P2SSL – Feedback Please

(The next installment in the Project to Save Second Life)

It’s been some time since my last post. Part of the reason for that is because of various real-life issues, but also part of it has been think-time for me … trying to get a handle on what is really needed in Second Life. Now that the thoughts have gelled, I think it’s time to make the next entry.

The King Is Dead – Long Live The King

The news about Philip Rosedale’s departure wasn’t unexpected, just surprisingly ill-timed and way premature. Well okay, sort of premature. I guess only he can know when it’s right to move on. However from my perspective, it just seems like he hasn’t even been around long enough to make an impact. The Lab is still doing boneheaded things, carrying on with ill-considered projects and basically running in circles with no clear path defined. Philips was supposed to dampen those oscillations, add some direction and sanity to Second Life and implement changes that would ensure its long-term survival. He didn’t do that and now he’s on his way out the door.

You can read the full statement here: Changing My Role, and Searching for a New CEO

The reason I mention this old news is that it is germane to today’s topic … Feedback. What we were supposed to get by Philip’s return was more information about Second Life, its direction and goals. What we got instead was some glamor show of neat concepts and then back to business as usual. So in summary, it’s probably best he’s leaving this fast as he wasn’t really able to effect the changes needed anyway. So be it.

What Is Feedback?

In a purely technical sense, Feedback is that information you receive as a result of some action. For example, when driving a car the feedback is the sound of the mailbox going under the front tires or the siren of the cops stopping you for running too many red lights. Feedback is crucial to proper actions. If you never hear the mailbox or don’t notice the cops, it’s very likely your driving skills won’t improve.

Feedback is also very crucial for maintaining the integrity of any system. When you have a complex device or population of devices, feedback about the overall performance and behavior is absolutely essential. One tiny part gets out of whack and without feedback, pretty soon the whole system comes crashing to a halt or explodes in a really neat but useless fireball.

In the case of Second Life, Feedback is that information provided to the Residents that tells them “This is what’s right, this is what’s wrong, this is where we’re going and here are some changes you all need to make or accept.” In truth, the last bits about direction and changes aren’t really Feedback. They’re more in the realm of a “Control Input”, but they can be feedback also so I included them.

The most crucial parts though are the bits that explain the rights and the wrongs. The former demonstrates what has been done that supports and promotes the goals of Second Life and Linden Lab while the latter informs everyone what shouldn’t have happened and helps them work toward not letting it happen again. Sadly for all of us, both of these forms of Feedback are completely lacking.

Positive Feedback – Do This More

Positive Feedback refers to those bits of information that indicate something good happened. A pat on the back, a nice increase in your paycheck, or a simple smile of approval are very good examples of Positive Feedback. Attempting to labor on without any positive feedback is possible, but pretty soon you’ll tire of doing anything at all simply because it just feels useless. A large part of the Second Life community is at this stage, sometimes called “burnout”.

Positive Feedback is also very valuable because it doesn’t take that much to accomplish a lot of good. That simple smile doesn’t have to happen every time, it doesn’t need to be showy or even obvious … it just needs to happen.

Negative Feedback – Don’t Do This Anymore

Negative Feedback refers to those bits of information that illustrate a mistake. While a lot of people equate Negative Feedback to an ass-chewing or lecture, in truth it can be much more subtle and a lot more productive. For example, turning down a dead-end road will lead to negative feedback in the realization you made a wrong turn and now have to retrace your steps. It’s not a big bad thing, it’s just a simple “Oops” and then comes the realization a change is necessary.

In my opinion, Negative Feedback is just as important (if not moreso) than Positive Feedback and should in almost every case be the starting point of changes. By its very nature, Negative Feedback says “this was wrong”. However that is NOT all there is to Negative Feedback. Truly useful Negative Feedback needs to also include details as to exactly what was wrong and why. It should also include information that demonstrates the proper method. Without these last details, no actual benefit can be had. It’s only when Negative Feedback is specific and detailed can a positive change be effected.

Useful vs. Useless Feedback

The sticking point here is the amount of detail included in the feedback provided. It doesn’t matter whether the feedback is positive or negative, if there is insufficient detail to understand the cause of the feedback, nothing is gained from it.

As an example, think about training your pet. If you randomly reward it or randomly punish it without having a clear indication as to why, before long the pet will be so confused as to go nuts. Teaching a child is the same thing. If they don’t know what they did right or did wrong, no amount of feedback will rectify that problem. Thus Useful Feedback depends on a clear connection between the cause and the reason. Without this connection, the feedback is useless.

Back On Topic – Linden Lab and Feedback

Okay, if you’ve hung with me this long, you deserve an explanation of why I wrote all that stuff above. The one massive failing in the Linden Lab method is … No Useful Feedback! Allow me to illustrate.

One of the common meeting grounds for Residents of Second Life is the Forums. This resource is provided free of charge and is totally managed by employees of Linden Lab. As with any public forum, there are rules that must be followed and guidelines to help ease communication. From time to time the Moderators (those employees responsible for enforcing the rules and guidelines) will reject a post, remove a discussion or move it to some other forum.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll realize right away that having a post rejected, having a discussion removed or relocated to another forum is part of the Feedback process. However what is never included with those actions is … The Reason! Sure, you get an email saying your post has been rejected. You might get one saying your entire discussion has been removed. (They don’t tell you when they move one though .. and they should.) But at no time do they ever explain why they took the action they did.

This lack of reason is the sole cause of confusion and, in the long run, the cause of continued violations of the Guidelines. The Residents that post on the Forums don’t (usually) want to do wrong, they just didn’t understand the rules fully or they were confused about what was the proper way to accomplish their goal. But since the “punishment” (or “correction” if you insist) is totally devoid of the connection to the cause, nothing is learned, no changes are made and in a very short time the Resident gives up or goes postal.

This is not the only example of how the Feedback provided by Linden Lab is useless to the recipients of it. Some more examples:

  1. The Homestead Sim Fiasco – Why was the price raised so drastically and why wasn’t it profitable to keep as it was?
  2. The Zindra Adult Region Fiasco – Why was Linden Lab so forceful and abusive in enforcing the changes, and why was it such a critical issue so suddenly?
  3. Removal of Xstreet and replacement with the Marketplace – Why did Linden Lab need to take down a working site and replace it with something that is more broken and less functional?
  4. In-World Search – Why have the changes been made and what benefits are gained by those changes?
  5. Classified Ads – Why was the previous method changed and what was gained by so drastically altering the behavior?
  6. Viewer 2.0 – Why was so much functionality removed and how do the changes benefit users?

Accurate Feedback vs. False Feedback

Some of the above listed changes came with reasons. Unfortunately the reasons supplied didn’t actually fit the changes. When reasons were provided, the people most affected by the changes could immediately see the reason was bogus or just flat wrong. Often times the reasons given are so obviously contrived that the response from the Residents is anger and a feeling of betrayal.

Unfortunately this pattern of supplying false or no feedback is endemic to most everything Linden Lab does. Thankfully it isn’t every situation. Some of the changes implemented by Linden Lab have been provided with very useful and very accurate feedback. For example the need to impose some form of Script Limits came with the explanation that the number of poorly written and wasteful scripts was putting an overly large strain on the Simulators. The explanation was rational, the cause was well explained, and the solution was fairly evident.

This is one of those examples of Accurate Feedback. It did indeed light a firestorm of protest, but only because the initial solution proposed was off-base and needed some correction before it could be truly useful. What ensued was a series of discussions, protests, rants and diatribes that eventually led the Linden Lab team to arrive at a saner and more effective solution. (Unfortunately, Linden Lab recently sacked the majority of that team, so the whole effort has been put on hold. But that’s a different issue altogether.)

The Solution – Practicing Accurate Feedback

Now to the solution … the reason this long-winded “wall o text” exists. What is needed is for Linden Lab to develop the habit of providing accurate feedback. It has to be honest, detailed and presented in a manner that allows the Residents to request and receive clarification for those parts that either weren’t fully explained or were missing altogether.

This is not a new concept either. It’s been mentioned and requested numerous times, but the nay-sayers always point to the fact that you can’t be totally honest or people get upset. However, the responses they get now, when they do not provide accurate feedback or do not provide feedback at all, can hardly be characterized as civil or pleasant. I submit that being honest and accurate, while it will create some unrest or discord, will in the long-run result in a much better response from the Residents than lying to them or not saying anything.

Second Life is a System

This is one of the most important truths to Saving Second Life … it is a unified and cohesive system. All of the parts, Linden Lab and the Residents too, must function with the same set of goals. At present, Linden Lab behaves as though Second Life is two separate and totally distinct systems; one being the Lab itself and the other being the Residents and Second Life. Unfortunately their “model” continues to break because it is not accurate, and often those breaks result in outcomes that damage all the parts.

Creating the Feedback Loop

There are a large number of projects in play behind the doors at Linden Lab. Most of them are known by the Residents, but not all. As a first step to creating the requisite Feedback Loop and ensuring that the feedback provided is useful feedback, it is necessary to make the Linden Lab teams involved in those projects more visible and more accessible to the Residents. Linden Lab needs to document the Projects and Teams that are currently public. They could even go so far as to publicize and champion those teams, give them some positive kudos and pats on the back.

This change alone will generate a surge of information and positive reinforcement from the Residents. Once they know who to talk to, understand what the goals are and how those goals will be realized, the Residents will be better able to contribute and help guide the Dev Teams toward a more successful conclusion. Because there is no clear indication of the Team’s Members or even what they intend to accomplish, the response is almost exclusively one of shock, anger and resistance.

Implementing the Feedback Loop

Once the Teams are identified, the next step will be to create a means of communication that is regular, informational and accurate. From time to time the various members of Linden Lab staff have posted blogs about changes that were to occur. However the habit now is for them to post what happened and then ignore the responses. The common response from the Residents is anger because they realize the communication is strictly one-way and thus useless to both parties.

What needs to change is that the communication must occur BEFORE the concrete is poured over the plans. Remember that Second Life is a vast and complex System. Yes, the direction must come from one “Voice”, but that voice should be driven by input from every available resource and not just one tiny facet of the overall System.

There are examples within Second Life of this process in action; it’s not all bad news. The Script Limits project mentioned earlier is a perfect example. The Scripting Dev Team announced their intentions early on. They then actively listened to and implemented suggestions from the Residents. The results were very positive overall, and as proof we now have several new system calls that greatly improve the functionality and quality of scripts.

Start With The Forums

Since all of this is a giant rats nest of a problem, I suggest their first point of attack is in the Second Life Forums. Begin by making the employees of Linden Lab more involved in the Forums and improve the feedback provided to those posting there when they step over the line or require some form of correction. This will be a simple task to accomplish actually and will lay the groundwork for larger changes by showing the most vocal Residents that changes are being made to the benefit of all. Since a lot of the negativity and acrimony is voiced in the forums, it makes sense to begin winning over that segment of the population first. Future changes will then be natural extensions of this process and not feel so contradictory or contrived as they occur.

It will be necessary to retrain both Residents and Linden Lab employees on proper use of accurate honest information, but I think all parties will be amazed how natural it feels once the truth starts flowing and the depth of conversation increases. However, if Second Life and Linden Lab continue on the same course as now, the outcome is inevitable; more months and years of anger, discontent and resistance from the Residents … and less and less income for Linden Lab.

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