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.