Sunday, December 30, 2007

So you want to be a benevolent dictator: rules for running a virtual community

I have recently attended an interesting discussion about virtual community management. It made me think about communities, their rules and their users, hence this blog post. It is based on my experiences with being a member of and running virtual communities since 1992 (for more details about my tech past, see my previous blog post).

The relationship between users and administrators in a virtual community is a tricky one. On one hand, absolute power rests with the administrators; on the other hand, the users invest their time, add value to the community and demand a stake in the way it's been run. It is a tricky situation and one of the common pitfalls of any virtual community. The balance is delicate; one step over the line by any party is sure to damage trust and bring quarrels to the community. What can an administrator do to avoid the problem?

The first thing to keep in mind is that the community = the users, plain and simple. Yes, the work done by the administrators is valuable; but you can have a community without administrators (albeit a chaotic one) - however, without the users, there is NO community.

The second thing to remember is the power disparity. The users know that they have little to no actual power - they cannot click on someone and ban them, for example , but have to plead their case before the administratorss. While the users know this, they hate to be reminded of this. It's the same in real life: the police COULD, in theory, throw you in jail even if you are innocent; but we do our best to forget this and count on the legal system to help us in that case.

The third thing is planning ahead. Like Wayne Gretzky said - "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is." Some decisions might seem like a good idea at the time, but might not be in the long run. It's the same in business: once the company crosses a certain size threshold, it is better to do things following a set process. Yes, it might take a bit more time compared to a gung-ho, quick-fix solution; but the extra time buys you predictability and enables easier connections among co-workers and departments - or among community members.

So, based on this, what can we extrapolate?

1. The opinion of the users should be more important than the opinion of the administrators

In order to tip the scales toward the users, their opinions should matter more than the administrators'. That does not mean that the administrators should do anything the users say; but it means that in a regular discussion, it is the administrator who should gracefully bow out of the conversation - even if it is to "agree to disagree".

2. The administrators should lay down clear rules and follow them.

While there should be some latitude allowed for the users, there should be none for the administrators. Think of the example with the police: if random innocent people would be detained and the law system would not work in their favour, would you feel safe? The belief that the same laws hold true for everybody - policeman or not, administrator or not - fosters trust and a feeling of safety. Remember the importance of safety in Maslow's hierarchy; only when we are feeling safe can we satisfy our needs for belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization - which is what communities are all about.

A virtual community is an intangible thing; in the absence of face-to-face inputs, a framework of clear rules allows the users to fit in more easily and conduct themselves with more assurance.

Again: this does not mean exclusion of common sense. Balancing common sense with adherence to the rules is another challenge for the community administrators.

3. A muti-tiered system of management is preferable

As in real life, with the CEO and the board of directors, community administrators should be divided into two groups. The first one - the administrators - sets the rules and takes care for the technical side. The second group - the moderators - runs the community based on those rules. Administrators themselves should "keep their hands clean" - not enter into arguments with users, nor ban users unless a moderator requests it. Another option that I have not yet witnessed in a virtual community is a three-tiered system: the admins, the moderators, and the dispute resolution section. This probably sounds very familiar, and it should. Most probably, it is the way your country is run - with a body that makes the laws, a body that rules based on that laws and the courts to decide when laws have been broken.

Of course, the problem of selecting moderators is a complex one and a blog post in its own right. Based on my experience, many systems work. Perhaps the best one was used on the old FidoNet network where the moderators would be elected by the users. It demands more from both the users and the administrators, however the sense of joint participation in community more than makes up for it.

4. The administrator should NEVER get into an argument with a user

This rule seems very obvious and simple, but is almost never followed. Engaging in flame wars damages reputation and undermines trust. The fact is that the users will have more fun in a community than the administrators; it is, as I have said earlier, their community after all. Leadership is not a magic fun-ride - it's tough work that demands sacrifices. They must lead by example - be the most courteous, the most attentive to other's needs, the most willing to understand another's point of view and least affected by emotions.

5. The disciplinary actions should be public

While this may seem like an additional punishment for the offending user, it is actually quite effective in preventing misbehavior. But that is just a useful side-effect - the main benefit of having a public list of disciplinary actions is for the users to keep tabs on the administrators. It forces the administrators into explaining their actions and thus into following the rules more closely.

6. Users should be involved in rule changes and strategic decisions

Blindingly obvious, but included for completeness' sake.

7. Admit mistakes and learn from them

Everybody makes mistakes - in communities and in real life. If we admit them and how we deal with them is what defines us as a human being and evaluates our capacity for management. This does not mean that in every dispute, you should give way; but you should define guidelines on what constitutes a mistake (say, a vote by the users; or more than X posts by Y users on the subject) and adhere by them. It is perfectly fine for a community to have one or more smart alecks that know everything and can not be budged; but it is potentially very destructive when the smart aleck is in charge.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Yet another turn of the year blog post

Introduction - Second Life misrepresented - hurdles jumped and obstacles overcome - wildly inaccurate predictions - we few, we lucky few - holiday cheer.

It's customary to commemorate the switching-of-arbitrary-number-thing with highlights of the year n and predictions for the year n+1. Well, far be it from me to separate from the herd, so here we go!


As 90% of the other blogs are filled with complex technical analysis of the year behind us, I'll take another route and try to evaluate the year from a more personal perspective. For me, 2007 was the year when I shed my online 3D environment prejudices and embraced virtual worlds wholeheartedly.

Embracing the virtual world

Why was I skeptical? For one, I hate online multiplayer games. The hassle of having to play the game and deal with complex relationships at the same time never attracted me. When I first heard of virtual worlds through the mainstream media, this was the impression I got. Of course, having read Snow crash (and loving it) years ago, I was patiently waiting for the Metaverse. I just didn't think we were there yet - and none of the media reports made it seem so.

The books that started it all

The second reason was the name. "Second Life". Admit it: the name is too good! As I have been quite happy with my first life, the idea of a replacement life in a cloud of pixels was off putting. I understand why an immersionist would be immediately attracted to the name, but for myself, "Additional Life" or "Life Enhancement" would be more appropriate and alluring.

All this combined to make it hard for me to jump the hurdle; but, fortunately, with the assistance of someone who used to jump hurdles in competitions, I finally managed it. I came, I saw, I spent Lindens, I crashed, I loved it!

So, now that I am here, what are my Second Life predictions for 2008?

1. User retention will stay the same

Second Life's 10% user retention is not due to system crashes or user interface. It's due to inherent complexity of the virtual environment and communication. A large group of people can't find the Post Office based on simple instructions and can't write a coherent email to save their lives. Do you really expect them to successfully navigate and communicate in virtual worlds?

2. Prices of virtual goods will fall

The virtual nature of SL merchandise means that there are no costs associated with production of items. Once the development/building costs are recouped and the competition is closing, it's very easy for the creators to start lowering price and continue to do so until the price reaches zero. This is the reason for Anshe's much-maligned 10 L$ goods. She's not evil; she just understands the virtual economy. The sooner SL creators understand the laws of the virtual world, the better. The solution is not to band together or hurl penises, but to keep creating; the time of resting on laurels is even shorter in virtual world than in the flat world.

Idea: instead of having fixed prices for goods, why not implement an algorithm that would automatically lower costs towards a preset minimum based on aggregate demand? Every store (or every creator) could have a sales bot that would connect to an external database and dynamically adjust prices.

3. L$ will detach from the US dollar

This one is a bit out on a limb. It greatly depends on the state of US economy during the 2008 and perceived main market for Linden Lab, as the possible attachment to the Euro would mean rising costs of Second Life for the American customers. However, if the US economy tanks, but the European and Asian don't, it would make sense to shift primary focus to more healthy markets and to guarantee an influx of a more stable currency.

4. There will be no big virtual worlds revolution.

Another risky prediction. I think that improvements of software alone cannot be revolutionary enough to turn the large part of society to virtual worlds (see prediction 1). The revolution, when it comes, will be based on hardware breakthroughs. Bring on the cyber jacks!

5. The hype will become and remain mostly negative

The people at Gartner are known for some weird predictions, but I think they're on the money with the hype curve. It's important to understand that the hype curve describes the behavior of mainstream media and says nothing about technologies as such.

What does that mean for virtual worlds? Well, from a personal standpoint - I remember the Eternal September and have seen it arrive in a variety of media, so I say Hooray! I understand the need for Linden Lab and virtual merchants to expand the user base as much as possible, but I for one will be glad to meet fewer, but more interesting people.

From a global Second life standpoint, the year 2008 will be a year of proving ourself and our virtual world against expectations. The grid will crash; the media will glee in describing our alternative lifestyles to the close-minded masses; money influxes from big companies entering SL will drop; and respected SL businesses will close. But, despite (or even because) of all this, we will not only prevail, but become stronger - with better communities, better content, and more knowledge and skills. When the hype cycle turns and the shift into virtual worlds begins for real, we will be there and ready to lead the transformation.

Wearing fancy avatars with wings or cute furry ones, of course!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

How an unalienated IYan Writer got his avatar

An explanation * IYan recounts the days of yore * joy in a small black box * joy in a big beige box * the cycle of communication and content * finishing words

First, some background. My last few days in Second Life were a blast, re-enchanting me with the virtual worlds and their denizens. I've been moved by a musical immersion spectacle and a shining example of a community having fun and at the same time helping those in need. I made a watermellon-colored pony eat snow and got it rubbed in the face by his Linden allies. But I have also had more than my share of RL discussions on the theme of "Technology and how it alienates us", which always frustrate me. That is why I wanted to write a post about all the great things technology brings us - but the introduction turned out to be a story in itself. To rez two prims with one click, consider this also a reply to the 8 Things Meme - I got tagged by Sophrosyne last week.

The 70s *shudder*

It's confession time: I'm old. Not Rolling Stones old, but old enough to remember a world of analogue pulse-dialing telephones with electrical buzzers, where the closest thing to a computer was my father's HP calculator with glowing red digits. It could be coaxed into simulating a lunar lander by simple expedient of tapping in program commands for a few hours. The save feature wasn't there, of course, and I never managed to actually land the thing without crashing, but that didn't stop me from inputting the commands over and over again.

Archaeological specimens from the Electronic stone age

Things got better, though. First, the home computing revolution hit our living room with a space-agey Sinclair ZX Spectrum (many a geek gets misty-eyed when thinking about this black plastic box with its rubber keys). As we lived in a then-communist then-state, the herald of the future arrived to our house hidden in a trunk of a German friend of the family, who smuggled it across the border. Years of fun ensued, from typing in 30K long programs (which always had an obscure error or two in them) and playing A LOT of games, to purchasing pirated cassettes and attending programming classes. To this day, the command POKE 23609,255 is etched into my memory.

Bronze age fossils

With the advent of the late 80s, the PC revolution arrived - again mostly in car trunks or under the seats. Before I could call a PC my own, I would sometimes persuade my mother to let me come to work, play games on their computer and read and read about DOS and PCs. I was probably the only person in the world to have written an extremely complex branching .BAT (DOS command batch) file before I even had a PC. I wrote it down in a notebook, and, of course, never actually used it. When I finally had one, BASIC gave way to Turbo Pascal (and my masterpiece, a half finished space invaders game with a single enemy ship) and Chuckie Egg to Leisure Suit Larry and Defender of the crown. However, it was a purchase of a single computer component that shaped most of my later life and fundamentally changed the way I used my computer and interacted with others. It was, of course, the modem.

Iron age fossil and a simple signaling device

The first few nights after I installed the modem were spent dialing Bulletin Board Systems near and far. I would fill out the questionnaires, required to get an account (new user Qs came with the BBS software and were almost never changed or checked by system administrators or SysOps), download shareware and freeware games (most all sucked), but the thing that fascinated me the most were the message boards. I discovered a thriving community - and I wanted to be a part of it. I set up my own BBS and ran it for a few years, moderated groups, joined FidoNet (2:380/110) and had a great time debating and arguing on-line and getting together periodically for a beer fest.

Fragment of an ancient transmission

A year or two later, I managed to procure a VAX/VMS username that allowed me to use the DECNET via X.29 to connect to a (supposedly) US Army outdial modem (they were located in practically every state and unsecured) to dial local USA BBS-es, use Gopher and QSD chat. The pattern emerged: after a new communication tech became available, I would first use it for content. Yes, porn too. Downloading, however, soon got boring and I would seek out others in the new medium. I would then cheerfully proceed to argue with them and explain that they simply haven't got a clue, but hey, it still counts as communication :)

After the arrival of Internet, SLIP and Mosaic, the sky was the limit. The personal homepage phenomenon arrived, with everybody and his dog having a Geocities home page. I believe you know the rest of the internet story, so I will not bore you with details.


Each new method of communication would bring a wealth of new content. Each time, I would dive into new content - but, time after time, the need for companionship would drag me back from the solitary Download zone. It was the same with Second Life: the first few months, I wandered around the sims, going Oooh and Aaah and rarely speaking to people. Now, talking to people is what I do most and like best - and I rely on other persistant wanderers to tell me about really special stuff they've found.

So what about this alienation, then? The alienation, caused by technology, is and was real. However, television and radio were the technologies that alienated us the most. We were passive receptacles of content, created and selected by others. But this state is not natural to us: all humans strive to change and affect the environment - that is the very definition of human (and, unfortunately, our greatest failure, as the sad state of Earth testifies). As soon as technology that promised to connect us to others was available, we grasped it with both hands, pulled and haven't let go since. And the level of alienation keeps dropping - for example, you can be alienated on a web forum, but must try hard (trolling ain't easy!). However, that is practically impossible in virtual worlds.

Second Life is not about shopping, company builds or even content, created for and freely given to community. No, it's not even about prim hair, girls. No, not wings, either, Soph ;) It is about PEOPLE. You can be disliked, but you are never alone.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The joy of being Tiny

Avatar evolution - tangential rant - importance of looking good - a solution found - pros and cons - conclusion.

Recently, the time has come to do some avatar maintenance. In keeping with my old augmentationist / experimentalist self, my first Second Life avatar stayed more or less the same for about 6 months. Of course, I invested valuable lindens in a semi-decent skin and hair, got some clothes and pretty much called it a day for a while.

"I has a suit."
back when I thought that made me cool *facepalm*

Tangent: WHY!! is it so hard for a male avatar to prim primp? I'm sure that not all males choose a sexy, big-breasted skimpily dressed female avatar as their SL personification - why, there must be at least a couple of dozen guys that picked a male avatar. Shopping for male stuff is almost as depressing in SL as in RL - there I would be, pockets bulging with Lindens (almost 80!), patiently zooming over displays and displays of gorgeous female wear and looking for something that would fit me. I see market potential here, my dear SL creators! Grateful donations in the form of prim hair graciously accepted.


After a few months of wandering around SL, attending interesting events and meeting more and more cool people, a couple of things became apparent: (a), my avatar was boring; and (b), looks matter in Second Life even more than in RL. A casual avatar-disparaging comment by a dear SL friend, made while commenting on my Facebook photo clinched it: it was makeover time. But make over into what?

Well, if tails, horns, starfleet uniforms or robots are your thing, you're in luck - you can hardly rez a prim over your shoulder without hitting a shop selling one or all of these. If your tastes are a bit more (less?) exotic, it gets trickier. After a long search (30 minutes RL - that's like 12 hours SL time), the die was cast, the Lindens spent and IYan transformed. Enter - the cat.


ExtroVirtual tinies are incredibly cute and there is a wide selection. While I knew the avie was diabetes-inducing, I wasn't prepared for the extra dimension of fun it brought to the SL experience. It's such a joy watching it scamper around on its tiny feet, and the cuteness doubles while in flight!


Of course, it wouldn't do to look TOO cute, so I shopped at Bitter Thorns (love the store!) and changed the kitty into cyber-cat:

I made you a battery, but I eated it.

The drawbacks of having a Tiny avatar are seldom having a place to sit (except at exceptionally gracious hosts), people stepping on you (not that much, fortunately - and there are free WATCH OUT FOR THE TINY signs available at the Extrovirtual store) and an inability to use certain scrips/animations (like dancing). The interaction with other avatars, on the other hand, is much improved - it seems like everybody loves a Tiny! The greatest fun is when several Tiny avatars gather for some big-people pushing, as demonstrated by my friend Ally the tiny warthog :)

Everybody loves tinies

Of course, tinies will not do for business, although I've tried it. The problem is that the tiny paws of Extrovirtual avies aren't animated while typing, which makes text chat much more difficult; plus, some people might have a problem with discussing business with a foot-high cat.

So: do the tiny avatars solve the boring avatar problem? Yes and no. There are many occasions when I use my main avatar, which is still pretty boring; but the occasional entrance of my Tiny cheers me up and makes my main avatar cooler by association. If you're asking yourself whether to join the Tiny Army, my answer is - YES!

Tiny army


Although I post an occasional blog entry on my company pages, the format (explanatory and marketingy) has been limiting me lately. There is so much interesting stuff happening and I have so much fun in Second Life that I want to share. Enter IYan Writer's blog!

The opinions expressed here are my own - or not even that, if I see an opportunity for a good joke. If you are easily offended, may I suggest ReadWriteWeb.

As the immortal and ever funny JenzZa Misfit would say: POKE!!