Business in Virtual Worlds, Deep Thoughts

Welcome to the Guild Hall: Virtual Worlds, Creators, and the Medieval Mind

One Hit Machine Replaced with Another

In the Long Tail, Chris Anderson likens our age, one in which the tools for production are no longer controlled by the distributors of yesterday, as the fulfillment of the vision outlined by Marx, of a world filled with self activity:

“Marx maintained that labor – forced, unspontaneous and waged work- would be superceded by self-activity.” Eventually, he hoped, there would be a time when “material production leaves every person surplus time for other activities.” Marx evoked a communist society in which “…nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes…to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic”. (p 62)

The Long Tail makes the claim that we’ve left the age of the best seller. Having a number one hit doesn’t mean as much anymore, whether it’s a movie, a song, or a book – purchases and attention have been distributed across an ever-increasing number of niche markets, right down to the unit of one. You write a book about the shapes you’ve spotted in clouds and there’s bound to be someone out there who will buy it, it’s all a matter of connecting you and your manuscript with that lady in Europe somewhere with an Internet connection and a PayPal account. You can hunt in the morning and fish in the afternoon and sell both on e-Bay and so become self-actuating.

But the Long Tail wasn’t written for content creators. It was written for businesses, and although it spouts off at the potential unleashed by the Internet – the potential that allows a garage band to make it big on youTube, to sell a few songs on iTunes and to attract a crowd to concerts through Facebook, it’s really a manifesto for business. And the manifesto is that the few winners, the one or two garage bands that break through the clutter, are motivation enough for all the other garage bands who are willing to toil away at content that might sell one or two copies, but that will never break through the viral overload that is today’s Web 2.0 society.

And the manifesto is to throw out the old business models of hit creation in order to, well, to create NEW models of hit creation, only in this case the hits aren’t books or songs, they’re the places you go to buy and sell them. iTunes is the new Sony BMG and Amazon is the new Stephen King. It’s not the development of hit content that’s the key, it’s the development of hit distribution networks. It’s he who TAGS the content that owns this new world, not the content itself, the rare hit arising from the endless tail a lonely exception.

Now, there’s no question that there’s empowerment in having access to the tools of production. You don’t need the keys to the printing plant, or the music studio, or a $50,000 camera anymore to be able to express your creativity. And creative expression is a good thing. I’ve stated before my belief that in many ways we’re possibly entering a new Renaissance – unshackled from the scriptures of the church, we’ve been given the freedom to extend ourselves past the narrow confines of the old authorities, and some good’s gotta come from that – the Internet, the PC…they’re the new Medicis.

Business Wants Your Tail
But if Chris is right, and business wakes up and listens, then the hit machines of yesterday are simply being replaced. The Nielson figures out of the UK that place Second Life as third in growth of user hours also makes the following observation:

“This means that the thousands of other sites are competing for a much smaller share of the pie than they might think. If you also take into account that Britons aren’t spending significantly more time online, yet there are more sites springing up all the time, it shows how increasingly competitive and cut-throat the online sector is becoming.”

So where does that leave us? Content creators, given the tools to self-publish, to make their own songs, to rez their own prims, to texture their own clothes, to film their own movies….well, they still need to break in in order to break out – they might not be trying to impress the talent scouts at Sony or MGM or wherever, instead they’re now trying to crack the code of Google, or figure out how to tag their youTube uploads, or make it onto iTune playlists or whatever. There’s a few massive players sucking up all that Long Tail content and a lot of little bits of content that are trying to climb the ladder, because who writes a book that one person will buy anyways? You don’t set out to do that, you create to share, and the evidence of that sharing is in making something back, and that’s where things start to get tricky.

Over on the business circuit, meanwhile, the CEOs have all flown in Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson and Don Tapscott and Malcolm Galdwell and they’re eating up all the crowd-sourcing, Wikinomics, Long Tail stuff. And why wouldn’t they? The Internet has laid waste to more than one industry and there’s more to follow. Think pharmaceuticals and crowd sourcing clinical research. Think manufacturing and 3D printing and being able to design your own shoe or whatever. Industries have evaporated and they’ll be replaced – well, they’ll be replaced with new configurations of old industries. They’re ALREADY being replaced with new configurations, because just as business didn’t completely roll-over when the first Internet boom rolled around, they’re not going to roll over now either.

The first time the Net rolled into town, the companies that relied on bricks were dead meat – they’d be subsumed by and Grocery Gateway and every other imaginable venture-backed Web site. But it didn’t really take that much – there was a shift from clicks to bricks and clicks – the old industries didn’t shutter their storefronts, they just bolted a mouse onto the side and injected some Web savvy into their DNA.

Geek Optimization

There’s nothing wrong with any of this. It’s the job of business, really, to take innovation and optimize it. And right now, that means recognizing that the specialized tools and talents that used to sit in one place – a lab, or a factory floor, or a product development office, whatever – those same talents and tools can be more widely dispersed. They can be anywhere, including some basement somewhere.

User-generated virtual worlds started out with games. Mods of Quake or whatever, leading to Half-Life, leading eventually to the world with no rules and no goals, Second Life. In Second Life, we saw the full flowering of the promise that the creation of 3D space in which we can create a society, a culture, and a world, could rest in the hands of its users rather than some game god toiling behind a blanket of non-disclosure agreements and cross-licensing deals with Marvel Comics or Conan or whoever.

As the media breathlessly pointed out, someone in Akron could make and script a car that outsold Chrysler in a virtual world – the tools of production were mass distributed, and with IP protection and a currency, anyone could join this new wild west, this new long tail – you TOO could be an Anshe Chung, an Aimee Weber or one of the other poster childs of climbing the mountain of objects and machinima to create the next hot pair of shoes or immersive sim.

Like the rest of the world, Second Life had become caught up in the user-generated, micro-payment, Web 2.0 Long Tail. And the companies wanted in. And they came, and they went – and oddly, many of them said that they had only visited for a while to learn, they were never there to turn a profit, it was like a research lab or something, a giant focus group of new technologies and then they packed up and went home.

Or did they? Maybe they just siphoned off the lessons they needed and went away to cobble together their own uses of all that user-generated insight. Seems to me that half the companies out there have launched Facebook knock-offs behind their firewalls. They’ve got crowd-sourcing sites popping up like mushrooms. And they’re tapping into the hopeful dreams of all those content developers, whether the ones working away with Anshe in China or wherever, or the kid who’s getting paid a few bucks to script on openSim.

The lessons that the CEOs learned, whether at a Clay Shirky gabfest or by reading the executive summary of Wikinomics, is that they can tap into a vast and underpaid universe of folks who are willing to try to cobble a living together out there on the Long Tail – they’re either hobbyists or deeply committed, doing it for the pure love. But let’s not kid ourselves, while some of the old distribution power has changed hands, new ones have arisen – there may be a greater democracy of content development and consumption, but there are also companies and platforms who are trying to grab a slice of that pie as well, whether a couple of pennies off of a new Kindle book, or a percentage of your sale on eBay.

The Guild Hall Arises
Guilds arose in response to power. Cottage industries flourished when there was access to the materials of production and options for where to sell the output. Guilds arose where cottage industries were superseded by outside powers – the barons or bishops or whoever was in power that wanted a slice of every transaction. By protecting the secrets of their craft, guilds could claim back some of their power, giving them greater control over their own transactions.

In ‘Play Between Worlds’, T.L. Taylor points out the interdependence that is at the heart of MMORPGs. She makes the strong claim that social norms are enforced through both the code and the actions of the players.

The notion of the “company town that you can’t leave” was touched on by Eben Moglen who points out that in virtual spaces, whether mySpace or Second Life, our choices become constrained:

I think that the real issue here is about the forcing on choices on us. I see again and again the ways in which people now find themselves unable to make certain life choices easily because there digital self has acquired an inflexibility that constrains their non-digital self.

In other words, there are signs that social structures arise, social norms are enforced, and “grouping” and interdependence become factors in the decision to participate in the user-generated ecomomies and experiences of the social web, Web 2.0, virtual worlds – wherever those places are that these Long Tail theories are being played out.

I’d propose that as the power of distribution has aggregated under new banners, these groupings are in part a response by content developers to the new paradigms of power. You may not need to impress BMG anymore, but you do need to aggregate a whack of friends on Facebook or have a bunch of followers on Twitter if you’re going to climb the ladder and break out from selling one one-copy of your manuscript to selling a thousand. And sure, maybe whatever you’re doing is a hobby, but for a lot of other people it’s not – and if for you it IS a hobby, but your content is amongst all that other content floating around, then the folks who NEED to make a buck have a problem, because they need to compete against someone who can basically give their stuff away for free.

So the guild arises. Because the businesses are trying to tap into the Long Tail. And the Long Tailers are trying to tweet and poke their way up the curve. And the poor guy who used to be able to get a job at the local ad agency is now competing with logos and ad campaigns being crowd sourced. It starts to feel like the only solution is to find the right clique, to specialize, or to be one of those rare folks who are actually really really good at what they do.

Open Source, the Creative Commons and You
In one view, open source and CC are responses to the shift in power to the new aggrergators – the taggers, the Amazons, the semantic webs, whatever.

Open source shifts power to the producers in the Long Tail again, away from the aggregators and corporate interests, and in doing so provides a route to specialization and expertise much as guilds once guarded their crafting secrets in order to protect their business model. You can wrap this idea up in humanity’s well-being, there’d be no Wikipedia afterall, and Wikipedia has made our lives so much easier. There’d be no blogging from the campaign trail about guns and religion if journalism itself hadn’t gone open source. But open source is an uneasy truce, just as the guild halls of yesterday held an uneasy truce with the local powers that be.

Fine, you have the sources of production for now, but that doesn’t mean that someone out there won’t want to co-opt it, or replace it. OpenSim is great – Second Life needs some healthy competition. But around the corner there’s a company with its eye either on the code itself, on something at a magnitude that exceeds it, or who’s planning on scooping up RealXtend once it gets past version .2 or whatever.

Sun’s purchase of mySQL doesn’t de facto prove that open source protects the interests of the creators, it proves that the uneasy truce between the open source folks and the people whose purpose in life is to optimize stuff in order to make money will always be in play. It promises the reward that if you join a guild, you can reap some of the short-term benefits by having a speciality that might be valued by someone and, if you’re lucky, cash that in some day for time in the Sun.

CC is also a guild response, in some respects. It was developed in response to the monolithic copyright protection that kept getting shored up in favor of the corporations who needed to protect their brands at all costs. And in that response, it said that just as important as making copyright protection easier for the poor sap who couldn’t afford a team of lawyers was the idea of lineage. The attribution component of the share-alike license was in deference to the guild – collaborative communities need to know where stuff comes from, if I can’t earn some reputation capital as I create all this free open source stuff, then where does it lead me?

Maintaining the Peace
This is just one take on the world. There are lots of others, lots of other ways to slice what’s happening as all this Web 2.0 stuff evolves, as virtual worlds grow and as content becomes both increasingly complex to make and ubiquitous.

The idea that somehow we’ve all become empowered to, on our own, make our mark, earn a living, and create whatever we desire and that an open source, free flowing universe of content and ideas enables this is, I think, false.

We are NOT the self-actuated man of Marx. There are other forces at play. Our efforts as individuals are subsumed in a broader push and pull between the optimizers of production represented by companies (and governments and universities for that matter) and the communities that thus arise in response to the need to craft some sort of counter-balance.

This counter-balance is a natural response to the aggregation of powers for distribution – if we can’t join the Lab, we can create our own communities of practice, form our own guilds, share our own secrets of the code, swap scripts or give them away and make sure they’re attributed so the lineage of creation can reinforce our rights not just to individual power but collective power as well – the only response when, as individual content creators, we find ourselves at the whim of the local baron who decided that our IP rights aren’t worth enforcing, or who tries to cajole or co-opt our willingness to do stuff for free.

But it’s naive not to recognize this. It might be better to ask the questions of accommodation ahead of enforcing whatever social norms our guild has set down. If we picture ourselves as content creators, it’s our obligation to peer into the Creative Commons, to dig into the open source mantras, and make our own decisions about what trade-offs these things are implying between whatever community it is I join by participating in these guild hall mechanisms, and the powers that these communities were formed to balance out against.

It’s important that we’re clear about what accommodations with the future the opening up of source or the passing along of our content rights intends to make, because we can’t do it for free forever, someone’s gotta pay at some point, whether it’s in a virtual or real currency.


speak up

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site.

Subscribe to these comments.

*Required Fields

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.