Monday, November 22, 2010

become a deviant: y/n

It's not a question you ever want to be asked in a work context; not in my area of work anyway! In some, I'm sure it's an asset. But for me, deviant, work, no.

That is, until I asked the manga girls whether they used Facebook. "Well, yeah," they said, "But mostly on Deviantart! Are you on Deviantart? Can we be your friend?"

Errrrrrrrrr. I said. Not yet, but I can be. What's your ID?

I'd picked up an ID on a trawl through online drawing groups years ago, but it had seemed a bit forumy, inexplicable and -- frankly -- grey, and I was sure that any profile, if it still exists, would be a tangle of abandoned fragments. Not to worry though, a shiny new profile is the work of a moment:

http://jeremy-spired.deviantart.com/

... and gives me a convenient place to drop any cartoons, pictures, etc. which I do at the art group which brought all of this up in the first place. I'm still feeling my way, because it's massive, with its own interface querks, dialogue conventions and games -- you can get an idea of the sheer size and breadth from the size of this meme-station:

http://meme-station.deviantart.com/

Here, meme mans a blank drawing game. Fill it in, have fun, invite a friend! I have to say, the focus on creating, on creativity and collaboration is refreshing, healthy and exciting. Interactions seem mostly positive and it's a rich and thrilling environment.

Maybe that moment of "erk!" when you have to tick yes to "become a deviant" does a clever trick. It marks that step into virtual space, that fourth-wall moment where you step into your ID, and embrace the pseudonym, the performance.

It looks like a place where you'd be able easily to shake off your past with a change of ID, and skip through different characters as your interests change. Like somewhere you could successfully play. And that has to be a freedom worth having.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ten things that are killing the social web

In common with lots of people recently I've been seeing a slow fall-off in numbers of people commenting, participating, chatting and responding on my various social networking channels. Part of the clue's in what I've just said; channels. More channels spreads attention more thinly, and stops people reliably getting your news.

You drift apart.

This annoys me; when I first joined the busy rush onto social networking sites (2001, my archives tell me) I had a bold vision of a world where I could broadcast important information easily to friends; where they could pick it up at their leisure without feeling pressure to respond or react; where I could see day-to-day details of their existence and by this resist the slow erosions of time and distance that lead us, in five years time, to be strangers again. This was my vision; a social group where no one is left behind.

It didn't happen that way. Partly, that's down to human nature. Lots of people don't enjoy the fragmentary communication style of online contact; others see computers as work and socialise away from them. I've made new friends and reconnected with old friends and walked along the social connections to friends of friends pretty much as you're supposed to, but right now I'm organising a party and the situation is far from ideal. In fact, I'm probably going to need to send out an email, and then send out another email, just like I did in the old days, but with even less chance of success thanks to hair-trigger spam catchers.

The messages are up, but the number of relevant people listening is dropping off. Plenty of interaction, but increasingly with partial strangers, as if this were a communication mode no longer sufficiently privileged for actual friends. And there's no point in trying to write IMPORTANT in capital letters or bold or even blink some text or use any other attention! indicator, either: years of deleting spam has taught us that the more urgent something appears, the less likely it is to need reading.

So much for human nature; there are also a bunch of things happening in the evolution of the social web at the moment which are stifling communication (even though some are enabling it). Confused? Let me explain through the medium of a conveniently numbered list:
  1. Richer environment
    It's a bit like trying to meet a friend at an Arcade combined with a Science Museum, gallery, Shopping Centre and Funfair. With so many shiny distractions around it's easy to miss something, especially when the first symptoms of offline crisis is online absence. Yes, your games, puzzles, ads, badges and prizes are lovely, but I need to go see my mate now, sorry.
  2. Feature creep, usability decay
    Currently Myspace's music player is flaky and Facebook is only intermittently alerting you when you receive an event invitation. At the same time, both are expanding their capabilities like excited slime moulds, colonising thrilling new features, while crucial central systems decay and reorganise, forcing users into multiple work-arounds and unbudgeted and unexpected learning curves to a soundtrack of struggling, swearing and giving up.
  3. Social Networking Marketing Experts
    Top of the social pile of the people trying to game the online social system are the people trying to build personal brand, leverage their online identity and create a buzz around [content]. They not only clutter my social space with idiot theories, annoying how-to videos and tedious single-insights posts, they also (and more insidiously) create nervousness among online freshers who are in a state about making a mistake; irritate and annoy regular users; and provoke veterans to throw up their hands and leave it to the Nathans.
  4. Earn money from home!
    Somewhere in the middle are gangs of teenagers, marketing students and stay-at-home mums earning small amounts of money for brand blogging, SEO optimisation, buzzes made entirely by a stable of fake IDs, and all the other myriad methods of white-to-greymarket online advertising. It's impossible to resent anything that produces such low wages and some of it is useful information, but the constant murk of UGG boots, random restaurants and price comparison websites gets wearing.
  5. Spammers, scammers, hackers, script kiddies and their ilk
    Bottom of the heap are the parasites who've trained us to ignore urgent messages, avoid clicking on links, and fear making friends with strangers. Who have distorted the development of websites so that vast resources are now poured into security and updating, rather than into improving the site for its users. Thanks to them, all websites are now less reliable, more prone to changes of service and more annoying. They are largely responsible for that slug of anxiety, paranoia and fear many people feel when they sign up to a new service or suffer interruptions or changes to a current service. It's driving people off the web, not least because there's no obvious way to punish the perpetrators.
  6. Firehose of Me anxiety
    Some people select one channel and stick with it; others skip around doing a bit here, a bit there (often precisely because their friends are scattered across different channels). Almost everyone has an additional channel for rich media, even if it's only a Photobucket or a Youtube. While combining these channels into one, single complete channel is certainly possible nowadays, all but celebrities and massive egotists flinch from full channel combination, the unmediated stream of an individual's online existence. That much of one person at once is overwhelming, and feels intrusive; even if it is, often, things you do want to see.
  7. Overwhelementation
    There is too much to follow. Too many cool things, nice people, fun events, neat new music and gorgeous art. Once the watched feeds get over a certain level, once the channels proliferate sufficiently, once you have above a certain number of elements on your page, following everything, reading everything, you either can't do it, or it stops being sociable fun, LOLs and gossip and turns into a joyless job-list, a round of sniffing posts to deal with and shout back at, grinding out your social existence like a grumpy prayer-wheel.
  8. Intimacy drift
    On the social net, the professional is personal, strangers are friends and family are filtered; privacy settings came in alongside the crowd of old schoolfriends, colleagues and acquaintances building their instant social groups, and all of us too status-aware and/or open to turn down even a dubious social connection. But as friend-groups swell, trust diminishes; and no matter how heavily we filter, the awareness is always there that as soon as anyone gets annoyed or feels someone should know something, or is simply sufficiently motivated to press ctrl+c, ctrl+v, our privacy is toast. It inhibits, and forces a backwards march into an inner circle, particularly during times of stress when we need new connections and fresh perspective.
  9. "Share this" --with your mum
    Sharing is a lovely idea, but enabling tools encourage oversharing, which leads to inhibition. The first step into any new application, social network or utility is nowadays increasingly likely to include a frantic dash through the settings, turning absolutely everything off, for fear that your skimming of small print has produced a cross-identity torrent of "x watched this", "X thinks kittens are cute!" and forced that most disagreeable of thoughts; Le spammeur, c'est moi.
  10. Hesitancy of choice
    Most of the central services (Facebook, Myspace) want to take on the functions (photoposting, status updates) of the specialist services (Flickr, Twitter). By the time you've figured out what to use, the urge has often faded. This is why I often find myself using Tumblr, the blogging equivalent of bashing big buttons with little thought. But Tumblr's simplicity means I don't tend to pass on its pretty updates, locking them away from the bulk of my friends. As a result, my friends are --word of the moment-- siloed into channels and unable to mingle.

I'm aware that I'm listing problems without knowing solutions, and that it's only my opinion, and that I'm no trendsetter or important voice; but I know I'm not the only one posting things like "...tumbleweeds here..." right now. And, as it happens, I do have some advice, although it's not new, not rocket science, and not an easy answer to all your online marketing needs.

  • Don't neglect your core functionality
  • Build new features when you need them, not for their own sake or keeping up with [SNx]
  • Engage with your marketing population and encourage them to enforce good behaviour
  • Make it easy to share and not to share on a post by post basis
  • Play nice; you'll win in the end

Friday, August 27, 2010

flexibility key for making the most of facebook

Of all the various social networking outreach tools we've been using, Facebook is drawing ahead fast. Occasionally Twitter will throw up a surprise sharp enough that I'm careful to regularly check my @ and direct messages, but the bulk of the work is out in the Facebook.

Continuing in my experimental vein, I'm taking every opportunity to compare and contrast different approaches. Conveniently, two main agendas (Positive Activities and Choices/Pathways/Connexions) provide me with a very neat pair of comparators. Whenever I'm uncertain about how to approach a task, I can take one route on one page, and the other on the other, and learn by doing.

So, the two pages get slightly different approaches, on the advertising, the character of the posts, the numbers and character of the links. Spreading out further, the different groups and projects are all pursuing their own contact style and behaviours, according to their needs. At first this caused me some anxiety. As members of an advanced bureaucracy, stepping outside consistent procedure is panic-provoking. As people who work with people who are young, and often vulnerable in other ways, we are naturally concerned that our actions are consistent, kind and safe.

However, as practice developed, I began to feel that this very multiplicity of approach may be crucial to successfully using social networking in a youthwork context. Where workers made up their own approach, in collaboration with the young people they were working with, groups flourished and grew. Where workers asked to be shown how to use it, then followed instructions, their enthusiasm quickly waned and online groups began to fade.

I've come up with a few reasons why this might be:
  1. The fluid nature of social networking environment requires flexibility.
    Social Networking is a dynamic, constantly evolving environment. To respond best and most creatively users must be open to exploration, experimentation and change.

  2. Social networking is a naturally subversive act which resists rules and authority.
    From the informal communication register to the multiple oportunities for time-wasting, deception and mischief-making, Social Networking is sub-rosa, sneaky, circumvential and generally an area of experimentation, boundary testing and play. This makes it a rich environment for youth work, but one best engaged with informally, collaboratively, and on the young people's own terms.

  3. Successful usage requires proper submersion in the Social Networking environment.
    Following rules and tapping through checkboxes doesn't communicate the true appeal of the online environment. Not that workers should spend their whole time watching youtube videos, talking rubbish and playing pointless web games! But some exploration and experimentation is crucial. A phrase I use is "be guided by your offline practice", and here I would quote the climbing wall. Go up and down the wall yourself. You'll be a better worker for it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

on the refolding of identity

Scandal this week as huge online multi-player game World of Warcraft decided to introduce their forums to real name culture. The predictable outcry masked a broader anxiety about the brave new world of total connection. Now that the entire world is online, will it have to become less free? Or, put more simply; are most people really idiots?

World of Warcraft backed down, of course; several days of female roleplayers gently sharing with the site organisers their extensive personal experiences of being stalked, threatened and harassed did the trick nicely. But Facebook, the native home of the real name culture, is alive and well and winning the internet.

The internet started out as a pseudonymous culture. Faced with character name limits, people created aliases. Realising they were different people with different groups, they made multiples. Feeling the need to escape in an overpoweringly male-dominated world, women went male, or gender neutral. People put on imaginary bodies and made strange worlds. They met strangers and found out new ideas, explored new territories of identity and expression. They were able to switch and change to meet new challenges and rest from exhausting interactions. It was thrilling, empowering, exciting.

Compared to that, the real name culture of Facebook feels like being a pop-up gopher in the hammer game -- the same friends, the same connections, the same short list of faces/friends/family, chattering back endlessly. It's quite nice, but also quite boring. You respond to someone, you see more of them. You ignore someone, they go away. It simulates the experiences of popular kids everywhere, which is fine, I guess; but if you only stay in your own pretty playpen you're kind of missing the point of going online.

For anyone who read about online freedoms and felt a sinking sense of horror, you're absolutely right. While you can engage with this freeedom creatively, make interesting content, have fun, make new friends and generally have a brilliant time, of course many people take the other route. They grief, flame, stalk, harrass, break and vandalise things. They do appalling things almost unconsciously, without a second thought; and their excuses are very simple and very clear. It is easy to do, anyone could do it, lots of people want to, and nobody's stopping me.

Are they right, though? Are they really now the dominant online group? Or, to put it another way, are most people really idiots?

If what's predominantly happening is that most people are routinely thoughtlessly acting out without worrying about consequences because there are unlikely to be any bad consequences and it's just so easy, yes, some form of unique registration might have an effect. However, if what we're seeing is an aggressive minority indulging in deviant behaviour because that's what they want to do, then it seems likely that people will get round the checks and blocks and continue with what they're doing because that is what they do when they're online.

World of Warcraft's forums, for the moment, are continuing to allow their users fictional creations their voices. But if the moronic and monotonous sock-puppet slaggers outnumber the real and honorable interactions, what conclusions should we draw?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bye bye Bebo, so long Livejournal

"Everyone talks about Bebo, but nobody uses it," she says. I'm talking to a group who are using Facebook to promote gigs at their Young People's Centre. It's been incredibly successful. They made friends with local bands, promoters and music fans. They made friends with everyone in the Youth Club, on the local Town Youth Council and the local Youth Forum. Once they got enough friends in the age-group, they just started being suggested to the local young people as a suitable friend. And the young people laughed at the building pretending to be a person and notched up another friend-mark on their tally sheet.

At 400 friends, it's impossible to be sure who's on your friends list any more. Is it a risk? I take them through some of the risk points, ignoring the irony of teaching kids to use Facebook. Sometimes they need it, but not this lot. "Oh yeah, I was stalked," she says, with a lopsided smile, and launches into one of the standard stories. She snaps open a chat window as she talks; one of the bands wants info about an upcoming gig. She fires a question across the room, someone fires off a text, the information comes back and she responds. I'm looking at the text as she types. The language is formal, kind, elaborately polite, bracketed by smilies and see-you-latwer commonplaces. Subtext made explicit; I'm busy, but I still care.

Bebo, then, does anyone use it? "I think my little sister... used to," says one of the older young people. "She's got a Facebook now. She's only eleven." We launch into another discussion of online safety, terms of service and protecting yourself. They know the script, though; they're looking out for each other, they can take their concerns on to staff, family, friends.

Does anyone read blogs? "I have a friend who writes one, I think..." They look a bit bored. Someone's sent through a message. "We told them the stage times, didn't we?" she snaps, "They know this!" She types up a quick message. "Who is it?" asks one of the younger young people. She tells them. "He never remembers anything," he laughs, "Too much *phweep*." Her response, typed with machine-gun speed, is as unfailingly polite and concise as her chat.

Do you have any trouble with people being rude on the wall? No, no. Of course they don't.

So, Bye bye Bebo. We didn't get much more than a year's use out of it in the end, before everyone was flooding onto Facebook. And the blog can go, too -- fold it back into the general site news and the timeline. Twitter and Myspace can stay, for now, utilities filed next to Slideshare and Youtube. Glad I elected to use Livejournal for the blog, though! Downloading an archive copy was a piece of cake.

Monday, April 19, 2010

recovering from the personal effectiveness course

It's been a couple of weeks since I went on the Personal Effectiveness Course, and I've just about recovered. No disrespect to the trainer (she was very good) the course content (some interesting insights) or the training arrangements (nothing like being presented with an assertiveness challenge partway through the day), but, let's face it, if a person has problems with assertiveness, effectiveness and so on, there is, by definition, a problem. Problems are seldom sorted out by a few useful insights; this presents the beginning of the work.

I have the usual issues common to operational, hands-on staff with training around "personal improvement". I feel it's sort of waffy and handwavy, dancing around the work without actually getting on with it. In this spirit I've set aside time each week to complete training that will improve my effectiveness and capabilities at work -- those clear goals and that work focus help me feel satisfied that the training is valid use of my time, but at the same time, most courses start or involve a bit of personal improvement.

There was the usual round of reprove/excuse/allow over my doodling during the session, but as you can see from the page below, it didn't really slow me down. So, what struck me?

The notes on trying to form a relationship is related to people (including bosses) feeling annoyed or overly distracted when people socialise at work. While the option of just telling people (or requiring them) to do things is available for a few lucky people, most need regularly renewed social connection to avoid awkwardness when sharing out work. Social glue becomes a lubricant to progress.

My bulleted list refers to the triple preventers of progress.
  • Me getting angry and frustrated,
  • people going silent,
  • agreements not leading to action.

I was looking for answers to these problems, and didn't really get them. I have a lot of tips and tricks for calming myself already, and I know about lists and faulty thinking and triggers and so on and so forth. This section of the course depressed me, and the "we instruct people how to treat us" doodle hits the crux of the problem. There was the usual discussion of family roles and how these direct your interactions as an adult. For some people, this is a revealing insight, but for those who grew up in difficult emotional situations, this statement can arrive like a life sentence; the abused destined always to perform their negative, reactive, limited roles, the abusers able to merrily carry on in intentional absolution.

I would rather believe that you can put away your childhood habits, those bad communication glitches learned from difficult family interactions, and learn to operate with other people -- colleagues especially -- as a rational, respectful and kind adult. That way, as you move along social connections, as you increase them, you can set aside childish things and ways of behaving.

course,self-help,personal effectiveness,doodles,training
P.S. I've included the picture of my cat because the internet requires kittens; the face of increased financial anxiety is something we all wear from time to time.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

unsafe interaction, cyberbullying and resilience

Cyberbullying seems to be the flavour of the moment. Local news stories. Government campaigns. Angry parents and government scandals. And I've been processing the winning entries to Oxfordshire's Anti-Cyberbullying competition, where young people were invited to submit/design posters, cartoons, poems, etc. against cyberbullying. What with the anti-bullying mp3s and last year's posters, I'm beginning to rack up quite a lot of online anti-bullying resources.

I like to joke that I feel bullied after doing the anti-bullying content -- ground down by exposure to miserable content, comic sans, tales of terrible suffering -- but there is a serious point there. Exposure to concentrated information about an issue can make you more likely to suffer it; or, to put it better, information aimed at awareness-raising can actually increase feelings of victimisation and powerlessnes, if it lacks strategies to decrease the problem or increase resilience.

Checking back over my notes, I found this very revealing comment from a presentation about online safety: harassing individuals report being harassed; bullies report being bullied.

notes,cyberbullying,resilience

This insight isn't very difficult, if you can step back from a moment from the langauge or victim and perpetrator. People who act in an inflammatory and unsafe way online are likely to suffer reprisals. You could argue that they deserve it. Possibly they do; however, although some people are malicious, others are (also) young, inexperienced or may simply make mistakes. Things that start by accident can become habits, or get out of control. Things done thoughtlessly can quickly become entrenched in a mass of bad feelings and message board spats, and it's all too easy to get into a vast and pointless cycle of bad behaviour and suffering.

When I started writing up guidelines for supporting young people online, among the things to do if young people start flaming, bullying, or making false accusations, I included "always offer cyberbullying support". It's a temptation, in the online world of anonymous comments, to think that the rules of Do As You Would Be Done By can safely be ignored. However, even the safely anonymous can't escape from the fact that aggressive interactions will lead to negative experiences.

Another thing on the list is "diversion", recognising that boredom and neglected spaces encourage bad behaviour. If bad things are happening, put up a video, link to a game or upcoming activity, give people something to do. Refresh your page. The question presented in the picture below, "why are we always interacting with the most irritating individuals?" betrays the vulnerability of the purely reactive; you must do positive, interesting things, too.

notes,online safety

As you can tell by my expression in the picture above, the last thing you may feel like doing is being positive and creative when someone has been nasty and hateful. But it's a crucial part of being resilient, and resilience is key to emerging emotionally unscathed from aggressive situations. That, and knowing that it's OK not to respond, that you can just walk away, that it's not an admission of defeat to drop or friendslock an online identity, any more than it is to have locks on your front door and chain up your bicycle.

Surprisingly often, online, doing nothing is the best response. Walk away, don't rise to jibes, don't respond, do another thing. And if things get too aggravating, delete your Facebook. You can always get another one.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Foursquare, Knowhere, and the quest for locational knowledge

We have this ongoing problem (hardly unique) that we need to be able to locate (positive) activities in time and space somewhere where young people already are. Such a quest inevitably leads you to Facebook. However, Facebook's events system, kept clunky and timeconsuming to flummox spammers, is not suited to the large lists produced by a government directive to provide all young people with two hours of directed positive leisure activity a week. There are apps which can enable this (meet the Boredometer, for example) but then there's the question of uptake, maintenance, development, etc.

Also, and more broadly, there's the question of whether Facebook is currently being used primarily to organise leisure time. After the redesign dropped events to a less prominent position on the page, I stopped using it so much to figure out what I might be doing this weekend. I'm now far more chatting and interacting with (geographically) distant friends and frelatives. I've seen this before, on other sites. It starts out as a place to organise parties, pub nights and gigs, and then it suffers social erosion, eventually becoming a place where you chat/interact with the friends you met there and those of your friends who successfully adopted. One of my new year's resolutions, I kid not, is "map existing social groups and identify reliable communication routes for all". All too soon, your tool for better organisation of social groups is muddy with natter, farming games, quizzes, memes and people throwing sheep and kinder eggs around -- and while you can hide that interaction, what you can't do is get back the attention it has taken away. The inbox is full, and your personal interaction has been crowded out by commercial cuckoos.

One approach to this degradation of social channels is to find/create a popular SN site that is built entirely around events. I spotted Upcoming, one of the elder statespeople on the scene, in a complaint in a friend's twitter stream only the other day. It never quite stretched beyond a certain audience, though, and a glance at what's on it in the Oxford area hints at why: e-campaigning forum, geek night, geek jam, xml summer school, e-chem-info, psychoanalysis... the bar for participation rests high. No gigs and parties here.

But that did spark me to start looking around. Meetup has folksy charm and a lot of actual users, even in this smallish city. I put an ID in it and marked it as a project for a rainy day. At least a few things I can obviously do there, and do I like to contribute. But it's not for work; this is a grown-up space. Then a link and a mention sent me off in the direction of something called Foursquare.

Foursquare doesn't look like it's aimed at grown-ups. It doesn't even really look like it's built by grown-ups. The mobile interface is flaky, it keeps going down and the information on it -- well, with the bar set that low, some of it's going to be bogus. I'm not quite sure why even I'm persisting with it, except that if it wasn't giving me something I wanted I wouldn't be annoyed with its shortcomings. I'd just have left and forgotten about it.

If Twitter is a way to say (Oi look!) or (I think!) or (this is what's happening here) or even (I say I say I say) at a distance, then Foursquare might be a way to say (Hey! Over here! This is neat! You should try this! I like this place!) -- a virtual I waz here, basic and banal. It touches that simple, primal urge to mark out your stamping ground, the physical space in which you exist.

Most of all it reminds me of a site called Knowhere that captured the ideas and opinions, largely unfiltered, of skater kids and parkbenchers, dirty stop-outs and schoolkids, all those people who knew a place because they'd been there, lived there, had fun there. You can still see it online, although it's like an abandoned seaside town now.

It also gives a sense of the virtual world squeezing a little closer to the one in which we walk to work, dig the garden, wave to neighbours and drink coffee; that ideal of not going on and off the internet, but existing continuously in one data-enriched world, where you can plot a party en route and interrogate places about what you can do when you get there.

Monday, January 18, 2010

playing the verification game

Recently I've been given an exciting present; the PAD, aka Positive Activities database. In line with guidelines, access is via a web interface, and (as presented) it had obvious issues. A quick round of user testing later, we're sorting out most of it. It looks better, there are better links, the langauge is more friendly and other improvements are dropping in as we work down the list.

However, one problem remains, arguably the most thorny -- and definitely the most important. Verifying, extending and improving the data. This isn't just about checking accuracy (although that's important) . It's about capturing in the database all of the possible searches that might lead to a particular activity. It's about presenting an image of existing activities that the young people taking part in them will recognise. It's about increasing search returns without drowning the searcher in irrelevant data. Here are some examples:
  • If an activity describes itself as "street dance" will a young person looking for breaking and beats find it?
  • If someone describes their dance nights as "fun" how can we get that verified by young people taking part in the activity?
  • If someone wants to do salsa, how can we strip out Tap and Urban?

The answers come in, sometimes technical, sometimes a phone call, sometimes as old fashioned as requesting annual reports. But there's still too much filter between the people providing the information and the people who need to use it; we need some way of making this process dynamic, user-led and participative.

At around this time I watch a 51-minute video of Luis Von Ahn speaking about human computation. Well, I say watch; obviously I mean that it was running in a corner while I was doing something else. Keep it visible, though; there's some fun stuff in the slides. He's talking about persuading humans to provide data verification through playing games -- from captcha cracking farms to his own project, an image-tagging game called ESP.

I find myself thinking of Farmville and its ilk, all of those fiendishly popular and addictive sims-esque games on Facebook. A frequent complaint is that playing them serves no useful purpose. Could you kill the sense of time wasted by presenting people instead with a stylised leisure map of their own town? Ask them to fill in information, and reward them for information also entered by other people?* If they play accurately enough, give them the usual set of toys, treats and games to add into their dream home town; grass to roll across the streets, unicorns to graze in the park, penguins to populate the shopping centres.

Develop it for long enough, and it might even become a consultation tool for town planning.

It seemed like a fun idea, so I took it to my gamer deep throat -- currently working on making video recognition work for a celebrity exercise coaching game. He instantly started talking about Second Life and the various world-builder/politics games that small companies make and sell to governments, which was a problem -- small audience, very technically focussed/escapist. Not my real world ordinary leisure experts. Also, he was bang on the money when he said he wasn't sure it would appeal. Why would you waste time building an echo, a photograph, of the real world again in the computer? Even the four-dimensionality would pall. It's already yours. You already live there.

So it's back to running the verification game the old-fashioned way, at least for now. A shame though, I kind of fancied playing games and being useful!

* Players in the GMAP games are awarded points when they enter the same information as a randomly-assigned partner --either one playing at the same time as them, a verification play, or a saved game.