We often post thoughts on TN about things that happen in virtual worlds.
Note the "on" and the "in" in that previous sentence. Why do discussions happen "on" TN, but "in" virtual worlds?
In Designing Virtual Worlds, Richard argues that virtual worlds are, above all else, places, and that this distinguishes them from other internet-based phenomena. I've always thought this was right, probably in several ways. I think the language we use to refer to virtual worlds supports this and might even be used as a rough heuristic to determine how much a given piece of software is or is not a virtual world.
Consider the following 7 statement variations, and decide which you'd hear commonly and which would seem strange.
That event happened:
A: 1) on Terra Nova, 2) in Terra Nova
B: 1) on World of Warcraft, 2) in World of Warcraft
C: 1) on Facebook, 2) in Facebook
D: 1) on the Internet, 2) in the Internet
E: 1) on Second Life, 2) in Second Life
F: 1) on Pong, 2) in Pong
G: 1) on Halo III, 2) in Halo III
My impression (is it yours as well?) is that most of us will find the "in" statements more common and fitting than the "on" statements when the subject is a virtual world, whereas the "on" will be used more frequently than the "in" with regard to most other online phenomena, like web pages.
Perhaps this is obvious, because to be "in" implies being enclosed and surrounded by a thing, whereas being "on" implies only a surface contact with a thing. But it's also worth noting that some "on" events actually occur in terrestrial spaces (on stage, on the plaza) whereas some "in" events happen in non-spaces (in the army, in the summer). This might follow from the fact that a stage or a plaza are seen as surfaces that one stands on, whereas one can be in time (summer) and in social organizations (the army) because both are seen as potentially enclosing/surrounding individuals.
So if you agree with the above, here's the question. What are your impressions with regard to the use of "in" and "on" w/r/t Facebook, Pong, and Halo? Do events happen "in" or "on" those? And why?
Any pointers to relevant literature?
p.s. This is an Anglo-centric post. My understanding is that Russian, Japanese, and many other languages have different ways of speaking about "in" and "on." It would be interesting to know if the distinction here between web pages and virtual worlds is true in those languages as well.
p.p.s. Does this mean that Sherry Turkle's book Life on the Screen is linguistically dated?
Comments on On/In:
Perhaps this to could be an exchange:
"Where's Mike, haven't seen him around?"
"Oh, he's all messed up on Warcraft."
Posted Jun 3, 2008 2:51:03 PM | link
It's just inherited from the word it refers to.
Terranova is a webPAGE, and things normally are written ON a page. So in that's what we default to when we make the word for it.
Word of Warcraft is (perceived as) a WORLD. Things happen IN a world. Same deal.
The difference is also related to the dimensions.
A screen of text has 2 dimensions. But when we see 3d graphics, we perceive a space. Things happen IN a space..
Nothing to it, really.
Posted Jun 3, 2008 3:31:58 PM | link
I don't agree, Greg. I think the "in" makes perfect sense with Facebook (for Facebook users), and that "in" is often used with online communities. (It happened "in" the forum discussions, for example. Or even "in email.")
David Weinberger's book "Small Pieces Loosely Joined" argued pretty compelling for "Internet as place," also. When we talk about the web, we discuss "navigation," "going to a site," "leaving a site," etc...all language that implies place rather than documents.
Posted Jun 3, 2008 3:39:15 PM | link
It's English, which means there doesn't have to be a reason. Differences in participle use in English are pretty random:
I read a book in the car. I drove there on Route 66 and got stuck in traffic. He read it on the train,in the club car. She read it on (or in) a plane in first class. She was on time but in trouble. On balance, I think it's in our interests to be on target but in the neighborhood on the money in fact.
We ride on a train, perhaps, because it is on rails. But we're no more on a train than we are on a car. We ride in (or on) a plane, but we always say we'll be "on the 5 o'clock flight" never "in the 5 o'clock flight."
I say, "He contacted me in Facebook," but I also say, "I found this cool mash-up on Facebook."
"He's got all kinds of crap on his MySpace page," is natural, as is, "I get a ton of email in MySpace."
Posted Jun 3, 2008 4:38:31 PM | link
Andy Havens> "He's got all kinds of crap on his MySpace page," is natural, as is, "I get a ton of email in MySpace."
Well, judging from what Thomas has said, you are referring to "MySpace -page-" in the first example and "My-Space-" in the seconds. As for "contacting me in Facebook", I'd probably say "contacting me -via- Facebook".
Then again, I have to disagree with Thomas, as most people are -on- Facebook, while the -books- are usually valued by what is written -in- them.
I think it's the matter of context though:
1.) I contact you via/though/on Facebook
2.) I'm surfing on/over/through Facebook
3.) I am registered in/on Facebook
There aren't really any set rules for the above and having heard all of them, I doubt that any single one is better than the other.
I would however probably be in WoW/any other MMO. Richard is absolutely right, they are places.
Posted Jun 3, 2008 6:55:01 PM | link
I guess the linguistic approach could be an excellent tool to overcome the effect Richard recently described in Berlin: That most of the rulers (judges for example) grew up with TV (or radio) and do not know anything of being "in" a virtual world.
In German, by the way, there is a "in" virtual worlds but (until now) only a very limited "in" Facebook:
"Ich war gestern *in* Second Life."
"Ich habe sein Profil *auf* Facebook angeschaut."
"Er hat mich *über* Facebook kontaktiert."
"Ich war gestern den ganzen Tag *in* Facebook."
Worth to note: The german clone of Facebook, StudiVZ, uses the following claim: "Komm *ins* StudiVZ!"
Posted Jun 4, 2008 4:29:19 AM | link
Hmm, this is an interesting question!
Back in the olde days when we used to use mainframes, some people would "log on" and some would "log in". The former always felt more passive than the latter, and was mainly the preserve of casual users; experts would usually "log in", but if they weren't busy they might say "log on". Thus, a conversation might go like this:
A: Are you logged in?
B: Not at the moment, why?
A: Can you log on to CompSoc 1, I want to see if you show up on my snoop program.
There was a similar, but not identical, distinction for "log off" and "log out": the former would mean you hadn't really finished what you were doing, but the latter was more final. You'd usually say "I've got to log off" rather than "I've got to log out".
In the same way that "on/in" usage for mainframe sign-ups seem to indicate a depth of understanding of the machine as an environment, perhaps for virtual worlds it's a measure of your degree of immersion?
Posted Jun 4, 2008 4:34:10 AM | link
It's a philosophical question, I suppose. The in/on question relates to the power of our imagination.
Technically, of course, everything happens at a comparable place (it's just a data stream flowing through processors etc.). But then the power of your mind kicks in, deceiving you! The human beings just can't help to think that a virtual world is a world you can enter, and that a webpage is a page you only can look at.
Actually, I think the power of the mind helps to communicate as it reflects things as they are experienced, but on the other hand makes it much more difficult to analyse what's going on from a scientific perspective.
Posted Jun 4, 2008 10:53:44 AM | link
You can easily say "on WoW" especially when you are talking about whether someone is playing WoW or not. In the beginning I thought this was a valid point but now I'm thinking that it is highly context specific and not so unique to the virtual world... think plane or train. "On" is probably used more frequently when the specificity or physical context to the location is irrelevant (so that we can also say that we are "on the phone", "on the blackberry";
Posted Jun 4, 2008 11:58:03 AM | link
Quick comment: in Coming of Age in Second Life I try to think this issue through in some detail, and state there that Bartle really hit the nail on the head. This prepositional quirk (in English, as noted by others: Indonesian for instance doesn't do it in quite the same way) touches on a broader issue. That is that in thinking about Internet-related technologies, not everything can be collapsed into everything else, despite the importance of highlighting interconnections. Some things, of which virtual worlds are a great example, are places. Others are not, or are not places in the same way. Those distinctions have interesting social ramifications! And as Jane notes above, things can be sometimes be construed contextually in different ways, and in some cases that might show up in multiple ways to refer to something - like "on WoW" (which might have a more general meaning) or "in WoW" (which might have a more time-specific meaning).
Posted Jun 4, 2008 12:08:11 PM | link
"It's a philosophical question, I suppose. The in/on question relates to the power of our imagination."
This is acceptable in principle. But, on principle, I must digress.
Actually, I believe Greg has revealed his closet formalist tendencies. Always good to see.
While our conceptualization of virtual worlds may vary from time to time and culture to culture (they are, after all, virtual), the relationships implied by in/on, though sometimes mixed and muddled up just like Lola, are indeed set in the time and space metaphoric stone of our embodiment (without being particularly "situated" in anything else). Thus, as Greg implies, the use of "on" and "in" indicates a universal (ie, anti-sapir-whorfian and pro-formalist, yay!) mental mechanism, though the objects this mechanism crunches (virtual worlds, for instance) might indeed sway in the fickle breezes of the cultural wikipedia.
See also the discussion in Pinker's Stuff of Thought, which has relevant portions devoted to prepositions and such.
Posted Jun 4, 2008 12:31:55 PM | link
And I feel obliged to note, perhaps by way of explanation for this post, that I was reading Tom's book last month, which I should tell everyone, is really fantastic and a must-read ethnography in this area. It's available here. (Richard also gives it a big thumbs up on the cover blurb.)
Chapter 4, in particular, is about how time and place are perceived in Second Life, and it's really great, careful stuff that has helped in my thinking. I should also note that Tom, unlike YT, has training as a linguist, which really comes through in many places throughout the book. So Tom is, in all likelihood, the reason I started thinking about the relation of common language usage and virtual worlds as places.
@Hendrik: thanks so much for the German language angle, and it was great meeting you in Berlin. That was a wonderful conference.
@Liz: I should stress I'm not saying that Facebook isn't a place. And I agree that there is plenty of spatial language for the Web out there -- which Dave pointed out in his book. (And Dan wrote a very good article about the legal implications of that language once, actually.)
I guess I'm just kind of curious as to why & when we (or I) generally prefer "in" with virtual worlds and "on" with web pages.
Maybe Thomas is right that it's all obvious, but I'm enjoying thinking about it. For instance, we sometimes refer to people as being "deep in a book" (a non-virtual book) sometimes, I guess because that says the awareness is surrounded by the context of the book's contents?
@Dave: I confess to formalist tendencies, though I'm certainly not a semiotician like some other people! :-) So, thanks for the endorsement -- I'll have to put Pinker's book on my reading list.
Posted Jun 4, 2008 12:42:03 PM | link
Down the lane of Lakoff and Johnsen's "metaphors we live by"...
"log in" or "log on". I norwegian we would say "are you logged in on the server"? I would never claim to be "in the server" though... That would be bizarre.
I guess I'm just kind of curious as to why & when we (or I) generally prefer "in" with virtual worlds and "on" with web pages.
Add avatars that you can move behind the pages of Terranova. Are you still on it?
One interpretation: I am part of the virtual worlds life (in). Terranova is part of my life (on).
Is the MUD admin "in" or "on"? If you gain complete controll and the world becomes a puppet, are you still in it? Or are you on (top of) it?
Posted Jun 4, 2008 1:35:37 PM | link
(make that Johnson)
Posted Jun 4, 2008 1:45:51 PM | link
@dmyers: If the in/on question points to the way in which experience in virtual worlds is grounded in the body (that, to me, is the essence here -- the "spatialness" is, in my opinion, largely an outgrowth of sending that breadth of affordances in them that we have with our bodies elsewhere), this in no way leads inevitably to formalism. After all, formalist theories are not simply those attest to things which transcend culturo-historic circumstance, but further propose the existence of a formal scheme driving things (and because of which all other processes become epiphenomenal). Greg is not, at least by raising this issue as he has, subscribed to the latter view. No gotcha here.
Posted Jun 4, 2008 3:25:01 PM | link
Some random but related thoughts....
In addition to "on" and "in," what about "at?" We often describe ourselves as "at" some location ("I'm at the corner of Hollywood and Vine"; "I'm at the hotel"; "He's at the half-way point"). If virtual worlds are places (as I agree they are), why then don't we say things like "I'm at EvE" rather than "I'm in EvE?" What makes "at" different from "in?"
There's a regional difference in U.S. English: when talking about being queued up for something, Northeasterners will say that they're "on line" while Southerners say they're "in line." Is that just a linguistic quirk, or is there some specific difference in culture or worldview that it reflects? Does it have any virtual-world analogy?
I've recently been helping to test a corporate knowledge management system. It's got discussion forums, blogs, wikis, and so on, which is great (I've been pushing for this for a long time), but I have a concern about how these features are being presented. Specifically, I'm wondering it it's too abstract -- I suspect that many of the people we'd like to attract to this KM system will find it difficult to grab on to mentally because it offers no concrete metaphor for its usage. In a word, it's not built to convey a sense of place. It's not presented as a place one can be ("I'm in the KM system"), which I think provides the kind of concrete referent that some people want because it helps them orient themselves relative to other aspects of their world. Instead, the access metaphor is more like today's Web: a loosely-structured collection of text resources. It's very Web 2.0 and dynamic... but is that abstract model really best for actual users, or is it just what professional Web builders find most satisfying? So I find myself wondering how this rather abstract presentation of a corporate KM system will be embraced, and whether instead presenting it as a place -- as something a person can be "in" -- might not give it greater psychological consonance with more of its potential users.
Finally, if a 3D Web interface ever catches on, are we likely to change our language to say that we're "in" some application (or "in" the Web itself)? Or will the usage of being "on" various individual Web apps persist even when the technology used to present those apps changes? (Think of the way we still say we're "dialing" a telephone number, even when actual dials on a phone have long since turned into buttons or even been replaced entirely by voice recognition systems.)
Posted Jun 4, 2008 3:30:21 PM | link
Ola Fosheim Grøstad>I norwegian we would say "are you logged in on the server"?
Hmm, actually that would have made sense in the old mainframe days, too. We might also have said "are you logged in to the server?" (if we'd have had servers!).
Posted Jun 4, 2008 5:45:24 PM | link
After all, formalist theories are not simply those attest to things which transcend culturo-historic circumstance, but further propose the existence of a formal scheme driving things (and because of which all other processes become epiphenomenal)"
I would rather say, like a rose proposes a rose, a form likewise proposes a form. Admittedly, some might say, based on available evidence, the Great Satan of Formalism proposes a rattling of the culturalist cage, followed by a jerk of the culturalist knee. But I rather think these rattlings and these jerks are neither proposals nor entailments, but rather merely contingencies. :)
Posted Jun 5, 2008 6:28:05 AM | link
@dmyers: You apparently view the available options as solely the "culturalist" (interpretivist, perhaps?) vs. formalist. Those are not the only options I see. If I were someone who always held that, in the last analysis, "meaning" or representation (for you, this seems to be what "culture" is) was the determinant of what happens, then your charge would have merit. I, however, hold to a view that meaning, practice, and materiality each can have decisive consequences for the unfolding of events (that's where the deep contingency is). This is therefore not a "culturalist" view; it is a pragmatic one, if anything.
Posted Jun 5, 2008 8:32:51 AM | link
I think some of this has to do with what the word "I" means. When speaking about a website, one rarely becomes an alter-ego which resides within the site itself. When speaking of virtual worlds, one often uses "I" to refer to the avatar's point of view, rather than the human controller's. So that "I" is definitely inside the world, whereas the human player could be "on" the world as in "logged on."
Side note: as kids, I and my brothers always used to say 'can I go on the computer?' I still struggle to come up with a neat term to say that I'm sitting at my desk using my PC for something. I think we struggle with this because we are shifting the location of our subjectivity. We're mobilising our inner eye if you like, and so reporting exactly where we are becomes difficult.
Posted Jun 5, 2008 8:51:43 PM | link
Thought of another point:
A: 1) on Terra Nova, 2) in Terra Nova
C: 1) on Facebook, 2) in Facebook
For both of these you would say 'in' the Terra Nova archives. Or, 'in' my old FaceBook messages.
This points to a tendency to use the physical marker when treating the site as more as a traditional text, like a book, where we can go back through records and point to something, and say "there it is, IN that article."
Posted Jun 5, 2008 8:55:02 PM | link
About Facebook, that can either be IN a book or ON (the cover of) a book.
And since Facebook is not really a book but a webPAGE, then people defaulted to saying ON Facebook.
Never judge a (face)book on its cover :)
Posted Jun 14, 2008 6:07:28 AM | link
But it's also worth noting that some "on" events actually occur in terrestrial spaces (on stage, on the plaza) whereas some "in" events happen in non-spaces (in the army, in the summer).
This might follow from the fact that a stage or a plaza are seen as surfaces that one stands on, whereas one can be in time (summer) and in social organizations (the army) because both are seen as potentially enclosing/surrounding individuals.
As far as I know, they seem to be using same logic in Russian. Russian preposition 'на' (on) is mostly used to refer to a website or webpage or something being on a surface, while 'в' (in) is used to refer to virtual worlds, social organization, something that surrounds you.
This is a general rule, but someone may find exceptions if tries hard, I believe.
Posted Jun 19, 2008 6:39:44 AM | link
I am online but I'm not inline.
It's the T-shirt that the future Terra Nova will be selling to the techhippies who remember the free and easy 2000s before every new born child was chipped with spyware.
Posted Jun 19, 2008 8:47:36 AM | link
I've been traveling back and forth to the East coast recently. In the Midwest when you're at the store, they usually say, "next in line, please". On the East coast, I've heard, "next on line!"
Same with "get in line", or "get on line".
Posted Jun 20, 2008 10:50:59 AM | link
'In addition to "on" and "in," what about "at?" We often describe ourselves as "at" some location ("I'm at the corner of Hollywood and Vine"; "I'm at the hotel"; "He's at the half-way point"). If virtual worlds are places (as I agree they are), why then don't we say things like "I'm at EvE" rather than "I'm in EvE?" What makes "at" different from "in?"'
I think 'at' implies transition, at least in the examples you've chosen. It is information given that is implicitly linked to movement, either the speaker's or the listener's. There is a sense that this location information is relevant at the time of communication only. This is probably also connected to specificity. 'Eve' may be a place but it's not a location. So I wouldn't say "I'm at EVE' but would say "I'm at the top station in Rens" in the same way I wouldn't say "I'm at Birmingham" but would say "I'm at Birmingham New Street Station" (pity me).
Posted Jul 11, 2008 12:03:04 PM | link