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SXSW Day 4: Stories from the Metaverse

Digital life is changing the rules of storytelling.
March 12, 2007

As former CBS anchor Dan Rather strode onto the stage, the room was awash in thunderous applause. One thousand people packed into the Hilton Hotel Grand Ballroom in downtown Austin, just a stone’s throw from the convention center where South by Southwest (SXSW) is taking place this week.

Rather is one of the most vocal supporters of digital technologies to come out of Big Media; he’s also its pariah. His six decades spent covering Watergate, Vietnam, and the end of the Cold War were, for many, wiped out after bloggers called into question a critical piece of evidence, the Killian documents, used in Rather’s controversial story about President George W. Bush’s military record during Vietnam. Still, the 76-year-old newsman landed on his feet, going to work for Mark Cuban’s HDNet.

It’s curious, though, that Rather would speak at the SXSW interactive conference given his rather uncomfortable history with the blogosphere. While praising the Internet as a tool, Rather said that we are still in the very early stages of understanding the power of a networked society. “I have no idea where it’s going,” he said. “Whatever you think the development will be in the next fifteen years is too long a time span. It’s more like three to five years.”

Despite his desire to praise and understand networked culture, Rather has serious misgivings about the medium. When pressed on the role of bloggers in seeking out news, he praised certain types of commentary but encouraged bloggers to simply post questions and facts that aren’t being addressed by Big Media.

He praised those who investigated and posted information in a responsible way, but he spent a good deal of time discussing the perils of anonymity on the Web.

“I do think there is a problem with anonymity,” he said. “I don’t have a solution for it. Given time, the marketplace will balance this out. Sometimes, it just takes a long time.”

Reputation is the 800-pound gorilla in cyberspace, making it difficult to know whom or what to believe. And, as Rather suggests, there is no good answer. Where he is flawed in his thinking is in his belief that the top-down, one-to-many communication of the emerging Web culture will be confined to feeding information to centralized nodes of communication (in this case, journalists).

Games offer a very good look at the future. The rise of virtual worlds–particularly through Second Life–allows us to better see how regular people access information online, and what they are coming to expect. We are, according to Charles River Ventures partner Susan Wu, in the middle of the age of information architecture. Web 1.0 facilitated information sharing, mainly in the form of text; Web 2.0 adds on true layers of interaction, two-way publishing models that allow people to consume, change, and reconsume information; and Web 3.0 will add the immersion layer, in which information surrounds us in a truly 3-D world comprised of information sharing and interactivity.

This doesn’t mean that Technology Review stories, for instance, will exist only in virtual worlds. Instead, the 3-D, immersive Web will mean that story navigation and imaging will be rendered with applications such as Maya–which is currently used for 3-D modeling for movies and industrial design–instead of Flash. In an immersive environment, graphics and aesthetics take on a changing role. That presentation can’t be done with a top-down approach, according to Robin Hunicke, a lead designer for Electronic Arts. Publishers–all types of publishers–will need to open their architectures to their audiences, providing them with an experience that is user-constructed, tools-based, self-sorting, dynamically parsed, and re-parsed in real time.

In this “metaverse,” to steal Neal Stephenson’s word, stories will be made, remade, added to, and–as every writer dreads–in a constant state of flux. As this continues to happen, Rather’s fear of anonymity and reputation may be more justified than he actually realizes.

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