Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A new beginning

Second Life has failed. More specifically, Linden Lab's promise of a virtual world, which will improve the human condition, has turned out to be false. And, astonishingly, it all boils down to the old Immersionism vs Augmentationism debate. Who would have thought it?

There are two radically different groups of Second Life users. The first are the immersionists - escapists in disguise, who have come to Second Life to create a new life for themselves. They are lured here by the promise of a brave new world, a blank canvas on which they are free to draw their fantasies. From perfect bodies to Gor slave traders, from male to female (and sometimes, but rarely, from female to male), from autocracies to egalitarian communities, from translators to land barons - all are seeking something that is not available to them in the real world.

The other group are the augmentationists - drawn to Second Life by a promise of a world without boundaries, where geographical distance is meaningless and which can improve their existing lives - either personal, professional or both.

There is nothing wrong with either point of view - however, it is important to realize the difference in their expectations. The immersionists want, above all, a stable foundation upon which they can express their fantasies and desires. Not just platform stability - if you have to postpone your role playing for an hour because of disabled logins, that's annoying, but it is not the end of the world. No, they desire stability on the higher levels - a stable economy, laws, prices.

The augmentationists, on the other hand, value platform stability the most. They try to use Second Life as an aspect of their real life; they need a stable set of features with a roadmap of changes to follow, so they can migrate some of their activities from RL to SL. The in-world economy is less important to them, and so are the legislative changes.

Unfortunately, Linden Lab has miserably failed both these groups. Price and policy juggling, coupled with an inherent inability to feel and connect with their user base, have hurt the immersionists. A year of standing still, platform stability-wise and feature-set wise, have hurt the augmentationists. And all this combined has resulted in a failure to attract new users, which hurts both groups equally. How many new and interesting people did you meet in 2007 and how many in 2008?

I still believe that virtual worlds are a valuable tool for all - I just don't think that Second Life will be it. It will not be the Google of virtual worlds - I doubt it will even be Altavista. Perhaps Lycos or Webcrawler, to be mentioned in geeky old-skool debates in 2015.

So, what do we do while we wait for the *real* virtual word platform, which will be able to foster mass adoption?

I don't know about you - but I'm flying internet spaceships :)

EVE Online is a vast online game, spanning thousands of star systems and inhabited by a few hundred thousand players. It has an extremely complex system of production and trade - so much so that they employ an economist with a Ph.D. to oversee and tweak it (check out the quarterly economic report); it fosters communities in the form of corporations and alliances that vie for territory and resources; the ship mechanics are mind boggling, to say the least, and you can never be truly safe.

I've played EVE Online since late July; in this time, I have seen one major new release and several patches which significantly improved user experience. One such example is Jita - a random system which has become the major trading hub, solely due to group dynamics. There are always around a thousand players in system and it was becomming increasingly lagged. CCP, the creators of EVE Online, have adapted to it by developing a 64-bit server code and deploying an extra-powerful server to power the node - and lag actualy disappeared.

Another example is a recent exploit which enabled some corporations to basically mint money (*cough* copybot *cough*). When CCP heard of it, they promptly responded, removed the assets and banned dozens of user accounts.

EVE Online even has a user government of sorts - the Council of Stellar Management, elected twice a year by the EVE Online players, which periodically meet with CCP and represent the wishes and needs of the players.

Could this be any further from Linden Lab?

I am not leaving Second Life - I'll still be here, waiting with you for the real virtual world which will improve the human condition and where, I don't doubt, most of SL users will migrate in a heartbeat; but I'll spend more of my time elsewhere, where nobody knows my name and nameless strangers wait to blow me up - but where the creators, at least, care about my user experience.

Expect some stories about my EVE Online adventures soon :) and if you'd like to try it, IM me your email for a 21 day hassle-free invite code.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Second Life Kindergarten

Excuses * Then and Now * Zen and the art of virtual worlds maintenance * On the nature of Linden Lab * We are the world - not * A plan for the future

It's all Hamlet Au's fault, really. I wanted to post more stuff. But the juxtaposition of Second Life today - a laggy, crashy place with rude newbies and an aloof, blundering Linden Lab - with ye olde Seconde Life and a dynamic Linden Lab, doing all it can to make some sense out of this world they have created, as described in Hamlet Au's book, was just too much to bear.

While "Making of Second Life" is a fairy tale (or "based upon a true story" at the most), the difference between then and now was still surprising. I needed more insight into Second Life residents, so I continued my literary virtual world sojourn with Tom Boellstorff's "Coming of Age in Second Life" and completed it with Castranova's "Exodus to virtual worlds". By then, the pieces were starting to fall into place. I retreated to my yak hut and meditated in the rain of prims - until understanding dawned.

IYan in meditation

Linden Lab is *old*

Linden Lab is far from a spry start-up, frolicking about, ready to challenge the world. It's been around the block and tried it all - so that now, when new and energetic employees have an idea, they can always be assured by their senior colleagues that this has already been tried in the past and failed. So, why bother? The asset server architecture, as it is, has always been enough - why update it? The users have always grumbled - so why listen?

Guess which one is LL

We can only count on Linden Lab to make a mess of things occasionally. For all the rest, there is only us.

Second Life is not a world

A crucial element of the world, according to Castranova, is a shared mythos - a story that puts the world as you see it in a larger context. Another crucial element is a set of values, shared by the residents. With those, the world mythos can create and sustain itself; and, as long as the ratio of new users keeps under a certain limit, everything works - the old users are numerous enough to explain the world and the etiquette to the new users. Unfortunately, with exponential growth, this breaks down and we get what's called an Eternal September - a deluge of newbies with no comprehension of the world. This is the reason for prominent bloggers rueing the passing of the golden days of yore, when users were friendly (and Second Life never crashed, I imagine).

Second Life as a whole has no mythos; therefore, it is not a world. To make Second Life a world, we need to give it a story and put the user in context.

Given these two points, my proposal is simple: the users should create the Kindergarten of Second Life.

Call it the "Second Life Academy" or something appealing and mask it as a beginner's guide to UI and building; then, while explaining the dark arts of the SL client, teach the users the mythos of Second Life, based upon Tom's and Hamlet's books and recollections of respected oldbies. Teach them the story of Steller, who logged into the empty world one night and left the generations of users to come the jumping bean stalk; regale them with the story of Gibson sim and the transience of being; and instill in them the values of helping new users, respecting the old users, and revering the content creators.

It's up to us. Will we keep waiting for Linden Lab to make everything all right? Or do we want to accept and assume responsibility for making Second Life a world?
Zemanta Pixie

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Loco Pocos: The tiny revolution

It's a holiday for us Tiny fans: Damien Fate and Washu Zebrastripe, the amazing content creation duo, have created a new line of Tiny avatars called Loco Pocos.

Loco Pocos at Metanomics

While tinies are great fun, they have some problems: can't sit in ordinary sized chairs, can't use normal gestures, and it's hard to find good fashion and accessories for them. Well, not anymore - the Loco Pocos can do all that, and more!

Despite the recent mega-linden UI challenge from Dusan Writer, SL inventory is currently still a drag. While I've kept my inventory rather thin (a bit more than 3000 items, until I fell prey to the insidious 7S fishing game), finding the correct shoe in a forgotten folder - named "shoe", of course - is still a challenge. Or, at least - was a challenge. Loco Pocos include an ingenious HUD that allows users to change their outfit, colors, shapes, attach or hide ears with a simple click of the button. The same HUD allows access to a variety of emotes and gestures - from laughter to sleeping on the ground, beautifully animated and wonderfully voiced.

As an added bonus, the Loco Poco sim is an amazing place which features an interactive back-story about the island. By retracing steps of an earlier explorer, visitors ar drawn into the story, led to several fun mini-games and awarded with Loco Poco goodies.

Second Life has had its down points lately - from the ill communicated SL5B, ill communicating M Linden or uncommunicated grid stats; but Loco Pocos will help you remember the fun side of SL.

Join us for the Grand Opening of Loco Pocos Island with a massive scavenger hunt today, July 9th at Noon SLT. Visitors to the sim on this date will have the opportunity to win a unique avatar which will only be available during events at Loco Pocos Island.
Zemanta Pixie

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Event chat transcripts considered harmful

For a number of months I have been familiar with the observation that the quality of an event recap is a decreasing function of event chat transcript density they produce. Recently I became convinced that event chat transcripts should be abolished from all "higher level" event recaps (i.e. everything except, perhaps, business meeting transcripts). At that time I did not attach too much importance to this discovery; I now submit my considerations for publication.

You've all seen it before. The event is nearing its close an an enthusiastic host exclaims "Oh, and we'll put up a transcript online!". True enough, the transcript shows up in your RSS reader - but although you had missed 10 minutes because of a phone call or something, you never, ever read the transcript. It's not because you are lazy. It's because transcripts are useless - they not only have zero informational value, they actually decrease the information content.

There are several reasons for that. First, a large portion of event chats is simply people socializing - saying hello, wawing to one another, laughing or nodding in agreement. As virtual worlds make non-verbal communication rather hard, a lot of it has become verbal. Second, a lot of the time the log is full of system messages - people signing on or off, which adds to the clutter. And third - even if we prune all the non-essential parts, the transcript is still too long. It's one thing being present at an hour-long event - you pass the time during less interesting parts IM-ing or camming around. Reading the whole transcript, however, takes a lot of concentration - and, to be frank, I'd rather invest 30 minutes focused reading time in something well written, not pore over old event transcripts.

OK, so the transcripts are useless. So what if people publish them? Where is the harm? Simple - the transcripts kill the Google search, or at least, maim it. Here are some of the search results for IYan Writer:

Is it really helpful to someone searching for me? Even worse, as Google usually displays the first occurrence or two, you're very likely to seem like some weird "Hello"-saying and madly wawing maniac - heaven forbid that the search would show a cutting question you posed at the end of the event.

So what are the event organizers to do? Again, it's simple: provide actual value. Don't do the easiest thing and just slap the transcript online. Take the time to go through the transcript, identify a few key issues raised at the event and write a paragraph on each one of them. Some Metanomics event recaps are stellar examples of it. If you're taking the time to remove the "XX has signed off" lines already, chances are that this will not take much more time. Event visitors, readers and the hamsters powering the Google servers will be grateful to you.

PS: Why the title? Hint for non-CS grads :)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Virtual Africa opening in Second Life

My dear friend Alanagh Recreant's Virtual Africa project is finally opening tomorrow. Join us at the opening! I'm attaching the official invite below.

Please come and join us on Thursday 24 April for an exiting programme on the first annual Africa Day in Second Life, hosted by Uthango with support of Orange from their island. ‘Virtual Africa’ and the adjacent ‘Robben Island’ with its African Rain (club) will be launched on the same day!

The popular DJ Doubledown will conclude the day at 16:30 SLT with a party for our guests at the new, spectacular African Rain, a club for Virtual Africa, designed partly pro-bono by Eshi Otawara.

this is the SL Africa club slurl: http://slurl.com/secondlife/Robben%20Island/120/161/635

Virtual Africa is an initiative of Uthango Social Investments, a registered NGO based in Cape Town, South Africa. You are welcome to check CIPRO the offical SA Registrar of Companies for our details or contact us via our company’s Co-Founder and Director in-world, Alanagh Recreant.

Virtual Africa is currently in development and will become a unique Orientation Gateway that may add value to the SL experience for old and new residents in the metaverse. Uthango drives the project together with a small team of volunteers and (soon) professional developers, and welcomes you to collaborate and discuss possibilities. We were delighted to hear Philip Rosedale, CEO of LL, speaking about the importance of these gateways and look forward to bring you a special african immersive environment.

Together with Virtual Africa, we plan the Bottom-of-the-Pyramic Innovation Centre that will showcase ingenuity in Africa and for Africa - specifically in relation to the strategies of companies and social entrepreneurs to make the world a better place. This is one of our main reasons for being in SL - to connect with creative, lateral-thinking people that could solve complex problems - like the ones we face daily in our first world. In this context, we are also busy with the pototype of the Uthango African Roundtable aimed at educational institutions that would like to spend time researching the views of people in Africa. Hopefully, we will soon be able to bring in the voices of african residents as well, as SL is currently a bit skew in its global diversity

You are welcome to join our group: Second Life Africa to keep track of our developments, or the following blog: http://slafrica.wordpress.com/

Uthango has been extremely fortunate to be in the media the past few months, which has hightened the SL profile in Africa and globally: Here are a few links:

UGOTRADE: http://www.ugotrade.com/2007/06/25/uthango-social-investments-leads-the-way-to-virtual-africa/

SLNN: http://www.slnn.com/article/africa-second-life/

WEEKEND ARGUS: http://www.slnn.com/article/africa-second-life/

AFRICA NEWS: http://www.africanews.com/site/list_messages/10271

Your financial support is appreciated, but more than this, we really treasure the interest in our work and your own social network. Please feel free to tell others about our projects and visit our website: http://uthango.org/

We can only be here with integrity if we find specific ways to harness the power of virtual worlds for Africa and our 18 461 real life clients that are NOT here today… Please assist us in doing so! We need all the help we can get…

Thank you very much!
See you soon!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

We apologize for the momentary interruption of service

This blog will not update until 18.4.2008.

To be honest.. Did my blog drive traffic to Linden Lab and help popularize Second Life? No - I only started it a few months ago. Would I have posted something in the next few days? Probably not - still searching for the topic for my next post. Do new trademark rules directly impact me? Not really - I added the legalese and I doubt they will come after me. Will the protest make Linden Lab think? No. So why am I doing it? Because the issue is important; because Linden Lab's community mishandling is reaching new heights; and because I was always partial to symbolic gestures :) More explanation in my blog post On the nature of protests.

Come protest with us next Sunday! *shakes pitchfork*

Friday, April 11, 2008

A zebra and its stripes

Marty the Zebra: "I'm ten years old. My life is half over and I don't even know if I'm black with white stripes or white with black stripes!"

I've followed Clever Zebra with interest since they launched, but after some four months, I believe they have the same problem as Marty. Their value proposition is "SL entry made simple" and they promise to achieve it with a pack of business oriented builds and utilities - from an amphitheater to a slide show presenter. Their offering is RL company friendly - a stated up-front price of $4,950 and $395 per month enables companies simple cost calculation and moves them from perilous and possibly expensive project territory into the safe product zone. They will definitely get some customers and expand their presence. However, after some 6 months, I think they will have to reconsider the nature of their stripes.

Clever Zebra's basic fallacy is in their value proposition. Is the price and complexity of creating a Second Life presence really the major hurdle the real world companies must overcome? I believe not. The major problems are the unwillingness to invest human resources in SL; the complexity and immaturity of Second Life as a business platform; and the biggest one of all, the difficulty of forging lasting and valuable relationships with Second Life community.

How does Clever Zebra help companies overcome these difficulties? Their corporate product page is quite devoid of information; it's hard to discern exactly what services the list price includes. If it's consulting, there can't be much of it - let's say 30 hours at $100. Is 30 hours enough to get company personnel to grasp the UI complexity and get to know Second Life so well that they can begin to use it productively? I sincerely doubt it.

The kind of company that goes for "as low as $$" deals is not the kind of company that is willing to heavily invest resources in getting to know Second Life and extracting value from it (and is also most probably not a company that could use Second Life to "save thousands of dollars on travel"). Only a few real companies are - Cisco Systems, IBM, and Dell, to name a few. All of them understand that they are in virtual worlds for the long haul; there is simply no ROI to be made in short term. Does Clever Zebra tell that to their potential customers? I hope they do.

So what does the future hold for Clever Zebra? They will definitely sell a few packs in the upcoming months. But, to keep customers from leaving Second Life in disgust after 6-12 months, exclaiming "Second Life is totally unsuitable for business", they will have to start accurately representing both the challenges and the maturity of Second Life. They will have to admit that they are not providing a "solution" for real companies wishing to enter Second Life - they are only making the first step of many much simpler.

It's time to decide: black with white stripes or white with black stripes?