What Friendster (Yes, Friendster) Teaches Us About Social VR and Virtual Worlds

God, there are days when I miss Friendster. Anybody remember Friendster?

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Friendster was founded by Canadian computer programmer Jonathan Abrams in 2002, before the wider adoption of MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004) and other social networking sites. It was my first introduction to social media. Hell, it was most people’s introduction to social media. This was a brand new world! The hype about social networks then was similar to the hype over virtual reality now.

FriendsterJonathan Abrams originally meant for Friendster to be a dating site, but the people using it had other ideas. People began to game the system by connecting to each other to form ever-larger social networks. Friendster would give you statistics on the number of your connections, out to three degrees of separation (that is, friends of friends of friends). And people began to compete with each other to see who could amass the largest social network. We called ourselves “Friendster whores”.

Actually, danah boyd, then of the School of Information Management & Systems at the University of California, Berkeley, was (as far as I am aware) the first person to define the term “Friendster whore”. She was, at the time, researching Friendster and other online social networks, trying to understand how people present their digital identity, negotiate social contexts and articulate their relationships. (I actually did submit some stats of my huge, eventually-3-million-plus Friendster network to her.) Her definition, which I adopted, was taken from her blog Connected Selves, September 1, 2003: “Friendster whores — people who simply collect as many people as possible”

On top of that, people begin creating fake Friendster accounts called Fakesters (“Hi, I’m Jupiter, a huge swirling ball of gas!”). The Fakesters became a way for Friendster pranksters to connect with each other, and expand their merry mayhem even further.

Of course, the people running Friendster were not too terribly keen on people creating fake accounts, and they would delete them as fast as they could. (These agents were termed the “Friendstapo”.) That only made some people redouble their efforts to create fake accounts, and some of them were truly hilarious and inspired.

My favourite Fakester was someone who channeled the late-night-infomercial fake-Jamaican tarot-card-reading shaman Miss Cleo, who declared a run for President…

Dat’s right babies! Da will a’da spirits be dat
I should lead dis wonderful nation trew da comin
times! Due ta m’overwhelmin popularity and trust
wit’in da Friendster community, Miss Cleo be
runnin fer president! So call me now ta cast yer
vote!

Friendster turned into a very different beast from what Jonathan Abrams had intended. Now, who would have predicted that?

My main point is this: the people who create the software platforms think they have control, but it’s really the end users who shape the service and build the community that they want to see. Past a certain point, it’s completely out of the founders’ hands. Linden Lab understands this and, for the most part, they get out of the way of the insanely creative people who have built Second Life into what it is today. Nobody could have predicted all the fantastic directions that SL went into. And I can see the same thing happening already in Sansar, High Fidelity, and other virtual worlds.

Surprisingly, it’s the often-anarchic world of VRChat which is currently following the rigidly-controlled Friendster corporate playbook that’s doomed to failure. For example, from their Community Guidelines page, there’s this gem:

Petitions & Protests

All questions and concerns should be emailed to moderation@vrchat.com. Any effort to organize a petition or protest on official VRChat channels is forbidden. These include but are not limited to VRChat, the VRChat subreddit, and the VRChat Community Discord.

Hmmm…let’s see how long this little edict lasts, shall we?

I do remember reading somewhere that Philip Rosedale, the founder of Linden Lab and the creator of Second Life, was truly surprised when people took his platform and basically recreated the real world (big mansions, fancy cars, etc.), as opposed to creating things that were impossible to have in real space and time. Of course, that came about too, over time. But it turned out many people simply wanted to live out their fantasies of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I just came across this ad from the March 2018 issue of the SL magazine, Attention:

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Which goes to prove my point. You can’t predict what’s going to happen. People may take social VR spaces and virtual worlds into as-yet-undreamed-of and unanticipated areas. Nobody can predict what the metaverse is going to look like.

Except for Miss Cleo 😉

UPDATED: Which Virtual World Boasts the Highest Avatar Capacity Per Region?

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Photo of Pamplona’s annual Running of the Bulls by Ethan Weil on Unsplash

Avatar capacity limits are the bane of all virtual worlds. They impact how many avatars can attend and participate in events, such as concerts and conferences. Everybody has experienced the frustration of trying to get into an overcrowded region, and how laggy an experience can be when it is packed to capacity.

Second Life sim limits are pretty straightforward:

  • Full regions:  100 avatars maximum
  • Homesteads: 20 avatars
  • Open spaces: 10 avatars

Of course, event planners in Second Life use such tricks as creating “in the round” stages at the intersection of four adjoining sims in order to increase potential crowd capacity.

Last year, Second Life rolled out a perk to Premium users which allows them to enter already-full sims which are at the posted limits, within reason (for example, up to 10 Premium avatars can theoretically get into a packed Full region sim). I have used this feature myself when trying to get into popular events like the annual Skin Fair!

So, I wondered, what are the avatar capacity limits of the newer virtual worlds? How many avatars can you pack onto a Sansar experience, a High Fidelity domain, or a Sinespace region? Are there limits in place for AltspaceVR and VRChat? So I went out to ask some questions of the various companies.

I posted my question on the official Sansar Discord channel, the official Sinespace Skype group, the High Fidelity user forums, and the official VRChat Discord server. (AltspaceVR has an unofficial Discord server I also posted to. I’m actually rather surprised that they don’t have any sort of official user forum.)

Galen tells me the limit for Sansar is 30+ avatars, but that they can always fit a few extra Lindens in. That would fit well with my own personal experience, where we’ve had almost 35 avatars in some experiences for Atlas Hopping.

Most VRChat worlds are limited to 30 avatars in a single instance. I’ve been told on the official VRChat Discord server that “the hard cap is twice the number they put”. A member of the VRChat Events Discord server named Gallium says:

I’ve been in instances with 40+ users. As for limits, theoretical max, not sure. I’m sure VRChat has a max possible users per instance but I don’t know what that is. When you make a world and upload it you set the max users, last I heard this is a soft cap. Say 32. Once it hits that nobody can join from the Worlds menu, but they can join friends who are in there via the social tab. Eventually the hard cap, which is double the soft cap, will hit and then I think it diverts people to the next instance.

In AltspaceVR, they have boasted about getting a crowd of more than 1,200 people at a Reggie Watts show, but this involved broadcasting across multiple instances. It’s not clear how many avatars you can pack into a single AltspaceVR area, but given the relative simplicity of the avatars, I would expect it to be a fairly high number. I’ve been told by someone on the unofficial AltspaceVR Discord server that the limit at the central Campfire is 40, which corresponds to my own experience. But someone else added the caveat, “except that those limits can be pushed by joining through friends or getting invited”.

The limits of Facebook Spaces and vTime are hard-coded: a maximum of four avatars can be in one space together. But then they’re meant more for intimate chat than hosting events.

But the clear winners here seem to be High Fidelity and Sinespace. High Fidelity blogged about getting 90 avatars together in one domain way back in February 2017. And XaosPrincess, a user on their forums, states, “In last year’s stress tests, up to 160 avatars (all in HMD) were hosted in Zaru”. That’s pretty impressive.

But Sinespace seems to have topped even 160. Digvijay from the Sinespace Skype group told me, “Theoretically about 200 [in Sinespace]; but 100 should be a safe number without any lag, etc.”. Adam Frisby himself says:

Officially 100; tests indicate we can do 200 safely. We have regions like Struktura with 700+ avatars using our NPC system that perform well. We’re thinking of doing another load test done to try [and] hit 200.

Over 700?!?? I’m not sure how Sinespace NPCs differ from real avatars in terms of server load, so I’ll accept the 200 figure. So Sinespace seems to be the current winner in this particular “Space Race”, with High Fidelity not too far behind! It will be interesting to watch how the various social VR spaces and virtual worlds will handle increased avatar capacity, especially as they may experience the kind of surge in popularity that VRChat recently experienced.

UPDATE 8:54 a.m.: Naticus from VRChat tells me in a comment, “The current soft cap max at VRChat is 40 and the hard cap is twice that at 80.” Thanks Naticus!

UPDATE July 10th: On July 6th, 2018, High Fidelity conducted a stress test which had over 200 avatars in a single domain! They will be conducting these stress tests on the first Friday of every month for the next six months.

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UPDATE Aug. 7th: High Fidelity’s latest monthly stress test of their platform saw over 250 avatars in one domain!

UPDATE Oct. 7th: High Fidelity has set another avatar region capacity record: 426 avatars in one region!

VRChat Pick of the Day: Club Transcendia

I have a confession to make: I’ve never, ever tried any recreational drugs aside from caffeine and alcohol! (Well, okay, I’ve also smoked a tobacco cigarette once or twice in my gay bar days.) Not even one toke of pot or a hit of LSD. Yes, I’m a total and complete square!

But I can get a taste of what an LSD hit must feel like when I put on my Oculus Rift and go exploring in Club Transcendia in VRChat. (Just search for “Transcendia” under Worlds and you’ll find it easily.)

Club Transcendia is a collection of psychedelic experiences created by an avatar known simply as TheArchitect (here’s his Patreon page if you want to support his work). It’s a clubspace with a main lobby, which has a circle of teleporters to various trippy experiences you can explore. Click on each of the pictures below to see it in a larger size:

There are various games to play, and there’s even one area where you can change your avatar into a being of pure light!

TheArchitect says:

Right now there are two weekly events being held out of Club Transcendia. The first is Club Transcendia Live, a live performance event held at the bar area of the club.

The second is Psychedelia Express, an adventurous event held at the landing area of the Club where we go on extended trips through the psychedelic metaverse. Each week I’ll be taking all courageous travelers along with me throughout a myriad of psychedelic worlds.

If you’re interested in events taking place in Club Transcendia, you can follow the #club-transcendia channel on the VRChat Events Discord server (which is much less crowded than the regular VRChat Discord server, and a great way to find out about events happening all over VRChat). There’s also a Discord server just for Club Transcendia, you can join it here.

VRChat Pick of the Day: The Official Church of Marriage

VRChat Church of Marriage 1 24 Feb 2018

The Official Church of Marriage is a public VRChat room created by Lucifer MStar, which I found while browsing through the Community Spotlight section of their Worlds menu.

It’s a large chapel with pews and stained glass windows, all set up for a big wedding with an ivy-covered canopy. Avatars are milling around, as if they were preparing for a wedding rehearsal. I decided not to bother them.

On each side, there are doors leading to small rooms where the bride and groom can get ready. Each room has a large queen-size bed (?!). Maybe so each of them can have that one last fling before the ceremony?

This is the only church I can ever remember that has a bar and reception area located in a separate room, right behind the altar! Tables and chairs are all set up and ready for the guests.

The Official Church of Marriage is your one-stop shop for that fabulous wedding you always wanted. However, I somehow doubt that the weddings conducted here are legal 😉 .

(I still need to work out a system for taking good pictures in VRChat. The built-in camera tool in the VRChat client only seems to take panoramic photos, and I am having a bit of trouble using SnagIt, my preferred screen capture tool, while VRChat is running in my VR headset.)

UPDATE 8:40 p.m.: Ask and ye shall receive! Someone on the VRChat Discord server told me the secret to taking snapshots within my VR headset:

Screenshots for Oculus is holding left menu (button with the 3 lines) and left trigger together. For Vive its the System Button and Right Trigger simultaneously.

Thank you, Magic Monkey!