Art and Exploration, Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

2010 Looking Back: Second Life and the Cultural Revolution

So the year started with a bang and in between airports, hotel rooms and forgetting where I put the coffee once I DID make it home, I was still trying to piece together some kind of uber-post wrapping up 2010. You see, with so few days left in this year, there’s still hope that my predictions for the year will all come true and I’ll score 100%, but for now I’m looking at a pretty good hit rate.

OK, so the truth is my predictions seem, in retrospect, unimaginative and lame. What with M Linden (Mark Kingdon) coming out with his first major post in, what, a year or something, he managed to pretty much turn my predictions into a tick list, which left me scrambling to think of something else to say about the year to come.

But M’s post provides the hint of an answer when he reminds us of how quickly technology changes, how fast companies come and go, and how monumental it can all seem in retrospect:

“Despite the historic challenges, this decade gave us RSS, WordPress, Wikipedia, QQ, Skype, Firefox, YouTube, Gmail, Yelp, LinkedIn, Flickr, Amazon’s EC2, the Wii, Zynga, Webkins, Club Penguin, Tuenti, Facebook, the iPod/iPhone and iTunes, Twitter and, of course, Second Life.”

But this was also the decade that saw the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas & Electric, Enron,, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, and a bunch of car companies. It’s a decade that’s seeing, in its conclusion, the post mortems on the failed AOL/Time Warner merger and a lot of “what ever happened to’s” like Yahoo and eBay (sure, they’re still there, but they’re like slightly worn out pieces of furniture) and technologies that have come and gone, with that Fiona lady rumored to be considering a run for Congress or something.

Massive Change
But strangely, in spite the convulsions in the economy and being witness to companies being bulldozed to a shell of their former selves, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more optimistic about where the world is headed. While I’m the first to raise my hand with a cautionary footnote when the techno-optimists talk about saving the ozone layer with the Singularity or the benefits to the shopper of behavioral targeting (otherwise known as corporate surveillance and data scraping) I’m more interested perhaps in the edge cases and pockets of innovation, the little islands being carved out where some pretty cool thinking is going on.

What strikes me about what’s happening is that while there are always markets to please and shareholders to appease, there’s also a wider dialogue about the meaning of sociality, creativity, and values.

This might be the world I live in, but I’ve been living in a creative field for over 15 years now, and the turbulence in the world combined with the game-changing nature of our lives online is facilitating a rethink about how we structure our work, our relationships with each other, and the values we hope to gain by living in a more connected world. This is a time when our individual access to the tools of creation allows us to, as Tyler Cowen says, create our own economies.

For those of us who work in virtual worlds, we’re actually in a highly privileged position. By a sort of freak of willpower and luck, Linden Lab carved out a world. It wasn’t the first world nor was it the first technology of its kind, but it worked, and the mind-bending ability to rez a prim was one of those once-in-a-lifetime insights that I’ll be telling my little nephew about 20 years from now when he’s staring at me through his augmented reality glasses and sifting through my old blog posts in some kind of data overlay while he hears me natter on about some guy named Philip.

The technolibertarian culture of those wacky folks in San Francisco has informed a place in which we work, socialize and create things WITHIN technology itself, (as Tom Boellstorff points out in his still seminal Coming of Age in Second Life). In so doing, we’re able to explore how creativity, identity, different forms of governance, and coder culture might coalesce to form, as it were, a more perfect union.

When I talk to clients, relatives or the bus driver about virtual worlds I say that I might have learned about the future by blogging or posting videos to youTube, but instead I learned about the future through virtual worlds.

What I don’t usually say, because it’s so hard to explain to people who haven’t been here, is that I’m not sure that you can find a better way to understand the deep and massive change that’s coming our way, neither its promise nor its peril.

Virtual worlds, and Second Life in particular, have a peculiar blend of presence, culture, governance, and code that supports a range of expression that often feels as wide as the Web itself, but that allow us to think about things like identity and anonymity online, or what it means to ‘connect’ (and feel and fall in love and work) with other people, or how creativity when brought to the level of the individual has the potential to upend and re-craft society itself.

The tools that we’ve learned to use in Second Life are increasingly going to become part of, well, Life. Augmented reality, 3D printing, true tele-presence, 3-dimensional Wikis for drug collaboration or engineering, gestural devices like Microsoft’s Natal or the Wii….all of these things are starting to become layered on top of physical reality and yet we shouldn’t be surprised by the types of issues and challenges that arise when they do, we’ve seen them, we were there first and we prototyped the future.

This is Not a Meeting Room
Today at Anders Gronstedt’s always seminal Train for Success meeting, I was on a panel about “The Future of Virtual Worlds” with Sam Driver of ThinkBalm (who was insanely articulate, I felt like a pale shadow next to him) and Jennifer Belissent of Forrester Research (whose voice kept cutting out and then claimed that this was an example of SL’s failure, whereas I was thinking it was more like the person who shows up for a presentation and doesn’t know how to get the projector to work).

Now, I’m not sure what I said or if it was relevant, but it got me thinking about where virtual worlds were headed, and one of my major take-aways was that the discussion is no longer homogeneous. There are too many use cases, too many technologies, and too many things that can be classified as virtual worlds, however lightly, whether it’s Mafia Wars on Facebook or that new virtual shopping mall that’s getting all the buzz this week. (Um, I really really don’t think that a virtual shopping mall is the kind of metaphor that’s going to drive consumer uptake but whatever).

What I can say from my little corner of the world is that while the past year of economic distress saw a hunkering down, which seemed to generate a lot of interest in virtual meetings and conferences, this wasn’t much of a value proposition for the people we ended up talking to, they all ended up being interested in innovation, pushing envelopes, trying new things, trying to carve out something a little DIFFERENT – budgets are tight, they can’t do the same-old anymore, they wanted to try something NEW.

And so we saw what I’d call a sort of segmentation within the enterprise market between those who were hunkering down and saving money on travel, and those who were acting as if the scales had fallen from their eyes. The challenge is two-fold: one, to convert an “innovation project because I want to stand out” into something long-term and sustainable, and two, to understand the ways in which innovation won’t be a competitive nice-to-have but rather a necessity for survival.

The Transformation of Linden Lab
Second Life is a testbed and I’m a believer. I’ve looked at a lot of the other worlds and applications and appliances and there are instances where something else fits the bill for a client. But there’s also a wide enough opportunity based on Second Life alone that it’s not difficult to fill up your days without worrying about when you’re going to learn to program in Unity3D (um, which isn’t to say I won’t – but next weekend not this).

But it’s also a test bed for larger transformations, and how Linden Lab itself manages it may provide one of the classic texts of our time on how to manage change, innovation, culture and governance.

M talks about the coming improvements to Second Life and then addresses the flurry of resident comments in follow-up post on stability and lag and the rest of it. (Note to M: If you only post once every 12 months you can expect a venting pile-on like that).

But what this list amounts to, (aside from being validation of my predictions :P ) is more like a sell sheet that doesn’t tell the whole story. Because what M fails to mention is that in sum the changes coming amount to a wholesale cultural re-engineering of Second Life.

Not unlike Amazon moving beyond books into electronics and then the cloud, or Apple moving into its “Return of Steve” phase, or, well, of AOLs move from being AOL to being part of some weirdly misguided merger….Linden Lab is rolling the dice that the cultural overhaul of Second Life will result in a more vibrant one, a better one, one with more people in it that continues to grow.

If their end game is selling the company they might pull it off. If their end game is a decade from now, then this cultural change will need to be founded on more fundamental questions than the ‘use case of the future’ (although M’s eloquent examples 10 years out are fun to contemplate) and instead be based on understanding exactly what the Second Life brand stands for and how to put an internal and a customer culture in place that relentlessly protects that brand proposition.

Try it some time, because I have: ask a Linden, what is the one thing that defines what Linden Lab is really good at or why Second Life is really great. I can nearly guarantee that you’ll have nearly as many answers as Lindens, and while a lot of them will mention the Tao and how it’s this great place to work, they can’t entirely articulate what they’re working TOWARDS other than some sort of assurance that we’ll improve the human condition.

But you see, there’s a kernel in that proposition, something that is either vague, a well-guarded secret, or held in its entirety by giving out few bucks for the Linden Prize. Because virtual worlds and Second Life really CAN help to improve the human condition, not because they’re particularly good at manifesting physical or social change, or at providing a better way to educate or train, nor a better way to meet or socialize. Second Life can help to improve the human condition because it helps us to see what that improved future might look like, and because it empowers us to believe that we can have some sort of control over our individual destinies, that life and this time has given us rare access to the gift of creation, and what is creation if not our ability to mirror, improve, comment upon or construct reality, to change our futures?

For companies or schools, Second Life is not a meeting space, it’s a way in which we can come to understand radical collaboration, design thinking, and how to engineer alternate futures in which change is the dynamic that makes things possible, rather than a constraint that leaves people muttering “let’s be REALISTIC” while realizing full well that being realistic isn’t the providence upon which the future will be built, but rather the creaking framework of an outmoded way of thinking.


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