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©07 The Media Desk

Tech review and commentary by the Desk

      It started back in the Ancient Kingdoms of Babylon and China and maybe even the Indus Valley civilization. People of like talents and interests gathered to work together and eventually shared other facets of their lives. Trade guilds evolved as well as other social and religious groups which then matured with the emerging structure of human society.
      Which brings us to the Internet Age and Online Communities.

      That's a jump of what? Six or seven thousand years... but hey, it works.

[NOTE: We are talking about Public Use online venues. In it's earliest incarnations of ARPANET around 1970 and subsequent systems what was to become the Internet was used by the military or various universities (such as the Community system at Berkley in the 70's). The first public use was in 1978 and expanded throughout the 80's with the advance of TELNET and dial up BBS's (which is where the Desk started). The Internet all but killed Bulletin Board Systems as a going enterprise in the late 90's. -the Desk ]

      From the beginning, the Net and the PC have grown up together. And now, it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Just as it can be confusing as to where the Virtual Worlds we will discuss in this article end and the Real World begins... they do overlap. And more so all the time.

DID YOU KNOW? MOSAIC, what later became Netscape (and later Internet Explorer), was developed at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne in 1992.

      The earliest online communities connected, literally, over dial up modems. Everything early on was text based, then some ANSI images came along as a novelty more than anything meaningful. But it was a connection. You could exchange information with other regular people a dozen miles or a thousand miles away, instantly, in real time, at your discretion.
      Where a telephone was, for the most part, one to one communication, and you usually knew who you were talking to, the new electronic communication was more or less anonymous. And it was in writing. You could capture a file and refer back to it two days later. Forum postings could be searched months later for information. Online games developed, first it was all text such as various trivia games and various word and number games, but that changed too.
      It wasn't long before photos and other types of files could be posted for others to download.
      It was the beginning of a way of life.

      Just as the online world began with the military and universities then moved into the public realm, soon businesses took notice. Commercial applications came online.

DID YOU KNOW? Pizza Hut enabled online ordering of pizza in 1994.

      But the majority of online communities still had at least one foot in reality. User Groups had 'GTs', get-togethers where they could meet face to face and discuss things. Many of these were social occasions but a lot of business related groups had conferences as well. And some real world groups set up online ones as a way for their members to stay in touch when the group was out of session or somebody moved to Topeka.
      An example of this part of the drama is the 'Class Reunion' type of web groups where those classmates from high school or college, or even grade school, can stay in contact.
      In many cases the online world was a supplement to, not a replacement for, the real world. More on that later.

      And then there is the totally inorganic side of these online exchanges and lists and worlds.

      Some chat programs are a new and improved automated response system and some of the games use them. The programs act on specific words in the user's statement for its response, if the user puts in nonsense the program will ask a question 'what did you mean by that?' or ask for the query to be restated. Sometimes it'll just say it didn't understand.
      In any case, you, the user, are NEVER sure if you are typing your fantasies to a natural born man, woman, computer, or anything else. Anybody, or indeed, anyThing can appear to be whatever or whoever they wish to be at that time, to any body or anything else, at any time, period.
      The only rule of truth and trust is... there are no rules and you'd be a fool to trust anybody online until they have demonstrated they are trustworthy. Which is a purely subjective analysis, true, but in many cases, a gut reaction is all you have.

DID YOU KNOW? The first emails were sent at MIT in 1965.

      Email has been around for a lot longer than most people realize.
      As email got its electronic wheels under it, mailing lists were a natural course of its evolution. Unfortunately, so was spam, the junkmail curse of the online world. But we've already written that article, several times in fact. The bottom line on spam is, Do Not Reply to it, Do Not Click on any Links in it, and for damned sure- do NOT buy anything so advertised no matter what it is!
      Back on course. But that tangent brought up a good point.
      Mailing lists of people with common interests are as old as Real World mail service itself. It is not hard to imagine a Roman Senator telling his scribe to copy a letter to all the other senators, or generals of various legions or even his fellow conspirators in a plot against the Emperor. Just as in the fifties various civic groups had lists to send surface mail fliers about fund raisers or upcoming events those same lists are now electronic, both for email and 'snail mail'. And with the power of various programs you can sort your list any way you want to.

      Of course those with a commercial interest in staying in contact with various aspects of the public have an acute interest in maintaining lists of their own. And the more accurate and well defined the list is, the better for the bottom line.
      Lists can be as granular as 'married women who buy leather pumps in narrow widths' to as broad as 'pet owners', or angled to voters who are deeply concerned about migratory bird habitat or specific to people that find foreign cartoons amusing and might buy the next season of 'Rocky' the beer drinking cartoon dog from Sweden.
      Of course, there is always the chance that the bird watchers who own pets and wear shoes may order the cartoon as well, so brace yourself for emails about the release of the cartoon on DVD.
      Opt-in and Opt-out options of various mailing lists works pretty well though. So if your birding circle starts hitting you with too many shoe sale fliers, you can tell them to quit sending you stuff. But then it is just as likely that in order to raise funds to purchase the latest field guide they'll sell their mailing list, current and former members alike, to the politicians and other spammers. We'll be fair, some list managers don't share for fun and profit, but a lot of them do. Which is something else we've hit before, so we'll move on.
      There are other groups with levels of memberships. Some charge for 'full' benefits

DID YOU KNOW? The first dialup ISP went online in 1989 in Massachusetts.

      Some online communities have Nothing to do with Anything in the Real World, other than their users live there.
      Zanpo, Active Worlds and other various virtual worlds have taken on, and the pun is somewhat intended even though it is unavoidable, A Life of Their Own. More on them in a minute.

      Online marketing to consumers through forums and online chat is something that is at best an annoyance. Yes your forum or personal page may be free to use, but the price you pay is putting up with blinking banner ads that may cause migraine headaches or even seizures in people with photosensitive systems (such as many 'Looksmart' animated ads of the "you have won" type). In groups that charge a membership fee, the various levels of memberships with their differing fees may weed out some, or all, ads and spam, but then the reach of the group may be limited. It is a tradeoff for both the user and the group/forum owner or manager.
      In virtual worlds, the advertising can be both more selective and more general. Indeed, in some online worlds you can literally put a billboard by the highway to advertise your latest cellular phone or put together an exclusive, invitation only club catering to those who favor one brand of ketchup over another.
      Of course there are forums devoted to... well, everything and anything, and email groups, chat rooms and every combination of them you can imagine. And with various free email services offering groups, if you can't find one you like, say for left-handed vegetarian Eskimos- Start One.

DID YOU KNOW? The first email worm (virus) was sent in 1988 from Cornell University.

      In some of the online communities you are yourself. You use your real name, or a 'handle' (nickname) that can identified as you, and you are pretty much yourself. In others, you can be anybody, or anything, you want to be. You design your avatar (virtual 'person') to suit yourself... and your checkbook.
      The classic text-based online game 'TradeWars' and its kin allowed a person to play a harmless interplanetary trader, a prospector, a war lord, or some combination of all of them. Your character commanded a space vessel, traded and bartered goods and services for fun and profit with the stated goal of becoming the Supreme Galactic Overlord or other such impressive title. The players could form corporations, go it alone, become an 'Officer in the Federation' and find fame and fortune in a galaxy limited only by the power of the game operator's computer.
      But of course the original TW was all text based. The only graphics were some rather pathetic GIF pictures and ANSI animations. For the majority of the game it was all just words on the screen.

      And then the games grew up.
      Many of the 'virtual worlds' we are talking about are exactly that. Some are truly three dimensional and real time. Others are somewhat less technically sophisticated and more cartoonish, or somewhere in between.
      Today text-dependent games are somewhat rare and increasingly more so all the time. Remember the ' Zork: Great Underground Empire' text adventure? It is probably an endangered species.

      As has been pointed out elsewhere, some online communities, the heavily marketed 'Zwinky' for instance, appear to be nothing but a vehicle for various pieces of spyware and other more or less malicious programs, with access controlled by Zwinky's parent company, IAC, owner of MyWebSearch and other spyware/adware outfits. While Zwinky itself may not be 'malware', some of the programs that are downloaded with it, ARE!
      Most software and online review organizations have recommended against anyone installing Zwinky and its MyWebSearch toolbar for security reasons.
      These things are supposed to be done for fun.... if something is skimming your information for spamming or identity theft or just information gathering for marketing purposes to feed you advertising, its not fun any more is it?

      The Sims and like programs for world management or 'role playing games' (RPG) have been around for several years, starting as a program you installed on your PC to build everything from an individual house to an entire city, or a castle, or a country, or a theme park, railroad, or whatever, which you then ran as either a manager or even god.
      Where 'the Sims' were mostly peaceful, their more 'exciting' RPG cousins include 'Warcraft' and its various battling relatives that involve killing other players, or at least their computer generated avatars, or various system controlled monsters.
      Some of these programs were half social site, offering chats and forums and half civilized social settings when the death rays weren't flying.

      Second Life and some of the other more 'mundane' maybe even 'pedestrian' RPGs require that the user answer to some basic rules: there's only certain areas that allow gun or sword play, sex, and... yes, advertising. Although the commercials are creeping into areas where users are required to keep their clothes on and not kill each other.

DID YOU KNOW? INTERNIC and other organizations to control online name registrations were formed under the US National Science Foundation in 1993, Network Solutions (an existing applications developer) was the first web official registrar.

      Second Life doesn't appear to be a direct conduit for ads and spam, nor does it seem to collect real world personal information on its own, although some advertisers in the 'game' do promote websites which, if you sign up with them, will spam you half to death, the game and its money, railroad, buildings, and even oil drilling platform are all products of the Linden company. Linden is in turn a brainchild of a group of really smart and talented people who came from almost every other successful media or software company on the Net, including RealNetwork, Lotus, and Disney.
      Second Life began almost unnoticed by anybody outside of the techie world in 2002 after the Linden company came together in 1999. Plagued by poor performance, lousy graphics, lag, and other assorted problems it wasn't a pleasure to use. However, the team, and its sponsors, saw the potential and kept after it. Patches and upgrades followed, and, in time, the game became friendlier and more 'realistic'.
      Of course, if your computer is out of date, with a slow processor, limited memory, on a spotty web connection, and a video card that is surprised that there are more than 16 colors in the world, Second Life may not look as good as it should.
      And Second Life may now be exceeding its designer's plans for it as RL "Real Life" intrudes on SL and vise versa...
      Several organizations seem to use it as a Home Base on the web. Once of which is Save Our Seas, an environmental charity, they have an educational outlet on an 'island' (of course, where else would it be?) in the game.
      Reuters has an extensive complex complete with videos and facilities for a virtual meeting with editors from all over the world.
      There are even 'missing child' posters, with photographs and real phone numbers to CrimeStoppers in the game.
      Oh, and there are even 'embassies' in SL which are officially sanctioned government presences in the game for Sweden and the Maldives. According to the Swedes their Second Life home is a web portal for information about the country to reach a broader audience.
      All that and Virtual Windsurfing Competitions, prize chairs, virtual (and real) artwork, and things that are impossible to explain unless you've been in the game.

      Of course other online groups do charity work. The International Federation of Trekkers is all the time touting one or another good cause. You can't go too far on the web, including through the IFT forums or even in SL before you run into a Relay for Life team looking for donations.
      And of course other online communities advertise and even sell items and services to users. From photographers forums where the latest 12 mega pixel camera is held out for review and comment by everybody in the group to free web pages on social sites (MySpace, Facebook, etc) with directed advertising based on the interests you checked off when you signed up... "Do you go to movies? Do you enjoy crafts?"

DID YOU KNOW? The first search engine was 'Archie' developed at McGill University in 1990.

      And now the bit of the Virtual World that the Desk seems to be unable to wrap its arms around. And it probably isn't what you think it is.

      Yes you can have the ultimate in anonymous, and absolutely safe- sex (straight, otherwise, and way-otherwise). It's the logical conclusion of the evolution of 'cyber sex' which was the text version of the older and somewhat more in touch with the real world 'phone sex' which was the real time person to person connection 'love letters' didn't quite have. But in most cases you knew that the person on the other end of the telephone or hand written letter was who and what they claimed to be. In the online world, there are times when you can't even be sure the person on the other end of a conversation is a person.
      Of course the various online worlds tell you not to disclose too much information, which even includes things like your real sex and age, although all participants are supposed to be of the age of majority in their local, the enforcement is questionable at best.
      The best advice this writer can offer is ... (drumroll please)... THINK! Before you do Anything online. Even when creating an Avatar in an online game. And for God's sake don't tell anybody or anything your real name and Social Security Number on the first virtual date!

DID YOU KNOW? Nobody has any idea exactly how many websites and webpages there are, the best most recent estimate is just over 110 million web sites, with many times more web pages.

      Yes you can play as a total manifestation of evil, or the ultimate good guy, in some you can buy your way in at an advanced level and purchase an amazing array of weapons and armor and proceed to take over the world. The possibilities are limited only by your own imagination.... and checkbook.

      And there it is.
      The weapons, real estate, sex toys, battling robots and art are all Virtual.
      Well, yes you can purchase a print of one of the images and a few other things for sale in some shops and have it sent (surface mail or emailed). However, it doesn't work that way with a condominium or sports car.
      At least not yet. That's probably next.
      Right now except in a few specific cases, such as t-shirts and a select few other things, what you are paying real money for are unreal items. Images and representations of things both normal and fantastic. You do not really get the tattoo, the grandfather clock, case of beer, spacecraft, or anything else. The game operator gets your money, you get some electrons lined up to make a more or less 3D cartoon of whatever it was.
      Fake Stuff for Real Money... and you pay a membership fee for the privilege.
      PT Barnum would be proud.

      Some worlds offer a set amount of their currency for a given price, say two hundred 'credits' or 'cubits' or 'shekels of gold' for twenty Euros or whatever.
      Second Life has developed an exchange rate that varies slightly day to day. Unfortunately for speculators, the company gets a cut of the action so it is all but impossible to make a profit buying and selling 'Lindens' for real money as some people do converting Dollars to Yen to Euros and back again as the market fluctuates.

DID YOU KNOW? The Domain Name System (DNS) where a site name can be used instead of a numeric address was invented in 1983 at USC by Dr. Paul V. Mockapetris.

          Bottom line time.

      Being an online or 'Virtual' community means absolutely NOTHING. People are people. Some are good, some are bad, some are something in between.
      YOU the User have to use some common sense and do not be immediately trusting of anybody online just because they seem nice.
      That advice goes for businesses and individuals and everything in between. Don't get swept away by the technology and all the pretty colors. Remember, anybody can say and seem to be absolutely anything in the online worlds.
      Again, take your time, use some sense, and be careful.
      That in mind.... Have Fun. It is supposed to be A Game and not real life, right?

DID YOU KNOW? The Desk was around before the Internet Boom of the middle 90's and used to do security work on a BBS posing as a kid to catch sleazeballs looking to pick kids up on the dial up service. One of its earliest tech articles was about how the Internet is a tool and it is up to users not to abuse it or fall victims to the abuse of others. The advice still holds fifteen years later.


The Desk no longer uses Wikipedia as a source. You may if you wish.
Outside links will open in new window: The Rocky cartoon as mentioned in the article. web information pages it is their web, we just use it

For other Web History check out

The Desk's treatment of Zwinky

The Tech Page

The Main Urban Legend, Spam and SCAM page.

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