Change in Second Life

Hamlet posted a provocative piece yesterday, broadly stating that the reason that Second Life’s survival is threatened because we, the user base, are resistant to change – so much so, that we actively prevent Linden Lab from implementing the changes that could very well save Second Life.

I’ve already responded to the piece once highlighting the fact that it is far more rooted in Hamlet’s own perceptions of precisely what form SL’s future should take (closer FB integration), than on any objective review of Second Life, Linden Lab and the user base as a whole. But in doing so, I didn’t really touch on his core assertion that it is the user community who threaten SL with oblivion because we’re unwilling to accept that Things Must Change.

Before I delve too deep, let me say from the outset that, in terms of facing up to change, Hamlet is right; we are all resistant to change. Any change that is forced upon us and moves us outside our comfort zones of relationships, environment, knowledge, culture and so on, is going to generate resistance; it’s human nature, no matter what the environment; home, corporate or digital.

But resistance to change isn’t the issue. It’s how that resistance is managed.

The Corporate Angle

A frequent issue that occurs within the sphere of corporate change is that of the “implementation dip”. This is literally a dip in performance and confidence when any innovation or change is encountered that requires the acquisition of new skills and new understandings.

People experiencing the implementation dip are actually experiencing two kinds of problem that are interwoven: the social-psychological fear of change (being taken out of their comfort zone), and the lack of technical understanding or skills to either make the change work, or to work within the requirements predicated by the change. As a result, they resist.

For change to succeed, the leadership must understand and be sensitive to the implementation dip. Those championing change need to be able to switch between various leadership roles: they must be clear on the reasons for change, the goals that will be achieved and so on – and must present them concisely and openly (authoritative leadership). At the same time they need to listen and understand concerns, doubts and fears as they are fed back to them (democratic leadership) and seek to build good relationships within the workforce, even with those resistant to the idea the changes being proposed (affiliative leadership).

Embracing any resistance to change is crucial if the change is to succeed; by forging relationships with those resistant to change, good leaders can gain a clearer, deeper understanding of the potential impact the changes they are championing are liable to have. Thus, they can work not so much to define a structure – something that is actually quite secondary to successful change implementation – but a rather a culture wherein people may not fully agree with the changes, but they can appreciate the reasons why they are necessary. Further, they can themselves become stakeholders in the process of change who can further guide and inform both sides of the equation – management and workforce – to ensure that the programme is implemented successfully and that needs and concerns are properly addressed.

Say whut?

So what, precisely, does all this have to do with Second Life, Linden Lab and the user community?

This. There are strong parallels between Second Life and the corporate environment when it comes to change. Linden Lab are the management; they ultimately hold sway over the future direction of the platform. And while I’ve always loathed the term resident when referring to Second Life users, the fact of the matter is, we are more than “just” users; we have an “investment” in Second Life in much the same way as an employee has an investment in the company they work for. This “investment” comes in many forms: creatively, emotionally, culturally – and in many instances, financially. We put hundreds of hours a month into the platform, we give it form and substance. We are very much the engine of Second Life, in much the same way as the workforce is the engine of a corporate entity. As such, we are potential stakeholders when it comes to the matter of changes to the Second Life environment.

It’s a unique symbiosis. No other fully viable, commercially-strong virtual environment has such an symbiosis between platform owner and platform user – not yet, at least. Yet it is one that has been increasingly overlooked by Linden Lab itself; this in particularly true of the period between early 2008 and mid-2009,  marked as it was by three core changes driven by Linden Lab that did much to undermine the unique company / user community symbiosis. These changes were:

  • the Trademark Policy change
  • the OpenSpace  simulator policy switch
  • the Adult Policy changes and Zindra.

Each of these changes were handled almost entirely coercively: what the Lab says, the users will do. Period. Scant regard was given to the implementation dip. Consultative sessions, if held (and some were in the case of the latter two changes) were anything but. They were presided over either by the people who were given the task of implementing the changes specified more-or-less “as is”, or by employees who – with the greatest of respect – had little or no influence in matters. In the case of the former, there was an in-built inability to accept there being any issues with the plans they had developed; in the case of the latter, consultation was reduced to platitudes and promises to “get back” to people, a phrase that became synonymous with, “I’ve asked and the answer is ‘no'”.

Collectively, these three events, more than anything else in SL’s tumultuous history, lead to the creation of the gulf that now exists between the user community and Linden Lab. As Botgirl Questi notes in her own review of the Trademark Policy change in particular, these evens marked a shift in emphasis in how Linden Lab viewed Second Life.

Up until the Trademark Policy change, the Lab had encouraged the user community to think in terms of Second Life as being a creative partnership between users and Lab, with a shared responsibility for growing the platform. This paradigm shifted with the release of the Trademark Policy; it sent out a message that the Lab now looked upon Second Life in an entirely proprietary manner, that is was their product to do with as they saw fit. It was a message reinforced through the handling of both the OpenSpace / Homestead sims situation and the Adult Changes.

It was also an attitude underscored by Board member Mitch Kapor’s keynote presentation at SL5B in 2008, in which he suggested that while great things had been achieved in the first five years of Second Life’s history, the “pioneer phase” was drawing to a close and it was time for the early adopters (the user community) to stand aside and make way for the “pragmatists” (aka “big business”).

As a result of all of these events the wider perception of Linden Lab became one of a company that resented its users, and would in fact be happy to see them go elsewhere. It is highly doubtful that this is what was actually intended. Neither the Board nor the management of Linden Lab are malicious; out of contact, yes; but not malicious.

But in business, as the cliché goes, perception is everything.

By taking a coercive approach to the changes in particularly, Linden Lab demonstrated poor strategic thinking. While coercive management might be useful for certain, limited situations, it is one of the two most negative forms of recognised leadership techniques an individual or organisation could adopt. As a result, the bond of trust between the user community and Linden Lab was severely damaged – and has remained damaged ever since.

Who To Listen To?

Of course, no company can ever succeed in implementing change if it has to listen to and address the concerns of each and every employee. Similarly, LL can hardly be expected to listen to each and every user when it comes to matters of improving or changing Second Life.  In fact there are times when listening to the users simply isn’t that good an idea.

There are also times when we don’t do ourselves any favours because – in fairness – we exhibit the same faults as Linden Lab; we look upon Second Life as our property and as such, we can be prone to rants rather than constructive dialogue. We become outraged to the point where the context of our concerns is overwhelmed by the aggressiveness we use when facing Linden Lab.

But that said, neither of the above is reason for the Lab to entirely stop listening.

Major changes to Second Life, be they technology or policy related impact both Linden Lab and the users. And whether either side like it or not, as far as sustaining Second Life as a viable entity, both are still joined at the hip. So where change is liable to impact a sector of the user community – no matter how “small” that sector may be perceived to be – the onus is on Linden Lab to adopt a more authoritative / diplomatic approach to handling the change, and demonstrate more engagement and moderation when facing the inevitable implementation dip. They have absolutely nothing to lose in doing so – and quite possibly everything to gain.

Closing the Circle

In his article, Hamlet makes the assertion that “Second Life’s community resists and fears changing Second Life, even to save it from its current trajectory, which inevitably ends in oblivion.”

This isn’t true. The issue is not about the user community resisting change, it is about how Linden Lab communicate change to the community; how they engage with the community through the entire end-to-end process of implementing change.

The bond of trust is strained; some might say broken. The fault for this does not lie within the user community itself. Despite all that has happened, the community remains committed to the platform. One might even say that far from being an encumbrance to growth and development as Mitch Kapor suggested in 2008 and Hamlet would have us believe now, the user community is potentially the greatest asset Linden Lab has.

But until the matter of trust is addressed, until the Lab show a willingness to change their own approach to the matter of change and how change is to be communicated and implemented, their ability to leverage that asset  and build upon its goodwill and experience will remain detrimentally hamstrung, and all of us will lose as a result.

Further Reading