Mix it Up
Mix It Up! Avatar Party in Digital Space
Was Held on July 13, 1996
Contact Consortium Logo

Our Next Party is at E2A Oct 25 1996!
Find out more about The Contact Consortium

Read about the parties in our Party Zines!
Why we did it?
How we did it?
What did we learn?
Our thanks!

The Party is Over!
Now read all about it
in these Special Edition Party Zines!

(Live party pictures from Boulder Creek to follow later)
AlphaWorld Logo
ThePalace Logo
PointWorld Logo
AlphaWorld Duo Bash
Garden Party and Poetry Reading
The Palace Party Poop
Funky Costume Party
The PointWorld Scene
Avatars Invade CyberSpace

Why we did it?

Sitting on the grass in Southpark in San Francisco with Wendy Sue Noah of Match.com in early June 1996, we decided that the next online digital be-in in our regular series of Sherwood Towne gatherings would be something special. We had gained good experience in the Sherwood gatherings. We knew how to run an avatar party. The mission of the Consortium is to develop and promote contact, culture and community in digital space. We felt that throwing a larger, widely announced party across three virtual worlds would test the current state of the medium to support contact, in the form of a singles mixer.

Match.com was the preeminent net-based dating service, with over 90,000 members. Wendy Sue was greatly experienced in throwing parties in the real world, and understood the limitations of the medium of the net. Match.com had been evaluating straight text chat as a possible facility to hold online mixers. When we met Wendy Sue back in April and showed her the online virtual worlds, she felt that the technology held far greater promise as a fun social medium than traditional chat.

Our goals in summary:

To celebrate the coming of 3D and 2D Virtual Worlds as a social medium!
To try to host a singles mixer in a virtual world!
To answer the question: how DO you DO a large Avatar be-in?
To talk about our virtual university
To hold a party in a language other than English
    Part of the crowd was from France, Belgium and Quebec en Francais
To host an event in three virtual worlds at once
    PointWorld, AlphaWorld and ThePalace and give valuable usability feedback to the world providers

How we did it?

We worked with each of the providers of these worlds: Worlds Incorporated The Palace, Inc., and Black Sun Interactive to ensure that they had a chance to make any preparations. Each company had staff in-world for the entirety of the event to help keep things running smoothly. Both Worlds Inc. and The Palace placed special party signs in their environments to welcome party guests and indicate that there was a special event going on at an assigned spot in the world. As a result of this, we had many drop-in guests.

We publicized this event well in advance with mass emailings. We contacted media for coverage. We scheduled the time (9am to 4pm California time) to allow participation from 24 time zones around the globe. We also carefully constructed and announced a web-based party invitation which contained instructions on downloading the virtual world software and teleports (for AlphaWorld) to land partygoers directly at the party locations. See our original Invitation.

Party logistics:

In addition to organizing a full scale all day party for 40 or 50 guests at the home of Rusel DeMaria and Alex Utterman in Boulder Creek, California, we had to set up and run equipment for the virtual party. We had a total of six computers, two PowerMacs and four Win95 Pentium PCs. We used three of the four house telephone lines on 28.8 PPP ISP dial-up accounts. We ran three of the machines full time. One PowerMac was used to run the Palace, while two other dedicated PCs ran all three environments simultaneously, allowing parallel switching between worlds.

We used some of the PCs for documentation, frequent screen captures were taken for later inclusion in the Party Zines above. To support the poetry reading in the redwood grove in AlphaWorld, we herded avatar attendees into the grove at the specified time in the early afternoon and the poet avatar stood on stage. JJ Webb read his poem I saw the most amazing things today! while his avatar operator avoperator cut and past each line of the poem into the chat area. Line by line appeared in the chat and over the head of the avatar-poet for the assembled audience to see.

Want advice or help on throwing an event like this? Feel free to contact us.

What did we learn?

There was a great need for activities or other stimulation to keep the interest of participants. Interesting and lengthy conversation would engage some partygoers, but this was often a chance happening. Conversation was often clipped and brief due to the difficulty of communicating through type. Voice supported systems like Onlive! may change this in the future. Some activities were tried with success (see below).

We learned that in practice you really need one dedicated computer for each world and each user avatar. Rotation of people on shifts running the same avatar caused confusion among partygoers. They might ask who are you now? and stop trusting your presence in a particular avatar. In addition, we used avatars with different body shape but the same name, causing more confusion. There needed to be a facilty to flag one's avatar as I am taking a break now or I am switching this avatar to another person now.

Technically speaking, the computers stayed running, and with only one crash, the worlds performed admirably. We noticed delays in getting the text baloons in the Palace as their server became more heavily laden later in the day.

We estimate between 300 and 500 people participated in the event, although exact numbers are hard to get (a turnstile counter would certainly be a valuable feature). Partygoers who responded to our RSVP and regulars and staff of the virtual worlds and Consortium made up about 40 avatendees in total. The remaining participants came unannounced or casually dropped in when they saw the party signs or read the chat dialogue.

What you need to throw a avatar party:

Criers at the teleport gates or entrances to guide partygoers on their way and to avagrab innocent bystanders off the digital street.
Teleports to land partygoers at exactly the right spot
Greeters to introduce newcomers to the party
Party activity makers to keep the party energy going
The energy of a real world party going on really helped motivate hosts
Party security was essential to police the language and behavior and give partygoers a sense of safety (see story below)

Social challenges we experienced:

Elissa, malicious party crasher in disguise

The Party crasher

A questionable character named Elissa and dressed as a slender black woman cruised into the AlphaWorld Herb Garden party with the full and malicious attempt to crash the event. This person (probably male) used some of the foulest language we have ever seen in years of online interaction. His choice of this avatar was designed to maximize the offense, as his language was aimed at black women.

We had arranged for an officer of the Alphaworld Police Department to be there in case of such an incident. As the AWPD is a volunteer group of AlphaWorld citizens who have no special powers (beyond the power of persuasion), the officer found himself unable to stop the Elissa character. Several partygoers crowded around this character in an attempt to convince him to stop.

Unfortunately for the crasher, there was one person in attendance who had powers, eminent domain in fact. This was Ron Britvich, of Worlds Incorporated and the developer of AlphaWorld. He was busy disk jockeying sounds into the party when he noticed what was happening. After asking the Elissa character politely several times, Ron, in his office in San Diego, switched to another part of the AlphaWorld interface and banished the Elissa Avatar. From the perspective of that user, in an instant, all the people around just disappeared. From our perspective, Elissa was gone. No sight, no words. Ron said that this was the first time he was so moved to do this. This type of policing happens all the time on moderated chats but it was the first time it had happened in a three dimensional avatar world.

If this all reminds you of Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash, you are not far off the mark. Something very fundamental is being born in the social Internet and may influence how people interact in the new medium well into the next century.

Rude sound gestures

The Palace was beset by a bout of rude sound gestures, which the particular partygoer eventually stopped. As the Palace allows custom avatars and sounds and is not moderated, only community response provides a regulator. So far it has been working.

Problems during the Poetry Reading

For the first poem in the reading, most participants held their tongues and kept quite. This allowed the poem to be read out in the chat with few interruptions (see the poetry dialogue). However, as the readings and poets progressed, interest was lost and partygoers broke off into their own conversations, scattering the lines of poetry to the winds. We feel that voice supported systems such as Onlive's Utopia will be a powerful medium for spoken word performance art.

Our Thanks!

We thank all those who donned avatar and came to this pioneering event, some spending 6 or 8 hours in front of a screen on their Saturday.

We are very grateful for the assistance of our participating sponsors:
Worlds Incorporated The Palace, Inc., and Black Sun Interactive.

We would also like to thank our special co-host
Match.Com Logo

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