It’s been an interesting week. It started with a full-fledged return to MOO.
MOO is very close to being a dead technology. Back in the day when monochrome screens ruled and we did everything from the command line and the tab key, MOO was not that much of an imaginative or skill-level leap. Text-based environments made sense to us then. But now that the GUI is God, MOOs are faltering. While there are some efforts to force a GUI onto a MOO, none of these have been particularly successful. Users just don’t get it anymore.
But those of us old school enough to remember MOOs still tread backward from time to time to play with them. So I joined Jason‘s class on a MOO Jason threw together at the last possible second for their edification. The scramble to get it together, to put something into it to show off, was exciting. It felt like the old days. I found myself back in the verb editor again, making things happen, staring at long lines of code I could barely remember ever looking at and cheering when something compiled. I got to watch Catspaw in action again, which was just as thrilling this time as it was years ago when I first met her.
Building on a MOO again, and explaining to a group of students what it is that MOO affords, reminded me of why I still have a soft spot for it. While David Weinberger argues that the internet is conceived of as a place, there is very little remaining online that has the sense of space/place that a MOO gives. You don’t exist online through IE in the same way that you exist online on a MOO; in IRC you may have a registered nickname, but you don’t exist there. You can take over a mouthpiece and communicate, but you don’t exist as a unique creature. There’s too much that’s transient about the internet; your IP address varies, your terminal changes. A decision was made in MOOs long ago to create a physical presence for people on the internet; while you’re offline, your MOOself sleeps.
It’s not a small thing. These kinds of concepts have reverberations, and I think they’re just the kinds of reverberations we need. As we’re looking at elearning, at creating communities on the web for distance learners and even for undergrads on campus, a physical metaphor could mean the difference between a student who feels isolated and invisible and a student who actually feels that they can walk into a classroom full of fellow students, regardless of the distance between them in the physical world. Metaphor is at the heart of the internet. Metaphor is the key to good interface design, good connection with users, and the core element of a successful application. MOO has a watertight metaphor. But how to translate into a GUI world is a challenge.
So today I called a meeting. I enlisted Jason and Catspaw in the tea-filled afternoon of discussion. I even moderated; when the conversation went off in different directions, I tapped their shoulders and reminded them of the whole point. Interface. How can we build a good MOO GUI?
MOO is a dead/dying technology, but it doesn’t have to be. And I have decided to make it my personal mission to bring it back.
MOO metaphor is built around objects. You enter a MOO, you are a physical being within that world. You can be touched, you can pick up objects and carry them around, you can enter and exit rooms. You can smell the flowers. If it rains, you get wet. In the right places, you can get sick. You are a creature with a gender and a name, and the world around you treats you accordingly. The original interface is text only; the first metaphor was the novel. But no ordinary novel. A novel in second person present tense, heavy on the dialogue, written line-by-line by you and the people around you.
Is there a conflict between a book metaphor and a place metaphor? This might be part of the conceptual problem that we’re wrestling with. We understand MOO as a place that you go to, but it’s a place buried within a book. Do you actually “go” places when you read? In a sense you do. It’s a tenuous metaphor, but it’s a powerful one. When you read, you really do experience another place, a place that often feels incredibly real. You conjure it up with the help of the author and then navigate through it. For people who use MOOs, the people who really get it, the sense of place is perfect. It’s a novel about you.
I remember when I first started using instant messaging systems (late to the party in 2000) my friend and I felt frozen, cut off. We could speak to each other, but the rest of the language we used on MOOs was excised. We had no bodies, and thus no body language. We couldn’t emote. It felt flat.
Is there a place for body language in elearning? In ecommuniations generally? I can’t imagine an argument that would say no. In fact, the need for body language is apparent in the way people use IM systems. The proliferation of the language of smileys. The way people try to mime out their actions with a language never designed to allow for that (LOL, ROTFL). People using the internet as a form of communication still wrestle with this 2-D environment that IM systems create, even without having experienced a richer one. Even if most body language is unconscious, a lot more about a person’s meaning is communicated when we allow them easy access to body language. Giving people MOO bodies allows for nodding, smiling, eyebrow-raising, chuckling, the kinds of reactions that encourage communication and give a speaker some instant feedback. Just like the kind you get in real life. Body language is full of meaning. A smile and a nod can convey a lot, even digitally.
So we spent the afternoon talking about MOOs and GUI interfaces. In a perfect world, what would a make a good GUI? How can we translate this rich, novelesque environment into something current web users can easily understand? Just how graphical do we need to go to give people a sense of space?
Another thing that’s driving my return to MOO is (finally) reading Snow Crash. Jason has been trying to get me to read it for years, and I finally gave in. I see why he was pushing it. Snow Crash contains a vision of the internet that never materialized; one in which we actually go there, see and are seen, interact, communicate, and exist. We have homes if we can afford them, we traverse digital space. We work within the faux-laws of gravity and space only inasmuch as we don’t know how to hack them (yet). There are scenes in this book where people are in two places at once; they are in the Metaverse talking to people in difference time zones, and they are in a car, driving from one dingy California location to another. The internet as a second world where we can recreate ourselves never entirely manifested itself.
So in our long conversation about how to translate MOO to a new generation of internet users, we started in one direction and ended going a completely other way. What do we cut out; the idea that everything is built and communicated in text, or shall we create a world where everything is communicated visually? Which is richer? Which is the viable option?
The best part of getting involved in software development is the realization that it’s not the code that makes something work, or that makes something good. It’s getting the concept clear, and getting the metaphor right. If we get it right, the rest will follow.