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.