Applications and Tools, Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Second Life

User-Generated Content as a Business Model: Second Life and the Slow Burn, Rezzable Redux

It’s a user-generated world, we’re told, the tools are available to all of us, and even if we don’t use them there are enough other people that do to let us gorge on youTube videos instead of television, or listen to songs put together in Garage Band, or maybe even buy a new table using one of those 3D printers or whatever - this user-generated thing isn’t just about the stuff that’s easy to digitize anymore, like songs or movies, it’s getting atomic on us, and we’re all designing our own t-shirts and uploading them to a Web site in China or wherever and then sitting around browsing bitTorrent while we wait for the FedEx guy to arrive.

Lately the newspapers have been having a teeth-gnashing session or two, it was the movies last year, next year it will be car dealerships what with the open source automobiles on their way. And so in this heightened field of anxiety we have folks talking about creating your own economy or the Long Tail and a bunch of other theories about how what all this means is that the world is somehow becoming more, well, free, while somehow being blind to the obvious signs that it’s not, or that it won’t stay that way for very long, for a few simple reasons:

1. There is always someone, somewhere, with enough money and enough power to put the genie back in the bottle, even if the genie doesn’t quite look the same as the one that was let out.

2. Free is rarely actually FREE anyways. youTube may be free to YOU, but it isn’t free to host all of those videos, and the price tag is in the hundreds of millions. So…what seems free needs to be paid for by someone. So, over time, what starts as purely free ends up being a sleight-of-hand. Someone, somewhere has to pay for it.

3. The Long Tail may be true - it may be easier today to browse the ‘endless shelf’ as Chris Anderson puts it. If you write a book of poetry maybe there IS a market out there somewhere, a few people who are willing to shell out to Lulu for your masterpiece. But the Long Tail theory says that this endless shelf means that the power has shifted from the distributor to the creator - the music industry is a relic, because the power to get your own individual voice out is in your own hands.

But that isn’t true. Because instead of the distribution channels being democratized, they just change hands. Netflix is the new Blockbuster, and Amazon is the new book store. Distribution power concentrates, as it always has, the only difference this time is that there’s more room on the shelf, and the guy at the top can make all that much more.

The Promise and Peril of Technology
This doesn’t mean that the democratization of the ability to create, and to find an audience for that creation isn’t transformative. I’m a strong believer that no industry will be immune to this shift. I believe that it holds the great promise of accelerating innovation and of potentially making a more fundamental shift into a more expressive and creative culture as compared to a binary and hierarchical one. I also believe that the power struggles that will arise from this, and the power of the technology underpinning it hold the possibility of great peril.

The New York Times today reports that a group of scientists are worried that machines may outsmart man - and it’s frankly nice to hear that I’m not the only one who thinks that technology is somehow values-neutral:

“Dr. Horvitz said he believed computer scientists must respond to the notions of superintelligent machines and artificial intelligence systems run amok.

The idea of an “intelligence explosion” in which smart machines would design even more intelligent machines was proposed by the mathematician I. J. Good in 1965. Later, in lectures and science fiction novels, the computer scientist Vernor Vinge popularized the notion of a moment when humans will create smarter-than-human machines, causing such rapid change that the “human era will be ended.” He called this shift the Singularity.

This vision, embraced in movies and literature, is seen as plausible and unnerving by some scientists like William Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Other technologists, notably Raymond Kurzweil, have extolled the coming of ultrasmart machines, saying they will offer huge advances in life extension and wealth creation.

“Something new has taken place in the past five to eight years,” Dr. Horvitz said. “Technologists are replacing religion, and their ideas are resonating in some ways with the same idea of the Rapture.”

The Kurzweil version of technological utopia has captured imaginations in Silicon Valley. This summer an organization called the Singularity University began offering courses to prepare a “cadre” to shape the advances and help society cope with the ramifications.

“My sense was that sooner or later we would have to make some sort of statement or assessment, given the rising voice of the technorati and people very concerned about the rise of intelligent machines,” Dr. Horvitz said.

The A.A.A.I. report will try to assess the possibility of “the loss of human control of computer-based intelligences.” It will also grapple, Dr. Horvitz said, with socioeconomic, legal and ethical issues, as well as probable changes in human-computer relationships. How would it be, for example, to relate to a machine that is as intelligent as your spouse?”

Now, the idea of criminals exploiting artificial intelligence may seem a long way from the business of user-generated content. But it makes the rather vivid point that technology is not merely a service or a platform - it embeds within it values. And we can think of technology as merely something that “is” and that activity related to it is somehow distinct and separate, or we can acknowledge that technology must be coupled with thoughtful policy, law and enforcement.

Second Life and Its Tools
In his book Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life, Thomas Malaby takes a stunning look behind the curtain, and helps to shed light on the culture at the Lab and the impact of that culture on decision-making.

While maybe not as tightly organized as it could be, the book nonetheless makes a few key points.

For one, the Lab professed that it was a sort of democracy, and that change occurred because of a kind of grass-roots hive mind or something. The REALITY was that it had embedded hierarchies with Philip and Cory on the top, the coders below, and all the people who kept the wheels from flying off at the bottom (like, say, customer service or accounting or whatever).

Second, was a belief in the ‘tools of technology’. Malaby titles one chapter “Tools of the Gods” to point out the nearly religious faith Linden Lab placed in the concept of the ‘tool’ over all else, inspired in part by works such as the Whole Earth Catalog.

Writes Malaby:

“While there is a modernist tendency to characterize new technologies as isolated from politics - as value-neutral - scholarship has made clear that some of the most important developments in computing and networking technology in the United States were inextricably linked to political and more broadly ideological interests…Specifically, these works reveal how the development of these technologies and their makers’ aspirations for them were inextricably linked to general attitudes about authority that characterized the post-war period in the United States.”

“It is (the Whole Earth Catalog’s) language of tools that continued to echo most loudly around the desks of Linden Lab in 2005. The broader issue that (we) confront is the rise of collaborative work on technology and how it fit with the set of ideas about authority and the imagined properties of systems, and all this constitutes a helpful background to understanding, above all, what “tools” were around Linden Lab. Once we make these connections, the pithy relegation of traditional systems of control to the trash heap make sense as part of a larger (and ultimately modernist and optimistic) stance toward the future and the role of technology in it (a technolibertarianism) that was prevalent around Linden Lab.”

“Fond of saying that under an ideal company structure he would cease to exist, Philip Rosedale in discourse represented the aspiration that practically underwrote the dual projects of Second Life and Linden Lab as sites for individual autonomous creativity for whom technology was a handmaiden. Missing from this representation is the degree to which it depended on a particular and political point of view, (and) what is just as significant is the way this representation ignored…how faith in the tool-making tool of computer programming practice served as the go-between practical means by which a public policy problem could be answered.”

So what we had was Linden Lab striving to be non-hierarchal, and averse to concepts of authority, and yet placing a deep faith in both those who can MAKE the tools (the coders) and the tools themselves - the handmaidens, as Malaby calls it.

And against this backdrop of the Lab trying to figure ITSELF out, it had the joint task of trying to figure out the world that had emerged on the platform it had built - a platform that was based on a games and gaming ethos only to become, by a sort of accident of fate (or the fate of Second Life’s failure as a gaming platform anyways) a platform in which user-generated content would create a society and an economy.

Because while the Lab may dream that it can “improve the human condition” as their mission says, Second Life is only around because they let the user OWN what they created. And they instituted a permission system. And they embedded the platform value in land.

Malaby points out that Second Life is made up of various forms of capital: commodities, cultural, competencies, credentialed, and artifacts. And he points out that the balancing act Linden Lab had to play was in attempting to maintain this economy of various forms of capital, and that it was doing so against the background of an anti-hierarchical and optimistic stance (technolibertarianism) and a faith in its tools:

For Linden Lab, this entire economy was what the staff sought to maintain. They strove to protect it from disruption, but equally important was the continual provision of new affordances, new possibilities for their users, whether in response to user demands or (more often) simply rough guesses about what features might be useful. For Linden Lab this was the continual project of providing tools.

While Malaby is writing about Linden Lab from 2005, there can be little doubt that many of the cultural and political beliefs on which the technology is built continue. The technology is not neutral, it is based on a world view and a cultural lens that draws from Jane Jacobs, the Whole Earth Catalog, and the open source movement.

Which is fine. However, this world view, one which places coding above providing customer service, and which places tools above policy, (or which nearly always subsumes policy within the tools) perhaps left Linden Lab with blind spots:

- Because the technology itself is not value-neutral, its development, improvement and enhancement is open to subjective claims (namely, the subjective claims of coders).
- Believing in a non-hierarchal stance to value creation, these subjective claims are therefore only loosely coupled to directional policy, yet can be tightly bound to culture.
- The elevation of tools as the near-mythic affordance by which creation is enabled can lead to the relegation of strategy, policy and enforcement to lesser roles.

And finally, all of this can lead to a conflict with the idea of commodities (virtual goods) as playing a key role in facilitating the existence of the tools, the platform and Linden Lab in the first place.

Where Art Thou Interoperability?
So what we have is a virtual world platform that was built primarily because it institutionalized intellectual property. The users owned what they created. And unlike youTube, say, the tools were available that would allow them to monetize those creations.

Now, somewhere along the line, Linden Lab decided that the tools it had created might afford something else: namely, the creation of an ever-widening set of tools, facilitated by giving the users the keys to the kingdom. It did this by opening the source code to the viewer, with the knowledge that in so doing, it was opening a door to the replication and improvement of the tools on which Second Life was built.

The argument was likely one of those all boats rise kinds of things: even if there were other virtual worlds enabled because of the viewer, the more worlds there are, the wider their acceptance, and with Linden Lab the larger fish in the growing pond, not only could everyone else benefit, but the Lab could benefit in larger proportion.

Now, these are smart people we’re talking about: people who could look into the future and see that this move would facilitate new tools, new worlds, and new opportunities, but could also eventually make it easier for users to move themselves and their content around, it was only a matter of time.

This isn’t to say that the Lab intended to poke holes in the intellectual property and commerce system it had developed. But even if it suspected it would happen, this was likely justified by a belief that those wider opportunities would mean wider opportunities for everyone, including content creators; and that if it could continue to develop new tools, Second Life would still be able to stay ahead of the curve.

But so far, the Lab has bumped up against the fact that interoperability isn’t going to happen easily or soon: there are too many walled gardens across all those MMOs and virtual worlds out there; there are ALREADY standards (Collada, for example) and others to follow (openGL in the browser) and in the end, Linden Lab is actually a much smaller fish than it imagined it might be, at least against the backdrop of 3D in games and consoles and mobile phones, and the only platform that it’s vaguely interoperable with is a cheaper, reverse-engineered and less robust version of its own.

Rezzable Redux
OK….so it’s a very long tangent, maybe, or history lesson or whatever (and I’m hardly an expert on the history of Linden Lab).

But where it leaves us is with the slow erosion of the thing that got Second Life started in the first place, and that is still one of the few examples of a user-generated content business model that can turn a profit.

Two major issues have brought this to attention: a bug that can change user object permissions to full perm without their awareness; and the recent controversy over Rezzable’s announcement that it was planning to release a tool to allow full sim back-ups without a permission check (since rescinded).

Now, the Rezzable thing generated a lot of heat. I couldn’t help wondering whether Jon Himoff (RightAsRain) actually thought he was being strategic all these months with his constant bashing of Second Life and Linden Lab. If so, it’s not the kind of strategy I’d use myself, I guess - I’m not a big believer in the ‘all’s fair in love and war’ mentality. But second, I don’t think it’s the kind of strategy that succeeds - all it feels like he’s managed to do is alienate a lot of people and to guarantee that he’ll be either running from or sneering with disdain at the reputation he’ll have trailing along behind him until Google forgets his name or something.

In any case, what bothered me about the announcement wasn’t my impression that it was operatic snark, but rather the broader policy context:

- First, Himoff claims in his post that the copying of content was legal, on the basis that the creators were working under contract to Rezzable at the time. (I’ll put aside the comment by Bryn Oh that in fact content was accidentally copied for which she never gave rights - although I’m curious why she didn’t file an abuse report so that a precedent is set).

Now, I’m not a lawyer, and I have no idea whether Rezzable always had written contracts with its creators or not, so this was a more generic thought and isn’t meant to be a claim against Rezzable in particular. Because I wonder whether there’s a legal basis for a content creator to claim that although they created something under contract, the transfer of rights would be bound by an understanding of the context in which those rights could be executed.

Look at it this way: the content creators built in Second Life, and transferred the rights to those creations in full to Rezzable. But in that transfer, the creator would understand that there is a limitation to the use of the content: namely, because of the perm system, the TOS and the Code of Conduct, that the content can not be transferred off the Grid.

The content creator would thus have a fair expectation that their content was being executed and could be used in a domain with restrictions on its use, and with restrictions on it being copied because the group purchasing those rights was governed by platform limitations.

Again, I’m not saying that Rezzable doesn’t have all the paperwork and understandings that would have made it clear to the content creators that they could turn the content into stuffed animals or television shows - but more broadly, it had me wondering about how many rights a content creator REALLY gives up when they transfer a full perm object believing that they have fair protection against it being duplicated to other Grids.

- But second, and this is the broader point, is the fact that Rezzable believed that they could even announce the IDEA of the tool. Because in announcing that they planned to make this tool available, what was clear is that there was no implied threat in the TOS or the governing policy of Linden Lab.

In other words, what bothered me more than Rezzable announcing the tool was that there was no clear repercussion if they did.

Content Creators and Their Needs
Now, I’m a big believer that content creators need better tools to protect, back-up and transfer their content.

But I’m also a big believer that this should be facilitated within a thoughtful framework of policy, enforcement, communication, code and tools. But Linden Lab continues to place a priority on the tools themselves. The latest permission bug, to my mind, is a bug, sure, but it’s one that arose from a change to the tools without a broader policy context.

The lack of an executive-level response to the Rezzable announcement was again an example of tools trumping policy - and the obfuscation of values in code, as Malaby pointed out.

In the comments on one suggestion on how to create a “block” on tools that can back-up others’ content, Rob Linden proposes that the recourse is the courts:

“We understand that you work hard on your creations in Second Life, and rely on our system to ensure you have a means of being paid for your creations. We’ve worked hard to make a robust system for keeping honest people honest, while at the same time ensuring that we have a system open and vibrant enough that people will still keep using it years from now. Our system may not prevent someone determined to infringe your copyright from doing so, but we feel it does a pretty good job of making your intentions as a copyright holder clear.

We rely on copyright law to secure our living at Linden Lab, so we understand your plight. As imperfect and inconvenient as it is to rely on the court system in the more egregious cases of copyright infringement, it’s really the best mechanism that we have to ensure that we can maintain the right balance between the interests of content creators and the interests of everyone using Second Life (including content creators who are also content consumers).”

The onus, in other words, is on the individual content creator to track down and file claims against copyright infringement because….well, because the tools can’t do it for you, I suppose. Because note again the reference to tools - to SYSTEMS. Behavior is NOT solely influenced by tools - in fact, tools can be an excuse to hack, and we seem to have an innate desire to test the limits of tools and systems if not in fact break them.

But imagine if you will that you’re Steve Jobs, or Jeff Bezos.You sell iPhones or Kindles. And you have a bunch of people out there writing books or creating apps or whatever. Now, say that someone comes along and announces a tool that allows you to rip iPhone apps and convert them for use on your new Google Android phone.

If you were Steve Jobs, what would YOU do? Would you tell the people whose apps are getting ripped to CALL THEIR LAWYERS? Or would you, the company with the millions in the bank versus the thousands maybe for the little app makers….would you maybe DO something about it?

My point isn’t that iPhone apps aren’t hackable. Or that Kindle books aren’t copyable to other platforms. Or that iTunes songs can’t be cracked.

My point is that if I’m a content creator or a musician or an app developer I’m more likely to put some trust in Apple or Amazon because I know that they share an interest in protecting the collective good and that both brands are about more than tools and systems - they are about values that are not obscured in those tools (although they may be embedded in them) but that are rather articulated, enforced, and revised through multi-factorial means.

In other words, it’s not just about the tools, it’s about policy, strategic vision, communication and, yes, a team of lawyers every now and then.

By Whose Authority?
Malaby closes his book by reminding us that the challenges of Linden Lab are not new nor unique. His words are perhaps the most fitting coda to this story:

“While inheriting a faith in technology, a rejection of top-down control, an imagining of people as individual performers, and a faith in the legitimacy of emergent effects, the descendants have added the aspiration to architect entire, open-ended systems and to incorporate game design into their practice. In a sense, “techno-liberalism” captures some of the main features of this new approach…(and) holds up the idea that such complex systems can be contrived, in their entirety. The liberal component is the imagined freedom of individuals to perform as such within designed systems, generating collective efforts that are thereby legitimate.

For technoliberal institutions, struggling to adjust to post-bureaucracy, precariousness may obtain. My sense that Second Life was always on the verge of flying apart at the seams appears as a strong contrast only with the bureaucratic era on the heels of which it arrived. But although Linden Lab’s aim and techniques may be strikingly new, against the larger backdrop of rituals and games across human history, the dilemma of architecting contingency while maintaining authority appears quite long-standing.”


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