After this blog was quiet for so long, I am not sure anybody will even see this post, but in case anyone is looking for new posts, they will continue over at www.CatHerders.com. Feel free to join me over there for intermittent observations about life inside and outside virtual worlds. I look forward to seeing you there!


Working at my laptop

Today’s announcement that viewer 2.3 has launched with display names includes a link a knowledgebase article titled How do I log in with my username if I’m using Viewer 1.23 or a third-party viewer?

Don’t get me wrong. I have a soft spot for the Lindens on the doc team, and I think that it’s a good knowledgebase article. It is just unfortunate it has to exist. Why can’t backward compatibility be built into the log in process?

When usernames go live, if I want to log in to viewer 1.23, I have to put my username in the First Name field, and I have to put “resident” in the Last Name field. Which would be fine if users RTFM. But they don’t. They don’t read knowledgebase articles, either. They get confused, get pissed off, and give up.

Why not just make the login process backward compatible? I won’t pretend I have looked at the login server code, but how hard would it be to implement the logic (pardon my pseudocode):

if LastName <> "resident"
create variable CombinedUserName;
CombinedUserName = concatenate (FirstName + "." +  LastName);
FirstName = CombinedUserName;
LastName = "resident";

I just wrote that in six lines of pseudocode, and I suck at programming. So someone who knows what they are doing can code it much more efficiently. My point? It’s not hard.

I know that the TPV developers will eventually put the same sort of logic into their viewers, so some people will argue that the Lab doesn’t need to bother. To be honest, I would rather use one of the Lab’s viewers, even without the handy bells and whistles, than a TPV. So someone ought to speak up for the hapless users of the Lab’s own 1.23 viewer who are going to end up alienated by the username log in process when it’s just not necessary.

I tried Emerald back before Emerald was cool. Before breast physics or inbuilt animation overrides, I took the viewer for a spin. It wasn’t bad, really. I didn’t care for the way it implemented radar, preferring a HUD onscreen to needing to keep a window open to monitor nearby activity, but otherwise, I liked what I saw. My favorite thing was having direct access to Windlight settings from the main viewer screen. I used that constantly.

But even way back then, drama seemed to follow Emerald. I sat at live music events and watched people who criticized the viewer mysteriously crash when Emerald developers showed up and moved into the region where they sat. Rumor surfaced from what I considered reasonably reliable sources about some of the extracurricular activities of some of the project’s developers, even as other people who I respect deeply started joining the team.

I looked hopefully around the Emerald preferences panel, hoping there was a check box labeled “Drama,” but there simply isn’t. So I gave up the handy tools, uninstalled Emerald, and went back to Snowglobe. I dragged the Advanced Sky Editor window to the bottom of the screen and treated it like a built-in pop-up menu of Windlight settings. Adaptation wasn’t as hard as I expected.

Since then, I have been able to watch the drama from a distance:

This last transgression appears to have been the breaking point for some Emerald users, and social media yesterday evening was abuzz with people  looking for the Drama check box, too.

All this makes me wonder about the future of Emerald. After all,  only a fraction of Second Life users are plugged into SL-related social media. Those casual users don’t read the official blog, much less the blog postings, tweets, and plurks from other users. Emerald’s did not gain mainstream acceptance until they introduced breast physics, and that was through word-of-mouth of the new feature. Word of questionable behavior of a viewer’s development team doesn’t seem to travel anywhere near as quickly as word of full-motion body parts, so it will be interesting to see whether drama overcomes the average user’s inertia.

I’ll be watching with curiosity from the cheap seats of my LL-issue viewer. I may not have the bells and whistles, but at least I am not trying to uncheck the “Drama” preference.

Even now, days after saying goodbye to friends at SLCC, their voices still echo in my mind. Much has already been said elsewhere of the policies and upcoming SL features announced during the conference, but this isn’t the place to debate those. Some of the other new perspectives I gained about SL from new-found friends would fill up posts by themselves, and my thoughts on some of that aren’t yet distilled to words. Right now, I am still thinking about the human experience of the event.

There was a moment on Friday evening when I sat in the hotel bar, sandwiched with two others on a loveseat obviously not meant to hold three adults. Friends were gathered all around, with conversations overlapping the way they do when you are in a group of a dozen people. In a lull in the conversation, Chestnut Rau looked across at me and said, “Look at that huge smile Feline is wearing!” I was embarrassed that it was so apparent, but she was right. Of course I was happy. I was with my tribe. After a year of adversity, I could laugh with them, watch expressions on their faces as we discussed serious topics, and hug them tight. At that moment, it felt possible to gather enough laughter, conversation, and hugs to last until the next time we gathered together.

I don’t mean for it to sound like all of SLCC is a cocktail party. If anything, this year was less so than in the past two I attended. I had the chance to ask Tiggs Linden questions about region crossings.  I talked shop with Jeremy Linden about what the documentation team is doing. And there’s nothing like sharing an elevator ride with Philip Linden, giving me the chance to ask him anything I wanted. It probably says something about the way I chose to consume SLCC this year that given that opportunity, I didn’t ask Philip about search or viewer 2.0. I asked a human question. Knowing he had flown in on the red-eye, I asked Philip if he was going to find time for a nap. He, in turn, had a very human answer: He would like a nap, but one of the other Lindens was in the hospital, and he wanted to visit him. (I realized the next day that he had been referring to Q Linden, who called into a keynote address from the rehab center where he is recovering from a stroke.)

Looking back on the SLCC weekend, I saw and learned a lot of interesting things. Yet the most memorable things about the weekend were the people. Daphne Abernathy and her legendary power strips. Tamara Sands making Gwampa Lomu blush while publicly cornering him into a duet of “Phantom of the Opera.” The priceless look on Chestnut Rau’s face when she met her partner, Zha Ewry. ArminasX Samian wearing his sunglasses in the dark ballroom to dress as his avatar. The laughter that met my blurted comment that I needed to “log out of the hotel room.”

Several times during the weekend, I said, “It’s all virtual.” It was my flippant replacement for the usual, “It’s all good.” But you know what? It’s not all virtual. Those were real hugs, real laughter, real eye contact. It’s not all virtual at all, and that’s what makes the human side of SLCC the most powerful and memorable part of the event.

It was hinted at for a long time, but LL is finally pulling the trigger and shutting down the official Second Life forums in favor of their Jive platform on Tuesday. For those of you not playing along at home, Jive is the platform that has been used for the SL blogs for about a year. It has exhibited some particularly interesting security features, such as some reports of people logging in with their own credentials and ending up in someone else’s account.

So concern about moving to this platform has been understandable. Not to mention the noncommittal statements by the labbies that “most of” the current forum message categories will be moved over to the new Jive blogrums, but, predictably, no answers are forthcoming when questions are asked about specific areas of concern.

The active forum community is now mourning the impending loss of its home, and there have been many  goodbye posts — some dramatic and some just plain silly. However, one post has stood out among the others: Lindal Kidd’s Letter to the Lindens. Her attempt to crosspost it to the blogrums was immediately locked. With the fate of the letter posted to the soon-to-be closed forums is in question, I include her text here, with permission, to help her voice be heard beyond the confines of the forum community. She speaks good sense to the seemingly deaf ears  at the lab.

Dear Linden Lab,

We love Second Life, the virtual world whose infrastructure you created and manage. Although it has many flaws, it’s far and away the best virtual world platform in existence. We want to see it flourish and grow, just as you do. Because of that, we are passionate in our opposition to a number of changes the Lab has made, and is apparently planning to make. We are passionate because we, as the people who are in SL every day, see the damage that they have caused, and greatly fear what damage the new changes will cause.

We are also passionate in our desire for improvements. We see the problems with SL. We are frustrated by them every day. So it angers us to see you ignoring these real problems, and us, in a quixotic quest for “millions of new potential Residents.”

Let’s think about that one for a moment. At present, the grid can only support a maximum concurrency of between 70,000 – 80,000. Somewhere in there, things begin to break and either some functions (transactions, teleports, rezzing) become unstable, or the grid itself goes down. Until that problem is solved, it makes no sense to waste time with policy changes that might (you hope) bring in huge numbers of new users.

SL is a communications platform. As such, it shares some characteristics with MMORPGs, and some with social networking sites like FaceBook. These other platforms and virtual worlds like SL compete for the on line time of a large number of people. But, although they are similar, they are NOT the same, and they have distinctly different strengths and appeal to different segments of that potential audience.

MMORPGs are graphically rich. They have (and users need and demand) high frame rates. They appeal to those who want to play a game, to compete within a fixed and relatively limited rule framework. SL, in contrast, is largely user-created. And it is open-ended, with a very loose framework that lets users pursue the activities they choose. While the graphics performance of a video game would be wonderful to have, SL trades off some of that performance potential in order to gain its distinct advantages.

Social networking sites are all about facilitating connections between people. As such, they are a tool to enhance a user’s life and expand their circle of friends. Such sites are used by people to find potential friends, business associates, lovers, or mates. They are outward-oriented, and closely linked to the real world lives and identities of their subscribers. SL, on the other hand, features anonymity. While users can use it for social networking, and reveal personal information to either those they choose, or to everyone, many Residents use SL as an escape from Real Life. Their SL existence is quite meaningful and real to them, but it is largely separate from, and carried on parallel to, their Real Life.

As users of modern internet connectivity platforms in general, we see the advantages of all three of these types of platforms. MMORPGs are good for entertainment and escape. Social networking sites are good for making connections. However, it is only a true virtual world like Second Life that is usable for both purposes. There are necessary and unavoidable tradeoffs involved in creating such a multipurpose platform.

Because of that, we see it as a grave mistake for SL to try too hard to become either an MMORPG or a social networking tool. For example, in acquiring Avatars United, LL may be opening a door through which many residents will exit the grid in favor of a tool that better suits their main purpose. If LL were to go in another direction, and take control of content creation in order to dramatically improve performance, residents who are interested in creating, or running a business, will depart.

You must pursue the middle ground that you have already staked out. No single application can be everything to everyone, and it is a mistake to squander resources in trying.

What you have is an entertainment platform with (potentially) broad appeal. Instead of trying to force SL into a FaceBook mold, or turn it into WoW, make it the best of its kind.

SL has another unique feature: its economy. This is perhaps SL’s greatest selling point…that people can come here, and leave (if they are skillful and lucky) with more money than they came in with. But this economy is fragile. There are a limited number of products that are possible. By eliminating gambling, you cut off a whole segment of that economy (the fact that it was a legal necessity is irrelevant. It still harmed the economy). By restricting adult content, you are slowly strangling another, larger segment. There are really only three basic commodities in SL: virtual land, content creation, and entertainment.

Linden Lab has ultimate control over all of these. Each policy change or shift you make has an effect on the thousands of merchants who use SL. When considering policy changes, you must do a better job of discussing them in advance with a wide range of Residents than you have so far. We would suggest that you ask yourselves (and us) two questions of any new proposal: “Who will this benefit, and how much?” and “Who will this harm, and how much?” And the “who” that benefits should not be Linden Lab! Not directly.

Any time LL raises fees, or cuts services, it might seem that it’s good for your bottom line. But in the end, if it hurts the SL economy, it hurts LL. If we make money, so do you. If we lose money, or leave the platform, you lose too. Any time LL competes directly with Residents within the SL economy, you ultimately wind up shrinking the economy. Nautilus, Bay City, and Linden Homes are examples of this. Instead of competing with your SL merchants and land barons, you should be developing tools to help them, starting with a better and more robust permissions system and a better process for detecting, reporting, investigating, and resolving content theft.

Here is a short list of what we, the Residents, would like to see you concentrating on in the coming year.

1. Viewer improvements. The enormous popularity of Emerald clearly demonstrates the kind of features your Residents want…and it’s not a dumbed-down viewer, it’s one with more functionality.

2. Lag reduction. Upgrade your servers. Streamline the code. Deal with issues like the notorious sim freeze when Mono scripts arrive via incoming avatars. If you must impose script limits, target the worst offenders…like resizer scripts in every prim of an avatar’s hair or jewelry.

3. Improved content protection. More vigilance in catching and punishing content theft. Improved permissions system, especially for things like textures and scripts that are often incorporated in another product and re-sold.

4. Avatar improvements. We want a better avatar mesh. Better facial expressions. More versatile body morphing. True transparency in the mesh. More flexibility in clothing layers. And one you can do right now, with a simple XML file mod…duplicate Emerald’s secondary attachment points.

5. Improved resident to resident and resident – LL communications. Closing the XStreet forums and the SL VBulletin forums was a move in the wrong direction. The new blogs are not forums, and their format does not support the development of a dedicated forum community. Such communities are an invaluable resource and need to be nurtured and encouraged. You need a better way to collect Resident suggestions and feedback. I would suggest something like the old forum polls, but with the polls coming from you, LL. Office hours don’t allow a large enough cross section of Residents, and feedback via forum or blog threads is too cumbersome to wade through. And, when you talk to us, please learn how to speak in plain , unambiguous English. Corporate weasel-wording does not promote user confidence or trust. Case in point: Creating a new position of “Conversations Manager” immediately prior to eliminating the primary means of carrying on conversations.

6. Improved in world communication tools. In many cases, this means adding the ability to turn OFF communications when desired. Being able to temporarily disable group chat and notices. Improving “Busy” mode to allow content creators some peace and quiet. Add the ability to send a notecard to a group of residents by Shift+click selection in the Friends list or the Calling Card folder. Add the ability to open a conference IM by clicking multiple avatars. Add features like basic text formatting to Notecards. Make them directly exportable into, say, WordPad. Here’s a business-related improvement for you: add support for PowerPoint files.

7. Improved New User Experience. Take back the Infohubs! Develop and implement more community gateways of the caliber of Caledon Oxbridge, or Virtual Ability. Sites with real helpers present, 24/7. Sites that feature in world moderators, with eject/ban powers. Second Life is not for everyone. As a Mentor, I met many people who were really looking for an MMORPG, or a FaceBook. I knew they would not stay long. But I met countless others willing to give this virtual world thing a try. If you can show that audience what SL is all about, what it can be for them, you will see the user base grow steadily.

We need these things. SL needs these things. We need them a lot more than we need a FaceBook tie-in or a free cottage. Your bottom line will thank you.

Lindal Kidd

I know that the handful of you who occasionally read this blog aren’t really forum readers, but if you are so inclined, go to Lindal’s thread and add your thoughts to the comments. Before it’s too late and the forums are gone for good.

On a personal note, I read a lot in the forums but rarely post. However, the inworld group associated with the forums is one that has offered friendship, fellowship, support, and hope for most of my time in Second Life. The community that grew out of those forums means a great deal to me, and I’m deeply saddened to see the lab shutting them down in order to further their aim of making resident communication more predictable. We need to communicate and build community, not to be safe and predictable for the lab’s convenience.

Botgirl Questi wrote a thought-provoking Virtual Property Rights Manifesto over on her blog. Go on, read. Trust me, it’s a better use of your time than this blog is, and this one will still be here when you’re done. It stirred some good discussion both there in the comments as well as on Chesnut Rau’s Plurk.

On Plurk, I proved once more that I’m far too long-winded for discussions on a microblogging service, so I thought I would bring my thoughts over here. Essentially, Botgirl’s position boils down to saying that she purchased it in Second Life, so she ought to be able to back it up to her hard drive and use it in other grids. And my position is that there are really 3 very separate issues here:

  1. The ability to back up the objects you purchased in Second Life.
  2. The ability to take those objects to other grids.
  3. The ability to resell those objects.

The problem is that the same tools that are used for one are used for all three, so discussion of all three always seems to gets muddled. Beyond the toolset, though, I’m not sure that there’s much overlap in the three issues, so I’ll take a quick peek at all three.

Backing Up Your Stuff

We’ve been taught, as computer users, to back up our stuff. Most of us have learned as a result of a not so pleasant experience how important backing up our data is. Many of us have learned the hard way that the Second Life asset system is not always reliable. So it’s understandable that we want to be able to make backups of things that we either spend hard-earned Linden on, or spent hours building.

Of course, there’s no provision built into the official client to back up your stuff. When I had Emerald installed, I looked at the export function, and it seemed like a really good way to get your object geometry out as a backup. But that functionality is limited to stuff that you created (or possibly things that are full perm — I’m not reinstalling Emerald just to check, but I’m sure one of the many Emerald users I know will clarify this one for me). At any rate, there seems to be no ethical debate about whether it’s OK to export objects you created. They’re your creations, after all. But the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a backup mechanism that retrieves an object with its metadata intact stinks. I would love to be able to back up my copiable objects. I ought to be able retrieve them from the backup medium as copiable objects, with the creator name and perms intact.

I’m surprised there isn’t more demand for this. Perhaps there is more demand than people realize and that’s why so many turn to copybots. Unfortunately, since copybot is a “bad word,” use of one is assumed to automatically be for evil purposes, so there is no way to know how much legitimately attempted backing up is really occurring.

Taking Your Stuff With You

You buy a copyable item. The creator indicated it was OK to copy it. Does that mean it’s OK to take a copy to another grid? I would say that’s up to the creator. What did the creator intend when he or she sold it to you? There’s no way to tell, unless the creator is one of the rare ones who actually includes a notecard that explicitly says one way another whether it’s all right to use their creation on other grids.

It gets even more complicated when you consider the components of your content. A creator has to be sure that all of the pieces and parts that they licensed for use were licensed to be used on other grids. What about that sculpt map they bought? The texture? They bought it full perm. They don’t have the right to decide where it goes, the original creator who they bought it from had a EULA that the object creator needs to abide by.

Think I’m going overboard? I have a lovely picture in my garden home in Harbour by an artist who left Deviant Art over being incessantly ripped off. I have written permission from the artist to use the image in Second Life. I have am under no  illusion that I now have the right to use that picture prim on other grids. To tell myself otherwise is justifying infringing on that artist’s intellectual property rights.

The simple way to solve much of this would be to add a permissions flag. In other words, full perms would be something like MCTG. A simple check box to let creators give or not give permission to take objects to other grids. Simple, except of course it would require the Lab to do something about it. I can’t see that they’re going to feel terribly motivated to do that work when the lack of content on competing grids is part of what keeps people from being very interested in them. No reason to make it easier on the competition, is there?

So in the meantime, I tend to default to looking at content as a license, the same way I do software. I guess that’s why I’m always amused when people say “I bought it. It’s mine. I can do with it what I want!” Tell that to Microsoft about that copy of Excel. Microsoft makes it pretty clear you are only supposed to install Excel on one computer. Why isn’t it clearer that stuff you purchase license to use on a grid stays on a grid? Maybe we need a plain-English TOS.

Selling  Copied Stuff

No discussion about backing up and copying your virtual stuff would ever be complete without mentioning selling — or giving away — stuff you used some mechanism to back up or copy. That’s always where this discussion inevitably leads: “You’re stealing our livelihood!” So, for the record, making copies of other people’s creations and selling them either on the same grid or other grids is bad, period. If you didn’t create it or license it with an understanding from the creator that it was for resale, then you have a hole in your ethics.

Meanwhile, let’s try to remember as the issue of backing up and copying becomes more and more hotly contested that this discussion is made up of a lot of smaller issues, and they can’t be looked at as a whole. It’s not all “ZOMG Copybot!” but it’s not all “share and share alike,” either.

The folks who moved to Zindra are Not Happy. From their perspective, those who obeyed the rules and moved to Zindra are now invisible to the common man’s searches, while those who didn’t obey the rules are getting extra business because they are more visible to the rest of SL.

Couldbe Yue suggested in the official forums that an Adult Search check box be added to search even for non-verified accounts. I took a deep breath and shared my perspective as someone who doesn’t really have any interest in hanging out in Zindra, since I suspect that the folks advocating this really don’t see what I do.

I posted:

I don’t normally say much on the forums, and I certainly don’t say much that is controversial, so I might be sorry for this post, but here goes nothing…

There’s something that the folks in Zindra probably don’t realize… what those non-prudes who are happily not in Zindra have perceived through this whole sordid mess. I never considered myself a person who wanted adult content gone, but I have to say that the entire process has been an interesting eye-opener.

First came the ill-conceived announcement that adult content would be shoved off to one corner of the grid and filtered from search. Personally, I liked the idea of filtered search (if I search for roses, I don’t want to have to wade through half the search results being BDSM locations to find sculpty roses; it’s inefficient). I liked the idea that I might be able to reliably buy a parcel of mainland without having a slave trader buy the parcel next door. But I thought that opening new non-adult areas would have been more logical. Obviously, that wasn’t on the table.

Next came the protests. Not only on the blogs, but all over inworld. I saw more gratuitous nudity than I had seen in my previous two years in SL. Those of you who were sowing your wild oats while you still could by flaunting around the whole of the mainland nude, blaring about your adult content-ness, got hard to ignore. I personally feel that when I have an obligation to a group, I should not mute its members inworld, so I had to just put up with it. Your world, your sexuality, in my face gets pretty old after the umpteenth time.

Finally, the rules, as poorly devised as they may have been, came into effect. And you know what? When I search for “rose” now, I find pages upon pages of search results of either flowers or avatar names. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t defend LL, but my search results really are more “predictable” than they used to be. And as a bonus, I’m not seeing anywhere near the level of “acting out” and seeing as much public nudity in inappropriate places as I was before. The system obviously isn’t perfect, since those of you who have followed the rules are seeing people ignoring them. But maybe it’s the searches I’m doing (or not doing)… but I’m not running across the non-compliance you are complaining about.

All that was not to get you riled up. Rather, it’s to share a perspective that to the average user like me that this process actually worked…. and I suspect that going to cause some serious inertia on the part of LL to making additional changes, even small ones like adding a check box in search.

I’ve been following this thread with interest, and I’m curious, Couldbe, could you clarify this:

Originally Posted by Couldbe Yue
I can only think that by allowing everyone a glimpse of what is there it will:
a. make it easier to convince those not complying to comply

Do you think they’re more likely to comply if they think that the non-verifieds will see their content in search? Why would they be any more less likely to attempt to game the system if there was still a non-adult search to be gamed? I guess I’m dense, but I’m not getting it. And if I don’t, the rest of us who live outside the Zindrasphere might not, either.

I was silent on this blog a long time, including through the whole Zindra implementation, so I never spoke up about my opinions on the subject at the time. But what I saw was a poorly-conceived policy on the part of the Lindens, poorly-executed “protests” on the part of the people who felt they were going to be marginalized, followed by intense relief that the most public part of the chaos was over by those of us who didn’t have a direct stake in things. The intense relief part is the part that I think that those within the Zindrasphere may not be aware of… and could be their biggest enemy in trying to enact additional changes.