Thursday, October 29, 2009

Social ebb and flow -- reflections on the dynamics of a virtual community

Communities, even virtual ones, are organic things that ebb and flow, going through cycles where there may be population growth that is followed by a contraction, or in which "teh drama" builds and subsides, or individual friends and colleagues come and go--and then all these processes repeat themselves. In SL--which my friend Aldo Stern has long described as "a social pressure cooker in which social cycles are intensified and accelerated" (and emotions and social tensions are often likewise sharply focused and intensified)--these cyclic processes can happen very rapidly. Dear old Deadwood goes through these cycles like any place on the grid, and sometimes that is a frustrating and scary thing, and other times it is a delight.

Lately, life in Deadwood has fit both of these descriptions: there have been some of those inevitable "drama" cycles (the kind that make you wish you were a social scientist or a shrink, because you would be wallowing in fodder for some really cool articles); and more personal cycles of the sort that just make you tickled to death that you got be a part of something so unique and human and humane.

I'll skip the drama stuff. Hey, it comes, it goes and every place has it. And don't you be giving me that shit about you have somehow found a little corner of virtual heaven where it does not happen. I think it's like politics--it's just the inevitable, inherently untidy way that people sort things out in a situation where they are pretty much having to make things up as they go along. Yes, for some people drama is a form of recreation. But for most of us, I think SL drama is essentially conflict resolution executed within an anarchical context. At this point we really needn't say more about it.

But that ebb and flow of humanity in and out of our communities--that is something interesting and as I said, to me...ultimately delightful. I have met a lot of really wonderful people in SL, a great many of them in Deadwood, where just like any meatspace community, we have had our fights and fun, we build and tear apart social organizations and personal connections, and we generate shared hopes, and ideas, and stories. A lot of people who I have connected with at some point in Deadwood have come and gone from the community, and lately, quite of few of these folks have been coming back. In some cases, these are people who disappeared completely, or who went off to play in other communities. In other cases it's been people who really didn't leave, or who sort of left, but who just weren't able to be around very much. And recently, a surprising number of these people have come back into the community and become a more regular part of it again, and that's just been a high point of life on the grid for me during the last month or so.

Tonight was one of those really nice occasions. I was able to sit down in the dining room of my hotel and spend quality time with two residents who have gone through their own cycles of being very involved in the community and then having to be less involved or away from Deadwood for one reason or another. Deacon Dryke is actually one of the owners of the sim, and was very engaged in the community in its first year, playing the younger brother of Percy Dryke, the provisioner. You may recall having heard Deac's name before, in the first episode of the "Consequences" story. For much of the last year, however, Deac was unable to spend as much time with us. His in-character role-playing explanation for not being around much was that his brother had sent him off to Denver to get some serious schooling. But tonight he was "back in town" and came to visit me at the hotel.

Deac Dryke

Another player who had been around a great deal early on, then went away and just recently started spending some time with us again is Tim Hax, a resident who plays an orphan boy, just a little younger than Deac. In the past when they were both around more, Tim and Deac had built a nice friendship (both IC and OOC, I think) and had some pretty cool Deadwood adventures together. Tim was explaining his absence from Deadwood for many months with the rp scenario that he had gone off to live and work with a farm family. When he showed up in town again not too long ago (the social ebb and flow process in action), Tim explained that the arrangement with the farm family just hadn't worked out and so he had hiked back to Deadwood (the only place he felt like he had ever had a home). There, Dio had immediately given him a job at the hotel and little cubbyhole-like room under the stairs for him to live in. So, when Tim happened to sign on while I was visiting with his old friend Deac, I immediately IM'ed him and asked him to come on over to Deadwood and get together with us to rp a little reunion.

Tim did so, and I had the best time sitting and chatting with these two young men while they were catching up on what each of them had been doing (among other things, Dio's been teaching Tim to shoot), and laughing about old times and their past adventures. It was that best kind of rp: all improv, very natural, spontaneous and down-to-earth, and based on some very real feelings about friendship and shared good times. It felt very real and genuine, and left me with a big ol' smile on my face all evening.

Visiting with Deac and Tim

Sometimes, the people who come back are not always this congenial. There have also been some old troublemakers coming back (though I haven't seen them for a while). These are guys who were banned long ago for various moronic behavior, but they make alts and return, usually trying to upset people with some kind of variation on the old race-baiting gambit (presented through some really mediocre rp). This is a cycle that has its own benefits: comic relief (their tired old shtick is so very 2006); a common enemy that the town can have fun banding together against; and moving targets that everyone gets to have fun punching or shooting (they're really bad at combat), before finally they've broken enough of the rules for the new alt to be banned like their previous manifestations. Oh yeah, and they get AR'ed too, so maybe LL finally did something about them...

So anyhow, even a virtual roleplaying community has its cycles--it has good days and bad days, days that are fun and days that just kinda fucking weird. The population goes up sometimes, often very rapidly, and then it goes back down again just as quickly. And ultimately, like any organic entity, these communities have life spans. They mature, they age, and eventually they die. But after a good night like tonight, I am hoping not just yet.


  1. "But for most of us, I think SL drama is essentially conflict resolution executed within an anarchical context"

    Well, that's easy for you to say...

  2. A lovely post - well thought out and, more importantly, well articulated.

    I've really only been a member of three communities, and so far I only feel a true member of one of those.

    1) Murray sim - a backwater no-mark place where I met good friends and had some giggles when I first started. Nothing but “Teh Drama” happened (indeed, nothing still happens) there and all of my friends from there have moved on or left SL never to return. I don't go back often – I'm a stranger there now and frankly it bores the arse off me. I consider it a bad crèche I found myself in and, more importantly, managed to escape from.

    2) The Show Must Go On – Whilst my first friends in SL were leaving, I fell in with some oldbies and have stayed firm friends throughout. It’s this community with which I feel most at home – friends there have become good RL friends too. Given the small nature of the show and the oldbie status of the members “Teh Drama” is almost non-existent, but easily overcome when it does pop-up. I’d say these guys are the reason I’m still in SL – they give me a reason to be here and an anchor with which to hold steady as I grew in maturity in my new homeworld.

    3) Steelhead – 2009 has been a strange year. A creative bloom took hold halfway through and a sudden urge – a powerful need – to belong to a different kind of community. So far I’ve enjoyed my time there but I still worry I’ve jumped too soon. I love the place, but still feel an outsider – or more accurately a late-comer who’s just arrived at the party as the cleaners are sweeping up. I think that’s largely down to my Euro timezone – I just don’t seem to be around when others are leaving me feeling that outside the blog, there’s often no reason to visit the place. Still, plans seem to be afoot to add things and increase things that would include more non-American players and, to be honest, the people and the place and the ethos all make it the kind of place worth waiting for.

    It’s weird really, I’m looking for RP at the end of the day – I’m in this world to play with my friends (I am, you may have guessed, a big kid who’s never really grown up and has no intentions of doing so) and apart from the show I’ve not yet found the right flavour and intensity of RP to jab fish-hooks through my heart and reel me in. At one point I hoped it would be a small village called Cowell, but apart from the owner, I’m the only one there and pretty much always have been.

    I seem to have got off the point, haven’t I? Community… it’s all about give and take in the end and when it works it’s wonderful, but when it doesn’t it’s horrible.


    p.s. Glad you have your friends back – I really miss three of mine from the early days and would dearly like them to come back.

  3. Hey HB,

    Nice, thoughtful commentary there, pard. I think it is interesting that the community in which you feel the strongest connection, is not one that is tied to a place, or some particular stuff, but to an idea. and the actions that carry out that idea. I suspect that even with communities that are rooted to a particular virtual space, the ones that have the greatest potential to draw in and engage participants on a long-term basis are the ones that have an idea or a concept as their central foundation.

    I think Deadwood has lasted as long as it has because it is not just a bunch of cool buildings, it is about recreating history, playing with it, learning about it, and telling stories in the process.

    So whether it's about exploring the steampunk genre, bringing the world of John Norman's Gor novels to life, racing sailboats, fighting with ironclads, helping newcomers, or building virtual libraries, I think the most viable kind of community in-world is one that has a kernel of an idea at its heart, out of which grows mutual cooperative action and interaction.

    As for your place in Steelhead...yes, it does take a while to find your sense of place and belonging in an established community. All I can say is that it takes time. But it really doesn't matter at what point you put your foot in the stream--the odd thing is that at some point you'll suddenly find yourself being looked upon by newcomers as one of those well established community members

  4. Dio - Nice post, and well said. I envy the ability that some folks have of being able to ad lib their RP. I need to stay on script.

    Hey HB (see, I can do it, too :) ) - I know what you mean about stepping into an established situation. After a year and a half, or some such, I still feel that way about the various Steamlands. In part, it's because I'm not in-world as much as some of the "core" people; in part, it's because I haven't thrown myself into the mix as much as I could have; and I do think there's something to coming late to the party that makes it difficult to really be one of the crowd.

  5. Hey Rhia,

    I'm glad you liked the piece. The thing about unscripted rp is that I think it really does work best when you approach it like a rl improv exercise in which someone provides a certain scenario or "set-up" to give the interaction a place to start from, and a context within which the interaction can take place and make sense.

    It's like when you're watching an improv troupe and they ask the audience to provide a situation and characters, and someone shouts out "Dick Cheney being mugged by chihuahuas!" or something like that, and the players take it from there.

    What is REALLY hard in my opinion is to just have someone walk up to you and say, "Howdeedo?" and then you both have to come up with some place to take it.

    As for the problem with feeling like an outsider in an established community, , I'm not sure what to tel you. You can even end up feeling like that in a brand new sim if there are people coming into it who were friends in another sim, or rp or gaming situation. Even when you have a place like DW where nowadays most of the oldtimers make a real effort to be friendly to newcomers and draw them into the conversations, but it is still hard, just because it takes a while to figure out what the fuck people are talking about, especially when many of them are doing so in *cough* somewhat impenetrable or badly typed dialects.

    No easy answer there, sometimes you just gotta be more outgoing and inject yourself into situations, even when that is something that doesn't come to you naturally. But hey, then it's an opportunity to grow, right? One o' them "character-building" thingies, right?

  6. Hello Dio, thats a huge compliment for Timmie and me ;)Thank you!

    I believe we all enjoyed the rp last night. :)

    What I like about my friends in Deadwood (IC and OOC) is that you can everytime come back and be welcome. Thats nothing usual, even in the real world you can have troubles with friends if you had not enough time to meet and chat.

    It surely takes time to find a community like that, and grow together in the rp and become more close. But I must say, it is worth it ;)

    About the scripted rp I cant say much, because I have not even an idea how it works ;)

    I believe playstyle and spontanity grows with experience and "training". Learning by doing.

    With Timmie and me it works in an easy way because , I think, we have almost the same roleplaystyle and talked several times about our goals in rp and our intention.
    Both characters have a deep background and we try to step into our characters feelings while playing. Beside we do not try to be super heroes or try to do everything right or have an answer for everything. That makes the rp more natural, I guess.

    And like you said, with the same goals and intentions you feel more bound together and that is why it works. It just makes you feel good and you think youre in the right place /with the right people.
    I hope everyone will be able to find a place /people like this, if in world or in real.

    So, thank you for sharing your thoughts about this topic ;)


    (Timmie, slap me if I wrote something wrong :-P)

  7. Hey Deac,

    the pleasure is all mine. It really was fun spending time with you guys last night, and I doubt that Tim will need to slap you around for any reason.

    I think you also make a very good point about how the magic works for you and Tim because you guys have such a similar style and approach to rp. There are a lot of different styles and combinations of styles out there, and finding someone whose approach is complimentary to yours can be one of those factors that helps you in feeling like you fit in with a certain community.

  8. Dio - Your reply made me reread my comment, and I can see that it came across as a little whiny, which was not my intent at all. What I was trying and failing to convey were two different things: first, that I sympathize with HBA's difficulties in coming into Steelhead in mid-stream, as it were; second, that despite those difficulties, which are endemic to these kinds of situations, many of the difficulties I have are of my own making.

    It's hard to blame the established folks. They have routines, friends, ways of communicating, and roles that are in place. If anything, the majority of the people I've met in the various Steamlands have gone out of their way to accommodate newcomers.

  9. hey Rhia,

    Oh Hon I didn't think you were being whiny at all--you were just stating a fact about what the reality is for newcomers to an rp community, and I was agreeing with you and trying to be a little philosophical about it.

    Hell, I remember when I first went to Deadwood, literally on the first day it opened, and already there were folks with an established set of social connections. Some of them may have been transplanted from other sims, and others may have been created earlier that day, or during the building process. My ability to fit in was further challenged by the fact that the way that some of the folks were choosing to play it was as stand-offish or downright hostile to newcomers. This was, of course very historically appropriate (and not unusual in rl small town social dynamics even today), but it made trying to fit in much more "interesting."

    So I was in no way wagging a finger at you...all I was saying was that I think we all got that particular T-shirt, and I was just reflecting on the idea that it is up to both sides in the equation--the newcomers AND the established residents--to find strategies and make the effort to assimilate new drones into the collective.