Communities and What To Do With Them

Information on communitiesBeing currently fascinated with the book written by Mario Gerosa/Frank Koolhaas, Second Life (which describes almost all aspects of SL, and will certainly deserve a much larger comment once I finish to read the last chapters), and after some recent personal experiences with some of Second Life’s mini-communities as well as some real life companies and organisations, this all made me think a bit about Second Life’s “community-building” potential — its pitfalls and glorious moments.The older a user in Second Life, the harder it is to disconnect oneself from the way new users look and feel about the platform they’re immersed in (even if they are simply augmentationists!). This means that one’s viewpoint is necessarily biased depending on the way (and the date!) you joined Second Life. The vast variety of communities is simply an extension of the sheer amount of users — with 8 million accounts, it’s definitely impossible to label them under the very same profile. They’ll be too different and all classifications will necessarily be incomplete, over-generalisations, or plain and simply wrong.

We’re thus limited to our own point of view, and to the extent of what we can observe directly and rely mostly upon what we’re told — unless we’re actively engaged in sociological research and gather a large number of sample data from dozens of thousands of users. Most of our experience, however, will be always “second hand”. We’ll have to trust what people tell us and rely on their own comments to create a large picture of what’s going on in the corners of the Metaverse beyond our own little one.

Gathering Data From The Communities

What a task, say, for Linden Lab’s Community Team!… Let’s take a simple example. Linden Lab employees are now regularly in-world again, as they used to be when this world was young. They attend events and they organise “office hours”, where residents can come and talk to them and share their views. They participate in forums and blogs and other “Web 2.0” sites as well. But what is their picture of the universe? Sadly, a quite distorted and limited one — since the office hours are not that well-attended (it is all the fault of the residents — they cry and complain that “Linden Lab does not listen”, but they also don’t come to any of those many meetings where the Lindens are there only to listen). Residents swamp the 100-comment limit on the official Linden blog with complains, complains, and more complains. But if you take a close look, it’s always the same people complaining. And 99% of them have never cleared their caches between SL viewer releases or updated to the latest graphic drivers — yet, they still complain, as if by magic their collective experience of SL will suddenly change. They hardly are representative of what goes on in SL, but that’s the kind of feedback that LL gets.

Then we have a plethora of media, of newspapers, journals, magazines, radio and TV stations, as well as e-zines and blogs. Some are purely SL-based; others are RL ones. They interview whom they know — and by hitting the “wrong” person, they depict a completely different view of the whole universe. Take just an example of having a famous blogger, never having SL before, dropped into one of the Gorean sims. Now, from the point of view of an outsider, “all Gorean sims are the same”. This couldn’t be more distant from the truth. An avid explorer — which would just travel across the many Gorean communities, and never see the mainland or anything else — would depict a very accurate description of the complex inter-relationships between the several dozens of thousands who log in every day to one Gorean community. Our hypothetical blogger would then start to write about their society. About the jealousy and the envy between groups; about the talent and creative ability of several Goreans. About how some of them are using voice, or discarding English and creating their own, non-English Gorean community. About the ones that are pure role-players; the others that are addicted to the lifestyle… and so on. And the writings would talk about the books on Gor, and codes of justice, of punishment and freedom, and they would become quickly very complex.

At one point, one comment poster would write on this blog: “This is all very nice, but SL is not about Gor only; have you ever visited a furry community?” The answer might surprise us. This blogger would very likely say: “I don’t care what goes around there, it’s a marginal community and I have no interest in it, when there is so much else in the Gorean communities to explore, discuss, and write about”.

The rest of the millions of users of SL would very likely be shocked with that attitude. How could this guy be so narrow-minded? How could he possibly make bold statements about culture, arts, commerce, even politics among SL users, and just focus on a single community? (Although, as said, there are several communities, not just one…) We’d slowly shake our collective heads, sigh loudly and say “what a waste of words…” and move elsewhere in the vast grid of 12,000 sims, and forget about this guy.

This is, of course, an extreme example. However, it illustrates how strange, from an “outsider” of a community, the mentality and attitude of a resident sounds to us. Take a look at MMORPG forums and sites. They’re at a completely different level than most of us think about SL. These are people that have come from role-playing and shoot-’em-up games and enter SL on the welcome areas and stay most of their time on sandboxes shooting each other, then moving to the mainland to shoot at other people’s buildings, and then — they get bored, because “all that is left to do is to yell ‘woot’ at a club”. SL, for them, is the most boring game ever designed, and they can’t possibly understand why their best friend has invited them to it. What obviously happened is that their “best friend” has found a different starting point in SL, and has now a totally different experience. This “best friend” has jumped the barrier between communities and is now strange, an alien, unable to be understood when he talks about SL. The trigger-happy WoWer can’t possibly understand where the fun is.

Reaching Out — Reputation & Networking

Thus the task of finding out what to do with the many communities in SL becomes slowly impossible to deal with. A “best effort” approach — welcoming the open discussion with the communities willing to discuss — will invariably leave too many people out of the discussion; the point being, that while New World Notes might have dozens of thousands of happy daily readers, SL has well over half a million users logging in every day. How do you reach all these people? The answer, of course, has long ago been found out by Prokofy Neva a long time ago: there is no mass media in SL. Thus, there is no way you can get in touch with all the residents, nor even with a substancial majority of them. This is no news for us (pun intended!). And if you can’t get in touch with them, you can’t know what they’re thinking — except, as said, by doing statistical samples. But they will hardly be representative of the overall resident population.

Mario Gerosa in the above-mentioned book talks about what the true advantage of being rich means inside Second Life. Although I might disagree on his skepticism about my vision of “the land of equal opportunities”, there is an argument that is irrefutable: if you don’t need to work 8-16 hours/day to survive in RL, you can spend all those hours in SL. And what will a clever person do with their free time? Networking.

Networking and reputation are the keys of success in the real world, but in SL, this becomes even more important. In real life, one is limited by geography. Even the richest person in the world, having jets and helicopters at their disposal (which Bill Gates can certainly afford to, if he wished), is unable to keep in touch with 8 million people at the same time, all throughout his daily routine. The mere time spent in voyages is way too much to allow for that. However, in Second Life, distance is not a factor — and even the slowest person in SL is able to dress and get prepared for a meeting much faster in SL than in RL — and you can be in touch with a huge amount of people during those 8-16 hours a day. Constantly.

The “wealth of networking” (as a basis of personal power, of influential power) is indeed a major advantage that cannot be overseen. Time is indeed money, and more so in SL, where you can buy a good outfit for less than a dollar — but buying people’s time costs as much as in RL. Thus, the “millionaires” in SL are people that have a lot of free time and can fully dedicate themselves both to establish their own communities (or support the ones they like), but also to act as bridges between communities, and even talk (and thin) about what they have found.

(As a side note, where I disagree with Mario Gerosa is definitely not on the issue of having time as the most precious resource available in SL; it’s because the poorest person iRL will — being unemployed, ill, or unable to work — have as much free time as the richest person iRL that doesn’t need to work to survive. It’s the people in-between the two extremes that are the ones without free time, and this means less time to establish themselves as community leaders/thinkers, to create their own communities or to be the most active participants in them)

This is actually quite noticeable in the whole of Second Life. Pick your own community, and talk to its leader. They almost invariably are people that spend a lot of time — in fact, often all their time — in SL. They are omnipresent. They attend all meetings and all events. They reply to technical support questions, but also help newbies out. They are talented creators and artists, just because they spend 100 hours per week working on their skills. They write about SL — blogs and books — and post comments all over the SLogosphere. They organise events, discussions, meetings. They plan and manage other people. They create bonds between people inside a community and outside it. And, ultimately, they’re the ones having enough time to influence those communities (for better or for worse), and be viewed as the leading voices for those communities (again, in my mind, the only difference between the wealthy and the poor is that the wealthy will have enough money to buy the sims to create their own communities, while the poor will be able to subtly influence others to buy the sims for them, and then run them in absentia of the real owners. This is, of course, quite different from what happens in the real life!).

“Full commitment” to SL is obviously a good thing. However, the major problem is that most of the people will be unable to ever dream of achieving similar levels of commitment: they have families, friends, and most important, a job (or school) that will consume all their available time. This means that the vast majority of the residents — well over 99.9% of all — will be in that situation, and mostly unheard of. In a sense, the largest number of users will never be “represented” in any statistic. They will simply not have time to be part of them.

Now, real life is not different in the sense that we can’t possibly know what everyone is thinking. In fact, “opinions” are gathered from opinion makers in books, newspapers, and the media in general. The common citizen is too much worried with earning some extra dollars to get their next meal to worry about his “community” and his “rights”. Committing to a “cause” in RL is also a statistical anomaly; it’s always a very, very minor sliver of the statistics pie that will be enthusiast community leaders. And most of them (at least in the western world) will indeed be “people who don’t need to work to survive”, although in many countries the right to be an active participant in the democratic structures of your country (like working in an union) may be subsidised by the State. Still, you’ll get a flawed notion of what people really think if you just do a random sample of your population — statistics is not an art, but a science, and although the interpretation of those statistics might lead to different results, the overall process of getting a reasonable sample of what people think is pretty much studied and set down in methodologies used by anthropologists, sociologists, and statisticians.

Barriers Across Communities — Will We Overcome Them?

In our average “Second Life” we will possibly have met a thousand people or so that are on our Friends list. We might even have talked to five times as many people. This is our “view of the world”. Very likely, this also means that we’ll meet over and over again the same people — it’s natural for us to bond with similar-minded people. In other words, you won’t find many Goreans having close Furry friends (exceptions are anedoctal evidence!), and so, asking one member of the community what they think what the others are thinking will, obviously, be flawed. A Gorean content-creator will not come over to a Furry discussion about the implications of content theft when open-source servers will be run by companies and groups not affiliated with Linden Lab. Things get more complex as RL barriers like language (or the inability to use voice in SL) start to segregate more and more people. A Spaniard might join an Argentinian community and exchange ideas and opinions, and try to understand if what applies to their community also applies to his own. But the Japanese-speaking community will be closed to him.

It’s not exactly a consequence of Balkanisation, but a complex interplay of time and personal skills. One can imagine creating a Furry avatar to join the discussion about intellectual property rights; similarly, the Spaniard might learn to read and write enough Japanese to attend a Japanese fashion show (or at least spend time to find a member of that community that speaks enough English and is willing to do a running commentary). This means that some barriers could be lifted given enough time and willingness. And once more the keyword time is crucial. A SL-wealthy person — one that can afford to have time to commit to SL — is again at a huge advantage. Once more, these barriers — who simply are to steep for someone who barely manages a few hours per day to log in to SL — are much smoother for people who can afford to be in-world 14 or 16 hours per day — every day. But they will be the utter exceptions.

Obviously I have no “answer” to give to the article’s title. I don’t think that we can “do” anything about this (most people cannot leave their jobs to commit fully to SL — in the sense if that we all did it, we would all be much more sensitive to every community’s wishes and desires). In fact, the only hope to gather enough feedback on the many communities in SL is to have a wholly dedicated staff to address the issue. Fortunately, Linden Lab has foreseen this need ages ago, and that’s exactly what the Community Team hopes to do: being in touch with all communities, while keeping an open mind about all of them. It’s not an easy task.

But it will go a long way to overcome the barriers of envy, jealousy, and sometimes open conflict between some of the communities. My own country, with few thousands of regular users, has three major “communities” and a scattering of smaller ones. All have been around for half a year and claim to be “the oldest” or “the most representative” or the “most technically knowledgeable” of the whole community — while in fact, very little people cross those different and scattered communities to actually understand each other, or be even familiar with each communities’ history to understand its own claims.

We all need to become Torleys for that.

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