Of elements and an angelic sprite,
But black sin hath betray'd to endless night
My world's both parts, and oh both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres, and of new lands can write,
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it, if it must be drown'd no more.
But oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and envy have burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; let their flames retire,
And burn me O Lord, with a fiery zeal
Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heal.
John Donne, The Holy Sonnets
There is an interesting discussion going on over at Terra Nova about the blurring of lines between virtual worlds and social networking spaces. This discussion is not new.
Is the distinction between "social networking space" (MySpace and Facebook being the current exemplars) and "virtual world" important? In a comment on the current post, Richard Bartle says:
10 years ago, an avatar was a graphical representation of a character in a virtual world. Textual worlds didn't have a need for the concept, but graphical worlds did, so it arrived. However, the term was so often misused by people new to virtual worlds that nowadays the default meaning of "avatar" is "character". This leaves a hole for what we had before as "avatar", which seems to being filled by "toon". The result is, though, that there's a weaker connection between player and character.
The fact that some similar things can happen in a virtual world and on a social networking site doesn't mean that one is the other. And while mash-ups and APIs will almost certainly begin to overlay virtual worldiness onto social sites (and vice versa), there comes a point at which you have to say, "This, here, is a virtual world... and that, there, is not."
Why should there be a distinction? I've argued recently that getting up into a user's perceptual values is less than helpful. That people should be allowed to make, use, comment on and experience media in as many ways as possible, and in as many ways as they like. I'm not changing that stance here. I'm not arguing that many of the experiences on a social networking or in a virtual world are better or worse because of their location. Nor am I arguing against putting more social features into virtual worlds, or more worldiness into social spaces. Mashing is good for the system.
What I am saying, though, is that there is a line between communication and the sharing of experience. The threshold may be different for some people, but if there is little (or no) sharing of experience, I don't think a space can be called "a world."
This is not meant to be platform restrictive, either. You and I can build a virtual world together using email. I've played text RPG games via email where the players and game master built marvelously complex and rich worlds together. And while the entire experience was communicative, it wasn't *only* communicative. If you asked any of the players about their characters, they would be able to describe not only the actual experiences of the game... but possibilities they considered and rejected, places that were only mentioned briefly in the text but were more meaningful in their minds, and relationships between characters that were "felt" rather than explicit.
Can any of this happen on, let's say, Facebook? Well, someone could write a text RPG plugin for Facebook, certainly. And just like we played it using various email clients, the participants could have a great, text RPG experience using that plugin.
What that means, however, is not that Facebook is a virtual world. But that it hosts one. Our play-by-email games weren't "the world of email." They were the words of email, describing a world that could have been built using speech around a table, snail mail or a wiki.
To be blunt, the "virtual world" was embodied in the technology of text.
Facebook can host text, yes. So can MySpace. But they do other things, too. They are -- and this is the main point of my longwindedness -- in THE world. They can support or host virtual worlds, but they can't BE one.
In contrast, Second Life or World of Warcraft are worlds. Why? Because when people interact there, it has to be "there." They are together in an activity that is separate from the real world in at least one environmental sense.