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So Lotus founder Mitchell Kapor gave the closing keynote speech for the Second Life 5th Birthday celebration yesterday, and he had some comments about voice use in Second Life. (Thanks to Hamlet Au of New World Notes for providing the executive summary and quoting Mr. Kapor.)

Here were some of the things Mr. Kapor said:

“Before voice came into Second Life, when people got together… they communicated through text chat. That was very exhilarating the first time you did that, and it worked really well in many circumstances for many people… and I never liked it.”


“I always wanted a voice, I wanted the kind of information, or maybe meta information, that maybe voice conveys that text does not…”


“There’s a lot of other meta information that’s filtered of our avatar to avatar encounters, and what’s missing today is things like body language and gesture and facial expression.”


“And now it’s not possible to imagine the experience without voice.”

And I was very grateful to hear these things, because I finally realized why I love text. I thought I was just making do without voice, because voice is problematic, but it’s not that at all: text is, in many ways, better.

(By the way, although I don’t use voice, I’ve spent time sitting with a friend who does while he’s in-world, so I’m no expert in the joys of Second Life voice usage, but I have seen it in action.)

OK, before I start debating these things, I want to say I absolutely agree with Mr. Kapor on the meta information. I miss that. I wish I could get that. I’d also love to hear my friends’ voices, although they have beautiful voices in my mind’s ear. There are certainly advantages to voice-along with the “meta information,” it’s also faster to speak than to type.

But it’s a lot faster to read than to hear, and what do you do more of in Second Life, talk or listen? Remember that whenever you’re chatting in a group, or having a group IM, even if there are just three people, on average you’re reading twice as much as you’re typing–and in larger groups, of course, that proportion goes up by a lot. When a lot of people want to talk, text is much more efficient, because the bottleneck isn’t typing or speaking time: it’s reading or hearing time!

And then there’s this: when you’re using text, how many conversations are you having at a time in Second Life? Last night when I stopped in to congratulate a friend on the first anniversary of his venue (that’s Stormy Westmoreland with his sports bar Thirsty Tigers) I had four IM conversations going, as well as the public chat (when I could keep up with it!). If I were using voice, I would have been immersed in the public chat only, and my distant friends would have been out of luck.

Written language also maintains a history, so you can remind yourself of details and keep multiple things straight, not to mention easily keep a record of your conversation, if you like.

And while speech can convey things written language can’t, the reverse is true as well: URL’s, scientific formulae, the distinction between too and two … these and many other things are easier to communicate in writing.

And text chat in Second Life is attributed: you know where it comes from! With voice chat, there’s no clear, obvious, and definite way to know who’s saying what, despite the little glowing dots. (Unless they’ve started doing mouth-along-with-voice now, which I don’t think they have.)

Written language can also be translated automatically into other languages. It’s pretty primitive in the state it’s in now, but try doing it at all with the spoken word. If we want to connect internationally (and Second Life is increasingly an international place), here are our options: learning new languages ourselves, human translators, and good old text.

Can’t imagine the experience without voice? Mr. Kapor, just read my blog and those of many other Resis: you’ll get a vivid picture.

I’d just like to comment that it’s clear to me that Mr. Kapor is absolutely brilliant from a technology perspective. He pioneered widespread spreadsheet usage, and clearly had a lot of technological and perhaps business savvy to make that happen-but I don’t know that he has a special understanding of *human interaction* through technology. For instance, take a glance at the home page of his Web site, pictured below. What’s wrong with it? Clear menu, a photo of him, easy to navigate, all good, all intelligent use of technology. But we’re not greeted with any content, which is kind of a basic thing for a Web page that wants to connect with people! Human relationships aren’t built on easy-to-use interfaces: they’re built on exchange of information, personal connection, content.

I know my experience is skewed, but it’s been more than a year since voice was introduced, and as far as I know, none of my friends have used it while I was around. Number of times I’ve felt awkward or marginalized for not using voice: 0.

Of course, I know my friends list isn’t representative of the Second Life population, because since I use text I’m naturally going to have friends who use text (and because I have the most conversation with other people who can type quickly), but wherever I go in Second Life, it’s as though there is no such thing as voice chat. And I don’t think that it’s because we Resis just haven’t gotten around to using voice yet, or because we’re all children or gender benders or people with voices like Fran Drescher: I think it’s because in many ways (not all ways, of course), writing is superior to spoken language!

I know there are virtual worlds where speech is really the key form of communication. I suspect this is because most virtual worlds, unlike Second Life, are primarily games. I don’t know a lot about it, but I can’t imagine that talking with multiple friends for hours while essentially doing nothing, the keystone of many of our Second Life experiences, is all that common in these game worlds.

After all, it’s not like speech is a new technology. Videoconferencing and voice applications have been on the Internet for quite a while. Is that where people go? Or do they post blogs using the written word, get most of their information by reading, and participate in written forums when they want to discuss things on the Web? Voice is terrific for one-to-one communication. It’s not nearly as good when many people are involved.

So which is the newer, more innovative technology? Sure, writing’s been around for 4,700 years, and that’s pretty old. But how long has speech been around? Tens of thousands of years longer, that’s how long. The spoken word, for all its richness and art, is the 1.0 technology, and writing is language 2.0. How soon are we going to give up on the rich feature set of writing and go back to using its single-threaded, slow-processing ancestor?

Whether you’re speaking aloud or not … don’t hold your breath.

^^^\ Kate /^^^