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."


  1. Amen.
    I know so many terribly talented folks in SL, so I have never put anything of mine in a vendor shy of some RFL vendors. But I love to tinker. I do not refer to my creations as Art - I am a prop comic and they are my props.
    I buy sculpt maps that I can texture, animations and sounds that I can drop into prims, and when I get in a bind my very talented husband cranks me out a sculpt. But this is fun for me, relaxation and a creative outlet.
    And I am glad to see the offer to provide some feedback to Philip is still part of your disclaimer!

  2. Hey Fogwoman!

    Thanks for stopping by...and letting us know that you are one of us too!

    I love that you characterize these bits you make as "props"

  3. I love being cheerfully inept. I may be slightly less so now. But I agree that LL has focused too much on casual users at the expense of everyone else. Yet those casual users are more likely to see something clever (or cleverly inept) and buy it. They can support the clever folks--though some wonderful builders like Morris Mertel have given up their in-world shops b/c of LL's policies. If you want his stuff, you have to go to Marketplace--ugh. I like to browse in world and see 3D items in 3D, thank you.

    So Dusan is correct in the prognosis. Some of the best content creators I have patronized have been edged out by tier, spotty enforcement of IP rights, and SL's poor in-world search.

    Moving over to OpenSim really made me see the limits of my skills and push what I could do into new directions. I needed a Victorian-era barrel, so I had to make it. I needed a candle and fireplace that would light with a touch: made them with an open-source script and my limited building skills.

    I don't get enough of a reward in my annual review (and their are disincentives to use virtual worlds too much) to teach myself Blender. So no mesh for now even though OS will soon support it. I'm good enough with textures that I can fake a few features on my big old rectangles :)

    But these tricks with tortured prims are sufficient for what I need to do. Like you, I get great joy out of cobbing prims together. My students at the new House of Usher build won't complain too much about the set, as most of them are not gamers (considered "bad bad for job prospects" on our careerist and rather driven campus). They dislike lag and gray textures intensely but so far those are not issues.

    It also seems to me that LSL scripting is the Mount Everest for most of us who do dabble a bit. I'm a lousy coder. If LL loses its residents who can script, we are really screwed.

  4. Sign me up, baby... I'm a fully paid up member of the Squares too! The biggest thing I've ever built is my log cabin and the new saw mill/log flume, but it's still all prim-on-prim action. Except... except I did have one dalliance with a sculptie and it resulted in 1-prim stack of saw timber planks (did you ever get yours?)

  5. for sure LL chased some people away. i had 19 sims, paid nearly $3000 a month in tiers and spent 20+ hours a week inSL

    i also evangelised like mad with a very active blog (over 1000 posts in the last two years) and 11,000 flickr pics. when I was inSl, the blog and pics were all about how awesome SL is

    i have been gone nearly a year now having sold the sims and i have not logged into SL since last March

    now i am on my own private 16 region OpenSim grid building like mad - making virtual field trip science stuff for middle school kids

    i have to create everything myself - from chairs to landfill compactors

    i don't know if my building skills are all that, but i do make a lot of stuff and now evangelise about OpenSim

    LL did not care one bit about me or my $3000 a month and their attitude is evident in the 18 million user hour reduction last year

    i really did love SL very much, but one can only handle so much of what you so eloquently summed up

  6. Hey Iggy,

    The thing about the casual users is that their role goes beyond just being consumers--I think each of them is potentially a maker of some kind of content, even if it will only be at the minimal level that people like me generate.

    As an educator, I'm sure one of the things that find is that people can be inspired--we should not always assume that a person will remain in the category they start out in--part of the message that LL should be continuing to convey, is hey, anyone can make content, and it can be done at many different levels.

    You don't have to know how to do everything.

    One of the most formidable motivators is what you describe with your fireplace and candle--getting involved with some scenario or project and deciding, he, I need a low-prim, animated turnip twaddler for this"...and you go shopping for one, and either (a.) you can't find one, or (b) the ones you find look like something a st. bernard with bad digestion just left on the lawn.

    So what do you do? Yep, that's find yourself going through a learning process and becoming a content maker. That is, in fact, the real beauty of the platform to me is that when you want something and you can't find it, even a moron like me can do something about it. Hell, that's why I have a Hudson bay blanket some point I needed a trade blanket for some damn fool rp reason or t'other..and no one made one. So I made one.

  7. Hey HB! Yeah! let's start our Guild: "The Brotherhood (and Sister) of Marginally Competent Builders"

    And yes, Hon I got your stack of lumber and actually had it sitting out while my blacksmith shop was "under construction" in deadwood.

    Then I think someone rp'ed stealing it.

  8. Hey Iliveisl, thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    Yeah, your saga is not an uncommon's just that it played out on a grander scale than it did for many folks. I wonder if there is anyone amongst the happy labsters who regret the loss of serious customer like yourself?

    And as for anything being "eloquently summed up" that is kind of you to say so hon, but I think that description only really applies to the Dusan quote. My prose is more in the realm of "verbally moseying towards a point."

  9. Sorry to see that I'm writing like my students; Iggy's pet-peeve of confusing "their" and "there" and "they're" appears in my comment. Mea Culpa.

    Dio, I will accept the Turnip-Twaddler Award for Mushy Prose. Thank you.

  10. I'm even less-talented at building than you all, and definitely in the camp of "the more rectangular, the better." I just about managed a rug. I'm more than happy to support the talented builders who have put their time into learning the craft right.

    I think there's an additional point to be made in favor of the casual builder, though. Part of the user interface of SL involves rezzing objects - not necessarily *building* them, mind you, but rezzing them. You have to know something about how the system works. I've had to rez chairs to sit on to get out from beneath a sidewalk after a sim crossing gone wrong. I've had to restore pieces of my house after accidentally deleting them. I've had to adjust articles of clothing to make them look right, modifying bits and pieces along the way. We all have. So what does it mean to say that most residents will "never rez a prim"?

    Maybe Phil meant that it was no big deal for LL to make creating harder - moving to mesh, for example - because the serious content creators will make the investment to learn it, and the rest of us weren't getting beyond the textured rectangle stage anyway. And maybe that's true. But when the Lab drives a bigger wedge between the "good" content and the crap that the casual user can make, we're less likely to make that Indian blanket or that stack of wood, and thus we're just that much less likely to engage in RP, or have fun with our friends by creating amusing props, and that much more likely to move on to some other form of entertainment (including, apparently, OpenSim).

    So yeah, Phil, I'm a clueless content consumer, not a creator, but you're not doing the platform any services by making things more difficult for me.

  11. Hey Iggy,

    no worries--after all you're talking to the Queen of Typos (not to mention my dreaded attempts at dialect). The combination of my outright mistakes, the dialect bits AND a tendency towards colloquialisms has been known to make the translator used by one German friend of mine pull out a tiny pistol and shoot itself in its tiny translator head.

    Hey Rhia,

    Yes, I think you make a very good point that builds upon my own about there not being a simple black-and-white distinction between content makers and causal users.

    There are many different degrees of content making and creative work in SL, including creative adaption where someone takes a modifiable product that someone else has made, and process to make their own adjustments in size, color, number of prims, etc. in order to make the object better suitable for their needs; or they recombine the pieces in different ways to add variety and depth to the props and decorative elements they have to work with.

    For example you may note in the pic of "Rectangles R Us" a flat bed wagon, or the type used for hauling construction materials and logs--that started out life as a "mod, no copy, no transfer" covered freight wagon. As it is no copy, I bought a bunch of these one time, kept a few in the original configuration, but I also have reshaped and recolored some of them into things such as a standard farm wagon, the flatbed you see here, and a beer wagon. It's a win-win: the content maker sold a bunch of his wagons, and I have the opportunity to make whatever I need for a particular purpose (but the original content maker doesn't have to bother with making flatbeds and farm wagons, circus wagons and beer wagons, that most likely would just clutter up his inventory, because there simply aren't that many idiots like me who want a flatbed horse-drawn wagon).

    Anyhow, I digress. My point was that we express our creativity not just in making, but also in adpating and reconfiguring content. For that matter, many causal users who don't make things themselves can be consdiered creatives as well, because of the ways they mix bought and freebie materials made by others into interesting and engaging environments to support their own socializing or rp activities.

    In short, there is a creative aspect to selectively buying AND arranging the stuff you buy. So let's not assume that the "casual user" is just a massive block of mindless, passive consumers.