I’ve never played an MMORPG, but I do understand how important they are in the lives of the people who invest in them… they’re both entertainment and community, not the escape that they’re usually portrayed as, but rather just a different context for socializing.
So I was pretty amazed to see that the Star Wars Galaxies MMORPG radically changed the nature of their community without sufficient (any?) notice. Now, I don’t doubt that Galaxies as a game was probably vastly improved, but even as an outside observer, I could have guessed people would flip out when you threaten their perception of the space they live online. Maybe it’s just experience talking. Clay “Social Soundbite” Shirky said it best, as always:
[W]hen you create community, you engage people’s emotions. Period. Community membership precedes rationality, both historically (all higher primates are social) and literally (children attach to their families before they can talk.)
Interestingly, people won’t be disappointed with you if they already have incredibly low expectations. This truism was reinforced to me when the AOL Instant Messenger team recently decided to unilaterally add a few bots to the buddy list of everyone on the service. (Or at least everyone I know who uses AIM.)
Amazingly, there was almost no hue and cry. Aside from some of the inevitable “WTF?” responses, there was no blogosphere outrage. My suspicion is that most people attribute that kind of intrusiveness and presumption as intrinsic to AOL’s corporate culture. Having been on the receiving end of the blogosphere’s wrath for misjudging a community’s reaction in the past, I can say it is far better to have a mistake greeted with flames than with indifference or a resigned disgust.
Thought exercise: How would various communities act if you were automatically “buddied” by the service. On MySpace, people seem to tolerate that Tom is their friend, but I can’t imagine they would add anyone else to the list. Maybe it’s because I’m not in the target demographic, but Tom Is Not My Friend. And when Microsoft adds bots to your MSN buddy list (Bot Live 2006!) I’ll be glad to help write the hysterical news.com headline: “Bill Gates Spies on Online Activity!” When Google does it? “Web 2.0 Grows to Encompass IM, Thanks to Gtalk Gbot”.