Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Do you love me? do you loathe me? do you even know I exist? -- our dichotomous relationship with Linden Lab

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I go back and forth between sometimes being incredibly disappointed with Linden Lab, and other times feelin’ kinda sorta positive about those folks: feeling like...well, at least they’re trying to get things right. So, in between saying mean and snarky things, and threatening to kick poor old Phillip Linden square in the balls if I ever meet him, I do make an effort to give them credit when I think it is due, and say encouraging things when they seem to be giving it the old college try.

Happily wallowing in Caledon's "courtesy and old-world charm"

Like this recent development in which the Lab is trying to come up with a means to address the problem of misappropriation of creative content in world.

I won’t go into the whole explanation of the process that they are experimenting with--suffice to say that as I understand it, the idea is that when it becomes established that someone’s texture or object design has been misappropriated and used to create other stuff in-world, LL will pretty much nuke the offending material, turning objects into plywood spheres, and textures into monochromatic disappointments.

Is this a perfect solution? No of course not. I am well past thinking there are perfect solutions to any issue, whether in SL or real life.

Does it have a lot of potential for things to go wrong and make people unhappy?.

Oh, you bet. I call your attention to Emilly Orr’s well thought-out post on this subject. Emilly is a hell of a lot smarter than I am, and has a mind that focuses in ways that I always find intriguing. And I think she has a lot of really good points in her post. But are the negative outcomes she envisions inevitable, rather than simply being possible?

Hecate’s drawers, y'all, I got no freakin’ idea.

It is entirely possible that things will turn out with the results Emilly suggests...or it could be something entirely different. One thing we do know for sure about the grid is that it is a festival of unintended consequences. Hell, it is even possible that this plan the Lab is working on could actually discourage the misappropriation of other people's content. There is a good chance that the nuking of content which is based on misappropriated materials would not happen all that often, so the collateral damage to unsuspecting buyers might not be all that dreadful. It’s hard to say. After all, I can never shake the sensation that we are in an extended beta phase here, and anything we customers or the folks at Lab do is still in the realm of mad scientist experimentation.

Hey, pretty much, both us and them, we’re all just making this shit up as we go along.

But whatever the outcome...whether it’s more positive than negative, or wallows somewhere in the vast range in between, I gotta hand it to the Lab with regards to one key aspect of this: they caught on that this issue is important to a lot of folks and they are trying to do something about it.

Look at this quote from Pink Linden’s Dec. 9 announcement about this concept:

“As we said in our recent Content Management Roadmap blog post, we believe that Resident-created content is the heart and soul of Second Life, and we want to help everyone continue to benefit from the amazing creativity that has been displayed by our Residents inworld. When content creators are successful, Second Life is a better world for all of us--more inspiring, more spontaneous, and more fun!

Today we are pleased to announce continued forward progress along this roadmap: a pilot program to test some early improvements to our intellectual property complaint process. The goal of this program is to make the process more convenient and streamlined for Residents, and to empower content creators to better control their content.”

Yeah, to some extent, she is saying “the content-making population is necessary for our product to remain appealing to the customers and is therefore necessary for us labbies to continue getting our paychecks.” But it is also a recognition that there is an issue here that makes residents’ stomachs churn and their angst to increase. "Content theft" as it is commonly known, is something that matters to a lot of us who create, who have friends who create, or who rely on the continued productivity and happiness of the creators in order to be able to do all the wacky nonsense we love to do in-world.

In the past, the Lab has been known to turn away from big issues like this, or even to cheerfully embrace the perpetrators who were making the trouble, rather than responding to the wishes and interests of the majority of residents. The Lab has been known to say when something was fucked up, “hey, it’s up to you residents to fix things that have gotten fucked up--remember, “your world, your imagination...your problem.” Linden Lab in the past has given many of us the impression of being laissez faire, lazy, and uninterested--they often used the excuse, “well, there just isn’t any way of making a technical fix for that problem," or "we just can't keep everybody happy, so we just can’t--or won’t--do anything at all...Have a nice Second Life, fuckers.”

But this time, they are actually trying to do something.

Yeah, it may blow up in the their faces, it may do bizarre things we’ll all regret. But it’s something. It suggests to us that, hey, maybe there is someone on the other side of the equation that actually cares enough to try.

And I think they deserve some credit for that.

Because, after all, one of the other things many of us have felt for a long time is that the Labsters doesn't really understand us or really want to know who we are and what we want and need. It has seemed to many of us that who we are and what we do makes them...uncomfortable.

It has been a long time since they used the old tag line, “Your World, Your Imagination.” But it often seemed that if your imagination wasn’t focused on some largely human-centric, shiny futurist utopia or standard post-apocalyptic dystopia, sexy-youthful contemporary shopaholicism, or hippy-dippy Burning Man-style artistic range of visions, they just didn’t fucking get it. And more to the point, they didn’t seem to want to. If what you were doing was focused on something like exploring the historical past (or an imagined alternative past), or pursuing neo-traditional literary and artistic interests, or something that was non-human-centric or that they found embarrassing like furries, tinies, Gor, elves and so on--they seemed to try to ignore it as much as possible.

This impression was reinforced by situations like what happened back at the time of SL6B, when Ina Centaur’s Shakespeare in SL project was rejected for inclusion in the SL birthday exhibits as not fitting in with the theme of “the future of the Metaverse.” I know that whole situation was incredibly complex and confusing, but at the heart of it, it simply seems that there was a major difference of opinion within the Lab about what should be seen as representative of the “future,” as Ina’s Skin Encyclopedia was accepted, but Shakespeare was not.

Well, dammit, the “future” is not just about new stuff: it also can be about continuity with the past and the present, and a re-imagining of the framework in which we explore our existing cultural, artistic and intellectual heritage. It can be about sharing our diverse histories with each other in new and creative ways though the medium of the continually evolving technology.

And--again, trying to be fair to the Lab--maybe there ARE some people in the organization who do get it...who in effect, get us. I found it interesting that yes, Shakespeare in SL wasn’t deemed appropriate for SL6B, but does show up in the new SL promos about “what is SL?"

In the slideshow, under the category "Start Exploring," there is a screen entitled "Get Cultured" which features this text:

"Looking for culture? Second Life is full of museums, art exhibits, book clubs and theater. A virtual Shakespeare acting troop routinely presents the best of the Bard, while the Smithsonian recently launched the Latino Virtual Museum." (my bolding)

Actually I think looking through this whole new promotional explanation of SL is quite illuminating. I believe it can be seen as being suggestive of how the company generally understands it's customer base and their interests--as well as how they perhaps would like it to be.

The presentation is still primarily human-centric. In the machinama portion of "What is SL?" the avatars shown are primarily young, contemporary-looking humans. There's even a guy in a suit with a briefcase (he really doesn't look like he's much fun to hang around with, and if I was going to be really coarse about it, I would suggest that he appears to desperately need to get laid). At the very end, you see some tinies and some furries, but damn, you better look fast or you'll miss em. Some people are shown in period clothing, but they obviously are just going to dress-up costume parties--not roleplaying.

In fact, nowhere in all of this is there anything about combat-oriented sims, or roleplaying of any sort, or storytelling or the virtual literature movement in any of its manifestations. Well...maybe there is something implied by captions such as "free yourself" and "free your mind," while other captions suggest you can "change your look" and "change your mind." But it's hard to say. And I certainly don't think the casual touron looking at this promotional peice is going to say, "Change my look? Free my mind? Whoa! dude! I could develop a persona as a lady cop in working-class Berlin of the Weimar Republic era, and interact with other people who are interested in that!"

It's like how in the "Showcase" category for "places" they include Caledon. And you go, "Wow, hey! Cool!" But here's the description:

"Step back in time to the 19th Century. Caledon is a vibrant Victorian-themed community within Second Life. If it’s courtesy and old world charm you’re seeking, look no further. Put on your best Victorian suit or dress, and join Caledonians at their annual Harvest Festival- or become a member of this ever-growing online community."

I don't think that really helps you understand the opportunities for roleplay...and yes, I know Caledon is not specifically an "rp community" but rp certainly does happen there. And no mention of steampunk...

It's great they highlight Caledon. But at the same time, you get the feeling that their understanding of that complex arrangement of communities is extremely superficial. Oh, I suppose if they really tried to explain it with any degree of accuracy, it might just confound and possibly frighten the average casual visitor, but it it does feel rather...weak.

But, still, I have to give them some credit..because it feels like they are trying. Another example is when Blue Linden's SL travel blog featured a post about the ironclad battles that are organized by Hotspur O'Toole and his fellow proponents of nautical mayhem. That suggests a certain open-mindedness. I thought it was pretty cool that a Linden seems to have actually gone and watched a battle and talked to the folks involved to get a sense of what the fuck was going on. Likewise, I have also seen a post in which Blue visited the tinies of Raglan Shire, AND put on a tiny av to fit in. Those kinds of things are really encouraging.

But you know...I have been in SL since late 2004. Dio has existed since May 2005. And the only time I ever met a Linden (that I knew was a Linden, anyway) was when a number of years ago I applied for a liaison job and got an interview. It didn't go all that well. Nothing really wrong with how they approached it--it just was obvious that they were looking for someone different from me...someone focused more on the technical side of helping people, rather than the social aspects. At the time I knew relatively little about building or trouble-shooting, and if that was what they wanted, then they were right not to hire me.

But otherwise, I really haven't experienced much contact with people from the company. And yes, I will freely admit that the lack of contact was a two-way street. Yeah, they never wander through the kinds of places that I live in, but it's also true that I have only gone to a few of their office hour things, and then I gave up on it after getting frustrated with the challenges of communication in that kind of situation. Nor have I posted on the SL forums (as is true for about 80% of the SL user base). I guess I got burned out on company sounding boards after dealing with the Electronic Arts TSO forums, which were dominated by the obnoxious, condescending lumptards who represented EA, and their witless sycophants.

Yeah...I know, I know, I just need to fuckin' get over that.

So anyhow, people like me probably could do a better job of trying to get our perspective across to LL. That's one thing that really struck me as I looked at the current "What is SL" promo. It can't ALL be LL's fault that they don't understand us, that they don't know who we are.

Maybe a lot of us have been too insular. For so long, I never bothered to connect with anyone from the Lab because they simply seemed irrelevant within the context of what I was doing. And the other thing that struck me, looking at the subtle hints and sub-texts within the promotional blurbs and the showcase: the people within LL must be a good bit less homogeneous in background and point of view than some of us have thought. Just like they seem to have not done a good job of comprehending the true diversity of the resident population, we haven't really understood how diverse they probably are as well.

I don't know if any of them will read this. The only time I know for sure that Linden Lab people have read this blog was when I did the spoof on their "economic model," comparing their leadership to the ancient Easter Islanders who committed the island population to building hundreds of giant stone heads. Statcounter data indicated that in fact a fair number of people from Linden Lab looked at that one...which I find a little frustrating as there certainly have been other things I have written that were not nearly so goddamn silly and self-indulgent. Sometimes I think I have written some stuff that might actually be of interest or value to the labbites, but... oh well, that's how life works sometimes.

When some of us were heavily involved in The Sims Online (TSO), Will Wright used to regularly wander around in the game (using an alt, of course) and he interacted directly with a lot of the people who were doing unexpected, wild and woolly things with his creation. Maybe the Lab could do well to have some more folks wandering in the same way, and not just to generate a "travel guide" like Blue's, but to actually develop a first-hand awareness of what is going on and what people want and need to do what they are doing. And on the other side of the equation, maybe I'll try again with going to some office hours.
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7 comments:

  1. Poor briefcase-man. From the that short video it appears he IS desperately trying to get laid.

    What always mystifies me about the people in the Linden promotional material for SL is that I never see anyone in-world who looks or acts like them. Perhaps I just have a disreputable and perverse social circle.

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  2. Well Ernst, I don't know about that..after all I am part of your social circle and I...um...

    oh.

    Seriously, you may be right...it may come down to the fact that goobers like you and I just don't frequent the sorts of places wherein dwell the shiny, happy, pretty people (and briefcase man). OR yes, it may, on the other hand, be that these idealized Nordstrom mannequin avatars represent what LL marketing folks think the primary target audience members will want to look like once they are in world.

    Who knows? maybe they even some data to back it up. At least the avies in the promo vid didn't have neckless little pinheads seated on impossibly broad-shouldered torsos.

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  3. Which makes it all the less realistic a depiction of SL I'm afraid. What would SL be without the undressed, silicone-enhanced oily women, or the tattooed, blingy male behemoths?

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  4. The nature of large organizations is that different people are on different pages with respect to both the small (how they should do their jobs) and the large (what the goals of the organization should be). In that regard, it's not surprising that LL seems schizophrenic at times: veering from "Your World, Your Imagination" to trying to homogenize the place to attract corporate business; having a hands-off approach to solving community problems to taking a more active role; listening to user input at times and acting at other times as though the customer is not just wrong but irrelevant. One suspects different people are involved.

    I saw a Linden wander through Caledon's Steam Sky City one evening, even spending a fair amount of time in one of the stores (Deckard & Quinn, I believe). Another - Blue, if I recall correctly - was at AM Radio's latest exhibit (the one where you got to spray-paint the side of a train - I wondered if real vandals ever got writer's block (or, in this case, destruction block) the way I had at the time), catching the mayhem. So they're out there. But they don't have to "get" Caledon, or Deadwood, or BDSM Castle - I made up that last one just now, so don't complain if there isn't a real location by that name, and don't looked shocked if there is, as I wouldn't know one way or the other - in order to understand the variety of activities their customers enjoy.

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  5. Hey Rhia,

    I think you have a very good point about the nature of large organizations, which reinforces my point that we the customers don't really comprehend the diversity of viewpoints and voices within the company, anymore than they seem to understand how variegated we are.

    The thing is, I have experienced large organizations where yeah, the overall workforce is a real mixture of backgrounds and viewpoints, but there is a cadre that has a vision, and by their force of the commitment to that vision, the cadre pushes or pulls everyone else along with it, so that there is a certain level some consistency in how the organization interacts with its constituencies and stakeholders.

    As you say, it's hard to tell sometimes if the overall message we are getting is that we are valued or irrelevant--another aspect of the situation related to the concept behind my title about a dichotomous relationship.

    And yes, you're also absofuckinglutely correct that while they don't really need to "get" us all in order to understand what's going on, it sure wouldn't hurt to at least be open to understanding our priorities.

    Especially being as what we want more than anything else are things that would be good for their business. That includes things like:

    * a stable platform, that runs reliably and smoothly--that the tools we work with aren't continually getting broken, and that things like inventory and transfer of funds don't keep getting woofed up.

    * a reasonably secure environment in which habitual troublemakers are held accountable and crushed like bugs

    * a sense among customers that they are valued, respected and listened to

    * a positive, helpful initial experience is provided for newcomers (our potential new recruits for whatever we are doing). In their first hours in here, the new folks should not assaulted and abused by the habitual recreational troublemakers (and the people who make the initial experience so miserable will not only be kept away from the new folks, they will be held accountable, and oh...yeah, crushed like bugs).

    * that a positive environment is maintained for the creative folks who are the foundation of what we all do, in which they aren't driven from the grid by having their hard work misappropriated by lazy, greedy lumptards


    Other than that, is there much I really want or need? Well crap, I'd love to be able to make a sim crossing without sinking into the ground, but it ain't the end of the world.

    But that's the thing...ultimately, I think most of what we want or need is going to help the SL product remain viable.

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  6. It seeems to me a lot of folks in SL who came over from TSO (I'm not one) loved that world but hated the way it was run - it seems that the management there make LL look positively amazing in comparison.

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  7. oh yeah, compared to the people at EA, especially the ones who were handling community relations, LL is a mix of Santa Claus, Mother Theresa, Robert Oppenheimer and FDR.

    EA was pretty much what you would have expected if Beavis and Butthead had somehow managed to survive into adulthood and had taken over managment of a large company.

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