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NNN Today's News

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 terrain.

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"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 it.

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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