On the recent unpleasantness

So I don’t usually post here on the Pressing Issues of the Day in Second Life, because there are so many of them, and they are often not really much fun, and other people have always posted more and better than I would anyway.

But in this case a v good friend suggested that something I sent her in email would make a good weblog posting, and how can I resist the opportunity to get a new weblog post with minimal work?

The Pressing Issue of the Day in this case is Linden Lab’s sudden announcement of a huge increase in the monthly cost of “Open Space” regions in Second Life, without any grandfathering for existing ones. The increase will make the cost unaffordable for lots of folks (fortunately for me even the previous low price was beyond my SL budget), and there is lots of understandable upsetness all over the place, as people try to decide what to do with areas that they’ve put lots of work into, and come to love and all.  See this Vint Falken posting (which I link to despite the apostrophe error [shudder] in the title) for a good set of pointers to the slogosphere (“slogosphere” haha) coverage of the issue and the reaction and the Ongoing Controversy.

As well as the understandable upsetness about the price rise and the ham-handed way it was announced, there’s also lots of speculation that the Lab folks must be lying about the real reason for the price rise, and that it’s a secret plot to get rid of customers, or make undeserved money, or other things that I’m bad at summarizing because I find them so unconvincing, and that (among other things) the fact that the Lab’s own new “Nautilus” build uses Open Spaces regions in ways that the Lab now says they weren’t originally intended to be used proves it.  This is also perfectly understandable, but I think it’s also probably incorrect.  Here’s a lightly-edited version of what I wrote in reply to a friend who emailed me asking what possible explanation there could be for all this.

Ya hafta remember that LL is lots of people.  I’m guessing that what happened was:

  1. Someone proposes the original Open Space idea, for people to put empty spaces for sailing and wandering and stuff around their islands.
  2. LL does that, it’s pretty popular.  The original theory is that each one will require only 1/4 the resources of a normal sim, and they plan things that way, and they deploy them that way, and it mostly seems to be working or at least it’s not causing any of their top ten problems (which is all that they ever have time to look at).
  3. Since there seems like no reason not to, they start to let people put down Open Space sims not directly attached to an island, and to let people sell / sublet Open Space sims to others.  Sales and revenue goes up, yay!  In a burst of enthusiasm someone suggests raising the prim limit on them.  Why not?  Sales go up more!  Yay!   Someone somewhere else in the company is struggling to keep the asset servers up, as usual.  Someone somewhere else is dealing with complaints about lag.  As usual.  Someone frowns and worries that maybe it’s all these new “Open Space” sims that have been growing exponentially in number, but then his beeper goes off and he has to go put out a fire and he forgets the thought.
  4. They (for some reason) decide to build Nautilus.  Whoever’s assigned to build it decides to use some Open Space sims, ’cause why not?  Probably they get to use more sims for the project that way, even.
  5. Someone knocks on someone’s door one day and says, um, you know the awful spike in asset server load we’ve been seeing?  I think it’s the, um, Open Space sims.  It looks like — and just then he’s interrupted by someone coming in behind him who says I finally had a chance to correlate all of this flood of lag reports, and it looks like it’s the Open Space sims!  In unison, they say that it looks like we wildly underestimated the actual resource needs of these things.
  6. People get together and say damn what do we do about this?  If Open Space sims continue to grow as they’re growing, we’ll either have to buy so many new servers (now that we know how much resources they actually need) that we’ll be losing money, or the grid’s going to implode from the load.  Someone says well I guess we’ll just have to raise the price to reflect how much they actually cost us. Someone else says, the users will be pissed, can we grandfather in the existing ones?  Someone else does the math, and says, not if we want to stay in business.
  7. Someone suggests actually thinking for five minutes about how to break this to the users, but everyone’s hungry so they go to lunch instead and just announce it baldly in a blog posting, because everyone in the company who understands anything about customer relations is either out on sick leave to recover from the last crisis, or has been assigned to the “boring corporate people in suits” desk and isn’t allowed to talk to retail customers.

Never attribute to malice what can be explained by (umm..) other factors, I say.   :)

14 Responses

  1. Certainly a plausible scenario, Dale. I’m not sure, however, that stupidity or incompetence is that much more reassuring than malice. :) And as I’ve seen someone else remark somewhere – conspiracy theories are much more fun for the imagination and generating readership.

  2. I am glad you enjoyed ‘Heaven’ by Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen. Of course, now you are going to have to read the Rifter’s Trilogy by Peter Watts, beginning with ‘Starfish’. In the near future, ever-increasingly complex networks, power grids, ecologies, and …umm… the human genome itself begins their catastrophic collapse due to overdevelopment. The more energy you pump in, the more complex and stressed things get, requiring yet more energy, which increases these systems’ beautiful yet precarious elegance… you get the picture.

  3. I agree with you, Dale, is more incompetence than malice. I wonder in moments like that is Katt was on holidays, srsly…
    I know Lindens are “right” when they say people is “overusing” Openspace sims (well, i know an art gallery in an one of those sims with more than 5000 prims placed with temp-rezzers… THAT’S overuse!). Anyway the problem is Linden’s lack of perspective, not people’s.

  4. You’re very charitable toward Linden Labs! It’s amusing, even touching, to imagine them as “people at work trying to solve problems,” and getting hungry in meetings, and allowing the “ham-handed” ones to announce it ham-handedly, maybe even because of the tyranny of those who show up, or even who stay a minute after the lunch bell rings.

    I like point number 7 — everybody in the company who understands anything about customer relations is on sick leave or mis-assigned.

    So nice … call me naive, but I don’t much believe in malice either …

  5. lol Dale!

    I think the probability you have what happened right is at about 98% Rarely have I seen major screw ups be intentional desires to screw ppl over. It’s usually just a chain of half-assed errors combined with a lack of ownership of the problem being solved.

  6. […] not much for conspiracy theories. My own theory is a lot simpler, and is more in line with that of Dale Innis: Linden Lab often suffers from accidental incompetence, which couples fuzzy decision making with an […]

  7. sigh. what would second life be without the drama. i think people get addicted to it.
    the ones that whine the most are also the ones that say they hate drama the most.
    ultimately, everything changes. if enough people like the changes, it’s called success. if they don’t like the changes, citizens will leave for elsewhere. it’s as simple as that.
    i agree with you dale. i don’t think SL intends to do harm.

  8. Thanks for all the nice comments an’ linkbacks! Blushing to see what luminaries read my humble “web log”. I am almost tempted to increase my frequency of posting on Burning Questions o’ the Day! But only almost. :)

  9. No, Dale, you’re wrong, not because it was some kind of conspiracy, or because the Lindens are merely grasping greedy money-grubbers (they aren’t) but because there is indeed malice aforethought, and there is indeed a deliberate plan here — you just benefit from it as a class, so you don’t wish to admit it.

    The Lindens really do want to discourage arbitrage. If you stop seeing them through the Geek Keyhole and listen to what they actually say, Philip and other Lindens have been saying for a good 2 years solid now that they do not like arbitrage. They do not wish to play to it. They want to find ways to encourage high-end content, not land flipping. They don’t like the land business, period. THEY want to be in the land business, and are very, very uneasy that others are. They want to minimize that as much as possible, and you have to look at what they do, not what they say, or the feel-good stuff that you’re ascribing of “half-assed errors” — when it is not. It is not tinfoilery or hysteria to simply calmly look at what they do, and see that it’s intention is to change the customer base and change the type of business on their grid:

    1. Sudden price hike of islands with only tips to the insider dev list in 2006; that forced them to grandfather $195 islands that even more than a year later, they haven’t degrandfathered, strangely — among those grandfathers are the old os sims of Anshe Chung’s empire — hundreds of them — and many others, like Gig Taggart’s. The price then went from $195 to $295 tier, from $1250 to $1695 for an island — because it could. Because they say so. Because RL companies can pay it, and they are preferred to residents with small businesses. That forced out a good number of small businesses running rentals — just as the end to dwell, events grants, casinos, banking, etc. forced out the entertainment businesses before them.

    2. Sudden devaluation of islands only a year after they were suddenly increased in price — so that people lost the value of 60 percent of their inventory if they had multiple sims in projects or rentals. These people were terribly set up — they converted their poorly-renting islands into openspace sims — and then got clobbered a few months later with a price HIKE this time.

    3. Freeze on mainland whole sim auctions since July. That’s never happened in the history of the auctions. They are selling off smaller abandoned parcels, parts of some new sims, and waiting for the excess inventory of people who want to leave mainland for OS sims to burn off some as the price of land has crashed to $1.9/m, whereas once they worked hard to keep it at $5-6 — and 2 years ago it was $10/m

    3. Whoops, then sudden price hikes again on the most popular product, the os sims, raising the price 67 percent, and when faced with a storm of protest, only staging that over 6 months, but still achieving the price hike in the end.

    You don’t lower the price 60 percent on one land product, which was previously the most popular, and then substitute it with a cheaper product, the open space sims, and then raise the price 67 percent on that product, when it became more popular, and then freeze a third land product that is the least popular, mainland auctions, if you are encouraging resident land sales and rentals. Obviously, you are taking care of your own business with these actions, which are planned and for which there was adequate notification on the last 2, and you are not encouraging the land business, which used to be done by encouraging *other* policies, like attempts to stage the land releases to keep land $5/m, slower staging of prices, etc.

    The Lindens, like you, are skewed to content and scripting as the activities they want to encourage on their platform, not resale of server space. This is not something they wish to cultivate; indeed, they have to discourage it or they find out quickly that rental agents make money from buying 100 sims and rerenting them due to attractive arbitrage, then the residents make money, and the Lindens don’t. The Lindens faced a situation where most of the 13,000 OS sims were generating revenue that was not going to them — these os sims were being flogged to put 16 renters on them and the Lindens only wound up having to pay more in resources and staff time, and not get any of the revenue off the over-usage. THAT is what bothers them, not CPU usage.

    You imagine this environment where all kinds of autonomous, inner-directed, intelligent, hard-working departments work in this grand and beautiful collective of well-meaning but simply busy people. But that’s utter bullshit. The reality of Linden Lab is that it is very much a top-down structure, with many yes-men and overly-controlled and overly-exposed employees many layers below, forced to constantly “show their work” in the Love Machine system. A few at the top make the decisions, and they make them about everything. It’s a very authoritarian and hierarchical structure, that is all the more insidious for masking itself as some kind of goofy commune.

    Zee Linden makes a decision about pricing. Jack Linden does *not* make a decision about pricing, although the people buying the OS sims are directly Concierge customers, and he is Director of Customer Relations and should have a huge say in the pricing. It’s very, very clear, from the office hours and the forums interventions from Jack and Zee that Zee presented a price that Jack had to flog to the customers and then dodge the bullets, that’s all.
    Zee is CFO — and that’s it. There isn’t an equal to him in these councils of Linden Lab.

    And the Lindens have had ample practice in this method, which I dubbed “PainPoint,” where they announce draconian policies and then wait to see who howls the loudest about what, and then fixes some little thing to make it appear as if suddenly they moderated policies that they had every intention of ratcheting down — but only if people howled.

    This is a deliberate plan. And the Lindens didn’t mess up customer service, and weren’t ham-handed. You just haven’t been around very long. The Lindens are now past masters at precisely this PainPoint method. They have been at it for five years. Over and over again, whether the shock of removing dwell, events grants, telehubs, GOM, or the shock of putting in verification, price hikes, etc., they use the same tried-and-true method that authoritarian regimes the world over have used — act swiftly and decisively, split the community, pick off the protest leaders, mitigate only some small aspect, then do what they want.

    That you fall for it and write chuckle-headed goofy posts about this or that department being “half-assed” or good-naturedly screwing up without ill will — that’s proof of just how insidious the system is and how well it works.

    Watch for these following policies to come, and for the Lindens to go through *exactly the same methods* as they did with the last dozen shocks:

    o the end of $195 tier islands — “it’s only fair, there can’t be 2 classes of people”

    o the end of group tier bonus of 10 percent on mainland “It’s only fair, islanders don’t get this, and we’ve cleaned up the mainland, and basically, we find very, very few groups actually using this tier bonus to make communities; we find it’s only being used for the most part by land flippers”

    o the end of steep tier hikes that create the most inworld incentive for rentals “We find that customers can’t easily, and at a reasonable cost, enlarge their properties and increase their content, which is our main priority, since we want to stimulate content creation and sales. So we are flattening tier now which will encourage more mainland purchases”

    o The end of the requirement that OS sims only be sold to private island owners. Again, why create two classes of citizens? Ever the communists and communards and socialists, the Lindens can never have THAT happen. So once they cut the tie on that connection, which insured OS sims would only go to the wealthy and the land barons class, they will sign the death warrant for the land business
    (the irony is that evil land barons hated by the elite snobs of the dev class in fact enable the less wealthy to always purchase and liquidate land; its the liquidity they offer the economy that is their greatest contribution).

    o No land business is recorded in the figures for Positive Monthly Linden Flow — they don’t recognize it as a business, it is merely a cost, say, for a content business, or a cost for a socializer, but it is not recognized as a business in itself to be developing and selling land. Only land rentals are recognized in this system under the theory that they represent “content development”.

    In short, within a year, the Lindens will have pretty much eliminated the land business and the socializers they sustain, as they fold in government, education, non-profit and of course big RL enterprises like IBM into their customer base, diminishing the end-user socializers and the small businesses that serve them.

    What will be left will be only the most culled and elitist content creators and a few high-end land developers who can survive the social Darwinism, and who provide the private homes to the New Class on the grid, which will include the SL Devs and other FIC and the new Certified craftsmen.

    It’s actually a pretty nasty world the Lindens are creating without free enterprise for small business and without a middle class, but they like it that way.

    Check back with me in a year and see if you can then go on claiming that the Lindens are just happy-go-lucky goofs who mean well, and aren’t pursuing a deliberate and in fact nasty policy that benefits only them and their cronies — like you.

  10. No Dale sorry, no dice. You do highlight something that I agree with and that’s that Linden Lab do not think systemically, beyond that you’re off base.

    If your theory was right, the sensible thing to do would have been to stop selling the product until the technical issues were worked out. They haven’t done that.

    Their solution has been to raise the price and not promise any technical improvements. What are we paying the extra for? They have no answer to that simple question.

    They knew for months how these sims were being used, in August they though there might be a problem but kept selling them anyway. In September they pretty much confirmed the problem and continued to sell them anyway.

    This isn’t an accidental policy decision, it’s a decision that was made with no regard for their customers. You can’t pass this off as someone going to lunch, it’s deliberate, it was intended to hurt and it has.

  11. I dunno, Ciaran. It could be, of course, it’s not impossible. But the question I always run up against on this kind of theory is “why would they intentionally do something to hurt their paying customers?”. I agree it was made with insufficient regard for their customers, so we’re together there. But intended to hurt? Why? It just seems incredible to me (and again maybe I’m just naive) that any business would intentionally try to hurt the people that pay them.

    It could be that they have plans about what part of the customer base they want to grow, and when they make policy decisions they take that part of the base more into account than other parts. In fact I think that’s necessarily true, at least in a mild sense. But that they intentionally do things for the purpose of hurting customers… I dunno; it just seems really unlikely.

  12. Dale I’m speculating of course but there are ways out of this where people can reduce the cost increase. One way is forming four openspaces into one sim, this is particularly attractive to those with grandfathered openspaces because that perk is going. So someone who is paying USD$200 a month for four now faces a bill of uSD$500 for four. If they form them into one full sim they’ll be paying USD$195 as all the indications are their full sim will be grandfathered if all their openspaces are.

    I simply think they want a reduction in the number of openspaces for now and these price rises will achieve that but they have backed down on twisting people’s ams so forcefully by staggering the price rise.

    However I do think this move was designed to shake people up and put them in a position where losing openspaces becomes appealing.

  13. Fair enough, Ciaran. Neither of us can know what they were actually thinking. We agree they knew when they raised the prices that it would make the openspace sims less appealing, and reduce the growth in them. Whether that was by design or just a consequence of a price-rise that they had to make to cover their own costs, only a telepath could tell us. :)

  14. […] to blame its own customers for the problem had a truly disasterous effect on consumer confidence. As noted by Dale Innis, “Linden Lab often suffers from accidental incompetence, which couples fuzzy decision making […]

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