11 July, 2010
So far I have not posted about the whole RealID issue. It's one of those things that by the time I had something insightful to say about it, it had already been said in the outpouring of commentary about the issue. I was active in leaving comments on different sites, so it's not like I didn't have an opinion.
But, I think it's interesting to take another look at the issue from another point of view. RealID is all about this whole social networking thing. How does this intersect with gaming culture, a subset of geek culture? And how does this relate to introverts which traditionally make up a significant part of those cultures?
A summary of the RealID discussion
For those of you living in a cave, you can go read a good list of the RealID posts. If you want to know my take on things, you can read Randy Farmer's insight based upon his numerous years of experience with identity and community. For a in-the-trenches view from a professional community manager, you can see Sanya Weather's take on what the problems were. These good people posted so I didn't have to. :)
In short, Blizzard said they wanted to force people to expose their real names in order to improve the tone of the official WoW forums. Yet, as others have pointed out, there were simpler and easier ways to clean up the forums rather than requiring every poster to give up his or her privacy. But, A USAToday article reported earlier this year that Blizzard and Facebook have entered into a partnership; this means that Blizzard is probably going to be earning extra money by having people sign up with their "real names" and integrating with Facebook. As always, follow the money to see the real motivations.
Let's take a look at introverts. I've written about introverts and conferences before. The main thing to remember about introverts is that they get re-energized by quiet contemplation, whereas extroverts get a buzz from interacting with people. Introverts get drained when dealing with people directly, and extroverts get restless if they're left alone for too long. For this reason, introverts tend to have a small group of really good friends, whereas extroverts usually maintain contact with a much larger group of people that can change over time. It's important to remember that Introverts aren't (necessarily) shy or misanthropists, they just need some time away from others to recharge. In general, extroverts (who make up roughly 75% of the population) are better at charging forward and getting things done, whereas introverts (who make up the other 25%) are better at concentrating and contemplating. Ideally, the two are intended to work together: extroverts eager to get things done, while the introverts give the consideration to hopefully prevent rash action.
If you're interested in learning more, The Introvert Advantage is a great reference. As I've mentioned before, I'm an introvert and I learned a lot about myself after reading it. The book goes into a lot of scientific explanation for the differences.
Gaming (and geek) culture
Traditionally, gaming and geek culture have had a high concentration of introverts. Gaming culture can be considered a subset of geek culture, which is defined by intense concentration on a specific topic, usually involving technology. My personal theory for why gaming has has so many introverts is that a lot of games, particularly the old school Nintendo Hard type of games, required the type of concentration and dedication that comes easier to introverts and tends to define geek culture.
Of course, as gaming has grown and included the mainstream, there have been more extroverts involved. The shift from old-school styles like involved RPGs to more action-orientated games like FPSes and RTSes has heralded this change. The good news is that games have now gotten wider acceptance as the audience has grown. (Of course, some of us experienced games have had to start looking far and wide to find the old-school types of games we used to enjoy have fallen out of favor.)
The early days of networking
In the olden days of the internet, geeks ruled. Communities were small and tightly defined. The classic example was old style Usenet groups where you'd have a few dozen people posting and interacting back in the old days. People got to know each other pretty well and you could often learn to recognize a poster by their writing style or pet topics. You could get into vigorous debates, and while harsh words might seemingly be used, in the end things would likely go back to a steady state because everyone had to deal with everyone else in the community. After a massive flame war, it wasn't uncommon for people to kiss and make up (sometimes away from the public channel).
I think the thing that made Usenet work so well was that the majority of the posters were the typical introverted geek. Even though we feel drained talking to people, being online gives us the ability to withdraw from a conversation for a bit and get refreshed if things get overwhelming. Most of us took the time to really consider our words, especially since it was a text medium that required a lot of reading and writing. A lot of the rules of "netiquette" were about maintaining civility and thoughtfulness. Yes, sometimes people got a bit hot under the collar, but people would resolve differences.
However, as we later saw in gaming, the increase in mainstream acceptance meant that more people were introduced to the systems until, finally, the communities grew beyond their original scope. In the case of Usenet, this lead to a lot of people leaving because the community they had joined was no longer there. (See Randy Farmer's post above for a bit more information about this.)
As the extroverts took over, we started seeing a new form of community.
The rise of social networks
A funny thing happened to our communities: they became social. Okay, really, they were still social to begin with, but marketers needed a buzzword and "social media" was the winner, it seems. The old online communities were fine for introverts: we had our small circle of people we knew and we were fine with it because we didn't need to interact with a lot of people. For extroverts, however, this simply wouldn't do; it seems logical that social networks grew out of the extroverted desire to keep meeting and interacting with people.
Personally, I've not really found the new "social media" to be all that useful. I have a Facebook profile mostly so I could play games when they were all the rage in the beginning. (You can friend me on Facebook if you want, but it may be a month before I see the request, and I might not accept the request unless I'm pretty sure I know who you are.) I use LinkedIn to keep track of the myriad of business contacts I've made in the past. But, when it comes to truly keeping track of my friends I can do that easily enough. As I said above, an introvert usually counts a lot less people as really being "friends" out of the circle of contacts he or she knows, so it's not hard for me to keep track of them.
But, for extroverts who continually have to juggle a wide list of contacts and constantly need to go out and meet new people, social networks are a blessing, I'm sure. Less time trying to remember who this sales person is that emailed you when you can just go to Facebook and see drunken pictures of them to remind yourself of that last company party they were at during that conference. And, to be honest, LinkedIn has been useful for me to keep track of all the people I've met at conferences. But I think that's because when I meet people at conferences and want to keep in touch with them, I'm pretending to be an extrovert. There's a reason why a majority of the most successful salespeople are extroverts.
Of course, social networks have caused their own share of problems. For example, it's annoying when someone messages me over Facebook and gets upset when I didn't notice. I still primarily use email for online communication, so if you want to reach me send me an email. The constant issue of privacy is another big problem, where younger people get bit by the fact that all their interact is now online and easily searchable, not only by your friends but also by future interviewers, future dates, and by marketers. Finally, there's the problem of different parts of one's life bleeding together. As I previously wrote, I keep the "real" me and the "virtual" me fairly separate. (You only really get to see the virtual me on here.)
The real sin of RealID
Now we get to the real meat of the matter. Why did RealID cause such a backlash? After all, people put up fairly personal information for public consumption on Facebook, right?
Well, it goes back to the fact that a lot of the most dedicated gamers are old-school introverted geeky types. While I think that the majority of people playing WoW are probably extroverts, they have reached the mass market and brought a lot of non-traditional people to the game, I think most of the people who are really passionate about the game are introverts. If you care enough to write a blog about the subject and didn't abandon the blog after a few months, you demonstrate at least a tendency toward introverted levels of concentration.
The problem is that introverts really don't like being forced out into the open. Choosing to put information out is one thing, but when told that this is the only option, we'll get fighting mad. Especially if sharing information is the gateway to a text-based communication medium like the forums, which is one of the old-school forms of communication that introverted geeky types enjoyed. In essence, Blizzard told introverts, "Expose yourselves to others or we won't let you participate in something you probably enjoy." When it's put in that context, it makes sense that people would raise a fuss. But, I suspect that Blizzard hadn't considered this, and figured that everyone has already joined a social network and wouldn't mind.
Fixing the forums
This isn't to say that the WoW forums couldn't use some cleaning up. Most of the people arguing against RealID weren't against making things better on the forums, they just didn't want to expose their personal information before participating.
To be fair, maintaining forums is very hard. Even companies with years of experience find this to be a very hard thing. Sadly, the best way to maintain civility in a forum is to establish the ground rules early. Manage user expectations about what is appropriate behavior in forums. Give attention to people who follow the rules, and punish people hard who do not. Even if you do establish proper expectations of behavior, it still takes constant vigilance to make sure that people continue to follow the rules and that the community doesn't start to go down the wrong paths. Really, it takes dedicated forum moderators to keep things civil.
Given that WoW has been around for almost six years at this point, that boat has sailed. Blizzard has to swim against the tide to fix the problems everyone notices in the forums. So, they really do need to make sure they have dedicated and fair forum moderators. But, that's hard and costly, so Blizzard wanted to with the "quick fix" of removing anonymity because anonymous people are more likely to be jerks. (I suspect that "cleaning up the forums" was a reason conjured up to support an otherwise profitable integration with social networks, but let's not dwell that detail.) Unfortunately, this also struck introverts where it hurt. In the end, it's going to take hiring people to keep things in check if Blizzard ever wants to fix their forums.
So, what do you think? Do you seem to fit the definition of an introvert? Does revealing personal information set your teeth on edge? Do you think Blizzard was just chasing the almighty dollar?