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Making the MUVE

Submitted by Tom Peters on March 22, 2007 - 4:55pm

dust devilWe live in an age in which social networks, online communities, and the wisdom of crowds are all the rage.  This rage may have all the superficiality and transience of a dust devil, which appears to contain the destructive beauty of a real tornado, but actually only kicks up some dust and leaves.  But I think this is an enduring rage with potentially profound and positive effects on humanity in general and librarianship in particular.

This morning Max (my dog, my consigliere, my muse) and I were pondering social networks, online communities, and the wisdom of crowds as we pursued our daily pre-dawn perambulation through the Plaza Estates West subdivision of beautiful Blue Springs, Missouri. 

Societies, communities, and crowds are composed of individuals, and the relationship between the individual and the group always is a source of interesting tension.  Take the act of naming, for instance.  Only an individual can come up with a name, but only the crowd, community, and society can validate the name by accepting and using it.  Even James Joyce's linguistic gymnastics have enduring meaning only because of the phalanx of English profs and graduate students who validated them.

Max the MuseThe software used to generate clever, memorable, compelling names for cars is the exception that proves the rule that only an individual can create a name.  There also is software that helps expectant parents choose a baby name, but such software seems to rely primarily on databases of existing names, from Mary to Moon Unit. 

MUVE is the name I and many others currently use to describe Second Life and other three-dimensional virtual environments.  MUVE stands for Multi-User Virtual Environment.  The good thing about referring to Second Life as a MUVE is that it distinguishes it from World of Warcraft and other MMORPG's (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games).  Some people have argued that MUVE's and MMORPG's have many more similarities than differences and thus should all be placed in the genus online games, but I prefer to think of MUVE's as having more in common with life than with Monopoly or paintball.  

No name is entirely satisfactory.  I have a few nits to pick with MUVE.  First, the phrase “multi-user” conjures up memories of labels on board games that state “suitable for 2 to 6 players, age 3 or older” and does scant justice to the tens of thousands of people who are in Second Life at any given moment.  As I write this, Second Life claims to have 4,886,204 registered avatars, of which 1,696,028 have logged into Second Life in the past 60 days, with 32,873 currently online.  Because some people have two or more avatars, it's difficult to tell how many actual people currently use Second Life frequently.  Several people have reported to me that they tried Second Life once, found it too weird or disconcerting, and have never returned.  Another useful usage statistic would be the number of repeat visitors within the past 60 days. 

The other problem with using the name "MUVE" is that the concept of a virtual environment carries all sorts of troubling and confusing baggage.  A virtual environment, as a type of virtual reality, can be understood as something that closely approximates real reality—the world as we know it.  Based upon my experiences in Second Life in the past 12 months, I suggest that approximating real environments really is not what Second Life and other MUVE's are about.  The longer we individually and collectively inhabit MUVE's, the more will both our understanding of them and their virtual landscapes diverge from real reality.   

Alliance Library Building in Second LifeTake buildings, for instance.  Why are they even necessary in MUVE's, other than to satisfy some basic human urge for shelter that has not yet atrophied in virtual environments?   Early library buildings in Second Life often had a whiff of Carnegie about them.  They were stately and solid.  But more recently library architecture in Second Life has started to diverge from the reassuring real-world models.  The new Alliance Library System headquarters in Second Life, for instance, is very open and almost entirely glass.  When you don't need to worry about bearing the weight of collections, load-bearing walls, HVAC systems, and lighting, architecture in MUVE's can and will diverge from real-world architecture in new and interesting ways.  Many buildings dispense with doors, and in the new ALA/>/>/> high-rise in Second Life you can fly to and land on any floor.  Thoughtful staff put tiki torches on the balconies to guide night-flying avatars to their destination. 

If such divergence can happen with library architecture, can it also happen with library services?  I think so.  The public services, technical services, and collections that exist today across the Alliance Info Archipelago, which just won the ALA//>Information Today, Inc. Library of the Future Award, are fairly recognizable to their real-world counterparts.  But the divergence has begun, which may accelerate over time.  These divergences are exciting and energizing.  They are the reason I find the making of MUVE's so fascinating, and so good for librarianship.       

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