Sunday, February 27, 2011

First Life

Over the years, I've watched trends in the integration of on-line existence with the real world. This has included the decline of print journalism, people making supplemental income off of MMORPGs like Second Life, and even how we communicate more through our various gadgets than we do by talking to people on the phone (something I've never really enjoyed, save for rare occasions) or those sitting near us in the same room. Part of me still considers this to be antisocial behavior, while another side wants to accept that it's just a different form of interacting with the world and our social circles (this still does not excuse people from sending text messages while out for a romantic encounter, or laughing at a funny picture that a friend posted to Facebook, while one is in the middle of a business meeting or job interview).

Then came passive competition, driven by marketing wizards, nicely bundled in the form of social games. I'm not talking about the product placement by Coca-Cola or automobile manufacturers that one sees in select console games, or playing Jewels in the Crown with your car air fresheners (look it up). I'm talking about the ones where we do the placement ourselves -- where we become the advertisements.

Follow the geo-cached ad

I first noticed this with FourSquare, where a person can earn points when checking in at a particular venue and announce it to one's social circles, or the internet at large. You can write reviews, leave tips for other people who venture to your location, and earn "badges" based upon your social activity. Some places have even jumped on this to offer discounts or free appetizers (depending on the establishment) to the person who checks in the most, creating a competition to announce a particular place's, well, place on a map, and deposing other FourSquare users to become that spot's "Mayor," or "Marquess," or "Viscount," or whatever title they apply to such a ranking.

This became even more obvious last year when Gowalla, really the only competition FourSquare has, decided to partner with other companies to offer discounts on store products. They would run micro-campaigns, where if users did something like say, travel to Best Buy, take pictures themselves with an employee in the mobile electronics department, and post it to Gowalla along with the location, those users would be eligible for discounts on new, shiny iPhones, or something similar.

Who wants a banana sticker?

Some people don't care about announcing their locations for the sake of discounts, or getting close to the teenage employee at the mall for a picture (which would be specious at best, in my world) to become eligible to win a new N-Gage, or similar thing people think they want but ultimately don't. Some people like doing things that don't require wasting gasoline.

For those of you who aren't traveling abroad to announce "OMG BEST WENDY'S BURGZ EVAR!" there's GetGlue, which is pretty much FourSquare for shut-ins. GetGlue allows the user to check in when she/he uses or experiences "things." Check into Netflix if you use the service. Are you listening to music? Let GetGlue know which artist, album, and song. Are you using a fork? "Like" it on GetGlue. Are you using GetGlue? Announce it to the world via GetGlue and start a feedback loop that has us all wishing for a large stalagmite at the bottom of the rabbit hole.

GetGlue awards points for checking in, the frequency of check-ins, and also reviews and comments. The points and badges you earn aren't theoretical. After you earn so many badges (or "stickers," in this case) GetGlue will actually send you a sheet of decals of the rankings you've earned.

Not only that, but this service can be integrated with many sites, like Wikipedia, IMDB, Amazon, and others, thereby showing the things you've looked at elsewhere on your account. This is marketing genius for those who want to tailor on-line advertising to the individual user, based on viewing trends and interests. (Though what ads I'm going to see from trend analytics trying to correlate Danny Cooksey, The King In Yellow, and  anime should be a big surprise, should I pay attention to advertisements.)

Pure Personal Enjoyment

On the side of personal enjoyment, there are sites such as Goodreads and Both of these sites allow the user to keep track and announce what he or she is reading or listening to, respectively, with minimal advertising, and without "earning" or "winning" anything. Read or review a book, and announce such (as all the sites I've mentioned are able to be integrated with Facebook, Twitter, and even Google Buzz) for your friends or others on Goodreads to see. Sometimes reading what a good judge of books has to say about a particular title is better than what any New York Times Book Review or Amazon paid advertisement User Review can impart to the potential purchaser/reader.

I feel I have to take a pause here, because throughout this article, it may seem like I'm bashing the world of marketing, like it's become the Player Piano or They Live it's always been, at heart. Such is not the case. I fully acknowledge that web sites, or indeed most services have a cost and need to maintain their overhead. I'm also in favor of sites and people who want to generate a profit. Nor am I above being susceptible to seeing shiny new things and buying them even though I truly don't need them. I've toyed with placing ads on this site, but don't actually see them enticing the readership.

Making the loathsome entertaining (and possibly back again)

I enjoy games. Role-playing games, to be specific. Give me dice and tomes of source material, or a screen and a good story, and I can dive in for hours at a time. In the former scenario, I enjoy the social aspect and the absurdity that ensues from such gatherings. In the latter, it's all about exploration and uncovering every tidbit of information about the world, characters, and (of course) items and treasure.

I've played games in high fantasy settings, interstellar space, 1920's New England, and even the (surprisingly hilarious) dystopian future. I'd rather roll random numbers for an evening than say, do laundry, pay bills, and wash windows.

Enter Chore Wars, a site similar to the ones listed above, minus the advertising, that attempt to turn everyday activities into a game, where one can earn points. The user creates a character, picks special abilities (scrubbing the toilet, ironing, vacuuming, etc.) and earns experience points for doing chores. As with the others, it's mostly based on the honor system, and there's really no sense in claiming to do the dishes twelve time a day (which may hint at something bigger than wanting to "level up") in order to surpass everyone else playing.

The +1 screwdriver helps with most chores, in my world

For those still not baffled by this, there is the option to join parties to share in the experience. (If you think you're being clever in making a "World of Chorecraft" joke, govern thy tongue, it exists.) This could be a novel approach to getting things done in a house full of bachelors, a fraternity/sorority house, or just an attempt to making getting rid of grime and folding clothes seem not as horrible as it is for some. (I rather enjoy the mental imagery of a nixie, a minotaur, a human paladin, a werewolf, and a dragon engaging simultaneously in domestic activities while wearing little aprons, armed with feather dusters and cans of oven cleaner.)

I've yet to decide whether or not to create an account at the last site. Perhaps after I relocate. We'll see.

I think what I'm getting at is that we've gotten to the point where our individual lives can be social experiences, if we choose them to be. The digital æther is not longer something we use just for information, or to escape reality, but more something we can use to augment the here and now, without losing a sense of self (and possibly having some fun along the way).

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