Change is rarely revolutionary. This is probably a good thing, as most people dislike change as a general rule.
A sudden change into unfamiliar territory, even if it's seen as a benefit, can often leave people shocked and confused. This causes them to lash out and reject change, even changes that might otherwise be beneficial (though, admittedly, some changes are frankly pretty lousy).
Most changes are evolutionary. If you think that culture can't change in an evolutionary fashion, I suggest you watch "Revenge of the Nerds." I'm serious – if you watch it with 2011 eyes there's parts of it that are pretty horrifying and there's an overall "wait, but don't those same folks just run everything now?" My, my, how things have changed.
But you might have trouble pinpointing when things changed. That's how evolutionary change works – you wake up one day and look around and at some point, it all became different.
Last week, whilst in the midst of the whole Google+ saga (stil ongoing, in various directions), I noted that Linden Lab had done an inordinately large number of cool things lately. Last week I looked around and noted that something, somewhere had changed. Not completely and certainly not fully, but enough so that I looked around and wondered where the Lab's pod was. Something on Battery Street has... evolved.
From The Top Down
Last week, during the peak of the Plusgate fracas, Rod Humble (CEO of Linden Lab) tweeted to the world "But I have no intention of trying to change googles or FB's mind. I would rather provide the service ourselves :)", and my eyebrows reached my hairline. While it's true the "pick your battles" principle applies quite well here (let's face it, this is not a windmill that's worth tilting at), what it showed me was something missing from the past – that is that a lesson was learned somewhere along the line and an entirely new and different path was forged.
Considering that the initial response to the latest round of Facebook culls was more along the lines of "Here's how you set up your avatar page so FB won't summarily delete your account! wink wink," this simple tweet shows something has very definitely shifted at HQ. Hallelujah.
This was followed pretty quickly last week by the push on the "social profiles" concept, which would allow for status updates to be seen by other people viewing your profile as well as be pushed to other social media services like Twitter. The fact that you can push updates to Twitter if you so choose means that at least a token effort is being made to not create the same problem Facebook and Google+ were creating in reverse – that is to say limiting communication from avatar to avatar solely, rather than allowing communication to anyone, no matter how they choose to present their identity. The question remains if that communication will eventually work both ways, but I don't know how much is technically possible.
There has also been some suggestion that the Lab might investigate working with Diaspora, because it's both open source and available for the low, low price of free (a price the Lab has shown on more than one occasion to prefer). But as Jim Tarber mentioned to me in a tweet midweek, the alpha nature of Diaspora has some concerned over matters of security. However, it should be noted that the article in question was referring to the Diaspora launch into alpha in September 2010. Since the code is open source, it can be corrected if it still has issues.
But this is more than just social media conventions. What I've also noticed is a trend toward Linden Lab trying to understand how different people use virtual worlds, and attempting to bring a greater array of options to allow people to seek their own happiness.
In the middle of last week the Lab announced two upcoming changes which while perhaps seeming small to some, will be huge to others. The interesting thing about both of them is that both of them have been unheard of until now, even though people have been asking for variants of them for years.
The first new concept is Avatar Visibility. Avatar visibility is about increased privacy. It acknowledges that some people really don't want to be spied upon via someone else's ability to detatch their camera. What it would do is allow land owners to make avatars on their parcel invisible to those not on that parcel.
Here's an example. You're standing in your house, naked on a pose stand. Prior to now, anyone could cam into the house and see you. Utilizing this setting, someone standing on an adjacent parcel (or any parcel not yours) could do all the camming they like and never see you. It's a huge step toward respecting the privacy of others at the base, land level. It seems like a simple thing (and I have always thought it should be), but this is the first time that this level of potentially desired privacy has been acknowledged this way.
The second new feature allows landowners greater control over the social environment on their land by allowing to mute gesture sounds at the land level, on a parcel basis. For those that just got lost, there is a base function within Second Life for macros (keyboard shortcuts) that will trigger either sounds, or text, or both, called "gestures" (I've always thought it to be a strange name, myself.)
There is an enormous market for creating and selling these items, and they are very popular in places like clubs, where the sheer volume of gestures can be overwhelming for some, creating aural cacophony, and walls of text spam. The ability to turn off gesture sounds (which can be both very sudden and loud) at the land level allows land owners to control their environment more fully, and sends an overall message as to what is, and isn't acceptable in a particular venue(without having to resort to signs which are largely ignored anyway.) I find myself impressed at the thinking behind this, which is that ubiquitous behavior is not necessarily wanted behavior. Offering the choice either way seems to be a step in the right directon.
A Culture of Response
The biggest change I've observed is absolutely coming from the top. Rod Humble seems to genuinely be interested in what people do in Second Life- actually in virtual worlds in general. He interacts with people (I've only spoken to him like twice, so I don't mean me – I mean in general) and what's more he actually seems to be listening and truly attempting to respond in as timely a manner as possible to user concerns.
That's not to say all is sunlight and roses and dancing joy, because I don't think anything on the planet is sunlight and roses and dancing joy except my cat. But there has clearly been an evolution that was sorely needed down at the Lab. The question is, how far can it go? Because it needs to go much farther in order to push virtual worlds forward to the next level.