Two short stories that illustrate two of my pet theories about the net: MMORPG economies and RSS. The first, in the New York Times reports on Chinese ‘gold farmers’ — people who sit and play MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games) all day, to build up virtual gold which they then sell for real money to time-poor players.

The more obvious point this illustrates is that people will always find new ways to outsource: gold farming is the net-enabled successor to paying a kid to mow your lawn or wash your car. (If you earn $x per hour, you can pay someone $(x-y) per hour to do something you don’t want to do; or even ignore your income if $(x-y) is below your pain threshold for doing the task yourself.) The somewhat less obvious point concerns the creation of virtual economies by MMORPGs. True, this by itself isn’t a new observation: this post by Greg Cato nearly a year ago looked at the subject in detail.

What is interesting is (a) how fast these economies have grown, and to what extent; (b) that this value creation is an entirely new and artificial thing; and (c) that there may be nice correlations between the virtual and the real. Point (a) is relatively straightforward, but (b) is fascinating (at least to a non-economist like me): this is something that just didn’t exist until the game was created. Each is its own little miniverse, and seems already to have given the ability to watch and prove, say, Gresham’s law in action.

Point (c) is one I haven’t seen as much of, but I think there’s a lot to look at in the interaction of these virtual economies with the real. For example, there is already a slashdot article on Price Comparison Shopping in MMORPGs. The NYTimes article linked earlier shows the real life changes made to make money in the virtual world, and to save time in this one. What will be interesting is to watch how, say, tinkering (or outright changes) to the virtual economies affect real-life behaviour. Or whether we get arbitrageurs popping up to fill the niche of people who want to migrate their characters from on MMORPG to another where this cannot be done officially (sort of like laundering frequent flyer miles from one airline to its competitor).

The second article I thought looked cool was this one on googleblog about the new “clips” feature for GMail. [Note – please leave the usual religious flaming about privacy concerns etc aside] The point I think it shows is that once information’s out, it’s everywhere. (This was a point that Chancery courts realised long ago, when they refused to issue injunctions for breach of confidence cases when the information was already public, but I digress). The fun thing is that RSS feeds are an intermediate point, but the final destinations just keep getting more different. Who will be the first to put them on, say, billboards? Why not; you can already get them printed on toilet paper.

The neat part is that all the content creator has to do is get them out into an RSS feed. Some enterprising soul will then take it from there. However, I expect a future battleground to occur when content creators (or others) try to monetise these feeds…