Hey you Lindens, get offa my lawn!

On the snazzy black-background Flash-driven page that Second Life dot com shows if you aren’t logged in, it says

Second Life is an online, 3D virtual world imagined and created by its Residents.

On the masthead of the pages that Second Life dot com shows to logged-in Residents, it says more succinctly

Your World. Your Imagination.

I like both of these phrases quite a bit. I like the idea that SL is whatever the Residents make it, and that Linden Lab qua Linden Lab confines itself to making sure that the laws of physics work, making sure that the land exists, and that the most basic rules of civilized behavior (i.e. no griefing) are enforced.

If the Lab wants to have some land where they do cool stuff, and wants to like organize a Winter Festival or something now and then, too, that’s okay, although I’d rather they did it as individual Residents, rather than as The Lindens; it’s fairer that way.

It’s like how the FSM created the RL universe for us, and then mostly stepped back to let us play with it. He doesn’t reach down with His Noodly Appendage now and then to put on a barbecue or a remake of Casablanca or anything. He keeps, if you will, a clean separation between the tasks of physics and culture.

There seems to be a real tension at the Lab between letting the Residents shape the world, “Your World, Your Imagination” style, and intervening to shape and mold the world the way that the Lab would like it to be. The most obvious example of that is the Great Adult Exile, but it’s relatively easy to argue that they were forced into that by RL laws about exposing people who might be children to taboo images and stuff. More subtly, though, the Lab does things like Bay City and Nautilus, parts of the mainland where rather than just putting out land for sale and letting Residents build stuff, they do big builds of their own, with Themes, and Texture Sets, and Back Story, and all like that. Whatever one thinks of the particular builds, it’s undeniable that, having been built by The Gods Themselves, they have certain advantages, economic and psychological, over anything that a mere Resident might build.

I posted a comment on this SL weblog entry about the Hau Koda Municipal Airport, with this sort of concern in mind:

This looks like a really pretty build, and I know lots of hard work and great intentions have gone into it. And I hate to be an ol’ grump but…

Why is the Lab making large elaborate builds, again? I mean okay I can understand roads, a bit, because in order to be useful they have to cut across large areas and it would be hard for a private Resident to acquire all that land from the folks in the path of the road. But why an airport? It being Our World Our Imagination an’ all, why not sell that land to a Resident or a Group and let them build whatever the imagination suggests? Maybe an airport, maybe a hockey rink, maybe a carnival-grounds, whatever.

Not that I don’t think y’all at the Lab should have the fun of building. But why do it in an official capacity? Buy the land by the usual processes and build stuff on it that way! I dunno if it’s just me, but otherwise I sort of feel like us Resies are just sort of sitting around going “ooh” and “ahh” at what the Lindens and Moles are building. And somehow that doesn’t feel all that SL to me.

Again, nothing against this particular airport or the good times that ppl are having at it. But just as a matter of general principles…

And I got an answer from M Linden himself:

Well, Dale, several reasons; some more specific to this project than others.

— build theming: we think creating a theme for urban areas is Very Good. Since the parcelling, parks, and other Linden-owned land is part of the theme, we try to seed the entire area with in-theme examples.

— public event sites: helps build community without a specific Resident having to support the cost. We have various auditoriums, meeting spaces, etc. spread around the world. Some (like the Linden Memorial Zone) are created to ensure long-term stability and freedom from the perception of bias – not that Lindens can’t be biased, but at least we have to answer for it in the forums, office hours, etc.

— hub: once the load on the infohubs is balanced a bit more, we’re gonna turn on the hub settings for this region. Even when hubs are nicely balanced, it’s now thought best to avoid having Resident-owned parcels in the same Region (to avoid the “I can’t get into my own land” problem).

— land buying: the DPW (at least) tries to avoid buying land (or other content), since our sources of Linden dollars are pretty much infinite. We’ve sometimes bought small parcels, at market rates or lower, to fill out “broken” projects (like missing pieces of roads); and we buy some stuff for personal use (avatars, props, etc.). But it’s hard to stop “bidding higher” when you have unlimited funds. And, heh, how do you know the DPW didn’t buy the Region; “Hey, [Region-creating Linden], we’ll buy you lunch for a Region!” (joke!)

In the case of Hau Koda, we knew that some sort of Linden content needed to be placed there. I chose “period airport”.

I can sort of understand the “public event sites” one, sort of; I could make a case that (like roads) big event sites are a Public Good that no one Resident or Resident Group would be incented to build, and that it makes sense to build them with tax money (so to speak). The “hub” one I don’t really understand at all: all of the infohubs that I know of are in regions that also have Resident-owned parcels (unless I’m just really confused); maybe this is some new policy?

But the first and last ones are the ones that worry me. “We think that it’s good to have themes in urban areas, so we’re gonna do builds”. Well, why? Isn’t that something that the Residents should be doing? “We knew that some Linden content needed to be placed there.” Again, why?

When the people that control the laws of physics and the land supply and so on also get to choose the aesthetic theme of various areas, that seems to me to unfairly advantage those Residents with similar tastes, at the expense of everyone else. Is Second Life really “Your World, Your Imagination”? Or is it “Our World, Our Imagination, You Allowed To Participate If You Follow The Theme”?

The latter is certainly the case in many other virtual worlds. Twinity is always sending me these notes about exciting new events and buildings and stuff that they, the Twinity gods, are putting on, and what RL city they’ve decided to model next. Vside (last time I looked anyway), was entirely designed and built by the owners, not the residents. Once in a great while I see someone trying to have a Player-run event (a sermon, a beerfest) in WoW, but they’re mostly ignored and often derided, and all of the buildings and official events and holidays and so on are written by Blizzard.

But, for reasons that I thought I’d be better able to articulate when I started typing this entry, I want Second Life to be different. I want it to be a place that grows organically from the individual activities of the Residents, and voluntary groups of Residents. The place that’s most obviously and chaotically like this is the mainland (which, as you may recall, I adore); but private estates are that way also, in that each one represents a consensus of some sort among the estate owner and those people who choose to live there. Except for having put down the dosh for an island, the private estate owners are just Residents like everyone else; they aren’t the people who run the underpinnings of the world, or control the laws of physics.

Prokofy Neva recently posted two entries that brought my mind back to this worrying tension (while I have my own problems with Prokofy, at least the first of these postings is quite cogent). It seems, he’s discovered, that the Lab has a closed email list in which the Lindens are talking with some of the major Estate owners about what SL should be like. My initial reaction to this is that it’s really none of the Lab’s business what SL is like (Our imagination, guys!), and that when caught talking about it on a mailing list with certain selected Residents, the response “oh, sorry, that mailing list was supposed to be closed” is not real real comforting.

The feeling that I get from the response that M Linden wrote to my comment, and the responses that Prokofy got from Jack Linden, and quite a few of the statements by Blondin Linden and others during the Zindra discussions, are that the Lindens aren’t even aware of any tension between their views on all this and the views of at least some of the Residents. To them, I think, it’s pretty obvious that they own the world, they will be making various decisions about how it works and how it is themed and organized and managed, they will decide who to partner with in doing all this, and the end result will be a great thing for everyone, with lots of opportunities for individual Residents and Resident groups to express themselves and build stuff that they’re inspired to build. That this would seem creepy and paternalistic to lots of Residents doesn’t seem to have even occurred to them; after all, why would any Residents be all distrustful and ungrateful like that? The Lindens created the world and continue to run it in a way that lets us do various cool things. We should be happy, not moaning all the time!

One phrase from Jack’s note to Prokofy really drove this home to me. Jack is talking about the Lab looking for ways to “add value to the Mainland” (a phrase that already makes me very nervous), and he writes:

The last part is in finding ways for the community to partner with us. As you know we’ve had mixed results there, but I still feel there is a lot of value in doing that whenever we can.

Yowch. It’s hard to read this as saying anything but “we’ve tried letting Residents do stuff on the mainland, and while we don’t really like how it’s turned out, I feel that we should look for ways to continue allowing Residents to do stuff, maybe, if we can, where it doesn’t conflict with our more important goals of making everything look nice.”

And that’s just scary!

I don’t feel that the mainland, or even Second Life in general, should grow and develop through partnerships between the Lab and whoever the Lab feels like partnering with. I think it should grow and develop through the actions of the Residents. I don’t think that’s an unusual opinion :) but I also don’t think that the Lindens are really aware of it, or even understand the difference. And I think that’s too bad. I would also love to be proven wrong.

Our World. Our imagination. Remember!

Update: Related posting by Ciaran Laval.

Update 2: In the original version of this post, I wrote that “Even in Metaplace where (some / most / many / all?) of the places outside of the central hub are user-created, the decision about which worlds to link to directly from the hub is made (afaik) by the Metaplace owners, and that gives them a tremendous amount of control over what the place as a whole feels like as you explore.” Raph of Metaplace very kindly corrected me in the comments, pointing out that while they do have some rotating Featured Worlds linked from Central (sort of like SL’s Showcase), most of the links out from Central are rented by users for Metaplace coins, and so quite user-controlled. Good for them!

16 Responses

  1. Wow, what a powerful weblog entry, very very important discusison. The concerns your raise are what I’ve been sensing (just not nearly as well articulated as you) in what I think I’ve begun to notice in what seems to be an increasing homogeneous inworld environment. If it comes about organically because of the residents, wonderful. If it’s staged or manufactured by an overlord, it’s quite another thing. I always remember the tagline too “Your World. Your imagination.” For it to have any meaning it simply has to be more than a soundbyte…and the *real* meaning is exactly how you’ve suggested it: “*Our* World. *Our* Imagaination.”

  2. While you make some important points, I am not so sure I agree 100%. I think there are very valid reasons for zoning and I don’t mind themed areas either. If people like what Linden has done they will live/play in the themed areas and if they don’t, they won’t. Bay City is kind of cool actually.

    Also, I wholeheartedly support Linden providing common spaces for art and music, as long as who gets to perform and exhibit is decided in an open and fully transparent way.

  3. Thanks, Michele an’ Ches! Yeah, no one’s at all required to agree 100%. :) As I said somewhere in there, when I started typing I thought I had a much more cogent argument for why the Lab as such shouldn’t meddle in the content of the world. At the moment the most I can say is that (a) it gives me a bad feeling, and (b) it’s likely to be sort of unfair to anyone who wants to do work in some area that the Lab decides it’s going to intervene in. But I realize that’s not an incredibly strong argument. :)

    I love spaces for art and music, but it feels better to me to have them Resident built and operated, rather than Linden built and operated. I don’t have a killer argument as to why it’s objectively better, though.

    Zoning is a topic worth at least a whole post to itself. I don’t think zoning is a bad idea at all, although there would certainly be wrong ways to do it (like for instance imposing zoning on land that people already own, without their consent or compensation).

  4. “Even in Metaplace, where (some / most / many / all?) of the places outside of the central hub are user-created, the decision about which worlds to link to directly from the hub is made (afaik) by the Metaplace owners, and that gives them a tremendous amount of control over what the place as a whole feels like as you explore.”

    Cool post. Wanted to clarify this a bit though: way more than 99% of the stuff outside of Central is built by users. We have a few links to featured worlds in Central (user worlds which we picked to feature) and we rotate those out. But most of the gates in Central are actually up for purchase by users, so they decide where most of the gates go.

    The “Golden Egg” explore path is also determined by users — anyone who wants to add their world to the list can do so (for coin, of course).

  5. Oooh, nice! Love th’ economic models. :) Will update post.

  6. hey Dale,

    Thoughtful piece, and I was struck by the tone of his bit in your comment response:

    “As I said somewhere in there, when I started typing I thought I had a much more cogent argument for why the Lab as such shouldn’t meddle in the content of the world. At the moment the most I can say is that (a) it gives me a bad feeling, and (b) it’s likely to be sort of unfair to anyone who wants to do work in some area that the Lab decides it’s going to intervene in. But I realize that’s not an incredibly strong argument. :)”

    Your thoughts on the subject made me wonder if there is perhaps a stronger argument to be made, and not just on the philosophical grounds of the idea that yes, it is supposed to be the collective product of “our imagination” (the customers, that is), and the addition of substantial content from the service provider arguably tends to dilute that element. I mean, hell, that consideration is pretty important, as after all, the “our imagination” factor can be seen as the heart of what distinguishes SL from all the other stuff out there. And the uniqueness o the product is a big part of what makes it viable in a highly competitive business environment. But there is another consideration that bothers me, and it is one that is more purely practical.

    Perhaps this is just a reflection of my own ignorance of how stuff works (particularly at LL) but in my experience all entities (whether business, non-profit or governmental) that create a product or provide a service do so with a finite amount of resources. (Well, except for FSM, of course…though the Blessed Pasta does have a limited attention span, and tends to get easily distracted)

    Anyhow, with finite resources, most entities what provide a product or service, if well managed, will seek focus those resources on doing the best job possible with their core product or service.

    So what is the core product or service that LL should be focused on? I suspect many of us would argue that it would be to provide and maintain a platform that runs reliably and smoothly so that its customers — including individuals, corporate, governmental, and non-profit/educational customers — can make builds that give them an environment that find useful or enjoyable, and can plan and carry out activities with a reasonable degree of confidence that the platform will work.

    For example, I am a customer who uses the platform as a tool for my own entertainment and to experiment with various silly projects that might someday be extremely valuable to certain types of cultural and educational organizations. Yesterday, I had planned to hold an event that required that some common in-world objects and simple animations (like WALKING) in order for the event to be a success. And of course just as all my participants had gathered and the event was about to start, the world suddenly stopped working. People crashed, nothing functioned, and the people who didn’t crash couldn’t move.

    Eventually, things got better, most the people were able to get back in and we quickly re-designed the activity to eliminate the elements that simply had ceased to function, so we got through it. And I was ok with that, because after all, I look on life on the grid as it is now as a series of experiments, one after another. But if I was an education or a business customer trying to employ the platform as a useful tool, I’d be incredibly frustrated and turned off by this kind of user experience.

    So going back to the issue of finite resources, it is hard to not feel like the Lab should perhaps hold off on applying resources to the creation of content. Maybe I am being unreasonable and just don’t understand why this strategy is essential to the advancement of the core business, but my subjective opinion is that they might do better to focus on mustering their resources to making the platform run smoothly and reliably for their customers before they get into generating content.

    User-generated content is one that that there is no shortage of. And while yes, it exhibits astonishing diversity in what it looks like, or its level of sophistication, it is ever evolving and one is continually astonished by what our fellow customers are making. I too find it odd that M would make the comment about “in the case of Hau Koda, we knew that some sort of Linden content needed to be placed there…”

    Why? He never really explained why he thought it was needed, did he?

    Maybe I’m just too thick to see the obvious and I’m missing something here.

  7. I think that’s a very good point,Dio: practically speaking, every dollar that the Lab spends on paying someone to build a period airport is a dollar they aren’t spending on asset-server scalability, or fixing Group IM, or looking into serious-sounding but apparently neglected JIRA reports. And that seems like another good reason to try to persuade them to cut down. We Residents can provide the airports; only the Lab can fix Group IM.

    I can imagine two related categories of answer to this argument: one that says that we Residents do an inadequate job of building the world and so if the world is going to be good enough to survive the Lindens have to build some of it (this argument seems not only paternalistic, but also just false); the other says that before too long there won’t be much money in just providing the platform, so if the Lab is going to stay in business it’s going to have to have expertise and market-share and stuff in the content-creation end. I don’t have a thorough business-model theory on which to base a response to that response.

    (A third answer would be that building is just fun, and the Lab deserves to do some using their ultimate powers as a reward for all the grunt-work they do on the infrastructure and customer support. That’s probably the argument that’d be most likely to win me over!)

  8. Hey Dale, I very much like your point that, “We Residents can provide the airports; only the Lab can fix Group IM.”

    I too find the idea that the residents are doing an “inadequate job of building the world” would be difficult to support. The customers either build what they want or need, or they engage a skilled builder to translate their ideas into a build. We get the world we require, and if we don’t , or we see a a need to improve up on what is there, we pursue it.

    I think the only way one could argue successfully that we doing an inadequate job of making content is if the lab has determined somehow that there is a substantial untapped market of potential customers who are seeking a completely passive experience and have little or no imagination propelling a desire to fully engage in shaping the environments on the platform. However, I would guess that the potential income that could be derived from that particular audience shard is somewhat less than what could be derived from the non-profit/education/government/business customer base, which needs a stable and smoothly functioning platform a lot more than it needs a Linden-built airport some place.

    And maybe I’m overestimating the extent to which fiddling with content is a distraction from fixing the damned platform. Yes, I suppose it’s possible that it is nothing more than just a little reward bone tossed to the hardworking folks in the basement at the Lad to give them something fun to do for a bit. But that’s not what M seemed to be saying. He said that Linden content “needed” to be placed on Hau Koda. That’s something else entirely than your “third answer” that you postulate there.

  9. Good points again, Dio, and glad you like the phrase. Maybe I should make some posters. :)

    Even if there were lots of people who want only to experience builds and not help create them, I would still argue (as I have before) that user-generated content is still better (more varied, quicker to respond) than centrally-generated content. Note that no Linden (nor anyone else) has actually put forward the “Residents don’t build good enough content” suggestion as far as I know; so it may be a complete strawman.

    Given that both building airports and fixing Group IM take money, I think it’s hard to avoid concluding that doing more of the one means doing less of the other. This isn’t necessarily true in the short term (i.e. you can’t just decide one day to set all your content builders to fixing Group IM; they have the wrong skills), but it is true in the longer term, as you decide (for instance) whether to hire 3D content architects or distributed systems architects. For instance. :)

    Yeah, I dunno if M’s “need” in this case was as simple as this Hub notion (“we’re going to start flooding the area with newborns, and we don’t want to do that to a place that any individual Resi cares about, so it has to be a place with our builds on it”), or if he meant that all of the various reasons he listed there added up to “need”. I think it actually adds up more to “want”, myself. And it’s a want that I wish the Lab would try to resist…

  10. This is a good blogpost – thanks, Dale.
    I like variety, and though I think there’s a place for a certain amount of Linden content I do think that has been exceeded.
    Some disjointed thoughtlets:
    I see GREAT value in having some permanent structures that create shared experiences/reference points for residents, since much of the mainland is in constant flux.
    Part of what are considered fugly builds are just people learning and experimenting, which is exactly what I think is great about SL.
    One problem comes when builds are left sitting for ages – sometimes unfinished builds and sometimes left with build turned on so trash accumulates – which isn’t something that needs fixing, but does certainly detract from how things look.
    That’s true for resident builds but also goes for neglected Linden builds that’ve rotted over the years.
    Builds like the moth temple never feel intrusive to me, but less-inspired and bigger Linden builds do.
    I’ve always been excited by the freedom LL has allowed us to have. They have created something amazing that, as far as I’ve seen, has no competitors. It’s a difficult thing letting go of the controls, and we do run amok, I can’t deny it – yet the beauty of the unexpected can arise in no other fashion.

  11. Thanks much! I love the amok that we’ve run, also. :) I wrote down some of those feelings in the “Utopia is not a lie” posting; although that’s all in terms of the mainland, and I love the chaos (and the order) on estate land also.

    Yeah, I think the earlier Linden spirit was one that would have had an easier time sitting back and admiring the variety and craziness of user-generated stuff (unless I’m just idealizing the past). Now that the Lab has ambitions of being an Important Business Resource Success Vehicle Solution and all, it may be harder for them (and the people that have come in under that ambition) to keep their hands off, and let go of the controls. We’ll see how that works out… :)

  12. […] my recent weblog posting on this general issue for […]

  13. […] know I’ve been sort of skeptical about Linden-run builds in SL, and that includes, directly or indirectly, alot of the stuff in the Blake […]

  14. […] initial visceral reaction to this was sheesh here we go again with the Lindens sort of dipping down and futzing around with the world and the […]

  15. […] There was an interesting post on Massively called  “Is Linden Lab wasting its time on the existing Second Life population? Then John Carter pointed me to some of @DaleInnis ’s posts related to Linden Labs “futzing around with the world”  that also got me thinking (good stuff, follow some of her links) […]

  16. […] of Second Life”. And while I might have expected myself to be bothered by that, in my usual Lindens offa my lawn! way that is bothered by Lindenx picking winners and advantaging some Resis over others and all, I […]

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