Twelve years ago today I blogged a video by Gary Hayes visiting 50 virtual worlds. Reading Hayes’ accompanying 2008 blogpost which is still online, I wonder what today’s VR trends and hotspots are. How well is the virtual control of the real and the fully virtual a seamless experience these days? How far along are we to the Metaverse?

SecondLife still exists, not surprisingly as it was profitable right from the start, but I have no idea what it has evolved into. At some point I rented a bit of land there, to use as a sandbox. Does it still feel mostly empty?
What is the current status and role of immersive virtual worlds?

Are there any AR worlds that provide a seamless experience between the physical and the digital? I do regularly see people on the streets of our hometown trying to catch Pokemons, but as with a lot of these VR/AR things that seems gimmicky to me mostly. Last year at the Energie.Digital conference in Germany I saw a bit more of Microsoft’s mixed reality Hololens, and while some use cases were convincing, others seemed contrived. Yet at the same time there are many moments where I would love to see a much more seamless transition from the material to the virtual (which is partly why I got myself a Nova2: to digitise my handwriting), and bringing the virtual into the material, or making online exchanges much more immersive.

Digital networks and human networks are alike in their distributedness, and completely embracing that overlap for tool design is a source of enormous agency, imo.

Where does the yellow brick road to The Street of the Metaverse run these days?

I was surprised to receive a 2am automated message from ‘rocket.cat’ in our company’s self-hosted Rocket.chat instance. It was a notice from Rocket.chat alerting me that from now on registration is mandatory to use the Rocket.chat gateway to enable push notifications to mobile devices.

The reason we run our own instance is to be in full control of the data we share between ourselves in rocket.chat.
However, something that wasn’t clear to me before, push notifications in Rocket.chat involve multiple third parties without users giving explicit consent (which is very problematic in terms of GDPR). Especially as there is no way in Rocket.chat to finetune when/how you want to receive alerts, nor any meaningful instance wide settings, and the default is alerts get pushed always.

When you @user someone, or @all a channel, or even share any message in any channel, the server pushes an alert by default to the mobile devices of the users involved.
That push notification isn’t generated within your own server, or within the mobile applications after receiving the messages concerned directly from our server. It is generated by sending an alert to the Rocket.chat gateway. Through that gateway all alerts from every rocket.chat instance anywhere, self-hosted or not, pass. The connection is encrypted, but the content isn’t. The gateway then sends the alert onwards to Google and Apple, for them to generate the alert on the mobile devices involved when the mobile app isn’t running or in the background. Using Apple’s Push Notification Service and Google’s Firebase Cloud Messaging is common, I realise, but both allow encrypted and/or empty payloads, which doesn’t seem to happen here.
Rocket.chat put in the gateway as a workaround, where every alert gets send with their keys, to prevent independent instance owners needing to have their own keys to APNS and FCM (and as Rocket.chat suggests to compile their own mobile apps and have them accepted in the app store). I’m not knowledgeable enough about how push notifications generally work on mobile devices, but it surprised me that push notifications always require third party involvement this way.

Rocket.chat is now starting to enforce registration of instances to be able to use the gateway, because that gateway is becoming a major cost to them. Not surprisingly if all alerts of every single Rocket.chat user in the world pass through it. Because those costs are rising, they want to start charging for sending alerts above a certain threshold. To start charging they need you to register with them to both show you your usage and store your payment method.

I don’t like the existence of such a centralised bottle-neck. It also comes across as a next step of building on something that seems to have been implemented as a workaround fix to begin with.
This way, even if you run your own independent instance you’re still tethered to Rocket.chat the company indefinitely. It’s completely at odds with why we (and others I presume) run our own instance in the first place.

I therefore disabled all push notifications in our rocket.chat server.

Bookmarked for reading (found in Neil Mather’s blog). Actual cases of ‘tethered’ economic transactions where a buyer is bound into an ongoing relationship with the seller with an uneven power balance, are already easy to find: John Deere suing farmers for tinkering with their tractors (with Deere claiming they never sold a tractor but a license to operate the software on one), insurance and credit companies remotely disabling a car upon a late payment, or Amazon removing books you bought from your Kindle (1984, actually, of all possible books!)

Outright ownership, the right to fix, the right to tinker, are all essential things, and key ingredients to keep your (networked) agency. While I understand the business model decision behind software subscriptions, it does make me increasingly uncomfortable because of the forced ‘eternal’ relationship with the seller.

Bookmarked The Tethered Economy

As sellers blend hardware and software—as well as product and service—tethers yoke the consumer to a continuous post-transaction relationship with the seller. The consequences of that dynamic will be felt both at the level of individual consumer harms and on the scale of broader, economy-wide effects These consumer and market-level harms, while distinct, reinforce and amplify one another in troubling ways.

Seller contracts have long sought to shape consumers’ legal rights. But in a tethered environment, these rights may become non-existent as legal processes are replaced with automated technological enforcement.

Nick Punt writes a worthwile post (found via Roland Tanglao) on “De-Escalating Social Media, Designing humility and forgiveness into social media products

He writes

This is why it’s my belief that as designed today, social media is out of balance. It is far easier to escalate than it is to de-escalate, and this is a major problem that companies like Twitter and Facebook need to address.

This got me thinking about what particular use cases need de-escalation, and whether there’s something simple we can do to test the waters and address these types of problems.

And goes on to explore how to create a path for admitting mistakes on Twitter. This currently isn’t encouraged by Twitter’s design. You see no social reinforcement, as no others visibly admit mistakes. You do see many people pilig onto someone for whatever perceived slight, and you do see people’s reflex of digging in when attacked.

Punt suggest three bits of added functionality for Twitter:

  • The ability to add a ‘mea culpa’ to a tweet in the shape of “@ton_zylstra indicated they made a mistake in this tweet”. Doing that immediately stops the amplicifation of those messages. No more replies, likes or retweets without comments. Retweet with comment is still possible to amplify the correction, as opposed to the original message.
  • Surfacing corrections: those that have seen the original tweet in their timelines will also get presented with the correction.
  • Enabling forgiveness: works just like likes, but then to forgive the original poster for the mistake, as a form of positive reinforcement.

I like this line of thinking, although I think it won’t be added to existing silo’d networks. This type of nudging of constructive behaviour as well as adding specific types of friction are however of interest. Maybe it is easier for other platforms and newer players to adopt as a distinguishing feature. E.g. in Mastodon.

Tom Chritchlow is starting his own Discord space, as part of experimenting with different spaces to operate in, and where possible host your own. Thinking in terms of spaces you use is one of the factors you can tweak when it comes to building and maintaining a healthy community (of practice), as Etienne Wenger established and I experience in practice. So I recognise Tom’s urge to experiment with more and less public spaces for interaction.

So if my blog is one “space” and twitter is another “space” – what new spaces might exist?

Looking forward to reading more of his experiences. As he says he’s not starting a completely new room, anyone with a generic Discord account could join, but to fill a space, make it inhabited it needs some sort of pre-existing group for whom the space is intended and an answer to an existing need in that group. (Tom avoids ‘building community’ , maybe because of the negative overtones in tech when that is said?) So questions around who is it for, and how do they experience this new space, will they explore it together or will they end up in an empty space on their own, etc. are important.

Having said all that, I think it is a shame that Discord the tool has conflict and lack of harmony as its name, and has been host to a wide range of interaction that lives up to that name and much worse. Even if they now aim to be there for anyone, the name itself seems to counteract Tom’s ‘realtime cozy chat space’ intention, as the neon-sign on the door signals the opposite. Words matter, and this one does a disservice.