The Road Forks

6 years of Oktoberfest!

You can’t have missed Linden Lab’s recent announcement regarding the Community Partnership Programme, which will bring to each and every community in Second Life® the kind of “special agreement” that Linden Lab signed with the United Sailing Sims nine months ago.

Back then, Linden Lab promised to do a similar thing for further communities that wanted the same arrangement. It took them a long time of “beta testing”, but now they’re basically extending the agreement to every community that wishes to be part of this special relationship between Linden Lab and a group of deeply-engaged residents.

The interesting aspect of the announcement, however, is its timing. But the details are also intriguing, even though not very surprising.

Back to Mainland?

In late 2008, I sort of predicted that in 2009, one of Linden Lab’s focus would be on the mainland again. The reasoning is not obvious. It has to do with one unique characteristic of Second Life: its contiguity.

Anyone looking at the grid map today would laugh at that. After all, the mainland continents are almost lost in the vast ocean of private islands and micro-continents. Every year the ratio of private islands vs. mainland seems to grow and grow. So where is the demand for contiguity?

We have to understand first and foremost that the drive towards private islands away from the mainland is mostly due to two reasons: control (i.e. the Estate Tools) and aesthetics (i.e. creating a space that actually looks nice outside the visual chaos of the mainland). Some other minor issues, like the ability to have 100 avatars in the same private island (as opposed to the far lower limit on the mainland) certainly are important; also, having “empty sea” around a sim will noticeably reduce lag.

Both control and aesthetics could, in fact, have been implemented on the mainland, if Linden Lab wished it so. Allegedly, a few mainland sims (Luskwood?) actually have access to Estate Tools. And of course in the past years Linden Lab has introduced a few “themed mainland communities” using reasonably good content as prefabs for the mainland residents who establish themselves there, and cannot change them without explicit permission by Linden Lab’s concierges.

Thanks to the Linden Department of Public Works, themed communities, sponsored by Linden Lab, like Bay City, have been running for over a year and a half now. And, of course, Zindra, the Adult Continent, is also a “themed” continent, even though there are less building restrictions there, but the main infrastructure was created by the LDPW to give the area, at least at the beginning, some consistent look.

However, this is all a small fraction of the mainland. Sure, large-scale rental projects like Ravenglass Rentals have been on the SL mainland for half a decade now, and the idea is to have a vast community living on the mainland and provide the required services — aesthetics and control (e.g. anti-griefing and anti-drama policies) — to mainland residents as well. There are many others.

They’re not enough.

So why should Linden Lab bother?

RL and SL

This year we seem to see commitments by Linden Lab to help out business and education to come to Second Life more and more. All sorts of announcements have been made — from the launch of Nebraska, the sim-running-behind-a-corporate-firewall solution, to Immersive Workspaces, to LL’s Gold Solution Partner programme, to things like the SL Developers conference — that seem to embrace more and more businesses and educational institutions, and fix them in the landscape of SL. I would say that there has been more success on the academic/educational/research/institutional side, but LL has by far not given up on businesses, and neither have the SL Developers.

A few (including yours truly!) have been wondering if LL would give up on the community altogether — a strong hint was that Robin Harper, who held the community/marketing role at LL, had left early this year. The many “restrictions” that people felt to be “imposed” by the Puritan academics and corporate types also seemed to hint that the Disneyfication of Second Life would continue until all Puritans are happy — and open the wide gate to let SL be flooded by academics and corporations.

This hasn’t happened. Sure, we have the Adult Continent now, but from the lack of very loud complains recently, I would say that my vision of a Red Light District was a bit more accurate than the idea of a “ghetto”. Of course, this means that Adult content — and we’re talking about Triple-X rating here! — was pushed out of the more “moderate” mainland into a special area, but, as said before, this doesn’t mean it was a move to stifle adult content at all. Instead, it fostered a special community to grow: one that has emerged from a common taste — adult content is appealing and fun for a large number of residents, and they should be allowed to have their own space where they are safe (in the sense that no teens are ever likely going to drop there by mistake) and free (in the sense that Puritans are not allowed to complain there 🙂 ).

But on the other hand Linden Lab seems to be pushing a double message: on one hand, that they’re definitely increasing their partnerships with more and more solution providers, encouraging businesses to come to SL, and reaching out to prospective clients; but they’re certainly not forgetting the community, unlike what so many have feared they would do.

There is, however, a double mentality at LL. On the side of the business/academic group, their relationship starts to become more “normal” towards it. Instead of shunning it, or plainly ignoring it, they are behaving like a company that wants to do business. They have their own business-related website. They have a partner programme. They have special mailing lists for business and academics. They do regular business hours which are really “meetings with partners”, like every company does. They have several Lindens with the tag “marketing something” on their job titles (as every company should have!). They use social networking tools profusely — from Twitter to LinkedIn. They have blogs for business and academics. They did, at least once, organise a conference with the Second Life Developers. They promote their partners’ projects, case studies, and even services and products (even if the degree of transparency in promotion is not quite clear). All this is what you would expect from a company that really wants to reach out towards business and a closer relationship with the academic and research institutions.

But on the other hand… they continue to display the “cool guys” attitude towards the community side of their company. They engage volunteers to handle the “first hour experience” in Second Life — the Mentor group continues to be handled just like it was since 2006 (and the Help Islands have little changed since then); while at the same time they grumble because over 90% of all registered users never log in back again — thus, they launch a new crowdsourcing project to write a Second Life Destination Guide to help new users to find interesting things in SL. They have 400+ developers signed-up on their partner list, but the content in SL handled by LL on the mainland is not outsourced, but crowdsourced, from volunteers that just contribute their free work to make SL look nicer. Several of those developers are machinima producers and video/multimedia experts, but they prefer to ask volunteers to donate nice-looking videos for their home page. Legions of professional programmers offer their services through their Developer list, but Snowglobe is an open-source software application developed by individuals volunteering their code to be selected by LL to patch the viewer.

Now, I’m not saying that this is all bad. It’s just that it starts to look weird, from an outsider’s perspective.

Multiple personalities, multiple conflicts?

It’s not bad that a company reinvents itself. I love to give the example of IBM. In the mid-1985s, IBM, even though they had released a “home appliance” some years before, the IBM PC, was seen as a huge, grey, boring giant, which was starting to become defeated by the hippy and cool software company created by hackers like Bill Gates. Nobody was expecting anything less than seeing the giant fall and crash and disappear in the mists of computer legend — a reference to tell to granddaughters and grandsons in a future where everybody would have shiny laptops with the Windows logo stamped on them.

IBM, however, after taking some time in re-inventing itself, became a collection of cool, hippy hackers as well. The kind of software gurus that dress in flashy colours in a hip style and do things with open source in their basements reeking of Coke and Red Bull, and tackle existing projects all over the Web and make them better than Gates’ own company with their software of the 1980s. Ironically, this didn’t save IBM’s own PC division, but, well, it brought them to way unexpected areas — like developing software with Linden Lab and being thrilled with virtual worlds (note: Microsoft is around here, too 🙂 ).

The Big Blue adapted to change, did a 180º turn on their corporate image (which was not just a marketing ploy, but a real internal change), and are still here to tell the story — unlike others like, say, DEC, who are now mere footnotes in the computer history. Nobody truly believed that IBM would survive; we all expected it to fail to adapt and disappear like all others after the computer revolution of the desktop.

So dramatically adapting to dramatic change is crucial, and that’s the major reason why I, for one, I’m quite happy to see 10-year-old Linden Lab also changing their attitude towards business. But the “old” Linden Lab hasn’t disappeared: the days when Lindens and residents worked together on the beta, to create the foundations of our amazing new world, aren’t gone. In fact, far more Lindens work together with far more residents to do pretty much the same as they did six years ago. That’s not surprising: we’re so many more!

The problem here is that the two cultures rub against each other. When Linden Lab announces a typical community event (say, a fashion show) on all their channels — Message of the Day, newsletter, blog entries, and whatnot — they’re keeping alive the spirit of the Good Olde Days, when LL’s job was mostly to foster community events (do you still remember when LL’s employees used to send grid-wide messages announcing the next events to come up?). Naturally the community of residents is happy about that and quite willing to see that LL didn’t lose their touch with them, even in spite of their ongoing “corporisation”.

But on the other side of the issue, initiatives fostered by the academic world (like, say, SLACTIONS) or the business world are completely ignored. Even when businesses are actively promoting community-related events, like, say, Hair Fair ’09. This “double standard” is complex to understand, and even harder to manage. Since there is no mass-media advertising in Second Life, and no way to reach all residents with information, there is only one channel that works: LL is the only entity that has access to all residents. Access to it is crucial, but it’s unknown how to reach it. They don’t tag a price to it. They pretty much announce what they feel it’s important — be it an event or promoting in-world business — and exclude access to everybody else, even potentially paying customers.

And the crowdsourcing groups pretty much leave out the ability for businesses or even academic institutions to offer competing services. If you’re an organisation specialised in providing training services, you’d love to be able to bid for a contract to run the Help Islands — but why should LL outsource a service that it already gets for free? If you’re a software development institution, either a university or a company, you might be quite interested in developing tools and software for LL’s viewer, in the same manner that LL runs the Snowglobe project — but of course, why should LL pay for software development when it can reap the rewards of open source developers without paying anything? If you are doing content design, even at a multimedia school, you might love to get the opportunity to deploy your talent on the SL mainland and help to develop part of the mainland — but why should Linden Lab waste money doing so, when the LPDW already provides content for free?

This is a problem. LL partners — organisations, institutions, corporations — either offer their services for free to Linden Lab, or they have no choice to “compete” with the crowdsourcing efforts. But this also happens at a smaller level. Large rental facilities in SL, which might not be “big corps” but just motivated individuals who are eager to invest time and money in SL to handle communities inside SL, get competition from LL itself on the LL-run communities — with the difference that, on the mainland, LL has access to all those nifty tools to ensure safety and compliance to aesthetics. Why should anyone invest — on the individual level — in SL if LL is competing against them in land managing, building, and community management? More to the point, how can they compete against LL’s resources — who are able to use their own mass-advertising channels to promote their services on the mainland? But even small-scale software developers are always risking their investment in SL when LL moves with a product that they launch to render the small programmers’ efforts obsolete. We all remember how LindeX replaced the GOM, and how buying XStreetSL and OnRez Shop effectively left web-based e-commerce sites for digital content out of the picture. But even the stupidest gadgets can easily be outsmarted by LL — for instance, my GUUD Universal Translator is soon to become obsolete, as the latest batches of Snowglobe already include instant chat translation at a click of a checkbox. You can imagine tons of similar examples to happen with very complex HUDs that relied on prims being moved around, as soon as the Media Plugin version of the SL viewer (currently being tested under Snowglobe as well) allows all HUDs to simply become Flash/JavaScript-based — gazillions of existing gadgets will become obsolete over night. It’s part of the challenge of living on the edge of an ever-evolving world!

The question here is that these two worlds — the in-world crowdsourcing efforts, and the off-world business/academic world — overlap each other on a conflicting border, and how well Linden Lab manages that conflict.

Why does Linden Lab permit the conflict to arise?

Linden Lab representatives like to say, in public, that they’re not “content creators” or “community managers” — they develop the technology so that content creators and community managers can join Second Life and do their work there. However, it’s clear that Linden Lab also manages communities, and, even if they don’t develop content themselves, encourages others, under their guidance, to develop content for Linden Lab. For free.

Ironically, they’re doing all this without a clear role of “Community Manager” (although there is a “Governance Team”).

On the other side of the spectrum, I find it most amusing that a huge chunk of the “policy” decisions made for Blue Mars is by an Avatar Reality representative with the title “Community Director” — who really says that Blue Mars is just a platform, and Avatar Reality’s role is to attract game designers and developers to provide all services — they’re not in the community business at all. They want developers — their clients — to pay for the privilege to offer services to end-users. They’re not going to provide anything except technology.

Hmm. It’s curious that the most “recent” big community-related events have popped up recently, as more and more people were trying to jump into the Blue Mars bandwagon because they hoped it to be the “salvation” for the desperate residents that wanted a “more stable” world 🙂

But if we zoom out a little bit more, and see what kinds of social virtual worlds are out there, a pattern emerges. Before 2007, they all provided some kind of “community” services, with or without the users’ help. There.com, IMVU, and even Kaneva all follow the tradition, probably started with ActiveWorlds, where users not only provide services inside their worlds — for free or not — but actively collaborate, to a degree, with the company behind it. Moove also gets a lot of “community” promotion by the company behind it. Sure, I know that except for IMVU (which keeps growing and has a reasonably successful in-world economy as well), the other worlds might not be good references. But all still have this idea that part of the job of the company is to promote services for the users and foster community — a tradition that social virtual worlds inherited from MMOGs.

The “new generation” of virtual worlds that integrate user-generated content (albeit never in the same way that we SL residents employ the word — we think about collaborative, real-time user-created content, without pre-approval, and using in-world tools, not external ones) are all different. They might have “community managers” somewhere in their team. But they’re all selling technology. “Partners” or “developers” are external organisations or individuals that sign a contract or agreement and develop content with a purpose; they might also offer all kinds of services on top of the content they’ve developed. In a sense, they’re much closer to merely being a software house that released a “virtual world product” — an engine, a software application. The difference between, say, Unity or Blue Mars is that you buy a license for Unity but have to host your own MMOG/social virtual world on your own servers — while Blue Mars, Multiverse, or even Metaplace allow you to spare the costs of hosting and use their servers to provide an immersive experience for your customers.

It’s a completely different business model. As time passes, it will be harder and harder to compare them with Linden Lab’s Second Life at all.

That’s the fun bit, and one that doesn’t cease to amuse me. Second Life is, like the Internet, a complete mix of technologies, attitudes, models, and solutions, all confusingly assembled together into the same package, and not being the “best” in either case. It’s the Swiss Army Knife of virtual worlds (like, well, the Internet’s protocols became the universal networking solution, even though for specific networking solutions, far better technologies exist).

Second Life continues to refuse to become “merely a technological software platform”. It’s not “applications” — in the sense of client and server. It transcends the simplistic concept of being “merely a communications protocol”. It’s not a game, nor a game development platform. It’s not a software development tool, not a 3D modelling tool. It’s not merely a rendering engine with some features. It’s not simply a 3D chat, or even a 3D social networking tool. It has an economy, a huge economy in fact, but it’s not merely an economy. SL is one of the largest international VoIP operators in the world, but it’s not simply a “webcam chat” application, or an alternative business solution for videoconferencing or a collaborative environment. And so on… it’s not anything of the above in particular, but does all the above at the same time, and thus defies classification — specially because it continues to be unique, and this is what gets so many people angry when the “competition” fails to deliver something “just like SL” but falls always very short on expectations.

I’m now quite sure that there is no competition to Second Life and never will be. Every time I write this, or say it in public, people point out to me how certain aspects of SL are “obsolete” and that “competing products” are much better at it. That’s fine if you take isolated aspects of SL and compare them to other solutions. For instance, Skype is better at VoIP than SL. But SL is not just a 3D chat with voice. Or, say, almost every 3D game in the planet is faster than SL, or has a better way to develop combat games — but SL is not a game development platform. Or there are lots of better collaboration tools out there, many of which using 3D environments and avatars — but none have a teeming economy. There might even be better 3D environments where you can listen to live music performances online, but none allow you to buy land and have your own house. And so on.

There is nothing so complex as Second Life and never will be. This gives Linden Lab a huge responsibility. (Aren’t you happy that they’re actually a profitable company that does not require external funding or going public to continue to grow and thrive, unlike almost all of their direct competition in what we call “social virtual worlds”?) It means that there is no way to fully replicate Second Life as a whole, and if one day SL disappears, there will be nothing to replace it (except, of course, a loosely-assembled grid of interconnected OpenSim operators — but I tend to put OpenSim in the same bag as SL, actually).

So in the next few years, we will obviously continue to hear about alleged “competitors” here and there. Some will compete on community. Some will compete on content development. Some on collaboration. Some on game design. Some might even compete on the economy. A lot will be VoIP-based 3D chats with, say, faces mapped to avatars. Many might become the “3D Facebook”. Most will have cool technology and impressively looking graphics. A lot will allow programmers to cry with joy at what they can do. Many will possibly attract millions of users wishing to join a live music concert — or merely a conference about, say, artificial intelligence. Some might appeal to the corporate clients looking for alternative teleconferencing solutions. Some might target the machinima market and provide cool content creation tools that facilitate the development of 3D animations, perhaps at a professional level. Who knows what will come next! And whenever each of these “worlds” or “environments” will be announced, everybody who is just interested in a specific, single aspect of Second Life will immediately announce “the end of SL as we know it” and the “imminent exodus to World X”. Of course, they forget that only those specific residents that are interested in the limited functionality of World X will jump to it. The rest, who have different interests, will not be impressed, since none will provide everything that SL provides in the same environment, and that’ll be its greatest strength for the years to come.

Now, I don’t wonder any longer why Linden Lab so often seems to have “split personalities”. I would, too, if I had to deal with all the conflicts that such a wide variety of uses of Second Life will inevitably generate 🙂

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