Online Interaction types — what is there, what do I look for?

While going through the Spreadsheet I created as a tool after writing the last blogpost here, I realized that what was completely obvious to me, isn’t necessarily to others. Mostly because the whole argument about the details was mostly in my head.

So, let’s write it down:

To start, and to have a common vocabulary, we should set down a few basic communication model parameters:

  • Realtime versus Asynchronous.
  • One to one vs One to Many or even Many to Many
  • Closed vs Open
Realtime is the discussion we have at the breakfast table, or when we trashtalk our opponents inside a videogame, in a meeting, over the phone or even text or video chats. The key element is that it happens in real time, attendance is perceived and people generally consider it rude if you make them wait for an answer too long.Asynchronous communication is much more robust in regard to time constraints. In olden times, we simply knew that the messenger pigeon will take a while to deliver that missive to the King, so we waited. Letters took their time, and it was acknowledged that the recipient will then need time and effort to compose a proper answer.
One to One is a discussion with just two participants. That can be realtime (a phone call) or asynchronous (a letter).One to Many used to be the prerogative of official proclamations, public speeches and, later, newspapers and radio or tv broadcasts.
Many to Many is something that we have quite a lot today on the Internet. A group of people communicating within itself, or with another group of people. Sometimes in there, you have a few separate one‐to‐one conversations. Sometimes everyone is listening to just one person, sometimes everyone is broadcasting at once while no one listens.
Closed communications strive to be private — no one outside the elected circle may listen in — or they may listen in, but they are not allowed to participate.Open on the other hand is there for all to see, hear and join.

And on top of those models, we have the selectors by which people decide which communications they want to see or even participate in:

  • Serendipitous discovery
  • by topic
  • by curator

Serendipitous discovery of new topics, persons and discussions is something that is, in my mind, incredibly important these days. We need to be exposed to ideas and persons we wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. We often don’t know that we were missing an idea or something before we actually found it. I cannot search for unknown unknowns.

What I can look for are topics: Show me articles about that car I plan to buy. Or I’m looking for a place to discuss my new favorite game. Systems that make it easy for me to find those topics are helpful — but they tend to keep me in that bubble, I don’t often learn about things outside that topic.

Human Curators of content are incredibly important. Malcolm Gladwell calls them "Mavens" — a group of people that hunt out information about things and then strive to educate people about those. These curators are often very similar to a discovery by topic, because they usually have a theme, a thing that they are mostly interested in. But not exclusively so. Everyone has side hobbies, interests that are not obvious, and these make their way into the communication stream of a curator too.

Finally, we need to look at the different bits of communication and who owns them: This is less interesting in a face to face conversation in a room, without any technical tools, but gets really important very fast if you do things over the Internet.

Take this blog article here. It is written by me, posted on my Blog. I wholly own and control it — I can delete it if I want to, I can edit and revise it.

I also control the comments that are submitted on this Blog. If you have something to say about this and want to correct me, you can submit a comment here, that everyone will then be able to read.

But I will still own the comment in some sense — I will be able to hide it, delete it, even completely ban you from ever commenting again. Heck, WordPress even allows me to edit the comment, putting words into your mouths that you have never intended to write!

(I could have a variety of reasons to do so: I found what was written offensive. Or deemed it to be just not helpful for the discussion I wanted to have. Or I just don’t like the commentator. Some of these reasons can be completely legitimate, some are somewhat to very hostile)

If you want to assure ownership of your writing, you will have to do so on your own Blogpage. You could write an article of your own, pointing at mine and say whatever you want to say and I could not immediately delete it.

Different communication systems handle this ownership differently — Twitter, Mastodon and similar systems don’t know any post‐comment separation. Everything is a post, and every post fully belongs to the person who made it. That has upsides (as no one can maliciously remove your contribution) but also downsides (no one can easily take stewardship of a discussion, not even with the noblest of intents)

Lastly, there are some concerns about safety: Sadly, there will always be people who use communication systems to harass others. They could use technology to stalk people, flood their screens with hateful messages or simply spread rumors and lies about them. A good system will need a few tools to address that:

  • mute a person (prevent them from talking to you. They can still see your content, but are unable to show up on your screen)
  • block a person (same as muting, but they will also be unable to see your content)
  • throw someone out of the whole communication network (they cannot interact with anyone on this system anymore, at all.)

Not all of these tools should be in everyone’s hands (I should be able to decide that someone cannot see my things anymore, but a complete ban needs a higher and accountable authority), and not all of these need to be applied for a lifetime — sometimes it is sufficient to mute someone on just this one conversation, or for just a month. Sometimes people learn after a ban and come back as a better person.

So, having set down some definitions and ideas, how does all that relate to what I expect from a system that allows me to interact with others on a daily basis?

  • In case you haven’t noticed — I love the serendipity aspect of the Internet. It is a machine that keeps showing me new and exciting things and people.
  • I also am more interested in persons than topics — so I have a greater need to follow those, instead of just subscribing to car‐news and roleplaying games.
  • Even if everyone comes with the very best intentions — moderation of a discussion is important. And I prefer if those moderation powers come in very small packages, limiting the scope of the moderation to just certain parts. If not, this can quickly sour a whole community if things go wrong.
  • I believe in ambient findability. That means that it should always be easy to see the whole discussion, and where they branch off. Threaded views are key for this.
  • Text — I love memes. Really. Communicating ideas and feelings with bits of moving pictures is a great thing. And I love gorgeous photography or a well‐made video. But to convey complex ideas, Text is still the best carrier. Sure, make it illustrated and hyperlinked text, where you can look up related information. But due to so many restrictions (screen size, disabilities, can’t have audio on because I’m in a quiet place, I just don’t have the bandwith because #Neuland)
  • Lastly, and this has nothing to do with the things I outlined above, whatever system we use to build our social media stream with, it should be as open, portable and vendor‐lockin‐free as possible. Because we learned the hard way what happens otherwise…

Social Media, from a persons perspective

I do love participating in social media. It was around 1994 when MiGri introduced me to the world of BBSes, the Fido net and everything online. To be honest, I haven’t regretted a single thing from that.

At some point, I ran my own BBS, I joined Usenet, installed AOL and CompuServe until was I actually able to get a „real“ dialup account at Hamburg University, and spent countless nights on IRC and online RPGs.

The upside of all this was always the same: Technology connected me to new topics and interesting people. That is what the Internet and especially Social Media is for me: A tool to get me introduced to new things and people.

Of course, I also want to use technology to stay in contact with them, but once I am connected to someone, life will..  find a way. Really, staying connected to someone is not what I need a particular tool for. If all fails, I’ll have their email address or a phone number.

But having conversations in a place that ensures that new voices will join that conversation regularly, especially new voices that are somehow still vetted to not be too obnoxious or disrupting, that is the true magic of the internet.

And for a good while, Google+ was the place that did that for me. I don’t know quite how this worked, but it did — whenever an interesting conversation happened, new faces popped up, and a click link on their profile let me know if they were also interesting.

(I realize I’m writing this in the past tense, even though the system will stay online for another 10 months from now. Well, write for the future, they say.)

The fact that the system never pretended to join „friends“ with each other, and adding someone to their circle was a decidedly one‐way action, ensured that your circle of acquaintances grew steadily. One could always decide to publish certain posts to only certain circles, but if you posted public, it was just that — a way to engage with a wide net of possibly unknown people.

At the same time, it was possible to keep a semblance of control over who appeared within your own comments. You could moderate the comments or even ban too obnoxious persons from your interactions.

And now the hunt is on, to find a similar platform that does the same for me and my peeps. And as we learned, we are looking for a very specific feature set:

  • The basics:
    • Safety (don’t open me to lawsuits, don’t put me in danger of malware or bad people)
    • privacy (don’t expose my data without my consent)
    • it should just work“
  • The socials
    • built for serendipity, so focus on public or at least semi‐public interactions
    • be abuse‐aware: Allow moderation, banning and the like.
  • The nitty‐gritty
    • don’t have a complicated backend that I need to learn to post or moderate
    • discussions attached to a post are good, nay, mandatory
    • threaded discussions are even better
    • emphasise on text. It can be rich‐text, it can involve pictures and videos, but text is still where discussions happen.
  • The open
    • don’t be a closed silo
    • don’t belong to a single company
    • ideally, be federated and allow for moving between instances

So far, none of the systems I know ticks all the boxes though…

Indie in Bielefeld

I’m sitting at home, having just returned from the regular gaming meetup in Bielefeld. While I did pack but not play Dusk City Outlaws, I did get to play two other games: The Skeletons by Jason Morningstar and Thorny Games' Dialect.

Both games are very much focused on story and emotions, less about high adventures, so this meetup has again been very much thematic for me. (There was a DSA 4.1 game that I was invited to, but, let’s say, even though I like the GM a lot, this isn't my cup of tea.)

So, what are these things about?

The Skeletons has the players all gather as undead guardians of a hidden tomb. The game asks them to map out the tomb together, to come up with the little details that give it a history.

And then watches on, as there are repeated incursions into the sacred stillness. Grave robbers, adventurers, monsters and others seek out the tomb, and the skeletons have to deal with them, rediscovering their own identities and memories while doing so.

A very fun game, but we sadly did not unlock it’s full potential. One reason was that the game got constantly interrupted, so we couldn’t really establish a flow. None of the interruptions were malicious (we got cake, new arrivals at the meetup wanted to say hi, and of course everything got paused when the infant kid of one of the players got carried in with a very nasty bruise on the forehead.), but a game that tries very much to evoke a feeling of loneliness and time passing suffers greatly from that.

The other was a result of this being our first time to play this game: The tomb we made was small. Basically one big room with just one corridor entering it. That way the skeletal guardians confronted each and every incursion in basically just one short encounter, not allowing for a lot of roleplay in those moments.

On top of that, I realized the actual point one probably should drive at only after the game ended, so the players felt a lack of agency. Discovering and making use of ones own personality should be much more important.

Still, I recommend this game a lot.

Dialect is a meta‐game, similar to Microscope, but instead of a deep history, this game has you develop a language. It comes in a rather thick hardcover, gorgeously illustrated and also hands you a bunch of cards with prompts. All of this enables you to form a tightly knitted group that has somehow isolated themselves from the rest of society — and thus forms their own language.

We had a merry band of gentleman thieves in early 19th century Hamburg that surely but slowly moved towards their downfall. In that time we invented slang that defines our marks, our celebrations and our hierarchy and actions. We saw how words slowly took on different, meaner definitions, as we moved from high stake cons to simply robbing and murdering people.

The phrase „before the cellar“, which we used to have as a code to reference our lofty gentlemanly standards became a curseword and then evolved into „to cellar someone“, a euphemism for plain murder. In the end, the cellar was all we had, and when our fearless leader walked up to the hangmans noose, her last words were „no one sings in the cellar“, refusing to give up her partners in crime.

A great game, one that I cannot wait to play again.

Playing at an open table

Harald runs his bi-weekly game in a slightly unusual fashion. It is an open table where he runs for whoever shows up. That in itself isn’t that unusual and the West Marshes style of running a campaign is based on a similar foundation.

The difference is that he treats the constant exchange of players and characters as a single continuous group. That means that if last week Clara, River and Amy break into the Holy Temple of Om, and this week Clara, Rose and Jack turn up at the game, the game starts with all three having just broken into the temple and are now facing the Dire Weresheep Guards.

But what about River and Amy?“ you ask. „And where did Rose and Jack suddenly turn up from?“

And to this, Haralds game group will answer: „What? uh.. we don’t care!“

The solution is that we treat this as just a cutting mistake in a B‐Movie. As long as the plot continues and is overall kept intact, we’re fine. So, we ended last week entering the temple and this week starts with the first confrontation inside the temple. Everything is fine. As long as no one draws attention to the fact that there are suddenly swapped‐out characters, no one really notices.

The other main reason this works is what kind of game we play at this table: There is no prepared epic campaign where we follow a carefully crafted set of settings and obstacles. Instead, Harald throws us into any one of the dozens of adventure modules he has collected over time and watches our characters try to cope with them, even if they are widely out of our level.

Then he takes whatever exit we take and uses it to throw us right into the next adventure. Example: When we decided to open a portal to escape the Servants of the Cinder Queen, that portal opened to the Broodmother Skyfortress. After having explored the fortress and finally managed to make it sort‐of‐land, we had to blindly jump from the anchor chain found ourselves on top of a structure on the Misty Isles of the Elk.

At the game table, none of this felt out of place. Harald cleverly chose the Cthonic Codex and a very rules‐light interpretation of the Adventure Fantasy Game as the base setting, and it works surprisingly well as scaffolding to hold up and connect all the different and slightly weird set‐pieces we visit. Things do not get boring, but stay mostly consistent, as Harald does keep track of when we change things in places or set something in motion that might have a world‐changing effect later on.

No, this isn’t something to play if you want to watch your character with their three friends evolve over 20 levels and find out how they save the kingdom. But if you want to have regular fun that still connects to a story worth re‐telling, this approach is worth a try.