“Our dreams are a second life.” ~Gerard de Nerval
By Buttercup Thursday.
Lately, I’m in a constant state of confusion about Second Life.
No, it’s not my brilliantly complicated and challenging personal life (I sort of wish), or my sometimes boldly fulfilling and other times crushingly frustrated professional life (who me?)… No, it is the mixed messages I get from friends, SL bloggers, tech sites, the media and Linden Lab itself.
Is Second Life doomed to failure–and soon? Or will we tootle along as we always have done, forever til we die?
Are we on the Titanic or the Good Ship Lollipop?
To the tech sites and the media, Second Life, when it’s not mentioned in passing as a “failure”, is brushed aside as mostly irrelevant. I take these comments personally, since to me it is decidedly not a failure and is far from irrelevant. What – or how many people with a genuine commitment – does it take to make an enterprise relevant? How many tech reporters does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Two, one to screw in the light bulb and the other to mind his high horse. So, they simply don’t understand SL, and I move on.
But Second Life residents, bloggers, and Linden Lab understand. Their opinions matter. Right?
Here is one of the more recent episodes that summarizes what the trend looks like to me:
Recently, Linden Lab, as reported by New World Notes, quietly reached out to some of the educational/non-profit institutions that bailed when their special rate tier was abruptly withdrawn, and offered them the discounted rate again. Some view this as an act of desperation on the part of LL; since it was done quietly, it seems less of a PR move and more of a financial decision. There is a lot of discussion on some of the Second Life blogs. As is usually the case, the discussion is based on speculation and very little else, since LL chooses not to be transparent about this or indeed, most of its actions and policies.
Pulling out the rug from under non-profits back in August of 2010 was a turdilicious move on the part of LL, resulting a lot of negative PR, closures of popular and highly esteemed regions, and a general notch down in the richness and community spirit of Second Life. We were outraged, and expressed those opinions.
And as is the case with any outrage on the part of SL citizenry, it was completely ignored by Linden Lab. And the outrage petered out into mutterings and murmurs and we carried on in our somewhat less interesting Second Life world.
This happens ALL THE TIME. Botgirl Questi recently posted a timeline of what she calls Linden Lab “faux pas” –Second Life controversies from 2003 through 2012. The issues before my time were frequently about governance, taxes, ownership rights (all worthy subjects). I do remember the controversies revolving about sex and gambling – many passionate opinions and Linden Lab dealt with the issues, for better or worse. I remember being deeply sorry about the creation of the Adult regions – I somehow loved the anarchy of Second Life, and managed to survive those unsegregated days relatively unshocked and uncorrupted. I remember horrible lag and stability issues from those days too, we howled and complained, things did not improve, but SL was still so utterly fascinating that we carried on anyway, with our bragging rights at how many crashes we endured. Seriously, I felt like a pioneer, even as late as 2007.
Then I suppose participation peaked, and SL started its slow, Detroit-like decline, Philip Rosedale stepped down as Linden Lab CEO, and LL became quieter.
Disasters and missteps continued, but now with even less dialogue. Mainland prices continued to fall, LL introduced Viewer 2 (a particular hate of mine) and Display names, closed the teen grid and plopped the poor souls into Second Life, among many other events. Residents had opinions and ideas about all of these. We expressed them. Among ourselves, since it was becoming harder and harder to connect with anyone from Linden Lab.
The lines of communication eroded. Examples: Linden Lab trashed Help Islands, discontinued the mentor program, laid off staff, dismantled JIRA (the community bug/problem reporting system), ended the comprehensive economy reports, removed themselves from SL birthday celebrations, allowed serious abuse reports to languish unattended, use the official blog for little but press announcements. (Torley Linden doesn’t even offer “Friendly Greetings” at the beginning of his tutorial videos any more!)
Every single thing that affects Second Life, is speculated about, discussed and blogged. Solutions, compromises, ideas are put forward by SL residents. Threats, foot stomping, dire warnings, outright pleas also ensue. And what happens? Precisely nothing. Linden Lab quietly does what it wants, and the uproar dwindles to a whisper, then a silence. Some do leave of course; no doubt this accounts for some of the decreasing numbers of residents. But most of us stay.
The above comic by Botgirl Questi shows a cynical self-awareness on the part of Linden Lab management.
But I happen to think it’s worse than that. But, you ask, what’s worse than a cynical disregard?
Recently, an interview with Philip Rosedale about the beginning of Second Life led me to a site called Glassdoor.com, a site which, among other things, features reviews of companies by current and former employees. Linden Lab is one of the companies, and one review included the following comments:
“Own worst enemy”
Former Employee – Reviewed Sep 24, 2012
Pros – Second Life is utterly unique across the internet.
You’ll never work on a more socially focused app.
Customers care so much it’s literally disturbing at times.
Cons – Management culture is terrible – disconnected and confused. This continued across different regimes so it’s not specific to people.
Core culture of ‘work on what you want’ leads to very little progress in any direction.
Most managers in the company don’t understand SL, use it, or even feel comfortable around it.
“Customers care so much it’s literally disturbing at times.” We do care and to me this is mysterious and sometimes disturbing. It’s why we talk about it so much. Some of us like to call ourselves addicts, and some do neglect real world activities to spend more time in a virtual world. The reasons are complex, and something I have never seen satisfactorily explored. Perhaps a company that created and runs a virtual world with dedicated users might want to look into this?
But no. “Most managers in the company don’t understand SL, use it, or even feel comfortable around it.” They what? They don’t understand or feel comfortable around it. They don’t use it.
What is more likely than Botgirl’s cynical-management scenario is that Linden Lab blunders its way through the decision-making process, puts on a cursory show of change and progress, but for the most part thinks very little about serious improvements or about Second Life residents, its customers. (I am aware this is not a democracy. But in every successful company customers are heard, one way or another.) Why? We have no way of knowing.
So what’s worse than cynical disregard? Indifference.
I am leaning towards reserving a deckchair on the Titanic. One close to the lifeboats. Where will the lifeboat take me? Maybe to OpenSim, or Cloud Party, or something new, or even away from this virtual experiment forever.
There is still a little voice inside my head telling me not to give up, and to remember how resilient we are in Second Life, in the face of indifference, contempt, and contrariness. And how, miraculously, we keep on keeping on. Maybe Linden Lab will become responsive; address the soft communication issues as well as the hard technical issues. Maybe they will visit Second Life and become comfortable with it. Maybe even start to understand it.
It might never be the good ship Lollipop. But perhaps Linden Lab won’t hit that iceberg just yet.