Wednesday, October 7, 2009

SL in transition -- reason for hope?


"What is the end of our revolution? The tranquil enjoyment of liberty and equality; the reign of that eternal justice, the laws of which are graven, not on marble or stone, but in the hearts of men....

We wish that order of things where all the low and cruel passions are enchained, all the beneficent and generous passions awakened...and the people are governed by a love of justice; where the country secures the comfort of each individual, and where each individual prides himself on the prosperity and glory of his country; where every soul expands by a free communication of republican sentiments...where the arts serve to embellish that liberty which gives them value and support, and commerce is a source of public wealth and not merely of immense riches to a few individuals....

We wish, in a word, to fulfill the intentions of nature and the destiny of man, realize the promises of philosophy, and...become a model to nations, a terror to oppressors, a consolation to the oppressed, an ornament of the universe and that....we may at least witness the dawn of the bright day of universal happiness. This is our ambition - this is the end of our efforts.

- Maximilian Robesbierre, "On the Principles of Political Morality, (1794)

I must confess that I am at heart, an optimist, but one who at this stage of my life gets pretty mean-spirited when I find my hopes being frustrated and disappointed. For example, for quite some time, I have had great hopes for what Second Life could be and how it could make a positive impact in many lives. My hopes, however, did not always seem consistent with the idealistic vision that its creators, lead by Philip Rosedale, had for the platform. As I watched how it was managed, the seeming lack of commitment to the broad range of users, and the utter fecklessness exhibited by the stewards of this experiment, I turned mean-spirited and cynical like many long-time residents. But lately, there are a few odd events and hints that suggest perhaps there is cause to once again regain some level of optimism.

I started thinking like this recently when I heard about the experience of a friend who occasionally roleplays in Deadwood. Christine McAllister (a charming and law-abiding soul if ever there was one), found herself unexpectedly banned from Second Life for no reason that she could fathom. Her situation is described on her blog Lady Adventuress.

My initial reaction was much like that of many of her friends, taking this OUTRAGE as further evidence of LL's descent into corporate dementia. Then I heard the situation was fixed. When I asked her about it, Christine directed me to talk with the person who had approached the Lab on her behalf to attempt to have what was obviously a mistake corrected in a reasonable amount of time.

The heroine in this story is Steelhead's lovely and rational Tensai Hilra, who utilized her access to concierge services to actually talk to a real live LL hooman about what had happened. The real live hooman creature she talked to indicated that it had indeed been a mistake. It seemed that Christine had been banned on the basis of some action the lab was taking against an actual miscreant. Unfortunately, the lab sought to ban said miscreant on the basis of a MAC address that had either been fiddled, or that was targeted in a range of addresses (or something like that which Tensai patiently tried to explain to me for a good 15 minutes while I nodded and went "duh-ok"), and that Christine's MAC address got pinged in the action. And so it got fixed. It took a few days, BUT if it hadn't been for the blessed Tensai's intervention, it probably would have taken longer for them to get around to straightening it out.

Now, here's where my usual mind-set got challenged. I was all set to be off on another of my "someday-I'm-gonna-kick-Phil-Rosedale-square-in-the-balls" rants, but Tensai pointed out that

(A.) they actually fixed the problem, and

(B.) the fact that they were going after miscreants in this way may actually indicate that LL is being more conscientious in going after the kind of troublemakers they have in the past ignored, and in some cases apparently coddled.

Ah, well, you may say, "Hey Dio, you spitdribbling old doxie! That's just one little thing--this is not evidence of a trend!"

And you are right. HOWEVER, I would also point you to the recent series of events in which hundreds of retail content items produced by RH Engle and associated content makers were illegally copied and distributed all over the grid. This was done by some mewling puke who was trying to get revenge on Mr. Engle for some perceived affront. The Lab folks responded by immediately banning the accounts responsible for the theft, and "blacklisting" the illegal copies made and distributed by the thief (ie, the items cannot be rezzed). While not a perfect solution (and arguably not a completely effective one), the Lab did at least take this assault on a business very seriously and responded with quick and relatively severe action--unlike in the past when even something as egregious as this would have been largely left up to the residents themselves to sort out...

This probably isn't entirely fair of me to look at it this way, but in the past, the Lab leadership generally seemed to want to be above all the sordid realities of what actually transpired on the grid, or perhaps to just let it play out as some big jolly social experiment. But now there is something new going on. They suddenly seem to be more willing to get their hands dirty.

What do I mean by this? Well, recently, the lab conducted a sting operation in which they put out some kind of bait that was popular with the smarmy wanks who copy stuff. LL actually caught and banned a significant number of lackwits who fell for it. Yeah, I know, it's a "drop in the ocean," and a less than completely effective solution....BUT this (if it is true) is relatively important. They are not just reacting to some of those realities of life on the grid that have a negative impact on commercial, educational and creative recreational use of the platform--they are showing evidence of a new proactive philosophy. Using tools like sting operations to catch content thieves, or perhaps, maybe even carrying out policies such as hunting down and killing grieftards instead of treating them like pets will make a huge difference in making the grid actually usable by businesses and institutions--not to mention the sizable population of current and potential individual users who can see the platform as something useful for something more than just havin' some yuks at others' expense and pissing away those empty hours in Mom's basement.

Now I know what I have presented here are some random recent events--anecdotal evidence at best. Unfortunately, the activities of the lab lack sufficient transparency to allow us to do more than conjecture based upon that kind of fragmentary evidence. And yeah, I know they're a private company and they can do their business any way they want, even if it means they actually do sit around wearing big fiberglass chipmunk heads--it's just a shame because what is happening on SL is a huge and unique social experiment that somebody should be seriously evaluating...

Anyway, I digress. The intriguing thing is, that there is something else besides this anecdotal evidence that offers a reason for hope. Back in September, LL founder Phil Rosedale made a statement on the SL official site that included the following:

"...we should try and realize that we are working together on a small village that in a few years will be a gigantic metropolis. Everything will change, and needs to. Try not to cling too tightly to what we have now. The design, the UI, the orientation experience, the tools - all these need to change, a LOT, for Second Life to become accessible to hundreds of millions. Those changes are sometimes going to be disruptive and many ways I don't want Second Life to change either. It is magical, and it is cool to feel like you are one of the brave and visionary few who came early. But a bigger part of my heart wants to see it reach everyone, and so we must evolve. Onward!"

In effect, even Philip is acknowledging that the hippy-dippy, wild west days of the big experiment are over and that things are going to have to change. Second life is in fact finally getting into its "second phase," something that Hamlet Au had talked about over a year ago in a post back when Phil stepped down as president of the company. It just seems that now the navigational orders have finally reached the engineering deck and the behemoth is starting to swing onto its new course.

Philip says it must evolve. But that includes not just fixing the "design, the UI, the orientation experience, the tools" as Mr. Rosedale says. It means bringing order and reliability and stability---and not just technical reliability--to the grid. And being the eternal fucking optimist that I am, I am seeing things that suggest to me that the folks at the Lab are trying the shove the elephant off that cliff.

Look, I know I've been kind of an asshole with regards to the Lindens. I know most of them are decent, hard-working people who try their damnedest to make the vision a reality. Like I said earlier, I've just been kind of disappointed by a lot of things--many people have. I promise I'll try to keep a more civil tone. And if I ever actually do meet Phil Rosedale, I promise I will just shake his hand and tell him how much his wacky invention has meant to us all.

No, I will not kick him square in the balls.

I don't envy the Linden folks--it's going to take a lot of hard work and getting their hands dirty, and doing crap that Ain't Fun. And not everybody is going to survive the transition. That's why I included the Robespierre quote at the beginning of this piece--for you non-history freaks, Max Robespierre was one of the great inspirational orators of French liberty, a real idealist and visionary. He subsequently became a dictator, directed the Reign of Terror and was himself ultimately arrested and sent to embrace Madame Guillotine.

Visionaries don't always do well as an organization makes a big transition into a phase where pragmatism is necessary.

But the fact that there seems to be movement towards a more pragmatic course--in which there is a more sustained attempt being made to address the needs and hopes and desires of business people, artists and content creators, educators and storytellers, and lots and lots of everybody else--yeah that is something that gives me hope.

Robespierre and some of his followers being taken to be guillotined in 1794. No, I am not suggesting that this should be done to LL employees who have trouble adapting during the transition that SL is undergoing. However, I would cheerfully do my Madame Dufarge impression if this were treatment meted out to content thieves, scammers and grieftards. And yes, the image is in the public domain.


  1. well HB, what do you think? Am I just being foolishly optimistic? Do you see any evidence of a better world awaiting us?

  2. If I'm honest, yes. I'm an optimist at heart - a cynical one, but one nonetheless. I really do believe that human spirit will overcome, including in modest ways such as maintaining SL as a creative place for us all.

    It'll never be perfect – technology will hold it back, money will slow its growth and human failings will blacken its name. Indeed some people will always get away with abusing it, just as they do in RL, but as long as we can rise above them and their actions I really do think what we have in SL is amazing.

    I see SL just like my RL - I live in a lovely little street where I feel safe and happy. Bad things happen all over and some of them happen close to home, but I'm lucky enough to have dodged such things so far. The people in charge sometimes let us down or get it wrong, but most of the time they are working hard to keep things up & running. No system is perfect, but pretty much all the alternatives are poorer and I think it’s clear enough that living conditions are getting better rather than worse (I know this doesn’t apply everywhere, but even there I’d say that the increasing nature of open government and omnipresent media means that it one day will).

    So yes, I do feel optimistic about SL. I think the Lindens do, on the whole, a great job. Sometimes they drop the ball but at the end of the day what does that mean? Some inconvenience to most, a loss of income to some. No one dies. It’s just a fancy computer game at the end of the day :) One I love dearly and feel somewhat privileged to be able to play.

    The only people I’d like to kick in the balls are the nasty little immature children who waste their time and intellect thinking of ways to ruin the fun for other, whether it be through griefing or thieving. Those, to me, are the cunts who deserve punching.

    hba :)

  3. My hat's off to you, you said it better than I could. And you explained something Miss Christine couldn't manage to, id est, why she got banned.

    And Tensai Hilra continues to rock. Good to know.

  4. Hey HB.

    Nice thoughtful comment. I am enjoying picturing in my mind your lovely quiet little English street, an island in the stormy seas of modern life.

    And I understand exactly where you are coming from, in a very literal sort of way, when you say you are a cynical optimist. Last night I was talking to Tensai again and described myself to her in just those terms. I think perhaps people like us become cynics through the experience of being optimists who repeatedly smack our foreheads on the low-hanging door jamb of reality.

    Yet we keep hoping and trying.

    As for the idea that at the end of the day, SL is "just a fancy computer game," yes, that's quite true. But what else is it as well? Tensai and I were also talking about that last night, and it would be a fun conversation to kick around here some time when we're feeling philosophical.

    Hey Emily!

    Good to hear from you Hon!

    Thank you for the kind comment. Just keep in mind that the only reason I was able to even come close to explaining Christine's situation was because the Blessed Tensai went through it with me, literally a couple of times, using small words and speaking v e r y s l o w l y.

    As for saying it better than you could, I'm not sure I agree. Reading your blog, one is struck not just by your wide-ranging idealism and broad spectrum of interests, but also your passion. There is an intensity to the level of your hopes for our worlds (both virtual and real) and your expectations for how people should try to behave and interact, that I think is quite compelling.

    I'm mostly just writing to amuse myself. Well...myself and HeadBurro.

  5. Hiya Dio - By saying it's just a game I'm not trying to do it down, more show that that ohhh, I ain't worth getting too wound up about. Hard, I know as I still let things get to me here, but that's because it means so much to me. I think the list of Things To Piss People off for me would look like this:

    Missing Inv = LOW as I never know what I have anyway ;-D
    New additions like Voice & WL = ZERO as I like the new stuff = Keep adding more, Mr Linden!
    Sim crashes = LOW as it hardly happens now.
    More Avatars = lag - MED as I hate it!
    Griefers = HIGH as they are bastards.
    Thieves = MED as they are bastards too but I have nothing to steal.
    Linden Lab not listening = LOW as I never have anything to say to them. I bet it would be HIGH! if I did though.

  6. Hey HB,

    yep we all have different things that bother us depending on what we use the platform for.

    And I know you're not trying to diminish it's importance in saying it's "just a game"...but as you also point out "it means so much" to you.

    Yessir, it does to me too. Lots of other folks--becuase we're using in so many different ways. It is a tool and the open-ended nature of it does make it more than a game, which follows a set path and has a narrow purpose.

    It's like a hammer--to a writer, a hammer is just something he has around to put a nail in the wall to hang a picture now and then. If he (she) can't find the hammer, he'll use some other blunt object to the do the job and get back to writing.

    But to a carpenter, that same kind of hammer is an essential part of his life--something that makes him who he is.

    I think SL is like that.

    It might be fun to have that convo about how we are using the platform and why it means a great deal to some us, sooner rather than later.

  7. It might be fun to have that convo about how we are using the platform and why it means a great deal to some [of] us, sooner rather than later.

    I don't think you're wrong, Dio.

    As far as HBA's list:

    Missing Inv = LOW as I never know what I have anyway ;-D

    Currently, with the new hunts I've gone on in September and October, and the (partial) unpacking of four hunts new and old, my inventory again staggers over 56K. Inventory loss is a fear both crippling, and intangible--because seriously, if I lose everything, I'll just find more stuph. I'll miss the irreplaceables, but life will go on. So I'll rate that MED.

    New additions like Voice & WL = ZERO as I like the new stuff = Keep adding more, Mr Linden!

    I hate voice. I loathe voice with a fiery vengeance. I think it kills intimacy, it is unnecessary, it distracts from truth, and it's invasive as hell. (That being said, I'm on Skype or Gchat voice or in-world voice nearly every night, with the loves or with the hunting group. I can't explain why I loathe the thing I use all the time, now.) HIGH

    Sim crashes = LOW as it hardly happens now.

    HA to that. Kick around Octoberville sometimes, the sim goes down at least once a night. More than that, bandwidth has been frequently dropping to zero. But, I'm only rating this MED, because really, it's as much mass avatar presence as it is sim instability due to over-scripting.

    Which brings us to--
    More Avatars = lag - MED as I hate it!

    Me too. MED

    Griefers = HIGH as they are bastards.

    HIGH. Seconded.

    Thieves = MED as they are bastards too but I have nothing to steal.

    For me, this one's HIGH but only because I'm so irritated at how LL has handled things--to date--regarding copyright infringement. On the plus side, Dio's right--something's changed, recently, and they're actually gunning after the thieves. This is a good sign!

    Linden Lab not listening = LOW as I never have anything to say to them. I bet it would be HIGH! if I did though.

    HIGH. Topping-the-entire-list HIGH. But I'm viewing it in the opposite direction--I have things to say, but it's not HIGH because I do--it's HIGH because they likely wouldn't listen if I did.

  8. hey Emily,

    ok let me throw out one idea why many of us use SL as a tool and as a recreational artifact (a game, if you will).

    I heard the following the other day on NPR when Terry Gross was interviewing novelist Michael Chabon on her "Fresh Air" show:

    Ms. Gross commented to Mr. Chabon, " write: The world, like our heads, was meant to be escaped from. They are prison, the world and head a like. And then you quote David Foster Wallace as saying: I guess a big part of serious fiction's purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in their own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves....I think it's a really beautiful description...of both the human condition and...why we respond so well to, you know, to books and movies and music, too."

    And I thought to myself, Holycrap--that's what a bunch of us are using SL for. Getting into other selves--making ourselves the author of storylines and settings and characters outside ourselves.
    Or sometimes, other selves that are smarter, more attractive, funnier and, (as Mr. Chabon says), more "open-souled" than our actual selves.

    I have talked with a number of people lately about how the tool of SL has enabled us to expand and transform our ability to write, to act, to produce art and design-work, and not just within the confines of the platform, but extended into our flesh and blood context as well.

  9. With that in mind here's my reaction to HeadBurro's list:

    Missing Inv = like HB, LOW, being as the inventory is just props for the stories--half the time I forget about what is back there in the prop department. Though I can understand Emily's MED rating, as like she says, when an "irreplaceable" goes poof, it is a disappointment. But yes life goes on. After all, I think what we're using SL for is about experiences and connections with people and ideas, not stuff.

    New additions like Voice & WL: HB said ZERO as he likes the new stuff = But I'm with Emily on the HIGH irritation factor: I find that the new crap tends to run badly and often seems to break other stuff that was working fine. In my heart I feel that the lab has finite resources and that maybe they should be putting those resources towards making the platform, the core product run reliably and smoothly before they add the new junk which really doesn't have that much application to what I'm doing. Voice, in my mind, is for meetings, not escaping the trap of your own skull.

    Sim crashes = HB said Low as for him it hardly happens now, but Emily said Medium, as places she goes it seems to be more frequent. I'll go along with the latter.

    More Avatars = lag - Both Emily and HB had this as MED--but I would put it pretty high. Because in places I frequent, it's not just when there's lots of folks, it's any time. Lag's unpredictable--it's one of the keys of the goddam grid being unreliable and frustrating. I plan an event, I try to interact with something, I have a scenario to implement--sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

    Griefers = HB and Emily also both HIGH on these pathetic basement dwellers. I tend to agree. I lump them into the general category of something that the lab could improve upon, like lag, if they focused the resources. But it is also a matter of will--if they hadn't been more mentally attuned to this kind of personality than the more imaginative and purposeful segments of their customer base, it might have been handled better in the past. But then, as we have said, hopefully the lab seems to be in transition--it seems to be growing out of it's infantile thumb sucking phase and moving into a world where a business or a museum or an artist won't be embarrassed to be associated with an environment of uncontrolled moronic wanking about.

    Thieves = HB was MED on this as he says he has nothing to steal. But Emily put it on high, because of past history. I put it up there as well, because the storytelling and improv theater functions I involve myself in require props and sets--if content creators are driven out by thievery, then we're back to only using that which we make ourselves. Which in my case is all objects in the form of rectangles.

    Linden Lab not listening = HB was LOW he thinks he has nothing to say to them. I suspect he has more to say than he perhaps realizes, but we'll accpet his postion for now. But Emily puts it at High--bcasue she knows she has things to say and assumes they are not going to listen.

    Good question--are they trying to listen more now? I keep seeing odd little survey things popping up. The Lab folks obviously know that only a limited part of the population posts on forums and blogs, and often the most vocal of those folks are no longer even in world much. They are expressing themselves for the pure recreational fun of spitting out the words and seeing where they splatter (as the Duke used to say).

    So, what about the big body of users? The ones who aren't vocal? Is the lab trying to understand them? Find out what their hopes and dreams and ideas and uses for the platform are?

    I'm going to rate my concern on this as HIGH, not because I think they are not trying to listen at all, but becuase it seems like they are doing it with tools like survey-monkey type questionnaires rather than actually going out among the masses and seeing what the people are doing and what makes them tick.