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Networking sometimes is not working. Posted on 06/16/2002.

A few weeks ago, I wrote up notes and thoughts on JC Herz' presentation on the "networked experience." She argued that anyone designing a networked system could benefit by understanding the sociological patterns in the world of online gaming.

Among the elements discussed was making sure to include markers of "social status" for each participant. Such status is awarded for the amount and quality of participation in the networked system. In games, this often comes in the form of "levels"--those who have achieved higher levels have a higher status, more power, more influence. In a community publication like, status is noted through "cubes", which reflect the number of essays written on the site.

As JC was talking, I found myself mulling on some of the more pernicious qualities of "status" in any group activity. With status comes stratification, condescension, and other forms of inequality.

JC's talk had the luxury of being concerned wholly with virtual worlds--these gamers don't really know each other in "real life", and the development of status is based solely on the playing, and rewards are given solely on merit.

However, the reality is that many, if not most, networked experiences involve extending pre-existing social structures. Also, JC's talk suffered from what seemed to be a lack of real ethnography. JC did discuss personal observations (such as what she saw in South Korean networked gaming parlors), but it was clear there had been no structured approach to the research.

I was thinking of inequality and structured research because JC's talk triggered thoughts of the ethnography of a hospital operating room presented in Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O'Day's _Information Ecologies_, and the difficulties of placing an interactive system within this environment that didn't take into account the highly stratified, and often times stultifying, relationship between the surgeons and nurses.

Additionally, there's something to be said for anonymity, for a total lack of identifying marker or status. A BusinessWeek article, published around the same time as JC's talk, explores how the racial and gender unfairnesses of automobile buying (blacks, hispanics, and women all pay more, on average, than white men) are being smoothed out in the faceless world of the Web--now, minorities and women are getting sales quotes on par with white men.

I have no answers here. I think there are some extremely intriguing facets to explore in the world of networked ecologies at various levels (familial, vocational, educational, recreational, mercantile). And while some aspects transcend these divisions, and knowledge of one group's interactions can inform how we approach others, it's imperative we also recognize the fundamental inherent differences.

As I was poking around on the Web researching this post, I came across the page of Steve Whittaker, an AT&T Labs researcher who has worked extensively with Bonnie Nardi, who offers up dozens of publications grounded in ethnography and cognitive psychology.

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Status is online money. I always thought it was weird that Slashdot exposed how much money (karma) each of its members has, given the way the rest of the site is run and given that Slashdot would run equally well if only the system knew how much money each person had.
Posted by jkottke @ 06/17/2002 10:31 AM PST [link to this comment]

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