Dancing or Boxing?

In the very beginning days of Second Life, the founder Philip Rosedale worked to promote a sense of kinship among the people populating it. He seemed to have realized that people had to feel as if they were a mutual participant, a willing worker bee striving together with the management to make this new world work. Granted, the initial efforts had a lot of issues that needed to be recognized and overcome. Even so, Philip exhibited behavior that made people feel like he saw them, saw their work, and saw their necessity in the success of the enterprise.

I “See” You

When I say that “he saw them”, I mean that Philip recognized the efforts being invested by the users of Second Life. I mean that he respected that they were spending their precious time without any guarantee of return or benefit. I mean that he was emotionally in tune with their daily “playing” with Second Life, and that he was in some fashion assigning their efforts some sort of value that he would eventually reward .. hopefully.

But that was then. Nowadays the management of Linden Lab has stopped “seeing” us. In fact, it sometimes feels as if they’ve stopped hearing us, seeing us, sensing us or even contemplating our existence. Well, except when a bill comes due or for some reason we fail to make a payment they were expecting. Then of course they are keenly aware of our existence. They even go out of their way to communicate in no uncertain terms that they are aware of our presence in their world and are missing the sort of interaction that makes their accountant smile at the end of the day. Otherwise though, our form of interaction with Linden Lab seems to have only one basic trait.

Step Into The Ring

The current CEO Rodvik Linden (AKA Rod Humble) has made it his trumpet to blow, pointing out that Second Life is the beautiful, fully-formed, creative and imaginative experience that it is purely because of the investment made by the thousands of users and “Creators” in Second Life. His words are an homage to the vision and work of all those amazing and crazy people twisting the knobs and clicking the mouse to make such a world exist. And by “all”, I mean those both with and without the “Linden” last name.

But for some reason, as each new Management Shell has been grown and installed around the inner core machinery of Second Life and Linden Lab, the emotional flavor of the conversation between the users and the company has taken on more of a combative, adversarial tenor. Even though Rodvik has gleefully pointed out that user-created content is the flour of the Second Life cake, his iteration of management continues to interact with the users more as an adversary than a partner.

It’s not that they use abusive or combative language in their communications. Instead they seem to have an odd mix of Vulcan-like emotionless and an edgy or nervous Klingon quality to their communications. Other than the times when Rodvik is bleating out his love of and LL’s dependence on user-created content, their communications have taken on the tone of voice that one hears from a very wary legal adviser .. for the OTHER side. Every time I read something from one of the Big Dogs at Linden Lab, I find myself instinctively planting my feet at shoulders’ width, flexing my knees .. and centering my body mass around my solar plexus. Sheesh!

Open Personality and Delivering Bad News

One of the hallmarks of companies like Google or Twitter is their positive “Personality”. While Google’s personality has been changing over the past few years, they and Twitter have always shown a very open and communal countenance to those people using their services. World of Warcraft and Eve Online might be even better examples; examples of companies that provide massively multi-user services yet maintain an overall attitude and personality that is friendly, even jovial at times, and always seem willing to lock arms and march together toward the goal .. whatever that may be.

The dignified and up-front way these companies behave is one of the major reasons people are willing to accept, even explore and stretch, their personal boundaries. When one of these companies has to deliver bad news or makes changes that put up a roadblock for some of their users, the fact that they have previously operated in a cooperative manner gives people a lot more confidence in accepting and adapting to the changes.

This routine, the process of introducing new features and services, informing customers about them, and the methods used to help them understand and adapt to them is a critical skill that the management of a company must create and support. How a company navigates their own way through a change, and furthermore how they help their customers navigate the change, is an important measure of how successful that company is. As we all know, success also correlates directly to profit on the bottom line. Thus being able to smoothly introduce changes, help customers get accustomed to those changes, then returning to business as usual is a key component in making a company succeed.

The Marriage Vows

One of the primary aspects of a company’s relationship with its customers is visible in their “Terms of Service” agreement. Since very early in the life of Computer Software for the Masses, going way back to the original Apple ][ and IBM PC, the software that could be obtained for it or used on it has been controlled by some form of agreement between the Software Owner and the user. Whether called an “End User License Agreement” (EULA), “Terms of Use” (ToU) or, as is the case with the Internet-based services provided by Linden Lab, the “Terms of Service” (ToS), the agreement set out in mostly legalistic language what the owner company expected you the user to do.

Just like the Marriage Vows set out what each partner in a marriage is expected to do, the license agreement defines the actions in an ideal relationship from the owner’s point of view. Since the agreements are almost always written by the Software Owner, they are by nature one-sided. However most companies have realized that should their agreement come under fire, or worse wind up being subjected to legal review in a court of law, a tendency to make the agreement horribly lopsided and unfair usually winds up driving off customers and potentially being struck down by the court. Because of this reasonable and rational appraisal of the future and how people and software work, many big companies got that way (big) and stay that way (bigger still) by setting out terms in their agreement that are both fair and considerate of both parties’ needs.

However not every company follows this strategy. Some companies set out terms and conditions in their usage agreements that are boldly unfair and greedy. This is especially true for those companies that are either struggling to stay afloat or who have not yet accepted the necessity of working together with their customers. This is, in effect, like setting out marriage vows that give one party the right to sleep around, spend all the family money on personal wants and luxuries, and claim 100% ownership of everything the couple owns should a breakup occur. Honestly? Would you say “I do” if your intended states up front they will be leaving right after the wedding for a wild party in Las Vegas .. and you’re not invited?

Final Thoughts

I’ve come a long way around the horn exploring Corporate Personality as a separate and functional thing explicitly because I believe it is exactly that. Over my lifetime I have been involved in companies, from large to very small and every step in-between, and I’ve seen how putting the wrong face on a company can severely impact the company’s bottom line. I’ve seen how companies with otherwise lead-pipe cinch guarantees to make a giant splash in the world and rake in money faster than they can pile it up .. I’ve seen them go down the tubes in incredibly short periods of time. And I’ve seen little companies turn into phenomenal successes even with almost no name recognition and a product that is neither revolutionary nor all that exciting.

In every case, with the benefit of time and that marvelous 20/20 Hindsight, I’ve come to understand why the outcome was the way it was. I have identified, and with no confusion or misunderstanding whatsoever, been able to point at specific behaviors that led inexorably to the success or failure that was finally met. In many of those cases it was none of the usual factors that investors point at or business analysts teach in college-level MBA courses. In many of those cases it was the way the management thought about and treated their customers. In fact, the most outrageous failures, companies that not only had killer products and a customer base that was top-notch cannot fail gold-label secure, those companies crashed and cratered so big that some of the people involved never climbed out again. And all because the company’s management not only disrespected their customer base, but they even disrespected and denigrated their own employees too.

It is my opinion that Linden Lab is on that same path. Despite the fact that the CEO has identified a factor that he believes can be leveraged to good effect. Never mind the fact that I agree with him in the appraisal that User-Created Content can be a game-winning facet in many future successful enterprises. Ignore the fact that Second Life has a massive amount of momentum in that niche. Throw away all of those advantages and look instead at the personality and manners of the company running the show. In my opinion you will see yet again a management team that disrespects and denigrates their customers, belittles and emasculates their employees, and overall refuses to accept and pay proper tribute to the one thing they are depending on for success.

When you are standing on someone’s shoulders, when they are putting everything they can into making sure you can stand taller than anyone else around, when they have been loyal and supportive and willing to stick around even when it has cost them many times more than it should have .. that is NOT the time to insult them, belittle them, disrespect them and abuse them.

But that is exactly what Linden Lab is doing .. yet again.

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