Linden Lab

Strawberry Linden (left) with Brad Oberwager (Oberwolf Linden) at June 21st’s Lab Gab SL18B Special

On Monday, June 21st, I attended the airing of the Lab Gab SL18B Special show with Strawberry Linden (née Singh). It was a lengthy, much-anticipated, and newsworthy show, as it’s only been less than three weeks after the passing of esteemed LL CEO Ebbe Altberg. The show was divided into two sections: in the first, Strawberry interviewed Linden Lab Board member and Executive Chairman Brad Oberwager (in-world name: Oberwolf Linden); in the second, she interviewed the Lab’s Leadership Team, which consists of VP of Product Anya Kanevsky (in-world name: Grumpity Linden), VP of Product Operations Eric Nix (in-world name: Patch Linden), and VP of Marketing Brett Atwood (in-world name: Brett Linden).

In accordance to the structure of the show, I’m dividing my summary and my thoughts into two separate posts; in the current post, I’m focusing on Mr. Oberwager’s answers to Strawberry, which of my own questions about the future of the company and the Second Life platform, which is celebrating its 18th year, were answered, and what questions I still have. Of course, I didn’t expect Strawberry to raise the topic of Ebbe’s succession; it’s way too soon, and I don’t think it would be proper, after all. I’ve decided to summarise what Mr. Oberwager said and – where appropriate or necessary – comment on what was said, organising the post in sections in accordance to the flow of the interview. At the end of the post, you can watch the video in its entirety.

Contents:

Brad Oberwager’s interview:

Brad Oberwager and Philip Rosedale

Mr. Oberwager said he’s a “very, very good friend” of LL founder Philip Rosedale, to whom he was introduced via Mr. Rosedale’s wife; Mr. Oberwager said he regards her as his closest friend. He has also divulged that the two families live close to each other (three blocks away), and that he and Mr. Rosedale meet about once a week. Also, Mr. Oberwager said he considers Mr. Rosedale to be an unofficial advisor of sorts w.r.t. decisions concerning Second Life.

I believe this particular section merits a fair bit of commentary on my behalf. Regular readers of this blog will know there’s little love lost between me and Mr. Rosedale, for a number of reasons that I’ll lay down below.

For starters, he overhyped Second Life so much that it was obvious to just about everyone that he was trying to make it look like it could / would be something it could never possibly be – he even tried to rewrite the history of virtual worlds with a narrative that implied SL was the first virtual world of its kind, a narrative that has been keeping back SL’s technical side ever since. On the creative side, he overpromised and underdelivered: the content creation tools needed to really make it stand out just weren’t there for far too long. Some are still not there. Also, SL could never possibly replace the regular, low-cost, web browsing and social networking provided by the “ordinary” web: why pay for what amounts to an upper-midrange gaming rig just so you can read a news outlet’s website? Not to mention the learning curve, which has always been quite steep, and the intimidating – to say the least – crowds of the Infohubs and the “Welcome” areas.

It must also be noted that, regardless of what Mr. Rosedale promised, his tenure underdelivered on another important goal / promise: SL hasn’t exactly been a “safe haven” for people to express themselves and explore their personalities and creativity. The reason is that, very early on, certain extremely abusive cliques formed around certain unsavoury individuals. Their members made a hobby out of going through the official forums and people’s blogs so that they would single out their targets and subject them to years of harassment – sexist, racist, misogynist, rape-apologist, homophobic, transphobic harassment. And the people who were being harassed could do nothing about it, because the cliques knew how to dance around the ToS and Community Standards, and they had already made sure there would be very little backlash against them – besides, they were the “cool”, “edgy” ones who provided “entertainment” to others. Mr. Rosedale failed the users on this front, and so did his successors Mark Kingdon and Rod Humble. The only LL CEO who took swift and proper action on this front was Ebbe Altberg, and this is one of the main reasons why he’s the only LL CEO who has earned my respect so far.

Finally, despite Mr. Rosedale’s “let’s overhype SL into something it can never be” marketing drive from the early years, he’s never understood, as he palpably demonstrated at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality (SVVR) Conference & Expo 2014, that it’s the job of the seller to convince potential buyers to, erm, buy.

On the second day (Tuesday, May 21st) of the conference, the “Creating the VR Metaverse” panel was hosted – other participants in the panel were the late Ebbe Altberg (who had already joined LL as its CEO), Stefano Corazza and Tony Parisi. Near the end of the panel, moderator Bernhard Drax (in-world username: Draxtor Despres) played a segment from one of the episodes of The Drax Files Radio Hour podcast (titled “the BIG picture“). In that segment, Pamela, a lady who worked at a sheet music store, negated and rejected all of his arguments for the use of a virtual world: she saw no reason for her to join and use a virtual world; she saw no intersection of it with her hobbies, interests, and activities, and saw no way in which she could benefit from its use. In other words, virtual reality failed to capture her attention and imagination, and didn’t present her with something interesting enough.

Mr. Rosedale’s reaction to the video was awkward laughter and a dismissive attitude. Back then, I summed up his attitude as “well, it’s not us that have failed to make virtual reality attractive to the public, it’s the public that doesn’t understand how cool virtual reality is”, and I still stand by my assessment. This is precisely where the approach employed by Mr. Rosedale and far too many others so far falls flat on its face. As I wrote back then, instead of accepting the burden of showing potential users that virtual worlds are worthwhile, they expect potential users to do the hard work and figure out what virtual worlds can do for them. This is not how marketing works. Mr. Rosedale’s attitude, as I figured from his keynotes, was (again, quoting from my older post):

Why do you, the “outsider”, think you don’t need to use a virtual world, when it is a FACT that virtual worlds are super-cool, tremendous fun, very beneficial to whomever uses them and, to cut a long story short, the best thing since sliced bread?

You don’t attract customers this way, especially when you’re trying to sell them something that’s non-essential for their livelihood, health, or whatever. Virtual worlds – including Second Life – are not food, water, electricity, or telephony. In general, you don’t need a virtual world to survive. For most of us, virtual worlds are a pastime – and a rather expensive one, given the cost of a reasonably capable gaming rig, especially in today’s environment where graphics cards have become extortionately expensive, courtesy of rabid cryptocurrency miners, a “self-regulating free market” that “magically” maintains a balance between supply and demand, and scalpers.

I must say here, however, that I do understand why Mr. Oberwager would want to ask Mr. Rosedale about the rationale behind SL and about his account of what was done right and what wasn’t done right back then, what they were trying to achieve, what they achieved, and what they didn’t achieve. I personally wouldn’t rely on his advice on promoting SL, especially in today’s context, his view of what it can be and what it can’t be, or on his understanding of what keeps us in SL and what drives us away from it. Likewise, I don’t think I’d rely on Mr. Rosedale for advice on which circumstances, internal and external, kept SL from achieving the goals he’d set.

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Brad Oberwager and Ebbe Altberg

He said he respected and liked Ebbe very much, and that he admired him for his engaging, “lead from the front” leadership style and his dedication to being inclusive. Mr. Oberwager went on to say that he viewed Ebbe as a fiercely loyal and open person, and a gifted mentor. Regarding Ebbe’s legacy, he said he believes that the way Ebbe approached and led the Lab did a lot to shape the company and, as his ethos and philosophy have become part of the company’s culture, will continue to do so.

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Acquisition of Linden Lab

Linden Lab’s acquisition was met with a fair bit of trepidation by Second Life users. In his appearance on the SL18B Lab Gab Special, Mr. Oberwager addressed this issue, almost certainly with a view to easing people’s worries. He explained that there are basically four types of acquisition of a company by another entity:

  • Acquisition by venture capitalists who are willing to spend significant amounts of money on the company they’ve acquired, expecting significant returns, but are just as willing to cut their losses and let the company go if their goals are not met;
  • Acquisition by a private equity firm, which aims to turn it around (usually by cutting costs) so that it will then resell the company to somebody else at a profit;
  • Acquisition by another company, where the company that is purchased, along with its brand, identity, product portfolio, and culture, is absorbed by the entity that has acquired it;
  • Acquisition by private investors, who are driven by a variety of motives; although financial gain is among them, it’s not necessarily the main reason for their interest in the company.

From what was said, LL’s acquisition falls in the fourth case: private investors, who obviously want to have some financial return, but also have other reasons that drive their investment. He found the way SL extends someone’s life (into the virtual realm), and the creative and social freedoms it affords people to be very interesting. As for his involvement with the Lab and its core product, he said that it made him understand the meaning of the phrase “it’s not just work, it’s fun” for the first time, and that he enjoys being part of SL and LL, and that he regards his involvement with the company and the platform as a passion and an investment, in equal parts.

It’s fortunate that Mr. Oberwager seems to understand that he needs to be patient and stay in for the long haul. SL has existed for eighteen years, long after the Press turned against it and then forgot about it, has remained profitable, even though it’s been under the radar since 2008 or 2009. I would also advise Mr. Oberwager and Mr. Waterfield against settting high short-term growth goals, because of the many peculiarities of SL and because of how it’s perceived by the general public. What remains unknown, though, is the investors’ capability to pump significant amounts money into the development of certain crucial parts of the server and viewer codebase that need to be brought up to date, such as the rendering engine, the woefully behind-the-times Build Tools, etc.

In my post where I discussed the speculation on who could / would / should succeed Ebbe, I mentioned the Victor Gauntlett era in the history of famous British sports car manufacturer Aston Martin: the troubled company’s CEO (Victor Gauntlett) secured investment by three Greek shipping tycoons: Peter Livanos, who was also the company’s US importer, and brothers John and Nick Papanicolaou. However, it turned out that the three shipping magnates simply weren’t financially strong enough to take the company forward: besides a move (in 1986) from carburettors to electronic fuel injection, their core product (the V8) still used – with modifications, of course – the already obsolete DBS chassis, and they still raided other car manufacturers’ parts bins for things like door handles, tail lights, switchgear, and whatnot. Even the V8 Zagato wasn’t enough. Eventually, the company was sold off to Ford in 1987.

I never write a single line in this blog without reason; I view Aston Martin’s case as a cautionary tale of a group of entrepreneurs who invested in a brand, believing their considerable wealth was sufficient to help it grow, but things didn’t turn out exactly as was hoped and / or promised. Just because LL is a relatively small company, it doesn’t mean that its core product doesn’t need serious investment to stay relevant (at least on the technical front) – and relevance is precisely one of the topics Mr. Oberwager touched upon, as we’ll see further on in this post.

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Current Ownership Status of Linden Lab – Decision Making

Linden Research, Inc. (Linden Lab) is now owned by a limited liability company (LLC) that was formed by Brad Oberwager and Randy Waterfield. Mr. Oberwager brings in the entrepreneurial skills that Second Life and Tilia will need for their practical growth, while Mr. Waterfield is the one with the financial expertise and experience. I find it rather odd that this company is still not named and that no information on it can be found anywhere. UPDATE: It’s the Waterfield Group.

Now, LL decision making is divided into two parts: business and product.

Business decisions, which encompass corporate management, partnerships, marketing, and any outward-facing decisions, are handled by the Management Team. One of the factors that are taken into account is whether a partnership with an entity outside LL is compatible with LL’s values and culture.

Product-related decisions, on the other hand, are handled by the Leadership Team Office of Second Life, which is a triumvirate consisting of VP of Product Anya Kanevsky (in-world name: Grumpity Linden), VP of Product Operations Eric Nix (in-world name: Patch Linden), and VP of Marketing Brett Atwood (in-world name: Brett Linden).

Mr. Oberwager’s position gives him a role both in decisions related to the business direction of the company and in product-related ones, mainly on “really big things”, and he also participates in brainstorming sessions. He specifically mentioned that, regardless of any business- or product-related decisions made by the Management and Leadership Teams, the real decision makers are the residents (users in SL speak). He explained that, if certain decisions of the company bring it in conflict with the users’ desires, goals, and aspirations, they will cease using SL, or at least use it less than they did before. Understanding this, he seeks feedback from residents – ideas, suggestions, etc. – to further improve their experience.

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Brad Oberwager In-world

I was pleased to learn that Mr. Oberwager does go in-world, and that he does so relatively often. He has at least two accounts; one is Oberwolf Linden, which is his professional account that he uses for his work duties. He also has several alts, which he uses when he wants to take in the virtual world as a regular user – these are his incognito accounts; when using them, he’s always “in character” and he stated he won’t “break character” while using them. He made a point of going through the entire new user sign-up / avatar creation process all by himself, to identify its problem areas and find out what needs to be addressed to help new users stick around. I’m actually pleased that Mr. Oberwager chose to take on SL’s learning curve alone. It shows willingness to understand a new user’s experience first-hand, without being guided through the first steps by a seasoned developer or support assistant. Perhaps it also gave him the opportunity to experience what the various “welcome” areas are like – it wasn’t mentioned.

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Second Life in The Future – Potential Changes

Mr. Oberwager stated that he wants the community (a term I prefer to shy away from using, for reasons I’ve explained before) to be part of Second Life’s future and success – he doesn’t want to impose unpalatable changes upon the users; instead, he wants to identify the communal goals for SL, and build a cooperative relationship with the users to bring the platform forward. While he acknowledged that SL has been around for a long time, he said it’s not a good idea to avoid moving forward because “we used to do it this way.”

I’m glad he said this, and I’m glad he characterised the “that’s the way it’s always been” mentality as shackles, because the Lab has historically been plagued by a reluctance to move forward technologically, citing all sorts of pretexts. I’m not talking about radical technological advances. Most of the proposals that are not acted upon are actually small steps that are trivially easy: for instance, the Lab could align itself with modern industry standards regarding the default camera offsets (I’ve discussed this topic several times on this blog), but it hasn’t, citing a non-existent risk of “content breakage”; content doesn’t “break” when you realise it’s ugly – it breaks when it stops functioning. At least now we have a UI to set our own, but new users are still stuck with the ancient, sub-par defaults, and who knows when – or if – they’ll get to know better. This leads to the proliferation of disproportionate and oversized avatars and builds, and works against immersion, as I and others have explained many times before.

Also, SL is missing some features that are ubiquitous in the modern gaming industry and are actually in its IP arsenal and within the capabilities of the Lab’s engineers: for instance, we still don’t have weather, even though it’s part of the Windlight technology that LL had acquired from Windward Mark Interactive way back in 2007. A common reason cited for this is that “it would rain indoors.” This, however, could be very easily avoided: SL has primitives, and it would be trivial to allow the user to set a prim (or a set – linked or unlinked – of prims) as phantom and as a zone that weather particles can neither enter nor exit. Yet, even though it’s common practice in current virtual worlds and games, and even though it’s been done before (by companies with far smaller teams and budgets, no less), LL’s answer is that weather and using prims as zones to facilitate the full use of Windlight’s features is “unactionable.”

Similar pretexts have been cited for the Lab’s resistance to implementing mirrors, which, again, are a common feature in many games today, and have been implemented by several competitors of SL, one of them much older and smaller than SL. This, of course, leads me to ponder whether this resistance to changes and advancements should be attributed to the users or the Lab itself. Or are we faced with a situation where both sides are set in certain ways and are unwilling to see that there’s room for further improvement and that this improvement is absolutely feasible?

I particularly liked the part where he said “if you don’t embrace change, I promise you you will like irrelevance a lot less.” SL and LL must not become irrelevant – that would be, in Mr. Oberwager’s own words, the worst outcome. I completely agree with his words, but I’m afraid I’ll have to say here that, at least on the technical front, LL has often given users, content creators, the Press, and the rest of the industry plenty of reasons to view it and its core product as irrelevant or near-irrelevant; remember, the underpinnings of SL date back to the late ’90s. Of course, Mr. Oberwager doesn’t advocate change for its own sake; he didn’t strike me as someone who believes in “absolutum obsoletum” (if it works, it’s out of date), the words with which Stafford Beer dedicated his 1972 book The Brain of the Firm to his colleagues. Instead, he prefers changes that will come over time as part of SL’s natural evolution, and will help attract people to the platform and make it engaging for them.

Interestingly enough, he compared SL to a party, where people are having fun, want it to keep going, and want more people to join it. So, work needs to be done, and action must be taken to attract and encourage people to join SL, get involved in it, and stay. I found his reference to “interesting people” to be a bit curious. How can it be decided whether someone is “interesting” for SL users? SL has so many different groups, communities, cliques, and subcultures, with vastly different interests, so choosing a certain individual, or a certain type of personality, as “interesting” is going to be difficult. Or is he implying that he’d like to try and get people popular outside of SL join it and become some sort of ambassadors? I find this a bit baffling, because I can’t help wondering what someone who’s a celebrity outside of SL can expect to find in SL: a bigger audience? They already have Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook for that, whose user bases and reach make SL’s pale in comparison. Furthermore, there are two additional problems with this goal – if it’s a goal, and if celebrities outside of SL are what Mr. Oberwager has in mind, of course:

First of all, the RL social media / SL intersection. An SL fan of celebrity X or Y already follows the celebrity’s non-SL website and social media presences. So, there’s no incentive for the celebrity to join SL, as the potential gain in popularity is minimal. Second, a celebrity would have to invest time (to learn how to use the platform and to engage with it and its users) and money (shopping, styling, land, builds, representatives) to establish and maintain a presence in SL. Given the low expectation for getting more fans, why would a celebrity join SL? I’d really rather not revisit the overhyping days of old, with the much-publicised, but short-lived corporate and celebrity presences in SL, although I’m pretty sure these days are unlikely to ever return. If anything, nowadays I’d expect a celebrity to demand that their in-world presence be subsidised by the Lab, an idea that I really don’t like.

Having established that RL celebrities aren’t particularly likely to get into SL, what could possibly be an “interesting” person for SLers in general? A sculptor? A painter? A photographer? A 3D artist? There’s already a sizeable number of such artists who use SL as a creative toolkit and as a space to exhibit their work, although I have the impression that nowadays it’s more a case of SL-based artists who present their work mostly to SL residents and less a case of RL-based artists who extend their presence into SL or add SL to their toolbox. This would make sense, as SL’s in-world content creation tools can’t hold a candle to applications like Blender, Maya, or ZBrush: artists nowadays tend to create outside of SL and then import their creations in-world. Even in-world snapshots are typically post-processed in applications like Photoshop or GIMP; then, they are typically exhibited primarily on external platforms like Flickr, blogs, and occasionally displayed in in-world galleries (where they may also be sold to residents for L$).

What else could be interesting for SL residents? More fashion designers? The market’s practically saturated, and only a few niches are still left uncatered for. I’d be tempted to go with decor designers – the ones you see making their wares available on sites like SketchFab or CGTrader. More often than not, 3D models from these sites are imported and sold on the SL marketplace by people who take advantage of the Creative Commons licences that govern many of these models – although few merchants actually honour these licences by providing proper attribution. I don’t see why the original creators couldn’t team up with SL-based scripters to start selling them directly as interactive objects (furniture with opening drawers, working light fixtures, trees and shrubs with animated foliage, and so on). Perhaps the Lab could collaborate with indie game studios and offer games suited to SL? There are several options, some more meaningful, some less so.

As for the move to the cloud (Amazon Web Services – AWS), Mr. Oberwager said it was done for the sake of the residents and not to cut costs. Having attended many Server / Scripting User Group meetings, I can confirm that LL decided to move to AWS to offset, as much as possible, the scalability, reliability, and performance issues that had been plaguing SL from the beginning. The move has paid dividends, at least on the performance, stability, and reliability fronts.

Did the Lab manage to cut costs by moving to AWS, though? Mr. Oberwager denied this and said that the move increased the Lab’s running costs. I honestly hoped the Lab had saved money with this move. As a user, I understand that saving money in a manner that doesn’t negatively affect performance and user experience can free up funds to recruit skilled engineers or purchase technologies for further improvements. But let’s pause for a moment. Why should Mr. Oberwager feel obliged to say “oh, we made this improvement, and it was costlier, it didn’t save us money”? What’s so wrong with enhancing performance and reliability and saving money? What does that tell us about the quality of the discourse around SL?

We must also keep in mind some facts that are very well-known to the Lab and to anyone who’s been watching Second Life closely: SL had reached the peak of its popularity many years ago and has been in slow decline ever since. In fact, even when SL’s popularity had peaked, its active user base was small compared to what’s been achieved before and since by the competition, direct or indirect. Second, neither the company itself nor SL is the media and the public’s darling anymore. Third, the Lab doesn’t have friends in the government generously funnelling taxpayers’ money into it. When you’re in such a position, you don’t get to keep the lights on, much less remain profitable for so many years, providing jobs to so many people, if you don’t know how to keep your running costs in check.

I’ve already mentioned that Mr. Oberwager stated he believes in users’ participation in SL’s success. He said that the real driver for the platform’s long-term success will be to grow the user base and to keep new users involved, so he welcomes feedback and suggestions on how these goals can be achieved.

As to the decision-making process in the Lab, he said it revolves around “four pillars”:

  • What will bring new users to the platform?
  • What will make the existing users happier?
  • What will lead to more engagement?
  • What will make the personnel happier?

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Tilia and Second Life

Mr. Oberwager drew a parallel between Second Life and an RL country, and proceeded to give some characteristics that he believes are similar between the two types of entities. An RL country, he said, has natural borders, and SL has its islands. I found this a bit baffling at first. On second thought, perhaps he’s referring to the fact that, in general, you can’t sail, fly, walk, or drive from one privately-owned region to the other, as they’re typically not contiguous and you need to teleport from one region to the other – provided, of course, you’re permitted to do so by its owner(s). The second parallel he drew was that both countries and SL have infrastructure, which enables residents to go about their day-to-day activities. The third analogy was the existence of a Rule of Law, which governs residents’ in-world interactions and behaviour to one another. He specifically mentioned that the Rule of Law is there to protect the weak – obviously from bullying and harassment. Finally, he spoke of the existence of a financial system, and this is where he turned his focus to Tilia, which serves as Second Life’s financial system.

Tilia / Tilia Pay is a subsidiary (wholly-owned) of Linden Lab. Contrary to common misconception, it doesn’t compete in any way whatsoever with Second Life, but complements and serves it. One of the key features of SL is that its economy relies on transactions pertaining not only to the rental of virtual land, but also to the sale of user-generated content.

One of SL’s peculiarities is that, unlike what’s happening in other virtual world and game platforms (such as Roblox), user-generated content sales are of a direct seller-buyer nature. They don’t pass through the company’s books. Yes, there is a transaction fee for using SL’s web-based marketplace, but that’s all – and if you buy something in-world, all the in-world tokens (the Linden dollars) you pay go directly to the seller, which can then be converted to RL fiat money. In this sense, SL is like eBay: it doesn’t touch the money you pay.

He also said that eBay doesn’t touch the goods; however, SL’s virtual goods need to be “touched” by LL, because that’s how data transmission on the internet works, especially when you’re dealing with “walled gardens“: to give or sell your stuff to another resident, LL’s infrastructure (servers and viewer) needs to make a copy of the item, transmit it to wherever the recipient’s computer is, place the copy in their inventory, and then LL’s infrastructure needs to rez it in-world so that the recipient can enjoy it. So, in this particular respect, SL differs from eBay.

But the two services – SL and eBay – share another, more crucial, similarity: they both need to use a money transmitter, a formally accredited and licensed service that handles transactions, especially w.r.t. the conversion between in-world tokens and RL fiat money. This is a necessity because of RL legislation against money laundering and tax evasion. For eBay, the money transfer task is handled by PayPal; for Second Life, this task is handled by Tilia.

As was the case with PayPal, which was spun off from eBay in 2014, so Tilia is now a separate company that can offer its services to customers besides Linden Lab, thus opening up the opportunity to provide an additional stream of revenue to its parent company and, as a consequence, Second Life’s continued development. Currently, Tilia has two such customers: one is Wookey Technologies, the company that has purchased Sansar from Linden Lab, and the other is the virtual property trading game Upland.

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Wrapping it Up

In his closing remarks, Mr. Oberwager acknowledged that a corporate move as big as an ownership change can lead to fear, anxiety, and even anger. He obviously doesn’t want to have angry residents; when your customers are angry at you, that’s when you should know you’re doing something wrong. Here, I must point out that one may do the right thing, but implement it and / or communicate it in the wrong manner. As for anxiety, he interprets it as fear of the unknown: people are afraid of what they don’t know, and, once they get to know it, they can proceed to other emotions and, unless they’re really dreading what was until then unknown, their anxiety subsides.

Moving from the general and abstract to the specific, he stated that he recognises that LL’s change of ownership has caused anxiety and concern among SL users, and that he is devoted to reducing this anxiety, to avoiding any anger, and to moving people to an emotion he prefers: joy – not merely happiness. He identifies happiness with satisfaction, whereas joy, in his own words, is beyond that and comes from within – an “explosive connection”, a state when relationships are working, and cloudy days become sunny. Although the part about residents’ emotions sounded a bit like a TEDx talk, I believe it’s best to focus on Mr. Oberwager’s statement that he recognises that this goal won’t be achieved with a top-down management approach, but through an extensive and deep collaboration with the users.

In a nutshell, I believe Mr. Oberwager spoke in a manner expected of a modern manager. He showed a good degree of familiarity with the company and its core product; he spoke with respect about the late, esteemed Ebbe Altberg; he stressed the need to make sure Second Life will remain relevant; finally, he declared that he’s committed to working with the user base to move Second Life and Linden Lab forward, instead of imposing his personal views and desires on the users.

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My Final Thoughts and Concerns

I must note again that I’m surprised by the fact that we are not given the name of the LLC that has acquired Linden Lab (UPDATE: the investment company is the Waterfield Group – for acknowledgments etc., see the end of this post). This is the first time I’ve encountered something like this, and I really don’t know what to make of this. No information on LL’s own web presence, no information outside of it… Why? And why is it that the SL blogosphere, with one exception, hasn’t noticed this lack of transparency or felt questions need to be asked? Beyond that, Mr. Oberwager seems to be quite capable and in touch with both the realities and challenges faced by the Lab and its core product (at least in the United States) and the sensibilities and aspirations of its users. However, I must say it won’t be all smooth sailing. We all know that Second Life has lagged behind current creative alternatives on the technical front – both in terms of its built-in creative toolkit and its “eye candy”.

The real threat, though, not only to Second Life, but to every sandbox-style virtual world and to every platform that relies on allowing users to upload their creations and exchange and sell them, comes from the European Commission and the lobbies it has chosen to serve. This august body inflicted, through a misinformation and libel campaign, the disastrous Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, formally known as the Directive (EU) 2019/790, upon anyone who uses the internet for any purpose. The Directive’s disastrous Article 17 (formerly 13) dictates the implementation of upload filters to automatically “prevent” copyright infringement, without any real protections for fair use, users’ privacy, or communications confidentiality – placing an insurmountable burden on online content-sharing service providers (OCSSPs). Linden Lab is a prime example of such a service.

In previous posts, I have explained why this law represents an existential threat to any platform that relies on user-generated content, and has even been heavily criticised as a threat to privacy, journalism, and creativity by top legal experts and human rights groups, from Germany’s Data Privacy Commissioner to David Kaye, United Nations’ Rapporteur For Human Rights. And now, the Commission, doing yet another favour to the Big Content and Big Censorship lobbies, has reneged on its promise to provide fair use protections for parody / satire, critique, commentary, journalism, and derivative works. It decided to allow copyright holders to choose some “high-value” content they own and earmark it for unconditional takedown, regardless of context, every time it appears on line.

Schematic overview of the mechanism proposed in the guidance, with the new earmarking mechanism highlighted in red. Image credit: COMMUNIA (Image is in the Public Domain)

Sadly, too many in SL’s user base are copyright maximalists, although they don’t even know how copyright works and ignore that they themselves “infringe” upon others’ copyrights and trademarks merely by depicting items they know from RL; they don’t realise how badly this is going to burn them and everyone else.

How will the Lab respond? Will it apply a heavy-handed blanket filtering policy to comply with the strictest, most draconian, national implementations of this new law? Will it geo-block EU users to avoid the extortionate rates of the Big Censorship (Alphabet – Audible Magic – Facebook) monopoly that the Commission single-handedly created? Will it try to negotiate getting licences from every single publisher, industry, or group of publishers, on the planet to stay on the filters’ good side, which might be so costly that reduced tier will remain wishful thinking? Will it unite with other companies that rely on providing user-generated content, and with organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), European Digital Rights (EDRi), and Homo Digitalis, organisations dedicated to the defence of the very ideals SL represents, to push for the abolition of the totalitarian Article 17? This is precisely what I’ve been seeking answers to since the Directive was still being negotiated, and I still haven’t seen them.

This post has been updated twice: First, on June 27, 2021, as I was still quite concerned by the fact that almost a year has passed since LL has been acquired, and there’s still no information whatsoever on the investment company that now owns Linden Lab, and by the fact that this has slipped under most SL bloggers’ radars. The second update was on July 2, 2021, after I found out, via Huckleberry Hax, about Hamlet Au’s January 6, 2021 post where it was revealed that the investment group is indeed the Waterfield Group. A separate post will follow.

The late Ebbe Altberg at the 2015 Web Summit
The late Ebbe Altberg at the 2015 Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland – Image Credit: Web Summit

The first weekend of June wasn’t a good one for Linden Lab, Second Life, or for anyone who cares about either of them. LL’s CEO, Ebbe Altberg, passed away on Friday. His passing came as a shock to most people, although there was a certain amount of speculation, triggered the fact that he was largely absent from all sorts of social media during the past few months.

As we should expect, discussions as to who his successor should / could / will be, or – at least – what properties the new CEO should possess have already started to sprout like mushrooms on ageing trees in a damp forest. I can’t say such discussions are to my taste; for one, I think they started too soon, at a moment when others, closer to him, are still trying to deal with his passing. Furthermore, I find flaws in the more popular approaches, and the less said about the quality of discourse, the better. The popular argument says that the new CEO needs to be a long-time SL user, who has garnered a good deal of experience with the platform. The reasoning is that a CEO that is selected from the user base is somehow more likely to “get” Second Life than someone else.

I don’t agree with this point of view. The user base, much as many people like (I don’t) to call it a “community”, is actually extremely fragmented and consists of multiple subgroups, subcultures, and downright cliques, often with differing, or even conflicting, interests and goals. This, of course, means that there’s no guarantee that a user chosen from this SL subgroup will care for the other groups, or for the benefit of the company, its staff, or SL itself. Likewise, there’s absolutely no guarantee that this user will know how to run a company, how to plan and manage a single project, much less multiple concurrent ones, how to handle investors, the Press, and whatnot. Finally, there’s absolutely no guarantee that the “experienced SL user” will have any idea about how to be a leader. I, for example, don’t think I do.

Have a look at Ebbe’s tenure with LL: if anything, it demolishes the notion that extensive prior experience with SL is de riguer for someone to become a good LL CEO. Ebbe was by no means a “long-time SL user,” as he himself had admitted on several occasions. However, he was anything but oblivious to its existence and what people can do with(in) it. After all, he was a close friend of Jed Smith, former chairman of LL’s Board, he was an early beta user, and his own son had been a user of the Teen Grid.

Still, as I noted in my retrospective / tribute, his tenure, although certainly not perfect, was highly successful, and he rose to become LL’s most-respected and longest-serving CEO. In fact, many people, including yours truly, consider him as the best CEO LL ever had. But, since he wasn’t a “long-time SL user,” why was he successful? This comes down to two factors: the brief he was given, and his personal qualities. Of these, the brief is the most important – the qualities are determined and sought after the brief has been set.

But what is the brief? One needs to always keep in mind that what we, the users (i.e. the customers), may think is best for SL isn’t necessarily what the owners of the company want to do with it. Remember, a CEO is hired by the Board of Directors, answers to the Board, and can be fired by the Board. And the CEO is hired to carry out a mission – the brief. The CEO has goals to meet, and can be kicked out, with or without a golden parachute, for serious missteps: you just have to remember the unceremonious sacking of Steven K Lee by famous high-end maker of optics and photographic equipment Leica Camera AG in 2008. A similar example is how the problematic HP-Compaq merger masterminded by Carly Fiorina led to the Board ordering her to fall on her sword (she later went on to become a deplorable shill for the worst conservative moguls). So, while the CEO yields tremendous power over the company, and may reshape (or at least attempt to) the company according to his or her vision, even a CEO isn’t immune to the ire of the Board.

In previous times and in similar circumstances, we’d be expecting the new CEO, knowing pretty much that his or her mission would be to continue improving SL as best (s)he can, keep its balance books healthy, etc. But now, the Lab is no longer independent, but part of the portfolio of an investment group led by Brad Oberwager and Randy Waterfield. I’ll admit I know very little of their previous ventures and what they did with, or to, them.

I’ll be entirely open: in general, I’m very leery of investment groups and big takeovers. I’ve seen many investment groups and / or conglomerates treat their acquisitions the way a salvager treats cars. I’ve seen my investment groups and / or conglomerates come in, not knowing what they’ve acquired, what it does best, what its real strengths and weaknesses are, and, in a drive to “maximise shareholder value” (the mantra of Milton Friedman, the dismal science’s Trofim Lysenko) and do so yesterday, ruin it and drive it to bankruptcy, near-bankruptcy, or infamy and ridicule. I’ve also seen starry-eyed, enthusiast investors with supposedly deep pockets step in, but fail, due to a lack of actual knowledge on how to run the company, due to overinvestment in money-pit pet projects, and / or due to a lack of meaningful funding.

This is why I didn’t share the widespread, quasi-obligatory enthusiasm (sincere or feigned) about LL’s acquisition by the aforementioned investors. Instead, I chose to hold out until I see what they’ll actually do, and I still stand by my decision and position, basking in my “party pooper” reputation.

Now, what Oberwager and Waterfield have added in their portfolio is a reasonably healthy, profitable, well-focused (after the axing of Creatorverse, dio, and Versu, the phasing out of Blocksworld and Patterns, and the sale of Desura and Sansar), company, with an admittedly small, but very dedicated and diverse, user base for its core product. Also, – thanks to Ebbe’s sharp business acumen, the Lab has an additional stream of revenue in the form of Tilia Pay. Ebbe’s tenure has also seen several crucial (many of them overdue) updates in SL’s technology and its infrastructure that make it look, work, and perform better and more reliably than before.

However, it’s a company that faces serious challenges. For starters, it needs to keep investing in several aspects of SL’s codebase (especially its 3D engine) as heavily as “AAA” game studios. Despite its relatively small workforce, it’s a high-maintenance company, because it needs very highly-skilled people. Here lies one of the most crucial questions: do Oberwager and Waterfield have the wherewithal to hire the necessary people and fund the necessary updates and upgrades? Do they have the willingness to fund them? Or are they going to be like Peter Livanos and the Papanicolaou brothers from Aston Martin’s Victor Gauntlett era?

And what do they want to do with SL? Will they tell the new CEO to build upon Ebbe’s considerable legacy and take SL further, or will they tell him / her to merely cut expenses, make the company look profitable, and then prepare it to be sold off to some other group of investors or, even worse, to some huge, creeptastic, company hell-bent on pleasing the rabid conservative nutjobs like Verizon or Facebook? I believe these are the questions that really matter, not whether it’ll be best to hire one of us, the users, or someone outside the company.

Ebbe Altberg, 1964-2021
Credit: Linden Research, Inc.

A few hours ago, Patch Linden announced the sad news of the passing of Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Research, Inc.; sad news for all of us who care about Second Life, as he had earned the title of the best CEO Linden Lab has ever had, and this is no exaggeration. When he arrived in February 2014, he found the company and its flagship product in disarray.

His predecessor, Rod Humble (an Electronic Arts alumnus), had burnt many bridges of communication and collaboration with Third-Party Viewer developers. Although some PR stunts (such as an appearance on Draxtor Despres’ show) were employed to make him seem approachable and user-friendly, his tenure was marked by a deterioration of the relationship between the users and the company; his handling of the (in retrospect, mostly sensible) 2013 ToS changes was a massive PR fiasco, both internally, as many content creators became enraged, not entirely rightly) and externally, as it led to hostile announcements and (really quite abusive, if not borderline illegal) bans by CGTextures (now Textures.com), Renderosity, and Turbosquid.

Under Humble, the ToS change was preceded by the acquisition of Desura, which did nothing to help LL or SL. Patterns and Blocksworld didn’t fare particularly well. They were, in essence, pet projects that stretched the company’s resources thin. Employee morale was eroded. Furthermore, just like Rosedale and Kingdon before him, Humble didn’t bother to handle the chronic problem of how the ToS and Community Standards were interpreted, applied, and enforced – for many years, this was patchy, sketchy, and often arbitrary and riddled with suspicions of favouritism; there were groups of trolls that harassed and abused other people for years with complete impunity and immunity.

Ebbe was exactly the kind of person LL needed. First of all, he had nothing to do with the AAA game studios. He was, as he referred to himself, a “left-brain / right brain kind of person” who had graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, US with a degree in Fine Arts and concentration in Computer Applications. While everyone in the IT industry knows what Second Life is, not everyone is enthusiastic about it. Ebbe was. He saw potential in it. He liked what its users did and do with(in) it. And he set out to enable them rather than manipulate them and “whale” them.

From the very beginning, he brought a fresh breath of openness and honesty in corporate communications, speaking in a normal, non-condescending, non-patronising, manner. He often came in-world to discuss with people, either at major events, both internal and external (like the annual VWBPE conferences) or casually. He set up a series of town hall-style meetings, “Meet the Lindens” events, in which he actively encouraged the team to get in touch with the user base, etc. He embraced the annual SL Birthday events and made sure he was there, and the Lab Chat sessions (which later evolved into the Lab Gab) became a bit of an institution in LL’s communications.

His openness, though, did cause some unrest once: at a Third-Party Viewer meeting in 2014 (video below; skip to 1:39:00), he mentioned in passing that the Lab were indeed working on a new virtual world (Sansar). This was picked up and blown out of proportion, causing many people, including popular and highly-regarded bloggers, to speculate that this would be the end for SL. As things evolved, SL is still around, and Sansar has been sold off – a rather hard decision, I must say.

Even amidst all the rumours about how “SL 2.0” (Sansar) would “kill off” SL, he fully supported Oz Linden’s team and their continued efforts to improve and further develop the ageing virtual world platform with major technical updates, and never hesitated to step up to the plate and stand up for his employees in the face of angry users.

When communicating SL and Sansar to the Press, he showed genuine enthusiasm and confidence in his company’s products and in the users that give them life and richness. He promoted SL and Sansar, without the ridiculous overhyping and overpromising Philip Rosedale became known for. His sharp business acumen shone as he leveraged the Lab’s years of know-how in handling micro-payments, micro-transactions, and virtual tokens to create Tilia Pay, a subsidiary that provides additional revenue for the Lab. He also guided the company very carefully through its acquisition process.

Ebbe Altberg (second from right) speaking at the November 2015 Web Summit, held in Dublin, Ireland; the other panelists are (from left to right) Oren Frank, Nathalie Nahai, and Rana el Kaliouby – Image credit: Web Summit

Finally, he had the strength and determination to swiftly gut the various troll gangs with targeted disciplinary actions. So, he forced them out of SL and its web presences, discouraged the troll gang leaders’ followers, and marginalised them to the point where some of the most notorious abusers have fallen silent, while others have lost their power, connections, and legitimisation – hopefully for good.

In all, Ebbe reversed many bad (and very deeply-rooted) policies of the past, rebuilt trust between SL’s users and the company, brought about many significant technical improvements (project Bento, the move of SL’s infrastructure into the cloud, animesh, and EEP), and created an environment that encourages collaboration rather than suspicion. Very few leaders in any industry are capable of doing that.

Prior to joining the Lab, he had already enjoyed a long, successful career with Microsoft (as Product Unit Manager), Ingenio (as Chief Product Officer), Yahoo! (VP Head of Audience, EMEA and SVP Media Engineering), and BranchOut (COO) (source: Ebbe Altberg’s LinkedIn profile).

In recent months, he has been patently absent from social media, which has caused quite a stir and worry. The last time I remember him appearing in public was when Oz Linden retired earlier this year. Despite his illness, his dedication and determination weren’t diminished at all. LL and SL are in a better position now, thanks to his enthusiasm, dedication, diligence, nous, and hard work. He will be sorely missed, and his successor has a lot to live up to.

I’d like to close this sad piece by extending my deepest condolences and sympathies to his family, his friends, and his colleagues. All of us who care about SL owe him a lot and we’ll miss him even more.

linden-lab-logoThe talk of the day was #berryCopyright, a (erroneously named, as the dispute was about trademarks and not copyrights) hashtag encompassing a trademark complaint Linden Research Inc. filed with YouTube against a tutorial video by blogger/vlogger Strawberry Singh, who shared on her blog what had happened to her. Thankfully, sanity prevailed and Linden Research Inc., after considerable outcry by community members, bloggers, and commentators, reversed the ill-advised takedown notice and publicly apologised to Ms Singh. The trademark complaint which was filed with YouTube by the company’s IP specialist, who goes by the “Tia Linden” name in-world, was revoked, and an encouragingly-worded post was made on the company’s official blog. This trademark complaint honestly made no sense whatsoever, as the appearance of LL’s trademarks (most notably, the “eye-in-hand” logo) in the “offending” video had every hallmark of fair, informational use, as one can easily understand by reading the International Trademark Association’s material on the subject, and the material provided by Nolo (the latter was contributed to Strawberry Singh’s original post as a comment by Alana Onyett).

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UPDATE: The situation described herein has been resolved; please read the follow-up post here.

facepalm-005-blog.jpg

You had one job. How could you fuck it up so badly?

Perhaps thinking we had missed its worst, Linden Research Inc. decided to file a trademark complaint with YouTube against one of the biggest promoters, supporters, and advocates of Second Life, blogger/vlogger Strawberry Singh. The “offending” video is a tutorial, included in her “Introduction to Second Life” blog post, in which she explains to new users how to create an account, download the official viewer, and move around in their 3D surroundings. Since she unavoidably screen-captured her web browser to show people around the official website, the video obviously displayed SL’s eye-in-hand logo. The logo was also featured prominently in the 3D walkaround, as the in-world welcome area itself includes it.

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