February 28, 2006
@ 06:57 PM

Recently I've been thinking about digital representations of self. Back in the day, when I thought about digitally representing people, I'd think about the MetaVerse which was described in the novel SnowCrash. Below is an excerpt of the novel

As Hiro approaches the Street, he sees two young couples, probably using their parents' computers for a double date in the in the Metaverse, climbing down out of Port Zero, which is the local port of entry and monorail stop.

He is not seeing real people, of course. This is all a part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer according to specifications coming down the fiber-optic cable. The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse. Hiro's avatar is now on the Street, too, and if the couples coming off the monorail look over in his direction, they can see him, just as he's seeing them. They could strike up a conversation: Hiro in the U-Stor-It in L.A. and the four teenagers probably on a couch in a suburb of Chicago, each with their own laptop. But they probably won't talk to each other, any more than they would in Reality. These are nice kids, and they don't want to talk to a solitary crossbreed with a slick custom avatar who's packing a couple of swords.

You can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you're ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you've just gotten out of bed, your avatar can be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.

The one problem with the MetaVerse is that it primarily focuses on recreating the world with all of its limitiations when it comes to self expression. appearance. The only way people get to tell more about themselves is by how they look or by being spoken to. This isn't much different from the real world. That sucks.

I've come to realize that a new generation of social networking applications are fixing this problem with online representations of our personalities. I went clubbing this weekend and couldn't help but notice that everyone from the DJ at the techno club (DJ Niros) to rappers pimping their next album at the hip hop club (E 40) had a MySpace profile. I was watching TV and discovered that even movies and TV shows have MySpace profiles. I have a member of my household who obsessively hangs out on MySpace while online chatting with her friends.

Things get even more interesting when you factor in how modern social networking tools have changed dating rituals among young adults.  First of all,  there's the eternal wisdon of Jamie Zawinski who in his article Groupware Bad wrote

So I said, narrow the focus. Your "use case" should be, there's a 22 year old college student living in the dorms. How will this software get him laid?

That got me a look like I had just sprouted a third head, but bear with me, because I think that it's not only crude but insightful. "How will this software get my users laid" should be on the minds of anyone writing social software (and these days, almost all software is social software).

"Social software" is about making it easy for people to do other things that make them happy: meeting, communicating, and hooking up.

Some may laugh but I've met more than one college student who's said that she looks up potential dates in Facebook before going out with them. Or how about this comment from Jim Gilliam where he wrote

All this talk about MySpace lately. As someone who was part of the Los Angeles indie music scene that is now credited with making MySpace cool, I can tell you it was all about hooking up. It started at Friendster, but we broke it cause everyone started using it. So off to MySpace.

That girl you saw at the club? You could probably find her on MySpace even if you didn't know her name.. just by going through your friends and their friends. Then you either started flirting, stalked her, saw she was underage, or hated her musical tastes so much you got over it.

The MetaVerse from SnowCrash could not have enabled this level of insight into people's personalities with the limitations of just focusing on customizing ones appearance. With an online space I can share my thoughts, my music, my friends, my interests and my life with friends, family and strangers. This is a better MetaVerse than what existed in science fiction novels.

The reason I love my day job is that this is the kind of software I get to build. Every day is a holiday.


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