The Drax Files: a Humble view of the world

Second Life is ahead of its generation, but very traditional in the fact that it enables creativity, and I believe that that is the most powerful form of entertainment.

So speaks Rod Humble in the seventh segment of The Drax Files. which aired on Monday June 3rd.

The plan had been to keep the guest a surprise for as long as possible (I was sworn to secrecy back before the segment had even been filmed), but word started leaking out after Rod made several in-world appearances using both his primary account and some of his alts.

Rod Humble at The Arrival
Through his alter-ego, Rodvik Linden, Rod Humble contemplates echoes of the future

Featuring footage shot both in-world and at the Lab’s main offices in Battery Street, San Francisco, the segment is a rapid-fire overview of Second Life, its impact on the world and how senior management at the Lab view what is happening to the platform and how they think it is fairing. As such, it is possible that some of Rod Humble’s comments may come across as superficial and be critiqued as such. However, this is only a five-minute piece, and the established format of the show isn’t suited to any in-depth analysis or reporter-led interrogative, and to expect it to be so would be unfair.

What does emerge from the segment is a picture of a man who has both the responsibility for ensuring Second Life maintains a comfortable level of success which at the same time and who – contrary to popular belief in some quarters – does actually “get” Second life in many fundamental ways, even if he may not have a complete understanding of its appeal.

There is admittedly a juxtaposition here; on the one hand, Rod Humble has spent more than two years of hard grind at the helm of Linden Lab, and has steered the company into new waters of unknown depth while at the same time pushing for very real investment in their flagship product and driving forward a range of new technical initiatives for Second Life. All of this does speak of someone who has an eye on the future for the platform and who recognises its many technical weaknesses.

Yet, on the other hand, he talks with disarming honesty about the bemusement he feels towards SL’s continued success and longevity and the fact that why it is successful remains something of a mystery – and something which appears to be completely missed by the tech industry and media as  a whole.

Avatar identity and pseudonymity (and the individuals' right to the latter) are matters of import to Rod Humble (images courtesy of Draxtor Despres)
Avatar identity and pseudonymity (and the individuals’ right to the latter) are matters of import to Rod Humble (images courtesy of Draxtor Despres)

There are some familiar themes in the piece which anyone who is reasonably familiar with Rod Humble and his past commentaries is likely to instantly recognise. His comments on matters of privacy and anonymity, for example, are pretty much echo what he said at the last of the Second Life Community Conventions in 2011.  Similarly, the numbers quoted are pretty much the same as we’ve been hearing for the last couple of years. But  repetition alone doesn’t invalidate what is being said.

Things like avatar identity and pseudonymity / personas are matters which concern many SL users, so the fact that Rod Humble hasn’t shifted his stance of the matter in the course of his tenure at the helm of Linden Research should be taken as a positive sign.

Similarly, while many of us within SL would like to see more visible moves towards getting more of the 400,000 monthly sign-ups to stick, we also need to remember that this video isn’t about dissecting Second Life this way or that: it is about presenting the world with a better understanding of the platform and why people enjoy it so much – and hopefully encourage people to come and give things a try. As such, Rod’s message is very much on topic and in keeping with past segments of the show.

Rod Humble roams SL in one of his many alts (image courtesy of Draxtor Despres)
Rod Humble roams SL in one of his many alts (image courtesy of Draxtor Despres)

Another aspect of the anonymity element in the segment is the way in which it serves as a reminder that just because we don’t people moving around and through Second Life wearing “Linden” tags doesn’t mean actually mean Lab don’t spend time in-world and among users.  As Rod comments:

I love flying around with my alts. Sometimes I’m dressed as a Greek philosopher, sometimes I’m a spaceship, sometimes I’m dressed as an animal! I mean, it’s great! And [in] each one of those personas you can fully engage in a way community in a way that you can’t when everybody knows it’s Rod Humble.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean Lab staff are in-world every minute of the day – but it is a comment which should be born in mind when critiquing the Lab with claims that staff are “never” in-world.

"we have the Oculus Rift working within Second Life, and we are working to make it a triple-A experience, particularly around the user interface..."
“we have the Oculus Rift working within Second Life, and we are working to make it a triple-A experience, particularly around the user interface…”

As noted at the top of this piece, the show also demonstrates that Rod Humble still intuitively “gets” the power of Second Life, even if he doesn’t by his own admission fully understand why the appeal is the way it is (something I think true of a lot people, even if we each have our own ideas and theories). Not only does he “get” it, he is actually leading the charge to make SL a better, more enjoyable experience for all of us, old and new.

The fact that LL have invested considerable time and effort into SL over the course of the last year or more should stand as a reminder that the company still believes the platform is viable – and that is good news for the platform and its future, even if the projects concerned aren’t that visible or what people might view as being “sexy” (which has been used at times as a reason to bash this work and the Lab). While such efforts may not solve all of SL’s woes, they do at least demonstrate that the Lab’s commitment to the platform is still there.

And as we approach SL’s 10th birthday celebrations, that really is worth while remembering.

A Conversation with Drax 3: CEOs, Users, Numbers and Retention

The Drax Files have taken Second Life by storm. After seeing the first segment, I took time out with Drax to find out more about the man behind the show and also about the series itself.

Last time around, we continued our discussions in general terms, but having Rod Humble make a guest appearance on the show meant that our chat started out on the topic of the show, it quickly spread to matters which are often the subject of debate within Second Life – new users and retention.

Chatting about The Drax Files at the Cheeky Tiramisu Cafe
Chatting about The Drax Files at the Cheeky Tiramisu Cafe

Inara Pey (IP): As we are all aware, 2013 is a significant milestone for Second Life, marking the platform’s tenth anniversary since it was opened to the public.

Let’s start by looking at this segment of the show in that context, and in the broadest terms before we perhaps focus down on some things in more detail. What are your general thoughts in being able to film a segment of The Drax Files around Rod Humble?

Draxtor Despres (DD): I’m excited that we – the people who collaborated on this – have been given the opportunity to shape the face of Second Life for some time now for the tenth birthday with this video, and I do hope that the mainstream press has a little bit more to choose from, media-wise, you know, than just some snapshot from 2006, which is just really embarrassing for the media, to be quite frank; that they take these old snapshot to put in their articles. It’s a sad statement from my friends in journalism.

IP: Indeed. As a tool for outreach to the media, there is perhaps nothing quite as powerful as the CEO of a tech company talking so openly about his product, and in such a disarming way.

Now, in the piece, Rod mentions some familiar figures: half a billion US dollars in user-to-user transactions per year, some 400,000 sign-ups per month. As soundbites go, these strike positive notes. However, the sceptic might point to them and say, “Yes, but how many of those 400,000 sign-ups per month actually “stick” with Second Life?” How would you respond to that in light of spending time at the Lab?

DD: In the interview Rod admitted that they have not figured out how to get folks to the content right away and I see it this way. We today not only face overwhelming entertainment choices, but we are also conditioned to have spoon-fed polished entertainment not an open sandbox where we can freely choose to create. We have been conditioned over a long time to not be creative, and video games have continued the trend of telling the player what to do.

IP: We live in a world where it is easier to be led by entertainment, rather than create our own entertainment, you mean?

Drax-38DD: Yes. People are not used to unlimited creativity. Games and platforms like Minecraft or the whole “app” phenomenon is successful because it curates content and it curates limited creativity. A blank piece of paper is scary  – for adults. For kids it’s not. They draw whatever comes out of them. But then they get conditioned by their peers and by society that there is good and that there is bad, and they stop expressing themselves creatively. And that’s kind-of sad, and it takes a lot of guts to go back to that state of openness. And I think that’s why something that is so uncurated…

IP: Unconstrained…

DD: Yes, as Second Life is, right now cannot be as successful as something like Minecraft, where it’s a clear aesthetic that is being offered, and you work within that aesthetic.

IP: But these are not new challenges that the Lab faces in terms of getting users to engage in the platform; they’ve been around since SL was conceived and first opened its doors. But there is something that many people do intrinsically get about Second Life and which does keep them logging-in to the platform day after day, week after week, on through the years. Yet it does seem that the Lab never quite harnesses or understands what it is that keeps us doing so – and at times they appear unwilling to actually try to find out.

DD: If I could make any suggestion to Linden Lab, it’s to hire two sociologists and one psychologist to be on staff – not to counsel their staff, but to look into the world and decode the world and be a mediator between the engineering staff and the world and the residents. I think that is missing; people from other disciplines, people from non-engineering disciplines who have an ability to translate between the population and the “rulers”, if you will. I think there could be a lot of benefits to that; just [having] somebody from a social science background would be fantastic.

I actually studies sociology … for like, four months! (laughs). That’s cool, eh? Maybe I’ll get an honorary doctorate at some point! (laughs) It’s something which totally fascinated me and I still read a lot of books about the subject.  And again, we’re not dealing with an engineering problem per se, we’re not even dealing with a technology problem. Primarily we’re dealing with the relationship between the governed and the governing bodies. And that needs to be understood.

Contemplating Second Life on lki Eliot's sculpture at SL10B
Contemplating Second Life on lki Eliot’s sculpture at SL10B

IP: It’s a valid observation. Even among SL users, there is a perception that the way to get more people to engage in SL is a technical problem …

DD: Right! “Step One, make the UI simpler; Step Two, get people to the content quicker”, as if it is some kind of Facebook experience. But we cannot compare to two experiences …

IP: Exactly. And it the case of the UI, that has always been SL’s biggest weakness and greatest barrier to engagement. However, it didn’t stop you from getting involved & engaged. It never stopped me, or Kriss or Engrama, or Eshi or anyone else using it today. So there is a point to make that the problem isn’t necessarily about getting people past the UI per se.

It’s about helping people to understand what is attractive about Second Life, and provide the means for them to get to that attraction. Offer that, and there is no reason why they should view the UI as some kind of insurmountable problem. And you’re right – it is something which needs to be looked at outside of any engineering or technical thinking. So you might say it’s about looking at whole issue of new users and user retention more holistically.

Drax-37DD: Yes. I think the orientation experience is something that needs to be continuously thought about and debated. The hand-holding thing, I think that’s important; the need to have real people in-world all the time who can help you out. That’s what helped me and others to stick around.

You see, this is an interesting thing, and goes back to what we said earlier about people “getting” Second Life. A few weeks ago I helped newbie friends with a couple of kinds – ten and thirteen – and my friend Max came to me and said, “My son is playing Minecraft, but it’s so limited, and you talked about Second Life, so I looked into it, and it seems really cool, so could you do a tutorial?” So this is a guy who looked into Second Life and saw what it can provide, and his family did as well as I went through things with them. And these are not rocket scientists, these are normal people; they’re not dumb, but they’re not Albert Einsteins either!

And this is one of the things I object to, that it’s so “difficult” to get what Second Life is. I think people have no patience. We live in a terrible age when it comes to expectations and patience; especially in the digital world. And we need to steer against it, the expectation that everything is curated and directed for us. And that’s the hard thing for the Lab to overcome.

IP: Making the sign-up process easier and getting people in-world quicker is only half the equation.

DD: Yes. Find out what people’s interest are, why they come to SL, and then kind-of hold their hands until they are ready to take off on their own while making sure they can find the support they need to stick. But that takes manpower and manpower costs money, and they’re probably thinking it’s not worth it to task people to be in-world all the time and wait for newbies. But I think it’s wrong. Users are a long-term investment for Linden Lab which directly benefit the Lab’s revenue flow.

IP: It’s not necessarily a massive investment on the Lab’s part, either. There is still a surviving network of mentor groups and programmes in Second Life which could do a lot to assist in this and provide the support you describe.

DD: Right. And there was the Gateway Programme, and there are a lot of dedicated folk who would jump at the chance to help others; maybe get a little badge as a Newbie Counsellor or something, so yeah. There’s a lot that could still be done.

IP: We’re almost out of time for this round of our chats. Coming back to episode seven of The Drax Files. Having spent time interviewing Rod Humble over the course of an hour, and getting the opportunity to film him at work and see the Lab for yourself – have you come away from this particular segment of the show with any specific thoughts on his stewardship of Second Life?

DD: The sense I got was that he’s the right man for the job right now at this juncture of Second Life’s development. After talking to him, it seemed more ridiculous to think, as the community often says, that Linden Lab has abandoned virtual worlds. He said they are working on a large virtual world investment that’s two years out, and we don’t know anything other than that. But virtual worlds is their core product.

IP: It’ll certainly be interesting to see what form that large investment takes, as the hints are currently so vague – and intentionally so, as Rod Humble has explained. Perhaps doubly so, given their investment in Philip Rosedale’s High Fidelity venture.

DD: It’s going to be an interesting future!

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18 thoughts on “The Drax Files: a Humble view of the world

  1. I thought that worked really well and although the pseudonymity angle isn’t new, it’s refreshing to hear him speak on the subject again.

    I’m rather impressed that five minutes worth of footage could fit so much information in.


  2. Thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Inara. I am curious about Lindens, alts and their presence in world, wondering what happened to the community liaison program announced in, what 2011? It seems to have fizzled, but it might have done a lot to alleviate the ‘Lindens are never in world’ feeling, which adds fuel to the idea the Lindens don’t have a full understanding of the depth and complexity of SL.

    In the three years I’ve been in SL, I’ve run across less than a handful, and interacted with one, Durian Linden, who we invited to the first Bard on the Beach not long after LL announced the community liaison program. Honestly, it felt good to see a Linden there — nor was he besieged — a Linden whose job it is was to interact, to form that link between the government and the governed, to give LL a public face.


    1. I’m not sure if Durian is still at the Lab. He was leading the efforts on the new user experience tools, way, way, back when Linden Realms was still being developed, but I’m not sure what happened after that, and at least two involved in that work have since departed the Lab.

      The community liaison programme is a good point as well (she said, making a note to dig around and see what can be found). I think the Lindens / alts discussion is worthwhile and Rod makes a very valid point in the film – and it’s witnessed to an extent in the film and the stills: while he has people around him, there is a certain distance between him and them. While this us potentially for the purporse of film, it does visually underline the point that were we to encounter Linden staff in our travels, doubtless our behaviour would be a lot more self-lmoderated than were they to simply appear as a part of a crowd. Thus interactions become stilted and potentially less informative than might otherwise be the case.

      In terms of community / Lab interactions, there were some at the Lab who could bridge that divide. During our chats, Drax mentioned Brett Linden; we also have Torley; but they have both been moved on to other things. Whether the Lab is interested in putting someone into that space isn’t at al clear.

      More’s the pity.


        1. Tiggs was active in verious groups as well, both as “himself” and one of his alts. Ther are a couple of others who have left, and who I got to know outside of SL / LL who are still active in-world via their alts. And that’s another salutory point as well; often Lab staff get lambasted for “not knowing” or “not understanding” SL purely on the the basis of their Linden avatar age. However, in the case of the two I know of, one of them may have been at the Lab for a relatively short time – but they had been active in-world since 2005 via their “alt”.


    1. Thanks, although, to be honest, Rod’s way of speaking and Drax’s audio work is clear enough and even non-native speakers of the English language (like yours truly) can easily understand.


  3. I already said it and i still say it again, Draxtor Despres is doing more to promote Second Life then any Linden lab markiting campaign!


  4. It was the best interview that has Rodvik has done so far I think for Second Life. The stats mentioned during the video I found most interesting and its good to get a update from the lab on metrics.


  5. I found both this episode of “The Drax Files” and subsequent blog posts to be both informative and intriguing. I must say that I agree with Draxtor that having an intermediary (or ten) from the worlds of both sociology and psychology at the Lab (and in-world) would be extremely helpful in promoting (and deepening) the understanding of what it is (“the magic”) that makes SL so compelling for so many. In fact, I think this is vitally important to the future. As one who appreciates the incredible range of creativity that is possible in this virtual space (and I can only imagine the shadow of it!), I want as many creatives here as possible. Life is art – in all of its chaos and order; in all of its varied expressions from technology to literature, from fashion to engineering and way, way beyond – and fueling the fire of it from every possible direction will make this dreamworld even more fantastical and filled to overflowing with that certain je ne sais quoi that brings me here…
    Thank you for this ongoing exploration of SL and those who populate it and make things happen. I am enjoying every episode and discussion, learning and exploring as I have done since day one. I was a scared little newbie (fearing complete obliteration in teleportation), but – oh! – how happy I am that I took that chance!
    With much appreciation,


  6. Drax is imho absolute right if He says that SL needs some more resi2newbie-help.
    Since i were ‘born’ in the former kindergarden for newbies at die burg in Frisch in 2006 and hung out there much, i saw newbies dropping hard in. They really had basic questions. Some followed the media hype and wanted to get thenext ‘Anshe Chung’ and make the big money. Well other came for some other interest SL’s repute still suffer on.
    It’s really often so much fun to help other and see them “grow up” 🙂
    Even with my limited abilities i answered them their simple questions and toke some of to a sandbox to get some basic build skills after some dais. Well if you once find an Avatar in pillow of chairs and since years still building new. It might be cause i never were a professional helper 😉
    Once a wonderful selfless one toke me as newbie myself out for sailing and infected me with the bug. Since that the wind and me are together. He guides me and i follow His call 🙂
    Wonderful it is to give this ardor of sailing to ppl who might like it too. Sometimes just sailing with one, getting them a task to do. So they could be part of. Is the fantastic way to involve. Some still sail and that much better as me. It’s wonderful to see 🙂
    And some days ago i IMed with one who were just showing His Daddy sailing in SL.
    This form of learning indeed sounds for me as if it has a good chance to be successfully.
    So yes Drax is soooo right if He says Resi2Newbie interaction is wonderful and LL would do good in having sociologists and one psychologist as staff too.
    It’s a major techy problem to see the technical solution without understanding how the ‘user’ will use it. A friend on mine is a techy and has a mantra “usability is king”.
    /me guess He is right 🙂


    1. The Lab are apparently about to start / have started “A/B” testing of a new / revamped new user experience against the existing experience to try to determine which appears to be the more user-friendly. There are few details at present as to what the “new” experience is, or what it entails.

      Hopefully, it will be one that provides for more direct interaction between newcomers and established users – or at least one which more directly puts people coming into SL in contact with those who share their interests / allows them to more clearly see what SL has to offer and helps to guide them more properly to those experiences. The major problem with the current system is that the categories of “things to do” at the Desitnations Islands are too broad and reliant on random teleport & the hope that someone at the other end is waiting / willing to help.


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