Deep Thoughts, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Path Finders: On the Road to Meaning in Virtual Worlds

I don’t particularly like my cell phone provider. Or my cable company. I don’t mind my bank BRANCH, the people are nice, the hours are good, and there’s rarely a line-up (well, the one or two times a year I actually go in) but I don’t like it when someone in some bank office or out-sourced call center somewhere keeps pestering me with offers of life insurance or investments or whatever.

I get a creepy feeling when my phone company calls and says “We’ve been reviewing your calling patterns and we wanted to talk to you about ways to save money.” I find it creepy because why are they looking, and I find it creepy because I never use my phone, the cell phone company has me covered.

The cell phone company itself is mostly non-intrusive, but then they have me locked in to some 3 year plan or something and make bucket loads of money off of me. But they’ll never call me up and say “Oh, did you know you hit the date when you’re eligible for a phone upgrade?”

There are certain things that are utilities and we expect them to work and we want service when they don’t and we otherwise want to be left mostly alone.

The Content that They Carry
But we value those utilities because they usually carry other things.

When I use my iPhone (yeah, I know, Android is cool and open and all that, we won’t get into Apple’s lock-downs just now) I’m interested in the content it gives me access to. I love my widgets. I love Shazam, for example, and am in awe of how it can name that tune.

I don’t text message a lot, but with the few people I do I like that I can send little blurts out to them and I feel connected. I’ve started using my phone more to Tweet, and even though Twitter is mostly headlines and I save my deep dives for early mornings, I get a quick take on what’s going on in the parts of the world that I’m interested in, and I can sense the passing moods or fancies of people I adore.

The fact that there’s a mobile phone company somewhere in that process may be important, but it feels irrelevant.

And I’m not so sure the phone companies or the cable company LIKES being so irrelevant. They don’t really control the content, they provide access to it. They don’t sell the ads – the exchange is one of value: you provide the content, you sell and make money off of the ads, and we’ll make money off of delivering the content in the first place.

The problem is that the building now has multiple doors.

While the utilities were guarding the front entrance, someone was bashing a hole through the back.

The New Utilities
People in Silicon Valley or wherever will tell you that the world has changed, and it has. But they’ll also make it seem like there’s something truly revolutionary in their new business models. The problem is – well, there isn’t. The great myth of the ‘digital economy’ is that somehow the fact that there’s a back door is the source of some new intrinsic value. And yet all its really done is put the payment meter in front of another entryway.

Google is an incredibly powerful and revolutionary utility. It recognizes that the front door has become irrelevant: you can’t really charge people (or you can’t charge as much when you can) to get in the front door, the back door is where all the action is. But it’s not unlike how a cable company creates an often uneasy alliance with the content providers: I’ll make money on access, you make money on the ads. Just swap out Google and a network: Google sells the ads, the network (a Web site, a blog) makes a few pennies off of their content (maybe), and the ISP makes a few pennies off of your Web access.

All that’s really happened is that the transactions have shifted around a little. And the fact that there are TWO doors (the front and the back) has done something else: it has made everything CHEAPER.

The Content You’re Consuming is Looking Back
So we have a problem: content providers don’t make as much, the ad (on its own) can’t charge that much, and the utility makes less.

So what’s a poor corporation to do? Well, there’s two answers, and the first sets fire to the “myth of plenty” in the Long Tail.

I saw a tweet a few days ago by @betfairgirl which said: “Content is King, but distribution of content is God”.

Which is true in a way. Because in a world where the transactions are smaller, the cost of entry has gone down, and where you can rarely lock someone into a three-year plan for surfing the Web, you have two responses (and the Big Dream is to be able to do both): aggregate and own the portals of distribution, and find a way to monetize the data itself.

It’s no longer the fact that the Web is this massive free-flowing, organic and growing THING, it’s that it’s all of that PLUS a few continents where we’re all finding ourselves gathered: on Facebook, in Twitter, on the Google search page. It’s no longer about the fact that you’re accessing content, it’s the fact that the content you’re accessing is LOOKING BACK.

Now that the content is looking back, it’s doing so with what I can only call, well, intensity and hunger. The Google algorithm knows all, and yet it’s not yet satisfied. The theory is that being able to access all of the world’s information will be, somehow, GOOD for us. (How this will contribute to actual knowledge and wisdom is at the root of much of the debate in education).

When “all of the world’s information” includes the aggregation of my Tweets, my Google waves, the Buzz, my Facebook friends, my surfing history…..and all of it efficiently and helpfully linked to my cell phone number, credit card information and geo-location – well, that will be oh so handy for making sure I can access that world of information when I want it, where I need it, and on whatever utility strikes my fancy knowing that, also helpfully, the content will CONTINUE to look back.

The hope is that some day the fact that the content is looking back will lead to its ability to predict what I’ll do next. And while I always thought that it seemed far-fetched, we’re increasingly seeing large-scale training programs that are conditioning us to respond as required, to connect with others because the algorithm needs us to, to provide continual data back to the system – “Are you here? Are you on-line? Do your friends care about you? Who are you connected with? Have I got your attention?”

These large-scale training programs are called games. And I said in Metanomics back chat yesterday that Farmville is the sign that the end of days is near.

The thing was, I wasn’t joking.

Second Life, Really
Second Life is putting the reality back into virtuality.

A year or two ago Harvard Business Review published a case study on the Lab’s decision to pursue and open source strategy with the viewer, and then asked whether they would or should do the same with the servers.

Today, the Lab is putting that approach ‘back in the box’. It has made a few decisions:

- It has determined that virtual worlds will never achieve mass appeal unless the ‘reality’ of virtuality is promoted.
- It has determined that as a utility, it can (and probably needs to) do what any utility does: charge more to its current users (put meters on all the doors, and any time a new door opens up put a meter on it too), or try to get NEW users (or both).
- In order to be able to meter all the doors, it needed to grapple with the way it protected content. It is also creating new forms of content that will be more easily protected and metered. (Mesh, Web widgets, whatever).
- In order to get new users it needed to fix the “first hour”, the interface, the orientation experience.
- And in order to really ‘go big’ it needed to think about how to reach out to all of those people who’s experience of interacting with content is primarily through youTube or Facebook or wherever.

So the premise of the new strategy is to make Second Life attractive to people who currently don’t MIND that their interactions with technology are being quietly mediated by a machine which looks back, who don’t care that their pokes and spammy “wall” gifts on Facebook just help to tailor the ads on the side panels or whatever, and who are used to the idea that they are in an alliance, often unstated, between themselves and the new gatekeepers.

Sure, monitor me, charge me micro-transactions, send ads my way – maybe I’ll even click on them because they’ll become ever more relevant the more you know about me. In return, give me access to – well, to my friends. To my family photos. To groups of my peers.

Help to efficiently mediate my sociality and you can have anything you want.

And I suppose as someone who works with enterprise and brands I GET it. It’s easy. It’s efficient.

I mean – who WOULDN’T want to tap into the ever widening online culture that is conditioned to be scraped, served and watched?

Seems to me like Linden Lab is doing what’s natural. Block all the doors and charge, first, micro-transactions (and then increasingly larger fees); second, acknowledge the new reality of algorithmically connected social networks; and third, control access to the tools of content creation or display tools THEMSELVES and, while you’re at it, pray that people will make something worth seeing.

Sooner or Later
I’m trying to picture what it would be like to be one of the ‘old guard’ at Linden Lab. Well, assuming I was still there, of course.

Because the premise seems to be this: yes, this was a world created by its users. We rarely force-fed them. The world evolved and was used in ways that we couldn’t have predicted. We had no idea that educators might take a shine to SL but when it happened we were down in the trenches with them helping out. We tried to keep the tools open and accessible and we also tried, mostly, to keep our hands off. The times we got ‘hands on’ we realized how fragile an ecosystem it was that we created.

Our job was to keep our own needs fairly simple: to find a way to make a bit of money, namely through selling ‘land’ at a very high level (we’d leave it to Residents to sub-divide and rent and build out the sims), but otherwise we’d move along on the simple faith that if we had a community that was the primary beneficiary of the ‘platform’ this would be more powerful than any marketing strategy we’d ever be able to package up.

But now, we want you to think about this in a different way. We ARE going to be more hands-on. We’re going to make sure that as the world grows we can be part of that growth, whether in renting out tract homes or blocking freebies on XStreetSL.

But trust us: because if we don’t grow, we die. Even more critical, if we don’t grow, we don’t IPO. And then those options you earned won’t ever be, well, worth anything.

And what we all need to remember is that no matter what we do, no matter how many channels we build or social media sites we link to – the most powerful thing of all will always be the stunning creativity of our Residents.

So if I had a history with the Lab, I’d be left trying to decide which of several realities was more likely:

1. That there’s still value down there in the trenches with the folks who make the world;
2. That there really WILL be a payoff later on, because a growing world will mean a growing community of content creators (of programming, as it were); or
3. Believe instead that the more that this world is hooked in to the larger utilities of the Web, the less likely it will be that Second Life (or perhaps even virtual worlds in general) can play a role in crafting an alternative view for how the Web turns out.

Under the first option, I’d keep my head down and hope I keep my job while quietly supporting the communities of users. Under the second option, I’d convince myself that the metrics that matter are the number of users and the number of transaction slices in an ever-growing pie, and that the intrinsic value of content comes from the tools rather than the people using those tools. And in the last option, I’d probably either shrug and say that, well, it’s just a job, or I’d go someplace else.

Now, this exercise works when you think of the ‘old’ Lindens, but it’s not that some of the new ones don’t get it as well. They’re good people. They’re creative and they are rapidly becoming a collection of some of the best minds in technology today.

But I make the comparison between old and new to differentiate between those who believed the Web could be better because of Second Life, and those who believe that Second Life can become larger because of the Web; between those who believe that the metrics that everyone is chasing in Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue are the RIGHT metrics, and those who place value in the single prim as the true currency of our digital futures.

The Other Web
There’s another Web. And there are other ways of viewing Second Life.

On that other Web – the one that’s outside of the seeing eye of Google AdWords and isn’t embedded in a Facebook widget, there are meaningful conversations and communities happening.

In Second Life there are communities and conversations that are beyond the purview of the algorithms: a billion hours of voice, and half of it is probably the noise of kids in the background or murmuring approval of the new prim shoes.

The other Web, that other place, exists because the values on which the Web was founded, the code that started it all, have not entirely been subsumed. These values, that architecture, included:

- The idea that we should not be dependent on any one node.
- The idea that it was better to begin from anonymity than identity. Anonymity might eventually lead to griefing or *horrors* drive by anonymity (which is the big taboo now amongst the egg head types at Berkeley), but identity might be worse: because if governments and corporations ever turn their attention your way, you may not be so happy to be in a state of, well, identity.
- The code would be transparent and reasonably simple to use. This would prevent the creation of walled gardens, because if we’re going to be node-independent, then the information and data needs to be easily dispersed.
- The dispersion of content led, of course, to the ability to copy it and disperse it in the first place. People argue that “information wants to be free” but if you look to the early days of thinking about the Web, you’ll see that this isn’t de facto true. There were models for the Web in which information was NOT free, the proposed architecture included elegant methods for putting greater control on content and its ‘copiability’. Information itself didn’t want to be free, it was the architects of the revolution who wanted it to be so.

Now, the challenges inherent in this architecture only became truly visible over time, especially as we started trying to get the Web to do things we hadn’t originally intended: to conduct financial transactions, for example, or to make it easier to establish trust once we’d shifted past the point where we no longer knew each other’s name (or handle, for that matter).

There were competing views to how the Web might turn out: in some of those views, the walled garden would be a better solution and we would trade identity and commercial data at the entry point. In those walled gardens, the stuff inside would need to compete with the stuff OUTSIDE – and the error that was made was that the transactional and identity model may have made sense, but the way that content was provided didn’t.

Another view was that of ubiquitous and open code. Open source and open data would decouple us from the aggregation of power. Not only would there be a back door to the building, but the building would have no walls.

The Innovative Landscape that Was Second Life
Second Life came along and became a test case for a newer approach to how to layer different values on top of the old one. Second Life prototyped a future has been, ironically, copied in many respects by companies like Apple at the same time as Second Life tries to copy the application market for the iPhone.

I can never express in sufficient awe how incredibly important and radical Second Life truly was.

Because if you think about it, Second Life did something that goes far beyond the ability to create a three-dimensional environment through which your avatar can walk. That had been done before. And I’m constantly reminded in comments that this is all somehow a repeat of stuff from 15 years ago and yet, well, it isn’t and it wasn’t.

Because the radical components at the heart of Second Life don’t actually have much to do with the fact that it’s a virtual world at all. Those things include:

The Atomic World
The fact that it is a fully functioning real-time object oriented programming platform which is accessible to, well, almost anyone. The concept of the prim as the ‘atoms’ which would make up the information space, and the further concept that those atoms must, by necessity, appear and be manipulated in real time by multiple users was a profound notion.

The fact that Second Life has been plagued with lag for much of its existence strikes me as a tiny little price to pay for access to a site for expression online in which I can see, act upon, build, and add to the information space, I can do it with other people around the globe, and I can do so in a place that is ‘always on’. I’ve always thought “what’s a little lag when I can spin prims with someone in the UK”….although by now I figure they should have tackled that beast and moved on.

The Anonymous Avatar
Avatar identity is not just about having a veil between yourself and your identifying data. Avatar identity is about expression, and it adds a rich tool set for that expression which are simply not possible elsewhere on the Web, where anonymity has no partner in expression other than a handle.

In a follow-up to his article in the Washington Post, journalist Michael Rosenwald writes:

People generally buy things and display them in such a way that reveals much about who they are, if you look close enough. You can’t see that stuff on the phone.

But in Second Life, I was at my computer and in someone’s home at the same time. (How I will bill my boss for this mileage, I don’t know.) In the case of Ray Williams, a Second Life land baron who lives near Richmond, he hit a button and teleported me to his private island. Gorgeous place. White sand. And there, off the coast, was a giant yacht that his first life girlfriend bought him for Christmas. All of this stuff said something to me: Williams had built a life for himself that looked, in pixels, no different from the one land barons build for themselves in their first lives. This had a deep impact on me, showing me that our first lives and second lives can be almost interchangeable. It showed me how Ray Williams sees himself and the deep satisfaction he must get from spending so much time in Second Life.

And I’d edit the above to say: “you can’t see that stuff on a forum, either, or in Skype or MSN, except in the most limited ways”.

The fact that avatar identity was linked to other social systems that were, frankly, broken was, it turned out, a benefit. Because what it meant was that trust systems could be built from the granular user level UP. Not unlike the original premise of the Web, Second Life started with the idea that we would not begin as a set of identity data, we would begin with whatever blank slate we chose, and we would build trust outwards one user at a time.

User-to-User Micro-transactions
One of the reasons that anonymity worked so well in Second Life was that it did something else which was profound: it allowed us to place value on our exchanges with others and to represent that value with micro-payments.

Imagine if you will that the Web had also started with that premise. Imagine that you had been able to remain fairly anonymous and not provide your credit card information to too many people, but that you could very easily provide payment to the people who made CONTENT you admired.

Let’s say someone posted a really great blog post, and you could slip a few Lindens their way, or pay for a longer version of the article. Imagine someone spent time crafting a beautiful video and you want to show it off to friends and the only way to get a copy was to pay 4 cents or something to do so?

That’s what Second Life provides: the ability to appreciate craft, and to acknowledge that appreciation a few cents at a time without worrying that your spending habits were being shipped to Google or Wal*Mart or someone.

And while these notions ran counter to broader trends about information wanting to be free and open, we’re now finding that there are compelling reasons why this isn’t some sort of universal truth. The platforms we’re seeing today AREN’T open, Facebook is NOT open source, the iPhone is NOT Android, all of which suggests that the notion of free and copiable is not always either supportable or desirable, and any claim that it’s some sort of universal truth is false.

Similarly, the Lab created a system for IP transfer which, while it still has a few flaws in it maybe, is nonetheless stunning in its simplicity.

Creative Commons licenses are a messy shambles – I don’t understand them most of the time and I’m a fairly intelligent person. Does my MOM understand CC? She probably doesn’t even know it exists. And why should she care anyways? It’s not linked to any transactional system to make it relevant.

Does a 20-year old ripping music understand CC? Maybe she does but doesn’t care, or maybe she does but has no simple way of expressing adherence to it.

But with C/M/T, linked to all of the above, all of the ways in which we express our identity and the ways in which content could be bought or sold for fractions of pennies, and you’re able to express in a few clicks the intent behind the intellectual property that you’ve created. Please, show me, somewhere – ANYWHERE on the Web that has anything as ragingly elegant as C/M/T, coupled with the ability to execute its intent through a connection to users and commerce?

Where The Prim Road Leads
But I think that there’s a mistaken notion at the heart of all of this – and the mistaken notion is that the trend line is from virtual goods and their accompanying Web-based widgets, or mesh imports, or even HTML on a prim into the deep future – which, on the Web, means 5 years from now. I mean, sure, we can leave it for the next CEO or the eventual purchaser of Linden Lab to figure it out.

But I don’t sit on the board of the Lab, and I’m interested in extrapolating this as a deeper exercise in how this all plays out.

I believe the mistaken notion is that the great asset, whether of Facebook or Second Life or a lot of other businesses, whether in the digital world or the physical one, is the tangible good, whether it’s virtual or physical.

If I were to take one view of Second Life or Facebook or wherever else, what I’d see are transactions, data, and information that can be extrapolated and extended into some OTHER meaningful transaction, whether for a pair of virtual shoes or real ones.

Now, the dangers of extrapolating from data are evident in how the economy melted down because we came to believe that the algorithm was more powerful than the people it tried to encapsulate. This gives us a hint that maybe the data ISN’T something that can be extrapolated….or can’t be for long, anyways.

I came to believe, because of Second Life, that the more powerful force arising from technology wasn’t its ability to create efficiencies in transactions, whether of goods or social connection, but rather its ability to support the prototyping of the future itself.

As much as Facebook or Twitter may look like they’re a gold mine of transactional data, we’ve also seen that our sense of humanity can equally allow us to leverage that same transactional technology to both rise up with the help of the machine, and to rise up against it.

Twitter is the poster child of how we can allow technology to assist us, and we’re seeing increasing evidence that the same technology can be the enabler of our very human desire to be, well, mostly left alone by the utilities that may be nearly essential services, but that are utilities nonetheless.

I’m of the belief that Second Life didn’t just represent a rich space for self-expression, discovery, craft, commerce and social connection. It represented the ability to assemble ideas into increasingly large stories, concepts, and ideas.

The currency of the future is not the Linden. The currency of the future is simply being present where it’s being invented.

The Extended Prim
The natural extension of the prim, therefore, is not mesh and it’s not connecting the walls of your in-world home to youTube.

The natural extension of the prim is the collation of our ideas of what the future holds. The single atom of the prim carries the imprint of possibility. The story it tells is both our own, expressed through what we display, our avatar, or the ‘build’; and that of our more universal stories, the collective narrative which is made possible because we have a home for rendering content and turning that content into ideas which are not easily parsed by Google, not easily channeled through Web widgets, and not easily explained in the language of transactions.

Now, I’m not talking here about stuff that doesn’t have tangibility. It’s not JUST that Second Life allows new art forms, or unbridled creativity, or emotional connections between people.

I’m talking about the very real architecture upon which Second Life was built, which is an architecture of idea creation above all else. And as an architecture of ideas, it holds the possibility that the extension of that architecture can begin to extend into knowledge and wisdom itself.

With the ability to connect prims to reality, to create a flow of data in and out to both physical location and other information spaces, we can start to picture how the atomic, real-time, and expressive rendering of Second Life can actually start to capture more than the forms of content that we typically think of as a “3D world”.

In Farmville, you’re learning how to feed an algorithm, to play a game with rules and mechanics and requirements.

In Second Life, you’ve been toying with a multi-dimensional information space created on the fly in real time, that has shown itself to be a powerful entry into story, emotion, insight, collaboration, creation, and prototyping.

In other words, you’ve been using tools that will, with luck, be extended to include the capture of forms of knowledge and wisdom which are beyond the reach of all of the type of content that simply, well, stares back.

As we work or play in Second Life, we are contributing to a larger project: the creation of wisdom and of the new narratives that articulate that wisdom. This is a form of artificial intelligence that shifts us past formulas and social graphs into something that has more profound implications than the fact that someone busted a hole in the back wall: in this case, there’s the potential to blow the roof off.

The Path Finders
Maybe there’s no tension between the two. Maybe we should just applaud the Lab and let them tap into those wider algorithms, those social networks, and those beliefs that transactions and users are the driving engines of our time.

The world is large and there are a lot of doors into it.

If I’m an educator, I can find a quiet sim and explore the idea that the ways in which we learn are, increasingly, shared journeys through what we once called knowledge but that we can now rightly see are simply models built from the prims of assumptions: easy to reconfigure and modify and, with luck, if assembled in the right way a source of insight into ourselves and our societies.

If I’m a business person, I can ignore the pleas to hold virtual meetings and set up data war rooms and I can realize that the opportunity I have is to imagine a future in which the way I exist today will no longer be relevant a few years from now – and I can learn that the collation and synthesis of data is superseded by the power of an idea not easily tweeted, a story not easily collated, a worldview not easily blogged about.

There’s nothing wrong with utilities. They serve a purpose, they charge some fees, and I don’t mind paying to keep the lights on. When a better utility comes along, it’s not such a big deal to change – I don’t have any particular affinity for one phone company over another, and monopolies rarely last for very long.

The fact that the phone company knows where I am and what I buy may scare me, bother me, or infuriate me. But so far the phone company can’t tap into the richest resource of all.

They may be able to parse the transactions or data that pass through the airwaves or the wires, but the stories that we tell, the ideas that we share, the more perfect future that we imagine they can’t easily grab onto, unless they somehow come down and talk with us, and listen, and display the kind of curious wonder that doesn’t fit neatly into an annual report.

We’re path finders, you and I, no matter how slowly we walk or how far we wish to travel. Someone else may be making the bricks, but I hope that we’ll always continue to lay the stones down together.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.