Monday, January 17, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the Agora: community and participatory sim management in SL


Pericles in the Agora

My friend Sere and I have been active in a couple of the same sims over the last year or so, and I find it useful to talk with her about our shared experiences. I greatly value her perspective, not just because she is coming from a very different background than mine (academic), and therefore understands things in ways that I am not necessarily inclined to, but also because she is whole hell of lot smarter than I am.

So the other night we were talking about what makes certain sims work, and others flop, and the thing she brought up was a connection between the degree to which a sense of community identity and common shared purpose is developed, and the level of success and survivability that a sim experiences.

This made sense to me, and I asked her, "ok if we need to build community to make a sim live long and prosper, how do we do that?

She replied that she thought it came down to a couple of things: make sure that the sim residents feel like they are listened to, and have a defined role in managing the sim and making things happen; that the residents must feel that their contributions and ideas are valued and respected; and there should be structured means to give the residents the opportunity to participate and contribute.

This seemed reasonable. I have certainly seen sims where there were some very good structured systems--such as town councils, circle of elders, elections, etc.--that brought the residents into the process and made it clear to them that they had a role in fostering progress. And of course it only works if those systems are actually utilized and the residents ideas and opinions and contributions are taken seriously. It doesn't work if they are just given lip service while the local oligarchy goes forward with making all the decisions, crafting scenarios and determining what the sim is going to have in it.

The sad reality of it, of course, is how seldom this happens. Most sims are run by a small cadre or an individual with a distinct vision (or as de Tocqueville described it, "the despotism of selfishness"). Some people come up with an idea, find the money to start a sim and then by golly, they are going to run it in such a way as to assure that they get what they want and need out it. We all have the potential to be sim despots within us. How often have all of us said, "great horny toads, if I ever win the lottery, I am going to buy my own private island, build what I want, and as GAWD is my witness, I shall run it the RIGHT WAY!"

Which of course, you's just that the likelihood that it will be a successful, dynamic, well-populated sim is relatively remote, unless you bring others into the mix to help you build a community and collectively work as a community to make the sim move forward.

Which brings us back to de Tocqueville, who said, in writing on democracy in early 19th century America:

" soon as a man begins to treat of public affairs in public, he begins to perceive that he is not so independent of his fellow men as he had first imagined, and that in order to obtain their support he must often lend them his cooperation..."

I then said to Sere, "well, people role in decision making--even if it's just getting their opinion, making them feel their contribution is valued...communication and respect...that all sorta sounds a lot like what LL is going to have to do on a macro scale to make SL survive n' thrive."

She laughed and said, "yes, but that's going to be a lot harder than just doing so in one sim."

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"Rectangles R Us"--content creation for the clinically inept

I love Dusan Writer's blog. Even with the qualification that a good 30% of what he has to say goes completely over my head, I love to read his stuff. In the parts that I am able to comprehend, I always find something illuminating, thought-provoking, or just beautifully phrased. For example, I really enjoyed a piece he did back in late November about the idea that companies that are involved with "participant media" and building "digital communities" (such as Linden Lab does with Second Life) should value, engage, and jolly well make sure they retain the "clever people" among their customer base. He argues that particularly in a product like Second Life, the people who have the motivation, creativity and skills to create high quality content are vital to the health of the enterprise.

Sadly, however, Dusan concludes:

"...that Linden Lab has abandoned its 'clever people'.

The Lab turned its back on 'Your World, Your Imagination,' as Philip clearly did (and told me so, when I interviewed him at SLCC) and as others at the Lab continue to do.

In the discussions about mesh import, for example, Jack Linden made the point that 'there are very few creators' in response to my question about the cultural implications of mesh. This implies that the number is significant, and equates a one-to-one relationship between how many people there are and the influence they have on the culture of an online community.

Jack (and others) would say that mesh changes very little, it doesn’t shift the emphasis out of the in-world experience, because the number of creators is very small....But the larger significance is that the Lab’s principle concern is with a volume of people – that it’s the larger 'casual users' who matter, the users who haven’t even arrived yet. Philip said to me: “And most of them will never rez a prim, so it’s not really ‘Your World, Your Imagination’ because for them, they’re just shopping and hanging out.'

Which may be true (although I’d argue that you enter a world of your own imagination no matter WHO you are, when you arrive in Second Life and many other online platforms) but places a certain literal faith in the power of numbers alone."

I'm really glad there are bright people like Dusan who actually get to talk with the folks at the Lab, and who can come back with something for the rest of us to chew on. What is really fascinating to me in this particular discussion is the idea that it seems there are only two groups being focused on--the small minority that has wild skills and the hyper-creative warp drive to make really awesome shit, and the large majority of "casual users."

The thing that doesn't quite fit for me in that world view, however, is that I really believe that the majority--the big lumpy pile of avatar flesh and blingy bits called "casual users"--is actually more diverse and complex than the Labsters seem willing to acknowledge. I find it curious (and disturbingly revealing ) that Philip argued that in the case of the common garden variety boobis avataris, "most of them will never rez a prim."

Perhaps that was only hyperbole. I hope it was, because it is a view that misses the fact that there are a great many of us who might be considered causal users because we lack the skills to make wonderful content, but by golly, that certainly doesn't keep us from using at least some of the tools provided by the platform to make all kinds of crazy crap.

Let me offer up myself as an example:

I am
utter and inescapably digitally challenged; a recovering cyber-luddite with a limited range of skills. Yet that has not stopped me from being a sort of content creator in my own right. OK...yes, admittedly it is often pretty retarded stuff, but I have a hell of a lot of fun making simple bits and bobs and using them to enhance my experience and personalize my environment in-world. In fact, my friend September Blasidale (who has a similar skill level to mine in the content creation department) and I have decided to embrace our ineptitude and opened a vendor space in the Deadwood OOC area to hawk some of the less awful junk we have caused to appear in the pixelated vale of tears.

We have named our enterprise "Rectangles R Us"--because that's pretty much what we can handle: books, posters and pictures, a Hudson bay trade blanket, cigar boxes, ammo get the picture. I have even produced a piece of furniture--a dry sink. In short, if it can be made from rectangular prims, we can pretty much deal with it without too much trouble. Sort of.

September and I at our booth in the Deadwood vendor area. And yes, rectangles are the predominant form of prim on the premises.

Look, I won't blow any smoke up yer hoohoo about it. I know my limitations. Sculpties scare me. Torturing a prim is torture for me. Hell's britches, it took me about a year to get around to putting a decent "squatting cross-legged" animation into that mashugana trade blanket, and even then I could only do it with guidance from Clay.

But I like the stuff I create. I have a great time either taking pictures of real-world stuff that I or my friends have (such as ammo boxes, antique beer ads, or the labels on vintage cigar boxes), or finding public domain images, and turning them into unique textures for what I want to make.

And the thing is, if I really put my mind to it, I probably could learn to make more sophisticated stuff--it's just that it would be an ugly and unappetizing process (think "making sausage"). Because let's face it, when it comes down to the bubble and squeak of creating content, I am a "casual user"...but it's certainly not a case of being someone who "will never rez a prim."

I believe that the creative potential of the platform is very important to me and people like me. No, we will never be super-duper "clever people." But I am convinced there are an astonishing number of us who fall into this sizable category that lies in between "the makers of really cool shit" and the folks who want to just hang out and shop (by the way, I fucking loathe shopping in SL almost as much as I do irl--but that's another story for another time).

I just hope that if Dusan is ever able to talk LL into not abandoning the "clever people," he might also convince them to not forget those of us who are among the "cheerfully inept."