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View This: The Second Life Tinfoil Hat Theory, Part 2

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So I've been talking about this theory I have about what Linden Lab (the owners of Second Life) have been up to lately. When last we left our budding mystery, the townsfolk were in all but a panic, there has been no information coming from the castle on high, and whatever illusions of purported transparency put forth by the Lab at their most recent Community Conference back in July have largely been proven to be... a bit more like translucency.

Sometimes, in the right light... Maybe you see something. So today I want to talk about how the new viewer (actually more specifically its back end code) fits into things.

But before I do, I want to point out something I forgot last week, but was kindly pointed out to me by commenter MarillaAnne Slade, which is the upcoming closure of the Teen Grid. I'm calling it out because I'm a dingus for forgetting it and it ties in with the other things I'm going to be talking about, but as with the others, here's the primer bit:

Until now, Second Life has operated on two parallel platforms. One, designed for people over 18, and one designed for people 13-17, called Teen Second Life, or the Teen Grid. The platforms were kept completely separate for fairly obvious reasons -- security for kids, peace of mind for their parents, and sanity for the rest of the adults.

However, the fact that the two platforms were completely separated caused problems as well, as there was no way to share content between them. This meant for example, that entrepreneurial teens has no way to create and sell products on the main grid (where they were likely to make significantly more money), and there was no way for educators (and teens who had aged out of the system) to be able to travel between the two platforms easily.

That is due to change at the end of December. The Teen Grid will be closed and merged with the main grid. The overall age to enter SL will drop to 16, be limited to certain regions and have significant restrictions.

Although the Lab is in the development phase for ideas to incorporate the rest of the teenagers who will be left out in the cold (the 13- to 15-year-olds), as of now, what's to be done about that has not yet been decided. More on that in the future, since it ties in with the changes to edu and nonprofit pricing.

A Complicated View.

Well then, back to cases. Let's start with The Viewer.

The viewer is the means by which you, behind your desk, interact with the virtual world. It contains the user interface, and gives you access to the features you theoretically need to navigate successfully and do the things you need and want to do while you're there.

The code that powers it determines what is, and isn't possible to do from the interface(whether that version or future ones) Part of the issue with Second Life, and to a lesser extent with other virtual worlds, is that the userbase is so diverse in their needs, focus(focuses? focii?), aspirations and goals that it is very very difficult to create a viewer that is a catch-all, magic bullet solution. In fact, I said exactly that, back in July.

But the viewer problems aren't recent. The viewer was always a problem. It may be a more complicated problem now, but it was never easy.

For many people, SL is a game. For me personally it's not a game at all (as I've mentioned in previous columns, this is a longstanding philosophical debate), but for one moment I'm going to make that comparison.

As a game, the viewer has always been terrible. It's got little to no relationship to the (more or less) expected layouts of computer game interfaces. It's complicated and clunky and there's a steep and often frustrating learning curve involved in order to be able to use it with any kind of proficiency. You need to be determined to learn it and perhaps get some help from others who know what they're doing in order to not walk away muttering obscenities, never to return. It takes time and patience to learn.

Time and patience: two things that are for an enormous amount of people, in limited supply.

This is borne out in the vast numbers of people who have signed up for SL accounts only to simply abandon them not long after. There's other reasons as well, but this one was a biggie. People tend on the whole to want their entertainment to be easy.

Think about television, and even the Internet itself -- content is delivered to you with little effort on your part. It's a passive system, and frankly a bit mindless.

Second Life simply isn't passive in that way. It requires energy and effort be put forth on your part (not unlike life itself.) When it's not easy or fast to learn, this causes a lot of people to simply say "screw it" and go back to their TV.

Sure, the accounts have been made and simply abandoned (not deleted), and Linden Labs uses those numbers (over 20 million of them now) to pat themselves on the back and look good to the press. But the number of active accounts in Second Life is a much smaller number.

Because there are no limits to how many accounts any given person can have, the number of alt accounts (alt being the word for a secondary, etc. account held by someone with another active account), adding to that total means the number of unique users are not nearly so great. At the end of 2009, Wagner James (Hamlet) Au, over at New World Notes posted the results for that year: 750,000 active accounts on average per month. That's a far, far cry from 20 million. This is in no small part due to the complexity of the viewer itself.

A Shift In Priorities

The Viewer Issue then is a big problem for Linden Labs, as it's a primary goal for them to keep new users signing up for SL. New users (who stay, anyway) generally eventually buy Linden dollars ($L), which directly make the Lab instant cold hard cash due to SL's unique two-way economy system.

For those who missed this in my previous articles, I'll break it down for you: You can purchase Linden dollars (inworld money) in exchange for USD. This is not unusual. What IS unusual, is that you can (legally) cash it back OUT again into real life money.

A constant influx of new users (who are not at the point in which they can create and sell content themselves in SL) will eventually become consumers in the economy. In order to do that they need $L and the vast bulk of them will simply choose to purchase them rather than work for them. BOOM. Instant money for the Lab.

Remember, if you buy $25,000L, you're paying the Lab (as of this writing) $95.72USD. You get plenty of $L to mess around with, but the Lab gets real cash. Since most $L are never actually removed from the system and are merely passed around in user-to-user transactions it's easy to see why Linden Labs would prioritize a steady, ongoing stream of new users. The complexity of the viewer impedes that goal.

It became a priority for the Lab to redesign the viewer. Because they realize that the old viewer was causing new users to abandon the system at a high percentage rate, they tried to make their new 2.0 viewer something more appealing to that market segment focusing on what they dubbed "the first hour experience."

The new viewer is less like a standalone application and more like a sort of browser of its own. It contains a familiar looking browser style address bar at the top, with a home button, and a search bar in the upper right hand corner. It looks and operates in a much different fashion than the old one.

There were lots of changes to placement, functionality and look and feel. The problem is that those changes came at the expense of the existing userbase, who collectively lost their minds at how not only radically different (change is hard, yo.), but how awful the new viewer was for those who were not only used to the old one, but weren't part of that segment of the population the new viewer was aimed to address and impress.

For many of those who create/sell content in Second Life, the viewer was/is an an exercise in frustration, as it's designed to meet the needs of people who are fundamentally on the opposite end of the user spectrum. Further, even if 2.0 was navigable eventually, people who create and sell content in SL daily often simply don't have the time to re-learn an entirely new system. They need to know where the functions they need are right now, since waiting for three weeks to get used to where everything is simply isn't time they can afford to waste, literally or figuratively.

Though the viewer was intended for new users to easily understand, many existing users found it time consuming and frustrating to relearn. They'd already gone through the steep learning curve of the old one and had little interest in relearning an entirely new system.

Open Source To The Rescue

(a v2 screencap kindly provided by Kostika Mistwalker)

Fortunately, for everyone who hated viewer 2 there are alternatives in various forms -- either going back to viewer 1.23 (which is what I did), or to use any of the many third party viewers that have been made available through the open source software program. The Third Party Viewer solution has worked for a large number of people, usually incorporating a familiar looking 1.23 style interface (there is at least one that is using a 2.0 style interface, though), with additional features and options that you can't get from viewer 1.23. The learning curve is much less steep for those used to the old viewer.

Generally speaking, everyone can (more or less, and loosely) find a viewer solution that works for them no matter what they decide to do. However this doesn't change the fact that a massive amount of research and development time (and money) went into the 2.0 viewer project and that even the Lab itself has been forced to admit it's largely a failure.

People just don't LIKE it. That's a pretty big blow, considering the main goal of 2.0 was to entice and then retain new signups in SL via the first hour experience. Not only did this not happen (signups have been flat) but it annoyed the unholy hell out of the people already there.

(A Phoenix Viewer screencap, kindly provided by Tonya Souther)

But even with all these choices and options, there's still an additional problem that has yet to be resolved -- and that is the fact that you need a viewer at all. There has been much talk, even (and perhaps especially by) Philip Rosedale (CEO of Linden Lab) about the fact that Second Life remains a stand-alone application that must be downloaded and installed, with a separate viewer as being the primary barrier to increasing and retaining new signups. Though viewer 2 brings a browser experience closer visually, it doesn't actually put SL in an actual browser (like Firefox or Chrome) and making it directly accessible from a webpage. As of now, the garden wall of the stand-alone application remains unbroken.

Grab Your Tinfoil- There's Change Afoot

However, things may be about to change. The Lab released a post Thursday afternoon, talking about some core technology changes that have been long in the making (and long wanted by residents.)

Although all of them sound fairly promising (particularly the raising of the group limit from 25- to 40- something that people have been begging for for a very long time), there are a few others that relate to the viewer itself. One is a response to requests for greater customizability of the viewer (what that means remains to be seen), and the other involves a longstanding problem with group chat (group chat, for those who are familiar with Facebook but not with SL is something we have always had. However it's also always been buggy and problematic). In fact FJ Linden tells us specifically in that post that they are going to an entirely new chat program:

Over the last few months, we've completed a number of development sprints to prototype an XMPP service and have decided to move forward with an ejabberd deployment. We're targeting to have a test deployment of the new group chat service by the end of this year, and full production deployment in early 2011. -FJ Linden

Sadly, here's where my tech skills fail (as I am emphatically not an IT professional). But I sure know IT professionals (that answer bizarre, random questions at 4 a.m.).

What I am told about this technological change can be summed up as "Yes, this is doable using XMPP and API" (There was a longer, more technical explanation as well, but I'm skipping to the punchline). However, there have been subtle clues all along that something like this might be coming just in how viewer 2 is laid out.

Again, note the browser like style. Chat is now handled from a taskbar at the bottom, rather than a tabbed window. Also (which you can see in that screencap up there), notice how your SL profile and your RL profile are now together, where in v1 they are separate tabs entirely. This is a small thing, technologically, but psychologically, it's not so small. It points to an integration between RL and SL that was not present before.

As mentioned previously, I don't have any connections at Linden Lab. But I do have connections at more than one third party viewer development team.

Though the Lab is not making it an absolute requirement that Third Party Viewers use the 2.0 codebase(as confirmed by me on the phone a few days ago), they are pushing for it awfully hard. The legitimate and reasonable(and I am sure utterly truthful) claim is that the Lab wants everyone to be on the same page vis a vis the code moving forward, so when changes are made via open source, they can easily be tracked, understood and modified leaving the appropriate changelogs and paper trails.

However, there's additional and equally important reasons to push for a 2.0 codebase for all. No one (unless they're an idiot) creates this much code without looking to the future, and trying to anticipate and predict what needs they may have. I (rather firmly) think the 2.0 code allows for future interaction between SL- inworld and The Rest of the Internet, in particular things like Facebook and mobile applications, particularly given the dream of putting it in an internet browser entirely.

Breaking the Garden Wall

What would happen if from the viewer itself, you could update twitter, facebook, and other social media applications without having to ever leave the inworld experience? What if people on your twitter or facebook friends list could interact with you while you were inworld and they were on the web or on a mobile device?

Being able to do this would actually solve a few problems for people inworld who run SL on less than ideal computers, but utilize all these various networks. You would not have to keep a separate facebook or twitter window open, theoretically saving processing power. For those who can run all these things at once, you would no longer have to flip into a different window in order to access what was going on. The line between SL/Everything else would get a bit more hazy.

Therein lies the problem of course, as there's a substantial community within SL(though not me personally) that wants to keep a very, very firm wall between SL and RL. Whatever their reasons are (and they are legion), their Second Life existence is not something they wish to see crossed over in any way into their first life world. The mere ability to do this from within the viewer would *without question* set off a firestorm of controversy, and in fact each time the specter of it has been raised (which has been the case with a number of these recent changes) the same objections immediately surface, usually in under five minutes.

This is not without basis for concern -- Facebook is well known for privacy issues, and not understanding in the slightest bit the concept of "opt-in" as opposed to "opt-out." Twitter's recent code update doesn't seem to understand either one, preferring to have a you'll get what we give you, and like it with no way to ever change it's approach (as there is precisely nothing modular about #newtwitter).

The thought of Second Life creating an inworld link to these services is a legitimate worry for those deeply invested in maintaining a complete separation between SL and the rest of their lives. However, Linden Lab's real interest is not the users they have.

Remember, the main focus of 2.0 was never those already possessing Second Life accounts -- it was for new account holders. Let's face it, there's roughly only 750,000 active accounts on the grid. The Lab's interests lie in the users they could potentially have (remember gang, Facebook alone has over 500,000,000 accounts) , and the potential to be able to connect, even peripherally with these other, larger and more powerful networks is something they'd be stupid to pass up.

Follow the Money

I am a firm believer that when something is going on with a company that you don't understand, the solution is to follow the money.

OK, but even if you do this, it's not really by itself enough to be much of a money maker. Creating a connection like this would open the wall of the garden but it doesn't make it any more enticing for people to come through the wall to the inside, and spend any money.

Getting people to come inside SL would be awesome of course, but it doesn't need to happen that way. People don't actually need to be IN SL to spend money on SL. All you need is a web based virtual marketplace to do it, but the one in use up until October 6 wasn't full featured enough to handle that kind of integration.

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