Oh dear….

On Monday, Katt Linden issued the latest in what I refer to as KLiPPs (Katt Linden’s Pointless Posts). This one was about the much-vaunted “new” front end to the Second Life website that is being developed with Big Spaceship in order to “draw-in” potential new users.

However, rather than simply announce the fact that a demonstration version of the new site design is available for people to comment on, Katt made an announcement about the fact that some time next week, Linden Lab will be “testing” the new design, and that as such some of us might get to see it.

Thus, the tagged-on request for comments and feedback (coupled with a basic snapshot of the proposed layout), made at this point in time, is utterly pointless – how can one fairly judge what is (apparently) something of an interactive front end (Flash-driven) on the basis of a static snapshot or without actually seeing it in action for oneself?

One can’t.

So why not wait until the new site is ready for a proper look, and then make it available, together with a suitable announcement and request for comments on something that is tangible, rather than wasting our time with more hype?

Because let’s face it showing a static photo of what is supposedly a dynamic web front-end gives about as much idea of the appeal & actual usability of that front end as does sticking a penguin on a pair of rollerskates and using it as a demonstration of flying (it’s got wings, it moves – but it ain’t airbourne).

…Although in making the above comment, I do acknowledge the fact that I’m assuming the pictures within the new web front end are dynamic, rather than themselves being basic snapshots….

That said, there is one aspect of the new design that does deserve comment. That aspect is the use of Flash as the presentation medium. And the comment is, “Oh dear…”

Ostensibly, the idea behind the new design is to encourage potential new users into Second Life, and remove barriers to them getting in-world ASAP. This being the case, one cannot help but ask, “So what on Earth went wrong between coming up with this Big Idea and handing the assignment to Big Spaceship?”

Lets face it. Flash is not exactly the most popular browser plugin in the world. For a start, the fact that it is a plugin presupposes people have Flash installed on their computers (many don’t) or that they will be suddenly willing to install it in order to see the “exciting new medium” LL claims Second Life to be (they won’t).

And even where people do have it installed, coming across a website front-ended by Flash tends to provoke one of two reactions:

  1. Either people get hacked off waiting for everything to load and initiate and go off elsewhere before the “exciting stuff” begins, or
  2. People immediately hit the “Skip intro” link in the hope of getting to something more meaningful.

Thus, however you look at it – it is really hard to see how this new design is going to win over new users any more than the current (admittedly hideous) website – or even be seen, given point (2.) above…

Even Jamie Linden’s attempts to reassure people over the use of Flash stand as a damning indictment of the whole approach. “During the test,” he announces in the forum discussion on the subject, “for those that do not have Flash, we have a detection script which then serves those people a non-Flash homepage, similar to the homepage we have now.”

In other words Linden Lab is aware the Flash isn’t exactly highly regarded from a user perspective….

….so why even bother investing the time and effort into such a lame duck approach? Flash is not the sole media management technology that is out there. There are better ways of attracting new users without trying to be so – and pardon the unintentional pun – flashy; ways and technologies that are far less alienating than Flash. So why not cut to the quick and simply use those technologies instead, and avoid all the rigmrole of providing “alternative” sites and links and all the maintenance headaches that involves?

Could it be that at the end of the day the choice of Flash was not driven so much by the need for accessibility than it was by the fact that it appears to be the only medium Big Spaceship understands? If so, then a) Linden Lab has again managed to suck on alemon while trying for an orange, and b) the alternative meaning often applied when Big Spaceship’s initials are paired together may well be richly deserved….

tao-ing the line

On Monday, Linden Lab saw fit to publish an updated version of their Company Principles, which they opt to call (in a manner that sets many teeth grinding at the sheer hippiness of it) The Tao of Linden.

The new Tao differs quite a lot from the previous version – which has given a number of people cause to comment, both neutrally and somewhat more negatively, albeit in a wider context.

I’ve now read the Tao several times, and I have to say that it reveals more about Linden Lab than perhaps was intended – and not in a good way.

What is most striking is that of the five principles, only one actually addresses Linden Lab’s user base (“walk in our residents’ shoes”). Even then, one cannot help but look at this as a sinecure to pat SL users on the head rather than a genuine exhortation to the staff. After all, the policy to date with Linden Lab has been to increasingly distance themselves from their user base and systematically cut-off / control whatever voice their users have (restrictions of Linden Office hours, restrictions on what “residents” can discuss when meeting with Lindens, removal of blog comments; new rules relating to forum postings & the threat of account suspension, etc.).

As to the rest of the principles, it is a sad fact that they are suggestive of an increasiongly Orwellian leadership within the company. Of the remaining four principles, three (“work together”, “good people make good choices”, and “no politics”) could easily be interpreted (once the fluffy-feely text in the explanatory paragraphs is brushed aside) as saying, “the company is always right”.

Then there is the remaining principle, “be thoughtful and transparent”. Now this sounds great to the casual reader; a dose of something that is very much needed where Linden Lab is concerned: transparency. But then comes the follow-up explanation, which makes it totally clear that such “transparency” is restricted to dealings within the company – colleague to colleague – and has absolutely nothing to do with dealing with you or me – LL’s customers.

And this is perhaps the saddest fact behind LL’s new Tao. Where other service / customer-oriented companies at least try to address the needs and hopes of their customers when defining and publishing their core values, Linden Lab simply bins them, once and for all.

But then, another meaning for Tao is doctrine (in the sense of a dogma) – and the new management at Linden Research Inc., seems very focused on establishing a dogmatic* approach to the company’s activities.

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* “asserting opinions in a doctrinaire or arrogant manner; opinionated” (dictonary.com); “said of an opinion: forcefully and arrogantly stated as if unquestionable” (Chambers English Dictionary); “firmly asserting personal opinions as true” (OED online).