Let’s talk – on our terms

Not too long ago Mark Wallace Linden burst upon the scene as the new “Conversation Manager” at Linden Lab. At the time, I found the whole idea somewhat of a mockery, and an attempt to further co-opt the forums and chatter in the “official” SL blogsphere – after all, Wallace loudly proclaimed that his primary role was not so much about encouraging conversations with existing users is it would be about “reaching the people LL want to reach”.

Even if one is prepared to give Wallace the benefit of the doubt, and try to look upon his appointment in a positive light and as a means of trying to bridge the credibility gap between the Lab and its existing user base, it has to be said that the guy got off to an alarmingly bad start in his first attempt to start a conversation. Not only did this ill-conceived, poorly worded and badly defended post cause a storm of controversy, as witnessed by the comments that follow it – it also turns out that Wallace himself was shooting pretty wide of the mark in attempting to pave the way for Mark Kingdon to make his announcement on LL’s latest acquisition.

Yes….once again LL, through accident, design or the sheer ineptitude of a “front line” member of staff (Wallace), royally put its foot in it.

Now it seem the “conversation” is to be further strangled at source, with the announcement today that the old vbulletin forums are to be done away with next week.

That LL have long been intending to shut down the old – and highly popular – forums is no secret. The “plans” have been out there for some time.  What is upsetting is that – despite repeated pleas from a vast number of residents  – LL are going ahead and scrapping vbulletin in favour of the cumbersome, nigh-on unmanageable (from a user perspective) Clearspace toolset which has been a blight on “conversations” and “communications” since its ill-considered introduction last year. What is equally startling is the claim by Linden Lab that, For years, vBulletin has stymied our attempts to maintain the forums as well as they should be maintained, and for this we do apologize. But our resources have been limited, and we chose to focus them on the platform instead — a choice we think you’ll agree was the right one.

Excuse me? vbulletin….one of the most popular, easy-to-use and most widely accepted forum software toolsets has stymied Linden Lab in trying to maintain a forum environment?!

Are we really to believe that vbulletin – something that in used around the world by large corporations down to hobbyist clubs running their websites through small-scale subscriptions, a software toolset that is provided as the ideal low-maintenance forum system by ISPs the world over forces Linden Lab to choose between maintaining its forum OR maintaining the grid? My God, are things really that desperate at LL?!

Or is it more the case that vbulletin is not to LL’s liking because it does not provide them with the level of control they wish to exert over “conversations” among residents? Does LL view vbulletin’s relatively open format as one that allows people too much in the way of choice in the communications they choose to start and the debates they opt to engage in?

Certainly, the reasons for making this long-protested move seem to back this latter view up a lot more than any idea that vbulletin is simply too unwieldy. Under “More focus”, for example, we read: As part of the transition, we’re removing some redundant forums and streamlining others, so you can more easily find the information you’re looking for. We want the forums to be about conversations with a purpose; to that end, we’re paring down to some of the most focused forums. In other words, we’ll determine what it is that can be viewed, and we’ll determine which “conversations” are “valuable” enough to be transitioned and continued under our control.

We’ve already seen that under the “new” system, Resident Answers – which can admittedly be controversial at times, but which has a rich history of meaningful content and debate  – has been usurped by the sanitised “SL Answers” in which any debate or discussion is almost instantly nixed by LL foot soldiers.

Even the assurances that the old forums will still be “available” as they are to be indexed and “archived” after the switch-over seem to ring hollow – and things don’t get much better in Yoz Linden’s follow-up discussion thread.

Here, God help us, the Lab’s frontmen latch on to the idea, put forward by one BlueGin Yifu that LL should consider limiting the number of individual comments a person can make each day under the pretext it would avoid self-appointed moderators of columns and – worse, that LL should consider Limiting the length of individual responses. indeed, Lexi Linden is so enthusiastic about these points that she invites BlueGin Yifu to open a JIRA on these “great moves”!

Yup…limit people’s ability to post and limit their capacity to give reasoned responses or raise issues worthy of wider debate. That is “really” going to get conversations going, isn’t it?

But then. Lexi has hardly been about the more community-building aspects of conversation and debate, given she is the Linden that generally leaps all over for blogrum in hobnail boots, summarily closing threads and issuing statement that threads X Y or Z are unsuitable mediums for “debate”…..

Doubtless there are valid reasons for the changeover – LL seem to be able to throw most of the maintenance issues over the fence at Jive / Clearspace, rather than having to tinker with things themselves – even though, as mentioned, vbulletin shouldn’t be THAT labour intensive by comparison. There may well be licencing issues that win out in Clearspace’s favour; I’m certainly no expert here.

Doubtless, to, the new system will – indeed already has – gain its own horde of fans and users. Nevertheless, the underlying feeling that we’re losing more than we’re gaining by this move is one that cannot be easily shaken, nor to can the feeling that a great wealth of debate and discussion is about to be lost – much as the wealth of interaction within the XStreet forums all but vanished when these were replaced by Pink Linden’s narrow-minded “commerce forum”.