The myth of a mendacious, malicious Lab

Linden Lab are not without their share of problems when it comes to their relationship with the user community as a whole. I’ve banged on rather a lot over time about issues originating at their end. However, it is unfair to blame Linden Lab alone for the problem. As Tateru points out, it’s hard to carry on a dialogue when the user is part of the problem.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that there is an oft-voiced perception that Linden Lab’s actions and words are somehow either malicious or mendacious – or both. This was again brought home to me last week during a group conversation wherein the claim was forcefully made that the only reason mesh has been implemented in the way it has is (quote) “Linden greed”.

The conversation in question wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this view voiced; I’ve come across it in blog posts and forum comments in a number of places. The argument,  focused on the matter of Land Impact (previously known has Prim Equivalency), goes like this: Linden Lab have deliberately swayed the costings of mesh so as to give inflated Land Impact values in order to force people to move to larger land holdings, thus generating greater tier revenues for the company.

In other words, LL have maliciously crippled mesh in order to line their pockets. However you look at it, that’s a pretty harsh claim to make.

The idea that Linden Lab operates either maliciously or mendacious in its actions is not restricted to the matter of mesh. It’s a view that has been doing the rounds in a variety of forms for quite some time now. In fact, I first commented on it more than 18 months ago.

I didn’t believe it to be right then, and I certainly don’t think it is any more correct now. Linden Lab may well be guilty of many things: inept communications, an inability to actually comprehend their own product, a track record demonstrating their failure to learn from previous errors of judgement, and so on. But none of this actually makes them deliberately malicious. As I said back in April 2010:

“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.”

Yes, there is much that LL does err on at times (although equally, there is much that they get right but which often receives little or no acknowledgement). As such, when things are perceived as going wrong, or potentially damaging the platform / community, then it is absolutely right that we speak out, challenge and constructively critique in order to try to get LL to revise its view / policy / actions.

But to dismiss the company’s actions as being those of a malicious, greedy mindset is, I would venture to say, both shooting far wide of the mark and somewhat counter-productive.

20 thoughts on “The myth of a mendacious, malicious Lab

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. Thanks for providing a fair and balanced perspective and encouraging others to do so as well. Also, thanks for the link to the article by Tateru. Just as in Real Life, a curmudgeonly negative overly harsh critical demeanor creates a much less enjoyable and creative atmosphere and environment. The residents of Second Life not only create almost all of the content of Second Life, they create the emotional, social, aesthetic, and psychological environment of Second Life. We have a lot of responsibility. Which is what makes it so cool.

    So, rather than mumble and grumble and groan and complain all the time I prefer to focus on what I can do to create a better virtual world. Become a better scripter/builder, add new textures, help people, be nice, help reduce lag, assist with documentation/wiki articles, but mostly be fun. I also appreciate the constructive criticism which is also part of our responsibility and helps to make things better when phrased appropriately and not just “this blows, you suck”.

    Keep up the good work.

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  2. I’m in agreement with this. Individually, I’ve found Lindens helpful and enthusiastic about their product, and eager to make it work in the best possible way. Group conversations (i.e. when a number of people are trying to communicate a problem to “the Lab” as a whole can be a nightmare – but I don’t think that’s because of mendacity or malice – it’s more often down to nervous incomprehension, I think.

    There have been a couple of occasions, however, when I have wondered whether there is slightly more than meets the eye. I’d single out the Homesteads debacle and the restructuring of the Marketplace.

    In the former, the Lab found they had set themselves a problem. They brought a product on to the Market that they thought would only be popular to a few – the Open Space sims. At first I think they were delighted with the fact that people were snapping them up – the grid was expanding. So they doubled the prim allocation – and suddenly everyone was buying their dream island, and packing it full of buildings. And, because they could, shopping malls, club, roleplaying areas … I’m sure the servers were screaming and things were grinding to a halt.

    To stop this, they announced strict rules AND a price increase of 67%. I suspect all they wanted to do was to choke off the sales which had got out of hand. What they didn’t expect was the anger of users, the last bitterness and loss of trust – something that was, unfortunately, only compounded when they later announced that prices would not rise by the full 67%.

    The second came with the restructuring of the Marketplace. That really was in a mess and needed tidying badly. Unfortunately, the way they chose to do this was to announce punitive pricing for freebies, which would be hived off into a ghetto of their own. Again, it was a sweeping solution to an evident problem and again it had repercussions that the Lab were not expecting: respected creators who put valuable freebie tools on the Marketplace were outraged; magazine producers were disadvantaged; people who used the Marketplace for free demos – such as hair and skin makers – were all going to be penalised.

    The announcement had the effect of removing a lot of dross from the Marketplace (one economic consequence that I’ve been talking about recently is that the marketplace might be so effective that it’s hitting inworld shopping areas) but, again, it generated a lot of anger and bitterness.

    With both these instances, I’ve sometimes wondered if the plan always was to solve the problem with drastic action – and then ease up afterwards. Did the response of the residents trigger the … well, maybe climbdown it too string so let’s say step-back, or was it planned from the beginning? Was the preferred final price point for Homesteads always going to be US$95 a month? Was the intention always to have a freebie section in the Market place, but without the dross?

    In neither of the cases do I think the Lab was motivated primarily by short-term gain, even if they made the decisions deliberately while always having a step-back position. There were real problems that needed to be solved and they did indeed solve them. They may not have anticipated the legacy they would leave.

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    1. I agree on the both the OpenSpace / Homestead and Marketplace. What we saw (and in the case of Marketplace) are seeing is inll-considered actions and hastily-invoked changes without due consideration – or proper discourse. with the former in particular, I didn’t buy into the idea that the entire thing was a calculated “bait and switch” activity (which is how it was presented by many at the time). Rather, I felt as you say, LL released something they didn’t think would have quite the impact it had, wasn’t properly ring-fenced prior to the release – and as such they ended up having to grab the tiger by the tail

      The mistakes made were poor errors of judgement at the time – and I don’t think Jack managed things particularly well in dealing with the issue as a whole. But a deliberate attempt conceived from the start to generate income through “bait and switch” – no.

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      1. I think a lot of it just comes down to LLs originally being a pack of code geeks, not communitarians. SL is an accidental technology, meant to give them a place to demo the real device they had intended to make; VR goggles…

        They don’t really understand running a ‘social network’ – and that’s now the very business they’re in.

        Of course, the same could be said of Facespam’s founder – but he had the foresight to hire people who did understand that. LLs has tried to hire community reps, but they seem to keep getting the wrong ones – or not giving them the kind of authority to influence policy away from the codegeeks.

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  3. I’ve never fathomed the notion that Linden Lab is malicious and/or mendacious. As a proposition, it makes no sense and runs contrary to the available evidence.

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    1. Agreed. Which is why the conversation in which the comments were made – including the quote of “Linden greed” saw my eyebrows somewhere up near ceiling level, particularly as it came from within a group of people who are all seasoned SL users actively engaged in the community as whole.

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  4. I believe Linden Lab is actually trying to be fair and evenhanded. The problem comes when they fall victim of unintended consequences and shoot themselves in the foot.
    Marketplace is a good example. I have been shopping a lot this week, using Marketplace as a search engine. Time and again, even when there is a slurl in the ad, there is no shop. You land at an empty plot or can not TP at all because the sim is gone! I find it very hard to believe that LL’s 5% of sales makes up for the loss of tier from all those missing stores!
    The history of Second Life is littered with other examples of seemingly good decisions gone bad from the lab. Unfortunately going back on a decision results in hard feeling and angry comments.

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  5. The lab has a fair share of problems. In the times I have experienced the worst of dealing with them, however, neither malice nor mendacity was ever something I experienced.

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  6. Sometimes I use very a colorful language to describe what things frustrate me about the decision making process higher up at Linden Lab which leads to people misunderstanding what I mean to say. And since this blog was inspired by the “Linden greed” remark I made I feel like I need to explain it a bit.

    My issue isn’t that Linden Lab is trying to grow their business. It’s the goal (and the responsibility to their investors) of every for-profit organization to do so. My issue is with the way Linden Lab is going about that goal, especially in the past few years – since about the time of M Linden as CEO and the team he has brought in. I don’t think they are malicious, I would rather user a different harsh word – incompetent. Let me make one more clarification, when I say “they” I mean Linden executives that prioritize which projects go ahead and which get dropped – higher ups in the hierarchy. There are great many very competent Lindens achieving remarkable technical things rarely seen in the industry. The viewer rendering engine for instance is remarkable piece of engineering and there is absolutely nothing out there that will show non optimized user generated content at the performance levels it achieves.

    So if I were to express my “Linden greed” remark in slightly more nuanced way I would say misguided attempts at growing business that due to the leadership mistakes often have very little effect, or in the worst case, exactly the opposite effect.

    The examples are plentiful. People here already mentioned the Openspace sim pricing fiasco and there is no need to expand on that. For me it all really started when Linden Lab decided to prioritize some perceived need to protect their brand over the goodwill of the community and introduce draconian trademark enforcement rules. What was the result of going after web sites of Second Life educators? Was “Second Life” brand protected by forcing them to shut down? Was it worth alienating that community? Is banning words “second” and “life” from the names of third party viewers really needed? How many people were going to mistake “Restrained Life” for “Second Life”? This episode in my view was the point where this whole “us v. them” perception started pitting Linden Lab against their own users.

    The other major issue I have with the way Linden Lab leadership has tried to advance the platform is trying to emulate other products at the cost of neglecting your own core strength. To me this is most visible on the example of viewer 2 project. They saw a problem with the low retention rates and decided that the main problem with the user experience was the viewer UI and that if only it looked more Facebook-like and webified the problem would go away. We have all seen how well that plan worked out. On this topic I highly recommend to see this clip from an interview with Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg, who admits to making this exact mistake trying to make Digg more Twitter-like causing them not to gain any new customers and just losing bunch of the most dedicated ones (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=AWDrwZSRUvs#t=108s). Sometimes I wish a Linden Lab executive would come out and be this straight with their user community.

    This is what is wrong with Prim Equivalence too (or Land Impact, or whatever they decide to call it this week). I understand the need to encourage generation of more efficient content. But one must not forget that the land owners are the people that make Linden Lab exist. Land tier fees is what sustain them. The way Land Impact works, the only people “impacted” are the land owners. The formula is so convoluted very few enlightened ones are able to tell what will it cost them to keep some object rezzed beforehand. And you can find many many examples where content efficiency and PE are in inverse relation to one other. I have sent example objects to Lindens during the mesh beta that illustrate this situation without any action resulting from it. Pointing out the absurdity of charging the “streaming cost” of multiple instances of the same mesh object had the same effect. So the net result that, in my estimation, the introduction of mesh would end up having far smaller positive effect on the platform than it could have achieved if some of the policies surrounding it were more sensible.

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  7. I’m going to stick with Hanlon’s Razor with this one:
    “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

    They’re not evil. Just horribly, horribly unaware of the impact some of their decisions are really going to make, and those who might be aware of it aren’t empowered to act on it or unable to effectively communicate it to those who might make a difference.

    As for the Board, well, at some point those folks are going to look for the short term profits or butcher-and-sell when the long-term prospects fill up with risks, liabilities, and too much legacy to overcome. (And we customers are a huge part of that legacy and liability.)

    -ls/cm

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  8. Not too long ago I realized a lot of my opinions where LL is concerned were actually group think. It is a hard thing to accept that one has been so influenced by negative bloggers but it has happened so very much where LL is concerned that it is a genuine problem of hostile anti LL propaganda. I am not the only one that has cast off the shackles of group think recently. If you still hate LL’s forum or hate vampires or anything else that draws people to SL then perhaps you need to think long and hard about whether or not you want SL to survive (survival based solely upon LL being a sustainably profitable private company). If you cannot let go of the negative and vitriolic group think then you are the problem that is holding SL back. If you care about SL then use that LL beta viewer as much as possible and push the limits so it will break and send crash reports to LL. The current beta viewer made it all the way to 2GB mem used in a busy region and automatically reset to 1.2GB without crashing. Previously the client died when it went over about 1.3GB (on my system anyway). LL is making serious under the covers improvements but few seem to be noticing. Give LL some credit where credit is due.

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  9. You raise some valid points, Inara. It would be easy to slag off Linden Lab as a bunch of money-grabbing insensitive idiots. Unfortunately that only describes a small subset of the whole of Linden Lab.
    There are Lindens who are out at the interface dealing post-to-post, if not face-to-face, with Residents of SL. Those poor folk get shot at by both sides and usually quit when the shrapnel begins to hurt. Some stick it out, and we must be glad that some do, because the newer recruits who rarely, if ever, actually come in-world, have cornered the market when it comes to insensitivity regarding inworld affairs.
    There is a widening (it seems to me) gulf between what these Linden Lab employees see as SL and what those of us that try to have Second Lives. They just don’t “get” SL and don’t see why they should try.
    I do not think I am negative about SL, and I do not think that I am holding back Linden Lab, but there are some breathtakingly bad calls being made at the moment and that worries me.
    If Linden Lab and SL fails it will be primarily due to stupidity (just whose stupidity is debatable).

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  10. Actually, there’s *another* myth that keeps coming up – the myth that the people who write the code set the policy, or indeed that they ever have. Management has always set the policy – *sometimes* management were coders, but most of the time not.

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  11. Excellent article, as usual, Inara. I think that to complete the picture you should have added “stupidity” and “gross incompetence” as the third pillar in the list of accusations that residents make about Linden Lab — but this came out in the comments quite well.

    Obviously LL is neither of these — at least not 100% so — since, unlike many dot-com start-ups (even though they started a bit late as a dot-com business, and launched their product to the world when effectively the bubble had burst), they are still around. They are lucrative, something incredibly rare in this area, with a niche market product, when everybody on the Internet still believes that “high numbers of users” means success. Their product is essentially free to join, and probably the only one that turns out a profit while allowing new users to register for free — almost all others are still burning venture capital or had to invent new mechanisms to survive (e.g. ads), because the mechanism designed at the beginning of their operation was childish and would never work. LL, by contrast, just changed their business model once — from subscription-based to content hosting — and stuck to it. And they have an unusual panel of high-class talents on their Board, meaning that even though the mainstream has no clue about who Linden Lab is, someone is paying close attention to them.

    So obviously they cannot be completely stupid, much less “evil”, or everybody would have gone away from SL long time ago — which is specially the case in a small market. Web-based products which allow user-content generation (i.e. posting profile pics) and socialising (i.e. adding friends) are way simpler to use (i.e. Facebook). So… they’re doing something right, and that “something” is not negligible — it managed to keep their company afloat for over a decade, and is probably one of the very rare cases where instead of getting more and more investors to fund them, they can actually repay the investment made in the past several times over and still show a small profit.

    No, the issue is mostly about how residents perceive Linden Lab, and perhaps a bit unusually for the average high-tech companies, the number of residents who, in general, feel that LL — and SL, its product — could actually be better suited for its residents is surprisingly high. A few years ago I suggested that this happened because residents tend to have a very strong emotional bond to SL and thus have higher expectancies of it, compared to other products. For example, most people don’t complain as aggressively about their email, even though it could work better. But, well, it’s just email after all, we don’t bother that much with its importance — it’s just a tool.

    With SL, we have a much more stronger, emotional bond with it. So we naturally give it much more importance than other applications/platforms/tools we use — and our perceptions and expectations of how SL should work naturally rise. When LL fails to reach our level of expectations about what they should be doing, we try to rationalise it and attribute it to “something else” — being evil, being incompetent, etc. For instance, for me, three years ago, the “root of all evil” was bad communications between LL and its customers. I’m sure that LL-to-resident communications are perhaps much better than on other products and platforms. During the ‘Nym Wars, Google never bothered to answer any of my questions or requests, even though they are always worded in the most polite language and were addressed to the right people. I’ve discussed my grievance with PayPal’s communications in many articles. And perhaps the list could be extended to include really a lot of companies who are much worse than LL. Nevertheless, three years ago, just because SL is so “special” for me, I felt discouraged and frustrated with LL’s bad communications — it was just the way I perceived them, and how they were failing to deal with my expectations.

    Others, obviously, perceive that LL is “doing it all wrong” depending on their own expectations. Since, in general, we share so many common goals and desires about SL — we want it to be cheap, reliable, with lots of content, zero lag, and a simple and accessible user interface — it means that we build in our minds the “ideal picture” of what we expect LL to be. Since LL will almost always fall very short of that image, we feel frustrated — or justify LL’s decisions by claiming them to be “malicious” or plain stupid.

    Now I’m not saying that LL doesn’t make mistakes. The same reasoning obviously applies to them as well: they create this mental image of how their residents ought to be for them to become the successful company they hope to be. This makes them invent and attribute characteristics that we users don’t perceive in the same way: for instance, the obsession with a “perfect user interface” that will make SL go mainstream by retaining those 16,000 new daily users. Or the profound conviction that their prices are actually right and that we residents are just miserly and want cheaper service. Or, well, the concept that the way they implemented mesh — or other functions of the 3.2 SL Viewer UI — are perfectly suited to the kind of residents they think they have. Or that SL is a perfect games platform and should be promoted as such (after failing to encourage it as a business and educational platform).These are all mental images from a reality that doesn’t exist. LL just does its best to provide what they think that should work based on that image, but, of course, because it doesn’t correspond to reality, they’re baffled why we’re so angry at them and not feeling so happy about their decisions as they think we should.

    In conclusion: this works both ways. We create the image of the “perfect” SL and expect LL to implement it; LL creates the image of the “perfect” set of residents that they believe they have, and try to implement whatever works for those “perfect” residents. In both cases, we — and that includes LL too — are just reacting to a false perception of reality. But it’s very hard to shake it off (in both cases), and thus we’re frustrated because our image is not aligned with the reality.

    Nevertheless, in spite of everything, Second Life continues to thrive — at a much slower pace than LL wishes — even though both sides of the equation are basing their opinions and decisions on false assumptions. So something is actually working well. We might not be the perfect residents that LL would love to have, but we’re not that bad, either. LL might not be the perfect company we wish them to be, but we all have experienced much worse from other companies. Second Life might not be the best virtual world platform out there, but it’s much better than anything else — and is slowly surviving the test of age, which is astonishing, when we consider how much we suffer every day from its problems and limitations. It’s just that SL is not that bad as we think it is.

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    1. I deliberately avoided mention of incompetence / stupidly, as I discussed them in the original article linked to above, and wanted this one to remain focused on the intimation that the Lab is “malicious”, as that was the trigger for this article (and it is interesting in reading a more recent article on a TPV that a commentator again makes a comment hinting at maliciousness on the Lab’s part when it comes to V3).

      You’re right on the emotional investment on the part of users, simply because it allows us (broader technical constraints notwithstanding) – to borrow from Brecht to set our imaginations free to soar “unfettered and in full career”. As a result, we do feel a much closer personal identification with the platform than might otherwise be the case, which can itself lead to problems.

      It is a difficult balancing act for both Lab and user community.

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  12. I will be burned at the stake for this but I shall post it regardless: SL residents sometimes remind me of the Tea Party here in the good ol’ US of A: lots of understandable frustration but uttered in confused anger, threats and often expletives and not one single solution offered….

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