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.