John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated May 97 (v1.0)


The Other Worlds


Palace is but one of many chat environments on the internet. When I first studied the Palace community,comparing it to these other worlds was an important step in understanding its unique features as well as the universal features of many, if not all, online communities. Unfortunately, my knowledge of these other environments was limited. So I welcomed visitors to this page to send me their impressions of how Palace compared and contrasted to other communities. On this page, I have posted interesting excerpts. Since the publishing of this article in 1997, some of these online communities have disappeared, while new ones have emerged. One of the most popular of the more recent avatar worlds has been Second Life.

Red text are my comments. They are intended to introduce or highlight ideas that are being discussed by the contributors to this page.


In what follows, Cyndi Pock (FO), an old-timer Palatian and experienced cyberspace traveler, describes her impressions of the various chat worlds she has explored and how they compare to Palace.


AOL Chat Rooms

My experience is, Palace is no more sophisticated than AOL chat rooms, just different. Certainly, the use of props allows more expansive expression, but quite honestly, the chat is all pretty much the same. I don't see social interaction being more or less sophisticated on Palace than other places. Because the population on AOL is so huge, it takes longer to meet good people you can have fun with and enjoy. However, they do exist there and I'm still close to friends I initially met there. Palace is getting more difficult, I think, for new folks to meet "good people." The snert factor exists unilaterally across the net.

Of course, I spent two years living on AOL chat rooms and even became a host there. I met folks there I'm still very close to. They host RL parties too, and some of my friends get together regularly from there. So, if RL relationships is how one measures the sophistication of an online community, then despite the problems with AOL, it still is a great place to meet new friends and interesting people. Like Palace, you have to wade through the snerts to get to the gems.

Worlds Chat

A lot like Palace (in fact, it was created before Palace). But it is a 3D environment. They run a 1st person view to sort of imitate RL. But, I actually find this more difficult to work with because you can't see what is going on behind, above, below you, etc... I don't like the 3-D environments. They all tend to be 1st person views which actually hamper social interaction.


Palace is a two dimensional visual world with a third person view. Other worlds, like Worlds Chat, are 3D with a first person view. The 2D, third person view results in a "stepping" back from scene where one can observe the social interaction - including one's own behavior. For some users it might encourage a dissociating or distancing of oneself from the scene. For others it might result in a less restrained or "boxed in" feeling as in 3D, first person views. One sits back and takes in the big picture. It might even encourage what psychoanalytic theory calls a "healthy observing ego."


Meridian 59

An RPG community. Nice graphics, and some a really great email feature! I love it! The email only works on conjunction with Meridian, but it was a wonderful feature. I left Meridian because it seemed to be primarily young male teens....so it had somewhat of a "Lord of the Flies" feel to it. lol! Again, it is 3D and 1st person view of the world.

The Realm

Another RPG. I LOVE this place! Graphically, it is similar to palace in that it is 2D and 3rd-person view, so very comfortable chat environment. Mix of ages and genders. It is nice to have more to do than just chat. I like hunting monsters, working on building my level, etc. It is a monetary based society, so we have lots of thieves! But, I think humans naturally like "owning" things and tend to create their own value-system. At Palace, props and identity are valuable, so those are the things that get stolen instead of money. Anyway, lots to do... you can just chat or hunt. Doesn't matter. In game environments like Realms, the politics seem less, and I like that part. In some ways, people take Palace far too seriously. The entire name and prop registration controversy for example. I see the SAME names on these other programs and wonder, how far do you take such "ownership" issues? What is interesting to watch, on both programs, is the value system. Realms is deliberately geared on a monetary system. You get gold for killing monsters. You can steal gold (thieves are looked down upon). You can sell or buy items, etc. When certain items got taken out of circulation, I witnessed huge inflation for those items. I myself kept many gems, troll hides, etc., that no longer exist in the game.

But, not having a monetary system on Palace doesn't stop people from creating their own value system. I think that is why the name and prop issue is so much more intense on Palace. I've never EVER seen such heated debate over that issue before! Certainly nobody on AOL, or here in Realms discusses such things. They accept that if someone else has their name, they have to choose another. But on Palace, it is a huge issue. Ironically, jbum deliberately created an environment where people could have far more freedom in choosing names. Like with AOL, on Realms I'm limited to the number of names I can have at a given time and if I change it, I have to delete my character (which means losing all those levels...lol!!)

I doubt the freedom to be anonymous and change your name on a whim will survive. People are too programmed to "own" things. And when they don't have money, they create something else to "own." For some reason, "owning" your own palace isn't as appealing to people. Guess our ego's are too huge : )


Palace differs from other worlds in two important respects. First, it does not revolve around any specific game - although the politics and intricate variety of social dramas that parallel real life may be considered the "game" (the game of life). Palace also does not have an economic/monetary system. However, issues of ownership, status, and power do arise over who created/uses what props and what names, and over who belongs to what social group. These issues point to a more basic need that must be satisfied in any online community - the need for a unique, effective identity.


Onlive Traveler

I don't have a microphone! lol! Have to get one. Graphics are WAY cool. Again, 3D, 1st person view though. Like Palace, you can create your own server and environment. Oddly, I wish they had a chat-log option. lol! It is a novelty right now. Still awkward to use. And, in some ways, I don't like hearing the voices. Sometimes, imagination is better : )


Some online communities, through video and audio technology, will move towards ever more realistic imitations of "real world" (face-to-face) encounters. Other communities, like Palace, will improve the multimedia power of a FANTASY-BASED environment... because people will always want an imaginative alternative to real-world encounters. Still other worlds may avoid multimedia technology altogether in order to allow the imagination to do all the walking.


CU-See-Me

Again, I've only used this to chat with people I know. Didn't like going into rooms of strangers. But some people LOVE this program. And in many ways, it is more sophisticated as a social environment because people enter it without a mask. They are brave enough to be themselves. I admire that in folks who use CU. In some ways, I think people who have been on chat a long time graduate to a CU environment. They no longer need to be anonymous.


In what follows, Passion from Worlds Away compares her world to Palace. She focused on ideas about deviance that I discuss in my article on avatar behavior at the Palace.


Mischievous Pranks

Avatars in WA also commit mischievous pranks. And they do try to 'get away with something' but not by playing jokes, mostly by hacking, stealing or scamming. There is no 'msay' or 'spoofing' in WA because that ability is not built into the software.

Hacking

Hacking is a major problem for the WA Oracles. Many instances of hacking have occurred in the lifespan of the service. In order to keep all users point of view current, the WA server frequently gives 'remote updates' where new objects, abilities, etc. are downloaded to the user's hard drive. These updates are stored under a directory called the 'mag' directory. In that directory are '.dat' files. Hackers decompile these .dat files and are at times able to alter the way their client behaves. Altering these files can sometimes give an avatar an ability that has not been introduced to the avatar by the Oracles, or is an ability that is present but not in use and planned for the future. When the hacker finds a successful hack, they distribute the altered .dat file to other users so that those users with the hack can use the new ability. Most of the time, the hacks can only be seen only on a user's screen or by those who also have the same hack who are also on screen. This is because the server is programmed 'not to trust the client'. So for everyone to see the new ability, it has to be given a server permission for all to see the change.

These hacks have become more sophisticated with time and the rumors of what these hacked .dat files can do are mostly hearsay but some of them have risen above the server's programing 'to not trust the client' and somehow slip thru server permissions. For example, there was a 'sit patch' that was distributed to many users. Only the users who had this 'sit patch' installed on their hard drive could see themselves sit on screen. Later on, another 'sit patch' was distributed where in all could see the avatar sit, whether or not the users had the patch, and the server was fooled.


Online communities are technological communities. So hacking the system will always be one deviant method for users to establish their power, acquire status and fame, act out against authority figures, and/or vent their hostilities. Similar motives underlie the other anti-social behaviors, such as stealing, scamming, flooding, and blocking. Being the "bad boy" (or girl) is one way to establish an identity.


Stealing

An avatar can hold an object in their hand and pass it to someone if they so choose. If the avatar places the object on the ground, it's up for the taking and usually is taken. If the avatar trusts the other avatars in a full locale and places the item on the ground, most likely it will stay for a period of time. However, if an avatar crashes or leaves the locale, this leaves a space and opportunity for another avatar come down who may not be so honest and go for the goods on the ground.

Stealing can also occur in a 'turf' or avatar apartment/dwelling. The system has a default name for a turf when an avatar rents one with the automated building manager. There are 4 rental plans, 1-room, 2-room, 3-room, and 4-room turfs. The more rooms in the turf, the more expensive. The default name is 'Chez (avatarname)' Thieves know this, so new and naive avatars rent a turf and accept the default name instead of giving it a name that is unique and hard to guess. The thieves stand by the elevator with their back to the screen (anti-social behavior here) and click on all avatars who pass into the region to use the elevator, hoping that the avatar was naive enough to accept the default name. The thieves click on each avatar coming in and attempt to 'follow' behind an avatar who may have used the default name which is painfully obvious to the thief. The thief arrives in the turf and steals all they can. Savvy avatars know the turf security controls, naive and new avatars have not yet had the chance to familiarize themselves with security and it is too late, the thief gets in and robs them blind.

Stealing also often occurs in public locales during large gatherings. Avatars have no security features in a public locale, only in their turf of which they are an owner (avatars can also 'share' a turf). The only security available is keeping the locale full (6 avs maximum) so that potential thieves can not materialize. Usually, when these large and highly publicized events take place, the ghost count is very high. Therefore Thieves clamor to these events so that when they steal, they are seen by many people who will be upset that they are stealing or perhaps page an acolyte. My hypothesis is that the thieves know of what is called 'the void' a cloned, blank locale that you cannot leave unless and Oracle transports you out. Most thieves who have never seen it 'want' to go there so that they can have brag to others that they have been there. If they go to an event where there are many present, the exposure rate skyrockets their potential of being sent to the void. The more the community is outraged, the better chance of a trip to the void for them. Of course when they get there they scream to get out for days. They find it is not the little extra world for thieves as they had thought.

If an item is stolen, the avatar usually considers it gone as the thief has to willingly give it back which rarely happens. Community pressure and shunning the thief at times is effective. This depends on how much the thieving avatar can take being shunned by the society. He/She can either rehabilitate themselves or continue their anti-social behavior and ultimately be sent to 'the void' for their deeds. Users are usually outraged at the amount of time that an avatar is allowed to continue thieving before some action is taken.

Scamming

Scamming is also very common in WA. Some scams are considered 'small-time' where as others can be elaborate malicious schemes that usually get pulled off. It depends on the savviness of the users and most 'small-time' scams usually only work on newbies and do not work on avatars who have 'been around the block'.

A small time scam can occur in 2 forms:

(1) An avatar may approach an unsuspecting newbie with the promise of a new 'head' or 'avatar customization' in exchange for the newbie's default head. The newbie not knowing any better hands over his head and it is therefore stolen. The default head is quite ugly an the first thing a person wants to do is obtain a better one but you need tokens for that. So false promises of tokens or a better head usually do the newbie in all the time. This scam can occur within in minutes of a newbie arriving in WA as scammers wait and prey on newbies as they first enter the world.

(2) Sale of items occur all the time between avatars. Some items are extremely rare and most oldtimers know the value of specific items. When two avatars decide they would like to sell something to each other, usually the avatar with the item for sale asks for the money to be passed first from the buyer. The seller receives the money, counts it, then puts the money away. At this point it is expected that the seller will then pass the item to the buyer. However, it does not always happen that way. Dishonest avatars ask for the money to be passed first, then run off with the money. Or a dishonest avatar who is the buyer can ask for the item first, then run off with the item without paying for it.

The community is full of trustworthy avatars who are not acolytes. At times this collection of trustworthy individuals will act as a 'mediary' to the sale or act as a 'middle-man'. The Mediary will hold onto the money while the seller passes the item to the buyer. When the seller has counted the money to be sure it is the correct amount agreed, the mediary passes the item for sale to the buyer. Most of the time, avatars page acolytes for this sort of mediation. If an acolyte is not on duty, then a trusted avatar is used. Trusted avatars are usually those who host weekly events, own successful businesses, or are just known to be trusted especially if they are extremely well-known and have no reason to steal.

Scams can become even more sophisticated. The sophisticated scam is usually targeted towards, wealthy, and well-known avatars. When these situations occur, the community usually responds with 'well you should have known better.' or they 'take up a collection' or 'try to acquire a replacement item for the victim.'

The sophisticated scam can be many different ways. Usually the avatar popularity is a basis for how the scam would be orchestrated. For example, a wealthy avatar usually hangs out with other wealthy avatars. So therefore it is general knowledge of who this targeted avatar hangs out with and is close with. A scammer can 'assume' an identity of a trust friend of this targeted avatar and name themselves a variation of this friend and therefore ask innocently to 'try on their head' and the target will hand it over thinking this is their long time trusted friend. If the target does not click on his 'friend' to ID the person first and hands it over they may realize when it's too late that this is not who they thought and are therefore a victim.

Flooding

WA avatars have what is called 'emoticons' available to them. They can add an f3 command into their speech entry which will make their avatar smile at the time a happy statement is made. At times an avatar will place a full line of 'emoticons' in their speech entry and send it to the server making them jump or wave many times. This is viewed as a 'disruption' to a locale. At times, other avatars in the same locale can crash or lag behind the others. Acolytes may be paged for this sort of disruption and it is taken care of.

Another equivalent to Flooding is what is known in WA as the 'ESP-Bomb' Esp is a form of private sends. You can ESP another avatar with a private thought that only the receiver and sender can see it. Many events are based on ESP because ghosted users communicate with the host thru ESP. A disrupter can 'flood' the hosts ESP with gibberish or rapid succession of sends making the victims screen scroll at a very fast rate. The Host cannot read what is said because their screen is being flooded with an esp bomb. Usually this brings the event to a screeching halt and an acolyte is paged. The acolyte can mute the offender or the victim can turn off esp to block the bomb. If an avatar turns off esp he cannot receive esp at all which may not be feasible during an event that needs ESP to be functional. In my experience of Hosting events, I found that if you ignored the offender's espbomb they usually left me alone and went to bother someone else. Others panic, call an acolyte, and the offender gets the attention they sought. If the offender sees they are not going to get this attention, they give up and move on.

Blocking

Blocking is not really considered a social faux pas in WA. If an avatar places themselves in front of your avatar, you can easily move out of their way or leave the locale completely. You most likely will not crash from the system. Blocking is more annoying than an offense that usually does not require an acolyte to the scene. An acolyte will not act on a blocking offense.

Sleeping

The equivalent to 'sleeping' is 'parking.' Avatars receive 60 tokens per hour in their ATM account (automatic token machine). These earned tokens are automatically placed in everyone's ATM account. Avatars who's operators have sponsored accounts or lots of CI$ dollars to burn, 'park' their avatar so that it earns tokens without the operator necessarily being at the keyboard. At first parkers could park all they wanted but the oracles instituted a 'timeout' feature to the software so that parkers would be automatically disconnected from the system if there was inactivity for 12 minutes. Rebellious Parkers instituted 'parking hacks' so that they somehow program their avatar to remain connected despite the time-out feature. There is no feature to let others know you are parking like a BRB sign. Most parkers have their back to the screen in a public locale or they park in their turf.

Eavesdropping

Ghosts can view the avatars on screen and see what they are saying. The only way for an avatar to know who is ghosted above is if the ghost ESPs them to let them know they are above. A ghost cannot see private ESPs between avatars. So if avatars want privacy they either ESP each other or go to a private turf. Anything said outloud can be seen by all, ghost or avatar.

Flashing

This ability is not possible in WA. All avatars are fully clothed and the user cannot remove the clothes. The only naughty deeds observed like this would be for some avatars to engage publicly in graphic cybersex using outloud speech instead of ESP or going to a turf for privacy. Acolytes get paged for this all the time and usually mute the offenders if they cannot be reasoned with.

Prop Dropping

This also is not possible in WA. All of the objects in world are clean and not obscene in anyway. An avatar can drop an object and run but nothing will happen to the avatar except he has relived himself of a object for someone else to come alone and obtain.

Impostors

Impostoring is one of the number one problems in WA. There are many groups and 'cliques' in WA. Some of these groups host events and help new people. There specific initiations and inductions into the groups but after the leader of the group has officially inducted or initiated an avatar, the avatar usually puts a series of initials that represent the group in their name. For example, a name before the induction to the Golden Knights may have been simply 'Peter'. No one else can use the name Peter except the person who chose it, saving it to the system. The name is 'in use' and cannot be taken. However after initiation, Peter will change his name to perhaps, 'Peter- GK, 'Peter, GK', 'Peter - Golden Knight', 'Golden Knight Peter', 'GK Peter' and so on. Impostors can create an identity based on this variable of how the groups express their members. Peter is probably a trustworthy nice avatar if he has been inducted to the Golden Knights who help people and have numerous events. But now that he has changed his name, he is open to impostors who can chose a variation on this name and ruin Peter's reputation. They can also just use these initials and misrepresent themselves as Golden Knights and scam those who were under the impression that Golden Knights are trusted individuals.

Individuals used to be able to impersonate oracles and acolytes. Oracles have a different appearance than the normal avatar and are dressed in robes. Acolytes look like normal avatars but possess an acolyte book where they get their powers from. Impostors in the past have used a special 'l' character because attempting to name yourself acolyte or oracle anything is rejected by the system. However if this 'fake l' is used, an individual can change their name. An avatar who tries to impersonate an Oracle is rarely given any thought since all oracles look very different from normal avatars. Those who impersonate acolytes with the 'fake l' can misrepresent themselves as the official Oracle helper and scam new people. The system no longer accepts the 'fake l' and there have not been any acolyte/oracle impostors in quite some time.

Identity Disruption

At times you can get to know a person no matter what appearance or name they have chosen. It's an acquired ability from either knowing the person very well or knowing their reputation. It all depends on how good the user is in concealing their true identity. WA avatars can act out their turmoil by using the angry expression, disrupting an event, harassing other avatars, etc. Depending on the heads available they can also use certain types of heads to portray their turmoil such as a 'Skull_Head' or a 'Vampire_Head', etc. The system allows name changes but they become increasingly more expensive as the user changes their name. The amount starts at 10 tokens and doubles in amount each time the name is changed. The user is more reluctant to change a name when they know in advance that their name change is going to be expensive. Name changes are mostly used by thieves after they steal so that the 'alleged thief' is no longer existent. As in The Palace, if you don't stick to a specific look or name, you won't be recognized.


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