The Conversation Around Content

Wed 09 September 2020 by Jim Purbrick


Over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time helping people new to virtual worlds learn how they work. Over the next few weeks I’m going to share a series of short posts on some of the high level concepts I covered which will hopefully be useful to other people new to virtual worlds. This first post talks about ways in which you can fill an entire world with things to keep everyone interested forever.

Whenever I visited Linden Lab’s San Francisco office while I was building Second Life there was always a copy of Snow Crash in the restroom. We were definitely building the Metaverse and so there was much excitement when one of our colleagues met Neal Stephenson and asked what he thought of Second Life. Neal commented that he didn’t expect a company to set out to build the entire Metaverse, he thought it would be more interstitial. Over a decade later I think Neal’s comment is very relevant as several organisations contemplate building the Metaverse.

Oculus currently provides content, but the conversation happens elsewhere. Some people enjoy content in Oculus Venues and then go to Oculus Rooms to hang out afterwards, but most of the conversation happens on sites like Reddit and Facebook. Oculus provides content but the spaces where the conversation happens exist on the web.

Successful Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) provide content as well as space for conversation. Games companies typically spend years creating content which is voraciously consumed within a few months. It is typically impossible to build content as fast as it is consumed, so it is crucial that the content promotes communication between players so that relationships form and the world becomes a forum for conversation. The model is similar to a virtual theme park: it is impossible for people to continuously ride on new roller coasters all day and so the park around the rides becomes important. Disneyland is the conversation in the queue as much as the ride itself. Games companies hope that by the time people have completed all the quests, they have made friends and that the virtual world is the natural place to continue to hang out with those friends.

Unlike static theme parks, some MMOs provide a more open sandbox which allows people to have a bigger impact on the world and so define more of the content themselves. A good example is EVE which allows players to build enormous empires via trade, industry, conquest and espionage. The continuing power struggles fuel a rich continuing conversation around the player created content and a history which is just as real as any other human history.

Other virtual worlds like Second Life rely almost completely on user generated content. Linden Lab builds a software platform, rents out virtual space and provides customer services, but builds very little content itself. In the early days of Second Life content creation was itself the content around which conversation formed. People would build in virtual sandboxes and others would swing by to see what they were building and ask how it was done. As more people began creating content it quickly became impossible to see everything, which enabled more content and conversation as people shared their favourite spots, curated exhibitions and shared links on the web.

Each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages. The traditional MMO approach provides accessible, high quality content and builds community around it, but has to focus on broad, mainstream tastes to ensure that the limited content appeals as broadly as possible. It results in a theme park full of content that appeals to lots of people for a limited amount of time. Even with the resources to appeal to every taste, would a Disneyland punk rock club really be punk? The sandbox approach creates a much greater feeling of ownership, investment and constant evolution, but while Burning Man is an impressive achievement it’s not clear that many people would want to live there all year.

If you’re thinking about building the Metaverse can you learn lessons from the past to build an appealing space for as broad an audience as possible? Can you build somewhere with a core of high quality, broadly appealing commissioned content surrounded by a constantly changing vibrant fringe of more niche experiences like the Edinburgh Festival which people can safely explore? Can you provide space for content, conversation and commerce which allows people to be heroes, protagonists and entrepreneurs as well as visitors to a theme park? Can you leave the right spaces around our content for people to contribute comments, conversation, curation, communities, collaboration and commerce? Can your Metaverse support services in the spaces between the content just as services grew in the interstices in the web?

(Second Life screenshot:Ella Pinellapin)