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October 11 2011

The Return of Real-Time Social Environments


Max Jeffrey is a serial entrepreneur, podcaster and novelist. He co-founded ThisWeekIn.com, ZeroDegrees, SuperSig and The Palace and is currently writing the sequel to Max Quick: The Pocket and the Pendant (HarperCollins, 2011).

The last few months have seen an explosive resurgence in real-time environments, last popular in the late ’90s. The interesting thing is that this new zeitgeist seems to have taken root in multiple places within the space of a few short weeks.

I’ve seen this all before: I was one of the founders of an avatar chat company called The Palace, Inc. back in 1995. Although quite popular (10 million users at its peak in 1998), The Palace never found a revenue stream that worked. As Jake Winebaum once told me, Palace was a phenomenon, not a business. He was right. But that was then, and this is now.


The New Real-Time Landscape


Let’s examine a few examples. Avatar-based chat room Shaker took the gold two weeks ago at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference. Created as a Facebook app, Shaker lets users enter an isometric environment that resembles a bar. You can see and interact with other fully articulated avatars that look like mannequins. Users can chat, dance, give other users virtual drinks, see which of your Facebook friends are nearby and invite them to join the party. There is no “point” to Shaker interaction; it’s simply fun and engaging.

Then, there’s the twin phenomenon of Turntable.fm and Chill.com. Turntable lets you enter a virtual room (again with an avatar) and either DJ yourself or listen to other users select music. Chill is much the same idea, only it showcases YouTube videos or real-time streamed events. The idea behind both is shared media consumption while chatting with friends as you watch or listen together. If you recall the ’90s show Mystery Science Theatre 3000, you’ll know what I mean.

Worlize.com is perhaps the most Palace-like of the real-time spaces. Allowing for custom avatar uploads and creation of user-owned spaces, Worlize has the expressiveness, color and “aliveness” that made the Palace tick. You can invite your friends to join from Facebook or via a tweeted link. Worlize also allows for a few tricks: embedded YouTube windows and a live feed from your webcam as an avatar option.

Google Hangouts mostly centered on video party-lines wherein users could watch YouTube videos together. And with the most recent upgrade to Google+, shared whiteboards and shared desktops were added. Clearly, Google felt that the real-time environment is where the action is.


Real-Time Tech Has Come of Age


So what’s going on here? Why now, and not back then?

One of the largest challenges we faced back in the ‘90s with these environments was getting people to show up at the same time. I can’t tell you how many times I saw a Palace avatar materialize, look around at the empty room and dematerialize — only to have someone else materialize minutes later. There was no way to synchronize people’s participation.

But now, Turntable.fm sends me email whenever one of the DJ’s I follow starts spinning virtual vinyl. And with the Facebook and Twitter integration of all these environments, rallying up an online party is not all that difficult anymore — they’re virtual flashmobs.

We also faced significant technical challenges back then. The Palace and its competitors required hefty standalone clients or huge Netscape plugins crowbarred into the browser. The frequent changing of avatars, room art and real-time games meant a central server needed to coordinate a large flow of information. The “lag,” as it came to be known, destroyed the illusion of being in a space with other people. Now bandwidth is cheap, content delivery networks deliver art assets quickly, and Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds have pointed the way to solutions once unimaginable.

Lastly, real-time business models have changed significantly over the years. We had three choices with the Palace: charge for the software (nobody wanted to pay because “everything’s free on the Internet!”), charge for registration codes and “extras” (same objection) or charge for advertising. In the ‘90s, however, successful advertising on webpages was akin to sorcery, let alone advertising inside this weird little universe of speech balloons and downloadable clients. We couldn’t convince anyone to advertise at volume.

But again: that was then, and this is now. Zynga and others have shown that the purchase of in-world virtual products to “pimp” your farm, castle, mafia hideout or avatar is a highly lucrative business. Chill is already experimenting with “appointment viewing” of real-time net shows. Recently, the company experimented with This Week In Venture Capital. Finally, I profess that I’ve increased my iTunes purchases thanks to all the new music I’ve discovered within Turntable.fm rooms.


Why Now?


Back to the original question: Why is now the right time for real-time? Why has it grabbed the collective imagination at this exact moment? Simply, it is the last great frontier in social media. It is the logical extension of an already powerful trend.

We’ve been heading this way for some time. First we had Geocities — basically static shrines to this or that topic. Then we had static profiles in Ryze and Friendster and MySpace. Better, but still stale over time. Then Facebook and Twitter materialized, making near-synchronous feeds ubiquitous. It wasn’t quite real-time, but edging in that direction.

Now we’ve finally arrived — real-time is the latest social space. The technology is there and, at last, the right psychology is in place that will make these services explode. And I, for one, welcome our new avatar overlords.

More About: avatars, contributor, features, real-time, Social Media, turntable.fm


September 03 2011

Social Media Avatars: 20 Examples of Personal Presentation Gone Wrong [COMIC]

The Joy of Tech takes us on a grand tour of the various types of social media avatars you’ll encounter as you navigate this vast series of tubes.

Are you one who doesn’t want to use a current picture of yourself as your social media avatar? Or maybe you’ve developed a certain style of presenting yourself via an avatar that might not say exactly what you want it to say.

See if you recognize yourself among these 20 examples:


[via The Joy of Tech]

More About: avatars, comics, Social Media, The Joy of Tech

For more Social Media coverage:


December 02 2009

AWESOME: Artist Reimagines Twitter Bird Avatar [PICS]

sesame-street-260The default Twitter bird icon is nothing if not a simple representation of the Twitter service, which co-founder Biz Stone once famously characterized as being akin to “a flock of birds choreographed in flight.”

Artist Adam Koford, a.k.a. Apelad, has crafted a pretty wicked set of icons riffing on the Twitter bird and incorporating pop culture figures varying from Sesame Street to Harry Potter to Yoda — and even Twitter’s own iconic fail whale.

Check out a couple of more examples after the jump, and see the entire avatar set on Flickr. Will you adopt one for your own Twitter avatar? What are your favorites? Let us know in the comments.


mst3k-full


fail-whale-big

[via BuzzFeed]


Reviews: Flickr, Twitter, harry potter

Tags: Adam Koford, Apelad, art, avatars, fail whale, twitter, twitter bird


November 24 2009

Retweet Avatar Display Improved by User Script

improved-rt-avatarsIf you’re a Firefox user, you may already be familiar with Greasemonkey, an extension that allows users to create scripts that change the display or behavior of web pages. Greasemonkey scripts can come in extremely handy for various purposes, and Leonard Lin has come up with one that adds utility to the default Twitter display for the new retweet function.

The user script, which you can download and install here, modifies the avatar display in your Twitter.com timeline to include both the person you’re following’s avatar along with the avatar of the Twitter user they retweeted. The two avatar display makes it more clear at a glance both that the item is a retweet and which of your followers it came from.

Here’s how the display appears after you install the script. It attempts to solve the issue mentioned by a number of folks who have felt that seeing an unfollowed user’s avatar suddenly appear in their timeline can be somewhat jarring. Although people who primarily use clients to access Twitter won’t be able to get much benefit out of this script, those that have occasion to visit the actual Twitter.com site and who might take delight in customizing the new retweet experience might find this script just the ticket.

What do you think, is the script an improvement over the default retweet display?

[via Waxy]


Reviews: Twitter

Tags: avatars, Firefox, greasemonkey, retweet, scripts, twitter, user scripts


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