Communications and the Lab. Again

So, Kimberly Salzer (Kim Linden), former VP of Marketing, has gone from Linden Research.

Reactions to the news have been mixed. Hamlet Au’s overall tone is one of regret, while Aeonix Aeon (aka Will Burns) is more forthright and views it as good news.

Kimberly Salzer

Both state that among other things, Kimberly Salzer was responsible for the most recent communications regime at Linden Lab which not only regimented internal communications, but also impacted how the Lab engages and communicates with the user community and the world at large.

If this is true, then I would tend to stand on Will’s side of the fence where her departure is concerned. It’s an inescapable fact that since late last year (Kim Salzer arrived at the Lab in September 2010), outward communications have not so much continued to decline as they have apparently tumbled headlong into a void.

The inability for the Lab to effectively and efficiently engage and communicate with its own user community is nothing new; it’s a fact of life, sadly. Regular readers of this blog will know it is something I’ve repeatedly banged on about over the course of the last couple of years. Indeed, such was the downturn during the first quarter of this year, that I wrote at some length on the need for, and value in, more constructive engagement from Linden Lab towards its user base.

Catherine Smith

The origins for the collapse can be traced back to early 2008, when after years of encouraging users to embrace and use the company’s trademark, it was announced that henceforth there would be a new Trademark Policy which would severely curtail people’s ability to use it. This initiative was spearheaded by Catherine Smith (Catherine Linden) who was at that time Linden Lab’s Director of Marketing. That the company had the right to define how and where its trademark could be used was never the issue; the problem was the way in which the company summarily went about setting up the new rules, which many saw as a betrayal of Lab / user trust.

It was the start of a long and steady decline in open communications between Lab and the user community which has, in many respects, now reached rock bottom. In the course of the last twelve months alone we’ve seen:

Amanda Van Nuys

Amanda Van Nuys (Amanda Linden, another now ex-Linden Lab Marketing executive – spotting a trend here?) announcing the forthcoming arrival of the new Community Communications Platform (CCP) – and then promptly championing its future use by telling users that actually, if they want to keep up with the news from LL, then really they should go elsewhere.

In a near total re-hash of the Jive platform roll-out two or so years previously, LL ignored all requests for a General Discussion forum to be included in the new CCP. Instead, on rolling it out, they instigated a heavy-handed moderation process, arbitrary shutting down threads and discouraging discourse. At the same time they introduced some kind of “keep it clean” censorship policy that meant, as Ciaran Laval memorably blogged, the name “Dick van Dyke” became “bleep van bleep”. The result of these actions were to a) actively discourage the use of the new platform, driving many users elsewhere; b) turn the whole CCP into something of an item of derision.

Office Hours have, for a variety of reasons, have been replaced by User Group meetings. Some of these have thrived, but when reading the transcripts of others (when available), the information flow out of LL in these meetings often comes across as cautious and stilted – almost as if staff have been told to mind what they say to the point of being unable / unwilling to say anything at all.

JIRA policy was arbitrarily changed. Rather than voting for issues, people were told that, henceforth, they’d have to watch issues. Given the fact the watching leads to people receiving an e-mail each and every time someone else comments on (or otherwise edits) an issue, and that for hot topics, this can lead to dozens of e-mails per day hitting one’s in-box, this could only be interpreted as an attempt by LL to actively discourage people from engaging in the JIRA.

Any attempt at structured communication seems to have ended. I’ve nothing against the company using Facebook, Twitter, Plurk and what have you, as long as they are consistent in the use of such channels. The problem is, LL isn’t. Rather, what seems to be in place is a “heads-its-the-blog-tails-its-Twitter” approach. And while it is good to see the CEO engaging in discourse on third-party forums, even going so far as to provide information on upcoming changes to things like the Viewer, one has to ask why the hell such conversations aren’t being encouraged in LL’s own blogs and forums.

It’s fair to say that during the first four months of the year, communications from the Lab were close to non-existent to any meaningful degree. Tateru Nino summed it up beautifully by referring to it as “The Silence of the Lab”. It’s something I’ve failed to understand, particularly as Kim Salzer came to Linden Lab from Blizzard, a company known for its willingness to engage with (and indeed listen to) its user community through its blogs and fora.

Come May, Rod Humble was indicating (via Twitter) that we could expect a resumption in communications from the Lab. If only that were so. Other than totally vapid “monthly updates”, we’ve seen very little improvement in the use of the channels at LL’s disposal, much less a more disciplined use of their own Community Communications Platform.

The other side of the coin is in the matter of the Lab’s outward communications to the world at large – and here things are, in many respects, very much worse. Simply put, and as Tateru comments on her blog, Linden Lab appears to have relinquished all control over the presentation of the Second Life brand to third-parties – many of whom do not have the brand’s best interests at heart.

The most recent example of this is Dan and Chip Heath – and forgive me fr bringing this up again; it’s been done to death a dozen times over, I know, but it does serve as a timely example.

In their latest book, they offer up Second Life as an example of a “failed” venture. To them, Second Life is dead and done. That their viewpoint is largely incorrect isn’t actually the point in the context of this piece. Rather the issues of note here are that:

  1. They picked on Second Life as an example of a failed enterprise (note past tense);
  2. Of all the chapters in the book, it was the one on Second Life that media outlets chose to go to press about.

However you look at it and regardless of the inaccuracy of the Heath brother’s conclusions, both these points demonstrate that the prevalent view among pundits and the media alike is that Second Life has failed and should thus be referred to in the past tense. Not, I would venture to suggest, the kind of message most companies would want to have in the mainstream media regarding their sole product.

Nor do LL particularly help themselves. The last time LL issued a press release was December 2010. That’s an awfully long time ago; which is odd, because there is much going on in SL that is worth celebrating and promotion in the media. Indeed, LL actually do keep track of things that reflect positively on Second Life through the In The News page (although admittedly, you’d never know they actually had an In The News page given the distinct lack of obvious links to it – great going on the communications front again, guys).

Again, one doesn’t expect LL to create a song-and-dance about absolutely everything that happens in SL and which gets a positive light shone upon it; but by the same token, it doesn’t mean all should be left with only passing mention.

Take the SL Relay For Life. This is a stunning annual event which this year smashed all records: $375,000 USD raised – $100,000 more than the hoped-for target – which took the total raised by the event in-world over the years to over the $1 million USD mark. However you look at it, this is a remarkable achievement, one deserving of being placed squarely in the public eye,  as indeed ACS did, yet Linden Lab gave it little more than passing mention.

Given the lack of this kind of pro-active management – which any marketing executive should be able to handle – is it any real wonder that the media at large refer to Second Life in the past tense?

Communications are the lifeblood of an organisation. Yes, they can  be difficult to manage where there is the added complication of a large and active user base – but this doesn’t mean they should be pushed to one side and looked upon as anathema (which is only how one can view LL’s own reluctance to openly engage with its user community). Similarly, outward engagement with the press is a vital part of any organisation’s activities: you either control the message and respond to misleading and potentially damaging articles  – or you allow others to define the message for you, and allow their perceptions control how others see you.

Tateru hopes that we’ve now hit rock bottom, and the only direction left is up. Frankly, and despite my enthusiasm for the platform and the overall technical direction LL are taking, I’m not so sure. In terms of communications over the last four years (2008-2011), LL have behaved like an existential elevator, demonstrating that whenever down isn’t an option, there’s always sideways until such time as entropy resumes its natural course.