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Friday, May 09, 2008

The pending closure of Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom has caused a significant uproar across the interwebs. I understand the rage, and see the VMK situation as a cautionary tale about investing one’s emotional energies into a proprietary, corporate virtual environment.

I have always been a geek; my credentials hail back to my elementary school years, when I attended my first sci-fi convention, and developed an obsessive affection for horror movies through watching Creature Feature. So, it really shouldn’t surprise you that for a few years, I was working on a distributed software project which coordinated much of its work through a MUD, otherwise known as a Multi-User Dungeon. Yes, a piece of software created to support geographically distributed tabletop roleplaying games became a genuine, legitimate part of my daily work life. We used the MUD for coordination of software tests, comparing results at sites around the world, and creating a technical “backchannel” for large-scale distributed events coordinated across as many as five continents.

We also, of course, goofed off. Much like the office kitchen, the MUD doubled as a social gathering place, where you’d run into friends and hear the latest news, work-related and otherwise. And since this was a text-based space (no graphics at all), we had to get creative. A few of us asked to have our “programmer bits set,” so we could create virtual objects, actions/verbs, and even virtual rooms of our own. We also explored creations that others had left behind. I found a Jedi training manual in a treetop, followed the directions to make a lightsaber, and inadvertently found myself drifting to the Dark Side after I’d repeatedly slain a Midwestern friend of mine in practice duels, not realizing the impact of this on my Jedi stats.

As you can imagine, the relationships forged and supported in such a space can be quite rich and complex. I “saw” these people every day, often working more closely with my geographically-distributed colleagues than I did with the guy on the other side of my cubicle wall. I never would have thought of these as “virtual” relationships . . . they were real, actual relationships, expressed primarily in a text-based space. We got a lot of work done, and we laughed a lot too.

Eventually, the project shifted communications strategies, and we had to leave behind the MUD where we’d all become so comfortable. But here’s the good thing: MUD software is not under the control of a single proprietor. Some of the code I’d written in our old hangout could easily be duplicated in the new place. All it took was an email to the admin to get my programmer bit set again, and a fairly simple copy/paste operation. I couldn’t bring my lightsaber, nor my Jedi credentials, so it wasn’t quite the same. But there was some degree of portability, and we got used to the new space in short order. Plus, it was easy to move us all to the new space, communicating through email lists.

Virtual Magic Kingdom users don’t have any such options, because the environment in which they’ve invested their heart, soul, and creative energies is completely under corporate control. As any IT geek worth his caffeine will tell you, proprietary environments vary widely in their ability/desire to let you export your data. In the case of VMK, users (in other words: people) are pretty much outta luck. All those virtual items created, all those personal networks developed . . . if I understand correctly, none are portable, none can be carried over into some other environment. Certainly even if the buddy lists are made portable to other Disney environments, one still couldn’t move them into a non-corporate space. And sending out an email blast to just move the community, and let everybody know where you’re going, isn’t a good option; proprietary networks designed for children frequently and understandably make it difficult or impossible to obtain a users’ email address (as a parent myself, I appreciate this feature).

Virtual environments and social networking sites are fast becoming a part of most people’s day-to-day lives, whether we like it or not. Remember the great Facebook outage of August, 2007? Imagine the social unrest if Facebook closed its doors for good, and you have a little taste of how heavily many people are relying on proprietary, corporate environments for creation and maintenance of social interactions and connections.  I do not believe that we as a society fully understand the long-term ramifications of this emerging technology, nor do we grasp how best to take advantage of its strengths. What will the workforce look like when the MySpace generation sits on the boards of the Fortune 500? How will communications technologies have evolved, and how will their use change the way we interact? We can’t possibly know.

I hope Disney finds a solution more acceptable to its loyal VMK users, but even more deeply I hope that we as a society find a better way to manage these environments, to determine the rights and responsibilities of “virtual” community members, and to make careful and thoughtful choices about our investment in communities governed by corporate bodies, rather than by their members.