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

Virtual Worlds, Hackers, Innovation and Enhancing the Human Condition

If I spent the time I’m sure I’d be the mayor of the deli next door by now, FourSquaring my way to Twitter fame because, well, you know, it’s really important that all my friends know how much smoked meat I eat and that I frickin OWN that deli.

If I spent the time, I’d probably have a beautiful farm in Farmville, or a well-run cafe in Cafe World, or I’d be um the Consiglieri in Mafia Wars by now. Because the ability to recognize patterns and click little crops like a chicken pecking at the pellet switch is a critical life skill, if not for me then for all the young’uns growing up in Facebook rather than out in the park, and it’s important that I understand what makes the youth of our time tick, because lord knows they’re impossible to manage.

Life is a game. All of it. Or will become one. And we’ll be brushing our teeth and leveling up in….well, in the game of life, of course, or at least according to Jesse Schell who appeared on Metanomics this week.

And actually, that was my dream when I was a kid – life sure SEEMED like a game. And the games I liked were the ones that simulated some version of reality, even if the laws of physics were different. There was nothing like mastering the rules or hacking the system a little and having fun with the systems that underpin games. Games convinced me that life couldn’t be that hard afterall – it was just this huge set of rules of some kind, and maybe all I needed to do was figure out what they were. And these very values, the fact that a set of blocks or a game of monopoly train us to look for systems and patterns is a good thing, it can be motivating and enabling.

But the thing with the games when I was younger was there was no one looking back (other than my mom coming in now and then to say “play fair”, a comment usually directed at me although I swear it was my brother who was bending the rules).

This is a point that Schell made on the show: games are getting so advanced, technology is getting so powerful, that games will be able to look back, and respond in real time, with real intelligence, and adapt themselves to your playing style, your weaknesses, and to what makes you tick.

Games will become like life, in other words: tailored for you.

Games Looking Back
But with a difference, because the truth is that the world, that neutral thing outside of us, well, it doesn’t particularly CARE whether we level up or whether we’re even here. The world and its many systems are pretty much neutral about whether we play or not. Live, die, who cares. The system that underpins that big game called real life is neutral on the subject.

But games aren’t like that. Games want you to play MORE. And as the model for games have changed, so has the model of what “more” means. Used to be you bought Monopoly once, you brought it home, and the game didn’t care whether you played it once or 1,000 times over 10 generations. Sure, it hoped you’d recommend it to a friend and so it had to be compelling.

But games today don’t work like that. They only take your money in tiny increments. They get you in for free and then ask for a buck. They keep you playing and ask for a few bucks more. And during those dead spaces in between, they serve up ads, and the ads, like the games, are motivated to LOOK BACK because only by looking back can they figure out how to get you from buck one to the third buck, or from your farm in Farmville to the banner ad to the Web site selling organic free range t-shirts manufactured in China.

And so technology NEEDS to look back, and become smarter at how it does that….the motivation isn’t giving you a good time, the motivation is getting you to spend small increments of money, like following a trail of bread crumbs into an ever darkening forest.

So I wondered about all this as I listened to Jesse-games-will-be-everywhere-and-did-I-tell-you-I-own-a-game-company-Schell and I asked the question:

In what forums are ethics discussed in the game development community?

And his answer? “We’re too busy to think about that, this is all too new, um, nowhere.” (I’m paraphrasing, await transcript anon).

Hacker Culture Commercialized
Steven Levy has revisited hacker culture over at Wired. And I won’t parse hacker culture, that’s a topic of its own. But he makes a few interesting points in his article, including a side trip down the “information wants to be free” meme. But I was fascinated by the evolution of hacker culture and its relation to commerce.

Interviewing Richard Greenblatt, Levy listens to him rant (emphasis added for reasons we’ll get to):

The real problem, Greenblatt says, is that business interests have intruded on a culture that was founded on the ideals of openness and creativity. In Greenblatt’s heyday, he and his friends shared code freely, devoting themselves purely to the goal of building better products. “There’s a dynamic now that says, let’s format our Web page so people have to push the button a lot so that they’ll see lots of ads,” Greenblatt says. “Basically, the people who win are those who manage to make things the most inconvenient for you.”

Greenblatt is not one of those people. He belongs in a different group: the true believers, who still cling to their original motivations — the joy of discovery, the free exchange of ideas — even as their passion has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry. Despite their brilliance and importance, they never launched million-dollar products or became icons. They just kept hacking.

He contrasts this with today’s “hackers”, the Zuckerbergs of the world, trying to pretend that Facebook is a hacker boot camp instead of a multi-billion dollar IPO play:

“Our whole culture is, we want to build something quickly.” Every six to eight weeks, Facebook conducts “hackathons,” where people have one night to dream up and complete a project. “The idea is that you can build something really good in a night,” Zuckerberg says. “And that’s part of the personality of Facebook now. We have a big belief in moving fast, pushing boundaries, saying that it’s OK to break things. It’s definitely very core to my personality.”

In the ongoing competition for talent, Zuckerberg believes that the company with the best hackers wins. “One good hacker can be as good as 10 or 20 engineers, and we try to embrace that. We want to be the place where the best hackers want to work, because our culture is set up so they can build stuff quickly and do crazy stuff and be recognized for standout brilliance.”

Zuckerberg even argues that Facebook believes in the “information wants to be free” ethic of hacker culture:

“Zuckerberg says that the truth is just the opposite; his company piggybacks — and builds — on the free flow of information. “I never wanted to have information that other people didn’t have,” he says. “I just thought it should all be more available. From everything I read, that’s a very core part of hacker culture. Like ‘information wants to be free’ and all that.””

Um – this from Facebook? If you believe that information wants to be free (and all that) then please give me a copy of all the data you’ve scraped and sold to ad farms please.

I mean, it strikes me that there’s a problem somewhere here. Because let’s follow the logic:

- Hacker culture underpins much of the innovation on the ‘digital landscape’
- This culture is based on the idea of openness and creativity and of BREAKING things, pushing boundaries and moving fast
- This same culture has followed one strand in which commercialization, monetization and “making bank” aren’t evil, they’re to be applauded
- And yet, the hacker culture that underpins this convergence of breaking things and money hasn’t taken a good hard look at its underpinning ethic and asked the question: “Does breaking stuff and pushing boundaries and believing in moving fast….WHEN COMBINED WITH a desire to ‘make bank’….well, mean anything?”

In what forums are ethics discussed in the game development/coder/venture capital/social media/widgetizing community?

This Blog Lacks Real Merit
Now, you need to know that this site is specious. By various dictionary definitions, this blog is ‘deceptively attractive in appearance’; ‘apparently good or right though lacking real merit’; ’superficially pleasing or plausible’.

That’s what Tom Hale, the senior executive of product development at Linden Lab says.

On a recent Metanomics, he took issue with a post of mine saying that I was wrong about culture in Second Life. There is none, Tom claims, because Second Life has too many communities to have a culture of its own. His exact words were something like: “I don’t want to be disrespectful but Dusan’s post is specious.”

Now, if you follow this blog, you know that it’s pretty much ALL about culture, in one form or another: about technology, how it’s impacting our lives, the meaning of avatar identity, issues of privacy, the role of creativity, and the meaning of community. I’ve written somewhere in the range of 300,000 words a good number of them about the culture of Second Life. I’ve written dozens of individual posts about Second Life culture.

I’ve interviewed Tom Boellstorff, one of the top anthropologists in the world by virtue of his role as editor-in-chief of one of the top anthropologist journals in the world, and I’ve interviewed him several times. I’ve hosted forums with other anthropologists on this very topic. We’ve covered it on our show, in interviews with educators and researchers, sociologists and economists. I’ve covered Second Life culture at conferences, I’ve presented about it at trade shows, I’ve been interviewed on the topic, and I’ve pitched the insights of Second Life culture to clients.

So when Hale takes issue with a single post, he’s actually taking issue with 3 years of thinking on the topic. And Tom Hale believes that my thoughts on this topic are: “apparently good or right though lacking real merit”.

Now, it’s odd. Because there are a few seminal books about Second Life. And one of them is Coming of Age in Second Life (yes, by Boellstorff, and it’s a defining text not just of Second Life, but of virtual worlds as a valid site for anthropological research). And I asked the people behind the new user experience for Second Life whether they’d read it.

And the response of the people at Linden Lab who were behind the launch and development of the new Viewer and the new orientation experience? They’d never heard of it.

Which is also odd, because being one of the seminal texts about Second Life, it goes beyond being an obscure text on anthropology, because in examining life IN Second Life, it also provides deep insight into the interfaces and tools that users have access to, and the broader meaning of this not just as part of a user experience, but as something with broader meaning….CULTURAL meaning. Cultural value.

You see, I can’t help thinking that if you don’t believe that there’s a culture of Second Life, and if you haven’t read the seminal texts on the subject, if your idea of “engaging with the community” is a 2 week beta test with a select group who barely have time to boot it up before you roll it out (and which you launch to them by concluding: “Get your blog posts ready for when this goes live!”) then I wonder if you’re one of those hackers, or game development types, or you work in PR.

We have a big belief in moving fast, pushing boundaries, saying that it’s OK to break things.

And I believe that too. But I also believe that you need to be moving fast TOWARDS something.

Due Diligence
Linden Lab will be sold off within 18 months. It may actually be sooner.

I have nothing to base this on other than intuition. It’s not unlike being in Second Life – ever notice how you can ‘read’ someone’s mood by some subtle signal in the way they respond in chat? Some tiny pause or hesitation? Ever feel like you could tell something about their thoughts from their avatar? There’s no logical reason for it – their avatar is driven by an animation system not hooked into their cortex, and yet, well, you just KNOW.

And that’s my feeling about the Lab. And I’m happy for them – happy for Philip and M and the shareholders. That’s why you DO this and if, along the way, you can make some people happy or change the world a little that’s great too.

And the way this works is that in order to sell a company like the Lab you need a few things: a growth curve in users, a good storyline that fits into the storyline of the people who buy companies, and a good team of lawyers.

So I’m not going to argue with Tom Hale. The idea of a Second Life culture isn’t a good storyline if you’re selling the company. You need “communities” not culture. You need new users. You need social media. You need for the adult stuff to be contained and easily excised (depending on the buyer) and you need a good legal framework for all the content you have sitting on your servers.

It’s all good, right? No harm in progress. Clean it up, sell it off, and make bank at the top end of the tail.

Second Life as a Great Brand
Last summer, ahead of the Second Life Community Convention I asked whether Second Life could become a great brand. An enduring one. Something that had lasting resonance and meaning.

A week after posting it, Philip Rosedale approached me at the conference and said: “I read your post and I wish I could write like that. It expressed the big challenge, the big question, thank you for that.”

And that was stunningly flattering. (And please, Philip, don’t start blogging, just keep doing what you’re doing). And I was hopeful that it meant that there were people at the Lab trying to answer the question – “can Second Life be a great brand” and that they might even think about it in the context of how I phrased it:

And I’ve heard lots of ways to describe brands, and there are probably as many ways to build great ones as there are brands themselves, but I’d propose that they all have something in common:

- They embody some sort of aspiration
- They clearly articulate that aspiration through both the products themselves and how they’re sold
- They are embraced with an often religious devotion by core communities
- This results in a “brand halo” that makes them desirable to wide audiences.

And I believe that Second Life has the potential to be a great brand. What’s partly missing, of course, is the second bullet. But remember I’m going on the premise here that the product is headed for a tipping point: the first hour will be improved, the interface will rock, you’ll be able to find stuff, you’ll be able to meet people, things will make sense. (OK, remember…caffeinated!)

But what’s really missing, for me at least, is the brand aspiration, the brand value. Nike isn’t about shoes, it’s about personal achievement. Second Life isn’t about virtual goods, it’s about something else.

I don’t believe for a minute that the brand represents the ‘improvement of humanity’ or whatever – that’s a mission statement for the Lab, not a brand value. Besides, I don’t usually log in to improve humanity, I log in to play with prims, or to attend a conference, or to chat with people.

Maybe it has something to do with what Tom Boellstorff said: that Second Life is “techne within techne”. We have the tools WITHIN the tools.

Maybe what SL can do is to humanize our engagement with technology. Maybe it’s the place where rather than technology being an appliance, like a phone, or a piece of software, we can interact from inside the code. And maybe somehow that’s humanizing, and maybe as we keep on coding the Grid, we’ll start coding stuff other than a door script, we’ll start coding, I dunno, protein foldings or something.

So maybe there’s something in that “Second Life” thing…it’s life, only better. It’s technology, only it doesn’t FEEL like technology. It’s being able to do cool stuff with code but not knowing that you’re coding. I’m not sure.

Because this is Your World, and Your Imagination. And maybe that’s all the aspiration we need. And as we head into a community convention that’s not such a bad place to start: to revisit the aspirations we hold for the world, to ask ourselves how to articulate those dreams, to question how far we dare take them, and to wonder whether, if we were to slip towards the sea, we could build a boat with sails that are wide enough and a hull sturdy enough to carry us across the waters and to ponder where it might lead.

But you tell me. Has Linden Lab “articulated an aspiration”? Or have they simply done due diligence?

An Agenda for the Age of Imagination
During another interview which I fear listening to (I don’t want to be constantly angry, after all) Hale made a more compelling claim than the one that there’s no Second Life culture (and which I quote from Daniel Voyager’s incredible blog):

“Our mission is pretty clear, and it’s pretty broad. It’s to enhance and improve the human condition. I think that’s a pretty noble mission. If you think about what the experience, and the product, and the platform actually enable, they enable people to communicate, express themselves, and connect in a rich, immersive, shared context. That’s fundamentally what it’s about.”

Which is a reminder of the room for innovation in virtual worlds, a reminder that while Twitter can help save the world, as in the role it played in Haiti – there’s the opportunity, unique to virtual worlds in some ways, and Second Life in particular, to still take a crack at that ‘improving the human condition’ thing, so long as we’re careful, so long as we realize that Farmville is a fad and data scraping your toothbrush isn’t exactly the way some of us want to see the world turn out.

Virtual worlds, whether you call them sites of culture or not, present unique opportunities to explore, build, create, collaborate and define a future in which the human condition is improved because we’ve found ways to accommodate technology in our lives that don’t rely on data scraping, that value personal expression, that don’t buy in to the idea that anonymity is necessarily BAD and that realize that there can be online domains that include both anonymity and (generally) civility, and that allow us to both innovate, break things, and move quickly while making our bank in the long tail.

Second Life has prototyped the future. It built a system of personal expression, identity management, commerce, and user-generated content and created interlinking explorations of how our broader culture and meaning can be positively enabled by our ability to “communicate, express themselves, and connect in a rich, immersive, shared context”.

But for this agenda to bear its greatest fruits, it looks like the Lab won’t be lighting the way for the journey. Unless your idea of the future includes on-boarding via a Linden Tract Home. Or a viewer whose chat chiclets are only viewable by the not-yet-fading eyes of 30-something interface developers. Or where you need to hunt-and-peck to navigate the viewer much as you hunt and peck with your mouse in Farmville.

Maybe the Lab will sell to someone else who can articulate the vision for how the human condition can be enhanced. Or maybe they’ve been so busy filling up our screens with unwanted interface real estate and now, before breaking something else, they’ll get around to explaining it themselves.

Or maybe it’s not so bad to have a game embedded in your toothbrush and this was all just a side trip before we returned to the issue of buying and selling and pretending we could otherwise make a difference.

I’ll hold out some hope, and will continue to believe that non-existent Second Life culture provides some lessons and that these immersive, shared contexts provide some hope that my future includes something a bit more than a tract home or fertilizing someone’s virtual crops for the weekend.


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