Events, Second Life

Children, Chains and Cold Cash: The Business Case for SL5B

The exclusion of builds by child AVs and (we await clarification) Gor, BDSM and other communities puts the lie to the idea that Linden Lab actually celebrates the “magic” of its community - it’s in it for the money, after all, and will celebrate magic selectively. This isn’t news. This isn’t some radical shift in policy - there’s always been a FIC, it’s just that its definition has become narrower as time goes on, and in order to simplify things it’s just as easy to exclude large swaths as it is to include a select group of businesses or talent.

Prokofy weighs in on the discussion and doesn’t hold out much hope that the Lab will strike the proper balance between freedom of expression and association:

But hey, it’s not about the particular dove-tailing about my views with the hippie Lindens at this particular juncture — that’s not a frequent occurence. It’s about the Sacred Doctrine of Second Life, which is “I get to do WTF I want on my land.” That is, groups, organizations, companies get to express what they wish to, how they want. Freedom of expression does not trump freedom of assocation. It’s one of the bitter pills one swallows for the sake of all the freedoms, and you hope that those who are stewards of these freedoms online strike a balance.

Prok makes the well-reasoned argument that Linden has the right to promote Second Life how it sees fit. And within the context of that, make some decisions as to what kind of vision it wants to present to the world: “But you know something? It’s not only about “it’s their world, they can do what they want”; it’s about what kind of civilization you wish to have.”

And in this context, Linden hasn’t done something new. The Community Spotlight, what it chooses to highlight in public, how it handles PR and community outreach - the sanitization of these things isn’t new. The Lab has hired a lot more lawyers lately, and their PR goons still wake up in a cold sweat worrying about terrorist cells being uncovered in Second Life or a new child AV sex scandal popping up over on Sky News, and Philip has been to Congress and the bright lights left him a little stunned and starry eyed, and now it’s all about collaboration and education.

Prok is right in one sense:

I think those that want to protest the sort of culture the Lindens are creating should make their own birthday celebration, not bang on theirs. That’s my feeling about Showcase these days, too — having failed to stop it as a FIC institution, I think our task now is merely to build alternatives of our own, and not play into this endless co-optation and watering down of our own values. I think that’s how people have to play it if they are so inclined — make their own celebration with their own content as an alternative or independent holiday.

And he’s right because the Lindens have shown no signs that they’ll ever be able to properly promote, support, or attract the kinds of constituencies needed for Second Life to be viable in the long run. We need to do it on our own.

Linden’s Blinders or Headed for an IPO?
I really wonder whether Philip, with Mitch whispering in his ear, really believes his own press about collaboration in virtual worlds, about universities and education and how the future is in these things. I mean, I have some news for our friends in California - there are some bright minds out there thinking about these things, and if this is your business goal (having abandoned, I suppose, the connecting all of humanity squishy vision stuff) then I hope you’re ready to take on your Medicis of the Grid - because the IBMs and the Ciscos and the Microsofts of the world are all over the idea of collaboration, it’s what they do for a living, after all. And if you really believe in the power of Second Life as a collaboration platform, then you can kiss the schools goodbye, because they’re already starting to decamp to Project Wonderland mainly because the system specs for SL keep getting higher and higher, and frankly, most classroom graphics cards can’t handle what SL has to offer.

So you’ve set yourself up with a vision for who you’re trying to attract to Second Life with a contradictory set of requirements for what it would take to get them there and keep them. Go out and talk to some teachers, some schools, read the blogs - I have. And here’s what I hear: without the ability to link avatars to actual names, without the sort of expensive equipment that’s increasingly needed to even run SL in a classroom, without more stability on the Grid, without the ability to easily back up course content and have iron clad safeguards for information, you’re not going to get much past this sort of “SL as a test bed” phase for education.

So maybe it’s all going to be about collaboration, and people holding staff meetings in virtual worlds, and you’re able to sit beside a rabbit as you review the latest profit & loss statements. But if it’s collaboration you’re after, you’re throwing a little pebble into a much larger pond dominated by the virtual presence rooms of Cisco, the virtual widgets being added to Lotus, and the serious games being pursued by Microsoft.

Why would you want to sit beside a bunny when you can sit beside a real person:

Why graft collaboration onto Second Life when IBM is slowly grafting it on to Lotus:

Why set up a sim for training that you can’t control, back-up, and that doesn’t actually “simulate” anything very well when you can use Microsoft’s simulator platform, or Virtual Heroes, or Forterra (working in partnership with IBM)?

So let’s discard the myth that Second Life has some sort of magic recipe for educators and companies, that it has some sort of formula for teaching or collaboration that can match all the other stuff that’s out there competing for these folk’s attention.

The Princeton sims are great, there’s lots of them, Scope Cleaver even designed the buildings! But somehow I think that the few dozen green dots that I see on the virtual campus when I go visit are hardly representative of a large percentage of the Princeton student body - how many students do they have again? How many use Second Life? And even if more students WANTED to use it, attend classes there, socialize - how many can each sim handle?

And I love what other schools are doing - I promote them, applaud them, link to them when I can. And while I think the future might very well be in schools and education, they’ll quickly decamp if the tech specs become inaccessible, if the Grid remains unstable, and if the issues of student tracking and asset back-up and protection aren’t dealt with before universities decide to offer an entire course in Second Life - for now, it’s an adjunct to other courseware, you don’t hear any examples of it supplanting what already exists.

So, the Lab either has blinders on as to the needs and competition in these areas of so-called focus, or…well, we all know the or….or they’re planning to cash out, sell out, or go public…there were rumours that Cisco was looking to buy Qwak…why not buy Second Life instead?

A Platform for the Rest of Us
So we cycle back to community. To the idea of “Your World, Your Imagination”. And let’s be generous for a second and assume that the Lindens really DO want to appeal to a wider cross-section of users, they really DO want stickiness, and better orientation, and people just wandering around SL for the heck of it - to buy shoes, build beach houses, rent or buy land.

SL5B isn’t a celebration - it’s a promotional tool. And the Lab can promote themselves how they wish. But here’s where I’d argue that Prok has it wrong, because if you glance around at the other things competing for the attention of the “casual surfer” then the Lab is ignoring some pretty powerful tools for attracting new users by excluding participation by the community.

I’m going here on the assumption that the Lab is doing this not out of the goodness of its heart and to give something back to the community, I’m assuming they’re doing this for one of two reasons: to promote SL to a wider audience in the hopes they’ll attract more users, or to increase retention amongst current users. If the latter, I’m not sure that there’s any argument that in this regard they’re failing, and miserably. They’ve managed to insult three massive user groups. And it’s not as if everyone else was sitting around saying “well, I’d stay, I really want to stay, if only they’d hide those kids and Gor masters away…I just can’t abide them”.

So that leaves us with the assumption that maybe they’re trying to attract new users. But on that front, they either don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world, or their target group is so narrow that I can’t even figure out what it would be, but if someone can help me please do.

Because here’s the question - are there precedents for kids, or edgy sexuality as something that appeals to casual surfers and potential users? Dunno….seems to me there’s a few things out there that put the lie to that idea that these things should be hidden away if you want to attract new users and not offend.

People Want to Play Kids, or Play Family
According to the New York Times, the idea of families, kids, and little dream houses is a $4 Billion industry - for the Sims:

The Sims has stood out because it is perhaps the only game series that is fundamentally about exploring the inner expressions of a person’s fantasy life. There is no way to avoid it. Just as a novelist’s every character in some way reflects the writer, every Sim in some way reflects its creator. Even if that “ ‘Desperate Housewives’ meets ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ ” household you made doesn’t appear to reflect your real life, it does reflect some aspect of you.

And while the Sims Online didn’t succeed, there’s room in the virtual world for the kind of emotions it taps into:

“You get to tap into this wonderful childhood imaginary game, which is ‘What if I could create my own little world and all the people in it and watch them go through their business and jump in and change things when I want?’ That is a pretty personal fantasy.”

OK, so let’s say we ignore the fact that there’s a proven market for being able to play out family life, having kids (or being one), and the suburban fantasy. But there are other examples of playing a child, and unless someone can send me user stats, I suspect that the following aren’t entirely played by the under-18 set (who’s more likely, I suspect, to be playing a first-person shooter):

Hmmm….and there’s even a few Harry Potter fans out there who wouldn’t mind a better way to “dress up” as their favourite wizard:

As for Gor

I barely even need to touch on this to find ample proof that the images, sexuality and fusion of power with leather and loin cloths has some place in the public imagination. Now, remember that we’re talking here about PG sims - we’re not talking sex beds or adult poseballs, we’re talking, probably, a Gor arena or tavern or something. But even with this imagery, if you want to fire up the imagination of some potential new users of the platform, a little leather and a few chains could go a long way.

In fact, I wonder how many users we might be LOSING because they’re off on Age of Conan playing guts and gore? From the latest issue of PC Gamer:

“I got my first taste of the games Mature rating (when) the freed slave Casilda lets you know pretty clearly how she’d like to repay your kindness, and it isn’t with a Starbucks gift certificate.”

I mean, if these images are good enough for a hot new MMO, why aren’t they good enough for Second Life again?

Sure, It’s About What Kind of World We Want

We can argue culture, and community, and what’s broadly offensive versus what’s clean enough for public consumption. I’m not sure I’d allow a slave auction build as part of a celebration of diversity, but I might allow a Gor tavern. If I’m a platform owner, as SL is, it’s all about the cash, right?

And we can go on about the culture and community and sound like hippies. And I’ve argued at length elsewhere that culture is important. And protecting the culture of Second Life is important. But for those of us who think in practical business terms I can see absolutely no rationale for why Linden would exclude these groups from what is, in essence, a version of their “home page” for a little yearly promo press blast.

Linden needs to retain the users it has, and it’s not doing such a great job of that, both through these actions or the lack of progress on grid and asset server stability.

Linden needs to attract new users, and sure, a better orientation experience is their top priority. But if their exclusion of these communities from SL5B is meant to make sure that the “right” types of new users are attracted to the platform, it baffles me how other service providers can make billions off of these same types of images and representations and Linden can decide that these are inappropriate marketing segments.

Which leaves us, of course, with collaboration and education. But first, this event is not a “business showcase” and it’s not an “education fair” it’s a community event. And if they think that businesses and schools will be scared off by some kids and some leather-clad men then I hate to break it to them - but that horse has already left the barn. It’s not as if this stuff will be all that NEW - if you’re a school and you’ve decided to look at SL, you’ve already SEEN the press, you KNOW what’s there, and you either come or you don’t. A few little builds at a community even it hardly going to repel your corporate pocketbooks - they’ve already been repelled already or they’ve sucked it up and have come on board.

So? Is there a reason I’ve missed? Because I just don’t get it. We’ve covered culture, community relations, and we’ve covered cold hard cash.

The only conclusion I can come to is don’t rely on the Lindens for anything. If you want logical, or sound business strategy, invest your money elsewhere, or just do it yourself, as Prok says. I suspect that the build that the kids are doing had better ramp up their ability to handle traffic. They probably have a better handle on creativity and promotion than the Lindens do.


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