So, about a week after the fact I get to blog about the seventh instalment of the Drax Files. In the much-anticipated (and much-discussed before and afterwards) episode of the series, Draxtor Despres interviews Linden Lab’s own CEO, Rod Humble. The initial plan was to keep the guest for this episode a secret and make it a surprise for SL’s community in the run-up to the celebrations of Second Life’s 10th birthday, although word started leaking after he made a few in-world appearances using both his primary account and some of his alts.
Once again, Draxtor is consistent with the mixed media format he has chosen, using both in-world footage and footage shot at LL’s main offices in San Francisco. The focus of this episode is Second Life itself as a virtual world, its impact on the world and the way LL’s senior management sees it w.r.t. its “story so far” and its future. To be honest, I watched the episode with mixed feelings; one one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Mr. Humble speaking out and voicing some things that are of utmost importance in an era when privacy is being taken away from internet users with various excuses, each one surpassing the other in daftness (“improving comment quality”, “improving users’ behaviour” and, of course, the ubiquitous, wildcard excuse of “preventing terrorism” – see the recent PRISM scandal and how the “democrat” Barack Obama has embraced Orwellian 1984-like policies that would be the material of many wet dreams for North Korean officials), and also speaking out regarding the common myths propagated about SL and its community. On the other hand, I did wish that the interview could be seen by both Draxtor and Mr. Humble more as an opportunity to address several key issues that concern SL’s residents; some could consider this episode to be of a quasi-promotional nature and accuse the views expressed therein of being superficial. Furthermore, while watching the episode, I couldn’t help thinking “wait for the paranoid ‘FIC!’ and ‘Rod Humble ascribes to the techno-communist geek culture’ screams to come.”
In all fairness, though, “The Drax Files” was never intended to be viewed as journalistic work. It is an the labour of love of a very enthusiastic machinimatographer who, in the format of a 5-minute episode, attempts to focus on several persons that shape and influence our experience of Second Life. As such, this series doesn’t lend itself to offering a detailed, in-depth analysis, and Draxtor has opted not to go for the role of the investigative reporter who won’t hesitate to confront the interviewee.
This episode is perhaps the most important in this series yet, because it allows us to see Mr. Rod Humble is not a distant CEO/investor that makes pompous (and, more often than not, detached from reality) announcements and never get involved with the platform itself, but, instead, is a man who has the responsibility of ensuring a comfortable level of quality and success for Second Life and also, contrary to popular myth, understands to a satisfactory degree what Second Life is all about, even though some of its appeal may still elude him.
Some of Mr. Humble’s goals and attempts may seem in conflict with each other: during the past two years, he has invested time, money and energy in diversifying LL’s portfolio and moving it to (until now) uncharted territories, while at the same time pushing for some very noticeable technical improvements in its flagship product. Again contrary to popular myth, actions and results speak not of a company and management that are “the enemy of the users”, but of a CEO who believes in the future of the platform, has a vision for it and recognises its many technical flaws.
I also can’t help noticing Mr. Humble’s honest remark that what each individual will find appealing in SL is a mystery even to LL’s personnel, much less the rest of the tech industry and the computing media:
It is very hard for us to figure out what you will find appealing within Second Life, within this universe of creativity. – Rod Humble
Those familiar with Mr. Humble’s opinions on various matters (for instance, see the positions he expressed during the last of the Second Life Community Conventions in 2011) are going to see that his positions on privacy, anonymity and pseudonymity (especially in a time when these rights are being eroded daily), matters which are very important for many residents of SL (see Gwyneth Llewelyn’s poignant article) have not changed; I count this as a positive sign. Also, the numbers quoted w.r.t. new user sign-ups are consistent with what we’ve been hearing for the last couple of years.
I think that the ability for you to have a certain kind of identity in certain situations within Second Life is much more traditional than today. I am very uncomfortable with the lack of privacy and ability to choose the persona I put forward, more and more. With social media, everyone knows who you are. That doesn’t feel comfortable to me; sometimes I want to choose. The “you” that goes to church is different than the “you” that goes to the pub or the tavern, which is different than the “you” that goes to work or is at home, or is in a club. And I think increasingly today those lines are getting eroded. And I think they are important. It is tremendously empowering for people to go into Second Life and say; “Here is my persona.” – Rod Humble
On the subject of user retention now, many of us would like to see LL take more visible and drastic steps towards getting those 400,000 monthly sign-ups to stay in-world and have proposed various ways for LL to improve user retention. But this video is not about breaking things down and finding solutions to the already well-known issues that SL has. Instead, it is a presentation of Second Life to the outside world (mostly) , with a better understanding of the platform and the reasons its users enjoy it so much, and an invitation for people to at least give it a try. In this vein, this interview is perfectly relevant and consistent with the theme of the show.
It is quite interesting to note that Mr. Humble admits to using both his main account and his various alts to get in-world and interact with SL’s users – this is something that answers the “oh, LL’s staff doesn’t spend time in-world” claim. Well, we may not see them going around using their main accounts, but they do get around – incognito…
In all, this episode serves its purpose well: It gives us a good idea of the vision that LL’s CEO has for SL. Personally, I am pleased to see that Mr. Humble has a good grasp of Second Life’s power and is actively leading the effort to improve the platform and make users’ experience of it more enjoyable. Last year, we saw LL invest lots of time and effort in improving it under the hood. Day-to-day work, that is not always visible or “sexy”, but whose results and benefits are felt by many users – this shows that LL believes in the viability and the future of Second Life and is committed to it.
It must also be noted that LL is now working to fine-tune support for Oculus Rift, a new virtual reality headset that could revolutionise virtual worlds.
In all, with all the “the sky is falling” theories that abound all over the internet regarding Second Life’s future, it is refreshing and most pleasing to see that LL’s top management is not only committed to its flagship product, but actively leads the effort to improve it and make it more enjoyable for its users. Especially as SL’s 10th birthday is approaching fast.
- The Drax Files: World Makers [Episode 7: Rod Humble] on YouTube
- Draxtor Despres on YouTube
- Draxtor’s website
- The Drax Files: a Humble view of the world – by Exotix (Inara Pey); highly recommended, as this post also features a continuation of a discussion with Draxtor Despres
- The Rod Humble Interview – by Jo Yardley; full transcript of Rod Humble’s interview
- The Drax Files Episode 7 – Rod Humble – by Ciaran Laval
- The Drax Files on this blog