Monday, September 29, 2008

The Plurkfect Storm Part 1: Hugs, text orgies and flame wars.

I wrote about Plurk's strange blend of public and private communication a couple weeks ago. Last week the site exploded with interactions so emotionally charged that they inspired a planned Gender Freedom Day In Virtual Worlds event in Second Life. So it seemed like a follow-up post was in order.

First, a little background. Plurk is a micro-blogging service with a twist. Participants can post short text messages called "Plurks." When you log in you see posts from those who have given you permission to be either a "friend" or a "fan" arrayed on a timeline. Plurk's most unique feature is the ability to spawn a near-real-time chat thread from any post. The example below shows a Plurk I posted, followed by comments.

Plurk Example (small)

Although you can see Plurks from only those who have given you permission to subscribe, you do see everyone's comments on Plurks you can access. So if Joe is my friend and Jane comments on one of his Plurks, I can see Jane's comments even though I'm not her friend or fan. Since comments appear in almost real time, they can end up feeling like typical chat room conversations. People often meet on Plurk through conversations within comment threads of mutual friends. (For more info see The Ten Minute Guide to Plurk.)

Plurk's two-way conversational capability has created (at least in my circle of mostly Second Life expatriates) a kind of corner-bar atmosphere. People talk about everything under the sun from troubles with their sweethearts to sporting events they're watching on television. There is also a great deal of communication depicting imagined physical actions ranging from hugs to explicit sexual activity.

So back to the story. Last week some guy got really, really angry after his virtual girlfriend participated in a girl/girl text orgy within a comment thread. He took out his emotional upset by flaming the hell out of someone in a series of increasingly venomous messages on a comment thread tied to an unrelated Plurk. People jumped in on either side. The flame skirmish turned into a full-blown flame war, including very personal attacks.

The conflict spilled out of Plurk. Although the original thread was deleted by the person who made the original Plurk, someone posted a copy to a blog and is now accessible to anyone on the internet. Sophrosyne Stenvaag, a prominent Second Life resident, took the events so seriously that she decided to sponsor a full day fundraiser supporting organizations promoting freedom of expression of gender identity and sexual preference in digital worlds.

So what's up with all this? Was the original incident a tempest in a teapot or does it speak to deeper and more pervasive problems? Does a social circle of a few hundred active participants mean anything in the wider worlds? Do the actions of even the entire 23,000 or so people active on the whole Plurk service indicate trends extending beyond Plurk's borders? Why are some people so mean? How can people feel hurt by a text message from a stranger? How you can you find and take part in the next text orgy (Plorgy?) Why has Botgirl written such a long post when she's supposed to be taking it easy after finishing work on the art show (shameless plug)?

These and other questions will be examined when I continue in Part 2: Social Media as Interactive Reality TV

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