watched.jpgAs a denizen of LiveJournal, I could hardly fail to notice the massive popularity of internet quizzes, so allow me to try to create one of my own, which I feel will be particularly applicable to the wise and wonderful web wanderers who comprise our audience:

In your wanderings, you encounter an example of such breathtakingly futile resistance to the way the internet works (no, I’m not talking about the RIAA) that it is as if you have stumbled upon some rare exotic creature thrown upon an inhospitable foreign shore by an uncaring digital sea. Do you:

A. Pull out your notebook and microscope and study this fascinating specimen. Far be it from you to interfere with nature taking its course, but there may be an opportunity here to reach greater understanding of some sort through observation.

B. Attempt to instruct the alien in the ways of the internet, so it can go on its way more equipped to survive out there in the jungle. The main purpose of the internet is to share knowledge, and to facilitate that, people have to help one another learn how best to navigate it.

C. Compassionately try to either protect it or to return it to more hospitable climes, even if the attempt is futile. Clearly it is not equipped to navigate the wilds of the internet, and the kindest thing to do is to encourage it to go home.

D. Set up a tent around it and charge admission to point and laugh. Maybe make it into a lolcat while you’re at it.

E. Stick a pin through that sucker and add it to your collection. PWNED!

F. Try to drive it away from the young/stupid/potentially innocent, in case it’s dangerous. It probably only looks helplessly ignorant. After all, Google and Wikipedia are free.

The rare beetle that caught my attention this week was the behavior of the puppetmaster(s) of the Golden Jigsaw puzzle contest. An Unfiction player named IRC1968, as well as Unfiction moderator and ARGNet staffer Michelle Senderhauf, had received notices that their accounts had been deleted. IRC1968 was told he’d been kicked out for posting answers. Upon inquiry, Michelle was told her account was deleted because it “was found to have a positive link with a website or website(s) that are being used, encouraged or moderated to infringe upon player rules and, despite prior warnings, continue to actively release private information concerning The Golden Jigsaw via a public forum on the internet, with the intent to damage the interests of the owners, developers, partners & players of the game.”

Upon further inquiry, Michelle got a response from Don Campbell explaining that her account had been deleted because while she hadn’t posted any answers, as a moderator at Unfiction, she had failed to censor the information other players posted at UF. (Her account was later reinstated, “with conditions.”)

chained.jpgYes, you read correctly. It’s sort of like trying to ban a theater usher from seeing your movie in a different cinema because they didn’t stop people in the lobby from criticizing the film. Dude, they don’t work for you. In fact, in the case of Unfiction moderators, if as a puppetmaster you’re doing something that breaks UF’s Terms of Service, their job is to work against you.

(Bonus! They also appear to claim, ungrammatically, that using their domain name constitutes “copyright infringement.” Oh, and they changed their notification period for the enforcement of rule changes from 30 days to 30 minutes.)

Sean Stewart summed up the nature of the medium pretty succinctly: “The world of the infosphere—the web and google and email and instant messenger and cell phones—is about two fundamental activities: searching for things, and gossiping.”

You don’t have to be a genius to understand that if you present the internet with a series of puzzles, people who don’t have the answers are going to search for them, and people who do have the answers are going to gossip about them.

You cannot control the behavior of players, and you cannot stop information from spreading. Ask the RIAA. Ask J.K. Rowling.

Farhad Manjoo, a technology writer for Salon, discussed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and all its attendant information restriction issues, on his blog, Machinist. He described HP6’s encounter with the Internet as follows: “[W]ithin 24 hours of the release of Book 6, a worldwide coven of IRC-connected fans scanned, proofread, and posted a version of the book that could be read on PDAs and phones. Other fans collaboratively translated the book into German in about two days — months before the official German translation was to hit shelves.”

This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the collective intelligence characteristic of alternate reality game audiences, and Manjoo highlighted an important point about the way the internet works that makes this sort of thing possible, whether you view it as working for good or for evil:

It took just one of these copies to go astray, and then it was out there to everyone. In this way the security protecting Harry Potter was vulnerable to the same fatal flaw that routinely cripples digital-rights-management code meant to protect music and movies: If it breaks anywhere, it breaks everywhere…

But there’s also another, more weighty problem. Rowling intended her story to be released a certain way. She wanted it to come out on July 21, she wanted it to come out on paper (and audiobook), she wanted people to delight, together and simultaneously, to the climax of a tale they’ve been waiting a decade to read. The artist, in other words, expected a certain fate for her art, and as [Melissa] Anelli [webmaster of a Harry Potter fan site] sees it, going along with that expectation is “a matter of respect.”…

So let me try to say this kindly, hopefully without causing any offense: What the author wants is not, anymore, all that will happen. Today, artists — even those as powerful as J.K. Rowling — can’t reasonably expect such dominion over their art. A well-laid plan is dashed by some guy with a camera and a lot of time on his hands, and that’s that. And mostly this loss of control is a good thing, for fans as well as for artists.

But regardless of whether or not you think it’s a good thing, it’s futile (and self-defeating) to pretend it isn’t out there. Regardless of what restrictions you attempt to put into place, the internet is smarter than you are. It never sleeps. It never takes a break for dinner. It never gets up to go to the bathroom. It has infinite resources: time, energy, ingenuity. Keeping a secret is a heck of a lot harder than sharing it, and if the internet is motivated to share your secret, not only to you have a far more difficult job than it does, you’re outclassed on every level.

It only takes one leak.

It’s possible to design a competitive puzzle contest that understands and works with, rather than against, the anarchic and collaborative nature of the web: in recent memory, Court TV’s SaveMyHusband, both of Volvo’s Pirates of the Caribbean contests and Microsoft’s Vanishing Point all managed to pull it off, as, I’m sure, have many others.

SaveMyHusband, in particular, hit a few snags on its first date with the ARG community. Players discovered all the content (most of which was supposed to be released on a particular schedule) almost immediately. In addition, as with Volvo’s games — and as we’re seeing now in the Golden Jigsaw — players new to the ARG community often aren’t prepared for (and are sometimes incredulous at) the community’s insistence on collaboration. As Behind the Buzz describes it:

For the sweepstake competitors and non-gamers who are either after the money or just playing for casual fun, the reaction of the ‘professional’ argers has been frustrating. This audience has been trying to win the money and feel strongly that the argers are ‘cheating.’

Newcomers to ARGs often can’t understand why ARGers would prefer to collaborate on puzzle solving when there is a prize at stake for which they “should” be competing. What they fail to understand is that for ARG communities, and Unfiction in particular, the community itself is often the greatest attraction to online games. ARGers are used to playing games in which the rewards are intangible, and the community that forms around those games is often the most treasured of those rewards. The (relatively slim) chance of winning a monetary prize is, I believe, less of an incentive for many community members than the enjoyment of working together with other skilled puzzlers to reach a shared goal.

It’s all right when newcomers to the Unfiction forums don’t understand that (even if one often wishes they’d learn to be a little more polite about their disagreement). But it’s problematic when designers don’t bother to do enough research to understand that communities like Unfiction are out there, and how they’re likely to react to a puzzle contest. As Behind the Buzz observes, regarding SaveMyHusband:

The agency had obviously not predicted the behaviour of ARG players, even though a casual perusal of forums could have told them that that anything on the web, especially when ‘easy’ to find, would be fair game. There was a lack of understanding here of part of the audience – they may not be the target audience of Court TV but they are a segment that play ARGS and you had to understand these people as well as the puzzle and crime game playing people who were the main targets.

However, SaveMyHusband made a good-faith attempt to adapt and work with the community’s collaborative ethos rather than against it, asking only that people stop posting the personal information they’d discovered about the company’s employees.

As for the Golden Jigsaw, one hopes that its designers will be flexible enough to recognize the inevitable and adapt, rather than deleting player accounts based on membership in other organizations or communities rather than actual behavior and attempting to impose their rules on communities over which they have no authority.

Because I’m sure their players are adapting: choosing to register with names that are different from the ones they use on Unfiction, providing answers anonymously,* creating resources to share answers,** and otherwise engaging in all the freedom to search and to gossip that the internet allows.

*Nope, I was in no way involved with the creation of this player resource. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it.
**Thank you to Unfiction’s SpaceBass for providing this resource.