Thursday, January 7, 2010

A further thought on the memes at the extremes

A couple of people who I think pretty highly of have linked to my previous post about the standardized thinking at the extreme opposite ends of commentary on SL, and I wanted to thank them.

First off, Dusan Writer, bless his heart, linked to the post on Twitter and actually said something nice about it, rather something like, "you're not going to believe this tripe."

I do appreciate it, pard. It's nice when someone like Mr. Writer links to your stuff because it does expose your writing to some new folks, and hopefully, one or two of 'em might stick around for the ride, or might just come back now and then. Either way that would be pretty cool.

Also, as I was looking through today's "visitor paths" data at Statcounter, and noticed that one of the readers who linked through by way of Dusan's tweet was from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I hope they maybe looked at some of the creative writing as well as the obnoxious opinion pieces. Just so you know...I can be bought.

Anyhow, the other person who linked to the post was Emilly Orr in her most recent post. Emilly is one of the more unique independent thinkers who regularly comments on virtual worlds, particularly SL, and I always take it as a great compliment when she links to something of mine. In this post, she takes what is arguably a more open-minded look at Barry Collin's piece in PC Pro than mine was. And the really cool part was that the things from Mr. Collin's commentary that she quoted got me to thinking a bit further about what actually was wrong with what he was saying.

Emilly's post included the following:

"PC Pro's Barry Collins asks, whatever happened to Second Life? The article seems curiously tilted; for all that he's calling it a wasteland and abandoned by all the cool kids, he's also noting that Second Life keeps making money--and lots of it. You can't make money off an abandoned property; people are still interested in SL, and all the bleating otherwise won't change things.

But I will say I agree with his assumptions in general: the Labs pissed a lot of people off, so now, yes, the mainland's pretty empty. It's rare I port to most stores and see more than one avatar standing around. It's equally rare that if I go to Zindra, I don't find it packed--at least by my definition of "packed" (which is still sixteen to thirty avatars visible).

I did admire how he ended the piece, though:

"It’s like the nouvelle cuisine of the 1980s: pretty, fascinating but ultimately unfulfilling. “What’s the point of Second Life?” I asked one of the “greeters” on the Second Life Help Island, desperate to find something that could make this vast, billion-dollar empire seem worthwhile.
“I’ve had a real life for 28 years and I haven’t worked out what the point of that is yet,” came his unexpectedly philosophical reply. “Second Life’s only been going six years. Give it a chance.”

Sorry, I’m afraid I’ve got a proper life to be getting on with."

And I was glad she focused on that bit because it really help me to crystallize my own perceptions about what constitutes the essential, wonderful purpose of the platform. I tried to hit on this in my previous post here, but really didn't do a very good job of explaining what I was feeling. Thanks to Emilly, I tried to move a bit past feeling and get more to the thinking stage of things, and here is what I said in reply to her post:

"Hey Hon thanks for the plug, you know I always appreciate it.

As for Mr. Collins' parting shot about the comparison between Nouvelle Cuisine and SL, I think his half-assed little attempt at an Oscar Wilde-ish bon mot there pretty much illustrates precisely why witless lumps like that don't do well in Second life.

He's comparing an essentially passive activity--going to a restaurant and consuming something that was prepared by someone else--to an activity that, at its best, is an empowering tool for self-expression and creating one's own entertainment and social activities.

SL is NOT like nouvelle cusisine because when you order a meal in a restaurant, you can't go in the kitchen, take the cooking process out of the hands of the chef, then look through all his storage shelves and coolers and find what you want in order to make something that's completely different and probably much more interesting than his artful arrangement of green beans and chicken bits.

And it is not just the technical side of being able to build a better environment or artifact or work of art--it's the ability to build your own social structures, your own communities of like-minded goofballs (or differently-minded goofballs for that matter).

In short, as we all know and he obviously missed--the point to SL is what we choose to impose on it. As much as the Lindens may seem to fight that reality, or look for other ways of their own to make it profitable (something I'm cool with as long as it doesn't interfere with what the rest of us are doing), the "point" of SL is whatever its users choose for it to be. Consequently, it has as many potential "points" as there are of us who use it.

After all, what's the "point" of a rock? It's just a rock until you pick it up and use it to pound a tent stake into the ground, and then it's a hammer. Or you use it to slug some feckless tosser upside o' his punkin' head, and then it's a behavior modification device.

I don't know Mr.Collins' background or what he actually does in meatspace. And I really don't give a hairy green shit, to be honest. But the fact that he has some connection to PC Pro suggests that he comes from some kind of wanky-techie occupation. If that's true, I wouldn't be at all surprised, as I suspect one of the common problems that the professional techies have with Second Life (including, it seems some of the ones at LL) is that despite the dreaded "learning curve" that people keep whining about, SL is something that almost anyone can use to construct and maintain their own entertainment, education, and/or social activities. They don't have to be mere consumers unless they choose to be. And I think some people on the professional side of the equation find that frightening.

They'd rather be the chef, arranging the couple of string beans on the plate with the cute little chicken blobs themselves."

I really think that's it: if you come in expecting to be entertained--if you want to be a passive consumer--that will work for a while. Or maybe not. I will cheerfully acknowledge that Mr. Collins clearly had an unfulfilling experience with SL the second time he came to use (three years after his first experience). But let's consider the possibility that perhaps what was unfulfilling wasn't SL itself, but the fact that he approached it as a passive consumer. He sat back with an "entertain me" attitude, which is, of course, the approach that many folks bring to the platform.

And that's fine. Just don't come pissin' and moanin' to me if you decide that's not going to be rewarding enough for you. The fact is, that kind of attitude will only get you so far with any activity. Eventually, you need to move on to the next thing.

So what makes SL unique and gives it some staying power--and ongoing earning power--is the fact that we can all give it the "point" that we choose for it to have. We don't all need to abandon it when the initial buzz of being wowed and entertained wears off. We don't need to move on to the "next thing"--we can build our own "next thing" within it.

And this is the key lesson that I hope the Labsters are learning--that the strength of the platform lies in something other than amusing a huge pile of passive consumers for a brief time. Yeah. it can do that too. Hell yeah, it is a pretty amusing and awe-inspiring place to come in and just mosey about, mouth agape and all googly-eyed. a tourist, shop, consume, have pixel sex, it's all good. But that will only work for a while. SL has to be both the big midway tourist attraction and shopping mall, and it also has to be the open-ended creative and social tool that will hold the people who can impose their own "point" to it. Linden Lab just has to work out striking the balance that will bring in the tourons without damaging the platform's ability to serve the more complex purpose.


  1. Kudos, Dio!! Very, very well said!

    I asked a fellow blogger the other day, "Why do you do it? Blogging isn't easy...why put forth the effort?"

    His answer: "I don't build, and I don't script. This is my way of giving back to--and thus getting more from--Second Life".


  2. Hey Cici,

    Thank you for the kind words.

    And yes, you're quite right. Blogging isn't always easy. Yeah, it ain't always hard either, and sometimes it's downright fun on wheels. But it does take a pretty good amount of time and effort.

    And I like your friend's comment. I think he has a real good point there. SL is one of those activities in which the more you put into it, the more you can potentially get out of it.

    The exchange ain't always tidy, and it ain't always equal in the give and take, but by golly, you certainly have a better chance of getting more out of it if you engage with the platform in an active, rather than passive way.

    Don't get me wrong--the platform has a place for the consumers and tourists too--but the staying power of that audience segment is inevitably limited.

    On the other hand the good news is that when we do decide to be active contributors to life on the grid (and the intersecting elements like SL-related blogs and forums etc.), the ways that a person can contribute are restricted only by their imagination and the amount of time they are willing to apply to the process.

  3. And I had to stop in and comment on the 'what's the point of a rock?' section. Used to keep documents from leaving the battalion table, it's a paperweight. Used to pound stakes into the ground, it's a mallet. Used to whack some sense into someone, it's a behavior modification device. (Adore that last one.)

    Also, the ways that a person can contribute are restricted only by their imagination and the amount of time they are willing to apply to the process.

    I have to say, absolutely. Unless you're running into specific attachment, scripting, or base mesh issues, SL only has the limitations on it the Lindens employ. (And while that's still a fair number of limitations, the point stands.)

  4. Hey, Emilly,
    well yeah that's an important qualification. When the bird ain't flapping it's wings, you will note it does no so much fly as plummet. I was of course overstating the case, and yes, there are limitations, and not just what was built into the platform (which I still look upon as being in extended Beta), but also the limitations of the thing not working now and then. Or the limitations of when the Lindens randomly block someone from logging in. Which of course brings us back to the old issue of what do we need and want from the company starts with reliability and stability...and a reasonable expectation that when you try to log in, something is gonna happen.

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