Second Life

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.

As is pretty much always the case, I’m the last to arrive at the party when it comes to providing an analysis related to Second Life. This is intentional. When it comes to making sense of Second Life’s progress within a certain timeframe, I prefer to sit back and examine SL and its progress within the broader context, i.e. its direct and indirect competition, and the Real Life (RL) economic, social, and even societal factors that affect people’s willingness and ability to join SL, to stay in it, and invest in it. Sadly, far too much of the commentary fails (often willingly) to take these factors into account, and, by choosing a platform-centric perspective over a user-centric one, ends up painting a picture that’s either alarmist or unjustifiably flattering.

Tulum Reserve (Rated Adult)

During the annus horribilis that was 2020, Tyche Shepherd released a number of summaries related to Second Life’s metrics, offering some interesting insights as to how Second Life fared in terms of usage and popularity. The last one was this tweet from October, which had to do with concurrency (how many users are in-world at the same time) and new user signups. The outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic coincided with a significant increase of the platform’s usage by its users, and increase also coincided with a spike in new user signups.

Second Life concurrency between 10 March 2020 and 20 October 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd
New user signups between 10 March 2020 and 20 October 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd

It is clear that, compared to 2019, daily concurrency remained consistently higher throughout 2020, although it trailed off after May. The big “hump” in the 2020 daily concurrency graph coincides with a significant spike in daily signups (new users joining SL). However, the increase in new signups didn’t last; by mid-May, 2020 signups fell down to the maximum number of 2019 daily signups and they remained consistently below SL’s 2019 performance in this area for the rest of the year.

As Tyche tweeted, this [c]oncurrency growth [was] driven by returning users or longer online sessions, rather than new users. It makes sense. When the pandemic hit, many of SL’s major markets went into a lockdown. Since existing SL users in those countries stayed at home, it made sense for them to get back into SL and start using it for longer sessions – some content creators even started being more active than before. In March and April there was even a significant increase in new signups. Again, it makes (sort-of) sense. Although SL is a seriously old virtual world platform that uses a rendering engine that’s inferior compared to just about any current competing platform’s, it has a dedicated user base that signs in regularly and creates some interesting virtual locales that someone can visit.

Also, SL’s user base is one that consumes like there’s no tomorrow, and they’re practically driven by each other to do so: shopping event upon shopping event and within shopping event, gachas, more fashion bloggers than you can shake a stick at, etc. It’s a veritable consumerist Mecca: consumo, ergo sum. I consume, therefore I am. With that in mind, I can understand why a skilled 3D content creator would want to join SL and start selling virtual goods to diversify their portfolio and increase their sales. Literally, to use the disgraceful term that Tribeflame’s horrible CEO Torulf Jenström coined, SL’s user base consists mostly of whales. Or, more aptly, mega-whales. Below, you can watch YongYea’s excellent commentary on Jenström’s disgustingly cynical keynote to understand what the term really means. At 25 minutes and 23 seconds, it’s pretty long, but it’s a must-watch.

And this brings us back to discussing the RL – ahem – realities that affect SL users’ behaviour and the platform’s ability to attract and keep new users. No, I’m not going to get into the same old tired arguments about the UI, the tier, the perks for premium users, the default camera offsets, or anything like that; I’ve spoken and written about them quite a few times in the past, and they’re rather irrelevant here. After all, I’m planning to revisit them in the future, in light of recent (non-)developments in the gaming industry.

Where most SL commentators’ narrative falls apart

I’m one of those people who’ve been in SL long enough to remember both the time when it was the mainstream media’s darling and its fall from grace. I was on my first SL account, which I had opened way back in 2006, when His Holy Philipness of Rosedale kept overhyping SL as the 3D web which would replace the web as we know it, even though everything had already started to point to the exact opposite direction. In fact, I still remember the noise my eyes made as they rolled inside their sockets. Ever since then, I’ve seen every controversy and every “crisis” that SL has weathered, and I’ve read all the analyses of all the (strangely) popular pundits. Throughout SL’s remarkably – and, perhaps, surprisingly – long life, the vast majority of said pundits have consistently and surprisingly, given that several of them fancy themselves as market analysts or what have you, failed to take into account the RL realities that influence potential, new, and existing users’ behaviour and stance towards SL.

Cost of Entry

When his Holy Philipness was making his bold claims, he appeared to be blissfully unaware of all the cost-related factors that determine whether people will join SL or not, and if, once they’ve joined it, they’ll stay or not. Even way back in 2006, when SL was down every Wednesday and half of the viewer updates made it crash more than a computer running Windows ME, you simply couldn’t have a half-decent experience if your computer didn’t have a dedicated graphics card with 3D acceleration and at least midrange capabilities. Such computers (desktops or laptops) were expensive back then; more expensive than their counterparts that didn’t have such hardware. They remained expensive.

The grid is down while we bang on things
I’ve been in SL long enough to remember this image that would show up every Wednesday or at any other time SL was down because of technical problems or (un)scheduled maintenance. Even then, you needed a machine with a decent 3D graphics card. Credit: Linden Lab

Let’s face it: to have a relatively decent SL experience, you always needed a machine that cost at least USD 800 (for a desktop) or USD 1,000 (for a laptop of similar performance). And, due to the recent shortage of GPUs on the market and the price-gouging that “free” market gives us, this cost has doubled (at least), proving that all technological forecasts that predicted we’d be enjoying wonderful graphics and excellent performance at bargain basement prices were pure hogwash. Care to compare that to ordinary web surfing and casual gaming through Facebook, which can easily be done on a USD 250 laptop?

I know some people will say “oh, but you can run SL on a machine that has an integrated graphics circuitry,” but I have no time for this nonsense; I tell them to shut the fuck up before they finish the word “integrated”, because I’m talking about your SL experience being characterised by a decent frame rate at a relatively decent graphics level (at least Mid-High), rather than a slide show on “Low”. Seriously, this “integrated graphics” shit needs to be euthanised. SL is no different than any other 3D open-world platform in requiring a powerful machine. These things cost money. End of story. How exactly has it eluded all SL and general computer industry pundits that the cost to meet SL’s hardware requirements for a decent experience is an inhibiting factor?

Cost of (Second) Living

Your existence in Second Life is NOT free. Yeah, joining SL is free. You can also move about for free, visit most places for free, you can talk to others for free, most in-world groups are free to join, and there are also free houses, pieces of furniture and general decor, garments, and avatar accessories for you to pick up. But that’s pretty much where “free” ends. Of course, I’m not saying that Linden Lab acts in the deplorable and unethical manner that Tribeflame does (see YongYea’s video above, if you haven’t already done so). I’m stating a fact.

Let’s say you run into a bunch of freebies of acceptable quality and among these you find a house (a tiki hut, for instance) and some furniture. Where exactly are you going to put them? You’ll have to rent virtual land. Last time I checked, there’s no such thing as free land in SL, because virtual land rentals are a major source of income for LL. Depending on how much land you rent, your minimum monthly expenditure is going to be the equivalent of USD 5, and it can end up being as high as USD 300, or even much more.

Then comes the fashion and styling concern. To avoid being saddled with the crap default animations for standing around, walking, running, flying, and swimming, you’ll need to purchase a decent animation overrider that includes a bunch of relatively nice animations. Most cost about USD 10 each, although there are some cheaper alternatives. If you want to have options w.r.t. your avatar’s garments and accessories, you need to abandon the default “classic” avatar or the mesh avatar you chose when you joined, even if it looks nice (and some do look rather nice), because no SL fashion designer supports them. You’ll have to buy a mesh body, and this can set you back some USD 10 or more.

Also, the recent shift to the costly (sometimes exorbitantly so) mesh heads adds an extra expense, usually well north of USD 20. And then, you’ll eventually get bored of the freebie hairstyles, garments, shoes, and accessories you got. You’ll want to make your avatar more “you”; or you’ll want to imitate a certain style that’s popular among SL fashionistas or within the particular community you decided to associate with. Pretty soon, you’ll find you’ve spent at least USD 150 on avatar styling just to have something that’s beginning to satisfy you aesthetically. And you’ll keep spending. I know, because I’ve been there and still am. I do spend to satisfy my fashion, styling, and fetish whims and desires; I’ve accepted that spending RL money on SL is something I have to do to get some goodies, and hire people to do stuff for me.

To get some extra perks (such as a weekly L$ stipend, the right to own land on the Mainland or rent a region directly from Linden Lab instead of a virtual estate agency, a Linden home, and access to several sandboxes and areas reserved for “premium users”), you have the option to become a paid subscriber, paying a minimum of USD 99 / year. And then there’s the “SL civil partnership tax”; you can get “married” to someone else in SL for L$10, and the “divorce” costs the person who requested it L$25.

And let me dispel another myth for you: no, it doesn’t matter that we spend Linden dollars in-world and not “real” dollars or euros; this is digital currency we either bought by exchanging RL currency, and / or we’ve earned by being hired by someone who’s already bought this money and / or earned it.

Cost of Content Creation

Second Life styles itself as a creative platform. However, LL forces you to pay for your creative expression within it. First of all, the in-world Build Tools suck. They’re extremely basic, they don’t help you create complex shapes, you can’t optimise the stuff you’re making by creating custom Levels of Detail (LOD), and don’t even get me started on advanced stuff like, say, a bill of materials. It won’t be long before you realise that, if you’re going to create anything that looks relatively good, you’ll have to use some application outside SL.

Even if you choose external tools that can be had for free (like Blender and GIMP), there’s this niggling issue. To bring this stuff into SL, you have to pay. L$10 per image (texture) or sound or animation / pose. And at least L$11 per mesh object. So, if you want to be a content creator in SL, you have to accept that, even if you describe yourself as an amateur, it’s a business and it costs money. And if you decide to sell your goods on the SL marketplace, there’s a sales tax, which is admittedly low.

SL is a non-essential expenditure

I think it’s already been established that SL is costly. To look pretty, you need to spend money. RL money. To have a place you can call your own in SL, you need to spend money. RL money. To upload your stuff into SL, either for your own enjoyment or to share with others for free, or to sell it to others, you need to spend money. RL money. Even to be able to decently enjoy SL, you need decent hardware and a good internet connection. And these things cost RL money. Even if we take into account the fact that a good computer and a good internet connection represent an investment that can have other uses besides SL, there’s still no escaping the fact that our activities in SL cost the average SL user a non-trivial amount of money. RL money.

This weakens SL’s case for any potential user, and practically all pundits (never mind starry-eyed evangelists) so far seem to be oblivious of the fact that people, be they existing SL users or outsiders, are largely aware of the fact that SL is anything but free (as in gratis) and is, in fact, quite costly. Another fact that has historically eluded practically every pundit so far is that SL is non-essential to people and that people are aware of this. So, they yap endlessly and pointlessly about “user retention” and whatnot, ignoring the elephant in the room: that people can live perfectly well and happily without being in Second Life.

Let’s face it, the harshest and most cynical critics and detractors of SL and its user base are right when they say SL is a pretend world where we create “happy places” as an escape from our everyday lives (which can be pretty miserable). We’re playing house in here. Let’s own up to it. There’s nothing wrong with escapism, with living out our fantasies and whims, with role-playing, with recreating or re-imagining our world. It’s a valid pastime, every bit as valid as, and no more or less nerdy than being avid sports fans, fiddling about with model trains, playing Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, “mainstream” video games, paintball, spending our money and time on comic books (including manga), or on being passionate movie buffs, or whatever. It’s every bit as costly as these pastimes, though. There’s every bit as much peer pressure to spend more and more on it as you can find in these hobbies, and it’s just about as non-essential as they are, however much we may enjoy the time we spend in-world.

Then again, His Holy Philipness of Rosedale has proven, way back in 2014, when he made a complete fool out of himself at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference, that he’s either blissfully oblivious to the fact that SL and virtual worlds in general are non-essential to people, or that he’s just shamelessly downplaying facts to make a pitch and hopefully attract investors. But this is no excuse for anyone who fancies themselves as a journalist or a serious commentator; they should take him to task and ask hard questions instead of sucking up to him. But hey, what do I know?

So, there you have it: SL is both costly and non-essential. Its clientele, at least as far as I’m aware of, seems to be mostly middle-class people, ranging from the lower-middle class whose jobs and financial security were destroyed (abruptly or slowly and agonisingly, in true lingchi-style) in the consecutive financial crises since 2008, all the way to the upper-middle class who can afford to own and run multiple sims. However, as is always the case in every society, the higher income echelons are far more sparsely populated than the lower ones.

Ignored Precariousness

So, there you have three crucial, but inexplicably ignored in all SL-related commentary, Achilles’ heels that SL has been saddled with from its inception: it’s a non-essential expenditure, it’s costly, and too many of its users are in employment and / or income situations that make them vulnerable to the next financial crisis, whether it’s caused by the white-collar criminals of Wall Street and other stock exchanges or by the next fancy virus that crosses the divide between other animals and the homo sapiens species. When faced with the spectres of massive pay cuts (been there, fuck you very much Dr. Schäuble), fuel poverty (I’ve also met this one, fuck you again Dr. Schäuble), unemployment, loss of healthcare because the government decided to throw its taxpayers under the bus to save the profligant, tax-dodging, stock exchange gamblers’ arses, what exactly do you think these people will do? I mean, besides skipping “luxuries” like their annual visits to the doctor, their car’s maintenance, keeping their home warm in the winter, or taking their prescription drugs whose price some fuckhead decided to send to the fucking stratosphere to make a quick buck. Will they continue spending USD 100 / month to play house on that Tuscany-themed homestead and USD 100 / month on virtual clothing? I don’t think so.

Back when I had commented on the two ridiculous keynotes His Holy Philipness of Rosedale gave at SVVR 2014, I had written he based them on several false assumptions:

  1. That the world is full of people that are literally chomping on the bit to join a virtual world;
  2. That people are eager to purchase user input devices (like the Razer Hydra or the Leap Motion) and special displays (like the Oculus Rift) which will have limited (if any) use outside of very specific applications;
  3. That the markets for computer peripherals and virtual worlds exist in a vacuum and are unaffected by the ongoing global financial crisis;
  4. That, in the middle of the global financial crisis, people would eagerly spend the money for the Oculus Rift, the Razer Hydra, the Leap Motion, or whatever other similar device is “necessary” for these virtual worlds to be enjoyed in all their glory;
  5. That the only things that keep people out of virtual worlds are lag and the complexity of the user interface.

Nothing’s changed since then. His Holy Philipness is still as delusional as he was back then, and so are most pundits pontificating on SL and other virtual worlds. I’ve already said that SL is a non-essential expenditure. You won’t die if you don’t have your SL. You’ll die if you don’t have access to food, water, shelter, warmth through the winter and protection from the summer heat, healthcare. Not if SL one day closes its doors and LL goes out of business. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s not somehow protected from the ebb and flow of our employment and income status, and, as a consequence, it’s not exempt from being put on the chopping block if we have to choose between SL and really essential expenditures. How these realities keep eluding all those famous pundits boggles my mind. It’s not rocket surgery. It’s common fucking sense. And I have news for everyone – pundits, LL’s owners and top brass: there’s no amount of tech that LL can throw at SL can make it essential or lift the majority of its users from the precariat class and put them in actually decent jobs.

But is it really so?

Yes. It is. Private estate ownership in SL peaked sometime in November 2008 (see the graph below) and has been in decline ever since. A partial recovery started in the summer of 2009, and it lasted one year. Ever since then, SL’s been steadily losing regions. Is it a coincidence that this protracted region loss started at the same time the world was being rocked by one financial crisis after the other (financial crisis of 2007-2008, European debt crisis, 2009 global financial crisis, and so many others – I’ve lost count) that obliterated millions of jobs, deprived millions of people of their savings and earnings, left millions homeless, cost hundreds of thousands of lives due to financial crisis-triggered suicide or health damages that were related to the impoverishment of vast numbers of people?

Second Life main grid estates owned by users (not Linden Lab-owned) from 31 October 2006 to 16 February 2020. Credit: Tyche Shepherd

Slow Decay

I already wrote about the inexplicably overlooked socioeconomic factors that make it hard for people to justify joining SL and staying in it. There are also other factors that the pundits fail to understand. First of all, as the years go by, SL users’ interests change. Their priorities change. People lose interest and sometimes change their hobbies. They can be frustrated – either because an entrepreneurial attempt in SL didn’t go well, or because their SL-based romantic relationships went wrong, or perhaps they were driven out by the bully gangs that previous LL administrations failed to confront and tackle. Perhaps they had a child or two and decided they could no longer dedicate time to SL. Others simply passed away. Others moved on to different platforms, and as for new users… Well, while there was the aforementioned spike in new user signups between March and April 2020, there’s literally no telling what these new users are. Remember, as of last October, SL had nearly 64.5 million registered users (source: gridsurvey.com). How many of these users are alts and throwaway accounts (including users who signed up once to see something or attend an event, never to come back) is anyone’s guess.

SL and the Competition

I was asked why SL keeps losing regions and performs so badly when it comes to new user signups compared to newer open-world platforms like the GTA series or Roblox or World of Warcraft or this or that or the other. Seriously now? First of all, it’s impossible to compare SL to Roblox: SL is a sandbox, where you basically play house, explore other people’s places, even have some digital nookie, whereas Roblox is a game platform and a game creation system. Not to mention that Roblox was never burdened with idiot pundits who piled up and doubled down to reinforce the “SL is for perverts” smear. Apples and oranges. The GTA series is an open world, but at its heart it’s a series of action adventure games, with missions, goals, and a competitive element that attracts people, and especially the male of our species. Apples and oranges again. Same goes for World of Warcraft. It’s a massively multi-player online RPG, which has a storyline, missions, quests, goals. In SL, you have no mission or goal whatsoever.

Regarding the “mission” and “goal” thing: as I’ve said time and time again, in SL you’re mostly playing house. That doesn’t sound particularly attractive or rewarding to potential users. Also, SL is old. Its engine comes from the 1990s. Its graphical capabilities are mediocre compared to most current game engines’ (except, of course, Clusterfuck 2077’s), its ability to simulate anything is pathetic, its active user base is about the size of a relatively big European city, so its appeal is limited. And it’s just not getting any younger. Not to mention that, unlike CD Projekt RED, LL doesn’t have the power and the connections of a major European government throwing EU taxpayers’ money its way, and it’s no longer a media darling that can do no wrong.

Now let’s get back to the cost thing. Nowadays, all game studios milk their games’ players like cows, with microtransactions, lootboxes, pay-to-win crap, etc. SL makes its money from micro-transactions, digital currency sales, virtual land rentals, marketplace sales taxation, etc. But here’s the deal: in a mobile game, you’re led to think you’re playing “for free” and are given the “option” to pay in order to win an otherwise unwinnable stage, and you’re given some imaginary bragging rights about how “cool” your player looks compared to others, which makes it easier for you to be chosen to join a team of players. In SL, you immediately see the costs incurred, and you don’t really have much of an incentive to fork over the dough; if you start plonking USD 300 / month on a full region, you’re not getting the “oooh, I finally beat this stage” rush you get in Candy Crush or what have you. You just get an empty piece of land that you have to work to make it look good. And even if you make the most stunningly beautiful avatar in SL, you’re not getting much of a reward for it or validation from others.

But really, given the fact that all of the aforementioned platforms and games are entirely different from what SL is, I wonder how exactly we can say they’re SL’s competition and keep a straight face. If we can compare it to something, it has to be something like Active Worlds or maybe Minecraft.

In A Nutshell

Besides the appallingly shoddy punditry that surrounds SL, there are a few conclusions a rational reader can draw. For starters, SL still has dedicated long-time users, and even returning users. It still manages to engage its audience. However, this audience isn’t growing. New signups are on the decline, as SL and platforms similar to it fail to capture people’s imagination. Furthermore, contrary to common myth, our disposable RL time and dime do dictate our attitudes to SL. And finally, there’s no simple answer to the question “how can SL compete with X or Y?”. Are there lessons to be learnt from other, more successful, offerings? Yes. But this will require another diatribe.

So, our worst fears came to be. The legacy content lobby, using a lot of lobbying (read: bribes) muscle and about as much appeal to MEPs’ and people’s sentiment, as it always had, managed to pass the draconian EU Copyright Directive, in the name of “protecting creators’ rights”. Funnily enough, it’s the legacy content lobby (i.e. publishing houses, record, TV and film companies) that’s historically:

  • sought not only to monopolise and control what content you access, but also who gets to have his / her work published;
  • stopped technical and scientific progress through the patent system that’s always been rotten to the core from the very beginning;
  • made sure that the multitude of cases where perfectly legitimate content gets pulled down through fraudulent and frivolous copyright infringement claims goes entirely unpunished;
  • made sure artists get only a miniscule portion of their work’s worth – in many jurisdictions, an author gets 6% of his / her book’s shelf price and, more often than not, the publisher demands that the author foots the bill for the proofreading, copy editing, and publishing costs – in the music world, many record companies nowadays will tell you to pay for studio time, recording, mastering, and printing yourself, and then they’ll pay you a pittance from the sales of the record, if they even bother to promote it, that is.
  • scientific publishers like the Axel Springer / Elsevier / John Wiley etc mafia (yes, it’s a mafia) keep taxpayer-funded research out of the public’s reach by putting it behind paywalls, charging exorbitant amounts of money for article downloads and journal subscriptions. Interestingly enough, they don’t foot the bill for the research, proofreading, or peer reviewing of the scientific articles they sell. And they don’t pay the authors a single penny from the download price.

Yet, the fine gentlemen and gentlewomen in these “pillars of our culture” have convinced MEPs, EU commissioners, congressmen and congresswomen (in the US), senators, MPs, ministers, and – of course – you, the public, that they are the only ones who care about the rights of the creators, and that their interests are 1000000% aligned with the interests of the creators; the very creators that, as I’ve demonstrated, they’ve been ripping off for ages.

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NOTE: Post co-written with Odysseus Giacosa.

One of the most popular demands among Second Life’s community, and especially the content creators, has been the development, installation, and deployment, of technologies and technical means that would prevent the upload of content that infringes on their own intellectual property. Such a technology, which computer developers and internet experts call an “upload filter”, is supposed to work as follows:

When you attempt to upload something to an internet platform, the upload system analyses it and compares it to a database of copyrighted material. If it is found to bear any similarity with a copyrighted work, then it is rejected and you are told what a naughty something you are for attempting to rip off a poor creator. This is pretty much what YouTube’s Content ID system does: you upload some music, it checks it against its database and, if you can’t get an ad-powered licence for it to be uploaded, it’s rejected. You may appeal the automated system’s decision if you think your upload was rejected in error, but don’t hold your breath.

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Will Burns (SL username: Aeonix Aeon)

Will Burns (SL username: Aeonix Aeon)

Both in SL and in RL, I’m quite lucky in being honoured with the friendship of knowledgeable people who rise above the typical level of discourse and speak in a down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, manner, with arguments based on facts, logic, and knowledge, rather than fear and “common wisdom” – which, more often than not, is actually common myth. One of these people who have bestowed on me the honour of their friendship is William G. Burns III (SL username: Aeonix Aeon, SL display name: Will Burns), a published academic, and former Vice Chair of the IEEE’s Virtual World Standards Group. A published and respected researcher and professional in the field of virtual reality and virtual worlds in his own right, Will understands the potential – creative, cultural, and commercial – of virtual worlds that very few commentators in Second Life can rival, and he is not one to mince his words. His criticism of Linden Lab CEOs past has always been very severe and, although back then it might have seemed too harsh, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight I can now see he was just calling things the way they were.

Now, Second Life is, as we all know, in slow decline. Many of its old users are gone, either because they no longer care, or because the ongoing global financial woes have priced them out of what is essentially a costly pastime for people with disposable income and time (two things few members of what was once known as the middle class still have), or because they died away. New user retention is, as has always been the case, disappointing, and more and more private regions sink into oblivion like the lost continents of myth and legend. However, SL still has a vibrant economy, which is based on the creation and sale of various virtual goods – from hairdos to cars and from clothing to furniture. And this economy supports a rather expansive ecosystem of merchants, regardless of whether their products are entirely their creation, or based on resources purchased from other markets like CGtrader.

SL’s merchants apply all sorts of different business models, but there is a common denominator: They are extraordinarily precious about their creations, even if they are nothing but very crude retextures of full-perm templates – sometimes even less than that. One look at most content creators’ dire, straight outta Bible, “fire and brimstone”, DMCA warnings is more than enough. In the past, many in-world shops had employed CS- and ToS-violating devices that promised (without delivering, but that’s another story) to “detect” potential copybotters. In other cases, store owners ejected and / or banned store visitors for idling, because they genuinely believed that, if you’re AFK in a store, then you are by definition a copybotter. Almost four years ago, a rather botched amendment to LL’s ToS got numerous content creators up in arms, claiming – of all things – that LL itself was “trying to steal their content”; much hilarity ensued, with several creators even ragequitting SL. It is, thus, an unfortunate fact of Second Life that it is very hard to have a calm, reasonable, and rational discussion on merchants’ intellectual property, on the implied and express licences they need to provide to LL so that the virtual goods can be displayed and sold to the customers, and – eventually – consumer rights. Unfortunately, much of the blame must be put on Philip Rosedale, who, regardless of whatever innovative ideas he may have had, has always been a bit of a demagogue. The promises given in 2003 have essentially been haunting SL ever since, often putting customers and merchants on a collision course, with very little – if any – room being given to the rights of the consumer. Naturally, things were further exacerbated, with the stance of many merchants going to full-on prokanoia with the Great Copybot Scare of 2006, which has never quite gone away.

In more recent times, the suspicion with which SL merchants have traditionally viewed customers has taken new forms: Mesh body creators demand that apparel, jewellery, shoes, etc. created for their bodies be non-modifiable, “to prevent copybotting”, even though permissions have exactly zero impact on a Copybot viewer’s ability to intercept and extract an object. We have the infamous “anti-rez” scripts, which are another form of “anti-copybot” snake oil. And so on, and so on. So, to have an honest, open, no-nonsense discussion on this risky topic, I needed to talk to someone who actually knows what he’s talking about and doesn’t mouth off based on false assumptions and blatant misunderstandings of web-based platforms like Second Life. Inspired by the licensing suggestions he made in this post on his blog, I invited him over to my always work-in-progress café, and we had a lengthy, but most enjoyable and productive, discussion.

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