Deep Thoughts, Identity and Expression, Privacy and Protection, Second Life

The Fast and the Furious II: Second Life By Design

I’ve pinned myself down. I’m stuck in a corner. And I’m trying, frankly, to find a way to blog my way out of it.

Maybe this is the reaction we’re SUPPOSED to be having now that Second Life is over and we’re on to Second Life Social, or Second Life 2.0 (which makes it feel like it’s merely trying to catch up to the rest of the Web), or Second Life the Operating System.

I’m in one of those “on the one hand, but on the other” moments and it feels a little like one of those ethical exercises they made us think about in university: “do you kill the baby to save your family or do you kill the monkey to save the world”….my professor was a famous animal rights activist, you see, and he didn’t like to make it easy for us.

When the viewer came out I had one of those moments of delight that I remembered from the early days of Second Life: it was shiny, slightly clunky in places, but it was new and somewhere past the “ohhhh” moment were a bunch of “ah-ha’s”.

I still remember those early a-has: someone explaining to me about prim hair, rezzing my first box, and going dancing.

I didn’t understand the concept of dancing because no one really SAID very much – I didn’t realize most people were IMing or checking their e-mail or whatever they were doing, but what I DO remember is that I felt like I was learning a whole new culture and my guides to that culture weren’t really found in any of the books or the forums, they were found because other Residents actually CARED, and shared, and showed you around a little, or at least the ones I ran into did. By most accounts that’s the way that MOST people learned their way around and why they stayed.

I remember discovering that not ALL the sims looked like Mainland, that there were beautiful builds out there as well, sims like Svarga, which I stumbled across one day and thought was a stunning place to just, well, hang out, although I never realized it was supposed to be an ecosystem or whatever, I just thought it was really beautiful and told a story.

But it was also on Svarga where I was griefed for the first (and only) time: someone managed to put me in some sort of box or something which I couldn’t get out of and I panicked…I eventually realized I could teleport out but I felt a sense of shock and violation.

After, I couldn’t figure out why I was responding so emotionally to something that was “just a game” until I realized that I didn’t TREAT it as a game, it was a world, and I had a place in it, and while I could always log my avatar out I was too heavily invested in the sense of ‘being there’.

And I’ve had a similar sense with the new viewer, and Linden Homes, and seeing the new ad campaign they’re planning to run, and the ability to log in to a prim and Tweet or whatever: it’s not that I didn’t WANT all these things or that I didn’t advocate for them, but I’ve also been blogging long enough about the stuff I DON’T want to lose that I feel like I’m making a choice between monkey and child, between world and family.

Design Thinking and the Architecture
I’m a big believer in the rough concept of design thinking: that to effectively CHANGE something you need to look big, and broad, and you need to artfully combine data and engineering and linear thinking with art, intuition and holistic viewpoints.

A building doesn’t stand up without engineering. And a building is just a box if someone hasn’t designed the reason for it to be there in the first place. Finding the balance between design and engineering without it becoming either an exercise in vanity or one of ‘efficiency at all costs’ is the great challenge of our times: in Google’s search for engineering efficiency, it’s less EFFICIENT not to have a delete button, and it doesn’t make SENSE that you wouldn’t want to share all your friend’s data with others, the algorithm is all. And lord knows there are enough examples of design vanity in which form trumps functionality.

The biggest challenges, to my mind, of design thinking is that you need to be really, really, really good at it or you end up with a hodge podge in which both the engineering and the form are diluted; or, more critically, you choose the wrong FIELD OF VISION from which to tackle whatever problem you’re trying to solve.

Think of it this way: Gehry goes to design the Guggenheim but all he looks at is the lot on which the museum will be placed and forgets that there’s a whole city that the building needs to respond to and react to. In his solution, he looks broadly enough to realize that his museum can not just REFLECT the city around it but also transform it.

If you ask the right question at the right domain and you match an answer that is sound technically, that matches the unexpressed needs and expectations of the audience, and which, at its heart, is ELEGANT then you might have a winner.

But that’s a lot of “ifs” – and it’s also why there are so few companies that can do it successfully: the IDEOs or Frog Designs or Apples of the world. You might be better off sticking to JUST design or JUST engineering if you can’t pull it off.

The Wisdom of Crowds
Now, there’s an alternative, and the alternative is crowd sourcing and open source. And as much as people might think I’m some kind of fierce opponent to either of those (based on some of the comments in the roving crowd that is Twitter) I’m not: both are solutions to design challenges, and like all design challenges there is an appropriate tool for every problem.

There IS a wisdom of crowds, especially when it comes to answering engineering problems with very specific requirements, just as there are times in my office when everyone can pitch in on a problem and there are times when it’s better to leave the Web page design to a DESIGNER, or the strategy document to a strategist.

The challenge with the wisdom of crowds is when you’re still in the heuristics phase of answering a question – you haven’t quite modeled or hypothesized an answer to the question yet, so there’s no point in bringing the crowd in to build out a solution – you haven’t even arrived at one yet.

This, frankly, is why I feel that OpenSim is a disappointment. With OpenSim the question was how to create a virtual world engine (yeah, yeah, the Apache of virtual worlds) that would, pretty much, act like Second Life and be a reverse engineer from the viewer, only with more flexible server configuration so that the administrators could pull “modules” in and out at will. The design thinking behind OpenSim was primarily one of engineering, which isn’t WRONG, it’s laudable – and yet the answer isn’t a world changer because no one stopped to ask whether the heuristic itself needed a rework.

The other challenge with open source and crowd sourcing is that the economics of it can be murky, at best, opaque at worst, and we’re now seeing all kinds of corporations jumping on the band wagon because they’ve come to see it for what it is: cheap or free labor where it’s the promise of future returns that bears more weight than what you’re getting paid NOW.

All of which is to say that I have nothing again the fact that the Lab applied design thinking to the larger question of how to make Second Life more accessible, larger, more successful and more useful: the viewer is just one part of their solution, and you couldn’t crowd source this kind of design challenge.

I mean – I tried, as Tom Hale generously pointed out, through the viewer competition I held. And while the results were inspiring and had lots of great ideas, they weren’t able to deal with the larger holistic challenge that a viewer is just a viewer and you need a whole set of interlinking pieces if it’s going to fit into a broader attempt to make the world a better place.

Cultural Governance
My point about the development of all of this “Second Life 2.0″ stuff isn’t that design thinking doesn’t work or isn’t needed, but that there’s no sense that it’s coupled with a sense that governance is about both POLICY and CULTURE.

Tom Hale responded to my post yesterday by saying:

“Lots of residents (both inside and outside the lab) were involved in the viewer redesign. We drew inspiration from results of the viewer redesign contest (see, from research and user feedback studies, from SLViews sessions, from usability tests (both in paper and in software) and from a private beta program. What we didn’t do, was make a small step forward, then try to get every Residents’ feedback.”

But this just leaves us where we started: that none of the Lindens have responded to my question as to whether the CULTURAL implications of the viewer were part of the discussion. And T didn’t jump on the following point in order to gently correct me either, when I said that:

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.

And maybe it’s asking too much of them and maybe it’s M who should respond – or, well SOMEONE should respond. I really do believe they discussed these things. I really do believe they asked the questions: “but how will the current Residents respond?”

But what I believe is that the reference point wasn’t the Second Life culture but rather the wider Web. The reference point wasn’t “what should we preserve that, if we did it right, would make the WEB ITSELF a better place” but rather “what should we incorporate from the wider Web to make ITS culture more accepting of Second Life.”

All I’d like is for someone to tell me that I’m wrong about this, and in what specific tangible ways.

Myself, Slipping Away
Now we hear that there are a bunch of people at the Lab trying to sort out how to handle anonymity, er, identity. And however they’re doing that, I’m sure they’ll come back with the same claim: you can’t design identity systems by committee, Residents were consulted (we read the forums!), and there were a few people brought in for consultations and feedback studies.

My sense, however, is that they started with a premise: in order to “play well with the Web” we need to find ways to link avatar identity to other systems. We GET that avatar identity on its own can be important, so we need to preserve the concept of choice. OK, so, let’s get cracking.

But do you see what I mean about field of vision? I mean, it seems to me that the premise should start with something like this:

“When we introduced commerce to Second Life, and c/m/t we changed the world. We created sustainability and we created a robust system of property and commerce which would need tending over time and would come under threat, but it’s still the REASON we’re here. And when we did that, we brought in some of the best thinkers of our time, and we thought about both the engineering challenge, the design challenge, but also the larger cultural implications. (Not to mention the business survival questions).

Now, with identity systems, we have another opportunity to redefine what the Web could REALLY be like. We’re at a unique pivot point here, and the decisions we make about identity could be the gold standard for the Web itself and our lives online. But to get it right, we need to view this challenge as a potential world-changer, and we need to think of this culturally….which means more than policy, which means more than adapting standards from elsewhere, which means remembering that there’s a REASON why avatar identity resonates, and we’d better be certain that we understand those reasons before we dilute the possibilities implicit in avatar identity or, well, we risk killing the child to save the family.”

See, I’m not talking here about some kind of challenge that’s OUTSIDE the concept of design thinking, or even engineering for that matter. Effectively solving problems means effectively understanding the landscape and assumptions of your target users: how they think and feel, what they hope for, and the larger landscape in which your solution will play out.

These are issues of governance. Apple deals with governance in its iPhone app store. Google tried (and failed) to deal with governance in its virtual world Lively. tried to deal with governance in how it allowed content to enter its world and what age you needed to be to get in. Facebook tries to deal with governance by assuming that we all want to be transparent, and real, and linked, and scraped. Twitter is trying to deal with governance by letting me choose whether I want my geolocation to be made available through my tweets.

One of the defining characteristics of Second Life has been that its governance was based on a sort of utopian techno-libertarianism espoused by Philip Rosedale. And he may have had his, um, ways of expressing himself, but damn, I miss Philip some days.

I mean – is it too much to ask that the Lab open itself up a LITTLE bit for a broader, constructive and far-reaching conversation about identity? Or the profound implications of search in a 3D world? Or of how we’ll find stuff, and each other, in a world that’s SO large?

On Metanomics, Amanda mentioned that the Second Life “Search Team” now has employees from Yahoo, Google, eBay and Amazon. And while it’s great that they’re hiring new talent – I can’t help shuddering a little that the team now responsible for Second Life search includes people who come from companies where the ONLY purpose of search is to monetize it.

Baby and the Bath Water
Second Life is ready for business. It’s ready for a massive influx of new users. It’s ready to spread its wings and send out all kinds of messages and ads into the social media melting pot while we Tweet and post Flickr photos and do whatever else the Lab has planned to make sure the point is made that this is NOT the Second Life you once knew.

I believe that the Lab MAY be poised to become one of the new operating (eco)systems of our time.

Second Life could very easily become something akin to the iPhone – a platform and fully functioning design solution that allows for commerce, monetization, innovation, and applications coupled with a rigid, closed-off governance model in which assumptions have been made about who owns what, who gets access, who gets to make money off of it, and what it means to be “locatable”.

On the one hand, this is exciting to me. All of the reasons people once had to shoot me down when I was selling enterprise, brand, or consumer solutions based in Second Life are rapidly evaporating.

This is the future, I’ve come to believe, or at least it’s the future for NOW.

But the day I wake up and it really sinks in that my avatar has become a gadget is the day, I suppose, when I realize I didn’t do enough to make it not so.


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