#17 – Multi User Shared Hallucination: The Darkest Social and the Smallest Niche
There are online communities shrouded in so much darkness that even the bravest search marketer would give up before developing a marketing plan. Social sharing and discussions happen there, but they can’t be tracked in any meaningful way. These are tight knit communities that shun outsiders and are suspicious of big brands. I’m not referring to any new, trending social networks or stodgy, impenetrable image boards—I’m referring to the MUSH.
I started out in the MUSH (Multi User Shared Hallucination) scene when I was 13. I’m naturally something of a charmingly nerdy outsider, so I was drawn to these obscure niche communities as soon as I stumbled upon them. In 1997 I was too young to find likeminded people on Usenet, and there were really no ‘fan communities’ in small town Idaho for me to participate in. MUSHes were a natural fit. I met some great people in those years, some of whom are still my friends.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of what a MUSH is and how they started, I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version. A MUSH (or MUX, MOO, MUCK, MUD, etc) is an online, multi-player text based game (think Zork) with built-in chat and bulletin board features.
I work in SEO/social media now, so I tend to look at the past through a search marketing lens when a sentimental mood strikes me. MUSHes and their ilk are an almost unknown hyper-niche in the scheme of the internet, and I think they’re worth exploring in terms of dark social (we’ll get into that more later) and marketing as a whole.
But first, a history lesson.
What is a MUSH?
There would be no World of Warcraft or Second Life without the humble MUD. The Multi User Dungeon started it all as early as 1978. I am far too young for that, of course, so I caught up with the MU* phenomenon almost 20 years later. In 1997, I used Telnet to log in to various MUSHes, but there are specific pieces of software (clients such as Pueblo and SimpleMU*) that streamline the connection process.
Back in 1979 at Essex University, Roy Trubshaw created the first virtual world in existence, which was eventually known as MUD1.
MUD1 was spun off many times over the years, and that’s where the evolution of the genre happened. A MUD was a hack and slash roleplaying game in text form, and the emphasis was on the actual combat and gameplay. As the culture expanded, people began to use MUDs for social purposes (beginning with TinyMUD in 1989). That, in turn, spawned the MUSH. The history is complex and interesting.
Most MUSHes are still roleplaying games at heart, and many of them take on the role of interactive fan fiction set in various popular fantasy and science fiction universes. If there’s a popular “geek” property, then there’s been a MUSH dedicated to it.
A MUSH is usually equipped with a bulletin board system (much like any basic web forum or message board) and several chat channels, which function like an IRC room. This is where the discussion about dark social begins.
Dark Social Abridged
In October 2012, Alexis Madgiral wrote a piece for The Atlantic called “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong.” In that article, he writes about being a teenage Usenet and ICQ user, and explains the concept of dark social.
“There are circumstances, however, when there is no referrer data. You show up at our doorstep and we have no idea how you got here. The main situations in which this happens are email programs, instant messages, some mobile applications, and whenever someone is moving from a secure site… to a non-secure site… This means that this vast trove of social traffic is essentially invisible to most analytics programs. I call it DARK SOCIAL. It shows up variously in programs as “direct” or “typed/bookmarked” traffic, which implies to many site owners that you actually have a bookmark or typed in www.theatlantic.com into your browser. But that’s not actually what’s happening a lot of the time. Most of the time, someone Gchatted someone a link, or it came in on a big email distribution list, or your dad sent it to you.”
That article got me thinking about how I’ve shared and consumed thousands of links– through MUSHes, which are an even darker sort of social than Gchat, IRC or email.
The reason I say that it’s an even darker form of social is that it isn’t saved anywhere. The server, its code and bulletin board messages are saved. Everything else (chat, roleplay) is gone unless someone actively opens up a text file and logs it. There is no way to track that.
MUSHes were an easy way for us to tell jokes, construct unusual emoticons and make ASCII depictions of genitalia, but it went deeper than that.
In the early days, people shared obscure Geocities and Angelfire pages relating to their fandom, as well as personal blogs. These blogs (usually LiveJournal or primitive private domain pages) received extremely heavy traffic from MUSH communities. People also shared their fan fiction, art and photography this way, and links posted to MUSH chat channels and bulletin boards got them much more traffic than search engines ever did. They were not optimized for search engines and they had no real reason to be. Their audience was already there and built in.
As time progressed, we started sharing YouTube videos (or earlier embedded videos on sites such as Something Awful), memes and even links to eCommerce sites. I made more than a few book and CD purchases based on MUSH links.
MUSHes were filled with diverse people who were extremely connected with other communities. We’d often see the 4chan memes before Reddit got a hold of them and read world news (especially from our Middle Eastern friends) before the big American media outlets got a chance to water them down.
In that way, it was a complete dark social network. People had dedicated usernames and profiles that linked to their own websites, which could be brought up at any time through a simple +finger command. You knew the person who was sharing links at least as much as you know your Twitter or Instragram followers, and probably knew them as well as some of your Facebook friends.
None of this was tracked or catalogued.
Marketing in the Smallest Niche
A marketer might reason that if there’s a social network in place and links are being exchanged then there’s an accompanying marketing opportunity. If there’s an opportunity here, it would be so hard fought and time consuming that the ROI would not be there.
First, you have to find the game. There are MUD directories on the internet, but most are out of date and not even close to all-inclusive. If you stumble upon a game’s webpage and connect through Telnet or a client, you might only find a few people connected. Popular games come and go, so the audience for your marketing venture might not be there.
Marketing has a weird relationship with online text games in the first place. Though I can’t find a source in any newsgroup archives (Wikipedia cites it briefly), author Anne McCaffrey reportedly had a battle with PernMUSH (a game based on her novels) over their content. It seems that McCaffrey’s people, sometime before her passing, hid that battle pretty well. Similarly, George RR Martin decided he’d best give final approval on a Song of Ice and Fire game as well. You can read his statements here.
So when a MUSH gets some mainstream attention from official marketing and PR channels, it usually results in a headache for them. MUSH users generally want to be left alone with their game. Contrast that with Everquest 2 (a graphical MMORPG), which allowed users to order a pizza from within the game using a simple command. Warcraft had a partnership with Mountain Dew; PernMUSH changed so they wouldn’t be sued by McCaffrey.
Let’s get back to that built-in audience. I was a member of several MUSH communities that were brimming with gun-loving, Midwestern Americans. If someone on that game had a night vision scope business, they would have been rolling in money from just posting a few links, but no outsider could have gotten away with it.
MUSH communities are extremely hard to penetrate and even harder to market to. I can only think of one instance where marketing to a MUSH community, and it worked brilliantly.
I can account for one huge marketing success through a MUSH channel first hand. In 2002, I was playing on a Transformers game called Transformers 2005. The annual Transformers convention, Botcon, was happening soon. This was before fan conventions were as big and commercial as they are now.
Someone affiliated with that convention was a member of the community, so no one gave them guff when they posted about it and linked to it. People were interested. The marketing was so good that I went to Fort Wayne, IN the summer after I graduated from high school to attend. Of course, I spent time in Chicago and made a larger trip out of it as well, but I never would have gone without that direct marketing.
The marketing itself used our sense of community and the niche nature of the fandom (this was before Michael Bay made the franchise huge with those terrible movies) to get some butts in the seats. Many other people I talked to admitted they would not have attended if not for that marketing.
So then we can ask ourselves—could Hasbro directly market to a Transformers MUSH? Could Disney directly market to a Star Wars MUSH? The answer is no. Just like tight-knit forum communities, MUSH people have no tolerance for outsiders spamming them with links and marketing material. If it comes from an established community member, it’s great—but if not, it’s just not going to fly.
I’ve been out of that world for 8 years or so now, and it’s not thriving the way it once was. World of Warcraft and other MMOs effectively destroyed it. Those games actually make money, have nice graphics and provide excellent marketing outlets. MUSHes—not so much.
MUSHes still exist, though, and dark social shares are still happening. This little speck on the online map just proves that you can’t monetize, track and put numbers on everything when it comes to the internet. Even when there’s a built-in audience for your client’s business and the barrel is so full of fish that there’s no water in it, it’s just not a viable marketing avenue. Some of the internet will always remain dark.