Malicious, lost, or out-of-time?

I‘m going to start this post with a quick statement: What follows here has been cogitating for a while now. It started as a number of posts that never made it beyond the draft stage (including one from way back in 2008, written in response to Mitch Kapor’s SL5B keynote address), combined with such factors as LL’s TPV Policy, the new ToS, Viewer 2.0 – and the (sometimes irrational) responses these have garnered among users of late. However, what with me being somewhat slow to organise thoughts, getting sidetracked by other matters and the arrival of Easter and family, it has taken me a little while to try and pull everything into a (hopefully) cohesive post. In doing so, I’ve pre-empted some of what I’m about to say, and others have come to the same conclusions, potentially with greater grace than I. I’ve also been pointed to other blogs wherein lie comments that echo – again, possibly more succinctly – my own thoughts (a fact that has also weighed on my mind as to whether I should order my ramblings into something comprehensible, or simply move on to other subjects). As such, this post is not an attempt to jump on the bandwagon, or lay claim to anyone else’s thinking; rather it is more an exercise in catharsis: getting everything down and out, right or wrong, so I can at least clear my head somewhat.

Why is it that Linden Lab, throughout the history of Second Life, appear to have such a disconnect between their management team and their users? How come, time after time after time, they consistently piss off so many, so quickly with (generally) so few words (or sometimes even lack of words)?

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of events that have upset users to a degree that – I think it fair to say – has actually surprised senior management at Battery Street, notably the OpenSpace / Homestead sim debacle and the Zindra upheaval. More recently, we’ve had the apparent push to align Second Life with Facebook and its ilk and reduce it to a simplistic, 3D social networking site (aka Viewer 2.0) causing consternation; and, bringing us right up to date, we’ve had the arrival of the Third Party Viewer (TPV) Policy and the sudden introduction of a new, and potentially far-reaching Terms of Service.

All of these have lead to predominantly negative reactions from users that have ranged from angry official blog postings right the way through to protests, banner waving, “flag burning” and even the departure of segments of the community (such as Elf Clan). Yet, each and every time, the management has sailed on; apparently unaware of the chaos they are leaving in their wake, only to blunder into the next crisis.

Or perhaps they are aware, and simply do not care. This is the most commonly-held view among those who find LL’s recent decisions so upsetting: that the Linden Lab management team simply don’t care: they are malicious grey suits only interested in the bottom line of the balance sheet.

While I’ve criticised LL a lot in my time, I do not believe that the likes of Mark Kingdon are driven by pure maliciousness. Those who have been around SL long enough know that heavy-handed attitudes and policies pre-date his arrival by a long margin – so if maliciousness is involved, he didn’t start it. As I’ve commented previously, the whole CopyBot issue, and LL’s complicity in its spread occurred a long time before Kingdon arrived on-scene. If you want to go back further than that, then there is the so-called tax rebellion of 2003.

I don’t buy the “simply malicious” argument because, at the end of the day, Linden Lab isn’t likely to profit or grow from it in a sustainable manner. Grabbing the profits today and saying to hell with the customer and to hell with tomorrow is an exceptionally myopic and ultimately stupid way to run a company. In the case of Linden Lab, it would probably have lead to the demise of the company a goodly while ago.

Similarly, the New User Experience makes no sense.  Viewer 2.0 is central to this – and yet, Viewer 2.0 (as many have pointed out over the last several weeks) is not so much flawed as completely broken – hardly an encouraging way to entice new users into SL, retain them and encourage them to part with their money in-world and grow the economy….

Maliciousness makes sense if the company profits. We may not like it, we may howl against it – but if we all see practical benefits from it: a growth in user numbers, more people spending time and money in-world, the economy expanding, etc., – then I think the majority of us will find the maliciousness a bedfellow we can tolerate because a) Second Life survives and we continue to participate in it; b) those in business within SL stand to retain viable income streams, and thus remain in-world and help encourage the rest of us to stay.

But again, this doesn’t seem to be the case with Linden Lab. If we look at the OpenSpace / Homestead fiasco for example – did it lead to an obvious growth within Second Life? Did it make the platform more sustainable? No. When all is said and done, when all the angst and drama around the change is put to one side – the overall status quo of the platform remained unchanged from a fiscal perspective. The economy neither expanded radically, nor contracted. LL themselves may have enjoyed a small upward blip in cash inflow as a result – but longer-term, the move didn’t really help them.

Zindra and the Adult Policy are also held up as an example of the maliciousness of the Lab’s management – that they are “anti sex”, “anti BDSM” and that the Lab wanted both to “go under” by driving people into leaving SL. But again, I simply don’t buy this. Certainly, both the policy and the Zindra move were ill-considered, poorly-executed and almost certainly could have been handled a lot more pragmatically – but none of this happened simply because senior management “don’t care”. Furthermore, simply driving out a segment of the community makes no sense – not when said segment is actually responsible for generating a large amount of in-world spending, which in turn generates an inward flow of cash to the economy as people convert real money into Linden Dollars. Thus, if “driving out” a very profitable segment of the community was the aim, then the Linden Lab management aren’t only malicious, they’re stupid.

So is incompetence within the management hierarchy responsible? A management team that seems to be constantly chasing its tail, or which leaves all its policy making to the lawyers (as seems to be the case with the new ToS and TPVP) would certainly appear to be incompetent. But again, it is hard to reconcile this with the business profiles of those at the top of the management tree. Take Mark Kingdon as an example, and his history prior to joining Linden Research Inc.

He joined Organic in 2001, after the company had been forced to down-size following the bubble bursting in 2000, which also forced the company to re-privatise. Then, and contrary to sniping posts in the official forums, he steered the company through seven years of successful growth, which included the launch of an entirely new arm of the business. Before that, he was a senior executive at PWC, closely involved with that organisation’s merger with Lybrand. So he’s hardly a slouch or an idiot when it comes to managing a business.

Thus, the idea of rank incompetence doesn’t entirely fit, either. Yes, the management team have got it wrong. Yes they have at times let lawyers run amok in the playpen (most recently with the poor wording of the TPV Policy) – but people in business do make mistakes; this doesn’t automatically make them totally incompetent.

What is more, Kingdon has demonstrated, through the first of his in-world meetings with residents that he is potentially far more aware of the potential for the technology than his spin-laden blog posts, etc., would imply. As his honest, unscripted answers to questions at this meeting indicated, he does hold a certain vision and hope that goes beyond simplistic bottom-line costs and profits.

Indeed, the fact that Kingdon is taking the time to come in-world and spend time with residents, face their concerns and anger head-on, is another reason to thrown the “malicious” argument out the window. If he were so minded as to simply not care about what we think and feel – if he was simply looking at “new users” to sustain LL, he simply wouldn’t bother participating in such open engagement with us.

So what is it? If it is not incompetence or maliciousness, what is it about LL that causes them to repeatedly underestimate / misinterpret the liable outcome of their broader actions?

For the most part, my own feeling is that when all is said and done, it is this: Linden Lab’s management team have no intuitive understanding of, or identification with, their users. To use Grace McDunnough’s wonderfully-chosen term (and curse her for beating me to the punch and posting first on this subject – as well as for putting it so beautifully succinctly! *smiles*), they simply don’t grok us.

There is a fundamental disconnect between what they see as the marvellous potential of the environment presented by the technology behind Second Life and their ability to connect with the equally marvellous potential of a passionate and engaged user community. And, I believe, it is this failure, more than anything else that has damaged both their ability to approach use, and our ability to see them in a credible light.

This is partially understandable: Second Life is unlike any other platform or business model, having the unique ability to bring together so many facets of life into a single environment. There is no single quantifiable reason as to why we’re here: there is no treasure to hunt, or enemy to kill or war to wage or objective to reach. There is no single demographic within SL that fits traditional marketing and promotional tools that Kingdon and his senior management are going to be familiar with.

What is more, the reasons we stay involved in Second Life are not always constant. We may initially come here because it offers a “gaming” or “role-play” or “lifestyle” outlet – only to find weeks or months down the road, that we’re involved in many other things: scripting, building, “business”, be it simply working in a club or store on behalf of someone else right the way up to full content creation and re-sell. But through it all there is no defined objective.

Thus, rather than being malicious or incompetent, I tend to feel that those running Linden Lab simply do not know how to approach us, deal with us and engage with us. In a word, we’re a pretty overwhelming force, one quite outside the keen of most corporate executives….

….but that is no excuse for sitting in isolation from us, as the current management team have tended to do to far, far greater extent to their predecessors. And even while I do applaud efforts by Mark Kingdon to host in-world meetings and address concerns head-on, the fact remains that the frequency of these meetings leaves much to be desired. The first was held in February, but it doesn’t look like any follow-up will be held for several months. If Kingdon really wants to get to grips with matters, then frankly, he should be putting an hour aside once a month to sit with people.

A lack of involvement, a lack of understanding has lead to those leading LL to regard SL purely in terms of numbers: if the metrics are good, the platform must be good and therefore the users must be happy. But metrics are only one side of the equation. If there is a fundamental lack of understanding as to who we are, and how we are feeling; if there is an inability to link our upset over heavy-handed policy implementation with our love of Second Life  – then LL will continue down the road of losing its most valuable commodity.

In this regard, it doesn’t matter how they change the New User Experience. Nor do the number of man hours put into developing a new Viewer account for much: because at the end of the day, if the management still don’t understand us, if they still see us as standing apart from their platform, as “just users” – then whatever they put out on display to entice people into the store is ultimately going to fail.

In 2006, Facebook launched an applet that enables users to track changes made to, and activity on, their Friend’s pages. The tool caused outrage in the community, with tens of thousands of users viewing the tool as an invasion of privacy and protesting about it. Two days after the tool was launched, Facebook issued a statement that they would put the tool under individuals’ control so they could determine what others could see. At the time, one marketer commented:

The members prevailed. How? And why? Members used this powerful medium to connect, assemble, and make their voice heard. Fortunately, Facebook listened and responded.

The takeaways for marketers:

  • Listen carefully. If you target connected customers, have a mechanism in place to collect feedback before taking major actions (product changes, new product launches, etc.). Don’t act in a vacuum. Use social media to engage customers and solicit their feedback. Then, make their input an important part of your strategy.
  • Be ready to act. Social networks and many Web 2.0 tools make it very easy for people to assemble around a cause. Major brands should have a rapid action plan in place to identify and address these situations before they get out of hand. In the old world, this was called public relations or crisis communications. In a new, networked world, it’s good community relations.
  • Respect the community. What I wrote in an earlier column about five best practices for marketers who venture into social networking still applies: “Respect the Community. It’s a club and you don’t really belong. Most social networks aren’t about advertising or commerce per se… As an advertiser you’re a guest in the club. Understand the environment and respect the unwritten rules: don’t intrude on conversations or connections in a way that irritates members; don’t divert users from the network to other sites; and don’t disguise yourself in a dishonest way.”

If this advice doesn’t resonate with you, close your eyes and imagine this scenario:

You’ve just spent six months developing a new campaign for a major new product launch that’s a line extension in a very popular, somewhat dated product line. You and your management team have high hopes for this product. You need to invigorate the product line and generate a big bump in sales. You’ve carefully researched the product and launch strategy. The focus group results indicate you’d add new customers without alienating your core franchise. You launch.

Within a week of launch, 126 groups have formed, all calling for a boycott because you spoiled the product with this line extension. The revolt started in the U.S. and is now moving to Europe. Angry customers are filling your inbox with hate mail. Your boss calls and asks what the heck’s going on, how significant the damage could be, and what you’re doing to respond. You tell him you’re going to change the campaign messaging and heavy up on PR. Then, you realize that strategy won’t fly. These people want answers and action — now. You have hours. Not weeks.

Sound advice to any company: listen, engage, respect the community and build community relations. The author has the right idea.

So what, exactly, has gone wrong, Mr. Kingdon? Why is it the advice you gave to others just four short years ago has been largely absent in the management philosophy at Linden Lab? Why are you only now making some effort to more properly engage with us?

Think of how different the experience would have been if Linden Lab had approached things like the Adult Policy and even the new ToS through a process of open engagement with the community, rather than playing word games and leaving it all in the hands of the legal staff. Yes, people are frightened by change – but we can deal with it if we’re given the opportunity to participate in the process and understand the underpinning reasons why change is needed. None of us are fools – and many of us understand the environment at least as well as Linden Lab management. Engagement with the community, using – as Grace McDunnough suggests – the process of appreciative inquiry rather than autocratic mandate, could have lead to the Adult Policy and the TPVP being far less traumatic affairs than they have so far been – for both the community and Linden Lab.

The sad thing is that, despite pleas for LL to raise their grok factor, it may now be too late.

Mitch Kapor has made little secret of his desire to see the “pioneers” (aka you and I) of Second Life to get out of the way and let the “pragmatists” (e.g. big business) in. He’s been wanting SL to “do” something for a goodly while. In part, this has likely fuelled some of the errors LL’s senior management have made in pushing through policies with absolutely no finesse whatsoever. He’s also likely fuelled the drive towards the SLE product and the development of the business side of SL. Doesn’t take a genius to work that out.

Even so, despite all the pushing and pulling, the hype and hoped-for, LL itself is still something of a lame duck as far as venture capital companies are concerned. It’s sitting in that 30% zone of VC-funded start-ups that tend to limp along, making just enough to stay in business, but not enough to be a raging success. Sure, the SL economy is continuing to show modest growth and LL continues to make a modest profit from it as a result. But it is not the stunning success all the hype surrounding it these last 8+ years has suggested it could or should be.

One cannot help but wonder if Kapor et al blame the very people they’ve failed to understand – you and I – for the failure of SL to “achieve”. We’re the “pesky kids”, constantly getting in the way. If this is the case, it could explain why we’ve seen the rush to bump Viewer 2 from beta to full release, despite it being badly broken, and why we’ve seen the almost stealthy (and certainly unexpected) shunt of an entirely new Terms of Service & its associated policies.

Some has decided that it is time to break up SL to some degree. I’ve already touched upon this in an earlier post – that the operation to run the Grid might be licensed-off, allowing LL to focus on what might be regarded as the “core” business that is likely to generate a more predictable income stream.

The business enterprise side of Linden Lab is still fledgling – also it is being realigned as a set of three services – but a lot of hopes are pinned on it. Could it be that someone right at the top of the Linden Hierarchy has set a deadline for the management team, something along the lines of “achieve X by the end of Y, or get ready to license-off the platform. Let some other poor sod deal with the user issue…”?

It wouldn’t be easy to go this route, certainly; but it also wouldn’t be impossible. Yes, it would cause some upheaval and no doubt wailing and rending of garments – but again, isn’t that the response (as far as the upper echelons of LL are concerned) to every decision made?

As I’ve previously said, putting all the paperwork in order would be a first step in this process. As of the 30th April, the lines of responsibility, the type of services being supplied, are clearly spelt out (well, as clearly as legalese allows), making it much easier for anyone taking up a licence to run the grid to see where their liabilities start and finish, and how external liabilities (such as third-party viewers connecting to the grid) have been “minimised”.

Of course, exactly how much time the management team have been given to “get things sorted” and realise both the increased influx of users, etc., they’ve been promising as a result of the new viewer, the new ad campaigns and the cosying-up to the Facebook community and the anticipated growth within the SL economy is totally open to question. And that’s assuming this speculation is even right.

But it does potentially mean that it no longer matters whether or not senior figures in Linden Lab empathise with us. Does this in turn make them malicious, as postulated at the start of this post? Not at all; nor does it make them incompetent. Careless, then? Absolutely.