Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

The Fast and the Furious: Second Life on the Autobahn

It feels like just yesterday that Mitch Kapor proclaimed that the “frontier days” were over for Second Life. Now, maybe Mitch knew what Mark Kingdon had planned even before M himself – but what’s clear is that while the frontier days may have ended it took from July 2008 when he made the statement to today for the rest of us to notice.

Linden Lab is using what I was going to call a “Shock & Awe” strategy for announcing that Second Life as you know it has ended, but that’s soooo 2000s. Instead, they strapped your avatar in, started the ignition and, like it not, you’re now barreling down the autobahn with no exit ramp.

On this week’s Metanomics Esbee and Amanda Linden were generous enough to let me ask them my meta-questions about the new viewer and Second Life Shared Media and while I probably should have spent more time dissecting their choice of chiclets for chat, I was actually a lot more curious about the process that got them here: how do you ‘renovate’ a viewer that’s been around, with a few tweaks now and then, for almost a decade? How do you decide what goes and what stays?

The Cultural Implications of Change
And most intriguing of all, I thought – do you take into consideration the cultural implications of all of these feature changes and widgets, clickable Web pages and tattoo layers? Second Life is a world, after all, right? Since everyone’s talking about Cameron’s Avatar these days, it’s not like it’s some mystery that the natives have their own culture, values and systems – and that it’s pretty easy to screw it all up.

Amanda replied:

“It’s so interesting actually. I was an art history major way back in the day at Vassar, and I understand how much visual design and experience design can impact culture and vice versa. I think it’s a very symbiotic relationship. I think you’re right. There’s a new element within the viewer that is web based, that allows us to create new kinds of promotional and other kinds of advertising capabilities within the sidebar. That’s something we definitely thought about.

There are a whole host of other capabilities within the new viewer that are meant to make it very easy for users to get to the most used pieces of functionality very quickly. We wanted to surface those things up to the top immediately and viscerally so that people can get to what they need very quickly.

It’s been interesting. I mean we looked at, and Esbee hinted on this too, we looked at a lot of other things besides viewers. We looked at Skype. We looked at IM. We looked at Google. We looked at Yahoo. We looked at a whole host of other kinds of communication technologies. We looked at Twitter. I think that what we tried to do is make it easy, and, by making it easy, I think that, hopefully, it will enrich not only the experience with Shared Media and other capabilities, but will also make it easier for people to communicate. “

Now, in fairness, I put them on the spot a little – we were talking about usability and expanding the user base and I was basically asking if they had an anthropologist on staff.

But what’s intriguing about this is that it speaks to a conclusion that I think we can now arrive at with certainty:

To Linden Lab, while Second Life may be a world, it is not a culture. The more important culture in which Second Life participates is the broader one which encompasses our lives on-line. While there may be sub-cultures that find a place IN Second Life, the frontier days are over, and the sense of it still being “one world” no longer apply.

Design Thinking
Now the Lab will argue that this isn’t really true. They have a canned phrase: “The wonderful creativity of our Residents.” Listen for it – you’ll hear it over and over.

And yet, if the Residents are so creative, then how is it that a complete overhaul of the viewer excluded them until, hmmm, the last three weeks of a nearly 18-month development project?

I won’t argue that this is their platform and they can do what they like with it – and I applaud the new viewer, I jump with joy for Second Life Shared Media, but we’re now talking about a DESIGN THINKING company whose focus is on opening up Second Life to the wider Web (while closing, thankfully, some of the massive gaps IN the world, like the ability to randomly copy other people’s content).

I found it intriguing that Esbee spoke about the Lab as an engineering company. It almost felt like the kind of thing the interface and product development people talked about after work one day, huddled over beer (or chai tea or Starbucks, this being San Fran after all) with Tom Hale telling his team to be careful about the language they use:

“We may be REDESIGNING Second Life, we may be changing the interface, and overhauling the Web site, we may be adding Web-based content, and reconstructing the user experience, we may be applying design thinking to commerce, and creating new channels and on-boarding processes, and we may be creating new ecosystems of business value while we rethink how we monetize the brand – but what ever you do, always tell people we’re an ENGINEERING company!”

Thus, Esbee’s response to the methodology for developing the new viewer:

“So we actually decided as an engineering organization, at the beginning of this project, that we wanted to be able to iterate, as Amanda said, much more quickly than we’ve ever been able to before. We want to be able to move into a cadence where we’re more frequently releasing new features and more frequently updating the viewer. And we knew that using the type of design and development approach we’d used in the past that we really couldn’t do that, and so we adopted for those of you who are familiar with it an agile development methodology called SCRUM.”

Um, no – you may have a lot of engineers on staff, but you’re no longer an engineering organization. That’s like saying that Apple is an industrial design company: they may glue together bits and pieces but they’re a design thinking company first and foremost.

We Face the World
And much of the design thinking on the new viewer and Shared Media is now clearly part of a much deeper road map whose question is this: how do we plug Second Life in to social media, training, education and other on-line tools and applications? How do we set this up so that we actually CAN reach a billion users? What would it mean if we were to start wondering what it would take for Second Life to not just be a destination, but the starting point itself?

And so we start to see the unfolding of a strategy to make Second Life more Web like, to bring the Web IN, and to send content OUT into that great shifting tide of social media. And maybe the strategy ISN’T to tap into the poking throngs and Farmville, um, farmers on Facebook but to REPLACE Facebook itself. I mean, why not, right? If you’re going to try to monetize think BIG BANK, as Tom might say.

And so we have the Lab starting to link our actual and avatar identities (and my guess is our ability to use our real names will come before the end of the quarter), as Esbee pointed out on Metanomics:

That’s a wonderful question, and it’s actually a great one to hit on because it was an area of intense debate around the Lab when we started looking at a user profile. Second Life, different types of people are drawn to Second Life. Some of them don’t mind sharing real life information and others who prefer to keep that Second Life completely separate to their real life. And we respect and think that both of those approaches are great. For example, I’m someone who has always shared both my real life and my Second Life alt name, and that’s just the way that I’ve done things. But I have really good friends who keep their personal lives anonymous, and that’s great.

In the design of this particular panel and the way we approach user profiles, we wanted to give them the same weight because of the way that we’re going after new users. This viewer will become a viewer that not just our existing residents and the new users that we attempt to target, but also large areas of business and education, and those are users who will probably value being able to share more of their first life, if you will, or their Real World information. And so we wanted to give that a little bit more prominence.

We are doing a lot of work right now that I can’t talk about as much because I’m not involved in the project, but we’re talking a lot internally about identity and what that means in a Virtual World, and it’s actually a huge area of focus in the Lab right now. So the profiles as we see them today, we wanted to surface as much information as we could at once, without creating a lot of clutter, and it will hopefully hint to new options and approaches to identity in Virtual Worlds as we move forward.

And while the Lab respects that not everyone will want to share their real life identities, they certainly won’t be discouraging it when ads targeted to new users look like this:

Now….not ALL ads will look like that. I’ve seen Steampunk and Goth banner widgets which are clearly aimed at a more (optionally) anonymous crowd, but with this type of advertising, it’s yet another cultural change that may happen in subtle ways, yet happens nonetheless.

Open Sourcing Interface?
Now, on one topic I’m not sure what to say, but as I understand it the Lab has done what I long predicted they would do when they launched the new viewer: parts of what was once an open source client would become “closed”. And to the best of my understanding, that’s exactly what they’ve done: while the code behind the viewer interface is open, there are things about the interface itself which are not.

And I’m happy to be corrected on this, of course – but the code repository for Snowglobe represents the open source version of the client, and yet it doesn’t include all the “bits” that make up SL 2.0.

As the Lindens said in response to my question (emphasis added):

AMANDA: Exactly. So Snowglobe 2 basically has all of the bits that you need. It doesn’t look exactly the same, but it is essentially the same as Viewer 2. And it’s now available in Windows and Mac and not yet on Linux. I think those guys are still working on that.

DUSAN: So what we see now as the release of Open Source Snowglobe, well, I mean it’s all Open Source, but what we see now as Snowglobe’s Open Source code is Viewer 2.0’s Open Source code.

AMANDA: Correct. That’s right.

DOUG: As far as you know. Okay.

ESBEE LINDEN: And we are working right now on a plan for how we synchronize our branch that we developed Viewer 2 in, with the Snowglobe branch moving forward so that we can really more frequently interact with the Open Source community and make sure that we have a much closer dialogue with them as we proceed further in our development this year.

Maybe someone can tell me what “doesn’t exactly look the same” actually, well, means?

At the same time, the Lab launched Twitter OAuth into Second Life, which brings Tweety goodness to the Grid:

“What this means (as you may have read) is that you can now let people Tweet from within Second Life in a safe and secure way, without having to set up external Web servers, and without requiring Residents to re-enter credentials if they want to use Twitter from inworld. OAuth is an open-source protocol that provides secure API access to login credentials. This means you can give Web sites or inworld objects the ability to update your Twitter account without actually having to give out your username or password. The Twitter OAuth Library we created also allows for fine-grained control over which Second Life objects can send updates directly to Twitter.

Tweet away!

What’s Next
So if your head isn’t spinning already, the Lab isn’t done yet. Amanda confirmed, as T Linden (Tom Hale) has done on the forums: mesh imports are coming. But why stop there? As noted above, the Lab is also working on:

- A new orientation experience for new users
- A new system for linking your avatar and real identity
- Inventory overhauls
- Desktop sharing (maybe)
- Links to social networks and other Web content (via Avatars United somehow)
- Continued changes to the Linden and commerce in Second Life (for example, this week’s announcement that your avatar “wallet” is now connected to the Web – which opens up, well, some pretty stunning possibilities as Gwen has pointed out)
- A new ad campaign

And….well, and there’s tons more “ands”.

The frontier days are definitely over. As I predicted before, I think we’ll be at 200,000 concurrency before the year is out, and I’m pretty confident that it was a conservative prediction.

And as the new Residents come back or come in to have a look – the world they’ll be entering will be nothing like the one that was there before.


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