Saturday, May 29, 2010

May the best humanity win: visiting the Linden Prize finalists

You've undoubtedly seen the messages that are showing up lately about the finalists for the "Linden prize." Tonight I got an IM from my friend Ernst Osterham asking me if I had looked over the list. I said I had, but that nothing about the list had particularly struck me as terribly intriguing. He replied that he too thought that overall it was sort of "blah." And I thought, "well, maybe Ernst is right and that's why nothing about it struck me. But I figured I probably should go and actually look at some of the nominated places and programs before I got all judgmental.

Not that I'm ever judgmental. Nooooo...of course not.

So I pulled up their list and started teleporting...and I got through most of them before I just gave up. Does that mean they were dreadful choices for the prize? No...not really. They're just....not really as blindingly unique or stunningly creative as you would expect a project to be get a big ol' 10K prize from Lindens.

Here's how they explain the prize initiative:

"The Linden Prize will award one Second Life Resident or team with $10,000 USD for an innovative inworld project that improves the way people work, learn and communicate in their daily lives outside of the virtual world. This annual award is intended to align with Linden Lab’s company mission, which is to connect all people to an online world that advances the human condition. Many projects inside of Second Life have already enhanced and changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and the company wants to recognize the users’ accomplishments...."

And here is what they say about what they are looking for:

"We rely on several core principles when choosing the finalists and winner.

* Work in Second Life that also achieves tangible, compelling results outside of Second Life.

Distinctive, original work using Second Life that clearly demonstrates high quality, execution, function, aesthetics and technical sophistication.

* Work that has the capacity for inspiring and influencing future development, knowledge, creativity, and collaboration both inside and outside of Second Life

Mind you, I'm not going to go so far as to say that I thought that the finalists for the prize didn't meet the above criteria. But I will say that here is what I found when I went to visit the nominees' builds in-world:

* Sims that were almost entirely empty. When I went to Non Profit Commons, there were a couple of greeters there--really nice friendly people, ready to help with answering any questions. But few or no visitors.

* The usual sort of visual communication techniques and design choices that make most SL exhibits and museums so terribly ineffective--panels and text on walls, objects to click on to get notecards, etc.

* Environments that did little more than replicate real life educational spaces and exhibits.

Chatting with one of the friendly greeters at Non Profit Commons.

Am I being too harsh? Probably. The argument can be made that I really didn't give the time or attention to each build that they deserved. But that's the thing--I suspect that a great many of the standard garden variety SL visitors are going to react to these builds in ways that are similar to my reaction. If we're not engaged quickly and in a lively, unpredictable fashion, then we wander off to look at the next shiny thing that catches our attention.

So I'm not saying that any of these prize nominees had anything wrong with their content, or that they lacked content--they just weren't presenting it in an engaging way, or in a way that connected well. Non Profit Commons, for example, had a lot of content--important content. In fact, it probably had TOO MUCH content: the dense multiplicity of narratives and messages overwhelmed me: I just glazed over in a matter of minutes, and moved on to the next build.

When so many of the finalists for the Linden Prize are like this-- unimaginative builds dealing with oh-so-serious topics and Education with a capital "E"--it can be discouraging. It seems to reinforce the sense that so many of us have that the Lindens want to foster an image for SL that is serious and perhaps even more than a little pretentious. It seems like the version of SL that LL hopes to promote is largely unrelated to the reality that is experienced by the majority of us users, who are basically in this for shits and giggles and maybe a bit of highly unstructured self-directed learning. Many of us have long suspected that the Lindens not only don't understand what we do and why we do it, they are downright embarrassed by us. And at first glance, it would seem that the list of Linden prize finalists reinforces that suspicion...except...

...and this is a big exception... of the finalists is the team that brought the "Sion chicken" concept to SL. I have no idea how it got to the finals. but gawd bless those folks for applying for the prize, and gawd bless whoever said, "yeah, that's worth recognizing." The chickens are of course, silly. And pretty much pointless...other than the fact that a lot of people seem to have fun with them.

It gives me some hope that maybe there are Lindens who do "get it"--that life on the grid has to have an element of fun. The fact that the platform can still attract creative, pleasantly silly people and offers stuff that is silly or creative--or silly AND creative--is what gives it real appeal. It's not Education with a big "E," or business meetings, or serious non-profits sharing serious messages...although those are all important in their limited, limping ways. But they are not what makes SL unique.

Now, I will admit, that there is another way of looking at the inclusion of the Sion Chicken business in the finalists for the Linden Prize. This concept is somewhat suggestive of certain growing stuff/task-based game-ish elements that are such a popular facet of certain facebooky things. When the Lindens included Sion Chickens among the prize finalists, is that reflective of some deep-seated Linden desire to make the SL platform more like those massively-adopted social media products? If so, then yeah, that's a little scary.

But being the optimist that I am, I prefer to look on it as evidence of the possibility that they do simply comprehend that fun is important too.

Of course, I think we can make a pretty good argument that what is really most important in SL is how it brings people together. This was the thing that struck me more than anything else when I visited the locations associated with the Linden prize finalists. I generally couldn't tell to what extent these projects and builds fostered the development of micro-communities or encouraged and facilitated interaction between people who otherwise would never have had the opportunity to talk with each other.

This was brought home to me during my explorations tonight, when--after I grew tired of visiting prize finalists--I started going to places that had some association with Memorial Day--places like the Vietnam Memorial build. I finally wound up at "Patriot Island," home of the Wounded Warriors programming and the site of a decent recreation of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Watching the sentry walk his post at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Patriot Island.

It was a pretty nice build; it had some very good content--including useful information for rl veterans about where they could go for help regarding various issues and problems--but most importantly it had people. There were more people on Patriot Island at 11:30 PM than on all the Linden Prize finalist sims combined. They were talking about nothing earthshaking--mostly they were just being silly and having fun (although there was one volunteer in dress blues doing sentry duty in very dignified fashion at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). A couple of the people IM'ed me, welcoming me and answering some questions. I also talked to one of their admins to get information about who to contact for an interview. At some point before long, I think I'll write a longer piece about the build and related projects.

But yeah, what made the build appealing and encouraged me to stay there longer than I did at any other place I went tonight, was the human element.

Whoever gets the prize, I really hope that it is whoever does the best job of incorporating the human element into what they do--although giving points for silliness and fun would be appropriate as well.



  1. You know, I took an entirely different spin on that--I thought the mere fact that Sion Zaius applied for the Linden Prize--and was put on the finalists list--to be an egregious slap in the face to everyone who's ever had to tell any ninny-brained owner of 32 virtual lag-causing pets that their ownership of these chirping nightmares is what's killing the sim they're in, and they have to return their birds or move on out.

    The sim chain I'm working for now, as it happens? That's actually official policy--two birds per 1024 square meters, no exceptions. Don't like it? Don't rent there.

    I also firmly believe that Sion chickens are the first ever virtual SL pet to have dedicated sites whose sole purpose is instructing residents in how to slay chickens. (Do I think these sites are mean-spirited in the extreme? Absolutely. But I understand why they exist.)

    ...Not that I have issues with chickens, or anything. *coughs*

  2. Hey Emily,

    We all have issues with something (I refer you to my previous disucssion of stripper poles in "Old West" saloons). And you bring up an important point that I missed because I am someone who has never had to deal with these chicken things at all, let alone in a context where they were a technical concern.

    I'm guessing the Lindens (or whoever it is who pick these finalists) probably haven't had that kind of direct practical experience either, so I'm not sure that it constitutes a "slap in the face" as much as it's just another case of them being unaware of all aspects of something that is going on within their product.

    For that matter, I wonder to what extent judgments of technical performance considerations even entered into this process. A number of the other finalist sims that I went to visit were sweltering with lag, which--although I didn't bother with talking about it in the above post--was certainly something that discouraged me from exploring those builds and trying to get anything of meaning out of them.

    So I get the impression that the main thing they were looking at was more about the ideas behind the nominees' projects, rather than the actual execution.

    As for the "chicken killing" sites, perhaps (and I am being only slightly facetious here) those are factored in under the part of the Lindens' criteria in judging which states that they are looking for "Work that has the capacity for inspiring and influencing...collaboration both inside and outside of Second Life."

    They didn't say anything to the effect that it had to inspire positive, friendly or good-natured collaboration.

  3. What, no talking tummies among the finalists?

    I don't care for the chickens myself, and I'm quite sympathetic to Miss Orr's view of them as sim-killing monstrosities. It's a reasonable question, though, to ask what the SL platform has the potential to be. Socialization, a la Facebook? Education? Gaming? All of the above? So maybe the chickens are innovative, even if not particularly socially responsible.

  4. Hi Rhia,

    The other possibility of course is that the Lindens simply put all the nominations in a hat and just pulled out a handful at random to be finalists. Yes, it is a very remote possibility, but you could argue that in some ways it is probably the most fair and equitable way of dealing with this sort of judging.

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