So it seems the Powers That Be here at SearchEngineWatch (SEW) have decided to lose their collective sanity long enough to give me a permanent bit of bandwidth to write about Second Life/Virtual Worlds once a week. But any discussion starts with a perspective, and I think it's only fair that I deliver mine, up front, so there's no mistaking it:
For the most part, my Second Life is a job.
I'm phrasing it that way because there's been a longstanding philosophical debate about what Second Life is. Usually that gets divided into binary camps of game/not game, and the debate can get very heated and ugly. My view is a little broader- it is whatever it is for you. Ultimately, I think it's a blank canvas. Much like life itself, your Second Life gets determined by where your energy and effort is placed. A lot of social gaming/networking/whathaveyou is based on that same principle- this is not really unique to SL. What something is (whether that's Twitter, or Facebook, or Foursquare or anything) is based on what you choose to use it for. In the end, all these things are merely tools and frameworks. How you use them is an individual decision. For me, that energy and effort is spent on work.
I own or partially own(with my partner, Dare Munro), five different businesses (Damned Good Design SL, Girl Not Included, The Fooding, Urban Forge Virtuatecture and Virtual Alchemy Photography) and we are planning on opening a sixth business soon. In addition, I assist him as the model (and whatever else I can do to help) for his store, Dare Designs. I have been manager of the same club (Gothika) for almost two years, which in SL terms is *forever*, and I'm the manager for the sim it sits on (Cursed). Finally, because that's apparently not enough, I DJ four regular sets a week, plus special events about once a month. I'm writing here about SL, and Dare and I have just launched a more specific blog for our SL stuff called News From the Loft. All of this, and I haven't touched 'real life' (RL) yet, but I want to be *really* clear to everyone that when I say that my SL is mostly a job, I mean it. I'm a little busy, and let's be honest, I'm not extroverted enough to make socialization anywhere (RL or SL) a primary focus of my day.
It's important to explain where I'm coming from because it deeply colors my personal perspective on SL, on Virtual Worlds in general, and so too this column. What also needs to be understood is that most SL related blogs are written for other people already IN SL. There's a lot of shorthand, and an assumption of quite a bit of baseline knowledge that a lot of people who read SEW may not have. So all the SL regulars are going to have to bear with me as I do a bit more backstory and explaining you may not be accustomed to seeing elsewhere. As always, questions are welcome, because Im not always as clear as I'd like to be (or think I am).
Trouble in Paradise
If it's a secret, it's the worst kept one ever in the history of anything ever, that the past year or so has not been kind to Linden Labs (owners of Second Life.) Seemingly, it's been one hard knock after another, and no segment of the userbase seems to be in the remotest bit happy. While it's always going to be difficult to make such a diverse population of competing interests satisfied with any global decision, it seems that Linden Labs have perfected the art of making absolutely everyone miserable all at once. Contrast this with how things were several years ago, and the difference is enormous. These are dark times for the rebellion, er, Second Life.
But lately, even for the Lab, things have gotten downright *weird*. There's been a a rapid-fire pulse of things/announcements/projects that have been pushed through to the grid (the term for the live, active SL world) which seem from the outside to be devoid of a whole lot of forethought, consideration of consequences, or basic common sense- so much so that even those of us who dearly want to keep SL going strong are left scratching their heads going "Wait, what?" What's more, these various projects seem to be getting pushed out in a huge hurry without proper testing or the knowledge of whether or not they actually *work* as intended. Frustration is at perhaps an all time high. I'm sure it's not happy fun time around the Lab itself either, as they have closed all their international offices and pulled back entirely to San Francisco(considering 60% of the userbase is not located in the US, you can easily see how this might compromise already notoriously tenuous customer service). Intelligent speculation has cropped up offering an explanation in the form of SL being at the end of an investment cycle. But I think there's more going on here.
This flurry of strange and often maddening behaviors by the Lab was/is both baffling and frankly worrisome for those of us with significant inworld investment. I found myself spending a lot of time thinking about what could possibly be going on that would create this sudden, rapid rush to push all these things out at once(actual ability to function notwithstanding- because it's perfectly clear not all of them work.). Eventually, after the snap, a spark of ozone and the smell of smoke was noticed, a light bulb went on in my head.
Several people have commented (and I think intelligently so) that the Lab might be positioning Second Life for sale. I can see why this is a reasonable conclusion. SL is like an old house. The bones are good, but it needs so much work, the current owners could just want out rather than to put forth the energy in fixing it. Sadly, in this case the current owners seem to be intent upon romping about with sledgehammers through the house as well, but I digress. Though it may be the case that the lab will be sold at some point in the future, I don't think that SL is up for sale right now.
What I think is far removed from that conclusion. I think the Lab has found an absolute *gold mine*. A way to make them an absolute bucketload of cash. Maybe, just maybe, someone down there is very, very smart.
So, I have a theory. Or I just might be insane. I could be wrong- and if I am, I'll be publicly posting what I think is a really good idea (though it does me personally not one scintilla of good). Btw, uh, Linden Labs? If you weren't going to do this, and decide to because of me? Be decent human beings and throw me a cut. Thanks.
In the past several months, there have been significant changes to the basic ways of interacting, in a technological sense, within Second Life. Each of these changes will be explored in detail, and there's a lot to know about them all. But most importantly, it's how they relate to one another that really matters. But in order to get us started, here's a small overview of each one as a primer:
In early 2010 Linden Labs made a complete overhaul to the viewer - the interface by which you move around in SL and access its functions. This revamp followed a lot of hype, but in the end, it was poorly received, with most people already functioning in SL refusing to adopt its use for various reasons (self included.) Below is a screencshot of what the 1.23 viewer(which is the old one- but the one I still personally use) looks like on my screen. You can see the long, blue buttons on the bottom, and the movement and camera controls (also blue) that I have visible on the left center (you can move them anywhere you want, I just like mine there.)
The In-World Search Engine
A complete change in the functionality of inworld search engines was implemented starting in the spring of 2010, and is still ongoing. These include search metrics, how search works on a basic algorithmic level and how SEO should operate. The issues with search have serious consequences to inworld businesses and have been going on for months. They as of this writing have not been fixed. This alone has caused so much frustration, that several larger SL merchants have said openly that they would have gladly left Second Life over it, were there anywhere else to actually go. The search problems have cost inworld merchants real money- and they are not at all happy.
In July, the Second Life Community Conference was held in Boston, with Philip Rosedale (CEO, aka The Once and Future King') making the keynote speech, outlining the new vision for Second Life: "Fast, Easy, Fun." This seems like a cute and simple catchphrase, but it's become a real bone of contention regarding how SL is really meant to work, for whom its intended(its target audience), and what the plans are for SL in the future.
There were fundamental changes announced recently to how usernames would function in SL (and why they were changing was really rather telling). The original announcement about usernames generated over 1000 comments in reply, the vast, vast majority of them utterly furious. The followup post has not fared much better, and shows clearly that even the most die hard users of SL are at best, disillusioned and disappointed with the relationship between the users and the Lab (not to mention that both posts show I am a cranky, cranky individual).
The Second Life Marketplace
The SL Marketplace, a web based store to purchase goods that can be delivered to you while in SL, underwent a complete codebase change in summer and fall of 2010. This is the second major codebase change since January 2009(just when you thought it was safe to shop on the Marketplace...) but the new marketplace code has the added bonus of being pushed out of beta LONG before it was ready which has resulted in chaos for both merchants and shoppers.
In the past week, rumors started flying that Second Life was up for sale, and further, that it was Microsoft making the offer, sending waves of whispering through the blogosphere. This rumor turned out to be untrue- in fact, as Jonathan Allen wrote on SEW last week Microsoft was after Vivaty. However, that didn't stop the overall sale rumors, and the debate continues, though as I've said, I personally don't believe that Second Life is up for sale right now.
The Price of Land
Finally, just a couple of days ago, there was an announcement that the entire pricing scheme for virtual land for nonprofits and educational institutions operating in SL was about to be changed. The ripples from that announcement are still moving, and in fact, gaining strength as .edu and nonprofits have been heavily courted by the Lab in the past. Also, unlike the merchant population in SL, they *do* have somewhere else to go, as other virtual worlds are happy to embrace them.
Bring Your Hat
All of these things taken individually may seem haphazard and unrelated. But what if there were a connection between the following things:
That added up to (for the Lab, anyway) not chaos and the rending of garments, but a *cha-ching!* of epic proportions. I may be nuts (shh, all of you) but there's a way to connect all of these things and come to that conclusion (a conclusion I might add that I personally gain nothing from at all).
Now, this is where Im going to have to ask everyone to get their tinfoil hat, because I have no way to know whether or not my theory is on the mark (unlike many other SL bloggers my connections at the Lab amount to... precisely zero), and until all the dots got connected in my head none of it made any sense. But if I'm right... well.. You'll see. This is going to take more than one column to write about, so think of it as a serialized mystery. With tinfoil hats (fashionable!). Besides, if I'm wrong, we can all make fun of me later. Sound like fun? Let's go.