Personal Perspective: The End of the Second Life Community Convention

[Author's note: I meant to post this yesterday so folks wouldn't be left wondering what happened with SLCC, but as you may have read if you follow me on Twitter or elsewhere, my kitty Beanie died in a horrible, tragic accident yesterday, and I'm afraid all thoughts of SLCC went right out of my mind.  So, I'm sorry for the late posting, but if you have a bunch of mean nasty things to say in response, please, post them somewhere else.  I'm not up for being flamed today.]

You may have read the official announcement that AvaCon is not organizing a Second Life Community Convention this year.  This post is not an official anything, it’s just one person’s opinion and personal perspective.  I knew how I felt about organizing another SLCC after last year, but I remained silent on the question about this year to give the other organizers an opportunity to communicate whatever they ultimately decided to do.  Now that they’ve done so, I feel some obligation to address the questions from people who want to know what happened.

To be clear, this is purely my own opinion / interpretation / understanding of events and doesn’t represent the position or opinion of AvaCon or the Board or any other organization or person I work with.  I didn’t run this post by them or Linden Lab, and I hope I don’t get sued or something, but considering the nature of SLCC as a user-led community event, I think the Second Life userbase has an important interest in hearing fair comments and criticism from one former organizer of SLCC about what she thinks happened.

The tl;dr short answer of why there is no SLCC this year is because Linden Lab opted not to sponsor one.  

I can’t say I was completely surprised considering the meeting we had with Linden Lab at their offices after SLCC last year. Instead of being treated like valuable customers who had just volunteered months of our lives working for no pay to organize a fan event for their product, we basically got chewed out for not producing the equivalent of BlizzCon. Seriously, that’s what they said.  (Note to Linden Lab, if you want BlizzCon, you have to pay for it – BlizzCon had a budget in the millions.)

I’m sure it was easier for them to blame us than to face what I think is the reality of the situation: Second Life isn’t the draw it once was. The fact is, the number of people willing to pay to fly to a real world location to discuss it has dwindled over the years. As the number got smaller, the costs went up, which meant fewer people could afford to come, which.. the very definition of a vicious cycle.

I know many people have criticized us about the costs of the convention, but I swear to you that we did absolutely everything we could to keep costs down.  To try to help counteract the declining attendance, we came up with strategies to encourage attendance (like the bi-coastal convention plan), and even tried to talk to Linden Lab about how they and we could help turn things around into a virtuous cycle instead – but I honestly don’t think they took us seriously nor did the team we met with last year seem to feel that SLCC was an important investment for them.

And for us, at the end of the day, hosting a multi-day, extremely tech heavy conference that is simultaneously streamed in-world is very expensive – even last year it was almost on the edge of being unsustainable given the resources we had, without their support, I thought it was simply too much of a financial risk for AvaCon to take.

In my opinion, if Linden Lab had been more responsive, had helped better market THE premier annual event celebrating their own product, or made it their number one priority to interact in a positive way with their most passionate userbase (thereby leading more people to want to attend), I think things might have been different.

But they didn’t. As with the Second Life birthdays and other events that used to receive their support, they basically said AvaCon could use the name but we were on our own. As I understood it, there would be no financial support, no sims, no marketing, and no participation from them.  Given that, it didn’t seem like another SLCC was feasible to me.

That’s the easy answer.  The longer answer of why there isn’t an SLCC this year is more complicated than that.

I’m sure many folks are thinking, well, they did that with the SL Birthdays this year too and the community managed to pull that off and even did a really great job even without Linden Lab’s help.  That may be true (and congrats to the SLB team!), but I’m not sure people ever appreciated all the differences between organizing a real life event compared to a virtual one.

I’ve done both and I can’t tell you how much more complicated things are when you’re dealing with not just the event itself, but all the physical things that surround it – planning for people’s travel, hotel accommodations, meals, after hours entertainment, wheelchair and other accessibility issues – and that’s before you even get to the event itself.  For that you have to line up venues, internet access, the tech and audio and cameras to stream all the rooms and performances in-world, and work with the hotel or other venue to accommodate all of the non-standard stuff that SLCC folks like to do like the Art-athon.  And once you get that all sorted, then there’s the content of the program – the speakers, the schedule, trying to make sure to include all the diversity of Second Life.

And don’t forget, we were never organizing just one event, we were also doing the simultaneously in-world program too!  So for all those folks who just worked so hard on SLB9 – imagine all that hard work PLUS a real world event that is about 10 times as much work AND you’re legally liable for being sued if something goes wrong.

Still, even with all that, and even without Linden Lab’s support, you may think we still should have tried.  Maybe we should have, but we also couldn’t ignore the other half of the equation – which is the Second Life community itself.

You guys are not always easy to work with or for.  I’m not sure some people ever understood that we are NOT Linden Lab, we don’t have Linden Lab’s financial resource or people resources.  We do not even get paid for any of this work.  We’re just volunteers, regular Second Life users, just like you.  We have jobs (actually some of us lost our jobs), and families (several of us are dealing with very ill family members), and other things and people in our lives that also need our attention.

But people weren’t very understanding or sympathetic about that, in fact lots of people seemed to feel entitled to our efforts, like we owe the community our hard work.  Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but we don’t.  This was a volunteer labor of love, and while some folks appreciated that and were supportive and kind, lots of people simply weren’t.  In fact, lots of people were the opposite of that.

So at least for me, when I was thinking about doing SLCC again after last year, I had a lot of reasons NOT to do it again that had nothing to do with Linden Lab at all.  I’ll rattle some off in no particular order:

  • A very vocal contingent of the Second Life community is pretty darned mean.  Some of the “celebrities” and thought leaders in Second Life seem to really enjoy trashing the event (and by extension the people organizing it).  Maybe it gave them lots of page views, I don’t know, but it definitely had a negative ripple effect that discourages people from attending, discourages other people from wanting to help out, and demoralizes everyone working so hard to make something good happen.  Who wants to be the target of that kind of Crap?  No one.  I’d guess some folks are right this very moment pointing gleefully at how it has failed, feeling no responsibility for how their own actions contributed to that end result.  But they are partly responsible. If folks had been a little kinder to those of us who worked very hard to do something positive for the community, maybe we would have felt like forging ahead instead of feeling like no good deed goes unpunished.
  • Griefers and lawsuits make the risk not worth it. Real life conferences are fraught with legal liability and the conference organizers take on _ALL_ of the financial and legal risk for holding them. Linden Lab wasn’t on the hook if something went wrong or someone got hurt, WE were. Last year’s shenanigans put us in an extremely difficult position – we were forced to deal with people’s personal vendettas against each other (!), threats of harm against other attendees (!!), vandalizing of sponsors’ booths (!!!), and even threats of lawsuits (!!!!).  At some point you have to ask yourself, is it really worth this much grief? The answer for me is no, especially if people’s physical safety is at risk.  If people had been more respectful of the legal liabilities AvaCon and its members were _personally_ taking on the community’s behalf, things might have been different.
  • People like to complain more than they like to volunteer. Don’t get me wrong, the people who did volunteer were amazing, wonderful, unbelievably hard working, and deserve far more thanks than they ever got (and let me say again to you – you know who you are – thank you, thank you, thank you and I’m sorry you’ve been left hanging). But there just weren’t enough volunteers to cover all the bases without requiring some people to basically have no life outside of SLCC for months on end – and that’s not sustainable or fair for anyone.  If more people had been willing to volunteer, things might have been different.
  • Everyone thinks they could do it better and cheaper, few of them have any idea what it really costs in time or money or how hard it is to herd this bunch of cats.  Second Life is a microcosm of the (future of the) internet – so many diverse use cases that it’s very very complicated to create the kind of experience that professional academics, sex bed makers, musicians, roleplayers, government agencies, random people from the internet, artists, and both corporate and small business people all in the same room together will want to have. Expectations varied wildly – the business people and academics, who made up at least 60-70% of ticket sales, expected a professional hotel and environment, while the roleplayers and musicians might have been just as happy in a bar somewhere.  Trying to accommodate everyone’s expectations, needs, and desires was very hard to do cheaply – and it often felt that we could please no one in an attempt to please everyone – or even anyone.  Add to that the actual costs in man hours and money, and I promise you, it isn’t as easy as you think it is.   If people had been more reasonable in their expectations of an all volunteer team working with an extremely tight budget, things might have been different.
  • Those who couldn’t come always felt left out. As hard as we tried to make the in-world part of SLCC a compelling experience, our focus always was and had to be the in-person event. That’s what people were paying for and that was the whole point of SLCC in the first place – to come together in real life to share the excitement, passion, and energy we feel about the virtual. Unfortunately, many Second Life users couldn’t afford to attend the in-person event, and that caused a lot of resentment and anger that became increasingly difficult to deal with. The fact is, the people who paid to come to SLCC were the ones financing the in-world event, too! We never charged in-world attendees for all the extra overhead and costs required to stream, record, and put on a simultaneously virtual program and believe me, those costs were not insignificant! Despite our best efforts be inclusive, many people felt left out no matter what we did.  If the in-world community had been more supportive, or willing to help share the costs, perhaps things would have been different.

That’s it in a nutshell, the straight scoop.

When I came to the fork in the road and had to make a decision – was I in or was I out – I’m afraid I just didn’t have it in me anymore.  I was out.  Try to see it from my perspective,  if the company itself didn’t care enough about the community to support it, why should I or a handful of other people put in enormous amounts of work, at great personal cost and legal risk, to put on an event that could never live up to impossible expectations, all while being constantly second guessed and vilified by the chattering classes?

The answer I came to is – we shouldn’t.

These kinds of community events require many things to be successful – but a company and a community that is actually supportive instead of antagonistic is essential.

AvaCon ended up caught in the middle of ugliness from both sides. The anger people felt about Linden Lab was often erroneously directed at us, and Linden Lab itself never seemed to value how special it is to have a community that _wants_ to organize an event about their product.  Many individual staffers from the Lab were absolutely wonderful (you guys know who you are, too, and thank you for all your efforts on the community’s behalf), but on the whole, it always seemed like Linden Lab felt we owed them something instead of the other way around – as if communicating with the people who loved their product the most was some pain in the ass burden instead of a crucial and important opportunity.

I’m sure I/we made mis-steps along the way, but all I can say is I did my best.  I honestly, genuinely, sincerely tried very very hard to have SLCC be a grassroots, truly community led experience that showcased the diversity and creativity of Second Life’s userbase. I hope SLCC was, on the whole, a good experience for lots of people, but after many years of hard work and more grief than anyone should take for a volunteer activity, I decided to put my own life and my own family’s needs first for a change.

Some people may be wondering, if that was the case, then why didn’t someone speak up before now?  I was just one of a team, and once I let them know I was out for the next year, I stepped away from the day-to-day stuff, in part because I’ve been very busy since last fall helping care for my grandmother who has Alzheimer’s.  What happened after I bowed out of the decision-making, or what the other organizers thought or did or why they decided not to continue either is not my story to tell.  But I don’t think you should be angry at them.  Disappointed – ok; sad – well, I’m sad too, honestly; but you shouldn’t be angry.

It takes willing partners on all sides of the equation to pull something like this off, and this year, it just wasn’t there.

So what happens now?  I have no idea.  I’m not sure if this is the end of SLCC or not, but I also have to be honest that for me, my eight year love affair with the platform is over.  I devoted enormous amounts of time and energy not just to SLCC, but also other conferences and events and communities like Chilbo, I convinced my university to become involved and it still makes up a big part of my real job, and I’ve paid full tier for a very long time.  But Second Life is no longer moving in the direction I think it should be.

The thing that inspires so many of us is the concept of the Metaverse, an open, freewheeling 3D internet, full of amazing experiences and opportunities – but Second Life is not that.

It is not open. It is not free or even reasonably priced, in fact, it’s ridiculously expensive. The experiences that were amazing and cutting edge in 2003 or 2006 are no longer either, the technology has stagnated.   And the opportunity for profit, or creativity, or fulfilling your real world mission is limited by a shrinking user base, constant changes in direction and management, canceled programs, bad policies, and the simple fact that you can’t “own” anything you create if it’s locked on their servers.  As sad as it makes me, I honestly believe the story of Linden Lab and Second Life is the perfect case study of how to screw up your competitive edge while screwing your most passionate userbase.

And based on what I’ve seen from Linden Lab, I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon, either.  I think at this point they are just milking a cash cow, and that cow is you and me.  I’m not sure I think Second Life even deserves to have a user convention anymore, and I definitely think that passionate community who wants to see the Metaverse of our imaginations become a reality should should focus on more than just one platform.

I have moved on, and personally, I think AvaCon should as well.

 

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65 comments

  1. Thanks so much, everyone, for your kind thoughts. It is good to know that something I helped start has touched some many kind souls…even with the bad eggs along the way. It makes it all worth while, and I’m sure Fleep would agree with me on that.

  2. Interesting thoughts – I’ve thought for a while that doing SLCC-like unconference style might be the way to go. Here’s the hotel, show up, we’ll overtake the local bars and restaurants, period. Hell, if it were in Philly, I could get us a free open bar. Is there really interest in something like this?

  3. @FlipperPA – it absolutely works. I helped organize one like that for the residents of Caledon in 2008. Ten of us descended upon Stratford, Ontario, Canada and took over a small hotel. We had a dinner and dance party one night and streamed the video of us into SL, and then projected the SL party on the wall. I DJd the event(s) and we all partied together in both worlds.

    We had a few planned “sessions”, but for the most part we hung out and went pub crawling. It was most definitely one of the highlights of my 6 years in SL. I highly recommend that people do something like that regionally if they can.

  4. @Gabrielle: I helped run BarCamp Philly last year, an unconference with 425 people in attendance. It was absolutely fantastic. I think the virtual worlds community could really run with that ball!

  5. Shirley Marquez

    An unconference would be a lot of fun, but it wouldn’t address exactly the same set of needs and interests as a more formal conference.

    Advantages of the unconference:

    Much lower costs. I’ve been involved with BarCamp Boston for the past three years and it’s totally free for attendees; the space was donated and what was needed for the modest remaining costs was raised from sponsors. If we could get a suitable space donation (the first BarCamp I attended was at MIT and the latest two were at the Microsoft N.E.R.D. – both of which had gobs of internet bandwidth available) it could be done quite cheaply.

    More variety of presentations. An unconference usually has a variety of things going on: some formal presentations, some workshops, some informal discussions.

    There is lots of informal interaction: people running into each other in the halls, negotiation of conference sessions to run, and so forth.

    Disadvantages:

    Because of the somewhat nebulous nature of an unconference, it’s unlikely that many employers would sponsor attendance.

    Some attendees might not be comfortable with the loose nature of an unconference.

    The kinds of locations I have in mind are not hotels or convention centers. For an unconference that does not have a strictly local focus, the organizers would have to line up hotel space for attendees who are not local. On the one hand, since those hotels would not be receiving money from the unconference for functions they might not offer good room rates; against that, the unconference could work with hotels that are not suitable to host a conference (few or no meeting rooms, etc), and those are usually cheaper.

    If you use a scenario where the conference space is not a hotel or attached convention center, nobody can just roll out of bed to attend. All attendees will probably have to travel a bit to get to the sessions.

    One condition that would be essential for such a thing to fly: it would have to be an inclusive metaverse conference that did not use the name of any specific commercial virtual world or emphasize one in its promotions. The places that would donate well connected locations for an unconference would not be interested if it looked like it was a promotional event for a specific commercial entity.

  6. Cool, nice to hear BarCamp Boston runs well…so does BarCamp Philly. I provided free space at my institution last year (The Wharton School, entire second floor of Huntsman Hall – really nice space), and it worked out great for 425 attendees. I could certainly look in to space for an alt-VWCC type thing, but would want someone else to organize everything but the space. There are also plenty of cheap hotels around U Penn’s campus (in the $125 – $150 a night range).