Note that there are three videos of this event that I’m aware of:
- The SL4Live – TV livestream recording.
- An audio only recording via the official Second Life YouTube channel.
- A recording by Pantera Północy.
When reading this summary, please note:
- It is not a full transcript:
- Discussion points have been grouped by topic, and not necessarily in the order raised during the session.
- I have focused on those topics liable to be of the most interest to readers / generated the most informative answers, so this is not a summary of all comments. etc..
- Topics are give as bullet-point highlights for ease of reference.
- Audio extracts are provided.
- These have been cleaned-up in places to remove repetition or pauses, etc.
- Audio extracts may concatenate comments on specific subjects that may have been made at different points in the discussion, and so do not always match the chronology of the video.
- Timestamps to the SL4Live – TV video are provided for those who would prefer to listen to Ebbe’s comments “in the raw”. This video is also embedded at the end of this article.
Note: the following is taken from both Ebbe’s comments and my own research into his background, carried out when he joined Linden Lab in 2014, and which also included input from Ebbe.
Swedish by birth and still by nationality – he is still working in the US on a green card -, Ebbe graduated from Tärnaby Skidhem in 1983. His time there was focused on skiing, as he wanted to be a ski racer, with his eyes on the Swedish national team and the world cup. Unfortunately, a back injury stopped him pursuing that particular career option, and so he crossed the Atlantic to study Middlebury College, Vermont, USA.
Founded in 1800, Middlebury is regarded as one of the oldest liberal arts colleges in the United States. While there, he “spent a lot of time in the art studio and the computer lab in an extreme left brain / right brain type of education”, before graduating with a degree in Fine Arts and a concentration in Computer Applications.
From Middlebury, and with the clock ticking down on his visa, Ebbe “slipped into Microsoft on a random banana peel”, where he spent twelve years. Joining in the pre-Windows era, he was particularly involved with the Office products (Word, Mac Office, etc) and multimedia products.
In March 2000, he moved on to Ingenio, a company that created marketplaces for people to buy and sell information over the phone. While there he was responsible for managing the engineering, program management, operations, and quality teams, and served as the company’s interim CEO before taking on the mantle of the Chief Product Officer. And while he doesn’t often mention it due to not being a huge fan of the patent system, he “racked up quite a few patents there.”
After Ingenio, Ebbe joined Yahoo! n February 2008, filling out a number of senior roles, including Vice President, Head of Audience for the company’s EMEA division, being based in Rolle, Switzerland, managing some 180 people and multiple products across six countries. During this period he also served on the board of Yahoo! SARL (Société à responsabilité limitée) – think the equivalent of a Pvt Ltd company in the UK or a limited liability partnership in the USA, before returning to the United States to become the Senior Vice President for Media Engineering at Yahoo! with global responsibly for Media Engineering, a position that involved managing an organisation of more than 600 engineers, architects, program managers and quality engineering staff, as well as having dotted-line oversight of some 150 product managers and designers.
Following Yahoo!, he took up the challenge of turning around a small tech company called BranchOut, based in San Francisco. Around two years old at the time of his joining, BranchOut had been through a roller-coaster ride with its product, a Facebook oriented application designed for finding jobs, networking professionally, and recruiting employees. Seven months before Ebbe joined the company, the app boasted 25 million users across 60 countries – but by the time he came on board, the user base had shrunk to just 3 million. Under his guidance, the company pivoted the BranchOut app into a new workplace messaging application called Talk.co, launched in October 2013.
Ebbe was actually aware of Second life – and had experienced it first hand – a long time before joining Linden Lab in 2014. His son Aleks, had been heavily involved in SL, starting with the Teen Grid, making content and then moving to developing a successful in-world business there (Aleks is now an Lab Employee, working on Sansar, where he is a regular at in-world community meet-ups and product meetings).
More particularly, Ebbe has had a long-standing friendship with the Chair of the Lab’s board of directors, Jed Smith. LL was one of Smith’s first investments when he became a venture capitalist, and through Jed Ebbe gained an awareness of the Lab, its product, and met Philip Rosedale.
So I fell in love with the idea, and understood what Philip and Second Life was trying to achieve, but it wasn’t until many, many, many years later – well, five years ago now – that it came up that they were looking for someone, and it was the right time and place for both the Lab and me to hook up and see how I could help keep things going here.
I have not regretted that decision for a second, it’s been absolutely fantastic; it’s an incredible group of people I get to work with. Having the Second Life team is just an absolute privilege … Everyone is just incredibly passionate about the product … that’s just been a very, very enjoyable ride for me so far.
– Ebbe Altberg, Meet the Lindens, June 26th, 2019
One of the greatest rewards he sees in being with the company is diversity, be it within the people working the Lab or using Second Life, or the equally rich diversity of uses people find for Second Life – be it as a means of expression or as a platform for business, as tool for health improvement or an aid education, and so on, and the multiple ways Second Life can benefit those who engage with the platform.
He is also drawn to the technical aspects of the platform, including its multiple challenges, and the way it combines so many different capabilities: tools for content creation, options for social engagement, the ability to run a virtual economy, etc., all of which combine with the need to constantly discover / learn new things about the ways in which SL is being used, to continually refresh interest in, and enthusiasm for, managing, improving and expanding the platform.
On Fees and the SL Economy
- As a world Second Life has a huge diversity of uses, and there is no single “one size fits all” solution.
- Has always and consistently stated a belief that virtual land in SL is too expensive [it has been a major theme from users throughout his tenure as CEO as well, and preceded his arrival at the Lab].
- HOWEVER, Land fees generate the majority of the Lab’s inflow of revenue, even if it has been over-monetised by the Lab in order to meet that revenue requirement.
- Therefore, if land fees are to be reduced, the Lab must find ways to move its revenue generation from virtual land to other opportunities that have previously perhaps been under-monetised in their ability to generate revenue. These include things like Premium fees and consumer-related revenue generation options.
- Also feels there has been an imbalance in the way SL operates, as a merchant without any land can produce goods and sell them (via the Marketplace) without really paying for the opportunity to do so (just 5% commission on sales), and could then cash-out with very little cost to their revenue.
- Unfortunately, both trying to broaden LL’s revenue generation options to decrease a reliance on land fee, and trying to correct some of the balance in where fee are obtained to help with that revenue generation, can result in some feeling hurt.
- LL are attempting to be careful in how these shifts are made, as there are major risks involved (for both in-world business and the Lab itself), and so are progressing in small steps – the recent Premium and processing fee increases being the latest of those steps.
- Believes there are still opportunities to further re-balance things, and to reduce land costs.
- Also believes it is fair to say that while things like credit processing fees have been increased, they are still well below what might be regarded as “industry standards” for many digital transactions, which can be 30% and upwards.
- Understands that the increases have impacted people, notably creators with very low margins, and who may have to make adjustments to their pricing, etc., and recognises that changes like those now implemented (as of June 24th) might make it tougher for some to survive, but believes the changes are necessary.
- Points out that one of the consequences of high tier is that SL so often loses stunning public regions that have been built, and which people miss when they vanish.
Response to the “Open Letter” / Petition
Note: a user-led “open letter” / petition asking for the credit processing fees to be reversed was placed on Change.org and generated some 3,000 or so signatures. That petition now appears to have been removed.
- Did see it, and understands why it was raised – change will always bring about a negative reaction one way or another. We see the same kind of reaction to regulatory and other changes in the physical world.
- But also doesn’t think SL can survive on some kind of democratic basis in which all stakeholders get to make decisions that will ensure everyone is happy, as that is just not possible.
- The Lab does spend a lot of time listening to users, gathering feedback be via the forums, in-world meetings, Jira, etc., BUT even when making what are seen as the right decisions, there will still be a negative perception of the decision by some.
- Could more time be give between announcing an implementing this kind of change? 30 days seems reasonable [the Premium / credit processing fee changes had 25 days advance notice].
- Certainly, there was enough time for the Lab to react to some of the feedback to the changes and reverse some of them prior to any implementation.
- [See: “Dear Ebbe II” (on the subject of Basic account changes), LL reverse planned Basic account group limits reduction and Premium subscription changes: a little more news from Grumpity.]
- In the case of group limits, some of the feedback helped the Lab gain further insight into the myriad ways in which groups get used.
- But the Lab also needs to be somewhat responsive; there cannot be months of public debate on changes which might then cause the changes to get bogged down.
- The philosophy within the Lab is to move forward as quickly as possible with improvements and changes, whilst also trying to avoid [in the case of platform improvements] the risk of breakage, etc., so there is some additional friction involved as well.
- There has to be a balance between over-analysing a changes, getting everyone’s buy-in to a change and actually making the change. But the Lab does strive to ensure that the do what is legally required when communicating changes that impact people’s businesses and lives, and try to give people a fair understanding of what will be happening.
Fees and Economy Questions
Could more lead-time be given between announcing and implementing future fee changes?
- As per above, almost 30 days notice was given. Not sure if more can be done beyond that without creating friction on LL’s ability to move forward with the desire to pivot revenue.
- Wants to give people enough time to determine if a change is something that will work for them, whether they might need to change tracks or their business model / pricing.
- In between announcements like this, LL needs to keep iterating on its long-term goals, to help give people further awareness of what may come, even if the specifics are initially TBD.
- However, the pivot from land revenue to revenue via other means has been a theme for the Lab for five years, and so moves like this shouldn’t be a surprise.
Would LL consider rescinding the processing fees increase were “large” creators to develop way to help SL grow in a meaningful way?
- If someone has a plan to grow Second Life – tell LL! Such plans will benefit everyone.
- Are there growth projections or scale that, when reached, might see the Lab’s revenue model change? That’s possible. With more active users, it might be possible for the Lab to reduce its margins and remain viable.
- Small businesses obviously need larger margins to survive – Amazon can operate on a thin margin only because of the volume of sales it can make.
- Operating margins, etc., are a slightly different question to how the company goes about generating its revenue in the first place.
- LL recognises that it must offer a balance to what works for them and what works for creators, because if the creators aren’t there, the content doesn’t get made.
- Might be a space to create a user group or process where economics, user acquisition / retention, etc., could be more generally discussed, assuming those at the Lab managing such aspects of the Lab’s business would have the time to commit to such a group.
- Such a group would require commitment on the part of users attending to be pro-active and come up with ideas.
- Lab has considered / tried many approaches and would not want such meetings to be re-treading / explaining what has been tired in the past; it would need to be forward-thinking and acting; it’s not just the ideas, it’s the follow-through.
How is the revenue transition being paced? Is there is ceiling on the transaction percentage the Lab may claim? Is it that land will be zero cost when that ceiling is reached?
- Unlikely to ever get to zero cost for land. Also not likely things will just flip from one side to the other, revenue-wise. It’s a case of achieving a balance – although what that optimum balance might be is still TBD.
- There is a broader aspect here as well: can the Lab actually reach point where they can reduce their margins (thus reducing prices) and make up for the deficit through the volume of fees? This is very hard to predict, and LL need to be very careful around this.
- The revenue / pricing model needs to be robust (e.g. to avoid people getting around it), balanced and simple (e.g. no different fee rates for different content, etc.).
- Progress in changing it needs to be made step-by-step.
- To date the business model has perhaps been unfair towards some users and advantageous to others, so the issue is balancing that out, so the value people get out of the platform is reasonably evenly distributed among participating users.
- The recent changes tip things towards being more balanced, but they are probably not, as yet, appropriately balanced.
- Also: at what point, as well, does land pricing drop to a point where revenue can be made up through volume sales [indeed, can it?]?
- Overall, there are no specific next steps re: fee changes on the horizon, the process is to now wait and watch to see how these most recent changes move things.
- Worth noting that most digital content platforms charge around 30% or more. Second Life is well below that, and should start well below that. simply because take too much out of the economy, as it is no longer worth creators’ time to participate within it.
- Premium fees and Premium tiers all fold into this as well, and with them, what benefits should be free, what should be charged for, etc.
On Listening to Users and Gaining Feedback
- LL does listen through multiple channels, although there are only so many LL staff (around 100 working on SL), and only so many of them can be focused on gathering feedback.
- Even so, there are a lot of staffers who are former & still active residents outside of office hours and who continue to spend a lot of their own time in-world, which can be used to observe, hear, take feedback.
- There are also a range of user group meetings held weekly / monthly where technical and similar feedback can given.
- There are a range of communications means – forums, Jira [for bug reports and feature requests] – where feedback and suggestions can be made.
- But even with a wide range of consultation points, etc., changes will inevitably be made that will cause some upset somewhere.
- A problem with trying to focus on all point of interest / feedback is that inevitably, every minute spent doing that is a minute for someone at the Lab not spent on actually working on / with the platform, so a balance needs to be struck.
- His philosophy has always been for transparency and openness [hence one of his first acts to reverse old decisions about Lab staff being discouraged from being in-world on the Linden accounts and in work time, rather than only being able to use SL on their personal accounts and when not working].
Dealing With Departures and Loss in Second Life
Can the Lab help with situations where people may pass away / encourage people to think about how their virtual presence might be handled should they pass way, such as through virtual wills, etc?
- Potentially a deeply personal matter, where circumstances can vary widely from person to person.
- In the case of unexpected passings:
- Has the Lab really any right to be involved? Would it be in accordance with the person’s wishes?
- Such passings do tend to be marked within the communities where these losses are felt.
- More broadly, the Lab does try – through Patch Linden’s Team – to step in where possible and help preserve historical regions where the owner may not be able to continue managing it / them.
- [This is the Second Life Region Preservation Society, that has specific rules relating to it – including that the *estate owner* (who is not necessarily the builder or the region holder) requests the region be preserved.]
- Even so it is hard for the Lab to keep track of all the regions that may potentially be considered worthy of preservation.
- Not sure if / how the Lab can be involved more in the social / support aspects of loss / departure. Would potentially require a lot of overhead in terms of dealing with communities, languages, social customs, etc.
- Feels that the positive contribution the Lab can make is by providing the general environment in which communities can come together, grow, and support one another, particularly in such times.
- However, is willing to listen to suggestions on how the Lab might play a better role in these kinds of situation.
Linden Homes, Private Estates and User Engagement / Retention
Is the lab competing with private and themed communities by providing the new Linden Homes and continent?
- Thinks offering land and a home is good for a number of reasons:
- LL really need to use the platform as well as provide it. Having teams that build communities and social experiences / games teaches the Lab a lot about how the platform can be improved.
- Sets an example for what is possible when there is sufficient investment by a group in creating an environment for people to use and appreciate.
- It offers a means for inexperienced users to get involved in both the platform and make it work / worthwhile for them to stick around, explore and discover more.
- In the latter regard, sees the new Linden Homes as:
- A vital part of encouraging users into Second life and in helping to grow the user base, giving incoming users willing to try the Premium subscriptions the opportunity to have a focus for their initial time in-world.
- A means for users to grow within Second life, look around, find what attracts them and then, potentially go and invest their time and efforts into those interests and communities.
- Hopes that people will perceive the Linden Homes not as competition, but as the Lab trying to do their part in trying to grow the user base.
- The Lab certainly cannot and will not compete with the rich variety of content and communities that have already been established in Second Life.
- Would like the Lab to be able to use opportunities like the Linden Homes to build a highly attractive, high-functioning (in terms of engagement / retention) core for the platform that then encourages those coming in to invest more of their time in discovering more of what SL has to offer and putting deeper roots down within the platform through community engagement, product purchases, etc.
Could Linden Homes be offered to new users, for, say a 30-day period, after which they must pay the premium subscription to retain the home r move on to private estates, etc.?
- Trial packs are something that have been considered, together with making it easier for new users to discover where they might go after that trial, whether it is a Linden Home a themed community or even somewhere like Bay City.
- In addition, the Lab is constantly testing new experiences – giving people something to do and / or a place to live, etc.
- It needs to be remembered that not everyone comes to SL looking for a place to live; those who might are just one subset of incoming users. For other it might be games, or music, or performing, etc. Some may not even know what they want.
- Why would the average incoming user even assume this or that is available in Second Life? Many assume the first few things they see in-world are what the entire platform is all about.
- So the Lab doesn’t operate on an assumption that all users will want a home; that’s just one assumption; there has to be some kind of balance so that multiple opportunities can be recognised.
- At the same time, care must be taken to ensure incoming users are not overwhelmed by hundreds of different options.
- Hence why the Lab uses multiple forms of messaging and multiple paths into SL [e.g. through different themed Landing Pages], so they can establish an expectation and then deliver the user to that expectation.
- This involves a lot of A/B testing to try to determine what works and what doesn’t.
- There’s also the community gateways that can reach specific audiences the Lab perhaps cannot so easily reach.
Other Questions and Answers
What career path should someone follow to apply to work at the Lab?
- Live in the United States (unless hired as a Mole, who are freelance contractors).
- Not always a requirement to live in the cities where LL is located – the workforce is highly distributed.
- There are many options at the Lab covering customer service through to technical work in coding, software engineering, systems operation, marketing.
- Being a Second Life resident and with required skills can be a big benefit – many Lab employees are former (and often still active in their spare time and via their personal accounts) residents.
- Keep an eye on the Linden Lab careers page.
Can the Lab help charitable groups and organisations demonstrate funds raised in SL are “legitimate” and go to their intended causes?
- Probably best to direct this question to Marketing.
- LL is committed to support charitable causes and organisations in Second Life.
Where do you see Second Life in a decade hence? How do you see keeping SL relevant and attractive to possible future users?
- One of the reasons behind Sansar is to address VR focused audiences, where trying to implement VR in Second life would be an extreme challenge given the age of the SL software and services.
- SL is a huge product and continues to receive investment – as seen in the current project to transition all of the Second Life services to the Amazon cloud.
- This isn’t being done because the Lab have to, it’s being done because the Lab believes the move will allow them to better leverage opportunities in hardware, service provisioning, etc., to further add value to SL (e.g. in capabilities, performance, etc.).
- Beyond this the Lab continues to try to enhance and improve the service, such as through the addition of user-facing capabilities (Animesh, Bakes on Mesh, EEP, etc).
- There is a commitment to make SL more mobile – starting with provision access through iOS devices (log-in and chat initially).
- Streaming solutions are being considered, once the cost of cloud servers comes down some more.
- Efforts are on improving SL as much as possible to increase its appeal as a platform.
- But if anyone has ideas on how the Lab can bring SL to broader audience or a new audience, they’d love to hear.
Will the Lab try to surface SL through Steam again?
- It’s a challenge: Steam what 30% commission on transactions.
- How is this covered? Is the cost borne by Linden Lab? If so, how do they recoup it? Is the cost passed on to users? Would that be attractive?
- Linden Lab is also a licensed money transmitter across all US states, hence why users can cash-out (to the tune of US $64 million in 2018). However, even with these state licenses, offering the cash-out service can make distribution platforms nervous.
- Money and also be moved between users in SL, which might be seen as anti-competitive, as it avoids the use of tools such as the Steam Wallet (and charges that Steam might otherwise apply).
- So there are multiple aspects to going to a service such as Steam that are more negative than positive (and could result in higher costs to users). Ergo, trying again is not currently in LL’s plans.
What’s the secret of SL’s longevity when other virtual worlds have fallen by the wayside?
- It’s a combination of timing, willingness to allow creative freedom of expression (which many companies might find uncomfortable).
- Timing inasmuch as when SL hit the headlines, there were few alternatives offering the same richness of opportunity. Today, there are many ways by which people can find computer-based entertainment and social engagement.
- There’s also the richness of opportunity within the platform coupled with that freedom of expression and a willingness to allow commercial engagement between users.
- The management and team at the time had the willingness and belief to put SL out with so few barriers to individual expression.