View of Neufreistadt

Neufreistadt. Where not all content was done for free.

By the time you’re reading this, it’s old news: Linden Lab, in an unexpected twist of sudden inspiration, called for bloggers to submit articles to their own official blog.

Unless you’re an avid participant on the LL forums, you might have missed that completely. Fortunately, thanks to people like Chesnut Rau, the message quickly spread among the SLogosphere. And if there is a common trend among all the articles, it’s that bloggers are completely against the idea.

Well, let’s start by saying that I’m biased. After much thought and some discussions on Inara Pey‘s blog (these days, my primary source for anything SL-related), I have to conclude that my own opinion is highly emotional and not sustainable rationally. The only “logical” arguments I can find are merely a justification I give to myself to believe that this is not as bad as it sounds. Taking that as my basic assumption, here are some thoughts on the whole idea.

To summarise Linden Lab’s call for help: what they’re doing is giving bloggers an opportunity to submit one of their own articles for publication. The article has to be original — neither a re-publication, nor merely a link to content written elsewhere. Submissions have to be in full (i.e. not “suggestions on topics”) and LL reserves the right to pick the ones they like. Like any editor, they also reserve the right to make changes to the article. You cannot promote yourself blatantly (I suspect that anyone submitting an article about how great their shop or club is will be rejected), but some links on your own bio are acceptable. There is a list of “suggested” topics, allegedly based on some statistics that LL found out to be more interesting to their audience. And, most important of all, Linden Lab will pay absolutely nothing for your work.

Two of these issues grate on most bloggers’ nerves, and a third is often added as well. The first, of course, is the lack of payment. Putting it very simply: if Linden Lab expects people to write copy for them, they ought to pay for their work. Many SL e-zines routinely employ “guest writers”, and regularly pay them per article for their efforts; going rates can be low (compared to “real” articles), but it’s a matter of principle. In my own short experience, rates are usually around L$3,000-15,000 per article (say, 500-1000 words maximum), and it fluctuates a little. Hamlet Au, who used to be paid by Linden Lab to write New World Notes as a Linden employee, but for many years has struggled to keep his own blog alive through advertising, quotes paying US$5-30 per post (i.e. about half of what I’ve used to be paid for). Contrast that to “real world” prices: an article I sold to the online version of the British newspaper The Guardian earned me around £200 or so (that was well before the financial crisis, of course :) ). Still, we’re talking about a matter of principle; also, SL blogs have a much more limited audience than a mainstream e-zine, and thus a much lower price is perfectly reasonable.

What famous SL bloggers have been saying is very simple to understand. Linden Lab has a terrible track record in communicating with their users. For a decade, they have been lousy at marketing and communication. Last year they even totally abandoned any pretence of trying to make an effort. So now they want others to do their own work. Linden Lab is still a profitable company and earns literally millions per year from Second Life tier payments and L$ exchange fees (and probably from ads, too). They could hire a whole marketing & communications department from that. They could hire Hamlet Au again and turn New World Notes into the “official SL blog” as it used to be for so many years. Instead, they’re simply hoping that people work for free for them. This is deemed to be most unfair or even an abuse of respect, and a gross undervaluation of how the SLogosphere is contributing to the popularity and visibility of Second Life. In fact, some claim that LL has really no clue on how much promotional effort is actually shared by bloggers on their own with LL’s few and meagre attempts, so that’s the reason why LL “proposed” this model — they underestimate the impact of the SLogosphere because, well, they’re not in touch with it, either.

So — bloggers argue — if finally LL is trying to ramp up their own efforts, and willing to admit that they didn’t do a good job, and offering others the opportunity to show what they can do, then they ought to be willing to pay for that service as well. It’s only logical.

The second issue has to do with LL saying that they would “edit” articles. Bloggers have this incredible advantage over all other publishing media: they can post pretty much what they want, and it’s up to the community to either like what they read, or move elsewhere. This still works well — there are dozens of thousands (or perhaps hundreds of thousands?) of well-known bloggers that manage to attract an audience, enough to make a living out of it, because people like the “uncensored” aspect of their blogging. In fact, in many cases, some celebrities’ blogs are far more interesting than their published opinions on traditional media where their articles get edited; because, well, in the real media business, editors need to target an audience, based on their perception of what the audience is willing to read, and that means often that articles need to be edited. I have yet to find a publisher that is willing to accept unedited articles for publication. There is, of course, literature — which tends to get little “censorship”. But blogging is more akin to journalism, and op-ed journalism at that, which always implies some editing. In some cases, the author is not even aware of what has been edited before the article gets published; this is common practice.

The “exclusivity” issue is also nerve-grating. LL refuses to republish existing material, and their guidelines somehow imply that they will retain all rights on that particular article. SL bloggers are only happy with that if they’re paid for it. For working for free, they demand that LL forfeits their “exclusivity” issue. It’s only reasonable to ask for that — isn’t it?

Overall, the reaction is a bit less rational: there is this feeling that LL suddenly “woke up” and found themselves lacking a good communication strategy, and, in a hurry — as they are so prone to do! — are now attempting to launch a “strategy” from scratch (more like the skeleton of a strategy, really), by naively believing that people would flock to their “new idea” and be enthusiastic about it. In fact, the very reverse is happening: merely by suggesting that bloggers “could” write for free for Linden Lab made bloggers very angry at LL for completely lacking to understand the worth of the SLogosphere.

All right, this is pretty much the overall feeling in the blogger community, to the best of my abilities to summarise it. One would expect that a person like me, who has recently been pointing out the need to pay content creators for their work (on a long-winded discussion elsewhere on my blog), should be siding with the general feeling of the SLogosphere and denounce LL’s cynical tactics of extracting quality work for free.

Surprisingly, I don’t share that opinion. In fact, even more strangely, I happen to agree with Prokofy Neva on this issue.

Because I’m aware that my opinion is neither rational nor logical, but strictly emotional, I have to present a few assumptions and make them clear from the beginning. First, I’m clearly a Second Life fangirl. This makes me do things on behalf of Second Life that I would’t do (paid or otherwise) for anything else, and these I cannot explain rationally. I still have this fundamental belief that the Internet of the future will be closer to Second Life than to the boring 2D Web we have today. I know I’m naive, and after so many years, I now realise that a 3D Internet is really a niche market and not a mainstream product. Or at least not yet. I used to think that LL was “five years ahead of their time”. Now I think they’re perhaps 20 or even 50 (!) years ahead of their time: we will still have one or two generations of “flat content” (on desktops, tablets, and mobile phones) until the mainstream public starts to get familiar with a 3D virtual world.

Nevertheless, just because SL is way ahead of time in concept (not in the technology!), it doesn’t make me emotionally feel I should abandon it. Rather the contrary: I blog less and log in even less not because I’m disgusted with SL, or tired of it, but because I’m supposed to be doing an academic career around Second Life (after having a business model around SL as well :) ), and that is supposed to consume all my time, and leave little time left for everything else — thus severely restricting my interaction with SL and its community (which is, in a way, very ironic!).

So if I didn’t have this profound conviction that Second Life (and by that I obviously also include OpenSim, too — same concept, different implementation) is “the way for the Internet to go” in some distant future, then I wouldn’t be so enthusiastic about it.

Now, Linden Lab is not Second Life. They just happen to be one grid operator, and, by chance, the “inventors” of the technological platform. I say “by chance” because we have seen hundreds of virtual worlds, with similar concepts, to pop up and silently disappear in the past decade. None had the far-reaching vision of Second Life. Linden Lab just happened to attract the right people to this virtual community, and it was mostly due to them that Second Life is still around. I’d call it mostly luck, but it was also induced luck, in the sense that LL just happened to have the right technology at the right time, and managed to get the right people to use it and come up with something wonderful. LL just enjoyed the ride and made money from it.

Of course that’s a bit naive, too. If LL had given up on SL in 2005 — before we had OpenSim grids — SL wouldn’t be around, even though the technology and community was already there and twisting SL way beyond LL’s wildest dreams. LL’s stubbornness and persistence in remaining around, even if their profits were small (or not even having a profit before 2007), was what made SL be what it is today. So it’s unarguable that LL is the biggest player in the continued existence of Second Life. They’re not the only player, and probably not even its most important player, but they definitely carry their weight, since we’re at their mercy to provide us the tools and services we need to operate “our” virtual world.

While there has been some friction over the past decade or so (I’m counting the time of the closed Beta as the “very early days” of SL, and that was really a decade ago…), LL’s attitude has not been utterly terrible. They’re not too flexible, and they listen little to their customers, but there are far worse companies. Apple’s Steve Jobs used to be proud of saying that he never listened to their customers, because users have no clue about what they want; that attitude didn’t prevent Apple to become the world’s most valuable company in the world and to have a legion of fanboyz and fangirlz (yours truly included) to support them, even if Apple actually doesn’t need any “support” from them. LL, by contrast, needs our support, has zero marketing and communication skills, and has no option but to rely on a community of volunteer content creators and writers to keep Second Life still visible on the search engines. In return, sometimes they listen — with half an ear — to what we say. It’s worse than many companies, but there are far worse companies out there, all of them far more successful than Linden Lab.

So none of the above is fundamentally rational, just an explanation of why some people feel “inclined” to become “fans” of Second Life and its founding company, Linden Lab, even if there is no logical reason for doing so.

Taking that into account, let’s look at some data (not facts). “Guest writers” on the mainstream blogosphere can come in two flavours. Some are paid; some work for free. Why should they work for free? Because there is residual value in being published by a mainstream site. This can actually be measured: using tools like Google PageRank, Alexa, and many other similar services, and correlating it with going rates for advertising (“featured articles” are a more surreptitious form of advertising), it can be found that a high-traffic site like LL’s blog, which has a Google PageRank of 7/10, can expect to sell some sort of advertising (be it buttons or “featured articles”) for as little as US$39/month to US$997/month — the wide difference comes mostly from incredible complex calculations, which are ever-so-slightly different depending on how things are counted. Nevertheless, this is a good interval for estimating the value proposition of being featured on LL’s blog. If you write one article per month, that article is “worth” US$39-$997. What this means is that if you wished to buy ad space, or buy a featured article on a website with the characteristics of LL’s own blog (e.g. traffic, ranking, amount of links, page views, search engine visibility, and so forth), that’s what you’d be charged for.

This is not completely off the mark. To my own surprise — since my own blog has so little traffic it doesn’t even get ranked by Alexa — I get routinely some offers from companies wishing to buy a “featured article” on my own, low-ranked blog (and they offer more than US$39!). I generally reject them, because I have my own editorial guidelines (more on that later), and as such, I just wish to publish articles related to Second Life/OpenSimulator, virtual worlds, online communities… and, well, fashion, because I happen to enjoy fashion as well :) But that’s an editorial choice. From the perspective of prospective buyers of “featured articles”, they strangely think that they can get good value out of their investment by publishing on my blog, even if they’re selling cars or furniture (yes, really!). No matter what the reason might be, the point I’m making here is that there are, indeed, measuring tools that aid prospective advertisers to estimate how much it costs to put a featured article on a website, and how much return on their investment they’re likely to have. And, based on that thought, one can estimate how much an article on LL’s blog is worth — not for LL, not for SL, but for a prospective advertiser.

As such, from LL’s perspective (I have no clue if they did any math; I seriously suspect they didn’t), what they’re saying is this: “look, bloggers, we give you the opportunity to get a featured article on our own blog, which we know is worth anything between US$39 and US$997, but because we’re nice, we’re giving you this opportunity for free”. If you look at this perspective, then you should probably understand that it’s not LL that should pay for content — it’s us, bloggers, that ought to pay for being featured at LL’s own site!

Note that LL’s blog is valuable not because of the quality of its content (which we can all agree that it is quite low), but because of artificial measurements about its characteristics (traffic, page views, etc.). No matter what is written it will still get LL’s blog a high ranking; this is important to keep in mind. “Better” articles — i.e. written by guest bloggers — will slightly improve LL’s blog ranking, but the biggest benefactor will be the blogger, not Linden Lab.

Now this is one way of looking at things. As Inara Pey has so successfully argued, this model is flawed. Just because there is an “automated” method of “classifying” a website according to its traffic, search engine visibility, etc. it doesn’t mean that this method is reliable. She very correctly identifies that many of those page views might simply come from people searching for “second life” on Google, getting LL’s blog on top, and clicking on it. The blog comes on top by a feedback loop: it has, after all, “secondlife.com” in the name, so it ranks higher; people click first on it, so it gets ranked even higher. Even if they leave because the information on the blog is worthless, the harm is done: they have already contributed to more page views. In fact, a lot of “fake” websites use exactly that approach to drive traffic to themselves. They can just randomly pull content out of the web, post it on their SEO-tuned platforms, and even if people leave in disgust because they hit yet another worthless site, they still get ranked high because of that.

To summarise: there are a lot of methods to drive those rankings artificially upwards, and that has little to do with the quality of the content, but simply a consequence of having ranking algorithms that are relatively easy to fool. So arbitrarily assigning a “residual value” to LL’s blog based on flawed algorithms is simply wrong. To be rational about it, it means that just because LL’s blog has quantitatively good rankings, qualitatively its the worst source of information about Second Life, and anyone can easily see that. So — bloggers argue — if LL wants to raise the quality of their content on their own blog, they ought to pay for it.

My own argument falls to pieces in face of that. Still, no matter how flawed these algorithms are, my simple question is: how can you estimate LL’s “value proposition”, if not using industry-standard metrics? What other alternatives do we have to measure how much an article on LL’s own blog is worth? How do you measure quality of content on the Web? I have no answer to any of those questions, and that’s why — even though I’m aware of being biased — I still don’t dislike the idea that a featured article on LL’s blog is worth money, even though the methods to estimate that worth are flawed. But what alternative methods do exist?

The next point is about LL’s perceived “censorship”. Here I have nothing else than my own personal experience to share. You all know I’m just an amateur writer and blogger. Nevertheless, on the vast majority of cases that anyone accepted something I wrote for publication, I was always subject to “editing”. Editing is what editors do: tailor a certain piece of writing to a specific audience. Even the sparse literary work I managed to publish (under another pseudonym) was subject to some editing — so it’s not as if “literature” will never be subjected to editing. I was placed on the reverse side as well: I’ve been on editing boards for both amateur newspapers and semi-professional literature books/anthologies. In all those cases we had often to ask authors to revise their work. A few refused, specially the ones being edited/published for the first time. If they were adamant about their refusals, we would reject their work. In fact, I remember very well one case of a yet-unpublished author who had expressed very a strong xenophobic message on one of his articles and which we suggested to moderate slightly, recommending a lighter tone. He not only refused, but went to the blogosphere to denounce the editors that “wished to curb his creative freedom” in order to publish him. Not many months afterwards, he was invited by a bigger publishing house to submit some of his work, which, obviously, was way more edited than anything we had reviewed; but he swallowed the pill and accepted it, because, of course, big publishing houses gave him his much-desired fame and glory. To this day, his xenophobic piece remains unpublished — the only place willing to circulate it to a major audience is, of course, his own blog.

Academic research is even more restrictive. One of the reasons I like to write on this blog and others is because of the horrible constrains put by editors of academic journals. As I like to say, getting published by an academic journal and/or conference is 1% research work and 99% editing; not only does it gets on my nerves, but it’s tiring and frustrating, and, at the end, I’m always terribly disappointed about what I was allowed to publish — a mere shadow of my original thoughts. But those are the rigid rules of science. Journalism is almost as bad; literature is a bit better, but there is always some editing to accept before being published.

Now I fail to understand how even amateur bloggers cannot understand the role of the editor. Many of those bloggers have indeed participated on many different e-zines and similar venues. Except for perhaps shared-authorship blogs — where usually there is little editing — I cannot understand how they were so lucky as to have never encountered an editor in their lives! Some even claim to have been paid by editors who never touched a single word of their articles. Perhaps they’re just lucky, and I’m just the unlucky one. In my own experience, editors… well, edit. That’s what their job is. If one dislike editors as a matter of principle, well, one always has the option of self-publishing — i.e. write blog articles on their own blog.

Granted, I understand that this issue is closely tied to the first. If LL wants bloggers to write “promotional pieces” according to their own “marketing strategy”, then, well, it’s only obvious they ought to pay for it. In fact, this is what copywriting actually is — people hired to write up something that can work as a marketing strategy for a company. Pros care little about their “creativity” or the actual content they write — they’re just hired to write things in a manner prescribed by the company that hired them. I can totally agree with that.

I know I’m naive, but that’s not exactly what I read in LL’s intentions. As said elsewhere, LL’s not being original. Last October I got DreamHost‘s newsletter — “the company that used to be across the street to Linden Lab” — where they pretty much proposed the same guidelines as Linden Lab to accept guest bloggers on their own blog, http://blog.dreamhost.com. The same rules were there (work for free; your articles will be edited; here are some topics you should write about; we want original, unpublished content), although their newsletters tend to be hilarious, nonsensical, and a pleasure to read — unlike Linden Lab, which takes themselves too seriously. DreamHost got so many submissions for volunteer guest bloggers that they had to stop accepting more; my own submission, three months ago, was never accepted (they just thanked me for being willing to participate). Ironically, their own blog has just a tiny fraction of the popularity of Linden Lab’s own “official blog”; their blog has a PageRank equal to my own (but more traffic and page views, of course), way lower than LL’s (PageRank is exponential, not linear). But of course it has a very different community of “fanboyz and fangirlz” than Linden Lab, one that sees things in an entirely different light. Also, DreamHost is far better at communicating with their users than Linden Lab, and that, ultimately, may make the difference; they also face huge competition, and disgusted customers are far more likely to drop their services in a whim, while we SL residents know that our only option after leaving Second Life is to join the ranks of disgruntled residents roaming any of the OpenSim grids.

So of course there are differences. But not that many. The biggest difference is the relationship between the company and its customers, and we can see how bad this is in the case of LL and SL.

Finally, well, there was the “exclusivity” issue. Now I can perfectly understand that one thing is to wish for original content, the other is to become a “Reader’s Digest” of “best SL-related content” around in the Web, where content gets re-published (without paying a fee). Both models are possible. I’m not against republishing good content — in fact, I’ve done so on my own blog a few times (and no, I haven’t paid anyone for republishing their content, just asked for their permission!). Linden Lab wants original content, and that’s their choice. What SL bloggers are saying is that original content requires extra effort (true) and thus ought to be paid premium (I cannot disagree with that reasoning). So in a sense it’s the same argument as we’ve seen before: how much is it worth to bloggers to have originals published by Linden Lab? SL bloggers are saying, “exactly zero” — this is a favour that bloggers are doing, writing for LL. They will get little in return. So it’s LL that ought to pay for getting original content. And it’s factually true that “exposure” means little: in terms of the automatic ranking procedures, getting just one link from a high-ranking website will mean next-to-nothing to your own blog’s rank. In fact, you’d be better off posting comments on, say, CNN, and putting a link to your own blog on your signature: you’d get precisely the same amount of “automatic algorithmic ranking” than writing for free for Linden Lab, and for almost zero effort.

Again, these arguments are strong and hard for me to counter. I suppose that I’m just used to submit original content to whatever publishers — online or offline — I manage to get interested (most often by luck) in my own content. I don’t remember I was ever addressed by anyone asking permission to re-publish one of my articles (just quoting some parts of it), and thus I have no experience in dealing with that. On the other hand, I’m well aware that a lot of amateur and professional bloggers do that all the time, and charge high royalty fees for doing so. So this might be the reason why I don’t see “anything wrong” in submitting original content in exclusivity to Linden Lab, while others — possibly with far wider experience than me — are absolutely opposed to the idea of being re-published without payment.

Perhaps the irony in all this is that the very same SL bloggers who campaigned last week for the right of getting content for free (i.e. participating on the anti-SOPA/PIPA initiatives) are at the top of the list of the loudest complainers against LL’s “suggestion” of publishing articles for free. To be even more ironic, my own not-so-humble self, who fights for the rights of content creators to be paid for their work (while still opposing the current nasty trend in legislation to go after the victims and not the culprits, side-stepping the judiciary with automatic enforcement measures that will kick you out of the Internet if you click on a YouTube video — certainly that’s not the way of dealing with the issue!!), is actually not against LL’s proposal of paying “nothing” for the hard work of submitting articles with good quality (compared to LL’s usual low-quality and zero-interest articles on their own blog).

Why? It’s mostly an emotional issue. I like ego-boosting. I like fame and glory. I know I’m easily corrupted :) But I also think that there is intrinsic value in being published in a high-ranking, high-traffic website. I accept the argument that all those algorithms are flawed. I also accept that these algorithms value quantity and not quality. I also accept that argument that LL has more than enough money to hire a professional team of bloggers (they did, after all, hire Hamlet Au for so many years!) and could have addressed this communication issue in a completely different way. I certainly agree that sending guest bloggers a token of LL’s appreciation — say, L$3000-5000 for each published article — wouldn’t hurt, either, and would be a much fairer way of handling the SL blogger community and actually considering their work of some value. I accept that LL is being cynical — on one hand, recognising that they do a bad communication job, and that SL bloggers do a far better job; on the other, being unwilling to pay for what they recognise to be work with a superior quality! I accept all that and much more, and I’m quite willing to understand that all those arguments are solid, factual, rational, and even morally more correct, while my own arguments are just a crude and misguided attempt of naively trying to justify why, at the end of the day, I don’t really feel “cheated” by Linden Lab if they ever wish to consider publishing one of my articles on their blog :)

So, aye, I did submit an article for publication. Sue me :)