Mixed messages

The release of the Viewer 2.0 BETA (caps deliberate, as some in the official SL forums seem to be missing that part) has generated a lot of debate, discussion, teeth gnashing, cloth rending and….feedback from Linden Lab.

Most of the feedback from the Lab has been positive – they’ve recognised issues, admitted errors (e.g. the removal of a lot of the INSPECT tool functionality) and have promised to tweak and improve in several areas.

This is all excellent stuff – and what we need to see and hear. If Viewer 2.0 is the way of the future for both the Official Viewer and all future Third Party Viewers (given the codebase is now in Snowglobe), then the Lab needs to listen and take on constructive and genuine critiques and concerns.

That they are already deserves some recognition – although what comes out the other end in terms of a “polished” version 1.0.0.0 of the Viewer will be the proof of the pudding.

However, while the dev tem are busy responding and taking note, across the room we have Amanda Linden and her “Viewer 2.0 poll” – and once again we’re plunged back into “oh dear, oh dear, oh dear” land, and much shaking of heads.

This, um, “poll” asks one question: “Do you like Viewer 2.0” and gives only 4 options to reply:

  • “I love it!”
  • “I like most of it.”
  • “I’m indifferent.”
  • “I don’t like it.”

The marketing spin here is so intense, I got dizzy just looking at the screen.

Come ON, Amanda! If you really want to get solid user feedback, then at least produce a decent poll, one than offers granularity, that asks pertinent questions, that is, in a word, useful.

One like this, in fact.

Yes, the results you get may not stack up against the heavily biased item you put forward, or provide you with the flag-waving worthy of a PR release – but it would provide invaluable feedback to your developers, helping pinpoint clearly (and without all the angst and shouting in the forums) where there are issues with the Viewer.

I appreciate you’ve probably realised the poll is tilted – hence the rapid closure. However, just by putting it up in the first place sends out the message that you and the marketing team are more concerned with fluff rather than substance. Worse, you make yourselves the butt of considerable resident derision.

Viewer Policy

Alongside the announcement of the Viewer 2.0 Beta, Linden Lab also announced their Third Party Viewer policy is moving forward.

The policy itself can be read in full here. At first glance, it is pretty comprehensive, listing items related to required functionality and disclosures, prohibited functionality, intellectual property rights (both the protection of, in the case of in-world content, and ownership of, in the case of the Viewer code), data access and privacy, branding, and other aspects.

Deeper analysis shows that while it is attempting to cover the bases, there are some statements that require clarification / reconsideration. There is also the not-so-small matter of the policy being almost entirely one-sided.

To start with the former, where clarification  / re-wording is needed:

Point 1h: Central to Second Life is the principle of shared experience. The services we provide through our viewers, for example, our Land Store, the LindeX exchange, and the Xstreet SL marketplace, are designed to enhance Residents’ shared experience. We may ask you to make changes to your Third-Party Viewer if it disables certain of our services, or if we believe it is inconsistent with the principle of shared experience or otherwise negatively affects the Second Life user experience. If we do, you agree to make the changes we request.

  • Where does this leave “lite” Viewers supplied by third parties (i.e. variants on the SLIM product, such as the Second Inventory “remote login” tool)? Or text-based applications? We may assume these are excluded from the above statement, but…
  • Where does this leave Viewers that may opt to promote what might be considered rival services. XStreet is all well and good, but what if Viewer X opted to include a link or links to another on-line web service that is viewed as an alternative (aka “rival” in LL’s eyes) destination? While it fits the bill of the “Resident’s shared experience”, we’ve already seen the removal of posts from the forums that simply reference such sites. Will the same heavy-handed censorship find its way into how Viewers are seen, because such references are seen (by the Commerce Team in particular) as “negatively affects the Second Life user experience”?

Point 5b: Your Third-Party Viewer name must not be confusingly similar to or use any part of a Linden Lab trademark, including “Second,” “Life,” “SL,” or “Linden.” For example: You must not have a Third-Party Viewer name that is “________ Life” where “________” is a term or series of terms.

  • “SL” “Second Life” (note the quotes) and “Linden” are all quite reasonable; but singling out the use of the word “life” is perhaps going s tad too far; it’s a generic, everyday term (as is “Second” for that matter). While one can see the need to protect both the brand and the naive user from attempts to confuse or obfuscate via deliberately provocative names (e.g. “Pey’s Invincible SL Viewer”) – banning the use of a term like “life” is a tad unreasonable, particularly when Viewer developers have to comply with 1C, to wit: The name of the Third-Party Viewer and a disclaimer that “This software is not provided or supported by Linden Lab, the makers of Second Life.
  • It is unclear where this leaves Viewer options such as Restrained Life. Now more predominantly known as “RLV” – to the point where “RLV” could be considered its branding – is this Viewer code now banned on the basis of its name, despite the fact that in every other respect it is complaint. Where it called “the SL Restrained Life Viewer” (or even “the SL RLV”), I’d be more sympathetic towards LL – but as it is, discriminating against the use of the word “Life” comes over as pettymindedness.

Point 6a(ii): You must provide true and correct information in the Viewer Directory Application Form, and you agree that the information you provide in the fields that are marked by a cross (†) may be published in the publicly available

This again appears to go beyond what is required. Yes, the Directory is a good idea, and having a list of “certified” Viewers from third party sources increases user confidence. But….

…why is it necessary to openly publish information relating to the real-life business address of the Viewer developer (and possibly a real life identity, although not having seen the application form, I have not idea if this in mandatory – I can only make a call on the business address is this is shown is being publicly available in the sample directory listing)?

Such public disclosure serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Period.

  • YES – developers should give real life information: name, contact details, business / home location to Linden Lab
  • YES – this information should be retained by Linden Lab for as long as the developer supplies the Viewer
  • YES changes to the developer’s real life information, or information relating to a Viewer “changing hands” between developers should be recorded and passed to Linden Lab
  • NO none of this information should find its way into a publicly accessible list
    • It does nothing to improve the “validity” or “safety” of the Viewer the developer is supplying
    • It does nothing that helps the user understand the veracity of the codebase
    • Ir does however open the developer to the risk of harassment, griefing and God knows what else

Given it is unlikely that the majority of third party Viewer “developers” are going to be corporate entities in any way, shape or size, but rather they are:

  • EITHER going to be individuals working from home, in their spare time and out of a passion for Second Life – such as Marine Kelley, Henri Beauchamp et al,
  • OR going to be a part of a loose-knit, hobbyist team working on a distributed project, such as the Emerald team

….do those at LL responsible for this policy:

  • Really expect such individuals to go out and take on the expense of forming an off-the-shelf company that can use a (fee-charging) registered address on order to provide themselves with some protection
  • Actually believe making home addresses of users available to the public at large is justifiable?

Some will say that development of a third party Viewer removes a developer from the protection of anonymity. To these people I can only say, “cobblers”; the development of a third party Viewer only removes a developer from the protection of anonymity in their dealings with Linden Research. There right to anonymity in their dealings with the rest of the community remains unchanged.

Point 7a: You are responsible for all uses you make of Third-Party Viewers, and if you are a Developer, you are also responsible for all Third-Party Viewers that you develop or distribute.

This is at best ambiguous. Exactly what does the term “you develop or distribute” mean? If I develop my “Pey’s Invincible Viewer” and make it available via a website in due compliance with this policy….

  • Does my responsibility for the code end at the point of download, or
  • Will I be held responsible for the actions of those who download my code and then amend it for their own nefarious ends?

“Distribute” can cover a multitude of sins, not all of them the developer’s fault.

Beyond these issues lies a bigger problem with this policy: the fact that it is totally one-sided.

From start to finish, the onus is on the third-party Viewer developer entirely. No-where does the policy imply any actions are required by Linden Research – particularly when it comes to stopping / blocking non-compliant Viewers.

This is Failure One: Not only is the policy voluntary and self-certifying, Linden Research clearly state they’ll do the absolute minimum to police it, vis: We may analyze any Third-Party Viewer and its code, content, and data for any reason, including to ensure that the application complies with our policies and is safe for users. Although we do not guarantee that we will conduct such an analysis, we may do so in our sole discretion.

Note the terms, “may” and “sole discretion”. Yes, reviewing every line of code of every Viewer submitted is clearly beyond the pale. However, by having third party developers document specific instances of code that branch from the accepted standard for the Viewer, or which introduce new functionality into a Viewer should be enough for Linden Lab to test  / review that particular functionality  – and it is not as if we’re going to be talking millions of lines of code.

What is wrong with a Viewer developer having to go through a QA cycle whereby new iterations of their Viewer can only connect to the test grid and subjected to user testing much as the official Viewer is bumped around, prior to being formally released? Obviously, there are issues around this, but they are not insurmountable – and they’ll again increase user confidence.Again, we’re not talking about dozens upon dozens of new Viewers…

Failure Two, however, cuts right to the core of the issue. Absolutely nowhere is it asserted the Viewers failing to register with the Directory will be blocked from accessing Second Life.

By not specifying the fact that Viewers failing to register their compliance with the policy, and what actions will be taken against such Viewers, Linden Research is overtly suggesting that things will be pretty much business as usual for such Viewers.

It’s a thorny issue. I don’t profess to have all the answers – I openly admit to the fact that software coding and development is as foreign to me as the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. I would, however, expect to see a policy that is a little more proactive when it comes to LL’s position than is currently the case.

Of course, any proactive action LL tries to take is going to be prone with issues and is hardly going to be foolproof – but this is no excuse for not trying to be more aggressive / assertive with this policy. At the end of the day, a passive policy is potentially as bad as no policy at all. Worse, it’ll be seen as further proof that Linden Lab are interested in little more than papering over the cracks.

ADDENDUM

When I drafted this, I included comments on digital certification but, as stated above – I’m no coding expert, so I cut the section out, thinking it was potentially a load of dribble. However, I’d like to thank Spikeheel Starr for pointing out that, in essence, my idea was correct, and for making the original point I wanted to make more robust.

That point is simply that *if* Linden Lab wanted this policy to be effective, they could have insisted upon a form of digital certification for ALL Viewers wishing to connect to the grid:

  1. Developers must apply to be registered.
  2. LL vets them and supplies a compiled Digital Certificate.
  3. The Certificate is added to the Viewer code.
  4. The Viewer source code (including the code required to PRESENT the Certificate to the LL servers) is published
  5. LL update their servers to only accept Viewers which present a Certificate.
  6. The Certificate itself is issued in a secure form within the Viewer installation script.

I understand the code changes wouldn’t be that hard to implement, and providing a Certificate / certification process wouldn’t break GPL.

So again…assuming all the is right – and I’ll bet my hair Spikey is right, the question must be asked, why aren’t LL even appearing to move in this direction?

Viewer 2.0 – Initial impressions

Yesterday, Linden Lab threw a series of surprises at us; among them was an announcement that the much-touted / derided / hot topic Viewer 2.0 is now available – at least in Beta.

Already there is much being said about the Viewer both on the official blogrum and elsewhere. This is my personal perspective.

Appearance

On first looks, not that bad. True the default skin colour is not the greatest – but then skin options aren’t probably top of the features stack at this point (assuming skins will feature in the full release).

Linden Lab have themselves initiated the means to smooth the transition to the new Viewer – clearly hoping it will become the new defacto standard sooner rather than later. As such, a breakdown of the Viewer’s appearance can be found on their wiki, which is pictorially very good – if a little light on details.

Menu Bar

The top menu bar is substantially different to anything previously encountered in SL, while also managing to retain some familiar items – for example, the menu options are still there, even if the actual drop-downs have been simplified in terms of content, and a couple have both new names and content (ME and COMMUNICATE). ADVANCED can still be called up (CTRL-ALT-D), although ADMIN appears to have gone.  This section of the screen retains your account balance (and option to buy L$) and the SL clock. BUILD has also found its way up to this menu bar as well – of which more anon.

Two of the most striking omissions from this part of the screen are your current location co-ordinates and access to ABOUT LAND. Both are already causing much gnashing of teeth.

Accessing ABOUT LAND is now a matter of doing one of three things:

  • Physically clicking on the land itself (as with Viewer 1.X) and then bring up ABOUT LAND in the new CONTEXT menus (again, more anon)
  • Going to WORLD- > PLACE PROFILE and selecting ABOUT LAND
  • Clicking on the “Information” symbol to the left of your location’s name in the FAVOURITES BAR – this will bring up the land details in PLACES within the SIDEBAR, which also includes an ABOUT LAND button which will bring up the familiar pop-up menu for land.

Once in the About Land pop-up, nothing really (other than the layout) has been changed.

Menus in the menu bar, have, as stated, been significantly changed. The emphasis for doing this appears to have been driven by a desire for overall simplification of the interface (never a bad thing in moderation) and to make what are regarded as the most commonly used features available from a variety of locations within the Viewer itself. Hence, in the menu bar we now have ME  – a menu that pulls up options to view your in-world profile, edit your appearance, access your inventory, etc.

This menu also allows you to buy L$ and – importantly – is now the place to go to when you want to change your Viewer preferences. Finally – as a part of their new “web integration” policy – ME includes a link to your “Dashboard” that is displayed when you are logged into the Second Life website.

COMMUNICATE also groups together the core communications options, which (like inventory, appearance editing, etc., in ME) can be accessed from numerous other points in the Viewer.

WORLD offers a simplified WORLD menu carried over from Viewer 1.X – but which places access to the Region / Estate settings under a submenu (PLACE PROFILE). While this has caused much gnashing of teeth elsewhere, speaking as a land owner / sim operator, I actually don’t have a problem with it; the majority of users don’t need access to Estate controls, so dropping them onto a submenu really isn’t that much of an issue. Giving the menu option a more meaningful name (“Place Profile” seems a tad bland and easy to overlook) perhaps is perhaps more important than relocating the actual menu options.

BUILD pretty much does what it says on the box, and incorporates a few “new” options from other menus, while HELP and ADVANCED offer reduced menus when compared to Viewer 1.X (decreasing the amount of screen space taken up by them), retaining again what are considered to be the most “useful” options for users.

Task Panel Bar

The task panel bar is potentially the area of the Viewer that is going to cause the second largest number of complaints from established users. Gone is the double bar of Viewer 1.X with it’s option Chat bar, and the media controls (the latter moved up to the menu bar, and relocated next to the SL clock).

Instead we have one catch-all bar with a (greatly reduced) chat bar, plus buttons controlling Voice, gestures, movement, camera controls and snapshots, plus a taskbar area that gradually fills with icons as you set about doing things. Two icons appear here by default – a chat balloon, which relates to ongoing conversations that are minimised and an e-mail icon, that relates to incoming Group (and other) Notifications.

This latter seems a good idea: while Notices still pop-up on-screen, then can either be read and deleted, or moved to the notifications queue for reading later – this icon keeps count of the number of waiting Notices, and clicking on it opens a list from which you can open individual Notices & read / delete them.

Within this area, the MOVE and VIEW buttons are liable to cause the most consternation. GONE is the option to have nice, small camera and movement controls on-screen. Instead, users are restricted to and EITHER / OR situation. What’s more, both the pop-ups that are displayed are huge – bigger, I would suggest, than is necessary even for those with accessibility issues. A further inconvenience here is that while Viewer 1.X presents the camera movement & camera rotation options side-by-side (with zoom in between), the Viewer 2.0 camera controls can only be toggled between the two: either you are moving the camera, or you are rotating it. As a builder who is constantly switching between the two, I can see this change alone causing complaints – let alone the inability to have both camera and movement controls on-screen at the same time.

Beyond this, the VIEW pop-up includes options to go to Mouselook, to change the camera’s position when looking at yourself and an option to move the camera independently of the control using the cursor keys. For people like myself, who use a Trackball rather than a mouse, it is nice to see that ZOOM finally works simply by rolling the trackball, rather than using awkward button combinations or the ZOOM slider, as is the case with Viewer 1.X.

Sidebar

This is the most obvious new feature in the Viewer. Described by Linden Lab as “a multi-functional display that contains many useful tools for customizing your avatar, exploring the world, and learning about your surroundings”, it is also the one that has – and will – generate the most consternation among established users – and very probably among many new users.

In essence, it is a gathering-together of diverse options from Viewer 1.X, together with a few new features. Six buttons are available on the sidebar:

  • HOME: which contains links to your appearance, the world map, your secondlife.com “Dashboard” – and anything else Linden Lab (emphasis intentional) wish to put in front of you.
  • MY PROFILE which takes you (unsurprisingly) to your in-world profile information, presented in an entirely new format that is already confusing established users (admittedly, given the comments I’ve seen, because they simply haven’t looked)
  • PEOPLE which captures the old Friends and Groups lists and adds a couple of features
  • INVENTORY which is self-explanatory
  • PLACES which is a break-out of the LANDMARKS folder in your inventory, and which also provides a tab to a genuine teleport history list.
  • MY APPEARANCE which ostensibly takes you to a break-out of the new “My Outfits” folder found in your inventory, as well as the old WORN tab from the Viewer 1.X Inventory pop-up.

Sounds fine on the surface; however there are several fundamental issues with the Sidebar that need addressing outside of any other concerns / feedback on the Viewer as a whole.

  1. The sidebar, however you look at it, is intrusive. While it can be scrolled back off-screen when not needed, when visible it takes up (on a 19-inch monitor) around a 1/4 of the screen. On a 12-inch laptop screen, and due to the icons used in the HOME button – it takes up even more and makes using Second Life next to impossible if you want to – say – have your inventory visible when building.
  2. When open, the Sidebar overlays the HUD attach points to the right of the screen, making any tools located there inaccessible, while at the same time shunting the HUD attach points to the left of the screen completely off-screen, thus making them inaccessible. So again, it is impossible to have inventory access and retain HUD access. For HUDs that can contain objects copied from inventory via drag-and-drop (i.e. building HUDs like JexTone) this could be a major issue.
  3. My Outfits doesn’t seem to work. While it happily lists the default clothing items pre-listed under MY OUTFITS in your inventory (and as supplied by Linden Lab), I have yet to make any outfit folder I drag from CLOTHING into the MY OUTFITS folder visible in the My Outfits list. Simply doesn’t happen.
  4. The PROFILE layout is a mess. Given the amount of VERTICAL space available in the sidebar, cramming a profile picture AND the associated text side-by-side is a complete mistake. Not only doe it make formatting your profile text into something readable next to impossible, it also requires the use of a MORE link to display anything more than the first 4 lines of a profile (no scroll bar).
  5. WORLD MAP (from the HOME button) is almost useless – all it does is open up a static picture of a section of the world map (not even your current location….), together with a load of advertising waffle users don’t need, ergo: “Second Life is a vast world with thousands of unique regions created by residents…..See where people are hanging out now! Explore the depth and breadth of Second Life”. A further button is then required to actually open the World Map. Why not simply retain the World Map button down in the task area at the bottom of the screen?

Usability

Actually using the new Viewer is not that bad for the experienced user – all it requires is a little patience; which to be honest, in reviewing many comments in the Viewer 2.0 forum, is something many people seem to leave checked at the door on entering SL through the new Viewer.

Movement

Remains pretty much as standard, even allowing for the issues with the on-screen movement and camera controls mentioned above. You can still walk around via the cursor keys, jump by tapping PAGE UP, fly up by pressing & holding PAGE UP, and flying down by initially pressing and holding PAGE DOWN.

Moving the camera DOES require activating the VIEW button at the bottom of the screen, which is a nuisance, but at least if you press the button with the camera icon on it, you can reduce the movement controls to a minimised set of buttons and move the camera around without losing a chunk of your in-world view. And, as mentioned, having zoom finally tied-in to a trackball is a nice-to-have for people like myself.

Building

Contrary to mischief-making commentaries made by people who should know better as follow-up to other people’s blogs, the building tools have not been removed from Viewer 2.0. Nope, they are right-up, front-and-centre. All three means of commencing a building session remain, even if one has changed a little.

  • By right-clicking on an object and selecting EDIT from the CONTEXT menu
  • By clicking on the BUILD button on the menu bar
  • By leaving the mouse pointer in-world and pressing CTRL-B.

All three display the Editing Palette; and, admittedly, none of them replaces the old CREATE option from the 1.X pie menu. This means that that in all 3 cases you have to select the CREATE option from the Editing palette in order to generate a new prim. However, this is again more a pedantic irritant for experienced builders, rather than a show-stopper.

The Editing palette itself remains largely unchanged (other than for media options – see later), with all the familiar (and needed) tabs and options.

HOWEVER, in playing with editing objects, I did come across an annoyance: the inability to de-select an object or prim. On Viewer 1.X, closing the Edit palette would de-select the object. Not in Viewer 2.0; close the object, and it remains selected (highlighted by the coloured wireframe). Left-clicking elsewhere doesn’t de-select it either. So far the only way I’ve found to de-select is to right-click on my avatar – which changes the CONTEXT menu (removing the EDIT option), and performs a de-selction as a result. This may be a functional error peculiar to the Beta version – but it is bloody irritating.

On-screen Pop-ups, Windows and Palettes

Allowing for the fact that this Viewer is beta, a further problem is the fact that all on-screen pop-ups, palettes and windows remain solid throughout the time they are on display. This means that if you have the sidebar open and (for example) open up ABOUT LAND – the sidebar remains open and solid, blocking your view of the right side of the window. If you already have the Editing palette open at the time, this also remains solid even when the focus is on ABOUT LAND….thus, with just s few options open on-screen, you quickly lose the ability to see / do anything. If this Viewer is to find a use among experienced users, the ability to have those pop-up elements that are not focused on turn semi-transparent is a must.

Context Menus

The pie menu is dead! All hail the CONTEXT menus!

The idea is simple: click on objects, get a small menu with the options you’ll most use when manipulating objects (Edit, Zoom, Touch, Sit on, Take, etc.); click on your avatar, and get the menu options you’ll use with your avatar – Edit Appearance, etc; click on another avatar, get a menu with options to view their profile (via the Sidebar – ugh!) or communicate with them, and so on.

It’s cute and intuitive. Whether people like them is another matter. I’m neutral about them myself.

Continue reading “Viewer 2.0 – Initial impressions”

Redefining the message

Back at the turn of the year, Mark Kingdon posted a piece on his vision for the future – near and far. The piece received much discussion and critical feedback. As a result, Kingdon promised to hold a series of in world meetings with all who responded to his post through the discussion thread.

The first of those meetings has just been held – and to be honest, it is a real eye-opener.

Sadly, Linden Lab themselves, in what can only be described as a completely myopic view of the meeting – failed to even consider recording the event and making it available for wider consumption than the invited audience. This is because may of the issues raised have themselves been the subject of heated debate, angry forum postings and outright rumours over the last several months. This being the case – any opportunity to deal with them head-on should have been aggressively grabbed by Kingdon’s team, and every effort made to ensure what was said is communicated more widely to the community as a whole.

Fortunately, Angela Talamasca was not so short-sighted, and she recorded the event for playback – and it makes fascinating listening. Admittedly, the audio commentary isn’t always brilliant – but it is worth sticking with.

Much of what Kingdon says puts a lot of what has been going on recently into a more balanced perspective. Not only does it help allay some fears, it also clarifies a lot of thinking going on at Board / executive level within Linden Lab and gives one some encouragement that those in charge at the lab are not so divorced from the realities of Second Life as recent blog posts and activities may imply. Indeed, Kingdon goes so far to acknowledge that the choice of words and the phrasing of messages have both been poor. While this is not something that is going to go away overnight (indeed, his choice of words during the meeting was in places poorly considered, and gave rise to a lot of gnashing of teeth within the forum thread on the meeting). But, given the fact that this is not the first time LL have admitted their failure to communicate what they actually mean – that they are aware of the problem may hopefully see them take steps to improve the situation.

Of course, there will be those who continue to nay-say this (and future) meetings as little more than an exercise in PR. I’m certainly not swallowing all the reassurances lock, stock and barrel – at the end of the day, actions speak louder than words. However, It is worth giving Kingdon a listening to free of any preconceptions; the results might be surprising.

It’ll be interesting to see how SL develops against the backdrop of these discussions, and I very much hope that the remaining meetings in this series are also recorded and published for posterity.

If nothing else, the last five minutes lays to rest the completely unfounded rumour (seemingly started by one resident – who has previously demonstrated a sizeable personal bias against Linden Lab) that Viewer 2.0 will not include the in world building tools: Kingdon is most emphatic in stating the tools will be in the viewer, and that user generated content is very key to Second Life.

Addendum

Sice posting this, it has emerged that Blue Linden tried to record the session, but had an eleventh hour software issue that prevented this from happening. In the interests of fairness, I’m only too happy to correct this point.

Shhhh….not in front of the kids

One of the most lucid Second Life bloggers around is Ciaran Laval. His posts are intelligent, insightful, and entirely devoid of the drama and rambling vitriol that so often undermines whatever point an author wishes to make. I’ve taken to dropping into his blog regularly throughout the week as he does ferret out things many of us miss.

An example of this is his commentary on a possible merging of the main and teen grids. Ciaran raises the question as a result of noticing some interesting trends around the “new” forums, as his post indicated. Without wishing to steal any of his thunder, I had noticed the thread he gives as “exhibit 3” – but unlike Ciaran, I’d failed to see it in a wider context. Kudos to Ciaran for putting things in perspective and raising the flag on matters.

While this apparent trend towards merger within the forums is indeed worrying, I have to admit the most surprising thing about Ciaran’s post are the replies given – people expressing surprise or smug “well, I’ve been predicting this”.

The fact of the matter is that the merger – despite commentary otherwise from LL – has been openly on the roadmap (to use a favourite LL buzzword) since the end of 08/ start of 09, when Philip Rosedale went on record in an interview vis:

Generally, I think that the future of Second Life needs to be one where people of all ages can use Second Life together, and that’s the direction that we’re taking in our planning and our work……if you look at the problems with having a teenaged area, which is itself so isolated from the rest of the World, they’re substantial. There’s an inability for educators to easily interact with people in there because we’ve made it an exclusively teen only area. Parents can’t join their kids in Second Life so problems like that are ones that we think are pretty fundamental and need to be fixed. We need to stop creating isolated areas that are age specific and, instead, look at how we can make the overall experience appropriately safe and controlled for everybody. So that’s the general direction that we’re taking there.

[My emphasis at the end]

This view was openly stated in an interview with Robert Bloomfield at Metamonics 09. At the time, it passed with barely a raised eyebrow within the community as a whole – those that did question Rosedale seemed to accept the brush-off that he was talking about something “off in the future”.

It matters not who has been predicting it or since when. No, if there is any surprise at all, it as that we’ve all – myself included – been far too complacent when it has come to the issue of mergers. Hopefully, Ciaran’s analysis and flags will help change this. Assuming LL will even listen.

Enemies known: The Linden Lab Board and their thinking

In 2008, Mitch Kapor spoke at SL5B, finally coming clean with the community and voiced his belief that the time of the “pioneer” in Second Life (i.e. you and me) is now drawing to a close, and it was time for the “pragmatist” (largely identified as corporations and business entities and maybe not-for-profits) to come in and take over.

Since that time, LL have seemingly worked on two levels:

The first took the form of the development of an Enterprise tool (“sim-in-a-box”) for the so-called “emerging” corporate market which has also seen:

  • A hiving-off of “worthy” sections of the business community in SL, the development of closed groups such as the Gold Solution Providers group (complete with much angst and/or outright misunderstanding on the part of the wider community)
  • LL spinning out what – when all is said and done – is set to be a pretty dumbed-down version of SL in terms of a simplified viewer (Viewer 2.0), potentially lacking functionality that many of us not so much enjoy, but need
  • The suggestion that even things like Landmarks are no longer sacrosanct, and are somehow better being replaced by an “address bar”, and SL being “webbified”
  • Most tellingly, this approach has lead to what can only be described as thinly veiled hostility towards existing residents / users from the likes of Amanda Linden, to a clearly stated wish to limit the freedom of “casual” users around Mainland areas, as voiced by LL’s bed-partner, Justin Bovington of Rivers Run Red.

The second thrust has been at the social engineering level. This has come in many forms.It started innocently enough, with a desire to improve the “first hour experience” for new users. To be honest. this move was actually required in some respects, as the sign-up process was tedious and one had to grit ones teeth and just persevere if one wanted to make some sense of SL and its interface. However, what started as a worthwhile move seemed to grow viral-like across LL’s planning, including:

  • The hiving-off of “adult” themed activities and content
  • The GOMming of SL Exchange and the destruction of its independent forums / the closure of On Rez
  • An open bias against small communities within SL, as exemplified by the Community Partnership Program
  • The closure of the information-rich old forums in favour of a system many users were, and remain, highly critical about due to both its lack of reasonable functionality
  • The heavy-handed “moderation” of discussions within the “new forums”, including stomping on any – even reasonable critiques of the company
  • Public statements from Mark Kingdon that LL is pretty much about “streaming” new users – i.e. directing them into pre-defined silos LL intends (one presumes) to manage and control  – including extending the “first hour experience” for new users to their “first FIVE hours”
  • The provisioning of Linden Homes which a) provides a direct demonstration of Kingdon’s desire to “stream” users, b) sees the Lab further move into the business of content creation (and is an experient which actually fits quite well with what I have to say below)
  • Linden Lab seeking stronger ties with the likes of Facebook – both directly through their own pages there and indirectly through innocuous-seeming “fun” – presumably in the hope of finding a mythical wellspring of “new users”
  • The promotion of their new viewer (see above) as “the” tool expressly for new users coupled with the suggestion that anyone seeking “power” from their viewer should redirect their attention to third party viewers – thus again driving forward the move to dumb-down SL in the mistaken belief this will make it “more popular”

And now – and thanks to Prokofy Neva for pointing this out – we have Board Member Biil Gurley waxing lyrical about virtual goods as rental items as a means of generating revenues. Despite the caveat given at the end of the piece, vis: I have received several comments that concern this post and how it relates to SecondLife…..SecondLife doesn’t actually sell virtual items, its residents do. As such, this post does not relate to SecondLife at all.  It pertains to the 98% of virtual worlds where the hosting companies ALSO is in the digital goods business; it is pretty clear that Gurley is thinking in terms of SL.

It is hard to believe that a post that relates to virtual goods, server space, monetarisation and turnover, written by a current Linden Research Inc board member, coming at a time when all four of these points are very much on the minds of said board & the company’s executives, can be purely coincidental. Further, of the six points Gurley raises in defence of his position, the first two, if adopted, would directly benefit Linden Lab far more than anyone else. Beyond these, it is easy to see how items 4, 5 and 6 also benefit LL in terms of simplifying their metrics and encouraging more in-world transaction turnover which proportionately feed into LL’s coffers in terms of tier and – in the case of XStreet – listing fees and sales commissions.

But it goes much deeper than this, and Prok herself gives a very direct and balanced rebuttal to Gurley’s points.

What is really appalling about Gurley’s suggestion, and his oblique references to LL opting-in to such a system (again discounting his view that the idea “does not” apply to Second Life) is that – as with the recent social engineering trends prevalent in LL’s thinking over the past 18 months – this idea essentially breaks the very thing that makes Second Life compelling to its existing user base.

This is the fact the Second Life, unique among virtual environments, allows each and every one of us to create our own narrative. We have the ability to so much within Second Life that is forever out of our reach in real life, and on so many levels from “simple” role-play escapism through to the ability to be genuinely creative, and have the opportunity to make a real and lasting contribution to the richness of Second Life, be it through the painstaking development of breathtaking sims or the creation of in-world art, goods and services.

If growing the platform is really LL’s concern, then they really should focus on extending this capability, of giving more people the means to write their own narratives. If these means investment in terms of time and energy and, admittedly, outlay, then so be it. Rather than limiting users’ abilities to develop their own streams of narrative, their own abilities to create and contribute, LL should be proactively enhancing the tools and services that make this possible.

Yes, Kapor – we may well be pioneers, but we are hardly the “misfits” you are so dismissively of in your SL5B address. By making this assertion – and possibly imprinting it on the minds of the executive team at Linden Lab – you forget one thing. Rather than being socially inept, we rather represent the majority of your potential users. We are, so to speak, the tip of the iceberg. While we may be small in number on the surface, we represent the mindset of people willing and able to invest time and money into Second Life if they see it as a compelling environment.

And no, these people are not Facebook users or Flickr users or users of any of the latest flat social media tools that are all so busy chasing their own tails. Rather they are the people using the likes of Eve, WoW and other immersive environments. You appeal to these folk, you offer them a compelling, rich environment that offers them the opportunity to experience new ways and means for them to express themselves in a virtual environment  – and give them the freedom and ability to constructively express themselves within the SL community – and you’ll generate a far greater new user take-up than you will through trying to dumb-down SL to the point where it is a 3D mirror of Facebook.

As to Gurley’s view – as I said, Prok has done an admirable job of rebutting his argument. So much so that my saying anything here would be redunant. Certainly, there is space in SL for a purely “rental-driven” market (outside of land)  –  but it should not become the only market model or be thought of in any way as an absolute, as Gurley’s article suggests. At the end of the day, any move towards this model on a larger scale – and I can see some in LL relishing the thought simply because of Gurley’s listed inventory “benefits” will spell the complete marginalisation of SL as viable community platform.