Neurons on the Second Life Grid

In the early heyday of Second Life, the money and marketing gurus of Linden Lab did their level best to sell the concept of a Virtual World presence to Big Businesses. Call it what you will, but they actually did a pretty reasonable job of enticing a number of those Big Businesses too. Companies like Coca-Cola, IBM and many others took on the task of building their own corporate presence inside the 3D environment of Second Life. The only problem was … they failed to actually capitalize on that investment.

There have been almost as many theories as to why those efforts failed as there are pundits to express them, but during a conversation with a friend on a totally unrelated topic the other day, a new idea … actually a new way of looking at Second Life … sort of put the whole thing into perspective for me. So being the blabbermouth (and also totally fascinated with my own perfection in my opinions LOL), I decided I’d put this idea out here and let y’all chew me up.

Megalith Business Model

If you live in a country that has a local branch of the megalithic Wal-Mart stores chain, take a wander down there sometime and stand in front of the checkout lanes. Turn around a few times and look down the aisles a bit too. What’s the one thing that you notice? (Yes, this will be on the final exam. Accurate answers count!)

Answer: Massive Repetition.

Most every Wal-Mart store looks the same as just about every other store. The entire floor plan is replicated from store to store. The merchandise is massively replicated (with various exceptions for specific local favorites). The signage, sales and whole personality of the store is massively replicated. “Seen one, seen them all” comes to mind.

But more than that, count how many checkout aisles there are. Unless it’s a smaller store, there’s most likely more than 20. Count how many sales associates are employed there. Count how many product aisles there are. How many shelving units. How many shopping carts. Virtually everything in the store comes in multiples of multiples. There’s just lots and lots of the same things. And honestly, that’s a good thing too.

Size Matters – Big Size Matters More

When you are a multinational, megalithic corporation like Wal-Mart or IBM or Coca-Cola, you depend on the size of your sales outlets to ensure sufficient income to stay in business. In fact, you get to be a bigger company by increasing the size of your outlets. The bigger the store, the more customers you can handle at any one time, the greater your income potential. Companies like these deal with “Wide Channels” … meaning they build their sales outlets and customer interface points to handle as many people as possible at a single time. This approach is absolutely crucial to doing big business the way they do it.

Atomic Limits in Second Life

Now lets take that “Wide Channel” big business and shoehorn it into Second Life. The first thing they want to do is attract as many “buyers” onto their Sim as possible. Except we all know what happens as soon as you get around 30 or so Avatars there … the whole thing grinds to a painful pile of molasses caked snail poop. (In other words, it runs slow.)

Can you imagine what would happen if only 30 people on the entire planet could drink a Coke at the same time? Or only 30 people could shop at Wal-Mart at the same time? Obviously the income potential with that limit in place drops through the floor.

This isn’t news of course. Anyone with any time spent in Second Life will tell you that the limited number of Avatars that can be on a single Sim at a time is a major hindrance. To their credit, Linden Lab understands this limit too. It’s just that no one has yet figured out a neat (meaning inexpensive and possible) way of increasing that limit to something more reasonable … like 5,000 Avatars. So since that limit won’t go away, it makes any potential income from a Big Business investment in Second Life equate to a small satellite kiosk in the local shopping mall. In other words … nada.

Narrow Does Not Mean Small

Okay, so we accept the fact that you can’t cram 5,000 people onto a Sim at the same time. That means that any sales outlet you build in Second Life has to be a “Narrow Channel” affair. But Narrow does not necessarily equate to small, it just means that one particular location must be small … ish. You can increase your effective channel width by replicating that outlet to numerous places around the Second Life Grid.

Within Second Life there are a few Merchants that have done exactly that. While some have chosen to grow their land holdings in Sim-sized chunks, others have chosen to open a plethora of smaller stores, each with its own set of merchandise, specialty or personality. Which method you choose is more a matter of your own personal preference and approach to business. Some folks can manage a herd of smaller stores, while others prefer working with giant multi-Sim outlets. Either way, how each individual sets up their store is not the point.

What is the point .. of this particular diatribe anyway .. is how Linden Lab views and grows Second Life.

The Neuron as Business Model

Lets look for a bit at an amazing machine we are all quite familiar and skilled with using … our own brains. As modern science has discovered, the brain is a highly inter-networked array of very simplistic cells called “Neurons”. Each Neuron is surprisingly under powered. Some might even say that a single Neuron is rather pathetic. By itself, that statement is entirely true. A single Neuron is useless, quite literally. The power of the Neuron comes about when they are amassed and wired together into a highly complex and chaotic network.

Now equate a Neuron with a single store or outlet within Second Life. By itself, that single store isn’t a killer business. In fact, it’s more than likely not even enough to keep a single person alive on its sales. Quite obviously it’s nothing that an IBM or Coca-Cola would find any value in. However to that one person that owns and runs it, it means quite a bit. They put their heart and soul into it.

The Second Life Neural Net

Now step back a few (100) paces and look at this machine from Linden Lab’s perspective. Each store, each Resident-owned and Resident-run commercial outlet is one tiny little under powered and by-itself-meaningless enterprise. But they are all “wired together” too. The infrastructure of Second Life provides the wiring. It allows Avatars to teleport to any of the Neurons … errr I mean stores. It provides the nourishment to keep those Neurons alive (in the form of L$ spent and invested in it).

Keeping the Second Life Brain Alive

I make this analogy to the Neuron because both Neurons and Resident-owned Stores need the same things. They need nourishment and they need a way to communicate to other Neurons and Avatars. Even more to the point though is that it’s not really possible to separate out a single store or Neuron and understand what it is that makes the one special or higher status or any such thing. It is only because they are intricately inter-networked that each one has any value. The whole system is based on .. not regularity but total chaos.

Science has shown that in the human brain, certain types of functions are clumped into specific areas. But within those areas there is no way to segregate any one Neuron and identify “this one means ‘car'” or anything similar. Trying to manage the human brain, and in my opinion, trying to manage the Grid by imposing regimen and procedure on it results in confusion and misunderstanding.

Instead one has to manage the Second Life Grid in the same way we manage our brains … provide the needful things and stand way the hell back. In the case of Second Life, those needful things are maintaining the ability for Avatars to find and visit a store, providing a steady resource to allow the inflow and outflow of L$, and maintaining an even and well-regulated “environment”.

Stability, Stability, Stability

Another point that bears mentioning along this analogy is the effect that rapid and unexpected changes can have on the “Brain”. As anyone will tell you, trying to accomplish anything in an environment filled with chaotic and seemingly random changes … well it’s pretty much impossible. Just as your brain will not function when it is suddenly plunged from starving to flush, hot to cold, noisy to quiet … the Second Life Grid also suffers spasms of confusion and ineffectiveness each time the Environment of Second Life is radically changed.

Because the Grid is a large and largely uncontrollable morass of individually reactive Neurons, trying to snap it in any one direction in short order is bound to have┬ádeleterious┬áconsequences. Changes must be made in small, gentle and well understood steps. I know I harp on this a lot, but I’m hoping that the mental image of the Second Life Grid being composed of thousands of individual units will help those in charge also see how to adjust their management techniques and growth plans to accommodate.

Managing with an Open Hand

The last point I want to make with this analogy is the way the Second Life Brain must be managed. It can’t. Not in the traditional sense anyway.

When M Linden was in charge, he was the epitome of the typical control freak, trying mightily to subdue and control the Residents of Second Life into doing things “His Way”. But as was amply (IMO) proven, Control Freaks don’t survive when trying to manage something as chaotic and amorphous as Second Life. Instead what is needed is a style of management that listens, pays attention to the needs and demands of the “Brain”, and orchestrates the operations of their company to make those things appear.

This is a style of management that is absolutely heretical to the “Big Money” people. They invest based on guaranteed (or at least calculable) returns on that investment. Asking them to be patient and trust that “everything is okay, messed up as hell and going whatever way it wants” … well that just doesn’t happen. So Mr. Humble’s job of remaking his company to act as the “Body” for the Second Life Grid while at the same time convincing the money people not to cut off the food supply … well that’s a giant task. I just hope he’s got a golden tongue, because it’s going to take that and more to make sure we, the Neurons of Second Life, don’t go insane, don’t starve and don’t go dumb.

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