Human-Scale Online Games

Over at Lost Garden, Daniel Cook has a fantastic piece looking at how to create “human-scale” online games, and why that’s a better approach to MMOs. This is some really fantastic, well thought out stuff, and not just for games: what they’re really talking about is how to build community.

One way of thinking about the constraints suggested by Dunbar’s Layers is to imagine you have a budget of cognitive resources that can be spent on relationships. The physical limits of your human brain mean that you only have enough mental budget for a total of roughly 150 relationships.

Humans have developed a few tools that have expanded our ability to organize into groups well past our primate cousins—most notably language—but also large-scale systems of government and economics. In the early 2000s, people assumed that new technologies like online social networks could help break past Dunbar’s Number; by offloading the cost of remembering our friendships to a computer, we could live richer, more social lives, with strong relationships to even more people.

We now have copious data that this is not the case. Studies suggest that there’s still a limited budget of cognitive resources at play and even in online platforms we see the exact same distribution of relationships.

If anything, social networks damage our relationships. By making it possible for us to cheaply form superficial relationships (and invest our limited energy in maintaining them), such systems divert cognitive resources from smaller, intimate groups out towards larger, less-intimate groups. The result is that key relationships with best friends and loved ones suffer. And, unfortunately, it is the strength of these high-trust relationships that are most predictive of mental health and overall happiness.

Daniel Cook

It’s a long read (which you might have guessed by the size of my pull quote), but well worth it.

More Social Media Diets

I mentioned John Green’s decision to take a year off (most) social media before. Well, he’s posted an update, a month in, and I think he sums up my own feelings pretty well:

In a similar vein, I also recently bumped into this video by the folks at Veritasium, and I think also touches on some really valid views of what’s so bad about social media as it stands:

Not going to bother adding a lot of meta-commentary, here. I think they make their points well enough on their own.

The End of Leisure

Over at The Hedgehog Review, Charlie Tyson writes about the Virtuosos of Idleness, and the nature of leisure (and its loss in modern society). It’s an interesting read. There are a number of articles about the coming work-pocalypse of increased automation and the massive inequalities introduced by the “gig economy,” but it’s also worthwhile to look at how we spend our off-time. One choice bit that struck a chord:

Most Americans today find work drudgery and leisure anxiously vacant. In our hours off work, we rarely achieve thrilling adventure, deliberate self-education, or engage in Whitmanian loafing. At the same time, faith is eroding in the idea that paid work can offer pleasure, self-discovery, a means for improving the world, or anything more than material subsistence.

Charlie Tyson

I mean, they’re not wrong. I’m lucky enough to have a decent job with some flexibility to learn and grow, but jobs like that are decidedly not the majority of jobs out there. And while the work side might not be terrible at the moment, the “vacant leisure” is real. The author continues:

Recreational pursuits more demanding than fleeting digital absorption are, increasingly, acts of consumption. Leisure is not something you “do” but something you “buy,” whether in the form of hotels and cruises or Arianna Huffington–vetted mindfulness materials. The leisure industry provides work for some while promising relaxation to others, for a fee.

The sorry state of leisure is partly a consequence of an economy in which we are never fully detached from the demands of work. The category of “free” time is not only defined by its opposite (time “free” of work); it is subordinated to it. Free time, Theodor Adorno warns, “is nothing more than a shadowy continuation of labor.” Free time is mere recovery time. Spells of lethargy between periods of labor do little but prepare us for the resumption of work. Workers depleted by their jobs and in need of recuperation turn to escapist entertainment and vacuous hobbies. And the problem of figuring out when work is “over,” in an economy in which knowledge workers spend their job hours tweeting and their evening hours doing unpaid housework and child care, has never seemed more perplexing.

Charlie Tyson

Yep. The conversation continues from there, and is worth the time to read.

Death of the Author

I’m not sure the hows or whys that discussion about the literary theory of the “death of the author” cropped up recently, but it did. Lindsay Ellis has an excellent video essay about it (and really, go watch the rest of her stuff while you’re at it). It covers a lot of ground, and also some of the impact that our current culture’s shift towards personal brand (and subsequent association of any work done with that brand) has on how we think about creators and their creations. Go watch:

This prompted a follow-up response by John Scalzi, which I think is also worth reading. In process of discussing how the author is not the book and the book is not the author, he noted:

One side effect of this is that you should expect that at one point or another the authors whose work you admire will disappoint you, across a spectrum of behaviors or opinions. Because they’re human, you see. Think of all the humans you know, who have never disappointed you in one way or another. Having difficulty coming up with very many? Funny, that.

(Don’t worry, you’ve disappointed a whole bunch of people, too.)

John Scalzi

I think that’s a pretty salient point to remember these days. That’s not to excuse people who do terrible things, nor to say there isn’t merit in boycotting the work of someone who did terrible things. But if you treat every gaff or slight as unconscionable, you’re setting yourself to be constantly outraged and constantly disappointed. Everyone’s line is going to be different, though, and it’s your call on whether any particular occasion crosses that line. Relatedly:

A shitty human can write great books (or make lovely paintings, or fantastic food, or amazing music, etc), and absolutely lovely humans can be aggressively mediocre to bad artists. There is very little correlation between decency and artistic talent. You don’t need to be a good human in order to understand human behavior well enough to write movingly about it; remember that con men are very good judges of character.

With that said, if you discover that the writer of one of your favorite novels (or whatever) doesn’t live up to your moral or ethical standards, you’re not obliged to give them any more of your time or attention, because life is too short to financially or intellectually support people you think are scumbags. Likewise, you and you alone get to decide where that line is, and how you apply it. Apply one standard for one author, and a different one for another? Okay! I’m sure you have your reasons, and your reasons can just be “because I feel like it.” Just like in real life, you might put up with more bullshit from one person than another, for reasons that are personal to you.

John Scalzi

Just more things to chew on.

Addendum: Neil Gaiman also touched on some of this topic (more specifically, the commingling of author and work, and people making assumptions about the author based on characters in their book), and makes a point I wanted to note:

Well, unless you are going to only write stories in which nice things happen to nice people, you are going to write stories in which people who do not believe what you believe show up, just like they do in the world. And in which bad things happen, just as they do in the world. And that’s hard.

And if you are going to write awful people, you are going to have to put yourself into their shoes and into their head, just as you do when you write the ones who believe what you believe. Which is also hard.

Neil Gaiman

Hurdles to a New Social Web

My last post was discussing the state of social media (and frankly, the internet), and a possible future. I feel like I can say relatively objectively that things are pretty broken as they currently stand, in an actively harming society sort of way. But when you’re entrenched, it can be incredibly difficult to see a way out, even if you know you need to. I wanted to take a minute to talk about some of the hurdles to moving on from this mess. (Fair warning, this is a little long.)

Continue reading “Hurdles to a New Social Web”

The New Social Media

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the internet will look like in the future. Right now, it’s dominated by social media in one form or another, with large, megacorp silos acting as our primary sources of information and discourse. This is a shift from the “DIY” homegrown state of the early internet — while there were absolutely megacorps that cornered entire niches of the internet (think about the likes of AOL, for instance), it didn’t feel like quite as much of a stranglehold. There was lots of room for growth and plucky startups and homegrown projects. A proliferation of open source projects to run your own websites in all sorts of wacky configurations (lots of weird mishmashes of CMSes, blog software, forums, galleries, with some shaky handcrafted glue between them all). Lots of platforms, lots of different standards and protocols popping up all the time, and nothing really talking to each other all that well. Early attempts at cohesion had mixed success (OAuth, yay! RSS, woo! Trackbacks… um).

Given that sort of morass, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a lot of these homegrown solutions gave way to professionally run central services. Tired of fiddling with your tumble log? Go sign up for Tumblr. Microblogging micromanagement got you down? Check out this Twitter thing. Sick of managing 500 logins to different forums? Roll on over to Reddit. Gallery software galling you? Find your way to Flickr! They handle the backend, you provide the content, and your audience grows as their userbase does! Sounds great, right?

Continue reading “The New Social Media”

John Taking a Year Off

How various social internet sites occupy our brains has been a recurring topic on here, and I think he summarizes it all pretty well. These sites are working as intended, but I don’t like that intention, and I don’t like how they work for me, personally.

My own experiences with taking time off have had limited success. I still find myself on Facebook or Tumblr or Instagram (or… or… or…) more than I would like, though I’m interacting with it less and have less expectation of interaction on them (which I think is still a net win, but not as much as I’d like). I’m not sure I’m at the point of going cold-turkey (and what shape that would take — where do I want to spend my time?) like John, but it definitely continues to be on my mind.

Neil’s Well Wishes for 2019

I’ve always appreciated Neil Gaiman’s New Year’s Wishes, and this year’s is also worth calling out:

Be kind to yourself in the year ahead.

Remember to forgive yourself, and to forgive others. It’s too easy to be outraged these days, so much harder to change things, to reach out, to understand.

Try to make your time matter: minutes and hours and days and weeks can blow away like dead leaves, with nothing to show but time you spent not quite ever doing things, or time you spent waiting to begin.

Meet new people and talk to them. Make new things and show them to people who might enjoy them.

Hug too much. Smile too much. And, when you can, love.

Neil Gaiman

The Existential Void of the Pop-Up

Over at the New York Times, Amanda Hess writes about The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience’. (This came out in September and has been sitting my tabs waiting to be blogged about since then. Oops.) It’s an interesting look at the panoply of “pop-up experiences” that have been popping up [sic] lately, where it’s all about the curated, Instagrammable experience. It kind of gets at something I noted when I lived in the Bay area: people doing things less for the participatory doing, and more for the being seen doing. You hear folks talking about their “platform” and “personal brand” and the optics of things. Even things we do to appear authentic end up being to some degree performative. (As an aside, Lindsay Ellis has a recent and excellent video talking about this from the perspective of video blogging, called Manufacturing Authenticity (For Fun and Profit!).)

The central disappointment of these spaces is not that they are so narcissistic, but rather that they seem to have such a low view of the people who visit them. Observing a work of art or climbing a mountain actually invites us to create meaning in our lives. But in these spaces, the idea of “interacting” with the world is made so slickly transactional that our role is hugely diminished. Stalking through the colorful hallways of New York’s “experiences,” I felt like a shell of a person. It was as if I was witnessing the total erosion of meaning itself. And when I posted a selfie from the Rosé Mansion saying as much, all of my friends liked it.

Amanda Hess

I don’t know, maybe I’m just not the target demographic, and I’m just an old curmudgeon who doesn’t “get” it. But there’s something that feels kind of funky about these manufactured, curated experiences. Hmm, that’s not fair: We’ve always curated experiences, chosen how we present things at both small and grand scales. I think there’s a distinction: there’s participatory interaction, and then there’s performative interaction, and these pop-ups seem to fall into the category of the latter more than the former, and that leaves us feeling… empty.