The Pause that Refreshes

I think a few of my readers are old enough to remember that phrase as an advertising slogan for a cinnamon-enhanced, carbonated cola drink distributed by an obscure company in Atlanta, Georgia… they may even remember it paired with a drawing or two of Santa Claus enjoying said beverage. Of course, the point of the ad was “refresh yourself with our product,” but the other available (thus, probably unintentional) lesson was the word pause.

“Seconderth (a deep map)”, my ongoing project to record what remains of the Elder Days of Second Life, reached a natural break-point with the post about Tehama. The next phase of grid expansion to be considered coincides with the change from Closed to Open Beta. In the chronology used (inconsistently) in the Second Life Wikia, that corresponds to the release of Version 0.5.0 of Second Life, The Software. In the calendrical system used by the rest of Planet Earth, that was March 31, 2003, and Steller Sunshine had passed her First Rezday.

Come to think of it… reading those old Release Notes may be at least as edifying a glimpse into Second Life’s history as the visual record. Between the appearance of Tehama on the Grid (December 12 2002) and the Opening of Beta, two versions of what we now think of as the Viewer were released. Here are some quotes from their respective Release Notes, beginning with Version 0.3.0 (January 20 2003):

OBJECT TAXES

Previous to this release, the taxation scheme for objects was that each shape received a fixed charge of L$3/week.

With this release, the per shape charge will be variable, based on the size of the shape and its height above ground. Small objects or those near ground level will generally enjoy reduced taxes, while large objects or those high in the air will be taxed more. For example, under the old scheme, a default shape created near the ground would be assessed L$3/week, whereas under the new plan, it would be assessed L$1/week. Similarly, a maximally scaled (10 meters) box raised to 20 meters above ground would be assessed L$3/week under the old scheme, but charged over L$30/week under the new plan.

The exact tuning of these numbers will likely change during the beta period. Most users will see a drop in their object taxes as a result of this change. Those with enormous towers or very large/high objects may see an increase.

You will now also be able to see the exact weekly tax an object will cost, by selecting/editing and looking in the general properties panel. Selecting multiple objects will display the total tax for all those objects. So it should be easy to check what your taxes are going to be on a given project.

The charges for lights will remain the same as before.

LAND TAXES

Land taxes now have a discount awarded for land located close to other land owners. The discount is based on the percentage of resident-owned land near the center of the chosen parcel, and can reach as high as 50% (this number will be subject to tuning during the beta). In other words, if you buy a plot which is completely surrounded by neighbors, it could be as much as 50% cheaper to buy and maintain than a plot sitting alone in the countryside. Additionally, the rate applies to your own plot as well, making it somewhat cheaper to buy one large plot versus several small ones scattered around.

The discount rate (for all property owners) will change dynamically as new residents move in, so you drop the taxes of your neighbors by moving in next to them, and vice-versa. This should make choosing neighbors fun–you make their taxes lower by living near them! Choose wisely!

Version 0.4.0 (the Wikia fails to record the date of release):

Find and recycle trash, make money!

“Object decay to public” is a major new feature in this release. Many residents have noted that there appear to be a lot of abandoned objects in the system. Perhaps someone lost an object, or a resident has stopped playing Second Life. Until now, there has been no way to clean up these objects.

As of this release, any object on public land will have a timer. When a resident interacts with the object (edits it, plays with it, pays it money, takes a copy, etc), this timer resets. However, once the timer hits 72 hours (three days where no one has interacted with the object), the object is “released” and ownership is set to public.

Objects on owned land do not have timers. So if you want to keep your objects from going public, you can either claim the land underneath them, or persuade a friend to keep your objects on his land.

If you want to see if your object is “decaying to public”, hover your mouse over it. If it is going public, there will be a line at the bottom saying “Decay to public: %”. When the number reaches 100%, the object becomes public.

Note that the public objects retain their permissions. By default, no one can modify them or copy them. They can only be deleted.

So how do you make money? As you know, all objects have a creation cost. Refunding of creation cost has been separated into two amounts – one for releasing and one for deleting.

Previous to this release, you would get the L$10/object creation cost refunded when you release to public or delete an object. Going forward objects, whether public or private, retain some value until they are deleted.

Here’s how it works using some sample scenarios:

1. You create a cube and then delete it. Creation cost was $10, deleting refunds you $10.
2. You create a cube, release it public, then delete it. Creation cost was $10, releasing refunds you $6, deleting refunds you $4.
3. You create a cube, release it public, leave it somewhere and then it’s deleted by someone else who cleans up after you. Creation cost was $10, releasing refunded you $6, and the person who deleted it receives $4.
4. You create a cube, leave it on public land, after 72 hrs of non-interaction it becomes public. Then you or someone else deletes it. Creation cost was $10, once it decayed to public you receive $4 while $2 leaks back to the economic pool. Then whoever deletes the public cube receives $4.

Finally, scripts don’t run on public objects. The script window will have the running checkbox disabled and some text explaining that it can’t run on a public object.

Say what???

You see: Midbies like me, and all of the folks who’ve joined since ’07, have the tendency to think that the SL we know has always been that way. It hasn’t. And I think we’re damn lucky that is still isn’t the way it was Back Then — in fact, barely-comprehensible accounting tricks like those from Version 0.3 and 0.4 were bound to have killed SL if they had remained. And while I’m at it… In answer to Hamlet Au’s “If You Think an Achievement System is Incompatible With Second Life, You Don’t Remember How Second Life Started”, here’s this, also from 0.4.0:

# Leader Boards – “High Score” has been added to the leader boards. This is a composite of other factors on the leader boards.
* Leader Boards – “Net Worth” has been added to the leader boards. It is based on your cash balance, owned land, and owned objects.
* Leader Boards – “Reputation” has been broken into three categories, “Behavior”, “Appearance”, and “Building”.

# Ratings – When you rate someone, you can independently rate their behavior (like chat, messages, and general helpfulness), appearance (skill with avatar appearance and attachments), and building (skill with construction of objects and scripts).

# Ratings – It costs $1 to rate someone, or to change your rating of them.

I don’t need to have been there to know how Second Life started: haltingly, with a lot of experimentation with how the economy and the social structure worked. And all of it by fiat, handed down by the Lab to the Residents without consultation, whose first news of it was probably in those very Release Notes. When, last time, I said that the one thing the Lab could do to improve things was to “stop acting like Linden Lab”, it was not without the knowledge that their habits have been deeply ingrained.

It’s been five weeks since Mark Kingdon was assisted to “step down” — a collective pause throughout the Grid where many took a chance to catch their breath, and a few seemed to have held theirs in anticipation of what was to come. Finally, Philip had his public talk. I waited until afterward to read the transcript. And yeah, even while it was still being delivered, the meme (and the jokes about it) hit the Twitterwaves: Fast, Easy, Fun. A lot of promises were implied, details to follow… and as we all should know by know: Acta, non verba.

If 70% of the Lab’s recent staff levels can “do less, better” by focusing on the “less” Phil outlined yesterday, then perhaps they can make the in-world experience what it should already have been by now, if they don’t burn out first (see Snickers Snook’s follow-up on the Marketplace mess for a glimpse of what at least one Linden is going through). But — the User Experience is only half of what Second Life is made of.

The other half is Policy. “Fast, Easy, Fun” doesn’t cut it when it comes to things like intellectual property rights, bots, scams, griefing, harassment, and plain old every day Customer Service. So I have a second three-word mantra to suggest to Phil:

Coherent

Consistent

Cooperative

Show me some of that, and we’ll see whether or not the pause was truly refreshing.

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Second Life™, Liberty, and the Purfuit of Happinefs

Today is the 4th day of July — when, in the course of human events, a democratically-elected body of representatives of certain geographic regions on the continent of North America once all signed their names to a document which declared them, and thereby the people they represented, as free and independent states.  In doing so, they quite literally pledged their lives, as well as their fortunes and their sacred honour, for what they had determined to do could be construed as treason.  As one of them is reputed to have said, during the months-long struggle to arrive at the decision, “If we do not hang together, we shall assuredly all hang, separately.”

It is important to keep two things in mind: First, that the governing body from which independence was declared had already been attempting, with what military units could be made available, to put down the rebellion for more than a year, resulting in a mostly hit-and-run guerilla war — thus, the majority sentiment of the people being represented agreed with the declaration, and it might be said that the signed parchment merely made de jure what already was de facto.   Second, that in spite of this, not every person who lived in that part of the world desired independence.

It seems an appropriate day, therefore, to discuss a topic that has bubbled up from the miasma of blogs about Second Life; to wit, one particular blogger has raised the issue of Democracy.

I begin with my own declaration, commonly known these days as “full disclosure”:  I refuse to sully my eyes, or the brain cells attached to them, with the utterances of that particular person, who is widely notorious for conspiracism, vitriol, threats of vengeance, a baseless fear of a political/economic system which, to all intents and purposes, died thirty years ago… and a fanatical devotion to the Pope Ayn Rand.  Therefore I will address the concept of democratic rule in and of Second Life in general terms, and not waste anyone’s time responding to “talking points”.

[As a precaution, I will also temporarily enable moderation for Comments to this blog, which I don’t ordinarily do.  I apologize in advance to my friends, and to the casual readers who happen to find themselves here.  On the other hand, their eyes as well as mine will be spared the need for bleach.]

(Second) Life

Fortunately, a great deal of the counter-argument to democracy in SL has already been written.  My first inkling that the topic was even on anyone’s agenda came in one of Honour McMillan’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek “letters to Sparky”: Democracy in Second Life?

I have to start by wondering if you were using “governance” in the correct sense or if you were using it in place of the word “government” which many do. Of course the fact that you coupled it with “democratic” would lead me to believe you mean “government” but since that is patently absurd (Second Life is not an independent country. It is a corporation subject to the laws of the various real countries in which it operates.) I’ll assume you really do mean governance – in the corporate governance sense since we’re talking about a private company.

With a great deal of respect to Ms McMillan: Second Life™ is not a corporation. It is a product of a corporation: Linden Research Inc., d.b.a. Linden Lab. However, I raise the semantics to strengthen her point about consumer advisory panels, not to weaken it. In other words, the idea becomes analogous to people who have purchased — say — toasters from an appliance manufacturer demanding a voice not in how in the corporation itself is operated, but in how that corporation makes toasters.

Honour goes on to point out:

Electing representatives to be involved in corporate governance is something Trade Unions and Cooperatives have used for a long time. You probably got the idea from them.

Given the common — and I believe, correct — perception that “The Lab provides the tools, but the Residents make the world”, I had wondered if any others besides myself recognized the delicious irony in the resemblance between the above proposal and The Workers Control the Means of Production. Surely nothing so like socialism could be satisfactory to the Proponent…

Miss Emilly Orr was next to take up the quill, to expand upon Ms McMillan’s question of the feasibility of organizing a “democracy”. To summarize: representation by in-world subculture affiliation, or by real-world country of origin, would be impractical in the extreme. That second point is of highest significance: citizens of the United States are a minority in SL. Other people in other countries have different ideas about democratic rule. It would seem to me that a constitutional convention would need to be called first, to define the form of democracy… and then all the same matters of practicality apply.

Further on this point: There are, according to Tyche Sheperd’s Second Life Grid Survey, approximately 19.7 million registered accounts, of whom slightly less than 10% (1.4 million, rounded up) logged in some time during the last 24 hours. This statistical chart at Tateru Nino’s website indicates that median concurrency (avatars logged in at the same time) is around 50,000 — while this one indicates a regular periodicity in concurrency compared to time of day, peaking when most people are awake in the Americas and Europe, then plateauing a little on the overnight (in the US) downward slope when the Asians and Oceanians come online.

In short: Even if there were enough people interested in pursuing the issue — when do you get them all together? Not to mention where, when more than 25 avatars in a sim with an alleged capacity of 40 lags it all to Hell.

For the sake of further discussion, let us leave the utter impracticality (nearing impossibility) of an actual meeting of a Second Life Duma and look at those numbers again. On the face of it, you would have a maximum potential 10% of all the Resident accounts that are still on the Lab’s books claiming to represent the other 90%… and of those, only 2% online together at any one time, give or take a few thousand. Check my math: 50 thousand divided by 19.7 million = .0025 = 1/4 of one percent, which would allegedly be a “representative” democracy.

Liberty

Now let us look at the purpose of such a hypothetical democracy. Honour, as was noted above, took the proposal to mean corporate governance, as opposed to a government “of the avatars, by the avatars”. Irony again: this makes more than one kind of sense, since the proponent is known to believe (nearly single-handedly) that a form of “advisory board” has existed in SL since its early days — even to the point of giving it a name, which has become a well-worn joke, especially among those accused of being a member: “feted inner core”, or FIC in the acronym-laden, agitprop style of its creator. One could assume, therefore, that the call is for an openly-elected “FIC” to replace the alleged secret conspiracy.

But let us surmise that the purpose of the democracy in question is not to advise, let alone govern, Linden Lab’s operation of their product, Second Life™, but to govern the avatars themselves. Leave aside (for now) the obvious fact that Linden Lab owns everything, and has both the right and the power to make the rules as they see fit, and that this whole discussion is therefore moot. I invite you to examine Section 8 of the Terms of Service, and the Second Life Community Standards which it adopts by reference, for signs of oppression — political, behavioral, or otherwise. OK, so it does restrict *ahem* certain activities to regions rated for such — but it does not prevent a region owner from declaring her/his sim “Adult” if she/he wants to.

It is known and accepted universally that a sim owner may set any rules she or he wants to about who gets in and what they’re allowed to do while there. It is also known universally, “If you don’t like the rules, don’t go there.” This is a liberty granted by the Lab to tier-paying Residents: self-governance. There are others, including the liberty to lease fractions of land and make a profit thereby… but self-governance is the important one for this discussion. Quoting Honour McMillan again:

You are in charge of a large amount of land and you have tenants/residents on that land. Implement a “fair and democratic” system in your domain with processes that lead to governance for all of its constituencies and all of their needs. Then you can use that model to demonstrate to the rest of us how ideal and workable your system is.

Crap Mariner commented about this, too, to demonstrate that it can work. I daresay there are plenty of other sim owners — on private islands, groups thereof, or even on certain parts of the Mainland (Luskwood comes to mind immediately) — who could testify to the same.

And yet there are others who are, and have the liberty to be, totalitarians on their own land. There are regions in which a roleplayed form of slavery is the norm. Slavery is outlawed planet-wide in the real world (though enforcement is spotty at best) — would a hypothetical democratic government outlaw certain styles of roleplay? Once begun, how quickly would “the tyranny of the majority” become codified? “Most of us don’t like what you’re doing, so you have to stop.”

Stop, or what? Hand-in-hand with law comes enforcement. Again, sim owners have the liberty to ban anyone they choose from gaining entrance, for any reason or for no reason at all. No one but the Lab has the power to ban an account from the totality of Second Life, and I have serious doubts that anyone with two brain cells to rub together would want that power, and the liberty to use it, granted to Residents, no matter how “duly constituted” they declare themselves to be. We have already seen what happens with self-appointed “enforcers”: Power Corrupts. Absolutely.

And, once again, the irony is inescapable: this all smells strongly of “One-World Government” from someone who would otherwise deny, with all available vehemence, support of such a concept.

The Purfuit of Happinefs

Of course, all of this is beside the point. That point being–it’s still Linden Labs’ playground. We just play there. It’s our right to say whether we play there or not, and to a limited extent, how we choose to play–but we can’t stand up and ‘vote’ that the swing set is taken away and replaced with a bakery, f’rinstance. Because we don’t own the place.

We just hang out and swing. People really need to understand that, once and for all.

The above is from Miss Orr’s post (italics in the original), and she is absolutely correct. Notwithstanding the entrepreneurs who have turned their involvement in Second Life into a business (with varying degrees of success), the overwhelming majority of Residents come to SL to play. That’s what it’s for: to immerse one’s self in a world devoid of all demands except courtesy to one’s fellow avatars; to engage in all kinds of activities unavailable in organic life… to pursue happiness, however and wherever that pursuit might lead.

To summarize: Beyond the region level, “democracy” in Second Life, no matter its purpose, is impractical, unnecessary, and unwanted.

One final, most delicious bite of irony to leave you with: According to Honour’s paraphrase, the original proposal read something like this:

In short, Philip, I can only tell you once again: make a democratic and fair world with processes that can lead to governance for a wide variety of constituencies with different needs.

In other words: it’s a demand that the despised “oligarchy” impose democracy from above. Can you say “oxymoron”?

I knew you could…

;)

Interlude: San Francisco Aftershock

Life is change… how it differs from the rocks.

Coincidence, probably… Synchronicity? Maybe… though there are better-tutored Jungians among my readers who might be able to discern if I was tapped into the collective subconscious of SL Residents.

Anyway… Three weeks ago I was doing some infrastructure maintenance on this blog, creating pages for special topics and going through the tags on each post to try to make them more relevant. On the way, I ended up reading some of my older posts; one of those was “SS, DD”, in which I stuck my neck out for the first time and predicted “Same shit, different decade” for Second Life in 2010:

Linden Lab will continue to stumble through yet another year of poorly conceived, haltingly communicated and inconsistently executed policies, procedures, public relations campaigns, and platform and GUI “improvements”. Those efforts will have the apparent intent of drawing more new Users, encouraging them to pay for Premium memberships, and perhaps even retaining them — and those efforts will, by their very nature, continue to dissatisfy, alienate, anger and (in the extreme case) drive off the core population of existing Residents.

For the first six months, it looked like I had nailed it. And before you take me wrong, let me assure that I wasn’t happy to be correct.

And then, the June 9th Earthquake shook the Grid, taking with it Lindens both good and bad (and probably many whose absence will not be noticed).

In loyalty to their kind, they cannot tolerate our minds; in loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction.

I have no shame at all in admitting to schadenfreude in one particular case: Tom “T Linden” Hale, whose absurd denial of a Culture of SL raised quite a few hackles across the SLogosphere, least of all mine… and who, as “Chief Product Officer”, was the ultimate mover behind the ludicrously misguided, frustratingly intrusive and ultimately failed project known (with no small amount of derision in some quarters) as Viewer 2.

The effects of the earthquake were immediate. Talk of Diaspora increased as more SL’ers — of both high and low profile — opened accounts in OpenSim worlds like OSGrid and InWorldz, while cutting back on their economic commitment to Second Life: “tiering down”, selling off, and dropping Premium membership. The LindeX took a dive, too, prompting a transparently lame entry in the official Second Life blog to add to the list of redundant and painfully hollow missives issued under the name of Linden Lab’s CEO, Mark “M Linden” Kingdon.

Soon, you’ll attain the stability you strive for, in only way that it’s granted: in a place among the fossils of our time.

Make that “former CEO”. As of this writing, the virtual ink is barely dry on the PR Newswire web page announcing Kingdon’s “stepping down”, and the SL blog’s announcement that Linden Lab founder and erstwhile “chief visionary officer” Philip Rosedale has become Interim CEO.

In retrospect, the events of June 9 were a foreshock of magnitude 6.5 or so. Today, a magnitude 8 rocked the Grid, and its effects cannot be predicted. Many of us, myself included, find reason for optimism in the first of two speeches Philip gave at SL7B, in which he spoke metaphorically of castle walls, moats, and rickety structures cobbled together to get over them, contrasted with a concerted effort to remove the walls.

We shall see.

Meanwhile, my prediction for SL in 2010 fell down in today’s earthquake, and I’m glad.


Note: The quotes above are from “Crown of Creation” by Jefferson Airplane, and are paraphrases from John Wyndham’s classic SF novel The Chrysalids.

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