So, I get on the Twitters, and I say, “Hey, I see that Lord of the Rings Online is free to play. Anybody play/played it? Thoughts? “

And before too long, the responses start flitting in. Little moths caught in waiting hands.

I get some thumbs-up (“a charming MMOG with a sense of awe”). [wordwill]

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Then come the thumbs-down (“LOTRO has all the shortcomings of a licensed title built on a WoW clone. Exploration feels good, but that’s about it”). [jachilli]

Not long after, a guy links to his own blog review, in which his response is somewhere in the middle ground. In one part he notes, “This game takes [grinding] way fucking beyond reason. To increase anything, you need to kill about a trillion fucking things,” but also makes clear, “Unlike World of Warcraft, where the development team dedicates itself to making the game playable by brain-dead pigeons, Lord of the Rings Online has complexity in its gameplay. The amount of ways to build a character via gear, the Trait system, and other sources is staggering – and that makes it fun.” [Scionical]

Finally, a little dash of hearsay (“I haven’t played it … because I’ve heard mediocre things”). [morganc14]

And that’s just after the first ten minutes.

Not long after, I’m forced to ask, “Yes, but is it worth free?”

Two responses to that from people I trust: “You don’t pay for MMOG’s with money, you pay for them with time.” [rdonoghue] And, “It is not worth free. An MMOG player’s only valuable resource is time. Get in, see the pretty, then drop it.” [jachilli]

The key words up there? “From people I trust.”

Word of mouth is a powerful thing. It’s immeasurable. It’s unquantifiable. And it’s bigger than ever.

Consider that, once upon a time, word of mouth traveled in tight circles, moving in tight whorls of breath and voice – little dust devils dancing this way, and that.

The guy in the next cubicle tells you about a movie he saw over the weekend, wants you to know that it was a real dog, a crap-shellacked snoozefest, a total cinematic abortion.

Or a buddy of yours says, “Dude. L4D. Tonight. Xbox. Zombies. You in?”

Or maybe your mother “heard” about this great new television show. Lost. Or Desperate Housewives. Or Burn Notice. Or Lost And Desperately Burned Housewives.

Then your sister tells you about this new indie flick. Or an iPhone game. Or a new book you should read.

Word of mouth was, what? Maybe ten people deep? Sure, each circle of trust crossed paths with another circle of trust (and with another, and with another, until it becomes a series of magic rings linking infinitely), but for the most part, word of mouth was an intensely local affair. Intimate, in a way. Friend to friend. Face to face.

The Internet has changed all that. Social media has blown that out of the water.

Are reviews even necessary anymore?

I go to Google, and I say, “Hey, Google. What’s up, buddy? Can you tell me if Lord of the Rings Online is worth playing?”

And Google, in its robot voice that I’m making up, says, IN POINT ZERO THREE SECONDS I DELIVER TRUTH UNTO YOUR EYEBALLS, which actually takes Google like, five seconds to say. Silly Google. It also adds: I’M NOT YOUR BUDDY, BUDDY. Which I feel was a bit rude, but oh well.

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In response to my query, Google gives me 792,000 search results.

If I instead decide to go with the more sparely phrased, “Lord of the Rings Online review,” I get 1,060,000 search results.

On a lark, I just type in “review,” instead, and I get … 1,850,000,000. Almost two billion hits. Whoa.

It’s staggering. Also, dizzying. Just conceiving of that much information makes my eyes glaze over. It’s like trying to imagine every mosquito, or counting every mote of pollen in the air. It’s an impossible task to even consider. All that knowledge. All that wisdom. So much blur, fog, haze. I need a nap just thinking about it.

They used to say, content is king.

Problem is, content is everywhere. The king can’t be everywhere. The king is one. The king is singular. The king is special. And something that’s everywhere can’t be special, can it?

Instead, I turn to what I call “Human Google.” I have plugged myself into the hive mind, and when I need information, I first look to see what the other bees are doing. Bees in my hive. Not your hive.

I have the Twitterstream. I have the Faceyplace. I have a blog. I have a Tumbled Log. (That’s what all you cool kids are calling this stuff, right? This Members Only jacket is pretty stylish, too, you ask me.)

At the time of this writing, I have 900+ Twitter followers. Meager in the grand scheme, but still a robust enough number. I ask a question – like, “How is Lord of the Rings Online?” – and I get maybe 20 to 30 responses from different users (A.K.A. my “tweeps”).

If I want, I can take it to my blog. I get maybe 1000 views a day (again, a paltry number in the larger online universe), and, if I ask a question, I might get another 20 to 30 comments.

I can go to Facebook, too. Same result. Twenty. Maybe 30.

All unique. By the end of it, I’m up 60-90 comments, often from people whose opinions I trust. I might not trust them to, say, feed my non-existent children. I might not trust them when it comes to saving my ass from a burning tenement fire. But I trust their opinion on Assassin’s Creed 2. Or Get Him To The Greek. Or Stonyfield yogurt.

I trust them because I’ve already measured their thoughts. I’ve read their blogs. I’m privy to many of their Twitter feeds, too. I know what they like. I know how to gauge their interests against my own. It’s simple enough to weigh accordingly. And by the end of it all, I know whether or not I should pick up whatever it is I’m asking about.

Hell, half the time I don’t even need to ask. Opening weekend for a movie? New comic book day? Hot new game hits shelves? The opinions come in, unsolicited. I follow gamers. I follow pop culture vultures just like myself. It’s not long before the word of mouth runs fast up the flagpole, popping into TweetDeck like little red or white flags – “buy this, avoid that, meh, awesome, shitty, fail, win,” and so forth.

It’s all about filter.

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Google is a hatchet when sometimes I need a scalpel. Google is a tempest, when sometimes I just want a teacup. Google opens the floodgates; sometimes, I just want a glass of water.

Twitter, and other forms of social media, are capable of acting as an excellent filter. A personal filter, in fact. We are defining an online version of the word of mouth phenomenon. Further, we’re helping to define the quality of the content that reaches us.

Google offers us an unregulated, unmitigated blob of potential. Not a bad thing in and of itself, but it is a result born purely of quantity and only programmatically of quality.

And it’s slow. When a new game hits the shelves, I don’t have to wait for Google to populate its search results. I don’t want to watch the mythical Google robot do its lumbering dance. I want to know now. Do I go buy it today? Do I wait? Do I wave it off and kiss that thought goodbye?

Twitter, Facebook, and whatever social media outlet replaces them in five years (or five minutes) are like stock tickers accounting the ebb-and-flow of pop culture possibility.

Does this drive Google toward obsolescence? Does it turn the efforts of critics and reviews into meaningless drivel? Hardly. Just as the scalpel does not invalidate the need for a hatchet, social media does not magically undo the benefits of search engines or human reviewers.

But what it does do is give me more options. Better options. I don’t have to go looking for a major review consensus now. I just turn to those reviewers whose opinions seem to best reflect my own tastes – and, frankly, most of those guys are on Twitter anyway, so now they’re part of my hive mind and have merged into the weave and weft of Human Google.

For the record, I’m not going to bother with Lord of the Rings Online. That’s not a mark against the quality of the game. Maybe it’s great. But enough people warned me away from it – people I trust, people with whom I’m comfortable. I’ve got other fish to fry. Other games are competing for my time and attention.

A couple hours after my first tweeted query, this comment came in:

“I agree, WoW is good at rewards, but that isn’t how the LOTR stories were told. Boromir didn’t kill bears for +2% pants.” (jachilli)

The Human Google hive mind. It’s not only useful, but dangit if it ain’t funny, too.

Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and freelance penmonkey. He’s written for the pen-and-paper RPG industry for over 10 years, and is the developer for Hunter: The Vigil. He is represented by Stacia Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. His website and blog is Terribleminds.

1984 Out of 10

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