Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Playing the Internet with PMOG

Persephone Miel’s talk about the future of news media, given at the Berkman Center on Tuesday, inspired a great deal of conversation about how tools could help readers be more aware of media the were consuming. I’ve talked in the past about the idea of a “nutritional information label” for media. This would allow you to see what percent of attention a particular publication pays to various issues and various parts of the world – the New York Times might report 35% international coverage, with 4% on Africa on a weekly basis, and you could decide whether you wanted more internationalism in your diet and switch to the Economist, or more US politics and shift to the Huffington Post.

The holy grail in this model, as far as I’m concerned, would be a Firefox plugin that would passively watch your websurfing behavior and characterize your personal information consumption. Over the course of a week, it might let you know that you hadn’t encountered any news about Latin America, or remind you that a full 40% of the pages you read had to do with Sarah Palin. It wouldn’t neccesarily prescribe changes in your behavior, simply help you monitor your own consumption in the hopes that you might make changes. The parallel here is smart energy metering, where meters that show precisely what you’re consuming during certain behaviors may change how you choose to use energy. Some Prius drivers report changing their driving behavior, using the information the car gives them about energy consumption to “play the game” of minimizing energy consumption while driving their vehicles.

(My mythical plugin would note the content you’re loading – you could turn it off if you wanted privacy – and pass it through a topic classifier like OpenCalais so it could analyze the content of the information you’re reading. At the end of an interval – a day, a week – it could offer statistics on what you’d encountered, and compare those statistics to an anonymized mob. You might discover that 5% of your surfing behavior has you encountering international news, far more than your peers do, but less than the percentage of international news in the Washington Post, for instance. It would be your choice whether to pat yourself on the back, visit Global Voices, or simply ignore the information.)

My friend Gene Koo is fascinated by “serious games“, games that help promote social or personal goals as well as serving as entertainment. The idea of passive monitoring of media reminded him of a game he’s interested in, PMOG – the Passively Multiplayer Online Game. You play PMOG by surfing the web. A Firefox plugin keeps track of how many different sites you’ve visited and assigns you “data points” for each different site. These points serve as currency for the game – you can stash them in “crates” for other players to find, or use them to buy “mines” with which to attack other players. Basically, it turns the web into a gameboard for a multiplayer game, which you can actively participate in, or passively earn points in.

(Passive, sure, but nowhere near as passive as the wonderful Progress Quest. You download the application, fire it up and the window updates you on the amazing progress your character is making, slaying monsters and picking up amazing magical items, all with no intervention on your part. The only control for the game is the quit key. Online roleplaying the way it was meant to be.)

One of the intriguing features of PMOG is the ability to create or follow “missions”. These missions are basically guided tours through various websites – the PMOG interface brings up a window on top of a web browser window and allows the mission creator to offer commentary on the sites encountered. Many of the missions aren’t especially interesting – a tour of the online games a player plays, for instance – but the medium is an interesting and flexible one. I took an excellent mission called “Playing in Public Space“, which carved out a narrative about reclaiming public spaces and creating games, which other nonparticipants might ignore or misunderstand. The tour included Banksy’s provocative New Orleans graffiti and an introduction to Alternative Reality Gaming, and basically felt like a well-constructed blogpost that dragged you from link to link rather than assuming you’d do the work on your own.

This idea of using the web as a gameboard, or as a space for interactions, is certainly not a new one. Back in the distant past of the web, a plugin called Third Voice allowed surfers to annotate websites with sticky notes that could be read by other users of the plugin. The theory was that this would allow “inline” conversations, building interactions between the millions of individuals who view a site but aren’t aware of one another. It was a controversial idea – some people really hated the idea that people could post critical comments (or spam) “on” their sites… even though the comments weren’t actually on the web server in question. The tool became popular with spammers, and had some serious security holes, and it disappeared in 2001.

Third Voice was one of dozens of tools that have tried to create what Heiner Wolf calls “virtual presence”, a way of making web users aware of all the other folks using the web at the same time. There was an explosion of venture capital interest in these tools just before the great dot.bomb crash in the stock market. I remember one plug-in based tool which allowed you to choose an avatar, made the avatars of other users visible when you visited pages, and allowed you to organize “bus tours” – you’d join a group of avatars and the driver would tour you through a set of webpages, offering commentary along the way.


A PMOG “portal” invites me to leave John McCain’s website and visit Barack Obama’s via a “blind link”.

Inevitably, most tours offered by people you didn’t know ended up taking you through the nastier corners of the Internet. This plug in – whatever it was called – was an ideal tool for Rickrolling, which may be one of the many reasons it’s a good thing the service no longer exists. There’s strong potential for deception in the PMOG game as well – a tool called a Portal allows you to put blind links on a page, which fellow gameplayers can follow. I visited John McCain’s campaign site and followed a Portal directly to Obama’s page. Clever. Makes me want to put portals on Digg and Reddit to direct people to Polymeme… which is what I’ll do just as soon as I figure out the bug that’s preventing me from placing Portals.

There’s a lot to like about PMOG. The company behind it – Gamelayers – has chosen a Steampunk feel for the narrative and interface that I like a lot. It’s a perpetual reminder that we’re playing, not engaging in some futuristic behavior that everyone one the web will be using just as soon as they’re as enlightened and cool as you are. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Twitter.) The tool authors are in tight communication with their users, and it feels much more like a secret club than the next big thing… which might not be great for investors in the company, but makes it good fun to play with.

Mostly I’m just happy to see that this idea of webpages as places for interaction is still alive and well. And I hope that as I play more with PMOG, I can learn about ways in which I might be able to build tools that let people monitor their media consumption… and perhaps find a way to turn that into a game as well. If PMOG is a truly generative platform, perhaps I can find a solution within the game itself – maybe I should mine the Drudge Report and open portals to Global Voices instead?

4 Responses to “Playing the Internet with PMOG”

  1. Alanna says:

    I remember the controversy over Third Voice…as I recall there was also some discussion about the developer and whether he’d been taken advantage of by his government.

    I had never thought increasing interaction with other people viewing the same page, but it’s an amazing idea.

  2. Dan Jones says:

    Hey Ethan,

    I loved the idea of a content consumption monitoring plug-in when you mentioned it on Tuesday. It could fit in with the idea of “ambient self-awareness” that’s going on out there. There’s nothing wrong at all with at least having the option to understand what you consume – that power could enable a lot more self-regulation on the part of the consumer – and hey, if the ISPs and the Googles can monitor how we spend our time on the web, why shouldn’t we? I’m sure now that the idea is out there some wise programmer will take it on.

  3. hi Ethan, really like your blog!
    check out http://www.rescuetime.com/ , a nice web-usage tracker.
    cheers, Renaud

  4. Rick says:

    Thinking about the plugin idea, perhaps add in a monitor of the sites visited for content addressing the question of how broad is ones approach to the content they read. I know this would give me that occasionally helpful reminder to look for other sources, when my world gets busy.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Ethan Zuckerman, on balancing the protein and Kit Kats in your news » Nieman Journalism Lab » Pushing to the Future of Journalism - [...] time ago. It’s a couple minutes of a conversation he had with Ethan on his ideas about “nutritional labeling” …
  2. …My heart’s in Accra » Games that help us wander - [...] (formerly PMOG), a web-based game that you play through following links between webpages. I wrote about the site some …
  3. Yum. Nutritious. « Lingua Defunctorum - [...] Zuckerman explained back in 2008, “Over the course of a week, it might let you know that you hadn’t …

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