Business, Collaboration and Creative Growth

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”

The above quote, often – and possibly wrongly – attributed to Charles Darwin, serves as a worthy bookend to this piece.

Collaboration is a term frequently used in business to denote innovative strategies, projects, products and tools. It is stamped on marketing media and blurb as a hallmark of success. Collaboration indicates a company can create dialogues that can be leveraged into tangible benefits that generate growth for all concerned.

Over the years, Linden Lab has struggled to find a broader home – a workable market – for Second Life. In this they have been hampered by a number of issues, perhaps the biggest of which is the dichotomy of how to actually see Second Life.

On the one hand, it is a digital nirvana-in-the-making that will massively impact and transform the human condition; on the other, it is a commercial exercise. The former view is at the heart of Philip Rosedale’s perception of Second Life, as this comment from July 2010, demonstrates:

“Second Life and virtual worlds are going to profoundly affect the human experience, profoundly, and in a positive way. That is the mission of the company to make that happen and it’s my personal inspiration and dream to see that happen.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter whether or not Second Life makes money. But Linden Lab is founded upon venture capital – and so there is an emphasis on its ability to perform well enough not only to survive and return the initial investment, but demonstrate it can grow beyond it, attracting more capital along the way.

The SL Adventure was just Beginning

Rosedale’s view is firmly planted in the early days of Second Life. Back then the potential of the platform was untapped and no-one really knew what they had on their hands. Users were giving form and substance to the vision, bringing it into a fledgling reality; LL could afford to step back and encourage and tweak without overtly interfering.

During those formative years there were good communications between the Lab and users; policies would be announced, Town Hall meetings would be called; issues put into the public domain, feedback would be accepted and ruminated and acted upon. People had the feeling of participation; that the Lab and the community were on the same side. Where policy intruded – as with the 2003 Tax Revolt, the users made it clear it was the policy that was the issue, rather than making it personal, and issues were generally resolved with a degree of compromise on both sides.

The Undiscovered Platform

In November 2005, CNNMoney ran a piece on money-making in virtual worlds. This was followed a week later by an article by Paul Sloan, focusing on Anshe Chung, whom he referred as a Virtual Rockefeller.  It became the story that wouldn’t go away, rolling on for a full year.

Suddenly Second Life was the darling of business hype – without either big business orLinden Lab really understanding why. Businesses leapt onto the Second Life bandwagon without having any real idea why; they all just wanted to tap into this strange and hip new market.

It was an aberration. While it was true that with an enterprising bent and a desire to succeed, a person could make money from within the virtual environment, the opportunities for large organisations to do so were far more limited – if they existed at all.

By late 2007, the initial love affair was all but over. And while all the publicity had generated a significant upswing in user sign-ups, it’s very probable that those sitting in the Boardroom viewed the 2006/7 period as something of a missed opportunity. What exactly had gone wrong? Why hadn’t Second Life proven to be something that big business could recognise as a value proposition? What was missing, where did SL lack relevance? How could it become relevant once more?

Second Life 2: The Search for a Market

Out of this came what can only be described as a determination to refocus Second Life as a tool fit for business. To achieve this, the mystic vision that surrounded Second Life needed to be dispersed and replaced by something far more tangible and appealing that would cause big business not only to show an interest, but actively pursue the platform.

So 2008 started as the “year of change”:

  • Philip Rosedale’s March announcement that he was stepping down as CEO
  • The announcement that same month of the new Trademark Policy
  • The appointment of Mark Kingdon, a seasoned marketing executive, as the new CEO in April.

Kingdon’s arrival started the drive to make Second Life a “killer app” for big business; a drive which saw:

  • A redefinition of the platform as a service
  • The start of a drive to radically reinvent the Viewer
  • Engagement with the likes of RiversRunRed to develop “immersive workspaces”
  • The development of what would become known as the “out of the box” Second Life Enterprise (SLE) “tool” and Second Life Workspaces.

In moving this way, LL ignored a wealth of history that demonstrated that the best way for a young start-up to grow is to work from within rather than try to reinvent itself. Worse, it completely overlooked the fact that the company’s own working ethos, perhaps more than anything else, made it fundamentally incapable of achieving the desired goal.

Mark Kingdon departed Linden Lab in June 2010, the final admission that the Great Experiment had failed. While there was something of a minor rise in user sign-ups, over all, little changed in that period – other than the steady erosion of user confidence in the Lab itself, as I documented in Change in Second Life.

The Voyage Home

Today LL is in almost precisely the same position as it was two years ago: trying to bridge the gap  between early adoption and mainstream use. Even so, rather than accepting the conventional wisdom that the gap is best crossed by leveraging niche areas in the current user base, LL’s eyes have resolutely remained turn outwards, constantly looking for the Next Big Thing to which they can pin their hopes.

And it needs to stop.

The fact is that, far from being predominantly maladjusted individuals, as Mitch Kapor unfortunately inferred in his 2008 SL5B address, the SL user community is highly representative of the audience Linden Lab are seeking. It is made up of gamers, designers, builders, actors, musicians, digital filmmakers, role-players, artists, pundits, educators – the list goes on. What better way then, to actively promote the platform to the world at large than to tap into the wellspring of talent already using it?

That this hasn’t happened speaks volumes about a failure of vision within a company founded upon a vision. Fortunately, it is something that can be rectified. And it starts with LL re-establishing the trust that once existed between themselves and the user community. It needs to return to constructive, two-way communication and demonstrate it can:

  • Embrace the fact that while it may be a harsh critic, the user community is a loyal spouse, ready to defend, support and promote the platform
  • Accept that the community might just understand the nuances of the platform, and the hurdles that lay between LL and a wider market share at least as well as LL themselves
  • Help to better promote events within Second Life to the world at large through, for example, access to the LL PR team for those events that demonstrate they can reach beyond the current user base into new audiences
  • Work with the community to develop tools the community can use to pro-actively promote activities and events both in-world and out world
  • Provide the means by which the community can provides gateways from other media into Second Life so they can draw audiences in-world
  • Help to give the community the ability to effectively crowd source and create buzz

In short, Linden Lab needs to start collaborating with the user community once more and thinking more holistically about their product. Doing so isn’t going to solve all of SL’s woes (would it were that easy); but it will represent a major step in the right direction.

Regardless of whether or not Darwin actually wrote the quote at the top of this article, the truth of the observation it contains is clear: collaboration lends to success and growth.

Further Reading

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14 thoughts on “Business, Collaboration and Creative Growth

  1. Darrius Gothly

    Excellent perspective! I cannot say enough good about the way you have captured and detailed the current state of affairs. Your analogy, calling the user base a “loyal spouse” is absolutely correct; my wife is my harshest critic as she knows me better than anyone else, yet will not hesitate to support and defend me when the time comes. BIG thumbs up Inara .. very well done.

    Reply
    1. Inara Pey Post author

      Darrius,

      Many thanks for your feedback here and with my “Changes” post. Very much appreciated.

      Reply
  2. Ciaran Laval

    The world is full of stories of missed opportunities. Big business largely approached SL wrong, they should have been looking to engage with users, offering rental spaces on their sims or sponsoring other sims would have been better engagement than taking the if we build it they will come approach.

    LL still don’t seem to have quite grasped the concept of a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush, chasing shadows for the last two years hasn’t helped.

    The new social media manager may help with promoting events but really, they need to look long and hard at the events system they currently have, it’s not really upto the task.

    Reply
    1. Inara Pey Post author

      I think 2005/6 caught everyone unawares, in fairness. No-one had a clear idea of how to engage: big business, LL or the user community. It was an aberration in that regard. Sadly, it lead LL down the road of, “if we build it, they will come” (SLE et al).

      I think out of everyone who has come along, Rod Humble seems to get it; certainly he understands that SL is about creativity, and he appreciates the need to ensure the platform / Viewer aren’t a hindrance to people – or, from some of his comments – LL itself.

      Much more is needed to be done in and around events, certainly. It’s really worthwhile reading Grace McDunnough’s “Second Life, Meet the Social Web“. it really indicates how LL have consistently dropped the ball when it comes to live performances. More could, and should be done – and events are the ideal environment where external social media tools can be leveraged for the benefit of Second Life itself.

      Reply
  3. Sling Trebuchet

    Wonderful piece !

    I had a much poorer version of that sort of thought that I wasted into the wind as a comment in Hamlet’s place :)

    Second Life is a platform on which the *users* create the content.
    LL should concentrate on the platform.
    It is the *content* that will draw in new users and keep them.

    User create the content. They would be the best people put their content on display out in the wider Net to pull outsiders in – and retain them once they are in.
    They will be talking to their peers.

    I can’t see ‘Likes’ to Facebook from Profiles and Land Parcels providing the kind of draw that LL seem to be planning on. There is not really enough content in those things.

    Reply
    1. Inara Pey Post author

      Thanks.

      I think it is actually very much a partnership that needs to be re-invoked here.

      Just as an easier-to-user Viewer and a drastically reduced “first hour” experience (try “first five minutes”, and it might be more palatable to new users!) won’t solve SL’s woes in terms of user growth, nor will a reliance on content alone.

      There has to be a connection, a means by which people outside the garden understand what is going on within the garden. This doesn’t necessarily mean massive efforts in “breaking down walls” by shunting things to Facebook or pointing to “likes” – as you say, “likes” won’t translate to sign-ups.

      This really comes down to marketing and promotion – the creation of narratives that will entice and encourage people to come and see what all the fuss is about. Users can create the characters for that narrative; events can provide chanters and scenes – but Linden Lab, whether they realise it or not, are potentially the best placed to create the narrative itself and direct it to the audience at large.

      Which gives me a theme for a future blog post; in the meantime, is anyone over at Battery Street listening?

      Reply
  4. Opensource Obscure

    I think that most of the ideas coming from “the community” would actually be bad for the future of Second Life.

    Second Life is a very complicated system (under managerial, economic, technical, social aspects), and I wouldn’t expect many people to be able to grasp all its complexities in an organic and balanced way.

    I’m not even convinced that something like “a SL community” actually exists. Second Life is used for very different activities/aims. It satisfies some needs in a good way, while it’s still bad at others. “Less lag” apart, there aren’t many things that members of “the community” agrees upon.

    But this said, you have some good points here about the importance of collaboration between Linden Lab and Second Life’s userbase.

    Reply
    1. Inara Pey Post author

      Certainly the SL user community – the user base, as you refer to it) is made up of many diverse groups – but that doesn’t prevent engagement across apparently disparate parts.

      In fact, on a broader lever, I’d argue against the notion that there isn’t a “Second Life community” – or culture, which I think you might mean here.

      But to come back to this article: I use the term “community” in its broadest sense here: we are all users. We all want to see SL succeed. It’s in our best interests.

      It’s not really about engagement from the point of view of technical issues per se. “Less lag” and tackling it it should be a natural part of LL’s efforts and doesn’t require engagement with the user community in the manner described here.

      This is about taking an holistic approach – utilising those elements of the platform, the opportunities provided by user-driven activities – that can actively promote the platform to a wider audience and engage that audience. Then building out from there – providing the means for people to more readily access the platform.

      In this regard, it’s not so much taking suggestions from the users as what needs to be done as it is about understanding what we’re actually doing in-world, what can be fitted into an overall narrative that can be used to market the platform to the widest possible audience; tailoring that narrative to fit specific market sectors.

      Reply
  5. MarillaAnne

    Excellent! And Let’s not forget the scientists and the researchers, nor the role play of hospital teams.

    I personally haven’t told anyone of the benefits of second life without also explaining that it is impossible to ignore the very high risk caused by the behaviour of Linen Lab. They have all the markings of an extreme case of Attention Deficit … Including the inability to pre examine the potential outcomes and the inability to comprehend the impact of their behaviour.

    Example … Search … Why should it be of concern that the search results brings in home builders and dress shops on the first page? It is easy to pretend this is the fault of one person/ team at the Lab … But it is utterly indicative of the whole situation. In actuality, it is a failure to reward a job completed correctly. It is a failure to provide / assign team resources quickly. It is a failure to completely equip the team. It indicates a lackadaisical corporate attitude towards the actual usability of the platform. There seems to be a high interest in showing off what could be vs completing what should be.

    This is the root issue in my mind. If The Lab’s board and leadership actually cared about the true functionality of the platform, wouldn’t they concentrate on the issues that are already well documented? Issues that do affect all life forms that could possibly ever want to be on the grid?

    Marketing does not cure coding issues. Concentration of resources, rewarding the completed task, and encouragement solve coding issues. It’s not dazzling, it’s not sexy. It’s not fast. It’s not easy. It’s not really all that fun.

    It simply creates a working product.

    Then we can talk about how quickly the Lab will stab you in the back over potential income.

    So, by the time I describe the wonders plus the risk of the media, the risk of the platform, and the risk of doing biz with the lab, the only question remaining is, “Are you insane”

    Very probably.

    Reply
    1. Inara Pey Post author

      In fairness, the Lab has been working on the technology rather extensively. As Frank Ambrose has reported over the last 12+ months, and as we’ve all (knowingly or not) experienced: the infrastructure is now a lot, lot better than it was. Server-side, the weekly RC roll-outs have lead to fair less in the way of major disruption than used to be the case. Yes, there are still issues, but overall, things in this regard are better. And there is kudos to be given for this.

      To be fair to Rod Humble as well, he’s stated other long-standing technical issues are to be addressed under his watch, starting with customer services (again, if we can’t report issues decently, how can they be looked into?), and further work to reduce the impact of server-side lag (which will hopefully include the long-overdue script controls).

      On a wider front, things like the Viewer and Search do need to be better addressed; as – potentially – does the culture of Linden Lab as a whole. If the company wishes to ease its burden and be in a position to handle a hoped-for influx of new users, the idea that teams can stand as islands needs to end; there does need to be a top-down unified approach to managing all aspects of running something as technically complex as Second Life.

      Looking to solve technical issues won’t resolve everything – that route has been pretty well-trodden by the Lab and it has failed to produce growth (understandably). Similarly, marketing won’t cure all the woes of SL either – that much is true.

      This is why I firmly believe that LL need to be more holistic in their thinking and strategy. This means working on both the marketing and the technical aspects; it means engagement with the user base for a wide variety of reasons – not only to help grow the platform, but also to help us understand and prepare for any large scale changes that may be required in 3, 6, or 12 months’ time so that we don’t see sudden or unpredicted shifts in the economy. And it does mean properly engaging with us in order to understand and correct specific deficits in the way the company works in handling users and user issues, etc.

      I hope to be returning to these latter points in an upcoming blog.

      Reply
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