Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Second Life

Second Life and the Cultural Revolution (II)

There’s a cultural revolution going on in Second Life facilitated by a shift in approach by Linden Lab. Whether you think this revolution will scare away its core community or build its appeal to a wider audience depends on how you parse the future. What’s certain is that Linden Lab is in the middle of a multi-year process which may end up being a textbook case of how to manage massive change in online communities.

I recently wrote that Linden Lab was “at war” – but the war was with itself as the cultural mindset and organizational practices that made Second Life what it was (and still to a large degree is) were replaced by a different approach, one that focuses on channels and products and revenue streams and user experiences. I suggested that this war within the Lab is a reflection of a wider dialog, one that tries to reconcile a faith in code with the natural irrationality of the very human users that interact with that code.

But the Lab is juggling more than just shifting from a coder culture to a service-oriented one. There are changes coming which might give us insight into the wider challenges facing enterprise, communities and individual creators and consumers, challenges related to our identities, the tools with which we share and create, and what it means to be a great brand in a universe where dispersion is more common than aggregation and attention is ephemeral and often fickle.

Features and Tools and Plug-Ins Oh My!
Mark Kingdon recently posted about what’s coming in 2010, and prefaced it by saying:

“Before I jump into this, a caveat is in order. Linden Lab is not a traditional software company. Historically, roadmaps were simply not part of the Lab’s DNA. This kind of project planning is new for the Lab.”

Now, aside from that being an understatement of first order magnitude, it’s also as clear an example of the deep cultural change that has happened at the Lab itself, with a shift from a sort of internally crowd-sourced methodology where people move from project to project based on a kind of hive mind floating, picking and choosing projects and features based on interest, community feedback, and the JIRA.

(Oh, and here’s a prediction for you: people will soon realize that the JIRA is primarily a bug triage system and look towards roadmap-type discussions and new forms of infrastructure for planning if they want platform enhancements considered, thus sapping it of its previous go-to power for advocating system change).

This shift towards a broader planning methodology based on strategic objectives, user goals and roadmaps was the framework from which the significant changes ahead arise, along with the cultural change already underway, but if you think eliminating freebies on XStreet was cataclysmic then hang tight or get out now, because the change to follow will rock the world. Among those changes:

- The new viewer has the potential to set off a firestorm, not because it works or doesn’t work, and not because it has landmarks or doesn’t, but because the community will interpret it as a signal of the ‘dumbing down’ of Second Life. The deeper implications of the viewer and its reordering of user functionality will leave many believing that, well, the world has just turned on its axis.

- I predicted that the viewer would be launched in conjunction with the MediaAPI. I found it odd how M just touched on this briefly but I think they’re holding their thunder. But the MediaAPI will not just be a way to put a Web page or YouTube video up in your new Second Life Home, it will be a game changer. I’m not talking about an enhancement or a nice new widget, I’m talking about something that will fundamentally and radically change what CONTENT means in Second Life. I have no idea what people are working on behind closed doors, but my mind boggles at what the MediaAPI will make possible.

- Mesh import will change how content is created. Prokofy and others have compared it more to sculptys and consider it, well, kind of an incremental addition to Second Life. I’m not of that opinion. Being able to develop scenes and mesh objects developed in third-party programs and import them into Second Life opens up a new ecosystem of content types, allows links to existing communities of content developers outside of Second Life, opens the door to a form of interim interoperability, and facilitates large-scale prototyping, architectural visualization, and other vertical applications.

- As I predicted, the Lab will add a new layer to the coding of content, with the addition of C# as a programming language. Now, I don’t get this stuff and my prediction was a wild guess, but this feels like it could have an impact comparable to mesh imports, bringing in a new ecosystem of coders.

One final “feature” change, and one that I’m not sure I understand yet, is M’s comment that we will see a new focus on opensource development. What kind of development I have no idea.

Governance and User Experiences
There is a grab bag of changes planned that will have an impact not so much on the tools or how the platform looks and performs, but might be considered governance issues. These relate primarily to the Lab’s stated goals of linking the Second Life experience into social media. I’m personally of the opinion that this “value proposition” sounds better to a venture capitalist than a resident or potential user although M is careful to call them “social tools”.

But linking avatar and real identities (optional or not) and the ability to then link to Facebook or Twitter or MySpace or whatever has me in mind of Facebook widgets.

But these changes to the user experience, whether the redesign of the Web site, future iPhone apps, or links across to real or other identity systems are based on a change in governance and philosophy which does NOT place avatar identity as a core value proposition of the platform. Whether this will be good or bad in the long term we’ll see – but if you see me in-world (or, for that matter, in the real world half the time lol) you’d better call me Dusan or I’ll unfriend you. :P

Creative Tension
What’s interesting is that many of these transitional changes are reflective of larger challenges facing enterprise and life online. They seek to find the ‘sweet spot’ along spectrums of creative tension, primarily:

Engineering versus Design: Google is the epitome of an engineering-based company and Apple of a design-based one. Neither precludes the other – Google does do SOME design, but their main goal is to engineer product in a way that is efficient and effective. Apple on the other hand believes that efficient and effective isn’t sufficient to create engagement and to change behavior: design is needed to create metaphors for experience that have the potential to change entire industries.

Providing Space versus the Nanny State: Second Life in the early days was a free-wheeling often anarchic culture in which the ‘rules’ were as lightly enforced as possible. This is similar to the challenges enterprise faces in working with suppliers or customers in collaborative domains, or that a teacher faces with their students: either provide the tools and the “place” and let the community self-govern, or nudge, influence and govern behavior and, in essence, claim ownership of protecting the common good.

Curated Experiences versus Serendipity: With the flood of real-time information and social connections, there is an increasing belief that experiences need to be curated, that individuals will increasingly turn to brands or opinion leaders to help them make sense of what matters (and what doesn’t). This doesn’t remove serendipity or the power of the users to craft their own interpretations or their journeys through digital domains, but as brands focus on curated experiences new cultural reference points are created which are either embraced or resisted but which nonetheless make value claims for communities.

Walled Gardens versus Open Systems: It’s very rare that anything is one or the other. Even in open systems there are often barriers to the use of the tools based on skills or because cultural barriers prohibit fully open participation. Even Wikipedia shifted from being an entirely open system to being one with cultural norms, procedures and systems that closed off, to some degree, a fully open system. APIs and other approaches to technology management also allow solutions that fall somewhere on the spectrum between walled garden and open system.

I highlight these tensions because they fascinate me and seem to me like clear areas where the Lab has been turning the dials. These tweaks to its business model and philosophy are coupled with the broader business tensions and goals that arise from the degreee of emphasis on making money, protecting IP rights, and the approach to consumerism and individual monetization of effort.

These are significant changes and I can only hope that as they play out that the anthropologists or sociologists or whoever – the Tom Boellstorffs of the world, are watching and recording and will let us know what it all means at the level of culture and society, because otherwise while this might be a great Harvard Business School case study, the more profound significance to our lives online may be overlooked.


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