Applications and Tools, Deep Thoughts, Second Life

Linden Lab Needs to Think (Tank): Perms and the World

Maybe my posts have become way to long, or I’ve become more obscure, but for whatever reason my recent post on the permission system in Second Life didn’t get the response I was anticipating until today, when Jacek posted a long reply - which I’d call thoughtful if there wasn’t the claim that I had been “taken in” which is a short form I suppose for “duped”, something that firstly implies that I was duped BY someone, and perhaps I have, but I’ll explain by whom in a moment.

In the post, I pointed to a recent JIRA which proposes changes to the permission systems in Second Life, and proposed that it not be implemented, for a variety of reasons. Among those reasons:

- Any change to a core feature of SL should be done within the context of a broader policy discussion and road map
- I take issue with the idea that choice is necessarily a good thing, based on current economic theories (and common sense) in which individuals require nudges and incentives within a choice architecture, in recognition that they are not always rational actors.
- This change is based on the assumption that usability is necessarily connected to desired behaviors.

The World is No Longer Run By People Who Run Worlds
Now, Jacek responded at length, and I will respond to some of the specifics on the Tentacolor blog.

But let me state that my main intent here is to “nudge” a much broader discussion of where SL is headed, and to state that my main belief is that Linden Lab needs to do a much better job of articulating and planning policy in a way that is transparent and thoughtful and that brings the kind of intellectual and philosophical heft which must have been in the air in the old days when they flew in economists and MUD-developers to talk about what the heck to do with this “game” they had come up with, and suddenly invented, well, perms.

It may be too late. At a time when Linden should be making sure that its foundations are strong - that it has an articulated philosophy and an effective governance strategy, instead they’re off launching new stuff that is world-changing without it: significant changes to voice, creation of new continents with more to follow, launch of some sort of “Web 2.0″ thing with profiles and Flickr embeds and Facebook widgets and whatever else they have planned for the Web site.

Mark Kingdon (M Linden) is already well along the path of making these fundamental changes. And yet the best I can tell none of those changes is being articulated against a framework for understand how they will impact the world, its culture, and the interpretation of policy and enforcement, other than some fairly vague guidance on how adult-oriented content will be handled. This articulation would shift us past “growth curves” and “usability” and remind us that change in a WORLD is multi-factoral.

I’ve heard a few token comments about “yes, we believe in land” and lots of stuff about how exciting and vibrant the community is….and then a change as fundamental as voice mail for you avatar comes along, and it shows up in the business press first….somehow all those churning voice minutes were a business story and not a resident/cultural change story.

They may BELIEVE they know that it’s a world, but they’re either not articulating that or they don’t know what they don’t know.

For these reasons, the very small matter of a “usability JIRA” actually points to a much wider problem: the Lab isn’t providing a framework or articulation of its philosophies around governing a world, possibly because they believe it’s a platform.

The Killer App
Evidence of this is supported by M Linden’s focus on the killer app, although which killer app he can’t seem to decide.

Grace McDonough has a landmark post, one which will fuel dialogue and become, I believe, part of our new vocabulary in discussing virtual worlds. Her post is one of those before/after things: there was how we looked at the world BEFORE Grace, and then there was the clarity and dialogue we were able to have after.

She proposes that M’s scattered discussions of a “killer app” are misguided:

“The killer app within Second Life is that which allows for rich fields of weak ties, that which affords relatively easy access to other people, other art forms, other spaces, ideas, cultures, music, and all within the context and dynamic immersiveness of Second Life.”

And I completely agree.

The killer app of Second Life is prims. Everything else follows from that. And prims create rich fields of weak ties because they are nearly endlessly available, and they are created by individuals or small groups. This was Philip’s vision: to create a world which is build from an “atomic” level. When he first started SL and when you watch his early presentations of it, this was the thing that drove the platform: if you created a world which was created in an almost molecular “from-the-ground-up” fashion, you could fashion a deep new reality.

And he was right.

The challenge is that because the world is built from the ground up, you end up with a field of weak ties, as Grace points out. And the challenge then becomes to allow ease-of-use in how we find things, and in finding things (which includes “places”) find other people, and in so doing play to the true killer app which is Second Life.

Our Gods Built Worlds Before
Now, the thing that gave SL the kick-start that shifted it from being an obscure “game engine” to a world-changer was commerce. And the commerce happened because the Lab turned to people who knew about virtual worlds, and had studied them, and had built them.

And those are the same people that I turn to, usually through books, sometimes on blogs, sometimes face-to-face. And they’re not the interface developers or the coders: they’re the people who understand that code and interfaces are one part of an interlinked system in which other things like policy, law, enforcement, philosophy (which informs how employees interact with Residents), communication all work together to create the delicate web that is what binds a world together.

To recap: I give M a lot of credit. But I also point out that he’s not a virtual world builder. Nor are most of his new staff members. And I can’t help wondering how many of them have read Richard Bartle, or Raph Koster, or Tom Boellstorff or any of the other folks who know what it means to build and maintain a world. Because it seems to me that one of the few senior people around who know much about ‘world management’ is Philip - the rest have decamped elsewhere, both in the executive suite and down the line.

So let’s start with this: Linden Lab is now run primarily by people who come from the interactive experiences industry. There are very few people left who have the experience of building SL as the world which it is. And Philip, bless him, has always been somewhat accidental in how policy and code and customer outreach and all that stuff which makes UP a world is constructed, other than to be guided by a libertarian slash Californian surfer/Zen thing, which has taken us, nonetheless, a long way.

Being Duped & The Lab Think Tank
Now Jacek says I’ve been “taken in” and I’m a victim of FUD.

Side note: I had NO idea what FUD is - it’s one of those acronyms used by coders, I find, that has all kinds of cultural connotations that are beyond me. The other term Jacek uses is “wetware” which I take to mean, um, “humanity”, and is another term that seems to have this slimy implication that those wet squishy human types are just oh so problematic.

I have no idea who Jacek thinks I’ve been taken in by. I know who I listen to, and read, and respect. So if Jacek means THOSE people then, well, I guess I have, because I don’t mind being duped by Raph Koster, Tom Boellstorff, Edward Castranova (well, on SOME things), Richard Bartle, Julian Dibbell, Bruce Damer, Richard Vogel, Ian Bogost (on occasion) and others.

Because what these people have in common is the idea that a world is comprised of interlinking and cross-disciplinary issues, and recognize that the FACT of this interlinking makes it imperative for virtual world developers to proceed cautiously when it comes to tinkering with the mechanics that are at the heart of their world designs.

As the Lab engages in this next wave of change, maybe it’s time to couple discussions of interface changes and voice improvements with a think tank or two: bring in the anthropologists and economists again, bring in some of the sociologists and philosophers - think through some of these changes that must SEEM like usability issues, and put them in the context of, say, anthropology, and remember how Boellstorff pointed out that even the most seemingly trivial thing can have a deep and profound impact on the world’s culture.

I’d propose, for example, that Boellstorff would discover, if he studied it (and he probably did - I know he had nearly a chapter on lag and AFK for example), that discussions of perms and all the attendant hassles and chat and frustrations are a PART of the culture, and that those cultural norms have an impact on how people perceive perms, and their level of awareness of them.

The educators would tell you that the frustrations are part of a learning curve.

Raph Koster would tell you that frustrations and mastery are part of FUN.

The economists would say that any change to a choice architecture can have a deep impact on the economic model of the world, even if that change is seemingly minor, or an improvement.

But Jacek is only concerned with choice, I guess. Culture, economics, anthropology, world development and governance, policy and philosophy - those things are less important than coding something because it can be coded, and because it SEEMS like a logical thing to do.

Maybe I HAVE been duped. Maybe I actually believe Second Life is a world, and I should start thinking about it as an application. It’s just that I have this feeling that the day I do that, I probably won’t want to log in anymore.


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