Don't Go Back to MUDville
January 23, 1998
Web posted at: 12:43 p.m. EST (1743 GMT)
By Netly News Writer Joab Jackson
The Metaphysical Pepsi was ready for consumption, just as in
years past, but only a few of the 25 attendees were dancing in the
ballroom. Instead they bantered about the old days, or idled
awhile before returning to real life where they had to nurse
children, or dissertations. By midnight, Eastern Standard Time,
the MediaMOO ballroom was nearly empty.
Remember MUDs and MOOs, those text-based virtual communities
that were held up as examples of how the Internet would change our
lives? Funny, then, how attending MediaMOO's fifth anniversary
celebration this past Tuesday left me feeling more nostalgic than
cutting edge. There are still MOOs out there? Who KNOO?
Five years ago, when M.I.T. doctoral student Amy Bruckman
opened MediaMOO as a communications researcher's
refuge, text-based virtual communities were about to become
all the rage. In the following year, Howard Rheingold published
Virtual Community, articles on the subject appeared in Wired (penned
by Netly's Josh Quittner among others) and Lingua Franca.
Countless undergrad sociology papers explored this wild new
"MOOs were seen as ultimately the interface for the Internet ...
the window into cyberspace," says Julian Dibbell, who penned the
much-discussed Village Voice article "A Rape in Cyberspace."
Yet by this anniversary night, when featured programmers
Jay Carlson and Ben Jackson recounted their heroic tale of
programming away the lag on LambdaMOO through the use of magic
and a verb cache, the unasked question hanging in the air was,
"To what end?"
There are now four times as many MUDs, MOOs, MUSHes and MUCKs
than there were five years ago -- somewhere around 1,000 textural
landscapes providing an invaluable gateway for those who can't afford Andy Grove's latest chip. But, for better or worse, the Internet today is largely defined by the Web, not by virtual homesteading.
The semi-wired masses hardly care to haggle with arcane MUD commands
and port numbers. Why wade through reams of descriptive textual prose when instant messaging and online-gaming offer almost
everything MOOs do?
The answer came from the first panel at the MediaMOO's
anniversary, where Paul Dourish of Xerox PARC, and Neometron
cofounders Adele Goldberg and David Leibs, discussed the use of
virtual worlds in business. What, you may ask, can MUDs possibly
have to offer telecommunication-rich offices (besides finally giving postal workers a safe outlet to shoot their coworkers)?
Corporate MOOs, according to several participants, have become
a cheap alternative to long-distance conference calls. Or
they serve as cyber water-coolers for the telecommuted. It's a
useful form of semi-synchronous communication, says Bruckman, now
an assistant professor at Georgia Tech.
Much of her virtual time takes place during work. "I'm on
all the time," she says. "I'm usually not paying attention but
someone comes and talks to me, I look back at it a little later and
we usually get each other's attention." This way she can answer or ask a question at her leisure, without the interruption of a phone call or the checking of E-mail.
All very well, even if, as one commented, "I do miss going to
a MOO with pillow fights!" Of course, that mother of all social
MOOs -- LambdaMOO -- still has a nightly head count of around 200,
the same as ever. But others, like my old hang-out the Post Modern
Culture (PMC) MOO, are fast becoming ghost towns. MediaMOO,
never a high traffic outpost, has a membership drive now.
The Saturday before the bash, I Telneted into MediaMOO, and
found only one other active person there. "Seems a lot quieter than I remember," he said. Turns out that he too frequented PMC. We chatted like war buddies, discussing how quickly obsessed we became by that virtual life, and how almost-as-quickly we grew bored of
A third guest logged in, introduced himself and then flitted from room to room, excited as this was his first-ever MOO
visit. "Ah, to be fresh to something!" My newfound friend
admired. He wondered if it were possible to still get as intensely
fixated by this environment as we did. "Maybe that time was unique?"
Maybe. I thought back five years, when I was modeming in at
9600 baud. Like the countless adventurers before, I used a box
that couldn't do graphics or multitask, nor did it have the
multi-MUDing capabilities of TinyFugue. I poured my energies
only into the text scrolling immediately before me.
Sure, these days I can peer into MOOs while checking my
E-mail, but five years ago I was entrenched within them. It was an
entirely different experience.
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