The SL5B Drama: Crowdsourcing Fiasco Or Devious Plan?

SL5B logoBy now, it’s impossible that you haven’t heard the news from so many sources, including Linden Lab®’s own blog post on the subject. I would like to apologise in advance for not quoting all sources; so many people wrote from so many different viewpoints, and they all have thoroughly argued and discussed of what possibly might have been Linden Lab’s fiasco in dealing with their volunteer crowdsourcing effort on SL5B.

Let’s go back in history a bit. When the Second Life® world was young — with less than 15,000 active users — Linden Lab thought it would be nice to commemorate their first birthday (mostly to pat themselves on their collective backs and say: “hooray, after a year, we’re still around!” which, for a startup with an insane idea, was definitely an achievement). In those days, Linden Lab viewed themselves as the “community managers” — mostly spreading around good ideas, having their employees coordinate community efforts, spending some of their money in resources and (minor) promotion. The idea was “Lindens and Residents working together for the common good”. When you have a few thousand similarly-aligned people, this is easy. Also, when you’re not paranoid about the increased Puritanism in your society — LL was open-minded, true to their Californian spirit — that was also easy to promote. And promote it they did.

History

Linden Lab runs at least three major “festivals” in Second Life. One is the Anniversary in June; the other is Burning Life, usually in September; and finally the Winter Festivals. There might be a few others, but these were the ones attracting most of the attention — both in-world, but also from the media. And for those, at least in 2004/5, Linden Lab followed the model of what their so-called alleged competitors are still doing: the company behind Second Life is the company managing the Big Events™. Badly or not, they were LL-promoted.

In 2005 things started to change. Ultra-successful events like Relay for Life (for the American Cancer Society) or even the Dreams Fair (from the sadly departed The Sojourner) were huge organisational efforts, all done by volunteers, and with incredible amounts of success. LL sometimes still advertises for Relay for Life, but mostly ignores other, similar, resident-run events. And for the Second Birthday, they thought about how residents are so much more successful in running these big events than Linden Lab itself. They decided to let a group of volunteers run it instead. In fact, by late 2005, Linden Lab started to make clear that they would leave SL more and more for residents to run.

SL Residents are not sheep in military uniform, conforming to a single mindset and profile, prone to obey orders coming from above. In fact, LL promoted SL often by showing how diverse the cultures and mindsets of their residents are. You can try to profile them, but you’ll see many, many profiles… in fact, perhaps as many as there are active residents! There is definitely a group of 10 or 15 thousand which are still closely aligned to LL’s own ideas in 2004. But the remaining millions are completely, totally, and utterly different. LL embraced the diversity and claimed it was a Good Thing™.

Shortly before the 2nd anniversary festival started, however, it was clear that it was going to be quite different from what LL had in mind. And they “took over” at the last possible moment. It had been brilliantly organised so far, but rumours were starting to grow that the organisation was doing everything in a hurry and not handling things well. SL was still small at that time, so the impact of “LL taking over” was not so felt as, well, today.

On the third anniversary, we basically had the same old story repeating. Things went rather well until at the last possible moment all hell broke through. Volunteers became immensely disappointed and vowed never to help out LL again. And the same, of course, happened last year. All those volunteers who spent weeks after weeksorganising, planning, and networking with other residents were completely burned out, stigmatised by both LL and their fellow residents, and had to suffer the humiliation of having LL, at the last possible moment, push them out and take over. That’s quite a way to make people happy. As usual — LL is very consistent sometimes! — they hurt most the ones that are working harder (for free!) to promote their world, when LL disagrees in the way it gets promoted.

SL5B and how it was organised

SL5B was slightly different from the start. One week after SL4B was finished, the first new batch of volunteers for SL5B met and started immediately to work on the forthcoming event in 2008. The team was solidly working throughout the whole year to do the planning and meeting with the communities. For the first time perhaps, the “Anniversary Festival” was not something temporally committed to a day, but rather done professionally — gathering momentum for a whole year, involving people from all backgrounds, creating a huge network of connections that made sure that “everybody would be around” for SL5B — without even needing advertising. It was practically impossible not to be aware of the planning. Unlike LL’s own festivals — Burning Life, Winter Holidays — who get perhaps one or two blog posts on the Official Blog calling for exhibits, SL5B was massively promoted on a word-by-mouth basis, which flooded blogs, forums, and other sites with fresh news — around the whole year. It was an incredible build-up of anticipation.

Many of my friends who were part of the organisation since the very beginning were perhaps surprised why I didn’t help them, except for marginal comments here and there. It was very tough being away and silent. I’ve been part of several “crowdsourcing” efforts where ultimately Linden Lab crushed my will completely — and saw that happening to the former organisers of the previous Birthday Festivals as well. This put me in the awkward position of mostly keeping my mouth shut but definitely not discouraging the happy volunteers to organise another mega-event (which is definitely Ad Maiorem Multiversum Gloria) but not provide any reasonable excuse for not participating (beyond “I don’t have time”, which, well, it’s also true). But I really did not wish to be burned by LL — again. I know it’s selfish, but as time goes by, I find it increasingly harder to engage in anything where LL is “organising” things. And, honestly, it’s quite a lack of politeness to let people do all the work for you for a year and throw them out of the organisation by imposing impossible demands and force them to quit — and never even acknowledge their hard, patient, and most importantly, volunteer work.

Just take a look at what the official blog says:

Before we kick off the event though, we want to spend a little time clarifying in order to clear up some of the confusion around the submission process and policy. — Everett Linden

There is no “we” — it’s the SL5B organisation which kicked off the event; it’s them who clarified the submission process (yes, they have created a website for the submission forms and all); and it’s Linden Lab who did the “confusion”. As Solomon Devoix commented on that blog post:

Either you are (a) extraordinarily poor at communicating what you’re trying to say (ironic for the Communication Linden) or (b) you think we’re all a bunch of morons and don’t remember, or have access to, the original statements referenced above. Neither one of these shows ANY respect whatsoever for your residents.

One way to deal with the dilemma was with humour, which was what Vint Falken did. The other way, of course, was just dropping out of the organisation, like SignpostMarv Martin, Pyrii Akula, Shoshana Epsilon, and Will Webb did.

What and Why?

Allegedly, Linden Lab went from the “No Nipples” policy in the last year towards a “No mature communities in SL5B” this year. The claim is made by several communities that had their own exhibits rejected. People talk to each other, and soon a pattern emerged: any community that could be vaguely associated to “mature content” (which mostly means: content of a sexual nature) was excluded from SL5B. In LL’s own words (from the SL5B Wiki page):

Under the definition of PG some of the but not limited to the following will be prohibited; Nudity, this includes nipples and genitalia. Exhibits must not contain Mature content, if you are unsure of the rating of some of your content please contact a Coordinator. Ropes and Chains, graphic images or exhibits showing someone being bound will not be allowed, this also includes other content that may represent someone being bound in a sexual way.

Linden Lab claimed later that there was no “ban on specific communities”, just that all exhibits had to be strictly PG. Dusan Writer analysed these (and other) claims. The problem, of course, is that this excluded a very peaceful community, the Kid Avatars of Second Life, who just have fun using children-sized avatars and engaging in childlike activities. To make matters worse, this is one of the more active and energic communities in Second Life, one that always participated in all SL5B events. Their exhibits are usually the most peaceful you can imagine: after all, they depict children having fun playing. What could possibly be more innocent than this?

Granted, the words “child avatar” immediately trigger, in a puritan mind, the connection with ageplay and incitement to paedophilia. So someone at Linden Lab excluded them from SL. Gorean and BDSM groups were excluded shortly thereafter. And they got in touch with the volunteer organisation, which was baffled by LL’s decision.

Once it was clear that the decision was final and unappealable, the organisers understood the message perfectly: they were not in charge of SL5B any more. Linden Lab, once more, at the very end of over 11 months of planning, was taking over the project and imposing their own will. Naturally, the organisation quit in protest. Linden Lab thus took charge of the whole operation, starting with the SL5B Wiki, which now shows who really is in charge.

The “why” is not clear. By providing spaces for both Mature and PG exhibits, Linden Lab could have solved the issue neatly — nobody would be “forced” to go to the Mature sims if they didn’t want to. For the ones that “sex” is objectionable on moral or religious grounds, they could simply just stay on the PG area — something that the companies exhibiting on SL5B would certainly wish. The blog comments show that indeed the puritan US companies are all for a “pink” environment where everything “nasty” is kept out of their view.

The issue, however, seems to have escalated. By (indirectly) promoting the SL5B Festival, Linden Lab was also saying that they’re tolerant and open minded towards the mature communities in SL. Clearly some company complained; or a puritan pressure group/lobby; or the US/Californian authorities. Or it was just legal advice from their counsellors? At this stage of LL’s media exposure, they should refrain to be seen as a company with an open mind, which would give other companies the wrong idea.

These are quite complex assumptions. There were no claims, official or implied, that LL is “moving away” from the mature market, or disconnecting itself from it. But on the other hand, endorsing a SL5B with mature-friendly content, might be wrongly interpreted by the puritan media and companies. YouTube is full of sex, but Google is not promoting a “mature festival of movies”, which would be unthinkable for an US company. They allow mature content in YouTube (properly flagged), but they don’t endorse it. That allows Google to keep YouTube attractive to about a fifth of their user base without causing Google’s shares to drop.

What next?

Nobody believes that SL5B will be anything but a huge success. Only a tiny fraction of the resident population actually reads blogs, specially the more “generalistic” blogs that talk about everything. What might surprised the minority of regular SL blog readers is that the number of people who have no clue about what “Gor” or “ageplay” means is huge — very likely, 80% of the SL population never heard of either, like 80% of the Internet population hasn’t. Linden Lab just assumes that, if all Residents are equal on average, “losing” 20% of the participants is not a big deal. Only a fraction even knows that there is an issue at all. Most of the Residents visiting SL5B (again, at least 80%) will never notice that some relevant SL communities are missing from the exhibits.

This is consistent with LL’s strategy in the past few years. Now that SL is basically “the masses” (in the sense that it has 13.5 million registered users and is growing; it still attracts 10-15 thousand new users every day), slicing off a fraction of that population who goes away in disgust becomes a better and better strategy. This was even more so in 2006 and early 2007, when the growth was exponential, but still today, LL can afford to make a huge part of the Residents fundamentally unhappy. I’m pretty sure that their business model is quite able to handle a 20% cut of income from one month to the next.

The only wrong assumption — to which I’ve alluded before — is that not all Residents are “equal”. No matter how egalitarian SL is (as a society model), in the sense that it gives equal opportunities to every avatar, Residents most definitely are not equal! And the way Linden Lab has recently (well, in the past two years) “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”, they’ll see it’s going to be substantially harder to replace all those eager volunteers that are still stubbornly willing to help out — no matter how hard they’re kicked by Linden Lab.

So, what will be the alternative?

Shoshana Epsilon, a veteran of the Birthday Celebrations, is leading the way with a challenging idea for next year. She simply suggests that Residents abandon LL’s own festival, and create their own, sponsored by Residents, organised by Residents, for Residents and their communities to attend… and let LL have fun by themselves with their own PG celebrations. Plainly stated, the delightful Sho, one of SL’s best photographers (if not the best), and definitely in the class of unreplaceable people in SL, suggests that we — the Residents — just pick up where LL left, and do an all-inclusive Residents-for-Residents “fringe festival”. The other team members who got the whole SL5B show rolling are signataries of Sho’s letter. I couldn’t agree more with Sho.

Linden Lab has repeatedly stated, by words, deeds, and acts, that they really don’t care about what happens to their users. And it’s not for the money — if it were, LL would have gone away long ago. It’s the strange way they think. It’s their fundamentally flawed perception of reality and what their customers need. It’s that scary lack of ability to do communication — the good news are so often played down, and they can only bring out bad news, one after the other, and have us swallow these up and keep smiling (like Dusan Writer so plainly states on the last paragraph!).

The question that begs asking is: “Why does Linden Lab hate us so much?”

Watch Rheta Shan‘s comment on Dusan’s post, which brings some light:

[…] the early adopter community is as much a liability as it is an asset, and need to be slowly dissociated from the product without openly disgruntling it.

And that, in a nutshell, is what Linden Lab seems to be really after: getting rid of those pesky “early adopter” types, the ones that promoted Second Life year after year, push them out of the limelight (as Rheta puts it so well), make sure they don’t interfere any more with the Disneyfication of Second Life (so that it becomes an acceptable product for the corporate and the mass markets), and do it swiftly without fear of backfiring. The best way to do that is to gather the highest number of SL fanboyz and fangirlz, put them in the front line of some quite public event, then chop them down, humiliate them publicly, make them suffer. We’re just talking about a handful of “opinion makers and movers” here… perhaps hundred or two hundred thousand of them. Get rid of them all, and Second Life will be a better corporate product — one without furries, robots, ageplayers, BDSMers, cyber- and steampunkers, genderbenders, escorts and dancers, and whatever else is deemed unpalatable to the corporate MindThink™.

In other words, kill Tim Berners-Lee and put Marc Andreessen in charge of the Web; kick Linus Torvalds out of the Linux project and get someone else to run the coding effort. Repeat it as often as you can until everybody submits to the greater glory of the puritan, conservative, and boring corporate mindset, and Second Life, as a successful product, will “emerge” out of the ashes.

Well, I can’t but comment on the profound irony of this slow change. While Linden Lab closes itself and hides behind the barrier of Disneyfication, two hundred thousand residents are changing the corporate mindset, by using Second Life to dispel myths and barriers. I’ve just returned from yet another academic conference (in SL, of course) presenting part of the work done by three different research institutions and two companies who are providing sport coaches with SL as a means to train their own teams (and use SL’s in-built communication facilities to provide collaboration and webinars). The speaker was an utter newbie doing his first presentation in SL and was in another country — and he did it quite well, for someone who just heard about SL a few weeks ago — and then was eager to see what the programmers had done with LibSL-programmed bots replicating team tactics on a virtual playing field. This is happening all around the world, on probably thousands or tens of thousands of projects, that sadly never hit the mainstream, and are just well-known inside the academic community. By the end of the next week I’ll be on another three-day-conference, this time a mixed-media event, where 20 research papers will be presented — the work of hundreds of professors and students done in little more than two years. All of them have been “sold” the concept that Second Life is a disruptive technology that has little or nothing to do with the “conservative” use that LL is pushing and imposing on us with their insane “guidelines”.

So while the whole world is “learning” the SL lesson — thinking outside the box, breaking with old methods and methodologies, surpassing communication barriers and geographical barriers — Linden Lab, by contrast, not only doesn’t learn to do proper communication and PR, but they act as if they’re scared to death that the corporate world doesn’t take them seriously if they allow kid avatars to do creative buildings on a festival of arts and self-expression? I mean, this is the age where serious researchers are recreating a simulation of a mouse brain on a computer; far from being ludicrous, this comes from a partnership with the very same company (IBM) which has 5,000 employees working in Second Life!

I have to admit that I’m not such a big fan of the overall Californian start-up mindset (“hey, look at how cool and geeky we are!”), but I think that Linden Lab had a good start, but are now crossing over the Dark Side. And we’re not even talking about the East Coast/European corporate mindset; no, they’re going directly into the Chinese mindset: keep it all censored and under control, don’t allow people to misbehave, and your users will only applaud (since they’ll be kicked out if they don’t) — and the megacorps and governments will stand behind LL, “The Serious Company”, all the way.

That’s all very nice, but if in 2006 LL was fighting a battle against time — the time competitors might bring out something better; the time the Feds would catch up with LL and shut it down — I’d say that in 2008 the battle is precisely the opposite one: LL is dangerously close to lose all the creative population in SL (which won’t be on LL’s grid by 2010, but jump over to one of the many interconnected OpenSim-based grids) and just keep the mindless drones of the mass market. Sadly, these have zero value for what SL’s about — “No imagination, No world” will be the new motto — although these hordes of zombies will definitely be eager to access content, which is something that LL won’t/can’t provide any longer. But there is no alternative; as Jacek puts so well:

I’m loyal to [Second Life] because it’s the best damn idea I’ve seen in a long time, and damned if I’m going to hold my tongue while it’s strengths are cut out one by one in the name of political correctness and corporate relations.

So you see, my loyalty lies with Second Life, not with Linden Lab. Where I perceive the actions of Linden Lab to be in conflict with the best interests of Second Life, I side with Second Life.

And ultimately this will be what will happen. They can coerce us to shut up; they can remove all our toys in-world; they can ban us; but one thing they can’t have is our souls. And these are now bound to Second Life and not to Linden Lab.

For me, personally, the moment a company autistically refuses its own customer base, and wishes to have a different one — by excluding the ones they’ve got, instead of working with them — something starts to break.

I guess I’ll just follow Dusan’s advice, with a Madagascar flavour:

“Just smile and wave boys, smile and wave!”

… and hope for the best.

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