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VI1: Technology Changes Rapidly; Humans Don’t

Technology Changes Rapidly; Humans Don't

Tharon W. Howard, in Design to Thrive, 2010


The RIBS heuristic are essential to better understand how to design sustainable social networks and online communities. This final chapter is designed to afford network architects and community designers a better view both of RIBS and of external forces in the social media landscape. Social networks and online communities have the potential to effect economic, political, and social changes far beyond the expectations of their designers, and that kind of “success” can ironically threaten the sustainability of a community. When social media begin to impact larger institutions, such as the election of government officials, intellectual property laws, religious institutions, educational settings, and other established institutions of literate cultures, then a battle for control ensues. The issues resulting from such clashes can destroy communities whose leaders lack a means of understanding and anticipating the conflicts. This chapter explores four areas of the future that history suggests are likely to be the social networking battlefield of the future. These four areas are copyrights and intellectual property; disciplinary control vs. individual creativity; visual, technological, and new media literacies; and decision-making contexts for future markets. One can use RIBS as an analytical tool on existing communities in order to assess the health of their community's interactions.

Ownership and control of virtual identities

Control of an individual's virtual identity is yet another example of this future intellectual property battlefield. In this book, I've talked a lot about Blizzard's extraordinarily successful game, World of Warcraft (WoW). I've talked about how WoW players have an incredible investment in the avatars they create. Players spend months, years even, creating their avatars, collecting different weapons, armor, articles of clothing, and so on by playing the game. And, as shown in Chapter 6 with the character Justus, WoW players invest a lot of their real identities in the characters they create. For most of them, that avatar belongs to them; they made it and they invested significant resources in its creation. This is also true for users of the social network Second Life. They also identify with their avatars so strongly that users are living a “second life” through those avatars as well as the spaces they create. For WoW and Second Life users, their avatars are their virtual identities. So if these users want to share an image of their virtual selves with others, they should be able to do so, right?

Wrong. They can't share their virtual identities because (1) screen captures are considered “derivative works” and (2) because Blizzard owns World of Warcraft and Linden Labs owns Second Life. Blizzard had hundreds of artists, designers, and programmers create the armor, weapons, clothing, and mounts that players collect. As a result, they own the game and any derivative works that come from it. If a player wished, for example, to create a line of t-shirts and posters with her avatar on the front that she would sell through, say, Café Press, then Blizzard could sue for copyright infringement. And again, this makes sense from Blizzard's perspective, as the company provided all the artwork and software required to derive that particular avatar's configuration. But from the player's perspective, the avatar is her virtual self; it's who she is in that world. In the real world, she might wear Lee blue jeans to work every day; that doesn't mean she has to give Lee a cut of her salary or, to carry the analogy further, that Lee has the right to tell her she can't go to that particular job because she's wearing jeans they designed.

Ownership of purchasing identities

Beacon was an application that would tell other users on Facebook what products and services an individual was purchasing. The idea, presumably, was that knowing what videos your friends were renting, what movie tickets they were purchasing, and what video games they were buying would encourage you to make similar purchase decisions. However, the loss of control over the information being revealed about a user's Facebook identity infuriated large numbers of Facebook users who brought a class action lawsuit against Beacon, Blockbuster, Fandango, Overstock, Gamefly, Hotwire, and a small number of other companies who had partnered with Beacon to provide the service. In this case, the virtual identity wasn't an image or an avatar, it was the ability to control the story or picture of an individual that emerged through his or her purchasing decisions. The virtual identity in this case may be less tangible than an avatar, yet users’ need to own and control it is no less passionate.

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