Friday, January 21, 2011

Stepping into a Walled Garden

Right before Christmas Linden Lab announced it was bringing in Rod Humble as its new CEO, taking over for the (second) departure of Second Life founder Philip Rosedale. Reaction in the SL user community was rather muted, in part due to the timing of the announcement, but the overall tone was generally hopeful: Humble comes to Second Life from a background in online gaming and virtual worlds with Electronic Arts, The Sims, and EverQuest, and many folks figured that experience might make him a better fit with the SL universe than a chief executive with primary experience in other fields—like marketing or financing.

To my surprise, Humble's first official statement to the Second Life community wasn't about a vision for the future, Linden Lab's business fundamentals, an announcement of new technology initiatives, or leadership shakeups. Instead, Humble has posted a surprisingly charming chronicle about getting his feet wet in Second Life. "One of my highest priorities, over the last few weeks, was spending as much time as possible exploring inworld […] to better understand the product experience, your needs, and the culture of Second Life."

The best thing about the short piece is that Humble clearly isn't intimidated to show that he's new to Second Life—for experienced SL users, Humble's little photolog brings back memories of their first days when everything was new and mysterious and filled with exciting possibilities. Humble doesn't put on airs: he doesn't try to present a sophisticated persona or avatar, and honestly seems to have had fun getting started. In the post, Humble says he popped around to some of SL's winter seasonal activities (I did something similar when I was new to SL), then started playing around with terraforming land and even tapping into SL's building tools (to create a "shack" and a raft) and scripting tools.

I have to admit this last bit delighted me: the head of the company is actually trying to create things of his own in world, and even add interactivity to them! (He made a prim that sends him email.) He's totally up-front that everything he did is very basic, but one consistent criticism of Linden Lab's leadership during my time in Second Life is that, while a few developers and other Lindens log actual time in-world, very few of the top execs spent any time at all in-world. I'm happy he is, I hope he enjoys it, and I hope he consistently spends time in-world.

But. Being a cynical creature, I immediately started reading between the lines. See that omission ellipsis in that quote from Humble, above? Here's the full sentence (emphasis mine):

One of my highest priorities, over the last few weeks, was spending as much time as possible exploring inworld (with an alt and now Rodvik Linden) to better understand the product experience, your needs, and the culture of Second Life.

It's not much of a secret that most (all?) Linden Lab people are hesitant to log into the world with a Linden account: it's like having a target painted on your back, so they use different accounts so they can get around without being harassed. But I am somewhat disappointed that the new CEO's first experience of Second Life is that managing a Second Life experience requires multiple accounts. I'm kind of interpreting that as an indication Linden Lab has no plans to improve account tools, role management capabilities, or other significant deficiencies in the platform that lead may people to use several alts—or, in some cases, entire troupes of them.

Humble segued from visiting a few locations and events to "playing around with the land tool […] on my island." This made me blink. Maybe Humble had a genuine newbie experience with first alt. He doesn't say. But his experience of Second Life, with his own private island won't provide much experience of the needs or culture of average SL users. Most SL users aren't land owners. Among landowners, most don't have a private island. I've been in Second Life over two years and have never used the terraform tool. (I've never been permitted to do so. I literally have no idea how it works.)

No. "Real" new residents get dumped into an infohub, somewhere like Waterhead or Ahern or Moose Beach, where a large gaggle of avatars usually stands around 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with the explicit purpose of getting lulz at the expense of any new resident who might get close to them, or (heaven forfend) ask a question. And let's not even get into the rude noises, flying penises, pixel bestiality, goatse particle fountains, or other common entertainments at those hubs.

Infohubs are also prime locations for scammers and spammers: I popped into an infohub to test a script last week and within a minute received this instant message:

[2011/01/16 22:28] [REDACTED] Resident: Hello, may you help to me with 100 Linden$ for loading avatar picture, please! I do not begging.

Popping back just now (weekday afternoon SLT at a "PG" infohub) I see seven brand-new "Resident" avatars with group tags like "QuickCash" and "Ask me how to Make L$$$," group tags promoting porn Web sites, outright solicitations for virtual sex, and a few older avatars with titlers saying things like "*Homes for rent, contact me*" and "*~*Wanna get lucky*~*" Although, in a ten-minute span, I am somewhat surprised to count only one nude female avatar, three penises, and one person shouting to the whole sim about how he loves Jesus. It's worse in the evenings.

This is the fast, easy, fun, "PG-rated" environment into which Linden Lab is dumping new residents and (now) 16- and 17 year-old residents: as of today, the Teen Grid is gone.

Let's remember: new residents typically have no money. They want to try SL before they commit to hooking up a PayPal account or anything—so they can't buy better clothes, tools, or land. New residents devote a lot of time learning to customize the shape of their avatar, asking people for pointers, seeking out newbie-friendly locations, and looking for freebies. If new residents are interested in building, they're basically limited to sandboxes—and sandboxes are where the gaggle of infohub troublemakers go when they find the more-controlled conditions of infohubs too dull.

By starting out on a private island, presumably with some Linden cash (he is the CEO, after all) Rod Humble is neatly bypassing the typical experience for new residents.

So, not that you're reading this, Mr. Humble, but:

  • Use your alt to check out the infohubs and see how new residents are treated.
  • Try to get by with no money. Search for freebies, maybe try some hunts. Keep track of your time.
  • Attend events—live music is a good choice (but I'd love for you to try a good trivia game!)
  • Continue building. See if you can turn that raft into a boat, and that shack into a house, and that mailpost into, I don't know, a suggestion box.
  • Have fun for diving into Second Life. Don't give up now.

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