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Considering New Ethics in Virtual Communities and Cultures

Do avatars have rights?

Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom, also known as VMK, was a free multiplayer online community run by Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Online. It was created and operated as a virtual representation of both the Disneyland and Magic Kingdom theme parks, containing areas and mini-games which were based on real park scenery and attractions. VMK was launched as part of the Happiest Celebration on Earth promotional campaign to commemorated fifty years of Disney theme parks back in 2005. As it was targeted to kids aged 8-14, it’s conceivable that many don’t remember a world before it.

Yesterday (May 21st 2008), Disney deleted VMK – effectively erasing all avatars, possessions, records, connections, structures, organizations and creative expression within. Forever.

Let’s not hide behind the word “virtual”. Connections made in online communities are real. When considering the totality of socially transmitted behaviour patterns – arts, beliefs, institutions and all other products of human work, thought and emotion – we are well beyond the basic definitions of community and entering the realm of culture. Although Disney owned the virtual-estate, do they have the ethical right to disintegrate the culture within?

As online communities continue to aid and develop human connections, do we need to start considering the ethical responsibilities of the platform controllers to maintain these cultures? Should these cultures have the right to exist free from the possibility of complete annihilation? As these communities continue to blur the line between what is real and what is virtual, will we need to consider ethical guidelines or laws that resemble the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide for virtual cultures? Should we begin to draft a Declaration for Avatar Rights?

With deepest respect to the inconceivable suffering of those persecuted for their culture, ethnicity or religion, I am not trying to downplay the horror of genocide. I ask you to consider this hypothetical connection: What would you do if your community, all your friends, your combined wealth and creative expressions were simply deleted by a corporation or a government last night? Should we allow the word “virtual” to be the shelter for a platform controller’s ethical responsibilities even if no one gets physically hurt?

Captured before closure:

“My favorite web site, Virtual Magic Kingdom (VMK) is closing May 21st. I’m sad and MAD! I can’t live without my friends on VMK. PLEASE sign my guestbook like a petition to SAVE VMK for me and my friends. Pass my site on to everyone you know so they can help too. I love VMK cause I can WALK, TALK, EAT, DANCE, SHOP and play checkers all by myself.

PLEASE HELP ME!

Love,
Madison
p.s. VMK is GERM FREE too!
p.s.s. and no one stares at me there”

For more information on the downfall of Disney’s VMK, check out this podcast episode of Spark from CBC Radio.

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27 Responses to “Considering New Ethics in Virtual Communities and Cultures”

  1. James Scott Says:

    Very interesting idea. Leads me to wonder, if we set up “avatar rights” do the GMs and moderators of these virtual worlds need to adhere to due process and some form of justice? For example; in some game environments certain things are not allowed and some curbs have been put on freedoms we otherwise generally take for granted including freedom of speech, etc. however, there is no recourse for you as a user and for your avatar if they decide that they will delete it, rename it, or otherwise modify your avatar without your permission, as they hide behind their EULA and TOS as a shield to do whatever they like. I guess what I’m asking is that if we do come up with a Decoration for Avatar Rights, then who is going to police it?

  2. VMK - The End Of The Magic | The Disney Blog Says:

    [...] Update: Radical Trust has an interesting idea, a bill of rights for online communities. [...]

  3. Douglas Walker Says:

    This highlights the issues that many clients and agencies have with commitments versus campaigns. To treat social media, or more specifically a social network, as a campaign with a start and end date is to negate the impact that removing it may have on community members.

    This quote from Battlestar Galactica actually sums it up for me:

    “You cannot play God and then wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore.”
    Commander Adama

  4. Stefanie Says:

    I have been a part of simpler, text-based communities where after one was shut down, a group of users got together and created another version – most people got word and jumped on board. Probably would be tough to replicate the disney community – but my bet is that groups of users will have nomad-like behaviors, moving as packs from community to community as they shut down.

  5. Gordon Says:

    What an interesting conundrum… As a parent I dread the day my boy gets wrapped up in a marketing program and falls “in love” with one of these characters created solely for the purposes of merchandising and driving advertising adversing dollars [Hello Dora the Explorer]… that said I’m resigned to the fact that it WILL happen.

    As spoken in absolute PLAIN English on the Disney Blog:

    “As many of you know, Virtual Magic Kingdom was created and launched back in 2005 as part of the Disneyland 50th Anniversary Celebration. VMK exceeded expectations in terms of performance, and as a result we extended the promotion (that is, VMK, the game) well beyond the 50th Celebration.

    Eventually though, all promotions must come to an end…”

    As a parent… THANK YOU DISNEY. You’ve provided me a wonderful learning tool with which I can teach my child that “This is NOT real real”; and perhaps later that us marketing folks will do ALMOST anything to attract and hold your attention.

    Kids are nice and elastic; I have fond memories of the discontinued toys no longer available; I’ve even come to terms with the fact that GI Joe has become Tiny GI Joe and an advertising pitchman for the companies who run ads on his Saturday morning program.

    Kids have been creating and destroying their own virtual worlds [and imaginary friends since the dawn of time].

    Loosing Disney’s a world built around marketing Disney world seems to me to be no great loss.

  6. Gordon Says:

    On the other hand, there’s something vaguely familiar in all this… wait, that’s it, Collin, are you actually Horton?

  7. James Pew Says:

    When a group gets abandoned on Facebook, it becomes “up for grabs”, any person with a FB profile can become the new group administrator. In cases like VMK, how difficult is it to offer it up to the users? Give them the option to provide the server space and moderate the site. Is this realistic? I must admit it sounds like the fair and proper thing to do.

  8. collin Says:

    Gordon

    One of the comments I read doing research for this post summed up well had a similar sentiment with this quote.

    “Sorry kids, pool is closed.”

    There are greater problems in the world than this one… agreed.

    I’m using the Disney example to illustrate the greater consideration of ethics in corporate control of online communites.

    Something similar Quakers debated at a time when America was not considered a real country.

    Rather then speak to the merits of the example, would you offer insight into the ethics of corporate control over culture within online communities?

    Thanks for the comments

  9. collin Says:

    James…

    I like this thinking.. perhaps they should have offered the community for sale to the kids. Perhaps they could have found a way to “port” the community to another platform rather then erase it.

    It isn’t as simple as the facebook example technically, but should “easy” be a measure in this? What are the responsibilities i wonder?

    Thanks for the comments

  10. collin Says:

    Stefanie

    Lot’s of cultures are forced to roam the world in search of a home… Not out of want, but out of need to survive.

    Some of them with biblical proportions.

    Interesting point you bring up to the consequences of such actions.

    thanks for the comments

  11. Gordon Says:

    “Rather then speak to the merits of the example, would you offer insight into the ethics of corporate control over culture within online communities?”

    Well, quite honestly, I’ll end commentary on the “merits of the example” by saying there are none; It was just another despicable marketing vehicle to skirt “Advertising and Children” guidelines… Another marketing campaign that submerges kids into THE brand, disguising the true intention which is to bluntly telling the kids to tell their parents to spend their vacation bucks at Disney World.

    Ethics, responsibilities and Corporate Culture in virtual worlds are issues better left to the “new theologians” such as yourself to quibble over.

    When it comes to advertising, I stick to my guns, its the person being advertised to who holds the responsibility to temper their own gullibility.

    Perhaps reminding these “virtual worlders” that their online persona exists only as a mere blip-spec on a hard-drive that’s ultimately “owned” by someone might be a more fruitful calling than trying to establish a “virtual” Bill of Rights mirrored on Bill of Rights that barely works out here in the so-called real world.

    Unfortunately, trying to get these ideas across to a group of folks who list “shopping” as one of their favorite activities/hobbies or entertainment past-times is probably, at this point in history… a lost cause.

  12. collin Says:

    Once again we violently agree, but are talking about different things I think.

    I do enjoy your insights however.

    Thanks for the followup.

  13. Shaping Youth » Kids’ Online Ethics Part 3: Community Solidarity; Marketing Cheats Says:

    [...] Considering New Ethics in Virtual Communities & Cultures (Radical Trust; fab blog!) [...]

  14. VMK - The End Of The Magic | Disney movies, Disney Movie, Disney Movie Trailers Says:

    [...] VMK – The End Of The Magic Disney News Add comments Tonight marks the end for Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom online multi-player interactive environment. But don’t try to log on for the first time, new sign ups have been discontinued for some time now. Today regular users will log on one more time, exchange personal information (because hey, what’s Disney going to do, kick you off?) so they can stay in contact with each other after the plug is pulled.The matter has finally started to attract the attention of online community experts and some national media; alas it’s too late to make any difference. I agree with the expert interviewed by the OC Register, Disney is failing in its responsibility to the users of this game by not providing some transitional community. But perhaps the biggest failing is that future users will be wary of Disney pulling this stunt again. Once burned shame on you, twice burned shame on me.Although I don’t work for the mouse, I still want to apologize to all the community members of VMK. Disney should know better than to treat you like this. It’s not how they would want their sons and daughters to be treated and it’s totally out of line with the new ethics of cyberspace. Let’s hope they learn a lesson or two.Update: Radical Trust has an interesting idea, a bill of rights for online communities. [...]

  15. tanyaacatherine Says:

    Online, the only way to win is to give away as much power as you can. As fast as you can. More specifically, you need to give power to your users, your community and your partners. You need to help them reach their goals. Help them make money. Help them find each other. You need to empower these people, and, in doing so, empower collective action. In turn, you’ll get the kind of respect, support and revenue you need to make it on the Internet.
    —————-
    Tanyaa
    Social Bookmarking

  16. collin Says:

    Tanyaa
    What experienced business person would disagree with that! It doesn’t matter what business you are in, offline or online, this is a great philosophy.

    Bang on, and well put.
    Thanks for the comment.
    collin

  17. CaptainCoolBlue Says:

    Erm hi i heard that vmk MIGHT open (this MIGHT be a rumor) On the 20,21,28,29 march 2009 or in 2010 so keep your hopes upp upp upp!!!^^^^^^^^^ ;] -CaptainCoolBlue-thats my vmk and vfk name!!! and awlways will be my heart name!!!

  18. Shaping Youth » CyberSafety Online: Tips From The Inside Out Via eModeration (Part 2) Says:

    [...] Considering New Ethics in Virtual Communities & Cultures (Radical Trust) [...]

  19. Umar Ghumman Says:

    Thanks for refreshing my memory again Collin. Great post and insight.

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May 22nd, 2008