The SL5B Drama: Crowdsourcing Fiasco Or Devious Plan?

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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