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."


  1. It is interesting looking at it from a different perspective too.
    Now, the Lab has undone all the initial goodness they had going in the early days when people DID feel listened to, engaged, and part of creating something cool. So is it possible to regain that once it is lost?
    Because we have had a real education recently in how very difficult it is to start those new communities from scratch - in Blue Mars, in InWorldz, in OpenSim. Communities have to evolve, you can't just hang out your sign and wait for the stampede!
    Will be interesting to see.

  2. well hon, the other side of the coin is of course that not only does the leadership have to commit to a genuine community building strategy, the potential community members--i.e., us--have to respond and extend ourselves. That was one of de Tocqueville's points: preventing the "despotism fo selfishness" is everyone's responsibility.

  3. Hi Dio,

    I agree with a lot of what you & your friend were saying. I'm going to slap down my 2ps worth in a fairly unstructured way just to get some ideas out there. I miss things or forget things, but my brain is messy like that :)

    A good RP or community sim's survival depends upon the people using it, but that's to be expected really. I've come to see these kind of sims as more and more like small villages or parishes in RL. Typically there a small collection of people at the top and the then folks who live there at the bottom and unless there is a real & health relationship between them then the community experience quickly breaks down in one or more ways the sim begins to fail.

    As a leader you have to juggle many things - from getting a healthy growth & stable population in the sim to ensure you have the much needed 'tax' income to listening to your residents and providing them with something to do. Take a look at Blue Mars - it looked great, got loads of folks in, generated lots of buzz and handled PR-style communication really well... but it had no plans for the people once they came, not even for generating cash from them, and as such there was never any sense of community and without that the place was buggered.

    I can't help feeling that in SL a slight lowering of land costs would help things. To make a village work you have to get the people looking after it - in a sim that means you need to the people to rent and build and maintain, but how many can really afford the expense of renting more than a plot or two. This means that whilst many folks come and support the sim in terms of community RP, they never put money in meaning that you end up with a small cohort of landed folks who have the ear of the owner(s). Whilst that also happens in RL, the fact that none of us *has* to live in SL as we do in *RL* means that the people without the sense they have a stake in the community and are therefore not listened to can simply leave and try another sim.

    This constant migration of people around sims who either never rent or only rent in a limited way means that sims begin to stagnate and focus on a handful of 'key players'.

    I keep coming back to this two-way street thing - the people have to want to help the sim thrive and the sim owners have to want to engage with the people. But it's hard... we aren't (in the main) kids sat at home with hours and hours to throw at SL - we are adults with jobs, families, mortgages. Our time is limited and SL can eat time like a Jabberwocky with the munchies. How does a sim owner dedicate the kind of time needed to engage the people in his sim is he's got a job that works him 10 hours a day, six days a week? How does a resident support the sim if timezones means that everything happens when she is in bed?

    I don't know the answers to these questions, I really don't. I don't think there are answers, at least not the ones I'd want to hear. RL will always trump SL and therefore building and maintaining a community in SL will always be the hardest thing to pull off successfully.

    What a bum note to end on... still I can always look on the bright side and thank my lucky stars that the Neural-whotsit place is the only place daft enough to go for democracy on the grid. Now *that* is hilarious to watch :-D

  4. Hey HB,

    Thank you for the long and detailed pile of thoughts on what makes a sim work--and I really don't think that you ended on a bum note at all.

    I suspect the heart of it is somehow engaging people so that it doesn't all come down to just being up to the sim owner and a few "key folks" like the landed gentry to make things work. Community is the key, and in a community the leader isn't always doing everything--something which involves giving up a certain level of control, but that's not a bad thing.

    But I also like your description of this process as being a two-way street--that the folks who are drawn into the sim can't just sit there with their arms folded and saying, "ok, I'm here, entertain me, create a community for me..."

    The timezone thing is a whole 'nother issue. Generally it seems that it helps if you alternate when you hold events, or sometimes do them twice--once when it's convenient for people in the Americas, and again at a time that works for the Europeans (the folks in Australia/Asia seem to just be pretty much screwed one way or the other).

    But listening and soliciting input and all that can be carried out at ANY time--THAT'S something that's not limited by time zones.