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  The Metaversal Echo Chamber  
Posted 2006-05-09 by Tony Walsh
A pair of conferences exploring virtual worlds have come and gone. I was able to attend several SDForum panels in avatar form, thanks to a streaming video window made available in Second Life by The Electric Sheep Company. But I missed out on the elite Metaverse Roadmap Summit. Thankfully, both events were well-documented: See "Is it Time for the Metaverse?" and "Mapping a path for the 3D Web", for starters.

In sifting through the reports and in reflecting on the virtually-attended panels, I have become aware of a certain new technology euphoria that seems to have wafted through both conferences. I am reminded of the exhileration associated with the "online communities" and "web portals" of the late 1990s, as well as the buzz around the blog boom in the last few years. Virtual worlds are seen as lucrative, productive, magical spaces--and in fact, they may be, but I think there's a danger here that we are not only placing this technology on a pedestal, but creating a feedback loop by surrounding ourselves with supporters. I think virtual worlds are extremely interesting, but I'm not sure they're a great solution for anything yet. What problems do virtual worlds solve? What problems do they solve better than other technologies or methods?

I've only been able to find a few published viewpoints that represent healthy skepticism (although there may have been plenty of dissent going on that didn't get reported online).

From veteran designer Raph Koster comes a refreshing account of the Metaverse Roadmap Summit (here I am creating my own echo chamber, since I happen to agree with Koster on the following): "[T]here was an uncomfortable moment when some of the more pie-in-sky folks rhapsodized about how a virtual Darfur in Second Life could raise consciousness worldwide and Ethan slammed them for it. There's a level of arrogance inherent in thinking that some geeks in Silicon Valley building a virtual Darfur can even begin to convey what actually happens in the Third World when many of those on the ground cannot grasp it."

Ethan Zuckerman's own account of the Metaverse Roadmap Summit acknowledges allure of virtual worlds: "Ten of the next twenty people introduce themselves using the Kool-Aid metaphor - one guy describes himself as 'a Gemini, torn between not drinking the Kool-Aid… and really, really drinking the Kool-Aid'. Another describes himself as 'the big fat Kool-Aid guy who bursts through the wall'. And Randy Farmer, one of the pioneers in the space, notes that he’s drunk so much Kool Aid that he’s now in a twelve step program and has gotten much of the Kool Aid out of his system."

Prokofy Neva writes on his Second Thoughts blog: "I counted 6 women out of the 51 Metaverse Mappers, and 3 Asians; the rest were white guys and gals. Oh, well, the public is now invited to participate." But is the public interested? Should they be?

I'm all for exploring the potential of virtual worlds, I just think we need to invite a more diverse group of people to the discussion about them. Some of us entrenched in studying or doing business in virtual worlds could really benefit from a reality check, including myself.
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