
Where: The streets of Phantasus
Hosts: Oracles and Acolytes

Come one, come all!

Help celebrate Phantasus Fern Day--The Dreamscape's first "official" in-world holiday! We will be celebrating with new vendos, new items, and of course...ferns! Bring your ferns or purchase new ones! Search amongst the foliage for hidden items! Fern Fun all day long!

The main idea is to have fun with ferns. There will be improptu [sic] games and visits by all three Oracles throughout the day. Here is a schedule of a few events:

9:00 AM WAT - Opening
Ceremony Outside the Temple

Noon WAT - Fern Tag (Meet at Temple Street Terrance Lobby)

1:00 PM WAT - Drawing for prizes of players in Fern Tag

5:00 PM WAT \
- Blessing of the Ferns
5:30 PM WAT /

9:00 PM WAT - Closing Ceremony Outside of Temple
(WAT means Worlds Away Time which happened to be set the same as the servers)

and got exactly the same reaction from the community that I had gotten from my teammates. Our volunteer moderators (called Acolytes) were really at a loss to explain why all three community managers had just gone collectively insane. We chose not use the rational (and real) explanation of appropriating Wattle Day and instead flooded our poor volunteers with fern-puns, silly enthusiasm, and vague references to the "ancient origins" of a holiday that, until that moment, none of them had ever heard of. In other words, we used the time-honored justification of many cultural customs, "Because that's the way it's always been done".

The First Fern Day
Come August 1, 1996, the citizens of Phantasus were tentative about what was happening, but they became enthusiastic when the price of ferns were dropped from ~160 Tokens to a mere 10 Tokens. The scheduled game of Fern Tag was simple: find someone without a fern, give them a fern and them drag them to the game host who would record both names as part of a raffle. People were buying ferns fast and furious and zipping around the world handing them out and drawing more innocent bystanders into the chaotic whirlwind of fern-ness.
Then disaster struck. It seemed that there was a memory leak with the vendos that dispensed ferns. But this memory leak was on the *server* side. That means that the more people bought ferns, the slower and slower the servers hosting the entire virtual world were running until they eventually crashed, booting everyone out. Even when the world was brought back, it immediately crashed again. It looked like it would take many hours before the world could be brought back up so fern day would be over before it had a chance to even exist. People were feeling left out and understandably angry (likely the most angry were the poor developers who gave us no end of grief over what turned out to be an unscheduled load test on a Saturday). There was only one thing to do: apologize and make amends.
Dear Dreamscape Customers,

This is a letter to discuss the most recent and unfortunate events which occurred on Fern Day.

The terrible problems we experienced with our servers on what was quickly turning into an extremely festive occasion was as emotionally draining for us as it may have been for you. The Dreamscape was unavailable from 2:00 AM WAT - Noon WAT and from 2:00 PM WAT - 8:00 PM WAT. We have been working continuously to find the source of the problem and make the Dreamscape available to you. Unfortunately, at this time, we have been unable to determine the exact source of the problem. We are still investigating the situation and have implemented some changes which should keep the service stable. We deeply regret the inconvenience and imposition on the fun promised.

The Oracles have every intention of getting as much out of Fern Day as we hoped. To this end, we have extended the Fern Day Festival to Noon, August 2. We encourage you to come out as often as possible during the next 16 hours to celebrate Fern Day as we had intended to celebrate. We hope that those who had initially captured the spirit of Fern Day will regain it and sponsor or participate in the variety of games which were spontaneously popping up. At Noon, there will be a closing ceremony at the Main Doors of the Temple and soon after, the vendos will be removed from the streets. Even after this, we hope you will enjoy the ferns you have and the good memories which we will all share.

The Oracles and the Forum Sysops thank you for your generous patience and support in this matter and wish you a very happy Fern Day! We would also like to thank the Acolytes and the Forum Staff who helped out so much during the times in which the Dreamscape was unavailable.

Most sincerely,
Oracle Uni
Oracle Vaserius
Oracle Teresias
WorldsAway Community Forum Sysops
WorldsAway Team

The next day, folks turned up, amends were made, and the new closing ceremony included a recognition of the troubles we had all encountered. As an aside, it also meant that two community managers came in for an extra day of work when only one had been regularly scheduled (this is what you do when you are in customer and community service). Fern day was wrapped up, prices returned to normal, and we put it away until the next year.

How Fern Day really started
The next year, in preparation for the second annual celebration of Fern Day, Marianne G, who ran one of the newspapers for the virtual world posted a story of the "true history" of the origins of Fern Day which included the nickname “Crash Day”. We, the community managers, knew none of us had a hand in her history but it took only seconds to agree that we would support and even adopt her story as the origins. To do otherwise would discourage creativity and we thought her version was as good as any so we took the same, "because that's the way it's always been" attitude. Aug 1, 1997 was my last Fern Day in Dreamscape. In another two years, the last of the original community managers who stared blankly at me that July day had also moved on.

But by 1999, the community had claimed Fern Day as their own and over the next 10 plus years, the citizen-created history, games, parades, and ceremonies have evolved to include early beta testers (who never received official recognition for being pioneers – mea culpa) and even a group who call themselves Natives and claim to have inhabited this virtual world before even the beta testers. It's literally taken directions I never imagined it would. I could not be happier about it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

OCTribe Call for Participation - Tuesday Topic

How OCTribe works
Each 2nd Tuesday and 4th Tuesday of the month, one of the bloggers in the loosely defined OCTribe group makes a call for posts related to a particular topic of online communities. Then the same blogger posts a summary and links to the submissions.

Write something related to the topic tomorrow (Tuesday, August 11), tag it #octribe, and your post will be linked from the recap page. This conversational project is just starting, so please join in!

The Aug 11 Topic: Fostering culture in and around online communities
Share your experiences and ideas around any of these:
  • fostering or identifying emerging customs or taboos in an online community (for example, here's a story of an academic who discovered "that game rules encouraging competition and varied tactics hardly mattered to gaming community members who wanted to preserve a deeply-rooted culture."
  • establishing or fostering culture within the organization hosting an online community
  • culture clashes between online communities or between community and host organization
  • offline and online culture influencing each other (for example, the prevelance of caste based groups on Orkut as a mirror of India's society

You might also find inspiration from Forum One's Online Community Culture study conducted Oct 2008.

How to participate:
  • Post your thoughts on online communities and culture sometime between now and Tuesday, Aug 11.
  • Tag your posts, tweets, photos, slides with #octribe
    - shoot me a quick email to make sure I include your post in the round up.
  • Come back Wednesday, Aug 12 to see what your fellow Online Community Tribe members have to say.
If you would like to host a future OCTribe topic, email Bill Johnston.