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Some experiments in chatrooms, spreadsheet parties and multi-user internet spaces

19 Aug 2020

18-minute read

Under Covid-19 I’ve been online all the time! I mean, this was probably true before, but who can remember the before right now? I kid, but in any case, under covid-19 conditions here in the US I, like everyone else, have been hanging out online all the time. I’m using a variety of tools, some that attempt to replicate the feeling of sharing space together. Others are just a continuation of recent trends in social media, or attempts to remake or reimagine these communication tools.

This post is more of a roundup of some things I’m looking at right now in August 2020. Right now it feels like an evergreen subject, but ultimately we’re still in early eras of the web as communication tool, especially as social media has become a ubiquitous presence for so many and as major platforms dictate and shape so much of the experience of being online for so many people. For each of these tools of communication I’ll try to explain the concept and notes on my experience. For many of the newer tools I’ve been using the point is to create a small intentional community as opposed to the corporate walled garden of silicon valley’s platforms. These smaller tools are often experimental, less refined, and it’s unknown if they’ll be around in the future. With that in mind, and from most mainstream to increasingly more experimental tools, let’s go:

Twitch and YouTube

You’ve heard of Twitch. It’s a streaming platform! I only want to say that as an organizer at Babycastles I’ve been hosting weekly online workshops that we call Babycastles Academy. An archive of our workshop videos minus the chatstream can be found on this youtube playlist. Every Sunday in the past 4 1/2 months we’ve been hosting a different workshop on a topic.

Babycastles Academy: Goal-Setting
Babycastles Academy: Setting Goals, taught by Lauren Gardner

Past workshops are in game design (Intro to Godot game engine, designing monsters, pixel art), music-making (livecoding with TidalCycles, making chiptune music, working with samples…), life skills (empathic listening, setting goals, grantwriting), activist work (security for protesters and organizers) and more. These consist of someone making a presentation or leading a tutorial and in one case giving a lecture. Usually about 15 to 20 folks join in live watching and communicating in the Twitch stream chat. In some workshops like our workshop on Practical Security for Protesters and Organizers, organized with partner orgs Bluestockings, Cypurr, CryptoHarlem and Freedom of the Press Foundation we had over 100 folks participate.

Twitch and YouTube are better at 1-to-many communication. There is the chat, but ultimately it’s a leader->follower communication method.

Zoom and Jitsi (and bluejeans and….)

Which brings me to Jitsi and Zoom, the platforms for live simultaneous video chat. Zoom of course is a major corporate piece of software. My university pays for many pro accounts so we can chat longer than the 40 minute limit. Zoom had some security issues. Jitsi is self-hosted open source software. We use this for our online remote Monday night co-working that Babycastles hosts each week. The bandwidth is not as consistent as folks are sometimes dropped and the amount of people on a specific instance together can’t scale nearly as well as Zoom, but it works for smaller groups. At the beginning of the pandemic there were online yoga classes, raves, parties, graduations, conferences. I tried out all of these. Ultimately, these have been cut back significantly as folks felt Zoom burnout. Turns out that this feels very tiring and not as satisfactory as being in real space with friends and family. Some Zoom events still go on, and I’ll be teaching again via Zoom in a few weeks. It has its place. This feels best for communicating with close friends. Roughly once a month I’ve been meeting online with longtime (25+ years!) friends. We’ve known each other since childhood and are still friends and are living all over the place in different circumstances so it’s been nice to check in and hang out via Zoom and just relax together online.

Spreadsheet Parties (and Etherpad)

In May Marie Foulston hosted a party in google docs and posted an article about the experience.

Social video calls exhaust me. Face to face, voice to voice, with nothing in between. Communication so literally and abstractly boiled down to staring at and talking at each other’s faces. The only other times I think I interact with people this way in “the real world” are in job interviews or meetings.

Where is the space for the mundane, the idle, and the liminal… those subtle and nuanced moments that also come with being together? –Marie Foulston

Marie sent out invites and started to do a little building. When the party started she created a door in the spreadsheet, changed it, started conversations in a quasi-chat space, clicked to other tabs, then clicked back and found people had built a hallway and a kitchen. The scene reminds me of MUSHes and MOOs, text-based online social spaces that thrived in the early and mid-90s, where participants chatted but also built rooms/spaces and objects in those spaces you could interact with. These have often been listed as predecessors of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft but I think it’s more accurate to say they were predecessors for Minecraft or Second Life, places that felt like open sandboxes to explore and meet other people and creatures in corners of cyberspace.

Party in a spreadsheet
Party in a spreadsheet, image by Marie Foulston

Back to the google doc in a spreadsheet: Like these early MUDs/MUSHes/MOOs I’ve mentioned, the action happens by way of text mostly, by people describing what they’re doing or seeing or engaging in conversation. There is also a type of collaborative art-making that is essentially creating pixel art by filling spreadsheet cells with color.

I think this feels exciting because it’s using corporatized software in a way that feels new and experimental and low-stakes. It’s mostly anonymous, though of course the participants were friends, or friends-of-friends of Marie.

In the absence of the cultural spaces my work usually occupies, I’ve found myself chasing the social rituals they evoke and the reverence they embody through abstract digital recreations and pastiche. In these spaces, familiar feelings and experiences reverberate and mix with new ones. –Marie Foulston

This spirit of old and new, and using technology to support conversation and experimental building of space or art or ideas - that for me feels potentially exciting and points to avenues worth further exploration.

Habitat: The First Habbening

I don’t know where I saw the invite for the The First Habbening listed, but probably on Twitter. In any case, let me explain Habitat. Initially created in 1985 (!), it was the first attempt at a largescale social community online. I was online beginning in about 1994 I think it was, using BBS systems and MUDS. I remember reading about Habitat in a book I got from the library listing different websites and other places on the internet to visit but I don’t think I tried Habitat.

Neohabitat screenshot
Screenshot from NeoHabitat, August 2020

So this is NeoHabitat, a relaunch (?) of the 90s platform. It does have a certain 90s aesthetic. Notice the text stream and directions overlaying the pixelated minimally-colored 2d space you can walk in. The controls were a bit difficult to navigate for a beginner. Notably interesting to me: You change your avatar essentially by changing your head. And there are head vending machines! You use coins to buy new heads. In the image above, you’ll notice the vending machine is called Head for Vous, and someone was walking around with his head and trying to place it atop his torso. Ha! I (the bald person above!) was unhelpfully trying to explain to use money but I was wrong.

Overall, this was a fun experience and a nostalgic look back at early online multi-user visual spaces, and demonstrating an example of text and image co-existing equally in the same plane.

In the 90s, I remember feeling that these new graphical spaces felt inferior (to me) compared to MUDs and MUSHes. Where I could imagine a whole complex world in my head, these simplified 2d spaces looked so primitive with their pixelated crude forms. They paled in comparison to the world in my mind created while reading text. This was also my experience using VR a few years ago. I simply didn’t find the visual experience compelling and it distracted me from the world in my mind. Overall, the difficult navigation controls made NeoHabitat more of a curiousity than a place I’d want to return to, but it’s worth a visit if you’re intrigued. From that first re-meeting it was announced there would be more weekly or monthly meet-ups in NeoHabitat, and there is a slack group to keep up with the community.

LikeLike

LikeLike is a recent invention, built by Paolo Pedercini, aka Molleindustria. It’s a MMORPG that feels very similar to Habitat. Was it influenced by that? Paolo told me he hadn’t used it previouly, so it’s a coincidence. Like Habitat/NeoHabitat, text and dialog is overlaid on the 2d digital space, and as newer text or chat arrives the text blocks stack up, with lower/older ones disappearing. You navigate the space by walking to doorways which are portals to other spaces/rooms. And like Habitat, it’s best to navigate with other people around that you can interact with as opposed to wandering around alone.

Pedercini built this as online implementation of his LikeLike gallery, a DIY artspace in Pittsburgh, Pennsylavia located in his garage. Previously open on the first friday of every month, the arcade art space morphed into this online venue that Paolo built on a server on glitch.com. He has hosted exhibitions of bitsy games (which I’ve written about previously), other games and interactive digital artworks. What’s more, the code is open source and easy to fork to make your own.

New Directions in Virtual Space Arcade
New Directions In Virtual Space Arcade, by Lee Tusman, a fork of LikeLike

I made my own version for a large arcade of student work from my class New Directions in Virtual Space. It requires some knowledge of Javascript, p5.js, servers and command line knowledge right now, but it would be nice to make a web-UI version so that people can build their own 2d shared spaces for a small community. I like the emphasis on these spaces as being used for events, something that I intended in my own Messlife online virtual networked warehouse artspace. Although attendees are pseudonymous (you created your own username), curses are tolerated, but there is a script that prevents racist, misogynist speech and slurs. Overall, Likelike is a nice prototype model of a shared minimal fun space for a particular community, built around informal conversation and sharing links to online art, pages and similar.

YourWorldOfText

I originally learned about Your World of Text during a Wordhack hosted by Todd Anderson, a fellow co-organizer and friend from Babycastles. The space of Your World of Text is a 2d grid of text, editable by anyone, though you can lock off areas or a whole page as you are an administrator of your own pages you create. I created a page Savagewords (the page is now locked in time) as a live experimental text to be developed collaboratively during the Electronic Literature Conference 2020 event held in July. It was a small experiment, and I enjoyed emergent texts, images, and surrealist games that cropped up as a result of the ambient realtime and ongoing interactions between participants who navigated to the world.

Savage Words
Savage Words, by Lee Tusman and anonymous participants of Elecronic Literature Organization Conference 2020

That said, I don’t think I will be using this as a medium anytime in the immediate future without some big changes by the platform. In Your World of Text you don’t need to log in. Anyone can also make a new page with a new title, and then promote that page by posting it on the frontpage or linking from another website. This does feel like an experimental throwback to the early web, and ascii art, inane half-conversations abound. Due to the anything goes nature of this site and lack of moderation or filtering or flagging I noticed that there is a rise in bots, and not the art bot kind that proliferated on Twitter until recently. The bots here are malicious, racist, xenophobic. The creator of Your World of Text has recently attempted to deal with this by locking the front page while he takes time to figure out a solution. On the unofficial Discord channel to discuss Your World of Text I found this kind of behavior tolerated as well. For these reasons, this isn’t a community I want to participate in and urge the developer(s) take a much stronger stance, setting clear intentions, values and conduct. Lacking this, I don’t recommend visiting or using the site.

Discord

Since transitioning from a IRL art space in Manhattan to a currently online community in March, Babycastles has been using Discord, with a dozen or so channels for different conversations on various topics. People organize events, link to games, ask questions about protests, look for opportunities and jobs and roommates, or announce their own livestreams, plan events or just hang out.

Discord, like some of these earlier platforms allows pseudonymous users. In other words, you create a username that is not tied to your identity in real life. Here’s how it’s different from Likelike or YourWorldOfText for example: we have moderators. We have a clear code of conduct. We have a mission statement and goals. We don’t tolerate bad behavior. And we model the behavior we want to see. We’ll keep working to do our best to keep this community healthy and supportive.

Mastodon fediverse and Secure Scuttlebutt

Recently I joined Mastodon. I’d been looking to join as I have more and more grown to find Twitter annoying. I really like some of the conversations on Twitter. It’s good for ambiently picking up information from the communities I’m tangentially part of and learn about art, news, games, politics and areas of personal interest, as well as a space to browse various artbots. But unfortunately Twitter keeps changing the algorithm and forcing me to see “So-and-so liked…” posts. I don’t want to see personal semi-public conversations between other folks. I don’t want to see what content they liked. I don’t care, and it clogs up the (mental) space I’m trying to have when I open Twitter. For this reason, I started migrating to Mastodon, a distributed alternative with similar functionality with some key differences. There are many hundreds of Mastodon servers, and each one serves its own community. They can all co-communicate, but can also control how they interact with other servers. For example, the server I am on blocks content from other servers that allow content that is xenophobic, racist, homophobic for example. It is harder to discover other specific people and communities than Twitter, but I already like it a bit better. I’m continuing to use both in the meantime but have been slowing my use of Twitter. I also briefly checked out Secure Scuttlebutt earlier in the summer. It’s a p2p decentralized platform created by solarpunks trying to build their own internet. The concept appeals to me but I had trouble finding a community or even that many folks that interested me on there. It’s harder to strike out and find new people, at least that was my experience. The conversations I found tended to be solo conversations, like a minimal blog, but the topic was primarily web development or about building Scuttlebutt. At this point, I’m not looking for that kind of content or conversation, so I’ve moved away from using it but will try to check in perhaps at a later date. Once they get the system a bit faster to use, perhaps they can spend much more significant time working on building community and reaching beyond their own developer community and having different kinds of content to read. I realize this is a chicken-and-egg problem. This would likely take dedicated folks reaching out to and working with various communities and helping to set them up. In Mastodon there are encouraged hashtags that help support posting content about creating art, music, stories, etc. This helps encourage the building of certain kinds of content that might excite me to participate further, something that Scuttlebutt might want to consider replicating or riffing on.

Togethernet

This summer Eyebeam launched their Rapid Response for a Better Digital Future: Phase One. Thirty projects were selected to receive support and funding. I got to try out an early prototype by Xin Xin, who is building Togethernet, a web-based and peer-to-peer project allowing chat and archived conversations based on clear consent by all participants in a conversation. It’s in an early prototype-building stage, but the project is already exciting.

Clogs!

Ok, this is the newest technology or tool on this list, an idea less than a week old (as of the time I’m writing this). The clog is an idea by James Chip to create a blog you access via the Terminal running the curl command.

To access mine:

curl -s https://leetusman.com/clog/index

This will serve a short index page and let you know what clog posts you can access. For example, my first post can be accessed via:

curl -s https://leetusman.com/clog/1

You are right now reading my Nosebook blog via the web in a browser most likely, or perhaps with w3m or links/lynx, but I’m publishing different material there. You might wonder, what’s the point? James cites several reasons as a r’aison d’etre. He talks about the web being bloated, the idea that individual webpages are 10s of megabytes to load what’s essentially just text, and along with scripts, not to mention ads or other cruft that slow down a page. He cites this as an issue of accessibility, and a waste of resources. Secondly, and more of interest to me, he talks about the clog as a simple self-owned technology outside of the corporate platforms. He also describes how simple the technology is.

It requires no huge specific technology to work. {It’s} blogging at its most fundamental. A blog is really just articles that you want to read. This is what a clog gives you; and nothing more. But also more.

What I like about the clog idea is that it harkens back to an earlier era of the internet, one that was more distributed, that you had to meander and search and turn down smaller alleyways. Text is text. And you can quickly read someone’s thoughts, without all the other stuff getting in the way.

So far only James and I appear to have clogs. It would be wonderful if other folks with basic command line knowhow cloned James’ repo or my own and made their own clog as well, and then let us know. James has been building a clog links page to discover more. In any case, this whole thing is an experiment. Give it a try.

That’s a wrap

And that’s my roundup of my recent use and visits to social media, networked spaces and conversational spaces on the internet in the early era of Covid-19. Surely there are other interesting tendencies and experiments and I’d like to learn of them, and I’ll be following a few of these projects and participating and seeing how they may grow.