Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Second Life

Crowdsourcing the Future: The Mountains We Can Move

For all the neat labels and theories, for all the widgets and APIs, for all the Wikis and Lulus and Bit Torrents, there are no easy answers to how the future will unfurl. We’re floating on the idea of Web 2.0 and 3.0 and the semantic web, virtual worlds and casual games, Castranova is pleading for the walls of the garden to be secured, while others are debating whether the worlds deserve the name.

A World or a Platform?
(All photos Kids5B sims)

What’s certain is that stuff is changing. The way we work, the way we collaborate, the 24-hour blogs which feed the 24-hour cable stations which feeds tomorrow’s cover of the New York Times and then loops around again. What do companies do when their competitor is no longer in the office across the parking lot, but is dispersed through the Web, communities of practice and interest coming together, dispersing, working up code and open sourcing it and value flows down different paths and then it stops.

Spaces of play are, perhaps, not just places we go to immerse or escape, but hold lessons – and much as there’s danger in Castranova’s idea that governments should program their policies (and by extensions their citizens) so that we all live in one giant game of grinding and questing, there IS something to be said for how these sites of sociality, with techne embedded in techne as Boellstorff says, are creating new models, new insights, new forms and new ways in which we express our identities, our ideals, our hopes and fears.

Spaces of Play

Libertarian maybe – a sort of Californian ideology, we’re all waiting for the singularity, of course, and virtual worlds sometimes feel like the place where the singularity will become manifest, we see it in the art, in the tools for expression, in how information and virtual objects flow and respond, reflective architecture and 3D Wikis and education and just plain hanging out, buying a beach house, and talking about love and despair.

There’s a downside to techne, of course – the dangers of becoming plugged and not being able to pull the plug, the darker sides of desire, CIA agents roaming the grids looking for terrorist cells, and Congress folk roaming the grids and looking for, well, not sure what – kids I guess, but there aren’t any kids here, just some avatars that look like kids, so we’ll stick to nipple hunts I suppose.

Gwyn, as usual, managed to sum it all up in a meta-post that didn’t just look at the policies of exclusion by Linden Lab but hypothesized that there was a sort of purposeful reverse-engineered crowdsourcing – let the residents plan for a year, build, create, and then pull the rug out from under them at the last moment. All part of a conspiracy, maybe, to drive out those pesky early adopters whose values maybe aren’t the same as middle America.

As Gwyn said:

So while the whole world is “learning” the SL lesson — thinking outside the box, breaking with old methods and methodologies, surpassing communication barriers and geographical barriers — Linden Lab, by contrast, not only doesn’t learn to do proper communication and PR, but they act as if they’re scared to death that the corporate world doesn’t take them seriously if they allow kid avatars to do creative buildings on a festival of arts and self-expression?

I’m not so sure about conspiracies and a desire to drive out the creative cream of the crop. It’s not that the Lab doesn’t benefit from cleaning up the Grid, they’ve got to prep for sale somehow, although they’ve lost their minds if they think that past history, news reports, bloggings, and just a wander around the sims won’t come up in due diligence by any potential buyer. And it also presumes that the birthday celebration is the main press activity of the Lab – that they care more about press coming out of the birthday celebration than say Philip speaking in San Jose.

I think the reality is more along the lines of ego, hubris, and bad management. There’s no conspiracy, there’s just a consistent failing to understand their own platform and the community that’s engaged in it. As Gwyn points out – this isn’t the first time. So, it’s not a NEW conspiracy, either – it’s just an extension of bad management.

But here’s the irony – the opposite of bad management in today’s user-generated world, with prosumers and Wiki-ites and open sourceniks is crowd sourcing, organic, fluid, dynamic and chaotic.

I seem to remember Burning Life having its share of bumps and disasters partly because some of the resident organizers, well, didn’t play so well.

But maybe that’s the point – maybe the lesson in all this is you CAN’T control egos, creativity, chaos, and dissent. Maybe the point is that in a world that is fluid and where we continue to mash-up content and experiences, picking bits from here and there to create new realities, that it isn’t going to be EASY when the train you’re on is just barely keeping to the tracks.

Linden finds itself in the unusual position of being at odds with itself. As a platform, it wants to connect all of humanity with a 3D world where we can all become better people, or whatever their mission is. And as a platform, their job is to create a stable architecture, to think about standards and interoperability with things like openSim, and to make sure that the platform features like ambient occlusion and shadows and who knows what else, are appropriate to the vision of creating a technology that embeds only the BEST – this is the FUTURE, afterall, and it needs to be as bright and shiny as we can make it, otherwise Sony’s home or Blue Mars might come along and we’ll settle for something that’s LESS, but heck, it looks nice, feels good, and I can still chat with friends, I don’t need all that other content primmy stuff, it’s too complicated anyways.

But the problem is that the platform is also a world in which a culture exists and thrives, and it’s a culture whose libertarian, expressive, creative roots were what juiced the platform in the first place. Pandora’s Box was opened when they stopped taxing the prims and started selling land instead – this really would be our world, whether we’re a Neko or a teacher, an anthropologist or have a kid avatar and a mom and a dad.

Against this contradiction between being a technology and having a culture embedded in that technology is that this schism is confusing for the next intrepid band of companies and schools and entrepreneurs who might want to make a home here. But as I’ve written about before, and as Gwyn has pointed out – whether the birthday celebrations are PG or Mature doesn’t make a whit of difference to some CEO – it’s not like they’re going to MISS the negative stuff, just run a Google on Second Life and you’ll see there’s been a fuss or two – so they’re either going to suck it up and come in, or say that it sucks and run. No amount of scrubbing and cleaning is going to make the sex beds disappear, and even if they did you can’t very well scrub and clean up CHAT which is where most of the action probably takes place anyways.

But the irony in all this is that in the Lab’s attempt to have a platform, they’ve forgotten that their whole world was built on crowd sourcing. Now, sure, you can make a few pennies if you’re lucky selling some of the results of that sourcing, but the reality is there are very very few people who make money making stuff – most people do it because they want a dock or a little camp fire and decide to make it themselves, and then maybe throw their work into a little mall somewhere and get a little thrill when they make 100L or whatever it is, it’s nice to share your work, there’s value in that exchange, even though the exchange is pennies. And an even greater source of exchange is GIFTS – an almost tribal exchange of items, help, little scripts or clothes, a t-shirt here or a candle there.

And having forgotten that crowd sourcing is chaotic, and that the crowd can get a little unruly on occasion, they’ve actually succeeded spectacularly – but the success is over on the sims being put on by the child avatar community.

The SL birthday sims took a year of planning, and word of mouth, and recruiting, sketching, texturing, cajoling, promotion.

The Kids sims took 19 DAYS.

Two Empty Sims + 19 Days

Two completely empty sims. No organization. No plan. No PR. Not a single prim bought, constructed. Not a single sign made, not a single t-shirt, landmark, stage, path, or guided tour balloon.

Well, you’ll have to go for yourself of course. Decide who accomplished a feat of crowdsourcing. Decide whether the chaos they went through, the discussion and dissent and mashing up of prims with creative output was an example of what’s POSSIBLE.

Is it Black Swan? Not really. It’s an expression of community pure and simple, and what that community ’s forms of expression are.

And in 19 days, they managed to get through dissent, planning, marketing, sim design, recruiting, team work, collaboration, art creation, social spaces, transmorgifiers, display stands, clothing, PR, live events, stories, photos…well…I don’t know, I’ve still got lots to see really, I just browsed.

Mountains moved. It’s not a platform. It’s a culture, a new way of working, thinking, expressing, believing, and dreaming.

Second Life is a Story Box. When the birthday celebrations begin, remember that there are two going on – one which was pure crowd sourcing, and one which tried to be but then decided they’d rather be a platform instead.


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