Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Evolution of Cyberspace: Virtual Worlds

By Craig Harm

Cyberspace 2020.  What will it be like?  Can we even contemplate what our “web presence” will be like?  Less than ten years ago Facebook, Twitter and MySpace did not exist.  And while they may have seemed to just appear, there was actually a logical evolution to their emergence.  Following and logically extending this evolution may help us postulate how our cyberspace interactions will look ten years from now.

It’s amazing how history can repeat itself, even in cyberspace.

Let’s first look at what may have been the beginning of internet-based direct social interactions, instant messaging (IM).  Peer-to-peer functions like IM and chat started as early as the 1980s with bulletin board based chat.  But it was in the early 1990’s with the modern network connectivity that Internet-wide, GUI-based messaging clients really began to take-off. 

ICQ, AIM (formerly AOL Instant Messenger) and Windows Messenger were just a few examples of this capability.  These services offered similar capabilities allowing users to create profiles, add users as friends, conduct real-time live chats via text services, exchange files and even conduct video chats.  They allowed the development of true, though virtual social networks between people that had perhaps never physically met.

As technological capabilities continued to grow, so too did the evolution of IM.  With the introduction of voice-over-IP (VoIP) new IM services began to take hold.  Systems like Skype and Vonage allowed users to connect to telephones, both landlines and mobile, thus expanding the virtual social network capabilities even further. 

Internet-based social networking began as only something “geeks” did and it was based on generalized online communities such as Theglobe.com (1994),] Geocities (1995) and Tripod.com (1995).  But as the desire, capability and social culture evolved, new methods of social networking emerged.  By the end of the 1990’s, technology was helping to develop more advanced features to meet the growing user need to find and manage friends on-line: to enhance a social network. 

Out of the development of these new social networking methods a new generation of social networking sites began to emerge.  One of the first, Friendster, soon became part of the Internet mainstream.   Followed by MySpace and the professional’s social networking systems, LinkedIn there was a rapid increase in social networking sites' popularity. 

Launched in February 2004, Facebook, a social network service website now with more than 600 million active users, is rapidly becoming symbolic of what internet-based social networking is about.    In Facebook, users create a personal profile, add other users as friends and exchange messages, including automatic notifications when they update their profile.  Additionally, users may join common interest user groups, organized by workplace, school, or college, or other characteristics.   Facebook, the subject of the recent film The Social Network has garnered our interest, participation and consumed our on-line attention unlike any cyber phenomena, so far. 

Enabled by expansive technological advancements, virtual, highly social worlds are emerging to meet evolving user needs for social interaction.  Second Life (SL), launched in June 2003, is a virtual world accessible through the Web.  Users, called “Residents”, interact with each other through personally created profiles called avatars.  Residents create a personal profile, add other users as friends and exchange messages.  In addition to these functions, which are similar in purpose to Facebook, residents can also explore, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade virtual property and services with one another, or travel throughout the world.   SL is designed on the premise that users can build virtual objects, either fictional or based on real items, and share, trade or sell them throughout the system.

Ever since two computers could be connected together, people have found new ways to compete with each other in games.  Initially just point-to-point, person-to-person, over the last 10-15 years gaming has evolved to connect substantial numbers of players through the Web.  With the emergence of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG), enabled by high-speed networking and Flash- and Java- based technologies, an Internet revolution has occurred where websites can utilize streaming video, audio, and a whole new environment for user interactivity. 

In the last 5 years or so, online gaming has exploded in popularity.  Computer role-playing games in which a very large number of players interact with one another within a virtual game world are running on a constant presence through services such as Xbox Live (23 million members) and games like Runescape (150M) and World of Warcraft (12M).  With so many members, online gaming is a serious cyberspace presence.  When you couple this immense cyber presence with the $5-10 monthly membership fees, MMORPG is also BIG business.

But, like all other technology-enabled cyberspace capabilities there is an evolution on-going.  Powered by concepts discussed previously in these blogs (exchange, emergence and self-organization) online gaming is evolving.  Social networking capabilities which previously required multiple services are routinely “packaged” into on-line gaming systems. 

Enabled through a user-created avatar, players within Xbox Live, World of Warcraft and Runescape can now maintain social contact with friends on-line…in fact, they actually have to maintain and leverage these social networks to achieve objectives in the games they play! 

Text, voice and video chat, status-updates, and profile creation are integral components of these online game systems.  Users no longer need to go to separate individual sites and systems to maintain their social network.  Convergence and coevolution are definitely at work in these environments.

For people though, the real evolution is not the integration of technical capabilities.  It is the emergence of culture acceptance and user comfort with interacting with others inside of virtual worlds.  Today’s younger generation processes an evolved skill set, mental accommodation, and social acceptance of interacting within these virtual worlds.  They are in these worlds every day, for hours at a time. 

For many users, the only interaction they have with some of their friends is within these worlds, where they are maintaining contact and staying informed of real world activities and events.  It is as though there is an overlap for them of the real world and these virtual worlds, and the so-called barriers between them seem to blur through continued presence in virtual environments.

So what do I think Cyberspace 2020 will look like?  Based on this evolution we’ve just discussed, I envision a cyberspace where users will no longer log onto a machine, open multiple applications, and interact with the Web via a browser.  

In 2020, I see us “logging” into the Web through personalized devices directly into our virtual world.  Many of us may even stay logged on constantly!

Acting through personally created profiles (through our avatars), we will interact with our social network just as we would face-to-face.  It’s almost certain that we will even see our avatars empowered with new capabilities that allow them to interact on our behalf, buying movie tickets, making dinner reservations and so on.

Our virtual world will be our interface to the rest of the World Wide Web and people everywhere!  Cyberspace 2020 will likely be even more interconnecting and more social, but it will almost certainly change the way we live, work and play.

Stay connected for more on the impacts of virtual worlds right here in the SENDS blogs.

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