Thoughts from Thoughts from Burning Man

I’ve been not paying much attention to the Web around Second Life lately (RL has been crazy, and I’ve barely had time to get into SL itself). In catching up a bit today, I ran across Philip Linden’s post Thoughts from Burning Man, and couldn’t help but comment.

Executive summary: Second Life has certain good things in common with the Burning Man festival. Philip says that Second Life has to change radically (whereas apparently Burning Man doesn’t). Why is that, exactly?

So I’m gonna be a contrarian here for a minute, at least.

Burning Man was a big part of the inspiration for Second Life, and some of what’s special about Second Life is also some of what’s special about Burning Man.

But, you say, the two are very different.

Burning Man has always been comparatively small and comparatively hard to get to, and you don’t have a problem with that; or at least I don’t see you saying that you think it would be improved if there were convenient shuttle-bus service, and the place was expanded enough that millions of people could attend.

On the other hand, you say that Second Life must “get a lot bigger”. It must change in fundamental ways. The changes will be disruptive and painful. Things that we love now must be swept away by tides of progress, so that Second Life can become more palatable to “hundreds of millions”.

I’ll bite: why?

The other possibility, which has been mentioned only very indirectly here, is that Second Life should stay as it is; or rather, should continue changing as it has. As an open and freewheeling place, driven by Resi ideas rather than marketing plans, friendly to the odd and the creative, chaotic and ugly in spots, confusing in places, mystifying, annoying, disturbingly lovely in places. All those things that the shopping mall down the street is most definitely and intentionally NOT.

I think, and maybe I’m naive to think it, that in fact if SL continues that way, without being pushed into an “all things to all people, easy and safe and bland” direction, that it would turn out that the hundreds of millions *would* in fact eventually come. Come not as passive sheep going toward whatever looks safe and familiar and was recommended by a celebrity on TV last night, but come as hundreds of millions of creative individuals, creative as every truly engaged individual is who either creates directly, or acts as a creative viewer, contributing their own thoughts and feelings and trails through the world.

By all means let’s make SL something that will appeal to and benefit the hundreds of millions. But let’s do it by allowing SL to be what it is, not by killing the magic that makes it special. If SL becomes accessible to the hundreds of millions by becoming dull, by becoming something that advertising agencies link to bikini-clad models on prime-time TV, by becoming bland and easy and undisturbing and nonconfusing, we will have wasted a huge opportunity. Might as well have made yet another soft drink or TV drama, rather than a whole new world.

Burning Man would not benefit from being opened to, and made “accessible” to, hundreds of millions of people in the obvious ways.

Do you, do we, really think that Second Life would?

And as always, I would love to hear your thoughts…

10 Responses

  1. Good points Dane.

    A lot of this is somewhat like what is going on in Detroit which like Second Life isn’t as big as it once was. The mayor is taking the approach they will never be that again.

    “We’ve got to focus on being the best 900,000 populated city that we can be and stop thinking about ‘We can turn the clock back to the 1950s and ’60s,’ ” he said, referring to a time when the city, still the 11th most populous in the nation, was nearly twice as big. “That era is gone.”

    The crowd is screaming to make the city what it once was.

    As unpopular as the mayor’s idea is (no city wants to get get and stay smaller), it’s the best thing for city. They will use resources trying to get back glory and a population that never returns at the expense of those who remain.

    Having said that, Papa Phil likes to dream (and perhaps puff). I don’t think a lot of people are buying his dream number and that is why a CEO with a business view needs to steer.

    I wish it would be enough for them to make money (and they do) but it’s not. They are going to want to take a reach at what is a long shot at best and perhaps turn some base away. Hopefully a course correction follows.

    If they are smart they can mix slowly. An episode of “Malcolm in the Middle” at Burning Man didn’t kill their image (much) so it can be done.

    Change really isn’t so much driven by Linden when you think about. I doubt they wanted to spend time on kid avatar humping or defending a class action suit from the sex slave post guy, but they do.

  2. An episode of “Malcolm in the Middle” at Burning Man? Rofls! I am so out of touch.

    It’s a good point, I think, that even if M really wants to steer the development of SL in a particular way, he won’t necessarily be able to. It’s a very big ship. But I think things are likely to be happiest if the Lab is consciously allowing the grid to grow and evolve organically, rather than trying to force it to be something bland enough for “the millions”.

    If SL does get bland, the creatives will just move on (and I will tag along after writing weblog entries). But I don’t think that needs to happen…

  3. One of the better ones Dean and the hippies even want you to see it.

    The creatives will have done themselves in by then suing Linden, each other, and then random suits directed at perhaps Linda Ellerbee never understanding in Obama fashion that punishing the wallet holder starts a circular motion that kicks them in the ass.

    Bland is never a danger. When you build that world for millions it cannot be bland. It must be a world of happiness and joy and rides and perhaps (just perhaps) we keep a corner like Epcot the rest avoid off to the side of this small small world.

  4. I’d deeply love a time machine so I could see what SL looks like in 5 years time – and the competition!

    I do think it would be rather nice if some wonderful Wikipedia type benefactor paid for the infastructure to allow a free, creative OS style VW to exist, but I’ve always been a dreamer :)

    • I would also like that time machine, HBA! I also wonder how much will actually be resolved in five years’ time. I’m beginning to think that the 3D web isn’t going to happen anytime soon and worry a little that virtual worlds are actually always going to be a tiny niche thing. Would you stop now if your time machine told you this? Should that take away from our enjoyment?

  5. I’d also like a time machine to go back and tell myself to get into SL at Beta! :-D

  6. Yeah, SL in the beta must have been fascinatin’. :)

    There are quite a number of OpenSim based VWs and grids around nowadays, but (at least last time I seriously looked!) OpenSim was still a little too unstable to compete with SL as a big open-to-all social and creative world (although it’s already very good for more controlled experiments). One great thing about it is that you can set up your own computer with your own region, link into a grid, and you are now In Charge. If you want to allow adult content and gambling, your only worries are the atomic authorities; so you get to be Resi and Linen all at once! :)

  7. I’m trying to make some sense of my past 2 1/2 years and what it all means… what it will become. I don’t think we’ll ever see the SL that evolves naturally, as you suggest, but it’s a delicious idea. So many of us, myself included, have been busybees trying to accomplish… what exactly? 3D web? RL recognition and participation? How will that improve matters? Or is this the zenith that we will long remember as “the good ole days?”

    BTW, watched the Malcolm in the Middle episode. Fun.

    • Well, the past is easy in your case, Bettina: you helped a whole lot of people get out of Second Life (and other virtual worlds) whatever the heck they happened to be looking for, especially if it was novel and interesting. :)

      As for the future, I think that for any given week, there’ll be someone who thinks that that week was the best it ever was. The key is to do what you can to shape changes, to accept them when they happen, and to enjoy it all.

      I hope the Lab (either intentionally or through the inability to do otherwise) does allow SL to evolve naturally, into whatever forms its users take it. If not, then that evolution will happen in the larger space of other virtual worlds. OpenSim, maybe even Blue Mars (boring at the moment, but who knows) or something like Metaverse.

      The interesting people always find places to be interesting. :) From my perspective right now, heavily in love with Second Life, I hope SL continues to be a leading one of those places. But if the Lab chooses not to allow that, well… moving is difficult, but it’s far far from impossible…

      And thanks so much for the thoughts!

  8. “The key is to…. to enjoy it all.” – I agree.

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