Getting It

This began three days ago, after New World Notes published an interview they conducted with Rod (@Rodvik/Rodvik Linden) Humble, the new CEO of Linden Lab. I was alerted to the publication through Twitter – specifically by a tweet from my friend Gnome Bhodi, who used to be Ghosty Kips in SL:

“… It’s foremost a tool where you can make and do whatever you want.” OMG ROD HUMBLE GETS IT! http://goo.gl/5xoEX

So I clicked the link and read the interview, and agreed:

@gbodhi Yes, @rodvik gets it, more so than the man who founded #SL. Now, let’s see him lead the Lab in that direction

Didn’t take G long to reply:

@Lalo_T @rodvik I disagree. I think Phil had the vision for SL at the beginning. But that was almost a decade ago and the grid changed

Twitter comes naturally to me — I often think in aphorisms — and I sent this in response:

@gbodhi @rodvik re: @philiplinden – Pie feeds no one if it stays in the sky.

The last entry in this brief exchange was from G:

@Lalo_T @rodvik The sky was the right place for SL in its early days. If Ro[d] focuses on content creation and new users now, it’ll be good.

Well, almost the last one… after that, I warned Gnome that he’d inspired my next blog post (this one), to which he said “Oh, noes!” What he’d done, actually, is remind me of an idea that’s been percolating in the proverbial back of my head for more than a year, and give me a hook to hang it on:

Second Life and related virtualities (InWorldz, OSGrid, et alii) do not resemble the imagined Metaverse of Gibson and Stephenson and their fellow cyberpunk writers. It’s possible that they cannot do so. Instead, they most resemble colonization stories which have been a standard of science fiction for decades.

Have you ever read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy? I have, three times — twice before ever hearing of Second Life (the third book is 15 years old, after all), and once again last summer after seeing a resemblance between the earliest years of Second Life and Robinson’s Mars. There’s no need for me to recap the plot of the books (that Wikipedia entry in the link above will suffice, and there’s much more here)… the point I’m getting to is this:

Colonies eventually go their own way, in spite of every effort to control them from their place of origin. It is a fact of human nature: given freedom, people will take it.

Here’s another example: Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein. A key element of its plot is omitted from the Wikipedia summary: cut off (permanently, as far as they can tell) from societal controls, the teens follow natural human instinct, pair off, have sex, and even have babies! For 1955, and especially for a “juvenile” (what we call Young Adult lit now), that was a pretty radical notion — “good children” just didn’t do that! — and it was even more radical to include it in a story meant for them to read.

“Phil had the vision for SL at the beginning. But that was almost a decade ago and the grid changed,” said Gnome Bodhi… and he’s right. All colonies begin with a vision, and all colonies change because the colonists are free to change. Rosedale and the other “First Lindens” gave us, not a darkly futuristic, Gibsonian/Stephensonian cyberpunk Metaverse, or anything remotely resembling Tron, but an empty world to fill — the analog of an entire planet, with land and seas, mountains and rivers, sky and clouds — and the tools to fill it with, and to change it to our liking. And we did… and when we did so in ways that didn’t jibe with the early Lab’s “vision”, they tried and failed at various ways to regain control.

[Students of 18th Century American and British history will be nodding their heads and smiling in recognition at this point…]

“The sky was the right place for SL in its early days.” Maybe… but promises of improvements that remain unfulfilled for years on end get to be wearing… even more so when, with the other hand, the Lab tries to squeeze more nickels and dimes from the people who log in.

And yes, I’m fully aware that Linden Lab is a business, and (especially since the utter failure of “SL Enterprise”) Second Life is its sole product. Money must be earned to keep the servers running and the monkeys coding and the rent paid on Battery Street… but Philip Rosedale, as the saying goes, has the attention span of a flea. When faced with an increasingly frustrated populace tired of empty promises, he retreated to a different flavor of pie in a different sky, and he (and/or the Board) hired a few goons (M. Kingdon, T. Hale, ad nauseum) to whip the place into shape. When that didn’t work — damn those pesky colonists! — Rosedale returned, with the same old wheeze.

Poor guy… didn’t realize there were enough of us still around to recognize it as the same old wheeze. So now he’s off trying yet again to make a buck on other people’s content creation… what you perhaps might call a “tunnel visionary”, with one Great Idea he won’t ever let go of in order to have another.

There’s a great deal of difference between “visionary” and “clarity of vision”. If you have your eyes fixed on the horizon, you’ll trip over the rocks right in front of you. So much for Philip Rosedale… enter Rod Humble, who, between accepting the CEO position and reporting for work, did exactly what he should have done (and that I hoped he’d do): he logged in and started to learn what it’s like to be in Second Life.

And, by god, he learned!

“Our current customers need to be sure they have the customer service they deserve…

If I was to tell you there’s this product [where] you can be whoever you want to be

…over time, the perception of Second Life has changed and it’s kinda been yanked around by us.

It’s foremost a tool where you can make and do whatever you want.

I think people in a year’s time will want to come to Second Life because they know they can be who they want to be… and when they join, they’ll be able to meet interesting people, and they can have a home… that’s more than enough.

[emphasis added]

Colonies — whether real on Earth or fictional on other planets — evolve, thrive, and succeed precisely because the colonists gain the freedom to reinvent themselves, or emphasize different facets of themselves, or explore and discover things about themselves they never knew. And colonies cannot be governed from a distant throne, let alone an ivory tower of “visionary” mumbo-jumbo.

Rod Humble gets it… and if you need more, Dusan Writer published an interview with Mr. Humble this morning while I was writing this. Here, in my opinion, is the most important thing he said:

“Well, first, I hope we’d be sitting down and talking about all the new kinds of content and creations and categories of creation. I mean, that’s what it’s all about – creating new ways to create. I want to be able to sit down and say “Wow, it’s amazing, look how far we’ve come in having ways to make stuff.

But I have a bit of an internal milestone as well. Because what I’d like is that next holiday season, by Christmas say….that anyone in Second Life will be able to give an invitation out to an intelligent person [to] come into Second Life and that person will then thank you that you made the invitation.”

And there, perhaps, may also be the germ of a business plan: Instead of forcing Second Life into ill-fitting packages while stomping on the inhabitants when their culture got in the way — or denying the culture existed at all! — sell the culture itself. It’s why so many of us stay, in spite of everything… and I do believe Mr. Humble gets that, too.

.

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9 responses to “Getting It

  1. Acta, non verba.

    The latest fiasco of eliminating voting on the jira and admitting that our votes never mattered does not inspire my confidence.

    I am waiting to see words transformed into positive action before I believe Rod or anyone at Linden “gets it.”

  2. Given the JIRA's track record — that is, what has resulted from it — I wasn't surprised that it's been largely ignored all along. I was surprised that they finally admitted to that, rather than continuing to perpetuate the fiction.

    Always acta, non verba. We shall see. Mr. Humble also has inherited the Lab's own inertia, which will not be easy to overcome. But at least it's a fresh batch of verba, a fresh, non-jaded pair of eyes, and who knows — maybe even another noob who will, like we did, fall in love with the world.

  3. LOL Lalo, we really must do something at Bookstores… I am currently in the middle of rereading the Mars Trilogy for the umpteenth time (I like to reread interesting books) and just finished Blue.

    I agree that the colonization metaphor is more fitting; I have been pioneering out here for 20 years. Still waiting for the Railroad.

  4. My Millennial students–who in one class have been so down on virtual worlds that it took me aback–spoke at length in another class, and with great nuance, about why we never build anything like Gibson's Matrix. That second class is full of CS majors.

    The consensus opinion is that we only need immersion for a few activities such as playing a really good game or watching a compelling film. Our daily use of the Internet, such as my typing this reply, does not require me to be Ignatius in SL. Joe, here at his laptop, is happy with this level of interchange.

    Perhaps Humble gets it that SL cannot be Gibson's 3D “consensual hallucination” or even a 3D Web, since the former model requires hardware and bandwidth we don't yet have, and the latter model assumes that I need to be driving an avatar in order to, say, check weather.com or read nytimes.com.

    So the current marketing blitz for Valentine's Day: Escape / Shop / Romance / Wear Tat Sleeves fits the model of what SL does best, whatever Philip's pie-in-the-sky vision of changing the world.

    Make folks happy and they'll pay you. Not a bad philosophy for Mr. Humble to embrace for his “colonists.”

    Now to my philosophy: fix the dang driving physics! I wanna race my fake car!

  5. @soror: So… write a blog in response :) Isn't that what we usually do?

    @Iggy: A couple of good points there, as usual — especially about not needing immersion for mundane 'Net use. But think about this: folks like you and I, and a lot of my friends and regular visitors here, are fully-integrated Avatarians. Our personalities don't change with the website or virtual world we're paying attention to — we're still us, just with a different username. You didn't have to log in to SL and “become” Iggy in order to write your comment with that name appended to it, but that's because Iggy and Joe are the same guy.

    Maybe those Millenials aren't grokking virtuality because they believe pseudonymity requires roleplay, a.k.a. being “fake”. Someone should disabuse them of that.

  6. Lalo… Whoever you went to work for there in the midwest needs to pay you more! Great post, great explanation, great idea.

    I am still a dreamer… my first dreams of 2007 may not be dead yet.

    And yes… this will definitely rate a post and a link.

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