So, rather late in the day, it's time for me to weigh in on the biggest issue that came up while I was away:
Wow. Russia has incompetent but very sexy spies. This makes me feel better about the world.
The second biggest thing that happened while I was away was the whole kerfuffle about RealID as it applies to the forums. That's not something that can be as easily summed up in an image (although some have tried) but it's something I want to devote an unusually long post to, because I have a slightly different take on it to most, and because I've been devoting a lot of brain space to it in the last 48 hours.
Two things you need to know:
- My guild is composed entirely of real world friends. You have to be a "real world" friend of an existing member to get in. The majority of us are in our late 30s, or early 40s. There are exceptions - we have one foetus in his 20s, the cad - but generally, this is a direct effect of the way the guild is structured.
- I've been working professionally in blogging for four years now, as those who heard my Twisted Nether interview will recall, and over the last year, my job role has expanded to take in community development. Some of the issues Blizzard is addressing - or is claiming to be addressing - are exactly the ones I'm looking at and planning for in my day job.
With those disclosures made, let's plough on.
When the basics of RealID were announced, I was very happy. I was only ever going to add real world friends to it - those who know my e-mail address(es) anyway, and it would be a great way to keep in touch with them if they were playing on another server, on Horde-side or in another game. It's opt-in, so no problems. Great addition to the game. And, having played a little with it since it was implemented, I still think this part is a great idea. Part of me wishes that this was a service independent of Blizzard so it could be applies to other games, too, but I understand the commercial imperatives behind that not being the case. (Still, and open-sourced game status protocol that Blizz could hook RealID into would be kinda cool).
Larisa quoted this from a fellow mage (I couldn't track down the original source):
Game heads don't care about Facebook, or social networking. Sure, they might use the services, but when in 'gamer mindset', they care far more about melting faces, and beating the crap out of their fellow players then engaging with them via swapping pictures of their cats.
He's wrong. Or, rather, he's making a sweeping statement that isn't true for everyone. You see, I want to melt faces (or heal the one melting faces) WITH MY FRIENDS. That's why I play WoW rather than a solo game - because it's doing these things with people I care about that adds another layer of meaning to it for me. And, because this is an opt-in system, you can choose to add that layer of meaning without detracting from the experience of what's already there for those who don't care who they're melting faces with.
RealID in Forums
However, the big issue hasn't been that. It's been the decision to apply RealID to the forums; a decision that's since been reversed. I don't use the forums (apart from checking the Mac support forum from time to time). I think, for time invested, the return is poor. Finding good quality content amongst the trolling, juvenile behaviour and out and out drama just isn't worth spending my precious free time on.
And my initial reaction was "Oh, good, I might actually check out the forums again".
Now, before you flame me, bear in mind that I'm a late-30s male. You can find my real name really easily. It's on the about page, the "by" field of every post on my professional blog, and in the URL of my personal blog. Dammit, I'm even on Wikipedia. I've been like this for the best part of a decade - possibly longer - and it's yet to come and bite me in the ass. For me, to date, having my real name out there on the internet has been a positive thing. It landed me my current job, and has lead to many positive friendships and working relationships.
That said, I do understand many of the safety arguments. I am, self-admittedly an extrovert, married to an introvert who has me police her web presence very carefully, and I know that my wife would probably be horrified to have her name attached to discussions in this way. Psychochild nails pretty exactly why, for introverts, this is a bad move.
I don't agree with all the anti-RealID arguments, mind. I'm somewhat suspicious of "thin end of the wedge" or "creep" arguments. I tend to think you should debate ideas on their merits as described rather than adding a bunch of assumptions into the discussion about what the implementer could do. That said, I've already posted to the effect that I think this is the first step towards Blizzard protecting the core of its business from the growing encroachment of social gaming - but I can't agree with Dechion's assessment that this is only about this. I think the desire to clean up the forums is just as big a part of this. The two are not mutually exclusive, and killing two birds with one stone is a pretty damn attractive option in a corporate environment.
And I don't, for a second, buy the idea that this is about selling us to advertisers. When Blizz can sell us Sparkle Ponies and monthly subs, and magazines et al, the idea that they'd attempt to gather activity and intention data via a game when there are so many more useful, revealing methods to do it beggars belief. The amount of useful activity data they'll gather is so negligible, the investment/return does not stack up.
Some Community Theory
I'm on several discussion groups/lists/fora etc for community professionals, and I'm seeing a distinct split in them. Some people are really disappointed that Blizzard haven't gone forward with this. Many people within the community space see the enforcement of social consequence to misbehaviour as critical to managing the growth of large communities, which are problematic to manage. The consequences of anonymity for internet debate are well-known, and were satirised a long time ago. Facebook has, in part, succeeded because it provides an environment of consequence, but the factor that Blizzard has missed is that the consequence is not just in the enforcement of real names, but in the fact that, since of the introduction of the activity stream News Feeds, if you're being a dick on Facebook, your friends see it. Consequence.
(Note to self: there's a post about how Blizzard is deeply embedded in the online community business, but doesn't actually seem to understand the pre=existing knowledge and expertise in the field here. Write it at some future point.)
Just applying something that works in activity-sharing social networks to forums isn't going to work.
Forums are a really old form of online community (in internet terms) and have two well-established problems:
- Bandwidth costs - Blizz can handle this
- Exponential (rather than linear) moderation needs - this has killed many a forum run by corporate entities and individuals in the past - although the costs tend to kill those first. The moderation costs start to exceed the perceived benefits to the company, and so the forum is killed.
In a sense, the people who do use the Blizzard forums should at least take some comfort from the fact that Blizzard are making active steps to make the forums a better place. Lissanna has a useful post compiling the other things they're doing.
The problem, of course, is the one solution fallacy, as discussed above, coupled with a retro-fitting problem. If this had been the situation from the start, then there would be much less of an outcry. When you fundamentally change a social environment around people, they are almost certain to complain. And when you change one element of a social environment in such a dramatic way, you really need to rethink the whole way it operates at the same time. For example - is a real name enforced forum really the best way to handle technical support?
I don't think that real name enforced social environments are bad inherently - and I find it telling that there are compelling arguments out there for both the fact that there are consequences for posting under your real name - and there aren't - but I think that the model that Blizz came up with is an uncomfortable hybrid.
And that's what cost them.
This isn't going away. As I mentioned above, people who work in the online community field are actively discussion ways of enforcing consequence to improve the quality of online debate. This is highlighted in a Guardian article on the situation:
So: the end of a non-era? Yet there was an interesting discussion at the Guardian's Activate conference, where Steven Clift, of the e-democracy project, insisted that using your real name should be the norm in online discussion, not - as it presently is - the exception. "Why do we accept norms of flaming in online commenting? It doesn't happen in our private networks of communication," he remarked.
I suspect this is more a retreat by Blizzard, rather than a defeat. And if that's the case, they need to learn two lessons:
- It's reasonably well-known that people, especially teenagers, tend to have more than one online identity (or persona). You can enforce a persona on an account, without having to enforce a real name. Even just forcing one character on your account to be marked as the "main" character would go a long way to doing what they wanted to do here.
- Forums are not social networks. Don't try and apply the methodologies of one to the other.
What Blizzard Should Have Done (according to one opinionated tree)
Attaching RealID to the existing forums was clearly a mistake. Even as someone who would have welcomed that move, I can see the problems it creates for the community as a whole.
It would have been far better to build a Facebook-style social infrastructure based on RealID and an activity stream model in parallel to the forums, and even start to migrate announcements over there. Frankly, I wouldn't need to rely on external bloggers to aggregate Blue posts for me, if I could subscribe to relevant Blizzard staff's posting in a RealID activity stream. My RealID friends could see my name and my activity. No-one else could. My posting activity on the forums would be visible to my RealID friends in their aggregate activity stream, creating a degree of consequence, and, coupled with the existing rating additions and an enforced single persona (which does not use a real name) would do much to improve the forums.
Forums? Not for me. An activity stream of what my friends are up to and what Blizzard is saying? Sign me up.