2-4 Study of other MOOs
A text-based virtual environment can provide both a shared place (the virtual world), and a shared set of activities (exploring and extending the virtual world). Like at a coffee break at a conference, there is a social convention that it is appropriate to strike up a conversation with strangers simply based on their name tags. On MediaMOO, you can read descriptions of people's research interests as well as their names, and this can form a basis for striking up a substantive conversation [Bruckman 93].
However, name tags alone are not enough. The best sorts of interactions occur when people participate in a shared activity and not just a shared context. On MediaMOO, this takes the form of constructing and interacting with the virtual world. The Constructionist theory of education emphasizes the value of constructing personally meaningful artifacts [Papert 80]. This theory has guided design decisions made in MediaMOO and everyone is automatically a programmer with full privileges to create new objects and places in the virtual world.
MediaMOO attracts a community of researchers through advertising on electronic mailing lists devoted to media studies. People are required to submit a description of their research interests to register and while some applicants are refused, it is primarily a self-selection process.
The kind of networking and casual collaboration which occurs at conferences does appear to be taking place on MediaMOO. It seems natural to extend the conference metaphor to literally have meetings on MediaMOO. This has been tried several times with mixed results. Conversations in MOOs are often multi-threaded. When large numbers of people all talk at once, each of those threads can become very short--rather like a tailor's scrap bin. Users have experimented with a variety of computational ways to improve the quality of discussion.
Wade Roush organized a forum on Cyberspace and the Humanities, which more than 40 people attended. The forum took place in two different "conference rooms," each with a different method for focusing conversation. In one, users are all allowed to talk at once and tag their comments with a relevant subject line. In another, a limited number of people can talk at a time and there is a queue for those wishing to speak. This increases the coherence of the conversation but takes an already slow medium and slows it further.
Randy Farmer writes: "It seems likely that online meetings will be more successful when networked video and audio systems become more generally available. Text is a tremendously expressive medium and has advantages over graphics and audio for some applications. For example, in less than a moment one can write that "at the top of the hill is a gnarled peach tree," and this conjures up an image in the reader's mind. It would take considerably longer to draw such a tree, and less would be left to the imagination. Audio and video will not replace text-based VR, just as television didn't replace radio or magazines but simply changed what they are used for. Online meetings are one application where the greater bandwidth of audio and video may be needed".
The second design better embodies the participatory philosophy of MediaMOO. It assumes that the community of users have worthwhile things to say; the privilege to comment is no longer reserved for the author of the object alone. Valuing participation and respecting the contribution of each individual are principles inspired by Constructionism.
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