Interview: Rod Humble, CEO of Linden Lab

These last two weeks, Linden Lab has opened the doors for some of us to have limited interviews with Rod Humble, the freshly-minted CEO of Linden Lab, and the new face at the helm of Second Life, and I was among those given the opportunity to ask some questions. I took the opportunity to ask a number of you just what questions you’d like answered, and managed to squeeze a number of them in on your behalf.

Humble was quite circumspect and reticent in his responses, but to be fair, he’s only been involved with Linden Lab for about three weeks so far, and is far less acquainted with what Linden Lab has done to-date than most of the rest of us.

TMJ: How would you describe Second Life in your own words?

I wouldn’t. Partly because I feel I would be a little silly by naming something that others (such as yourself) have experienced far more than me, but more importantly, I would let our customers do that over time as we figure it out together. I think it has something to do with creativity and how we evolve identity as we interact with others, but I like its undefined nature. I like its ambiguity. That to me feels like it is the beginning of something.

TMJ: Linden Lab has received quite a bit of criticism for its removal of discounts for educators. Given the subsequent increase in educators starting to look elsewhere, how does Linden Lab see the non-profit / education sector fitting into its strategy?

I wasn’t really here for that, so it’s hard for me to comment on past policy, but we certainly value these communities and don’t want to hamper their contributions to Second Life or prevent them from getting the value from it that they currently do.

TMJ: Going back a couple of years, Linden Lab was driving the interoperability agenda to a large extent, with that now being driven primarily by the OpenSim community. Does Linden Lab have any plans to get more substantively into that space and if not, is it just a case of keeping Second Life’s feature set ahead of OpenSim in order to maintain the lead?

Sorry it’s too soon to talk about this. Gotta play the new guy card.

TMJ: To get parochial for a second, back in mid-2007 we were told there would be Australian-based Second Life servers “real soon now”. Can you outline your strategy for managing bandwidth and response times for Second Life outside of the USA?

Yeah that’s a bit too detailed for me right now, but we definitely intend to fully support customers worldwide. How we can do that, we are looking at, but it varies by territory.

TMJ: What do you think Linden Lab’s strengths are?

Customers – we are blessed by customers who talk to us a lot and are not shy. This is a tremendous asset. While obviously we make mistakes and do not please everyone, the level of feedback helps us enormously. Our harshest critics are also our staunchest defenders when others put out misinformation about Second Life. If anything, getting customers’ voices heard coherently is our biggest task. There are way too many places where customers send feedback (or a “tower of babble” as one customer put it). As part of serving folks better the team here is trying to focus that more.  The new user groups are a step along that path. Finally, of course, our customers literally make the whole world.

TMJ: Given that you’re approaching things from a different background, what do you think Linden Lab’s biggest mistake has been?

Given the incredible technical and social challenges that Second Life solved, I am not sure I would label much to be a massive mistake. Second Life is technically really impressive – Linden Lab solved some astoundingly difficult technical problems in order to create it – but it’s still much too hard for new users by an exponential factor rather than a small one. There’s a big gap between how experienced customers can enjoy Second Life and the experience of a new user, and that’s a huge opportunity for us. What’s interesting is that in the entertainment space, most companies face these challenges in the reverse order – first you figure out ease of use and accessibility, how to make interacting with it an enjoyable experience, and then you tackle the technical stuff to make it work.

TMJ: What particular thing do you feel you’re bringing to Linden Lab, given your skills and background?

I hope my experience in growing large communities will prove useful to our customers. I care about art and creativity, I express myself through technology. I hope those traits will prove helpful.

TMJ: Linden Lab has spent much of the last decade juggling one or another balance of “fast, easy, fun”, seemingly without really finding a balance point that lasts for more than a few months. Is the problem – do you think – with finding the right balance, with the thrust of the strategy itself, or is there some third angle we’re overlooking?

I wasn’t here, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment on past strategies, but I will say Second Life is a vibrant world that exists today and is enjoyed by millions of people, so it succeeded in many ways. It seems to me that a blended strategy can often be effective. I am used to operating a strategy where you have a general strategy setting the overall direction then initiatives on a 1, 3, 6, 12, and 24 month timeline, which evolve as you work through them. That technique is not particularly revolutionary but it works.

TMJ: Linden Lab has always seemed to most focused on the retention of new users at the apparent expense of existing users. I know this comes across as quite a leading sort of question, and I cannot really see quite how to avoid that I’m afraid, but do you think that situation should continue, be reversed or should some other sort of balance be struck?

I think you can see from my comments above that I strongly believe you need both. Our existing customers should expect us to do a bunch of unsexy backend work to address your valid issues. I would also say that intelligent internet savvy new users are utterly lost with the current experience and discoverability. That for sure will also be addressed in the short term.

TMJ: Have you tried any third-party viewers? If so, do you have any preferences?

I have tried them all they all have positives and negatives. I do have various features I like from each that I think we should learn from.

TMJ: What do you feel is the greatest threat to Second Life?

If we put barriers in the way of creativity and exploration. There are temptations to do this every day. They need to be avoided.

TMJ: What actually are Linden Lab’s goals or direction for Second Life? Nobody’s ever really said, and everyone’s awfully curious.

As I mentioned before, my goal is to enable our customers’ expression and creativity, beyond that, let us see where the journey takes us all. The residents of Second Life are smart, communicative and creative. They are going to take this in all sorts of directions. Our job at Linden Lab is to set solid foundations, create the tools, and then get out of the way as much as we can.

TMJ: Should we expect a change of direction from the Lab and/or for Second Life? If so, how?

Expect to see a focus on customer service, experience, creativity and usability. Second Life should become the natural home for intelligent, creative, and social people online. Whether that is a change or not I don’t really know, but those are my priorities right now.

TMJ: Under Philip Rosedale’s tenure as CEO, Second Life’s motto was “Your world, your imagination”. During Mark Kingdon’s era it was “Your world, your way”. What motto do you feel will be the hallmark of your own tenure at the Lab?

Those both sound good and appropriate to me. I don’t think 3 weeks in it would be appropriate for me to succinctly summarise or change a mission statement or motto.

TMJ: What are your initial impressions about the culture and communications inside the Lab?

It’s great! People are very friendly and committed to wanting to make something important. I am really taken aback by just how much people here care. It is good to see.

TMJ: What are your personal goals while you’re the CEO of Linden Lab?

I would like to meet someone in five years who said “Yeah I joined Second Life just after you joined, and it really meant a lot to me. The people I met, the things I saw. That was important.” If I can achieve that, if a decision I take changes some human beings for the better, then I will be pleased …………Oh and I want to script a fully operational miniature wargames table in Second Life 🙂

TMJ: We don’t want this to be entirely one-sided. What are we – as users and customers – not asking you about that you’d nevertheless like us to hear?

I will read the comments to this interview, what I would most like to know is this: In 2 years time what would you most like to be doing in Second Life, and how would you like to be doing it? The answers to that question would be very helpful indeed.

So, who is willing to speak up in response to Humble’s question: In 2 years time what would you most like to be doing in Second Life, and how would you like to be doing it?

Surviving a day in Minecraft

I appear on a snow-covered beach and look around me. The sun is rising, but it is doing it very quickly. The whole day will pass in just a few minutes, and I have a lot to do. First I test the ice. It holds me up well enough and there’s an interesting island out in the lake off to my right. First thing, though, I’m looking for trees.

I turn around and climb up the slope to my left, hoping for a better view. I pass a couple of cows trudging aimlessly through the snow as I look for a good vantage point.

From the top of the nearest hill, I can only see a couple of isolated trees. It will have to do for now. Time ticks.

I get into the shade of the tree, and use my hands to harvest a supply of wood, then move onto a second tree between two hills. Wood seems scarce here, but I soon have a small supply of it and some cuttings to plant. After all, I’m going to need more wood before long. I’d better start organising a renewable supply.

Something catches my eye, though. A nearby rock-face shows exposed coal.

I work with the wood I’ve got, making myself some planks and shafts, and a simple work-bench. In less time than it takes to tell, I’ve got a simple wooden tool. It won’t last long breaking rock, but it doesn’t have to. I focus on the rocks next to the coal, before moving on to the coal-seam itself.

Quickly, I obtain a little coal, and enough stone to use for the head of a new pick-axe. I look up at the sun. There’s always a little time-pressure on the first day.

It’s Noon already. Nasty things come out at night, so I need to organise shelter quickly. Time to trek out to that island I spotted earlier. It takes me a moment to get my bearings, though. With the sun right above me, I’m not completely certain which direction I’d come from. Then I spot the cows again, between two of the nearest hills, and strike out that way. Moments later, I have a view of the icy lake, and the island.

Not all of the lake is frozen, but enough of it is for me to trek straight out to the island that I spotted earlier.

The sole inhabitants of my new island are four sheep, hopping around and bleating. A quick survey reveals that it isn’t a true island. The far side is joined to the mainland by a sandbar. Nevertheless, it will do. I need shelter before it gets dark.

With my hands, I start scooping away snow and sand. Pick-axes are for stone, and I don’t want to ruin it on softer materials. I cut a tunnel straight into the side of the hummock from its beach, and it isn’t long before I’m a few metres in and cutting through stone with my rapidly deteriorating wooden pick-axe. I quickly hollow out a small chamber, once knocking a hole in the roof, which I repack with dirt.

I left my primitive workbench back near the coal-seam, so I build another. I shove it into a corner, but the light coming in through the entrance is already starting to fade. It will be dusk soon. Very soon.

I lay out six planks on the bench and make a simple door. While I’m doing that, I combine some coal with some sticks and make some torches. When I look up, I realise just how dark it is getting. I hurry to the entry tunnel and put the door in place, checking that it opens and shuts properly. A bewildered sheep looks at me from the beach.

I move around the chamber that I’ve dug out, and jam some of the torches in the walls. Well lit now, with a door between myself and the outside. I settle down to wait out the night. I can already hear … things moving around outside. Dark-loving creatures that will kill me if they can.

The night will pass as quickly as the day did, and now I have shelter. In the morning, I’ll plant some trees, find some more coal, and see if I can expand my diminutive fortress. The island isn’t large, so most of it will have to be either up or down.

This is Minecraft, an independent game by a small European developer called Mojang Specifications.

Minecraft has been under constant development for quite some time now. It’s a java-based game which runs in a browser, or as a separate download, and receives frequent updates. It’s just graduated to beta, and features continue to be added at a steady rate.

Minecraft is almost the archetypal sandbox game (with actual sand, moreover). With coal and wood, stone, sand, soil and metal, you can make all sorts of things. What you make is up to you. There’s no goals other than what you set, no achievements to strive for, no satisfaction other than setting out to do something and accomplishing it.

At night (and in the dark places of the earth), nasties of all sorts emerge that mean to do you harm. You can fight them or avoid them if you prefer. There are skeletons, zombies, giant spiders, blobs and more. You can make bows, swords and armour and fight them, or like me set up a sturdy home to keep them out – or both, if you prefer.

Minecraft allows you to make tools, doors, switches, signs, levers, pressure-plates, mine-carts and tracks, boats, buckets, and more. You can take the wood, soil, sand, and rock that you’ve harvested or dug out and place it as you please, making new structures – you can cook meat from animals, or turn sand into glass blocks for construction of windows and skylights. You can swim, drown, jump or fall into lava. You can build a portal to some ghastly netherhell – you know – just for laughs.

If you should die, you’ll drop everything you had, and reappear otherwise unscathed back at the place where you first started. Unless lava destroyed your belongings, you can go and get it all back again. Weapons, armour and tools all wear out with use, though and need to be replaced now and again.

Minecraft’s sound is simple, but effective. A lot of what you hear is digging sounds, over the background music (which you can disable if you prefer it).

What might really catch your attention, though, are the games graphics.

Minecraft’s graphics are all essentially simple and blocky. It doesn’t require an awesome amount of computing power to run (though if you have plenty, you can crank the settings up). It’s like the world is made out of a child’s construction blocks, and might get you thinking of many of the computer games from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Don’t be put off by the retro visuals, though, because the game’s graphics while simple, are charming (and unusually sophisticated) and – more importantly – get you thinking in terms of blocks.

Digging out blocks and stacking blocks are the keys to mining and construction. Like assembling anything with Lego – only Lego the size of your head. So, the blocky nature of the terrain and creatures (and even the clouds, sun, moon and stars) isn’t just a cheap shortcut. It’s a stylistic choice that supports the simulation at every level.

There are no goals and no story to Minecraft – it doesn’t really count as a game by objective definitions. It is, however, an excellent toy, and like any toy, you can play games with it and have fun with it. Minecraft runs in a window, and suspends itself when not actively being used, making it an almost ideal pick-up-and-play casual diversion.

Minecraft was the primarily the work of a lone programmer, Markus Persson, however the game recently hit the public imagination, and discounted pre-beta sales were… well, fairly staggering is what they were. Persson was able to hire staff and office-space, and Mojang Specifications is now working full-time on Minecraft and another (as yet unannounced) project.

Presently, Minecraft can be purchased online from its Web-site for €14.95, while it remains in beta.

Original content versus fan content

With studios and publishers flinging infringement notices around about fan-based role-playing environments online, it’s worth looking at the situation from another perspective.

After all, why not just create new, original theme properties rather than basing role-play environments on popular books, movies and television shows? Why do so when official gaming environments already exist in some cases?

Well, there’s a number of reasons. Creating a fleshed-out themed environment that isn’t just a rehash of something that already exists, is actually really hard. It’s time-consuming, requires any would-be gamer to learn a lot about your specific property (which means endless amounts of documentation, lore and history needs to be written), and you generally start out without any real support. How does a gamer even know they’ll like your theme – as a non-profit effort, your advertising options are limited, and you may never attract a large enough following to make all of the effort worthwhile.

By contrast, plugging into an existing theme is easy. There’s always a wealth of pre-existing material to work from. DVDs, books, movies, fan-fiction and more. Everyone already knows whether the theme is to their taste, all the information they could wish for is widely available, and the only matter for their consideration is whether they like or dislike the software on which the environment is running, the rules and the management. Even grabbing the smallest fraction of an established fan-base can make you a huge hit in role-play circles.

When it is embraced, it can work very well indeed. I used to participate in a particular Star Trek MUSH online. Among the players were a handful of members of the crew, cast and writers for the series. It was fascinating seeing story elements from that game appearing later in later seasons of the canon television series.

That’s perhaps an almost ideal symbiosis, but all of that was happening without the knowledge of the rights-holders who probably would have shut the arrangement down punitively, had they become aware of it.

These days there’s now a Star Trek Online MMOG, but dozens of Star Trek role-play environments still exist online, and new ones still get created. Why is that?

It’s because the ‘official’ environments don’t offer the role-playing versatility and opportunities that many online, fan-created role-playing environments do. You can take your pick of game-systems. You can even find environments without any coded game-systems, simply relying on the creativity and fair-play of participants – essentially limiting play only to what players are jointly willing to agree to.

White Wolf’s World of Darkness is perhaps the single most popular role-play setting online over the last couple of decades. That property has become a part of CCP, the makers of EVE Online who are now working it up into an MMOG.

What will happen to the hundreds of role-play environments online that operate under the World of Darkness rules and/or setting? Will CCP’s lawyers come after them as the game gets closer to release? Will they only get shut down if the World of Darkness MMOG fails to attract enough usage? World of Darkness games are – traditionally – rather light on scripted game-mechanics, and trend towards humans creating their own stories and performing their own dispute-resolution, aided by administrators – a model which I do not see CCP necessarily indulging in.

A World of Darkness MMOG might simply not appeal to the tens of thousands of WoD gamers already playing in virtual environments today, and that could well put CCP on some awkward public-relations ground if it chooses to protect its rights – rights for which many millions of dollars have been spent already.

Is Linden Lab up to the job of keeping younger teens safe in Second Life?

In some ways the decisions surrounding Linden Lab’s closure of Teen Second Life, and the plans for its teen users represent an almost perfect microcosm of Linden Lab process.

There’s the decision to close Teen Second Life, apparently made without consulting with … well, anybody at all. As a part of this, older teens (16-17 years old) will be migrated to the adult grid along with their elders, but under some restrictions that remain a secret at present, despite now being just a few weeks away.

There’s the much better decision to allow younger teens (13-15) to be allowed a form of restricted access to Second Life, in order for a number of worthy education, community and support programmes to continue. A decision which appears to have been grudgingly granted at the behest of programme providers, and which doubtless would have surfaced originally, if they had only been consulted.

Now it remains to be seen if Linden Lab can carry this off. A mix of teens and adults in Second Life can be a potentially volatile mix from a public-relations and media perspective. Reducing the risk of potential scandal will require the utmost care and attention-to-detail from Linden Lab as they prepare to migrate users.

Fortunately, most of the code required for younger teen users appears to already be a part of the grid systems, and has been mostly successful at keeping Teen Second Life and Second Life largely isolated from each-other so far. There’s certainly some expressing doubts that Linden Lab will be able to competently meet the challenge, as many feel that those levels of care and quality-assurance exceed the organisation’s capabilities.

The plan with younger teens is to restrict them to the estates of a sponsoring organisation or programme. Each of the younger 13-15yo teens will be signed on with a particular group, and allowed no access beyond that group. Adult members of the organisation will keep estate-controls tight, allowing only approved and authorised adults access. Additionally, younger teen accounts would not have access to the new Second Life marketplace on the Web.

Now, that’s good, but clearly it isn’t enough. Teens in Teen Second Life have thus far had much greater protections than this, being protected from messaging by adult accounts who weren’t currently logged into the teen estate (a very limited privilege), and unable to be sent content by adult accounts from outside of the teen estate.

Under the new system, adult accounts in the sponsoring group would clearly be able to bring content into the sponsoring estate from the broader grid of Second Life, or (while in the estate) give content to or instant-message a younger-teen account in their sponsored group. These are fine. What about instant-messages or inventory transfers from adult accounts outside of the sponsored estate, however?

If those were to be permitted, any teen could be sent prurient account or sexually harassed by any adult or prankster with a throwaway account who wished to do so. That’s a media scandal in the making right there, and there’s certainly a minority of people in the world who would choose just such tactics to cause one.

As I said, of course, the code exists now to prevent this inappropriate crossing of estate boundaries with respect to contact with younger-teens, if it is appropriately planned, carefully adapted and diligently tested, and if Linden Lab has even thought to do so.

The question is, is Linden Lab up to the job of keeping younger teens safe in Second Life?

Update (Lowell): On top of the Teen grid decision, Linden Lab have now announced a cessation of discounted pricing for educators purchasing full regions on the main grid. It’s hard to see a result other than less nuanced education projects as pricing forces them to Homestead and Open Space regions. More on this later.

The ins and outs of Intel’s OpenSim scaling

By now, you’ve probably read about Intel’s experiments in boosting the performance of open-source Second Life workalike OpenSim to very large numbers of users – or at least very large numbers of users compared to a traditional Second Life simulator.

You may have seen the video, if not, it’s here:

All of this, ultimately, is apparently going to become an open part of the OpenSim codebase.

Unfortunately, the potential utility of this is a bit limited. It works fine for ScienceSim, at present (albeit it is considered more of a demonstration than a practical system right now), but the possibilities of deriving large benefits from it if you’re not already a well-heeled organisation are actually a wee bit limited.

The system uses a ‘distributed scene-graph’ technology in a form of computing sometimes referred to as distributed- or cluster-computing. The distributed scene-graph slices the simulation-space up into optimal chunks, based on workload, and parcels out the workload to other servers, while keeping processing in lockstep so that no part of the simulation races ahead or falls behind. Here’s Intel’s Dan Lake’s slides on how it works.

The very first barrier of this solution then is hardware. You need a number of capable servers, and the simulation could wind up limited by the ability of the slowest server to cope with the load.

On the other hand, the same cluster can deal with a number of simulators concurrently, so long as things don’t get so busy as to overwhelm the hardware cluster.

The biggest issue, really, is bandwidth. The servers need to shovel a quite astonishing amount of data between them, and the cluster as a whole also needs to be able to deliver bandwidth to every client with a viewer.

If each viewer has its bandwidth slider set to no more than 500, then we’re looking at up to 500Kbps of data for one user. Ten users is up to 5Mbps, the 500 users shown in the video potentially runs up to 250Mbps. Many Second life users will tell you that 500Kbps for the viewer doesn’t exactly yield a snappy response when things get busy, so the peak bandwidth loads back to individual viewers could potentially be much higher.

So, what we’ve got here is a great technology, and a solid step forward in virtual environment simulation, but for practical uses it is limited to very-high-speed local networks, or to companies for whom the costs of hardware and high-capacity network connections are not really much of a consideration.

One click can make all the difference

Linden Lab is cutting the Second Life Community Gateways programme from August 19 (giving Community Gateway operators just 18 hours notice of the pending termination). If you haven’t been through the Second Life orientation lately, you might not even be clearly aware of what the programme is.

The idea was simple enough. Since the Lab didn’t care to have a full-time employee doing the necessary work on new user orientation, a variety of groups who thought they could outdo the Lab were presented as optional starting areas for new users.

Not everyone was right. Even compared to the standard orientation experience’s very low bar, some of the Community Gateway experiences apparently “stank on ice”.

Some did okay though. There used to be a Google spreadsheet circulating around with various specifics of the CG programme, though I lost the link some time ago. What struck me is how small a number of the total pool of new signups took the Community Gateway option.

Indeed, according to the Lab, many gave up on the Web-site when presented with the choice of going to a Community Gateway or taking the standard orientation experience.

Think about that for a moment.

Presented with the choice, many users chicken out and we may never see them again.

Weekly Second Life signups for week 32, 2010 It’s certainly popular wisdom that 30% of new users don’t actually ever log in. I don’t know if that’s still true now, five years later, or not. I’m not sure if that’s a figure that the Lab would really be all that keen to share lately. There’s between ten and twelve thousand new Second Life signups every day, but it doesn’t seem like more than a couple of hundred actually make it through the proverbial first-hour.

In what seems like a startling digression, there’s an interesting balancing act I can tell you about in writing for the Web. It isn’t really all that startling a digression, as you’ll notice in a moment.

Articles with more than one part are obviously preferable from a page-view perspective. More page-views means more advertising dollars, so if you want more advertising dollars then you want more page-views.

Simple, you think, I will break my article up into parts! Each time the user clicks through, that will be another page-view!

But it isn’t so easy. A lot depends on who you are, who your audience is and what your article is about, but a good rule of thumb is that 25-30% of your readers won’t click through to the second page. 25-30% of those that do won’t click through to the third page. And so on.

It’s easy to watch that process from the Web-traffic logs, and get solid numbers, and they’re numbers that remain surprisingly consistent. It isn’t even as if you’re asking the user to make much of a choice. It’s just “click the link for the next part.”

So, yes, the Lab – while criticized at the time for it – was definitely right to shorten the number of steps in registration. Every click (and every choice) between the start of registration and actually turning up in Second Life with a prefab avatar you’re losing attention, and thus bleeding out audience.

That’s why the whole Second Life viewer in a browser keeps coming up over and over again, hiding software downloads, updates and installs from the user and all of that. For now, the Lab is going to just use its own orientation system, presumably until they follow-through on announced plans to eliminate that as well.

Eliminating even one step could cause a massive jump in retention, if it is done right. Just reducing the number of clicks and choices willy-nilly and without planning isn’t necessarily going to improve matters. You might get more people actually logging in, but who are simply unprepared for the welter of possibilities that the virtual environment then presents to them.

True names: identity, safety and Blizzard’s Real ID

Identity is a perennial sort of a topic, and Activision-Blizzard’s Real ID programme has brought it back into the limelight. Unless you’ve been hanging out under a rock (which would, you know, be fine – especially from a sun-protection perspective) you’ve probably heard about A-B’s programme which is the first phase of tagging your time in Blizzard games (like World of Warcraft and Starcraft II) and supporting services, with your first and last name.

It’s rolling out initially to the forums and to some in-game communications. Quite what Phase 2 is, is not yet clear. One can only speculate as to whether it might be named after the US 2005 REAL ID Act.

The main focus right now is on the Blizzard forums; a place frequented by only an infinitesimal fraction of the user-base, as is normal for most official game and virtual environment forums. After Real ID is implemented, while you will still be able to read them in complete anonymity, posting will display your name (first and last), and you will have the option of adding your character name to that information.

The apparent aim is to reduce the workload associated with moderating the forums (and certain matchmaking and communications services), while simultaneously making them a nicer place to be.

Of course, if you’re under 13, Blizzard cannot legally display your name without your parent or guardian’s consent. An option for that, I understand, is part of the parental controls.

The biggest problem I see right here is one of disambiguation.

While online services almost all insist on unique names, in practice names generally aren’t. This isn’t normally much of a problem in average-sized, geographically-bounded social groups, but does become an issue for large enterprises – and particularly online where geographical boundaries are not key factors in constraining social networks.

Just how do you disambiguate between two John Fitzpatricks or Catherine Joneses? How about ten? How about a hundred?

The Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) gets around this by requiring all members to have a unique name, one that isn’t presently used by another member and hasn’t ever been used by a previous member of the guild. This eliminates ambiguity in crediting. The “J” in Michael J. Fox stands for “Andrew” – because, quite simply, his own name was already taken by another Michael Fox (1921-1996). An increasing number of actors need to select pseudonyms or change their names to register with the SAG.

Are you going to change your name to avoid being confused with that inflammatory arse on the World of Warcraft forums? No, I didn’t think so.

If someone with the same (or a confusingly similar) name to yours starts making an idiot of themselves – and people are people, it’ll happen – you’re more likely to distance yourself from the problem by distancing yourself from the forum and anywhere else associate with the game that your name might appear, right?

Anonymity is the default offline

We don’t normally think of anonymity as the default state, but it is. There’s 6.25 or so billion people on the planet. There are numerous occasions that we hand over our identification or give our names for one reason or another, but we generally do so only to people that we trust to handle them properly or that simply don’t really care who we are.

Do you know your barista’s full name? Do they know yours? Would you have any idea what their first name was if they didn’t wear a name tag?

We routinely caution our children not to give out their full names to strangers, or indeed to anyone that they don’t have a very good reason to trust (eg: a policeman).

If you ask the person serving you at the grocery checkout or your bank teller what their last name is, they’ll probably be reluctant to tell you. For many establishments it is against policy to reveal that information.

Large and heavily trafficked call-centres and customer-support services routinely assign pseudonyms to their staff to avoid issues of harassment. In smaller outfits, it’s rarer, but still sometimes done if a staff member has a particularly memorable, distinctive or unique first name – or if another front-line staffer has the same first name.

Why do we go through all of this?

Because we know it’s safer!

Or at least we think that’s what we know. It’s not something we feel comfortable taking a lot of chances with. Some of us are certainly practiced at having our names out in the public eye all the time, and dealing with all of the rubbish that inevitably seems to come with it. Not everyone is willing to put up with it.

Ask around among your friends. In any group of twenty or so, the statistical odds are that one of them has been threatened, harassed or stalked. And that’s not counting being online. With those sorts of odds, it isn’t a risk we’re necessarily willing to take.

Activision-Blizzard would like to think that the problem people will be shamed or peer-pressured into silence, while more reasonable heads will prevail and prosper. In my experience, though, the problem people usually have no issue with being associated with their names. They’re proud of their behaviour; or they don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks.

That sort of competitive/combative battlelust is thought to be common, but really it isn’t so much. It just stands out more. We’re told that the “The meek shall inherit the Earth”, but they won’t inherit online forums, that’s for sure. Not with Real ID.

And if that service really is going to be expanded to other areas, then perhaps the world really has found its WoW-killer.

Imagine if this sort of scheme was implemented on Digg, or Second Life, or Slashdot. What do you think would be the result?

UPDATE: Blizzard have now reversed their decision.

Going mainstream means letting in the weirdos

Second Life’s generally considered to be a bit of a weird place. A lot of virtual environments are. They go through two phases of weirdness.

The first phase covers the first few waves of users. They’re considered weird because they’re doing something that isn’t usual: using a virtual environment at all, or using one that isn’t particularly well-known.

The second phase is when mainstream users start to trickle or flood in (and depending on the press that the environment has had, that can take place pretty close to launch). That’s when people start really doing weird things with it. Because landing the much-vaunted mainstream audience means nothing less than letting in all the weirdos.

Prior to that, you generally have people experimenting with the platform and the technology, seeing how it fits, where the money is, evaluating it for business, leisure, training, education, or just creating to suit themselves.

There’s typically no organized cadres involved, these are folks who are checking out the ground floor and determining if it is worth getting in on it for a long haul.

Generally, they’re smart, sane, sober, sensible, foresighted and farsighted people. You know, not really what’s considered normal.

Even so, playing the percentages, you’ll find a very small number of griefers, louts, firebrands and locos among them. It’s hardly a large number. Prior to maturity many virtual environments require a good deal of work, and that keeps a lot of the bad elements away.

Later, though. Well, let me tell you a story.

So, there’s an event on, and one of the attendees (appearing as Captain America) sexually harasses one of the venue staff. An abuse report takes place, and governance comes to take care of it. Unfortunately, they’re faced with so many Captain Americas at the venue that there is a little bit of difficulty identifying the culprit.

Only in Second Life, right?

Well, wrong.

A fellow by the name of Adamcik was at a bit of a shindig dressed as Captain America, but it’s okay, pretty much everyone was dressed up as something – though apparently Captain America figured very prominently. He had a burrito and a joint stuffed into his crotch.

He pestered women at the event to touch his burrito. Whether he made comedic humping motions with his hips at the time is a bit unclear. Apparently tiring of these japes, he allegedly groped a barmaid. While his behavior wasn’t exceptionally out of place at the event, he’d crossed a line.

The police were called in, but were faced with so many Captain Americas … well, the police report said “there were so many cartoon characters in the bar at the time, all Captain America’s[sic] were asked to go outside for a possible identification.” Adamcik apparently tried to evade identification by removing the burrito from his tights and concealing it in his boot. Nevertheless, he was hauled off to the lockup.

There, he attempted to flush the joint that had been concealed in his tights, but it was recovered by a police officer.

Adamcik was laid with charges of battery, disorderly conduct, drug possession and trying to destroy evidence.

Some college hijinx was it? No. Adamcik is a 54 year old family physician and the whole event was an American Medical Association shindig out in the physical world.

Yep, that’s right. Adamcik is one of those “normal mainstream people”.

Hey, mainstream dudes? You’ve lost any moral high-ground to call us virtual-environment users ‘weird’. Seriously.

This sort of thing isn’t an isolated incident. This sort of human behavior (and quite a bit that makes this look unexceptional) happens in virtually every human community on earth, every day.

That’s the mainstream. Get a few hours of XBox Live voice communications some time, but have a suicide hotline on your speed-dial first.

Even if the percentage of weirdos in phase one and phase two users remains constant, essentially opening your doors to the mainstream means opening your doors to the weirdos, the locos, the louts, the griefers, conspiracy theorists and every other kind of oddball our modern society spawns.

Come one, come all.

Also, as Linden Lab has noted on a number of occasions and most corporate IT staff will tell you, the average mainstream computer user finds the download and installation of software to be an obstacle, and sometimes an insurmountable one (unless, inexplicably, it’s some 3D screen-saver that installs malware onto computer networks).

Are those really the sort of people who are going to get a major benefit from a virtual environment and a digital economy? Maybe, but per-user they’re going to be incredibly costly to support, and that cost multiplies as their numbers increase.

If you really want to try to court the mainstream markets, you need to be prepared, and you need to give up caring whether people think your virtual environments are weird or sad or filled with folks living in their parents’ basements. That’s the mainstream, and if you want that, you go big or go home.

Book Review: Online a lot of the time

Online a lot of the time
Ritual, Fetish, Sign

Author: Ken Hillis
Publisher: Duke University Press

When my editor sent me this book to read and review, the title and intriguing cover image prepared me for an engaging and witty romp through online usage, telepresence, identity and more littered with illustrative reminiscences. Something to be read, savoured and enjoyed.

In that, I was initially somewhat disappointed. The book is truly dense, more reminiscent of a thesis (or several), backed with copious notes and bibliography. The dichotomy between title/cover and contents amusingly reminded me of the old maxim about judging a book by its cover. Nevertheless, I stalled on my first attempt to tackle the book; and then again on the second attempt.

The third time around I’d adjusted my expectations, and Hillis’ treatise does actually contain everything that I’d been looking for, and quite a bit more.

You might be fooled into thinking that the book is about the Web, virtual environments, online chatrooms and so forth. It isn’t, really – at least not solely. It’s about us … people, humanity, society, groups and individuals. It’s about our psychology, narratives, fetishes, quirks, rituals, expressions and signs.

It’s about the one thing that makes the virtual environments, the Web, and the Internet important: people.

Are networked individuals always running after the truth that passes them by even as it remains right behind and within them, a part of it lingering, like a cosmetic, on the surface of their “soul”? Does ‘here” for them always already mean “everywhere else”? These are the questions that, ironically, tend to get dismissed as (implicitly the “wrong kind” of) metaphysics by those who argue for the experiential reality of digital telepresence. – From “The Political Trace”, Chapter 3: SIGNS

You might find the prose and style to be fearfully dense, with paragraphs often running for more than a page. This is no ‘For Dummies’ book. This is one for the serious thinker who wants to be treated like an adult, and not coddled or talked down to.

Words and images, operating within specific sociopolitical circumstances, differently represent the possibility and potential of experience without a subject. However, particularly given the digitization’s opening of typography to new forms of visual design, there are increasingly meaningful overlaps in the ongoing expectations we bring to typographic and image forms, even as they each help organize in different ways what we find meaningful and how we do so. Theorizing the increasingly leaky experiential boundary between words and images has important implications for how subjectivity is organized if we are at the historical conjunction where the Web must be taken seriously as not only beginning to renovate some of literature’s forms but also forms of social relations. – From “Graphical Chat’s Debt to Free Indirect Discourse”, Chapter 4: AVATARS BECOME /ME

While I may not ordinarily be able to compose a higher praise for a book than that it makes you think good and hard about its foundation and topics, perhaps there’s something to be said for at least some accessibility.

Whether the text contains any truly revolutionary thought on the subjects of virtual environments, avatars, identities and telepresence is a bit harder to say. It has given me so much to think on that it could be quite some time before I can reasonably answer that question.

Nevertheless, if you’re an avid, virtual-worlds thinker with a mature attitude and able to keep your head above water in the deepest portions of the English language vocabulary, this book is definitely for you.

Alice has a dollar. A virtual economic failure

Alice and Bob are participants in an economy. Alice has a dollar.

Alice gives the dollar to Bob. In Second Life terms, that’s a user-to-user transaction.

Bob gives the dollar back to Alice. That’s another user-to-user transaction.

Repeat this sequence four more times. Is Alice and Bob’s economy now worth ten dollars? Or is it still worth one dollar?

Well, that depends.

Linden Lab will tell you that’s ten dollars. In reality, though, it depends on why Alice and Bob keep handing that dollar back and forth.

You see economic activity isn’t the movement of money. Economic activity is the trade in goods and services, not money. Money is just one of the tools that are used to value goods and services.

If Alice and Bob are just passing money to each-other without an exchange of goods and services, the economic activity – by definition – is zero, whether there’s one dollar or a thousand dollars, and whether it’s just Alice and Bob, or hundreds or thousands of other people involved.

The movement of money is one method by which we can see economic activity happening, but doesn’t constitute economic activity itself, just as we can determine the approximate size and movement of ducks on a pond by watching the ripples – but the ripples aren’t the ducks.

In any economy money moves between people, between accounts and between businesses for many reasons that do not constitute economic activity. Also, the exchange of goods and services for no money at all still constitutes economic activity of a non-zero value.

Alice and Bob might be exchanging goods or services, in which case there’s economic activity accompanying that dollar in their inefficient little economy. If so, then yes, Alice and Bob’s economy is worth ten dollars. If not, then their economy isn’t worth ten dollars, or even one dollar. It’s zero, because no economic activity accompanies the exchange.

Economics understands this, and when measuring the economies of nations, considerable effort is spent to separate out the movements of money which are not accompanying economic activity from those which are.

Granted, for any economy much larger than Alice and Bob’s it requires a lot of estimation and educated guesswork to get even remotely close to the truth, but the practices are well-established (even though they undergo continuous improvement).

For virtual environments, though, centuries of economic thought and learning are discarded, and the focus is incorrectly placed solely on the movements of money. Small wonder that the operators of many virtual environments really seem to have no idea which direction their economies are actually heading in.

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