The leaping-off point for this blog post is Rod Humble’s announcement about his promised round table, due to commence this week, as posted on his profile feed. To whit:
Hey folks, as I mentioned to some of you over the weekend I am going to do the next roundtable stuff in private one on one’s rather than as a free for all. That makes it more low key and doesnt turn it into something which is contentious. Thanks for all the feedback.
On the one hand, the reaction might seem understandable; the response to the news that last names won’t be making a return was massively negative which was itself pretty negatively voiced. That it wouldn’t go down well is hardly surprising given the number of people supporting the move either via blogs, blog comments, on his own profile field, the SL forums and other forums (some of which Rod Humble himself frequents) or directly on the associated JIRA.
However, the backlash shouldn’t have been unexpected. Indeed, from the preamble in Rodvik’s post on the matter, it would seem he was aware that it was going to hurt, hence delaying the actual bad news until a good way into the post itself.
But this is no reason to suddenly shut-up shop when it comes to further discussions on SL and what might or might not happen. Yet that is precisely what has happened. When I read the profile post, I was struck by two things:
- No details as to how people might engage are present in the profile post
- Rod indicates that he has already spoken to some people on the matter over the weekend.
While the latter could simply be as a result of Rod responding to questions people fired at him on the subject of the forthcoming discussions rather than being anything deeper or more significant – taken together, and again, given the way LL has tended to operate in the past – does raise questions as to whether a “star chamber” for the discussion has already been formed, which itself could feed feelings of exclusion – and such feelings are never a good thing to present to a former audience.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
The decision to remove the discussion from more open participation is also a little sad, as it stands testimony to the old adage that the more things change; the more things remain the same. A lot has changed for the better within and around the Lab over the last 15 months. Looking back at a some suggestions I made last March, it’s interesting to see how some have indirectly been implemented, although not as I’d imagined a year ago, admittedly. We’ve seen improvements in many areas and attempts to get major technical issues under control and / or improved.
Unfortunately for the Lab, we’re a contrary lot. As such, we find it easy to overlook the positive (or even view it with a degree of fear and loathing) and continue to focus on the negative. As such, the removal of this discussion to some unspecified medium involving a select few is going to reinforce the negative attitude many feel towards LL.
When it comes to the matter of Last Names in particular, LL actually have no-one but themselves to blame, because the bottom line is, they bungled the issue from the moment Rod posted on the matter at the end of last year – a move that placed them in an impossible situation. In doing so, they once again fell victim to their own massively misplaced management of on-going communications with the user community as a whole.
Again this isn’t new nor surprising. God knows I’ve been hammering away (rather pointlessly it sometimes feels) on the subject of broader Lab / user communications that I sometimes think this blog reads like a scratched record.
And while it is true that repetition doesn’t necessarily make a point any more valid than the first time it was mentioned, the fact of the matter is that LL’s track record when it comes to what I call “corporate-level” communications pretty much speaks for itself. I’m also far from alone in this; others have also long been trumpeting the need for better, more focused communications from Linden Lab. In this, I’d take time out to point you to Ciaran Laval’s excellent piece on why, when it comes to the “shared experience” of Second Life (itself a source of recent controversy), it behoves LL well to actually lead the sharing itself.
So, rather than repeat myself yet again, I’ll attempt to put it in a forthright nutshell: Rod, Lab, get a bloody grip and for heaven’s sake start engaging with us through constructive, on-going communications through your own open channels. Like the blog.
Carry the message; don’t hand the baton elsewhere or hide it up your collective jumpers through “closed door” discussions. At that does is put us in the FIC of things.
At the same time, please understand the scattergun approach doesn’t work – the last names situation should amply demonstrate that most effectively. In pumping out blog posts (with comments disabled), then shoving people off to the forums before making profile feed posts, all that again happened is that corporately, LL shot off yet another toe in falsely setting expectations.
Obviously, the flip side of this is that if LL attempt to listen to everyone, no matter how carefully they tread or in what format, they are going to end-up pissing-off someone. After all, as has been said often enough, ask 10 users for their views on X or Y and you’ll get ten different answers. Multiple that by just a few hundred impassioned users, and the chances are you’re going to take a right royal kicking from some quarter or other…
But again, this doesn’t necessitate slipping informal discussions behind closed doors. The risk of setting false expectations is one that can be handled by simply and clearly caveating such discussions with the fact that they are explorations of ideas, and that they don’t automatically equate to any promise on LL’s part to implement anything coming out of the discussions. This may not result in everyone being happy – but conversely, it could end up with more than a few happy faces and a renewed feeling of involvement if the outcome of such a discussion lead to LL realising that X or Y could actually be implemented and then doing so.
As it is, by making closing-off this discussion – whether as a result of a realisation that they “got it wrong” in the first place when it comes to last names or not – comes across as “evidence” that the Lab is no longer willing to engage with the user community, but rather hand down edicts from upon high.
Certainly, it adds to the overall muddying of the waters that has been so much a problem where attempts at communication have been made. Again, with due respect to Rod Humble – who has, in many respects been more of a communicator than his predecessors – that he himself chooses so many different channels for engagement leads to confusion.
In this, there is a very thin line, admittedly; there is absolutely nothing wrong with using profile feeds, Twitter and other forums with which to broadly engage with users – as long as the content of the communication is balanced and accurately reflected back where it should be: through LL’s own blog channels. But time and again, this isn’t the case – just about anything else but the blog is used.
Again, LL don’t help themselves when they do blog – and promptly close-off comments. While no-one likes negative feedback – and sadly (dons her own tin hat and hides under the desk to continue typing) we SL users can be a pretty negative lot when it does come to giving feedback, even when it comes to what might otherwise be regarded as good news) – the truth is that shutting down channels of response simply enhances the feeling that you “don’t want to know”.
There’s a further knock-on effect to all this, because it means that where LL employees do make the effort – almost pleadingly so – for people to give the Lab a chance, their requests are met with a degree of derision that isn’t really called for.
Of course, this doesn’t mean one-to-one conversations don’t have their use. But it does come down to a matter of balance – and right now, things are decidedly lop-sided. Again, this creates issues wherein even when an individual from the Lab is speaking with the best of intentions on their part and the full weight of the Lab’s management behind them – their words are dismissed simply because (in many cases) the Lab’s performance as a corporate entity where communications is concerned has been so lax, people naturally distrust what is being said.
Which brings me to a final point in this rambling. In announcing the round table, one of the things Rod stated was that:
Conversations with many old Lindens and Residents have led me to conclude that we have lost something of the old frontier feel. Like we were exploring the world together …
Yes, “we” and “together” – these were key to the old frontier spirit within SL. It’s somewhat ironic then, that in actually taking up the discussion Rod has, for many that might have wanted to participate, opted to remove the “we” from the equation.
When it comes to the matter of broader communications and engagement with the community as a whole LL do face something of a vicious circle of achieving engagement while facing negativity and suspicion. However, it is a circle that can only be broken by LL itself. The company needs to bring focus to its efforts to communicate and start being consistent in its approach. It needs to take the lead and – while things may initially hurt in terms of potential feedback – be front-and-centre about things and stop:
- Stuffing items away in forum threads because they aren’t deemed to be “of interest” – it smacks of evasion. If the company has something to say that has the potential to impact the community, it should say so openly, and allow individuals to determine how it may / may not affect them
- Going out and vociferously using other channels at the expense of their direct channels (blogs) – it dilutes the message and leads to confusion. Use other channels by all means, but use them to support your central channel, not instead of
- Determining that things need to be closed-off simply because what is being said isn’t what you want to hear – it blurs issues and raises suspicions. Stand by what you’ve said and accept the fact that you’re not going to please all the people all the time and that criticism isn’t something to be afraid of
Obviously, any change in approach on the part of the Lab – were it to happen – isn’t immediately going to be met with cheers and flag-waving. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried; given enough time and a more focused, structured and pro-active approach to communications and engagement will yield more benefits than problems.