Human interaction on-line

A couple of folks have recently asked why real-time online communities don't seem to be happening. Todd and Debbie of Mouthorgan sent around an e-mail asking why online chat communities aren't , and Wes Felter, on his Hack the Planet , wondered why no one had yet built the Metaverse.

(To those of you who've been in a cave for the past decade, the Metaverse is the virtual reality system described by Neil Stephenson in the great novel Snow Crash).

The easier answer is that the technology isn't there yet. Not that we can't render cool characters in outlandish realities in real time, we're getting there, but we haven't developed a user interface language to describe much more than "Evil. Lock on an destroy".

Relying on text alone requires that a person be able to type at over 200 characters per second. If not, you end up with multiple trains of thought as people try to communicate asynchronously, and the discussion quickly falls apart. Or there has to be a tremendous shorthand developed, one which makes the cost of entry into the community too high; I'm not willing to invest enough time that typed one-liners, often on the level of "aaarrgh" and "r u sexy 2?", make their way into my erogenous mapping.

And if I am going to communicate more slowly, I want to take my time, make sure what I have to say is remotely interesting and thought out (long-time correspondents will note that I'm exaggerating for effect here...).

But deeper than that, we're running up against the problem that we run into in real-life interaction: In a world where human interactions are defined by the standards set by popular media, people are essentially boring.

The people who turn to television for entertainment are basically boring. And when you drop them into an exotic locale, you end up with substantially the same problem: No story, just a bunch of people hanging out. Heck, even the people who do this for fun and try for entertainment, the improv crowd, rarely accomplish anything.

Let's face it. You've got a chance to go to two parties: At one party is a bunch of pasty faced Doom players and chat room denizens, or maybe they're the water cooler hangers on who can rehash last night's "Dharma and Greg" episode line-for-line. At the other are, perhaps, geeks, but geeks who are building cool stuff for Burning Man, or telescopes, or musical instruments, or perhaps it's a bunch of people passionate about different views of philosophy, or into high adventure sports. Which one are you going to?

Now, the harder question to answer honestly. Which one are you? (Remember, it's a continuum, but when I asked that question of myself recently I wasn't entirely happy with the answer, given with what I have (and haven't) done since I moved out here to the left coast.)

So if the Metaverse is going to be made compelling, the creators have either got to attract the latter (difficult to do), or make obscene amounts of money and hire writers and actors (hard to muscle in on the turf of Hollywood), or automate the introduction of story into the worlds.

Automating story is something that's being worked on, Chris Crawford's got the Erazmatron, lots of the I-F folks are exploring, but nobody's really come up with anything compelling yet. If you're interested in getting a mailing list about it going, send e-mail to with "subscribe idrama" in the body of the message.

Tuesday, February 2nd, 1999