Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The memes go on -- extreme ends of a spectrum in recent commentary on Second Life

~~~
Here's a picture I took of my friend Aldo climbing Total Lunar Eclipse's magnificent Mt. St Helens model. yeah..It's a metaphor of some sort. Aspiring to something higher, or some such fucking nonsense.

In the last few days a couple of different pieces have shown up on the interpipes that to my mind typify the perceptions that are held at the extreme ends of the spectrum of opinion regarding what is going on in Second Life at present, and what its future holds.

In one of these pieces that I am referring to, the respected and beloved M Linden weighs in at the “happy shiny avatars holding hands” end of things in his New Year’s message to his partners on the grid. Meanwhile, a delightful gentleman named Barry Collins has trotted out yet another “Sl is dying” effort under the dreadfully misapplied tab “analysis” at PC Pro UK.

Cheese and crackers, boys and girls! I am going to have to talk to my British friend Headburro about why there seems to be an unfortunate pattern among the British bloggers to simply repeat the same sort of negative opinions without really seeking to actually investigate the circumstances in anything more than a very superficial way? They are entitled to their opinions, but it should be emphasize that whey=t they are generating is "opinion" and not "journalism." If someone wants to really see some serious journalism being done about SL, I highly recommend Randall Hand's excellent new new series of reports on VizWorld starting with this one:

http://www.vizworld.com/2010/01/state-union-vizworld-life/

Of course, the people who, like Mr. Hand, are thinking most clearly and realistically about the platform--and many related issues ranging from the development of virtual education opportunities, to the evolution of virtual economies, to the growth of virtual literature and the new publishing models--fall somewhere in the vast area in between the extreme views of SL. But there do seem to be an awful lot of folks drinking the kool-aid at the one end, or wallowing in the slough of despond at the other.

Why is that?

Well in M’s case, I think he jolly well has to, and I admire him for giving it a good shot. I would think he wasn’t doing his job if he didn’t believe things were getting better and try to sell that to the masses. He has to have that vision of a bright and grand future, because that’s what a guy in his position is supposed to do. Yeah, as Rostand’s Cyrano pointed out, tilting at windmills may cast you down into the mud, but their long arms also might launch you up among the stars.

"Excelsior!"

Look here, boys and girls, those of us who look at the platform realistically know that SL is a “festival of unintended consequences” (and yes, I am inordinately proud of that phrase, thank you very much). Whatever the residents or the Lindens do or try, the standard outcome is gonna be Something That We Didn’t Expect. So M might as well go ahead and preach his vision for a gorgeous, interconnected, massively-adopted future for SL, because, by golly, that outcome is probably as equally likely or unlikely as anything else any of the rest of us are envisioning at present.

That said, I just can’t say that I buy into a lot of what he’s testifyin’ to. But rather than picking at the bits that don’t make sense to me or quite ring true, I want to focus on two things he says that I think are kinda important.

First off I note that he says the following about their new trend in showing us “roadmaps” to addressing SL issues:

“So, what’s ahead in 2010? Before I jump into this, a caveat is in order. Linden Lab is not a traditional software company. Historically, roadmaps were simply not part of the Lab’s DNA. This kind of project planning is new for the Lab. That being said, we are trying to share our plans in advance, in the form of dialog with the community because we know many of you are building your businesses on our platform. “

Hold on a just a gol-danged minute there, Shirley! Are you tellin’ me the Labsters didn’t do project planning before this?

Well, that certainly explains a lot about why it always felt like they were jolly well makin’ it up as they went along. The old Linden way of doing business after the initial launch seemed to meander from being pathologically laissez faire to flailing around with knee-jerk reactions to the threatened lawsuit du jour. If there was a plan, it must have been some kind of mystical bushwah that required an oracle to decipher. Or maybe Phil really DID let all his secondary employees just do what ever gave them a Big Smile, and said "pooh" to the customers’ needs.

So if this is the case--that they are in fact actually thinking this stuff over before they do something, if they are actually moving towards a more proactive stance on issues, AND they are going to run things past us (even if it is just for shits and giggles)--I want to applaud this concept. Planning is sort of essential in most modern enterprises, and the idea of lettin’ your partners (ie, us customers) in on the plan and giving us a chance to react and share our thoughts is a pretty darn good idea.

There are many really thoughtful, creative people using the platform. Yeah, an awful lot of us are knuckle-draggin’ idiots and some of us have embraced the zen of being “less than genteel.” But all told, they could probably learn alot from the folks in the trenches. Even some of us who are not genteel.

The other thing that I was struck by was that in a couple of places M said the following kinds of things:

“We’ve also been working on improving the support we give to the ecosystem of content creators, merchants, landowners and solution providers since they/you are the lifeblood of Second Life. Finally, we’ve been working on platform projects to improve stability, reliability and quality of the Second Life experience which is top-of-mind for all Residents.”

And the final point under “So what's ahead in 2010:”

“Last but not least, 'Technical Must Dos' that improve inventory management, lag and other sources of Resident frustration through a global infrastructure, parallelization in the simulator, enhanced viewer to simulator data communication and improved caching.”

I hope this isn’t just lip service. I hope that M really believes this and he is doing the leadership thing 110% and making these priorities clear to all the his staff. The last year was characterized by a certain lack of leadership, reflected in what seemed to be happening around the middle of 2009 with lower level Lindens responding to the lack of direction by “going feral,” while the ones in the middle apparently started eating their young.

M, if you’re reading this piffle, then please, make a priority of that commitment to dealing with what we really want and need...and please kick some tookus and take names until the whole organization jolly well gets it.

And again, let me say that even if I ain’t sippin’ the Kool-aid like some folks, I have more empathy with M’s hopes and dreams--and I have more respect for his overly optimistic perspective--than I do for the utter piffle being spewed at the other end of the spectrum by people like this Barry Collins gentleman.

Here’s how an editor (or someone) introduced his “analysis” piece on Second Life:

“It's desolate, dirty, and sex is outcast to a separate island. Barry Collins returns to Second Life to find out what went wrong, and why it’s raking in more cash than ever before.”

Frankly, I think the reason they write stuff like this piece is for sensationalism value--put sex in the promo blurb, get people's attention, and then they all get stirred up and all the Second Lifers will bump up your site traffic by coming to trash the post or to argue.

As far as I can tell, that kind of thinking is the only possible motivation for publishing a piece like this, because Mr. Collins really didn't have anything to say. (although unlike the last gentleman who flogged this sort of anti-hype, Mr. Collins actually had some screenshots from SL to illustrate his post.)

So basically what this gentleman tells us that is that SL is different from what it was like when he visited in 2006 (that should have been a real "aha" moment, Sherlock). But he never does get around to explaining or even exploring why “It’s raking in more cash than ever before.”

You know one of the things I found interesting in M’s new year’s post was his reflections on all the wacky and important things and stuff that have happened with our expansion into the virtual during the last ten years. The virtual evolves faster than any other context these days--cycles are more rapid and it’s an intellectual, social and entrepreneurial pressure cooker. Just about any moron would realize that after a few minutes reflection. But this Barry gentleman goes back to SL three years after his first visit and is all disappointed that the virtual pub he hung out at and his pub friends aren’t there any more?

This is a surprise?

I find the gentleman's lack of perspicacity somewhat remarkable.

It appears that at the heart of his perspective is the same old meme that is current among the brain-dead techies who produce nothing and add nothing to either the virtual or the physical world. All this guy seemed interested in was the pixel sex, and reinforcing another variation on the same pointless meme that people who have a virtual element to their lives need to “get a life. My goodness gracious. Talk about being out of touch with reality...did this Barry gentleman actually think the same people would be hanging around in the same spots, three years later?

The grid is a darn sight more dynamic than that. Golly...the sport of curling is more dynamic that that.

Ok. I will say this one more time, and with a little clarification:

There is no difference between first and second life. If you are doing it...is is life.

The clarification? Yes...life ideally has to have balance between its various parts. If you spend so much time on SL that you forget to get enough sleep and the cat is fighting with the baby over the last bowl of kibble on the floor, then your life is out of balance and it is NOT HEALTHY. But the same goes for anything:

You can work at your rl job so much that your life is out of balance and you never see your kids grow up. That ain’t healthy either.

You can spend so much time watching TV that your hindquarters fall asleep and your circulatory system shuts down. Nope, not good.

You can sit in the basement masturbating so much that you injure your naughty bits. Definitely not good.

But that’s not what I am talking about--I am talking about creating for yourself a balanced, healthy life that may include a virtual element to it. All other issues aside, that virtual element IS part of your life.

People need a balance of things in their lives, and a reasonable amount of time spent on the SL platform, like a lot of very cool recreational stuff on the web, can make your life richer, more fun, and more complex in a positive way.

The thing that I think Barry Collins missed--and I hope M is not missing as well--is that the real genius of the platform is that a certain part of the population always keeps getting motivated to do more...to go that next level, to do something different that broadens a horizon or two. What you do in your second month, or your second year, or your sixth year for that matter, will most likely be far different from what you were doing in-world early on.

Of course the people from 3 years ago aren’t sitting in the same pub talking about the same sex clubs or whatever they were taking about in 2006--it would be appalling if they were. By now they’ve either moved on to a new experience, or they’re working at making stuff, or rp’ing vampire chipmunks, or something. But I can pretty much assure you that if they are still in SL, they’re there because they chose to aspire to something higher and more challenging--and they did so on their own and of their own free will, not with guidance or direction from above.

An Addeundum, 1/18/2010:
I note there are a great many new readers stopping by, particularly from the UK, directed by a link from Mr. Collins' most recent article on SL. If you found this discussion of interest, I respectfully invite you to also see a follow-up piece on this blog at

http://ephemeralfrontier.blogspot.com/2010/01/further-thought-on-memes-at-extremes.html


Another Addendum, 1/21.2010:

This blog is not written for everyone. But since Mr. Collins chose to link to this and we've drawn a great many readers who seem to come from more genteel circumstances, I have elected to re-edit the article so that their eyeballs will not melt from their heads. Wherever you see words like "gentleman" feel free to put your own noun of choice back in. Oh, and I also put in a link to Randall Hand's article. I would like people to see what real journalism looks like.




"Are we there yet? I dunno...what does the roadmap say?"
~~~

14 comments:

  1. The British press are, frankly, cunts. We Brits by nature are almost the total opposite of what we perceive you Americans to be (you know, smiling, optomistic, have-a-nice-day). We psychologically ned to take the piss out of stuff and knock people off pedestals we placed them on. It's depressing and we let our laughable media buttfuck us into the slough of despond all the way.

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  2. Hey Lalo!
    Thank you hon.

    Hey HB,
    Don't get me wrong, I love Brits, I got some great friends from your part o the world (besides you). And some of my favorite places in the world are in are England--the pub across the road from Jane Austen's house in Chawton, the Royal Navy Yards at Portsmouth, Porchester castle, Salisbury Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace, The Imperial War Museum, among others. But it sure does seem like some awfully shallow, negative stuff is coming from Brit online commentators...and it's all basically the same stuff over and over.

    But then hey, people like that give people like you and me the chance to rail and spout verbal abuse. Cussin's just plain fun, ain't it?

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  3. We Brits are a negative bunch. I blame the weather.

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  4. Wonderful rant, I particularly enjoyed the "verbal pyrotechnics", made me laugh more than once. I only hope that all our railing of the Barry Collins' brand of journalism eventually gets results.

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  5. Hey Matt,

    thanks for commenting.

    Glad to know that my overblown crap gave you a chuckle or two, because yeah, mostly I'm doing this to entertain myself, but it's always fun if someone else gets it now and then. The ironic thing is, I really do try to tone it down. I generally write a piece like this and then once I'm done, I go back and take out the most egregiously offensive vocabulary before I hit that "publish post" button.

    Seriously though, the thing that gets me about "journalists" like Mr. Collins and other recent commentators on SL is that they aren't really saying anything based on anything other than very limited personal exposure to the platform (if that). They never seem to get into any actual discussions with people who actually use the platform, let alone anyone representing the Lab.

    That's not journalism--it's being a glorified tourist who just goes in gathers some personal impressions and then interprets those through the filter of similar bushwah that someone else has already put out there. It's neither original, nor thoughtful, nor particularly accurate or useful beyond serving as a purely anecdotal example of what one person's very limited experience was like.

    Anyway, I do like your commentary and I hope you will keep checking back in here periodically and find other bits and bobs of interest.

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  6. The model-railroad that is SL - or not. And my explanation why it is successful where for example Blue Mars might fail: http://stindberg.blogspot.com/2009/12/model-railroad-that-is-sl.html

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  7. Hey Peter,
    thanks for stopping in and providing the link. Will go and take a look.

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  8. There are games for those who need to be handed pre-fab goals and things to do. For the rest of us, there's Second Life.

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  9. Hey Melissa,

    Thank you for commenting.

    Yeah, Hon, I think that's pretty much on the money. The thing that is perhaps most intimidating about SL for some folks isn't the challenge of learning to use the technology, it is that you have to impose your own goals, or find for yourself a community that develops them--like in sailing, ironclad battles, or even something like Deadwood, where you acquire a certain amount of social stature and connections by making things, doing things like organizing events and activities and doing creative, quality interaction with other people.

    Ultimately, I just think it's pretty remarkable to be able to go to a place where you can give yourself goals like making interesting stuff, learning, and having fun with nice people from around the world.

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  10. I have never played Second Life, but I read the Barry Collins article and it didn't seem negative to the actual game itself at all. The points generally revolved around the fact that the place was empty. This, I'm sure it will agree is a problem for an online community! It seems in this blog, that you have taken great offence to anyone saying anything other than positive about the hobby you love.

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  11. Hi Ralph,

    Whilst I would never be rude enough to speak for Dio, I feel that after several conversations about this subject in the comment sections of this blog and others I can confidently say Dio can take someone disliking her (and my) hobby. Hell, she can take them hating it and being very verbal about hating it. What gets her, and my, goat is when someone calls it a sack of shit without taking the time to open the sack and stick their hand in.

    Far better he'd said he disliked SL for the reason he had difficulty finding anything there to interest him, rather than assuming his own lack of interest applied to everyone else. His piece bore the air of a critique of SL as a whole, when in fact it nothing more (or less) than a personal view, something he has every right to have and share in exactly the same way others have to refute it.

    Another example is that I don't like Facebook and really don't see the point of it. But that’s *I*. It's a personal view, not a technological (or otherwise) critique of the system, just my point of view based on how I perceive its usefulness or interest to me. What Barry said was along the lines of me writing how dull model train set building was because of all the little models and trains I had to use! What, may I ask, is to stop Barry turning his attentions to another hobby he doesn't find interesting and taking it apart solely on the basis *he* doesn't find it interesting? What about Morris Dancing next? Or train spotting? Or being a member of the St John's ambulance? My point is any hobby can be pulled apart, but when the only point *you* are making is you don't like that hobby then really it's not much of a point.

    Far better Barry had written about the real barriers to adoption of SL – the dreadful first hour experience that sees (by some estimates) 90% of people who try it never come back. Or the over complicated software and high end hardware you need to run it. What about the technical problems associated with having large gatherings in the same place that can crash the system. All these (and more!) are the real bugbears about my (and Dio’s) hobby and I think Barry did himself a great disservice as a journalist by simply going for the easy shots instead of doing what a journalist should do, dig up the truth.

    So no. Dio, me and countless others don’t care if Barry don’t like our hobby – I really couldn’t give a rat’s ass because that is his right. But don’t expect us to stay silent when he takes low blows for his own amusement and career.

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  12. Hey Ralph,

    Thank you coming by and commenting.

    Actually I had no issue with Mr. Collins not liking SL. Many people don't...or they like it for a while and move on. And that's fine.

    I would invite you to look past the invective (which did seem to get Mr. Collin's attention) and also to look at the many other blogs who took issue with what he wrote and arrived at a similar conclusion to mine. And that was not that he was wrong for not liking SL, but that he simply parroted what other people had been writing lately without really taking much time or effort to look into what is actually going on.

    He made only a very cursory exploration of the world, he expressed disappointment that things he had seen 3 years ago had disappeared, and he did his exploring in places and at times when yes, the population is pretty thin. He focused on the sensational aspects of life on the grid--the sex--without looking into the flourishing positive aspects of it such as education, art and entrepreneurial innovation, and finally, he never answered his original question he posed, which was that if the grid is empty, why is there so much economic activity--and profitability--for Linden Lab and for the residents?

    My issue wasn't with his conclusion--it was for weak methodology and shallow approach.

    If you read his second article, you may have noticed my response in the comment thread there which I hope makes it clear that it's not about whether you like SL or not, but about the idea that when you are looking at a very complex phenomenon like this, you have to look at it in a careful way and try to arrive at balanced conclusions.

    That was the point of this entire piece which I think you also missed by virtue of focusing on the verbal pyrotechnics directed at Mr. Collins. There are two extremes of commentary on SL these days, commentary at each end of the spectrum: those that follow a highly positive and not always realistic line; and those who are choosing to take an entirely negative perspective.

    As is true with most things in both the virtual and real worlds, the reality lies somewhere in the middle. Nothing is perfect and nothing is suitable for everyone. Mr. Collins and others are entirely welcome to not like or to not use the same cultural/social tools that I choose to use. They are entitled to that opinion.

    But I do take issue with them labeling that opinion as "analysis."

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  13. I must say, it was a hoot to read the bowdlerized version after having read the original.

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