Conversational Identities….

(Mark) Wallace Linden fires off his first topic for “conversation” this week, and it is a doozy on so many levels.  Will the Real You Please Stand Up brings what several Lindens have been mooting for some time  – the linking of real life information potentially directly to your Second Life avatar(s) identity/ies – in to the “public” domain of the flogrum.

What interests me about the post – other than the intense and understandable reaction from users to Wallace’s words – is the lengths to which Linden Research is prepared to go to in order to justify their decision to start putting in place “open” links between people’s RL and SL identities and the fact that the decision has clearly already been made.

As such, Wallace Linden has not so much initiated a conversation around the idea of bringing in the tools to make this possible, he’s more-or-less making a pronouncement LL will be actively undertaking to implement the tools in the coming months.

Let’s start with the former first: the degree of negative feedback from the majority of “residents” – the likes of you and me, whom I’ve opted to start calling “casual users”, on account of the fact that by-and-large we use SL purely as a form of “entertainment” (even if we run in-world “businesses”) as opposed to the “emerging market” of so-called “corporate users” LL seemed determined to try and find woo – is on record. Many are concerned over Facebook’s recent policy changes which have effectively made revealing much of your personal information filed with the company an opt out process, rather than, as it should be, an opt in (or so I understand, having never, ever gotten involved in Facebook in my life).

Yet, rather than confronting these concerns head-on and using them as a means of opening a two-way dialogue, Wallace instead opts to go back further in time – using Friendster’s 2003 approach to “false” identities to somehow further justify the need to link rl and SL identities more closely.

Indeed, were I a total cynic, I might even conclude that there is a veiled threat hidden in Wallace’s choice of example as an opening gambit.

From this dubious outset, Wallace goes on to paint a rosy picture of online interconnectedness that is  – in essence – fair and true. For, as he states, The thing not to miss here — and it bears stating despite how obvious it sounds — is what all these online “identities” have in common. At the center of them all, the hub that ties all these personae together, is the very real, non-virtual, analog and offline “you.” Whether the connections are public or not, your Second Life avatar, your World of Warcraft toon, your Facebook profile, your LinkedIn employment history — all of these and more are just different aspects of a single entity: the person reading these words. They are all already connected to each other, via you.

Yes, yes, absolutely, Wallace. But here is something else not to miss – and it bears stating despite how obvious it sounds – is what, for the majority of us, these online “identities” have in difference to one another. Whether the connections are our Second Life avatar, our World of Warcraft toon, our Facebook profile, our LinkedIn employment history – they are all what we have chosen to reveal of ourselves through these differing media to meet different aspirations, wants and needs. They are all already connected to each other via our real-world self. And as such, we don’t need you, or anyone else at Linden Research trying to engineer / persuade / cajole / drive us into greater degrees of self-revelation than we’ve already opted to make.

Strong arguments to this effect have been made in response Wallace’s post, but what is interesting  – to turn to my point on this having been a “done-and-dusted” decision on LL’s part – is not so much that Wallace has replied to critiques, but rather the wording of his replies.

Not once does he reply directly to the arguments raised against such a move. Not once does he even suggest that LL are seeking to engage with users on the pros and cons of the matter.

No. The only assurance he will give is that there (presumably) still-to-be-defined tools will “opt in”. and really, even this is a pretty bland reassurance, as “opt in” cover a variety of “up-front” sins. Yahoo Messenger, for example, has a default “opt in” user must then physically opt out of in order to ensure the messenger doesn’t deposit cookies (or “biscuits”, as I believe Yahoo calls them) on their computer that enable Yahoo to target users with adverts based on their web browsing. It is only AFTER you’ve gone through the process of creating your account, editing your profile and tracing down the “opt out” function that the “biscuits” are actually removed from your computer…

The only other assurance we get from Wallace is that “I don’t think anyone at LL is in favor of forced identity publication.” Which again, is pretty bland, given it is immediately followed by, “That said…..” – which immediately carries the implication that there is nothing inherently wrong with forced identity publication.

Does this mean we should roll over and accept the inevitable? No. Whether or not this is a done deal within LL’s ivory towers is moot. This kind of social engineering simply is not needed. As Ciaran Laval states, it’s time to say no to this invasive function creep and take care of our own identities, we certainly don’t need social networking sites to manage our identities for us, it seems as if George Orwell was two or three decades premature.

This is the message we need to carry to LL through the flogrum, through posted replies, our own blogs and posts to any and all metaverse sites that report on this move: we are all intelligent adults and we’ve been perfectly capable of managing our online identities for as long as the Internet as a whole has been available to us; we certainly don’t need the likes of Linden Research and/or Facebook or any other organisation or partnership telling us how to do so going forward. And we need to fight every step of the way to make sure than any such “tools” alluded to in Wallace’s post are fully, truly and demonstratively opt-in in every meaning of the term, and not just in some facile “well, it’s sort-of opt-in…” half-arsed implementation that we’ve tended to see in the past where LL’s policy moves are concerned.

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Closing the (conversational) circle

It’s funny how cyclical things can be. Back in May 2008 I questioned the arrival of Katt Linden as the new “Communications Manager” at Linden Lab – specifically asking whether her appointment marked a genuine change in LL’s traditional lack of open discourse with users, or whether it was merely window dressing.

While many were initially enthusiastic about Katt’s arrival, I was somewhat cynical – for a start, her role was clearly regarded by many senior Lindens as merely a by-the-by, and not something that would be taken seriously: first mention of the post came in the form of two tacked-on comments to announcements by Robin (Harper) Linden and Catherine (Smoth) Linden the latter of what was in a post on an entirely unrelated subject, and it was still more than a month before we heard anything from Katt (aka former resident Kathleen Craig) herself.

So effective and important was her role that within twelve months, she was gone, again without so much as a whimper, leave alone a bang.

While it would be grossly unfair to blame Katt for her lack of impact – she was obviously employed on a whim and probably had her powers and role rigidly controlled by those above her – it is also fair to say her own attitude at times did not curry favour with residents at large, as I’ve recently commented in my review of 2009.

Now it seems the circle has closed as we’re introduced to (Mark) Wallace (Linden), the new – wait for it – “Conversation Manager“. His arrival on-scene seems to mirror that of Katt, inasmuch as first word of his upcoming arrival came in the form of a by-the-by announcement from a senior Linden  – in this case Mark Kingdon himself, admittedly – and Wallace has been in the role for over a fortnight before he’s actually been able to say anything.

OK – so fair enough, it takes time to get feet under the desk and to begin to understand a new working environment, so one can forgive Wallace for not having hit the blogrum sooner – and at least his position would seem to have a greater weight assigned to it because a) M actually took the time to mention it, and b) he’s a journalist who has actually co-authored a book on Second Life.Valid points all.

Even so, colour me unimpressed.

I’m not going to get into the debate about Wallace’s credentials. Others more knowledgeable than I have done that, and even if you discount some of what is being said as personal bias elsewhere, one has to raise an eyebrow at Wallace’s past and his potential suitability for the role.

No; what has me discounting his arrival as an effective communicator from the outset comes primarily as a result of his working title, Conversation Manager. Sorry, however you dress it up and trying and make it touchy-feely, the title is indicative of one thing, and one things only: control.

Back in the 1990s, British Telecom instigated a series of saccharine laced touchy-feely television adverts fronted by the “hard man” actor Bob Hoskins. These adverts were intended to portray BT as a kindly, warm-hearted enabler of conversations betwixt families and friends under the catchy by-line it’s good to talk. In reality, the adverts were an attempt to cast a warmer, friendlier light on a monolithic corporation that was seemingly growing ever more distant from its customer base, was just beginning to feel the pinch of fledgling competition in the residential communications market, and which seemed to give the merest lip service to the concept of “customer services”.

Reading Wallace’s first post, those old BT / Hoskins ads came instantly to mind: comfy to watch, jolly in their japes – but wholly lacking in substance and utterly divorced from reality.  It’s very clear that despite the flowery language, Wallace’s role is not about encouraging open, two-way and involved conversations between LL and its residents. Not at all. If one read his post carefully, it is clear that his role is about directing one-sided “conversations” outward from Linden Lab towards those the company most wants to reach.

And the people they want to reach are not the residents – not by a long shot. Wallace himself admits this in a throw-away line, I want to help both the company and the Residents of Second Life — as well as the people we’re trying to reach (my emphasis).

“As well as the people we’re trying to reach.” Here, in a nutshell, we have the core aim of LL’s broader “communications policy”. The primary aim of LL’s communications is not to engage with existing residents. Its aim is to bypass us completely in the drive to entice new corporate and (probably to a lesser degree) “casual” users into signing aboard the good ship Second Life.

Hence Wallace’s focus is not so much on the blogrum – which is the primary (in theory) means of communicating with the majority of existing SL users – but rather on the already over-hyped use of other social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook.

Some are hoping for good things to come of Wallace’s arrival, and are trying not to let cynicism creep into their posts. Good on them. Me? I’m altogether too long in the tooth when it comes to LL’s view on “communications” and “conversations”. It’s not so much the I don’t believe the leopard can change its spots as the more optimistic are hoping; I tend to believe that in this case, once again, the leopard has no intention of changing its spots.

Assessing Assets

I’m not overly technical. I make no bones about that; but I do have two redeeming characteristics that help overcome this shortfall, however: generally, I’m a quick learner, and while the devil of th details in terms of coding, etc., may well elude me, I can quickly grasp concepts, and meanings; secondly, I’m ready to got out and read-up / find out about things that aren’t obvious to me, even after they’ve been patiently explained.

Which is why, amidst all the Linden spin and twirl, I’ve always appreciated posts from Frank (FJ Linden) Ambrose. Here is one of the few senior members of LL’s staff who is prepared to communicate openly and honestly with residents. His postings are refreshing because they are devoid of spin, and he tends not to simply cherry-pick the rosy replies residents post in response, but actually takes the time to tackle the harder questions and deal with concerns and fears head-on.

This is visibly demonstrated in his latest post on recent updates to in-world services. What is warming about FJ’s posts is the disarming and genuine honesty, We have tried (and failed) in previous attempts to upgrade our mysql version he openly admits, before going on to express both pleasure that the updates performed on Wednesday 6th Jan 2010 went smoothly, and regret at the fact that Residents were still inconvenienced in order for the update to be rolled out.

Personally, I see little cause for regret, Frank: you and your team worked hard to develop this much-needed update, you carefully planned and communicated it to all – and the resulting outage  / issues users experienced during the update process were, frankly (no pun intended) absolutely trivial.

Leave us not forget that a few short years ago, this kind of work was regularly shutting down the grid every Wednesday for anywhere from three to six hours at a time; in this respect, the technical bods at Linden Lab have performed a marvellous job, and if anything, they should feel a justified sense of satisfaction in the professional manner in which this update was handled, with residents being “inconvenienced” for around an hour.

Kudos all!

FJ’s post is not limited to what has happened, however. Rather than simply dwell on the past, or make (in contrast to others I’ve recently commented on) sweeping generalisations about “future directions”, he takes the time to spell out what he and his team will be looking at in the coming year to further enhance grid performance. Of course, some of the technology being looked at does raise concerns – as shown in the responses from residents on the subject of cloud computing and outsourcing. And again, FJ wins kudos for responding to these concerns, rather than (again as is the wont of some of his colleagues) to sweep past such questions and simply respond with touchy-feely la-la-ness at comments that are more gushing with praise towards LL or which focus on trivialities.

Indeed, his responses are considered and balanced. No promises are made (such as guaranteeing no outsourcing will take place), while every assurance is given (such as LL retaining as much control over data as possible). In this it is again evident that  – refreshingly – there are efforts being made in LL to improve the grid not just for a select few or “emerging market”, but for us all.

So thank you again, Frank, for taking the time and effort to make sure our virtual lives suffer minimal disruption during what are very necessary (and beneficial) changes o the grid infrastructure, and for advising us on how you see things developing and the options you and your colleagues are considering for further improvements over time.

M’s People: Looking through Kingdon’s Spyglass

Mark Kingdon bounces into the Blogrum with a buoyant post looking to the future. Once one gets through the initial paragraphs, it is interesting to note where he lays emphasis for plaudits during 2009 and what he sees as being important for 2010.

First, his view on 2009 is interesting for the degree of spin evident – some of which borders on a complete re-writing of history, vis: We acquired two virtual goods e-commerce sites and began integrating them into the Second Life experience so that Residents can buy virtual goods both inworld and on the web. While it cannot be denied Onrez and SL Exchange were bought-out, to say they were both “integrated” in any way is far short of the mark. For a start, Onrez was simply killed stone dead, while the “integration” of SL Exchange (now XStreetSL, or XSL) has been nothing less than controversial, has seen LL (again) turn a deaf ear to many legitimate concerns of users, and has contributed further to the lack of trust between residents and the lab.

Similarly, his commentary on the Content Protection Roadmap and the Solution Provider Program fall wide of the mark for the majority of users. The former simply has no teeth, so is hardly something to chalk up as a “success”, while the latter is clearly aimed an LL’s belief in the “corporate market” and has little, if anything, to do with “casual users” (although many of us would like to think it does).

Looking more closely at the Content Protection Roadmap, many seem hung-up on the fact that it is all about “making” people have avatars that reflect their “real lives” (this coming off the back of Amanda Linden’s Work Avatar blog post, which was itself widely misunderstood – I hope).

However, the real threat here is not so much in the risk of people being “outed”, but more the case that the roadmap insidiously suggests that only those who (quote) meet a minimum threshold for content transactions will be able to partake in the new “content seller program”. Who will define this threshold? LL? LL in consultation with a few (and proven elitist) merchants (paging Ami Hoi….)?

What of those merchants who meet all the other criteria but fail to meet this threshold? They have payment info on record, they make quality goods for niche markets, they are in “good standing” with LL – are they suddenly to be outlawed for failing to hit sales of a few thousand linden dollars?

Similarly, the comment that merchants must be in good standing and not have been suspended for any violation of the Second Life Terms of Service is worrying given the way LL have suddenly started wielding the ToS like a big stick over merchants: “if thou knowingly mention a rival web commerce site on XSL, thou wilt not only have thine offending item removed but thous shalt face the wrath of Linden Lab, who will smite thee with a three-day account suspension” (believe me, this has happened, as reported on the Slapt.me forums).

Similarly, the commentary around the Linden Homes is suspect. Again, I’ve hammered out my view on this enough recently to make people possibly sick of it – but I have to say, M’s spin tends to mirror my thoughts: what he calls making it “web easy” for new residents to obtain their first home, I call “funneling” a section (Premium Account holders) joining SL away from the open market for land and homes, and towards a channelled experience that can either be used downstream to boost sales of the labs own “themed sims” – or used to direct users into the gleeful hand preferred land barons as the users find they need bigger land holdings as their experience grows.

And “channeling” (or “siloing” or “corralling”, whichever term you prefer) “casual users” (i.e. the likes of you and me), is very much a consistent theme with Kingdon of late, as I’ve previously mentioned. It is also in step with calls from the likes of Justin Bovington to “stream” the SL experience, and harks right back to another of my chestnut observations, Kapor’s own call for we “pioneers” to step (or get moved) aside for the “pragmatists”.

Little wonder, then, that the “Enterprise solution” (was there ever a problem with business enterprise that warranted a solution?) is flagshipped as the first 2009 “platform improvement”. And while the LLNet may well benefit “casual users” in the increased stability it brings, one cannot help but feel that this is a non-benefit as far as LL is concerned: LLNet is also about being able to furnish the corporate market, by providing high-speed, reliable connectivity between “behind the firewall” installations and a gleaming SL-based “shop front” corporate users can use to promote themselves among their peers and meet the LL-vaunted “Gold Solution Providers”. Again, such an environment has cropped up in several of Amanda Linden’s posts in the past.

And so we turn to M’s view of 2010….and for the casual user, I have to say, it is pretty glum. Once again, from a platform perspective, the emphasis is primarily on the perceived corporate market. Sure, there is much talk of the introduction of C# and of APIs and new protocols – and these will have some benefit to the user base at large – but make no mistake, the primary aim of these new tool sets are “business users”.

Not even the mini-list of “Technical Must Dos” is in anyway a comfort: the majority of them are “must dos” LL promised to deal with – or start dealing with proactively (as opposed to reactively, as is currently the case with things like inventory / asset problems) in 2009…and 2008…and 2007…and 2006….

M’s statements on the “ecosystem” offer little further comfort – indeed words like “seller directory” hold nothing but cold, empty dread while screaming “FIC!”. Similarly, the idea of XSL being further “integrated” holds concerns for me as a content seller, and the idea of it being “segmented” causes concerns for me as a “casual” user. While I can understand segmenting the needs of the corporate user away from those of the “casual” user (the former are, at least in theory, going to be largely looking for API and application-based tools and services not houses, furniture, clothes and the like that interest the rest of us) – the worry here is that things are going to go deeper: will Adult Content, for example, come under new and harder controls to “improve” the “user experience” in accessing and using XSL (or whatever it becomes)?

Of all M’s comments, those relating to Viewer 2.0 are perhaps the most relevant to the casual user.

There can be no denying that the current “official” Viewer is long in the tooth, is technically handicapped and cumbersome to use. While they may be forced to use broadly the same front end as the “official” Viewer, the major reason for 3rd party Viewers being so popular is not because they may be useful for illegal / unsocial behaviour but simply the fact that they avoid many of the issues inherent in the official viewer (memory leaks, etc.) and offer functionality users have been clamouring for over the last three or so years.

As such, a Viewer that addresses this issues, and provides greater flexibility of use (or is – to use LL’s own horrendous term – “localised”) should be welcomed, even if it will doubtless take us all time to get used to using it after years of ingrained use of the current Viewer.

One should also welcome the idea of new discovery tools – with the caveat being so long as said tools do not supplant existing tools (such as Landmarks) while offering less functionality / flexibility of use.

The idea of the new orientation program is one I’m very leery of, because again it smacks of M’s mime of “streaming” users into defined (easily-managed) groups, presenting the opportunity to further channel new users in directions LL would prefer them to take, rather than allowing them the more open thrill of discovery (even if the latter can mean a degree of confusion for some).

Again, while some hand-holding of new users is to be welcomed and encouraged, let’s not go too overboard. According to LL’s own hype, in the six years SL has been active, “millions” of users have made it through the first hour experience and “millions” of us have gone on to enjoy SL in all its forms and pleasures. So while there are issues to overcome with getting to grips with the software – it can’t all be bad.

Thus, the idea that – as Kingdon again suggested in his interview with Tateru Nino – it is now the first five hours of user’s in-world time which needs to be “addressed” – strikes me as a trifle excessive, and suggestive not so much of orientation but rather indoctrination.

Given LL are creeping ever deeper into the realm of service provisioning in-world (i.e. First Homes, “themed” mainland and private sims) and appear to be toying with entering the content creation business, one cannot help but wonder just how directed / channelled / siloed / corralled new users will be on emerging from their “first five hours” – and at what cose to resident-based businesses.

Overall, M’s post says nothing new. It confirms (if this needed emphasising) that LL has nailed its colours to the corporate environment masthead – but is not yet confident in its new shipmate to entirely let go of all pretense of regarding casual users as the core of their business.  Perhaps the saddest element in Kingdon’s post is the fact that it simply doesn’t embrace any of the core values that have so long earmarked what makes SL unique: the sheer diversity and creativity of we “casual users” and our ability to create and grow personal and group visions that are both exciting and enticing to the community as a whole, and which have, for six years, enabled Second Life, warts and all, be summed up in a single word:

Fun.

That was the year, that was…

It’s been a funny old year, has 2009. It’s fair to say that rl has thrown me a few ups and downs and over the months….and so has SL. So as we leave to Noughties between and enter the Tweens, I thought I’d look back over the year and see what, if any, sense can be drawn from things…

January certainly saw the year get off to an embittered start, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth still surrounding the OpenSpace / Homestead fiasco, with many feeling as if they’d been victims of a blatant bait-and-switch. While I don’t totally subscribe to this viewpoint (and I was one who turned in my OpenSpace, only to get a second kick from Jack come May…), I do feel the entire matter was a demonstration of a certain degree of contempt some individuals within Linden Lab have for their “residents”. The hike in price and tier were bad enough – no-one can deny that  – but to try, as the Lab initially did, and claim the hikes were necessary to deal technical limitations of the product was, simply, insulting.

Even with the thunder around OpenSpace still rumbling, Linden Lab pulled another surprise, announcing the acquisition of both Onrez and SL Exchange. One (SLE) was clearly being purchased as a going concern, while the other was being purchased to be wound down and moved out of the way. Both were potentially controversial moves, as one gave the first hint that the Lab was looking at more direct ways to leverage income from users – and to potentially control the flow of goods – while the other hinted that LL would not fight shy of stifling competition that came “from within”. Much was promised with the SLE (soon to become XStreet SL) acquisition. Little, beyond frustration, concern and upset, has actually been delivered….

January also saw the first round of personnel changes at the Lab. The arrival of Judy Wade and Eric Argel (both colleagues of Mitch Kapor and Mark Kingdon respectively) were fairly low-key, but should have been the first sounding of the alarm bells since Kapor’s own July 08 address at SL5B, in which he hinted at SL’s future by effectively stating that while those of us who have invested time, effort and money into Second Life over the last five years are “pioneers”, there neverthless comes a time when pioneers must move aside to make way for the “pragmatists”, who would be better placed (and better socially adjusted, Kapor rather rudely insinuated) to leverage SL and bring about its growth. Indeed, to this end, Wade herself was given the title “Vice President of Strategy and Emerging Markets” (and anyone remotely familiar with the world of banking should have felt their hearts hit the floor on reading the last two words in her title), while Argel became “Director of Information Architecture”.

As Wade and Argel (together with “PR specialist” Peter Gray) walked in the front doors of the Lab’s offices, resident-turned-Linden Kathleen Craig (Katt Linden) departed – or rather vanished from – the roll of “Resident Communications Manager”. She’d been active in the post just eight months.

At the time of her appointment, I questioned the motivation behind providing the post – after all, her arrival wasn’t exactly trumpeted at any point in time, and her rules of engagement seemed oddly inappropriate: with user concerns over the stability of the platform running at a (then) high, with clear, concise communications from LL seeming to be impossible to get hold of, one would have thought she’d be in there working to ease peoples concerns, build bridges between the lab and the community, etc. But no. Instead, Katt set herself (or was handed) the task of “fixing” the forums – which, for all their faults at the time, weren’t exactly broken. Such a “priority”, coming on top of the off-handed way the post was introduced by senior Executives (Catherine (Smith) Linden and Robin (Harper) Linden), made it pretty clear the role had little to do with communication with residents. Nor did Katt help matters with her off-handed, sometime downright rude, postings to the forums.

February was altogether quieter, marked primarily by the departure of a stalwart of LL / resident relations – Robin (Harper) Linden. While some cheered and some cried, Robin’s departure was, in many ways, indicative that something wiffy was growing inside the offices on Battery Street.

March saw the commencement of the next great debacle with the announcement of the Adult Content Changes. From the outset, there seemed to be a lot more going on here than Cyn Linden was letting on to. Certainly, if the “risk” of having people “accidentally” come across risqué or outright adult material was a genuine concern, then – as many people pointed out – the creation of a purely PG-rated “orientation” and “get to know SL” continent seemed to be more appropriate than the wholesale upheaval of large numbers of Mainland residents.

April passed with more rumbling on the Adult Content Changes front, while the Resident Choice Awards came and went causing barely a ripple in the scheme of things, other than a weird kerfuffle of claims amounting to “fixing” the scheme which, frankly, went right over my head.

May saw Jack Linden lose further credibility with the populace of Second Life after reneging on his statements of December 08 / January 09 that Homestead sim tiers would not be grandfathered come the July 1st increase to $125 USD / month – by stating Homestead tiers would be grandfathered at $95 USD / month for a further twelve months – and proceeded to encourage people to rush out and buy the product.

Not only was this a thinly disguised (and cynical) cash grab, it was insulting to residents on two counts:

  1. Many people had pleaded with Jack to grandfather tiers for those who  converted from OpenSpace to Homestead back as the year was turning, and he outright refused – several times. Thus, those people felt they had no option but to turn in / abandon their homesteads on the basis that they could not justify $125 a month, and that the limit-time offer of buy / swap-outs (which ended January 5th 2009) meant then should get out sooner rather than later. Now Jack was effectively kicking them right where it hurt.
  2. The announcement made further mockery of the idea that the price hikes were the result of “technical” issues in operating OpenSpaces. Even with reduced avatar counts per sim, Homesteads (at 16 sims per server) would still put a tremendous load on the systems running them.

May also saw Linden Lab oddly talking-up their Voice product. Taken in isolation, the posting seemed strange, and certainly drew a fair amount of derision from residents – which is probably why it was deleted. However, in a wider context, with the ongoing rumblings over Adult Content, the January appointments…all the way back to Kapor’s SL5B presentation, it did fit with the overall context of LL’s “new direction”. Even if it would take until November for the pieces to make sense.

A possible reason for the Adult Content changes appeared to emerge when it was revealed that just prior to LL’s March announcement, the US FTC had stated it was beginning a nine month investigation in minors accessing Adult Content in virtual worlds. If LL’s announcement was a knee-jerk reaction to this news, and given the likes of Senator Mark Kirk’s witch hunting of Second Life and Linden Lab in the US made this seem likely, then it might possibly help explain things.

Finally, May saw the departure of another worthwhile member of the Linden ranks: Prospero. True, his actions didn’t always meet with the approval of the Technorati of SL – but he could never be faulted for not taking the time to communicate with and engage with residents where others simply talk down to us with homilies  – or simply hide their hostility towards us under a thin veil of civility.

June saw any theories linking the Adult Content changes to the ongoing FTC investigation pretty much blown out of the water by none other than Ken (Dreifach) Linden, during a recorded interview. This interview also demonstrated the degree of confusion within LL as to the timescale and scope of the changes, with different members of the Linden “team” providing different “historical insights” into the reasons behind the proposed changes.

In a further worrying development, Jack Linden was back in the news…this time justifying the fact that certain high-profile land barons were being given preferential treatment in being allowed to advertise on the Message of the Day (MOTD) screen which pops-up as the SL Viewer is logging-into the servers. Jack attempted to calm the mounting storm around this move by claiming it was a “beta programme” (words that would become synonymous with Jack and wriggling in the months ahead), that might be rolled-out to other beneficiaries in the future.

June also saw me in minor “trouble” with LL for a comment posted in the official forums. While I was happy to publish an apology for the tone of my posting, the fact remains that Linden Lab were increasingly demonstrating double standards in the handling of their users – while the new “Adult Policy” was supposedly for “all” “extreme adult or violent content”, the focus quickly narrowed to focus of sexual activities, while blood and gore was openly welcomed by LL in their own PG sims, as the picture illustrates.

June also saw the new “Adult” continent (now effectively reduced to being the “sex continent” given just about every other kind of “adult” play first outlined in LL’s new policy had been given a repreive) come into being, albeit with the terrible name of Zindra.

July saw a further angering of users as the Zindra land-swaps descended into farce, with LL comprehensively failing to understand the size of the issue and thus putting everything on hold. If this weren’t bad enough, it became evident that their promised “policing” of requests for swaps was anything but effective, and that things were being handled in a pretty casual manner, with little effort being made to prevent land flipping until negative publicity through resident anger threatened to upset things.

Resident freedom of speech came in for a further hammering when it was announced that the old SL Exchange (now XStreet SL) forums would be shut down and “merged” with the hideous new forums being rolled out on the main SL website. The announcement came from Colossus Linden, one of the new “Commerce Lindens” who would rapidly gain, alongside Pink Linden, a reputation for possibly not being able to find his own backside with both hands.

August brought with it Linden Lab’s Content Management Roadmap announcement. Leaving aside the patronising element of the post, it raised more than a few concerns in that the thrust of the “roadmap” was not so much aimed at protecting resident’s content as it is towards both placing barriers in the way of people being able to create content that is visible to the wider marketplace, and potentially as a means of leveraging further charges out of users. In these regards, Cyn’s commentary comparing the new roadmap directly with the “Gold Solution Providers” programme and some of her criteria relating to her “Content Seller Program” came in for a lot of scrutiny and gave rise to understandable concern.

Amanda Linden blogged, with the so-rizzable-it’s-funny Open Letter to Your Boss which we were all urged to copy and take to our bosses to encourage them to view SL as a “serious” platform for business. Among the more laughable claims made by the letter was that, “We Can Keep our Workspace and Data Secure: If we decide to get a private region, then we have complete control over who enters our area by tightly managing our access list. And, we can also keep our data secure.” Given LL had just released the Content Roadmap, had little idea of where it was going, and, by its own admission, could do “little” to stop content theft in its current form, one could perhaps most charitably call Amanda’s letter “fanciful”.

As if to prove the point regarding the vulnerability of SL, Jon Himoff (“RightAsRain Rimbaud”) of Rezzable went on record attempting to justify very public statements made by his company that, while they were to all intents and purposes leaving SL, they were considering dropping a tool that allows entire sims to be ripped into the Open Source market. While there are many legitimate uses for such a tool (such as allowing a company like Rezzable to produce legal back-ups of of their own work, and the work they have commissioned and paid for & thus have negotiated the rights to) – there could simply be no justification for the company simply dropping the code without any safeguards into the public domain other than to simply cause mischief. As such, Himoff’s justifications were nothing short of entirely rizzible. Fortunately, while the Lab did little, resident angst and anger proved enough for Himoff to rethink his position – to a point.

September saw Stroker Serpentine and Nomine filed a class action against LL in the might of IP and rights protection. The suit itself makes interesting reading and raises issues that previously have been pushed to one side in the entire IP and rights protection debate. It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out in 2010.

The XStreet forum migration was “completed” in September, and Pink Linden started down the path of demonstrating just how little knowledge she has on the matter of the very commerce she is allegedly in charge of by openly dismissing concerns raised by merchants themselves at these changes.

Another potentially nasty announcement came when LL stated they’d be moving more into the Content Creation business, and offering users the opportunity to purchase fully developed sims – both Mainland and private regions. While this has yet to go fully live, the implications were worrying at the time, and remain so now.

September saw the new Adult Policy come into “force”. Quite where isn’t entirely clear, given the number of ongoing “violations”.

Away from SL, Blue Mars opened its doors to Beta users. Despite a bloated front-end, limited functionality and other issues, it nevertheless demonstrated that given time – and allowing for the fact its operating model is substantially different to SL – it could be a serious contender for VW enthusiasts.

October brought with it a slew of announcements, chief among them:

  • the announcement (on the cusp of the month) of the new “community Partnership Program”
  • the third party viewer policy, which some may regard as overdue, even the amount of vitriol surrounding the very excellent Emerald Viewer.  Results of this will be due…theoretically….some time in 2010
  • Philip Rosedale announced his departure from LL. However well this is dressed up, one could not help but wonder, “did he jump, or was he pushed…?”
  • Amanda Linden announced LL’s new “Second Life Enterprise” platform would be moving to “beta” in November, thus causing a whole lot of pieces to (possibly) fall into place regarding moves and actions seen throughout the year to date

Of these, the hype build-up surrounding the “behind the firewall” product produced the most angst / confusion, with some residents apparently seeing this as some kind of “Opensim” product  – which it assuredly is not, while others of us questioned the direction LL were apparently taking with both this announcement and the “Community Partnership Program”.

November saw the launch of the new “Second Life Enterprise” product amidst much ballyhoo. Some still misguidedly saw it as a product for them, even to the point of expressing surprise at the price of the product ($55,000 USD)….while other among us (toot, toot), saw it as a further indication of LL’s change in direction, as first signified in Kapor’s SL%b address.

Things were not helped by Pink Linden issuing an ill-considered “content survey”, which generated so much controversy that Pink was forced to issue a follow-up post “clarifying” matters. Sadly, rather than allying fears, the follow-up demonstrably showed she has an utter lack of comprehension regarding everyday SL / commerce terminology, with the open admission (“myth #4“) that she and her team failed to understand the “connotations” of the term “mall” when used in the original survey! Given that “mall” has been a part of mainstream American culture since the 1970s, and Pink is herself American and even the most casual glance at in-world commerce and shopping would demonstrate the use of the term in-world mirrors its real life meaning, then Pink’s comment simply demonstrated just how extremely out of touch she and the rest of the commerce tam are with….commerce in SL.

Colossus worsened the situation – at least for many – with the announcement of the XSL Feebies roadmap. This quickly descended into a hue and cry over who should / should not be able to afford the proposed L$10 per listed item fee, with concerns over the sheer unfairness of the “roadmap” in blaming “freebies” for causing the “clutter” on XSL and thus its slow processing, being largely shouted down. While it cannot be denied performance on XSL is an issue, one can hardly blame one sector of the community for these problems: it is fair to say that a lot of “clutter” on SL is down to people

  • Not clearing out their online inventory regularly and getting rid of non-sellers (which the L$10 listing fee should help to address, in fairness) – and thus is a responsiblity of all merchants, not just a villified few, to manage
  • There are a lot of accounts and products on XSL belonging to avatars long since defunct on SL due to the users behind them quitting the game – and this “clutter” will only be removed when LL itself steps up to the plate and starts weeding out the XSL database. Simply passing the buck to the community as a whole simply is not right.

What was equally sickening in the follow-up to this announcement was the small, but voical minority of merchants who took the subjective & highly judgemental view that the the roadmap was “good” as their own products somehow “deserve” better visibility than those of “lesser” merchants, and this would give them that visibility.

Mark Kingdon took time out in November to answer questions put to him by Tateru Nino over at Massively. His replies did little to quell concerns concerning the overall future he and his kin see for SL, other than it increasingly becoming a dumbed-down “business tool”. Perhaps most tellingly, the interview indicated that the powers that be do now distinguish SL users into two distinct camps: the business users, who are to be welcomed with open arms, and the rest of us, who are in future to be herded, corralled and controlled – or siloed, as I like to call it. Again, Kingdon’s comments were entirely in keeping with Kapor’s 08 senitments that it is time for we “pioneers” to move (or be moved) aside and make way for the “pragmatists” of “big business”.

Of course, it can’t all be that simple, which it why, despit the more open hostility shown towards “general” users by the likes of Amanda Linden and more particularly Justin Bovington of Rivers Run Read, who is quite comfortable with the idea of swathes of SL (and not just private regions) becoming no-go areas when “ordinary” avatars are concerned, and reserved for the elite “business users”.

December rolled in with yet more announcements, including Babbage Linden forced to “go public” on the subject of avatar script limits.  Despite the plethora of negative posts surrounding this, I cannot help but think this will actually benefit SL in the long run, and significantly improved the overall SL experience. And it has to be said in Babbage’s defensive that he has been working hard with the scripting community for more than twelve months to try an ensure whatever new controls are implemented are communicated to those who must addapt the most – scripters – and cause as little disruption to SL as possible. One can only hope that LL allow Babbage to follow-through on his promises and assurances, and undertake full and proper communcation to the user community prior to the changes coming into effect, and throughout the transitional period – and not just through blogrum posts (which the majority ignore), but through as many proactive means as they have at their disposal as possible – including e-mail (which LL seem to find OK to use when they want to pass on “good” news or trivia (such as announcements about fashion events, as happened in 2009), but which theyregard as evil “spam” when it comes to imparting news which is vital to the community, but which they know could have a negative impact on themselves – as was the case with Blondin’s outright refusal to e-mail the community as a whole about Adult Content changes back in May  / June time)).

Linden Labs also announced the launch of the Linden Home scheme, which some dismissed simply as a means of moving further into the realm of content creation. Personally, I did, and do, see it as something more sinister – an outworking of Kingdon’s November comments relating to “siloing” users (my term) into manageable groups. While by-and-large uninspired, the scheme nevertheless offers LL the opportunity to syphon, control and direct a segment of the community in directions they wish to see taken, rather than a fully expressive freedom of choice for the usrs themselves. Indeed, placed side-by-side with another of Jack Linden’s “beta programmes” (bulk discounts on sim purchases and grandfathering tiers on older sim types offered to a select few), and on wonders whether those taking up the “new deal” in Linden homes, as it spreads to the masses, will not be steered towards specific land owners when they seek to expand their land holdings…

Finally, December also saw the feted “Gold Solution Providers” get a royal bit in the arse as it became apparent that Linden Lab would be milking them for around 30% of any income GSPs would generate as a result of dealing with SLE product users. This smacks of two possible chains of thought running through senior LL minds:

  • That the SLE products is a cash cow, and should be milked for all it is worth
  • That the SLE product is essentially a short-term no-hoper that will generate little in the way of external revenue, and thus those within SL trying to hope on the bandwagon should be milked for all they are worth before the product hits a dead-end and dies.

I’ll leave you to decide which is the more likely.

Thus, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it;s pretty fair to say that 2009, despite the seemingly irrtional way actions and controversy popped up, has very much been the year when Kapor’s Jul 08 statements that SL must now become the realm of the “pragmatist user” (i.e. business in general) has been taken to heart by Linden Lab. From Adult Policy right through to the Nebraska launch, the Lab has been moving directly towards an attempt to make itself appealing to “big business” while at the same time introducing the means to stream and “direct” (I won’t say “control”) the “pioneers” and the “socially inept” Kapor sneered at during his SL5B address.

So what of 2010?

Well, I’m not bold enough to make predictions, but you can bet your bottom dollar that we’re going to see more of the same vis-a-vis brining Kapor’s “vision” into reality: the “predictable experience” of Mainland will become Amanda Linden’s oft-repeated dream of a Mainland “fit” for “big business”, the SLE platform will be pushed hard, together with promises that companies can also have access to “secure” swathes of the main grid where they can “safely” meet and greet one another and show off their products in keeping with Bovington’s vision.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will continue to be siloed and herded, our abilities and actions increasingly under the overt direction (I won’t say “control”) of Linden Lab. We’ll be tolerated, rather than welcomed, although we’ll continue to provide them with much-needed PR fodder.

At least until the SLE “Nebraska” product dies. And when that happens, all bets are off. So welcome, then to 2010.