Of Babies and Bath Water

Roughly eight years ago, an idea was born onto the Internet. That idea, the brainchild of Philip Rosedale, was christened Second Life. It was one of those sociological experiments, but at the same time it was a technological experiment as well. Philip felt in his heart that using a Virtual 3D World could help bring all peoples of the world a little closer to each other; that it could alleviate some of the distance and conflict between differing peoples. He also felt that giving them the brushes and the canvas on which to paint any picture they wanted, they would grow and expand and create new things of inestimable value and beauty.

It didn’t take that long, looking back over the years now, to see that his ideals were far-reaching and difficult to obtain. But to the credit of he and his early team, they achieved a very high percentage of their initial goals. Not only that, but it turned out that a large segment of the Internet’s population agreed with those goals. They came to Second Life, took up the challenges that Second Life offered … and promptly set about building a world that amazed and enchanted many.

The Word Spreads

The Internet is one of those things that the media loves to sensationalize. It’s new, not that well understood, but rife with opportunities for almost anything to occur. So as Second Life began to gain in popularity, a few media smarties got wind of the new idea and catapulted it to the forefront of a hungry readership. For the most part, that was a “good thing”, but now a few more years down the road, it has also had some unexpected side-effects.

One of the most obvious side-effects was the attention (and participation) in the Second Life experiment by the money people of technology. It was much needed capital of course, as the influx of money and media attention allowed Second Life to grow faster than it had been. There’s also a good bit of evidence suggesting that without that limelight and money, Second Life would have reached a quick zenith then plummeted into oblivion in short order. But it didn’t, it hasn’t, and now it has to live with the consequences of that success.

The Melting Pot Overflows

The early residents of Second Life all had pretty much the same “Vision” in their heads when they arrived. They were builders, scripters, dreamers and technobrats. They mostly “got it” when it came to the technology of Second Life, but they also “got it” with the philosophical goals too. Harmony, cooperation, a place to grow and share … all of these and more were part and parcel of the Second Way of Life.

But with the growing media attention, with the advertising and buzz surrounding this new world, more and different types of people came to Second Life as well. When Linden Lab changed the entry requirements to allow free account signups, many of the original residents claim that was the day it all went to hell. No matter which way you feel about it though, these new groups of customers brought with them vastly different and personal ways of looking at the platform. They came to socialize, to escape reality, to engage in immersive experiences (not the least of which was a new and very intense form of virtual sex) … and they came because it was “the next hot thing.” They all added their mark, their “melody” if you will, to the growing orchestra that was Second Life. But they also brought something that had previously been mostly invisible in Second Life .. discord.

Leaving Stains On The Land

These new residents didn’t invent discord, nor was it something that hadn’t existed prior to their arrival. Don’t for a second believe that things were all roses and perfume until “they” arrived .. because they weren’t. However in the early days, the size and quantity of the troubles were low enough to remain mostly isolated and quickly resolved.  But with more and more people arriving, with wildly differing expectations, skills and interests, the nature of the conflicts changed. Not only did the frequency grow nearly exponentially, but the range of causes lost its “Utopian” flavor and took on the ugly stench of “Human Dregs”. Conflicts about prims overstepping land boundaries took a back seat to Abuse Reports about Racism, Speciesism and Intolerance. Suddenly it wasn’t a place to escape the annoying and frustrating aspects of reality, but was instead just another copy of the day-to-day crap we were trying to escape. *sigh*

The folks at Linden Lab, for a time blinded by their sudden success and their initial dreams of how wonderful a life it could be, failed to see and understand what was happening to their child. They’re not to blame though, as I don’t think anyone faced with such a massive shift of the foundation has ever really been ready for it … or even reacted to it quickly. They bounced off a few walls, ran off some cliffs, and generally made some glaring mistakes before they really started to understand that the world they envisioned had somehow morphed under their feet and was no longer the social and technical landscape they had planned and dreamed.

Second Tug Of War

Second Life began with one sociological goal, to offer up a world of grand experimentation and exploration. It succeeded too. It attracted segments of the human race with every perspective, theology, moral imperative and immoral pursuit. From the big dreamers who still believe in “If Only…” all the way to the low-lifes that subsist by stealing whatever they want and scamming everyone they can, Second Life has expanded across every form of life and belief. Each of these groups and types has engaged in the typical struggle to survive, to compete and to win in the battle that is life itself.

Inside the Linden Lab walls, a similar tug of war has been going on as well. The money types that came along in the early Darling Days have demanded their due, attempting to pull Second Life toward being a more “Mainstream” money mill. They have pointed at the success (by popularity if not by cash on hand) of the current Internet Stars and counseled changes that they felt would move the platform more that direction. The “old timers” within Linden’s staff have resisted those changes, and paid with their “lives” (jobs). It’s been an ugly battle both inside and out, and so far no one is winning (although quite a few are losing).

The Fist Draws Tight

Two factors ranked high in Linden Lab’s eyes in all this chaos: Their World was not going the way they originally intended, and they were very weary of settling petty squabbles and disputes that really had no place rising above the level of “grow up and deal with it” responses. Their grand experiment transformed into a daily grind, being kindergarten teachers, traffic cops and bartenders … and it wore quite a few down. It’s my belief that this shift in the personality of the “Job” at Linden Lab is what ultimately drove Philip Rosedale out the door and in search of new Utopias. (Although he still believes in the vision and will do interviews where he recites that same mantra, he’s also realized its day is past.)

That left Linden Lab gobsmacked. They were dreamers, Utopocrats looking for and trying to build Shangri-La. Yet here they were stuck policing the bad parts of “Scum Town”. Predictably, it left them angry, confused and at a loss for how to react. So they did what anyone that is confused does … they clenched their fist tighter … and SQUEEZED! It almost kind of worked too. The noises that rose up to the level of annoying pettiness subsided, and the necessity to be daily hall monitors declined. Of course the overall noise changed in character too. It stopped being a mass of confusing and conflicting voices all screaming “I want it MY way!” … and began to take on the unified chants of an angry mob. But in reality, mobs are easier to deal with … you just lock the gates and pull up the drawbridge … and the problem is solved. So that’s exactly what they did.

Control Begets Restriction

With their new “Tool” in hand, Linden Lab set about implementing it everywhere. They stopped dreaming big dreams and stopped planning to expand … and instead they started looking for and lopping off any place where too much latitude was allowed. If there was a place or a feature that allowed more than one choice, by damn they removed the other choices.  If someone started straying outside the lines or doing things that might possibly result in (ZOMG!) innovation, well that person had to be reined in.

Things seemed to calm down after these new rules were put in place. The discord that had typified their wonderful Second Life decreased by a lot. But at the same time, so did their revenues and so did their gleam in the public’s eye. What they had done was tossed the baby out with the bath water. When they imposed restrictions and control, they squelched creativity and beauty. When they drew lines and forced people inside, they killed off the wonderful artworks by those that never had and never could live inside those lines. Their “Solution” turned out to be more of a death grip around the throat of the living Second Life … and that is NOT what they intended it to be at all.

Beauty In Chaos

Recently I spent some time wandering through the images captured by one of the more well-known personalities of Second Life. As I sat clicking from picture to picture, I began to see beyond the surface image … see more than just the pixels and the shapes contained within. I began to see a random chaotic beauty in each. Definitely unsterile and totally uncontrolled, each image was beautiful on its own. Even when the subject matter switched wildly from theme to theme, that random jumble of stuff was still there. And with that new way of seeing, I also began to see how it applied to Second Life.

The Virtual World of Second Life has the potential to be messy, confusing, random and uncontrollable. More than that, it has the NEED to be all of those things and more. Without that weed growing in the field of flowers, the monotony of the flowers become boring and untended. But add a few weeds, roll up your sleeves and go tend that garden, and suddenly you see again all the beauty that the flowers provide. Life is a balance … a balance of ALL things. We cannot maintain that balance by removing the undesirable elements and leave only the pristine pretty things. It just won’t work.

Prying Loose The Fingers

There has been a tiny change in recent months. Definitely not as big a sea change as happened when the media first pulled out their notepads and started shouting about Second Life to the world. But there have been signs that the minds at the lead in Linden Lab are starting to realize that random chaos is how things must be. They are big enough thinkers that they can step back and see all the noisy confusion NOT as a giant gooey mess, but as a singular beautiful mass of life … writhing and seething and growing day by day. And it will take more big thinkers like that to ensure Second Life grows again too.

It takes big hands with strong fingers to hold the whole of a Virtual World within your grip. And it takes fingers in an open, relaxed pose to ensure the life survives as well. Now that the hands at Linden Lab are starting to let those fingers relax a bit, they cannot afford to tighten them up again lest they run the risk of suffocating the population that is just now starting the breathe again.

There will always be bad elements in this world, just as there will always be bad elements in every group or setting. But we can never allow ourselves to restrict the innovation and creativity that feeds Second Life just because we do not want the bad here too.

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