Jan 14

How Do We “Immunize” Society Against Technology Futures We DON’T Want?

Recently The Guardian published an interesting critique of the TED Talks series by Benjamin Bratton that I’ve been thinking about since I read it.   The piece asks what good does it do for TED to take extremely complex topics and boil them down into 20 minute presentations, which are viewed as infotainment by a certain segment of people, and then not much gets done about the issues being discussed.  I think it’s an interesting critique, and as someone who organizes technology conferences, I often worry that if we all just come and do a lot of talking and not much afterwards, what purpose has the conference really served?  I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts.

Beyond the critique of TED Talks, however, there were two lines in particular that really struck me:

Because, if a problem is in fact endemic to a system, then the exponential effects of Moore’s law also serve to amplify what’s broken.

And the concept of not just innovating but also “immunizing” society:

The potential for these technologies are both wonderful and horrifying at the same time, and to make them serve good futures, design as “innovation” just isn’t a strong enough idea by itself. We need to talk more about design as “immunisation,” actively preventing certain potential “innovations” that we do not want from happening.

Regarding the exponential effects of Moore’s Law, I’ve written before that I think our public institutions (government, academia, social structures) aren’t just failing to keep pace with changes in technology, but that the technology itself is amplifying their (our) failures.  Wherever a gap existed before the information age, now it’s becoming a gulf (think income disparity, socio-economic mobility, access to real political power).

Whatever minor systemic failures or bureaucratic quagmires that crept in during the industrial age are turning into full-blown catastrophic disasters in the information age. See the US Congress or our public education system for stark examples, both represent not just a failure to adapt to a changing world, but technology is also amplifying the ills inherent in those systems with truly catastrophic results – a congress that has gone from dysfunctional to not functional at all, and a public school system that is failing the very students it was designed to help – the poor, the underserved, the first-generation students.

We talk and read about “disruptive innovation” every day in the tech and business press, but often its in the context of “creative destruction” as some new business model or product displaces an old one, and in general that’s seen as a positive outcome in a “free” market system.  But for public systems and institutions, those public goods that have no profit or market incentive, this amplification of the broken is really very scary to me and I am not at all convinced that privatization of public systems is the answer (which is why I don’t support charter schools or for-profit education businesses, no matter how innovative they promise to be – MOOCx blah blah blah).

The most important things in life can’t be quantified in dollars and we can’t “innovate” a business model or technology solution that changes that basic fact.

So where does that leave us?  I’m not sure, but I’m intrigued by Bratton’s concept of “immunizing” society against the futures we don’t want, and I’m wondering just how we might go about doing that.  Bratton says:

Problems are not “puzzles” to be solved. That metaphor assumes that all the necessary pieces are already on the table, they just need to be rearranged and reprogrammed. It’s not true.  “Innovation” defined as moving the pieces around and adding more processing power is not some Big Idea that will disrupt a broken status quo: that precisely is the broken status quo.

.. and I’m inclined to agree.  I think those of us who consider ourselves technology evangelists and futurists need to think long and hard about these questions.

As a practical step, perhaps one way to help “immunize” society against the technology futures we don’t want would be to make sure that every talk we give, every presentation, every slide deck (or Prezi or whatever), every workshop has a section about possible NEGATIVE outcomes of the technology we’re talking about, and what we could or should do to avoid it?  If we’re going to spread the word about new tech, don’t we have a responsibility to also discuss the possible negative effects? Perhaps as conference organizers and workshop planners, we need to include not just positive visioning, activities, and keynotes, but  sessions that specifically talk about the possible negative outcomes?

I’m not sure, but it’s something I’m thinking about and want to keep in mind.

Oct 13

Fleep’s Reflections on the first annual OpenSimulator Community Conference 2013

Getting ready for OSCC, my avatar in a nice snapshot from Joyce.

A little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog post entitled Why Anyone Who Cares About the Metaverse Needs to Move Beyond Second Life; Now, Not Later.  The tl;dr version said, “If we want to see the metaverse happen in our lifetime, we need to invest our time, money, creativity, and resources into making it happen. It isn’t going to come from Second Life or Linden Lab, and the metaverse can’t wait.”  Shockingly to me, that post generated over a hundred comments, a bunch of blog posts, and a huge discussion that ultimately had more impact than even the act of writing the post itself.

It was the first time I’d publicly acknowledged my decision to mostly leave Second Life behind, and it may have been the first time I really crystallized even in my own mind why I felt that was the right thing to do.  It was not an easy decision to make, as anyone who has known me in real life or virtually over the last 7 or 8 years can attest.  It’s difficult to walk away from something you’ve made such a deep commitment and investment in, and it took many years and many disappointments, and the terribly hard (and sad) decision to stop organizing the Second Life Community Convention, before I was even capable of stepping back enough to get a little perspective.

I won’t rehash that post here, you should go read it if you’re interested, but by the fall of 2012 I had finally reached the conclusion that the metaverse I wanted to see would not grow out of Second Life.  And I resolved to take my own advice and start finding ways to invest my time and energy into other technologies, platforms, and people who share the same passion and vision for making the metaverse a reality that I have.  I felt the need to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak, and to not just talk about what we should do differently, but to actually start doing differently.

So that’s the context and history of where I was when a few months later I began to broach the topic of an OpenSimulator focused virtual conference with the board of AvaCon and with members of the Overte team.  The members of AvaCon had been involved with organizing SLCC for many, many years, even before AvaCon itself came into existence, and we had a wealth of experience organizing large scale real and virtual events.  And it seemed to me that the OpenSimulator platform was progressing and maturing in ever faster and more stable iterations over the past few years, so perhaps the time was right for AvaCon to take the energy and experience we’d previously brought to Second Life focused community events and try to offer that to the OpenSimulator community, if there was any interest…

 Organizing people & organizing code aren’t the same thing, but they both have to work really well for a completely virtual conference to be successful.

Now it’s a funny thing when you bring together a group of community builders who tend to be very people focused and a group of programmers and developers who tend to be very code focused.  That isn’t to say that either group didn’t know or care about the other side of the equation, of course we did, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that initially AvaCon and Overte were coming from very different perspectives and cultures and ways of thinking about and doing things, and those first meetings were really all about trying to come to a meeting of the minds about what we hoped to accomplish if we were going to collaborate with one another to organize an event.

The OSCC Conference Planning Team at a meeting on the conference grid.

For any of you who have been working in the metaverse for a while, you know how tentative those first steps of working with a new group of people you’ve never met in-person can be.  Even in real world projects, there’s always that period where the initial enthusiasm for a new project or idea starts to wear off, when you begin to get down into the nitty gritty of making something happen, and suddenly you’re not quite sure if you’re going to be able to pull it off.  And that’s only exacerbated when you’re working with people entirely virtually and you’ve never met face to face and you can’t look into each other’s eyes and read the body language and all the unspoken messages we send.    For all the advancements in virtual world technology we’ve seen come to pass in the last decade, that’s an area where the technology is still woefully, woefully inadequate.

And so it was with Overte and AvaCon.  I wouldn’t say things started off distrustfully, but rather that I think we were just trying to feel each other out, both on an organizational level and on a personal level.  Who were the individual people and what were their motivations and goals?  What kinds of processes did Overte use to get things done and how would that mesh with how we at AvaCon did things?  And we discovered that there were some culture.. clashes, for want of a better word, or maybe just different perspectives and approaches.

Open source projects tend to value action over talk (let me see your code) and the issues being resolved in software development tend to be a little more clear cut. There may be more than one path to reach the desired destination, but something either technically works or it doesn’t – you can either log in or you can’t, the packet got sent or it didn’t – there’s less mushy middle.  And by their very nature, open source software development projects are fairly decentralized and count on individuals taking the initiative to make contributions when and where they can, often asynchronously, and perhaps with little coordination with others beyond some comments in the code.

Conference organizing, on the other hand, is a beast of a very a different nature.  It’s an extremely communication-intensive process that requires much advance planning and centralized decision-making.  The right hand really must know what the left hand is doing, otherwise people get confused and processes get all tangled up and before you know it your event has a bad reputation before it even gets off the ground.  It also involves a lot of softer, mushy, people-n-politics type negotiation that isn’t always as clear cut as solving a technical problem.  What’s fair?  What’s just?  What’s the best way to resolve a dispute?  What are people feeling and what do we want them to feel when they attend the conference?  How do we want people to behave, and what happens if they don’t?  Those things come up when you’re organizing an event with and for many hundreds of people and they involve making intuitive, moral, and ethical decisions as much as process or technical decisions.

For sure, organizing people and organizing code often requires different skill-sets, and in an event like OSCC where we needed both to mesh together well to have a good experience – the grid had to perform well and the people attending needed to know where to go and what to do and how to do it – I think it challenged us all to figure out the best way to make that happen.

How developers & users communicate with each other matters – a lot!

I mention these things not to highlight the differences between AvaCon and Overte.  In fact, I think we all came to very deeply respect each other and the tremendous skills, commitment, and passion everyone contributed to make the event a success.  But rather because I think there’s a nugget of something important in the experience both groups had in learning to work with each other, in learning to respect the strengths and weaknesses of our different approaches for organizing code and organizing people, that is relevant to the broader topic of technology platforms and the communities of developers and users that grow up around them.

The Developer & Open Source track was heavily attended, this image is of Mic Bowman, Justin Clark-Casey, and Crista Lopes talking about the future of the Hypergrid.

There’s often this feeling of disconnect between the developers who write the software and the user communities of any platform you care to think of, that I think has something to do with those different mindsets, different skills, different approaches. And I think there’s some critically important .. ingredient.. in how those groups communicate with each other that makes all the difference between a healthy, growing, vibrant technology or platform, and a technology or platform that has an unhealthy community dynamic, or begins to stagnate, or fails to meet the needs of a critical mass of users.

It has something to do with the people involved being willing or able to negotiate through some of those different approaches, of being willing to have at least a little bit of good faith that the other party has good intentions, of being willing to extend a little trust.  I’m not exactly sure when that got broken in Second Life, but it definitely did, and after that, trying to organize a community event in an atmosphere of anger and distrust and resentment was a stressful, hellish experience, at least for me, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what made things so different.

It wasn’t that the people who presented at SLCC weren’t as knowledgeable or insightful as the presenters at OSCC, they totally were.  It wasn’t that SLCC volunteers didn’t work as crazy hard as the volunteers at OSCC, they totally did.  It wasn’t even that the vast majority of SLCC attendees weren’t as passionate about Second Life as OSCC attendees were about OpenSimulator, they totally are.  But somehow, the communication and dynamic between the developers and the community wasn’t good, and it left an undercurrent running through SLCC that no amount of good organization could overcome.  As I wrote then about SLCC:  “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.”

Fortunately, the experience of organizing OSCC was refreshingly different.  I won’t say it was any less stressful on some level, or that it required any less hard work, but the outcome is so amazingly, amazingly different when you have developers who want to brainstorm with users and each other, when you have a community who wants to talk with one another, when people come to the event with the anticipation of sharing, exploring, and networking instead of complaining, griping, and arguing.  There’s just no comparison.  It renewed my faith that there’s something valuable and important in bringing together the people who write the code and the people who use the code that, if done well, can have a tremendously positive impact on not just the technology or platform itself, but in inspiring people to keep trying, to keep creating, and to keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

 Conferences can be great catalysts, but only with the right ingredients.

Even though I’ve been organizing conferences for many years, the experience of organizing OSCC helped me better understand what it takes for a conference to be a true catalyst for something beyond the event. Every conference gives you a due date, a framework for a community to focus their energies on a specific goal, and that in and of itself can be an important catalyst.  I think it was in terms of the improvements made to the OpenSimulator software, for example.  The developers and load testers worked week after week to discover the bugs and issues that would cause problems for the conference, and it had to be fixed by x date. All that effort led to over 1000+ code commits to the software that resulted in new features and better overall stability. (Be sure to check out the 0.7.6 Release to get all these great changes on your grid!)

But it takes more than just setting a date and having a goal, and it takes more than just having a good organizational structure or technology platform, too.

I’m absolutely certain that the work we put into the organization of the conference and to making changes to the platform were only the necessary-but-not-sufficient foundation, especially if I think about the differences between OSCC and SLCC.  We used many of the same organizational processes for OSCC that we used for SLCC. The website content was similar.  The schedule was similar.  The track topics were similar.  The technology, obviously, is very similar.  When you get right down to the heart of it, it wasn’t the conference infrastructure or the specific platform that made the difference at all, it was the people. It was every planning committee member, every speaker, every sponsor, every volunteer, every attendee who came to the table with the right attitude.  It was not just those of us doing the organizational work, but every person who put a little bit of their own hard work and passion and creativity into sharing and learning and discussing that made it one of the best conferences I’ve ever helped organize.

We really did have a great team of very dedicated and hardworking volunteer staff, and that definitely made a big difference in how smoothly the conference ran.

It was the very best example of a damned good pot of stone soup.  And it’s those many contributions by many people who are there for the right reasons that is the secret ingredient necessary to turn a conference experience into something transformative.  And in that regard, OSCC exceeded even my most optimistic hopes.

For future events, I want to put more time and effort into figuring out what those right reasons are and how to amplify that message.  Maybe it’s about setting the stage properly (metaphorically speaking, though Crista was right that there’s some element of paying attention to the interaction design that matters, too).  Maybe it’s about managing expectations.   I definitely think there was something about starting a brand new conference that meant people weren’t sure what to expect and that perhaps made them more open to having a positive experience than a conference like SLCC which had been going on for years and at times hadn’t been well managed.  Maybe it had something to do with the way the planning team communicated with the broader community.  Maybe it was just a serendipitous collision of all those things and good timing, I’m not quite sure.

But I think it matters.  I think these kinds of community building experiences and all the conversations they generate and information sharing that happens is critical to the long term goal of not just a better OpenSimulator but a better metaverse experience.

That’s not to say there weren’t things we could have done better, of course we made some mistakes, but in general the conference itself worked.  All those functional things came together; the grid stayed up, we largely stuck to the schedule, the presentations mostly went off without a hitch, and we had a terrific group of volunteers committed to making the event a success.  But it’s those intangible, harder to put your finger on things that really made it memorable, exciting,  and inspiring.

Keeping the momentum between conferences is the real key to making the Metaverse.

That spirit, that willingness to extend a little trust, to contribute to a larger effort, is what it will take for the metaverse to grow into what so many of us want it to be.  We need to keep tweaking our stone soup recipes, and finding ways to bridge those differences in approaches, and adapting the technology, as we did very deliberately with OSCC, to enable the human experiences we want the technology to facilitate.  It doesn’t just require good code or good people, it takes both, and those long, deep conversations, and the patience and perseverance to keep testing, and failing, and trying again, that we must do to keep figuring out new and better ways to translate our human needs and desires into code that better serves us.

The trick for this conference, for OpenSimulator, and for the metaverse at large will be to keep that momentum going.  To not lose touch with each other except at the annual conference, to continue to collaborate with one another, to keep the lines of communication open, to keep sharing and discussing.

How do we keep the momentum going between conferences?
Image:  One of the landing zones at OSCC13, by Zuza Ritt.

As I said to someone recently in an email, if I’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that it is so very easy to get lost in the weeds of  your own work and your own projects, but when we’re all doing that, we miss opportunities to collaborate and scale our efforts.  We end up all individually recreating the wheel.  OSCC reaffirmed for me that the value in an open source platform like OpenSimulator isn’t just the difference between the walled garden or not, the ability to archive or save content or not, the availability of this or that feature or not, but rather that the free flowing sharing of ideas and content with the right group of people with the right attitude has the potential to be an exponentially positive catalyst for growth.

That’s the main lesson I took home from OSCC13 and that’s the energy and focus I hope AvaCon will continue to foster as we move forward with our plans to develop better ways to support the people making the metaverse happen.  (Take the survey if you’re interested in providing feedback.)

I know I’ve said it before in other places, but truly, thanks to the team at Overte, to the entire Planning Committee and all the wonderful, wonderful volunteers, to all the load testers, to the student builders, to the OpenSimulator community and the developers who submitted a zillion bug fixes, to the viewer developers, to all the companies and individual people who sponsored the conference, to every single keynote speaker and presenter who gave us so many great things to talk and think about, to every single attendee who came to the conference and had patience and understanding for our imperfections, to everyone involved.  It was truly a community effort that reminded me why I got into doing this conference organizing stuff to begin with.

Thanks for renewing my faith.

Jul 12

Personal Perspective Part 2: Questions About SLCC

I have to say, I’ve been really.. surprised and overwhelmed by the response to my previous post about why there wasn’t a Second Life Community Convention this year.

I was afraid I’d get chewed out from here to kingdom come, but the responses have been far more thoughtful, reflective, kind, and understanding than I expected, and I’m really grateful for that.  I just want to say thank you to everyone who replied, who offered sympathy for my kitty, and for the kindness and care I saw not just in the comments on my blog, but in other places too.  It did my heart some good, and I really, really appreciate that. I’m sure the other organizers do as well.

I thought I’d try to address some of the specific questions and comments both on my own post and from the conversations I see taking place elsewhere.  Again, I’ll repeat my disclaimer from before – 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 consult with anyone else in writing this and my goal is to provide the Second Life community with some fair comment and criticism about the state of our user-based community convention.

About AvaCon’s Silence on the Problems

In my original post, I was obviously in a sort of “vent” mode, all these pent-up things came pouring out when I started writing and it was like the dam breaking. But please don’t think that I feel like I or AvaCon are completely blameless.  We made mistakes, for sure.  To be fair, the mistakes we made were largely innocent ones, the things you don’t figure out until you learn the hard way.  But of all of our mistakes, I feel like our biggest was in not better communicating some of these problems sooner.

Crap Mariner’s comment I think is a fair one, from Ciarian Laval’s post SLCC 2012 Looks Like It Will be Just Like Blizzcon 2012:

AvaCon and its people are all good folks, meaning well, and tried really hard to make it work, but they were screwed by the Lab at every turn, didn’t want to admit it or give up, tried to deal with increasingly bizarre and decreasingly supportive behavior and terms, and in the end were doomed by their own enthusiasm or refusal to give up on the Lab… all in silence and no communication with the people they were wanting to serve while calling for volunteer.

If only we had known, would we have shouted at the Lab to put up or shut up?

I guess all I can say is, it’s not that we didn’t want to communicate what was going on, but that we inherited something of a PR nightmare when we took the convention over, and our initial strategy was to hunker down and just try to do a good job.  I do not want to get all critical of The Future United folks, this organizing community conventions gig is a very complicated, very difficult, very thankless job for whoever does it, and I’m sure just like us, they did the best they could with the resources they had.  But I think it would be fair to say that by the time we (AvaCon) came into the picture, tensions were very very high and there was already a lot of resentment, anger, personal politics, and all sorts of fraught relationships between the convention and the community already.

At the time, we thought the best way to turn that ship around – given our lack of  financial resources and the short time frame – was to keep the format simple and try to execute it as flawlessly as possible.  Instead of getting mired in flamewars on SLuniverse, or endless dithering about which city, and who what when, we made some executive decisions based on our previous experience as track leaders and volunteers.  The hope was, if we could try to rise above some of the ugliness and get a couple years of not fancy or spectacular conventions, but _successful_ ones under our belt – to show the community that we were capable partners, trustworthy, and well meaning – then that would give us a foundation to build on.

That was the hope.  Obviously for many reasons, things didn’t turn out quite that way, and for that, I really am very sorry.   🙁

About the Name Itself – “Second Life” Community Convention

The first comment I want to address about the name comes from Yordie Sands, who commented on a post from Inara Pay entitled AvaCon declines SLCC 2012.  Yordie writes:

 Speaking from my personal interest, I’m only concerned with Second Life. So an actual Second Life Community is still very valid to me. I might be interested in a broader convention at some point in time, but if the group’s name is Second Life Community then they’ve defined themselves. just sayin

Yordie has a fair point, and I think reflects how many people feel – there may be some general interest in what other platforms are doing, but their main interest is still in and about Second Life.  I can understand that, but here’s the thing; the name “Second Life” is trademarked and that trademark is owned by Linden Lab.  I can’t speak to what happened when The Future United ran things (actually since I started this draft, FlipperPA Peregrine posted an excellent comment about his experience as a founder of SLCC), but for the two years that AvaCon organized the convention, we were unable to sign any contracts with hotels, plan any marketing campaigns, or really start planning or working on the convention at all until Linden Lab gave us a signed contract to use their trademark.  

Having the platform name in the convention name, while it makes sense in a “common sense” kind of way, gave Linden Lab an enormous amount of leverage over us and the convention.  We had to agree to all kinds of terms and conditions that did not sit well with us (like not being able to even mention other platforms, like giving them approval over the program, content, merchandise, and everything else) and deal with their time frames instead of what the community needed – simply in order to be able to use the name “Second Life”.

It completely hamstrung us.

Another related comment comes from Eboni Khan over on the SLUniverse forums, who writes:

 Every convention I have ever attended in a professional capacity announces the next location and dates at the end of the current convention. If there was more stability like this there could be more sponsorship. SLCC could skip a year and come back better than ever in 2013.

And similarly Grandma Bates writes in the same thread:

Most recurring events do this not just professional conferences. It is standard operating procedure to schedule a meeting during the conference with the board to take proposals and take a vote for who will take on the next event. Anything less is guaranteed to fail since every year you have a non-trivial probability for things to fall through when you do not have a serious commitment for the next event.

We always wanted to do exactly that, but both years AvaCon organized the convention, Linden Lab would only give us a contract to use the trademark until December 31st of whatever year the convention was in – not even a full year. So every year we had to re-negotiate anew, and every year they would hold up the process and we wouldn’t get a signed contract until late May, which led us to have to scramble like idiots to do everything in a few short months, and endure lots of (justified) irritation from the community that we didn’t give them earlier notice – because we couldn’t!

That was one of the non-negotiable terms for us after last year. We wanted a 2 year contract so we could make the bi-coastal convention plan a reality – so everyone would know in advance exactly when and where the convention would be held and we wouldn’t be left trying to plan, market, and execute everything in 12 ridiculously short weeks. But because of the name and trademark issues, we were stuck.


So, my first question to you guys:  Is the name “Second Life Community Convention” so crucial that you couldn’t live without it, even knowing that it means Linden Lab has complete legal control over every use of the term if it’s in the convention name?


There’s also another aspect of the name, besides the legal stuff, that also raised a lot of concerns.  As I alluded to in my original post, the folks who couldn’t come to the convention always felt left out, and some felt very angry that what we were calling the “Second Life Community Convention” wasn’t actually that since so many Second Life users couldn’t come.

Chimera Cosmos in front of the Help Wanted sign on SLCC11 boards.  Image courtesy Chimera Cosmos.

I think Kate Miranda on the SLED list best represented those who felt that way when she writes:

Well as I pointed out many times it wasn’t really an SL community conference. It was a US meet-up of some sub-section of SL community members, mainly Americans. […] Please don’t tell me about how it was possible to stream video content inworld and watch the cool kids at the conference. That is NOT participation.

While I often felt there was some element of sour grapes in that position (if I can’t have it, no one should), I think there’s a fair criticism in that calling it SLCC when not everyone could participate equally was a difficult and thorny problem.  Ideally, in my mind, we’d have had more in-world volunteers to help put on an equally full program of fully in-world events, too.  Instead of just streaming real life to Second Life, there’d be a full program in BOTH real world and in-world locations, and we’d be able to stream each to the other.  A truly mixed reality program where it wouldn’t matter which you attended.  But the sad truth is, we never had enough volunteers or time (see above re: the contract mess) or money to make that happen.  It could happen though, with more time and more planning, and especially if we weren’t stuck on the name/contract issues.


So my second question is, and especially to the in-world folks who can’t or don’t plan to ever attend in person:  If we had an event that had better equality of programming both in-world and out, would you be willing to help organize the in-world piece, and perhaps more importantly, would you be willing to help share the costs of all the tech for the streaming?


About the Money and the Cost of the Convention

Another issue that only became more problematic over time was the cost of the ticket itself.  As I described in my original post, at a certain point we entered the “vicious cycle” of declining attendance = higher prices = fewer people could afford to come = higher prices = to infinity.  That cycle would have to be broken to make any convention or event sustainable.

As Shirley Marquez, one of our most fabulous organizers and track leaders (hugs Shirley!), wrote in a comment on my other post:

When compared to a typical professional convention SLCC was cheap; those things often cost $1000 or more for a full convention pass. But hardly anybody actually pays for a professional convention pass out of their own pocket, and even the people who do (consultants and freelance workers) get to write the amount off their taxes as a business expense. Compared to a typical leisure convention (such as a science fiction convention) SLCC was expensive; a weekend SF convention typically costs $50-60. The fact that business and academic people were the bulk of the attendees is partly because people outside those categories looked at the cost, compared it to other things they might do, and passed.

[…] Dramatically increasing the non-professional attendance level of SLCC would have required a drastic price cut; I think we would have had to find a way to get it under $100 for the weekend. I’m not sure whether there was enough interest in the convention to get the number of attendees necessary to reach that price point, and it’s even more clear that the much larger number of volunteers that would have been needed was not available.

That’s a pretty fair comment and you should read her full comment to see what else she says about how typical fan conventions work and how they get better economies of scale.  We always hoped for that eventually, too, but for many reasons (including, I’m sorry to keep harping on it, the timing issues with the contract that messed up so many things!) it never happened.

I’m not sure folks had a sense of how the convention finances worked, but I’ll try to explain in broad strokes.  When we started (we as in AvaCon, again, I can’t speak to what happened in the years before with The Future United folks) (er Update:  Read FlipperPA’s comment about writing a $139,000 (!!!) check for SLCC 2007!), we had 0 dollars. Zero.  I paid for the incorporation of AvaCon and all the legal fees and applications for us to start the non-profit out of my own pocket.  Once we got approval and incorporated and chartered and all that legal stuff, we still were not a recognized 501(c)(3) non-profit with the IRS, which meant we were not a tax-exempt organization yet.  We started that process in 2010, and in the irony of all ironies in this situation, I’m very happy to say that our application for non-profit status with the IRS was approved just this spring. But at the time, we didn’t have that status, so we didn’t get non-profit discounts from hotels or any other vendors or services we used.

If you’ve never organized an event before, here’s how it works.  You have two options, option one, you can hold the event at a non-hotel venue like a convention center or something – and pay rental costs for the space up front, but this does not include any other services or benefits, all of those are a la cart.  The second option is to hold the event at a hotel where they will give you the “venue” space for free IF you contract with them for a certain number of rooms booked PLUS a certain amount of food and beverages to be purchased by or for your attendees.  That is, we can use the ballroom and breakout rooms for “free”, but in exchange, we contract with the hotel and guarantee X number of rooms will be rented and X number of food+beverages will be bought by or for our attendees when they come.  And if they don’t, if fewer people book rooms or eat less food than we thought, then we, AvaCon, have to pay the hotel the difference.

Remember the first year, we had no start-up funds, so, option one, to rent a non-hotel venue, wasn’t an option.  So we had to go with the hotel option, and try to guess at how many people would show up and how much food we thought they would eat.  It was pretty scary that first year, we were really taking a gamble that enough people would show up to not bankrupt us in our first year out of the gate.

In general the cost for hotel + some guaranteed amount of “food and beverage” (the plated lunches) is in the $20,0000 – $25,000 range for a 150 – 250 person conference.  This is pretty much a fixed cost.  The upside of going the hotel route is that we can then try to negotiate much better room rates for you guys so you at least aren’t paying full cost.  For example last year, we were able to get the rate down to $109 a night for up to four people in a room (plus free internet!).  If you got roomates, that’s $25/night and you can’t get much cheaper than that.

But of course the cost of the hotel or venue is not the only cost. The next biggest cost is the tech.  Hotels often have contracts with internet providers and A/V companies with relatively non-negotiable price lists.  They charge for every little thing, too, one year we had to pay a ridiculous rental fee for easels!  (The next year we brought our own darned easels, of course.)  Because the nature of our convention is very tech heavy and needs high bandwidth internet and lots of A/V support both for the presenters themselves and to stream, record, and mic everything for sound into Second Life, the tech costs are not cheap.  In general, for the ballroom + breakout rooms for the track presentations, it costs between $10,000 – $20,000 for the technology required to put on the convention, depending on number of break out rooms.  This is pretty much a fixed cost. 

Printed Program SLCC 2010.
Both years Lenni Foxtrot donated all of the printing for the custom name badges.
Thank you again Lenni, we <3 you!

Then there are other, smaller costs that add up.  Some of those you might consider to be “extras” and those are the only areas where we had really much discretion at all in choosing how much to spend and what quality, etc. etc.  Those are things like the Tshirts, the printed program, the signage and banners, the lanyards and nametag holders, and all that “stuff” that convention attendees receive as part of attending the conference.  Nearly all of  these items get cheaper in bulk and are one of the few areas where the pricing scales by attendance, in general we spent between $8000 – $10,000 for all of the associated “schwag/signs/printed program/stuff” part of the convention.

The last real cost to putting on the show is the costs of running AvaCon itself.  We have to buy a million dollars in event insurance, we have to pay annual filing fees and other fees for keeping the corporation itself alive, we have web hosting costs, pay an accountant to help with the tax stuff to make sure we’re doing everything right, pay for marketing costs, and the general costs of just doing business.  We also pay ourselves back for our costs in travel and food for the convention.  That was our only monetary compensation, you guys footed the bill for our airfare and food, which, considering the amount of work we put into the conference, I hope you would agree is fair and reasonable.  Our annual operating costs were budgeted to $8000 – $10,000 per year.  This is pretty much a fixed cost.

Note which things went up in costs and which things went down in costs compared to 2010 when we had 250 attendees, and 2011 when we had 170 attendees.  Hotel costs went UP even with fewer people because there weren’t as many people booking rooms!  This is why we always ask people to stay in the hotel we contract with instead of going somewhere else!  Also note that A/V costs were halved in 2011 in part because we reduced the number of conference tracks (break-out rooms) to save money.

So add that up and do the math.  Just in basic estimates, it costs about $60,000 to put on a 200-300 person event.  If 200 people show up, that’s $300 for the cost of the ticket.  If 300 people show up, that’s about $200 per ticket.  The more people who come, the lower the ticket price gets, until at some point the scaling math changes and the fixed costs go up another tier. Of course, there are things we can do to lower SOME of those costs, like cheaper bags, single color printing on tshirts, things like that, but that only saves you a little bit here and there.

The only other way to lower the cost of the ticket is to get sponsors or donations or to charge in-world attendees (which we never did) – in general, the more sponsors we get, the more that shaves off your ticket price.  Every sponsor of the convention also gets some benefits for sponsoring, which also costs money, so for example ad space in the program costs money – each full color printed page costs about $100 (if I remember right), so a $500 sponsor who gets a 1 page ad, $100 goes to the printing of their add, and $400 goes to lowering your ticket price.

So there you have it, that’s the convention math.  There’s nothing tricky or shady or sneaky about it, and all the folks who keep saying it’s too expensive must not understand how the real world works.  There are many variables in the equation, and there are many judgement calls about which things to emphasize or pay a little more for if it raises the quality of the experience enough to justify the cost, and we did our best to be as cost-conscious as possible, but considering the costs that we CANNOT control plus the costs of flights, and food, and etc, we only have so much wriggle room – and we definitely want to be able to deliver the quality of experience people expect.

What sense does it make to pay for an expensive flight to go to a crappy hotel somewhere, with broken or not the right A/V to present or stream, and not even a nice tshirt when you’re done?  That doesn’t make sense at all, so we tried to strike a reasonable balance between reasonable price for reasonable quality.


Third question for the audience:  Would you really prefer to be at a lower scale venue with lower scale tech to make the convention cheaper?  What if it only lowered the price by $50-$75 or so, since there is some bottom floor of costs for an event of this size?


AvaCon is Just in this for the Money (or Glory, or Fame, or Because We’re Evil)

I also want to address the (not very nice) comments of Truth Teller, who commented on Inara Pey’s post:

 Anyone who has spoken to any of the AvaCon folks in the last year knows they are and have been planning on starting a new “meteverse” conference that would include not just SL, but ReactionGrid, Unity 3D, and so on because that’s where they think the money is. […]they didn’t want to do the work, or even allow someone else to step in because they had already made other plans. This was a blatant bold face attempt to kill SLCC, in order to give them time to establish and launch their new conference.

First off, to suggest that we are in ANY way “in this for the money” is completely freaking absurd.  You couldn’t pay most people to go through this stress, nevermind that none of us has made a single penny and in fact have paid out of our own pockets for this.  I don’t know who “Truth Teller” is, but if  s/he had ever spent even a millisecond of time with either myself, Joyce, or Kathey – s/he would know none of us are focused on making money at all, we were just trying to break even!!  (I mean seriously, ask Chilbo residents if you don’t believe me, I’m a terrible capitalist.)  My professional hourly rate is about $75/hr, so if you calculate how many hours I spent on SLCC just last year, I GAVE the conference about $30,000 worth of my time – certainly in opportunity cost to make money doing something else.

Second, to suggest that WE killed SLCC is just wrong.  See my previous post.  Lots of things killed SLCC, but primarily Linden Lab did by offering us a contract we just couldn’t accept.   

Third, to suggest  we made that decision, or the timing of any of this was because we’re lazy or trying to prevent someone else from doing it or any of those kinds of motivations is equally absurd.    We agonized over this.  We probably drove our families and partners crazy, in fact.  The delay in the announcement wasn’t about some secret strategy to kill SLCC, it was about exhaustion, and feeling bad about letting everyone down, and trying to weigh personal and family needs versus the community, and trying to decide if we had it in us to try to forge ahead despite all these problems.  The sad answer in the end was no, but we didn’t wait to tell everyone because we’re greedy jerks, but because we’re only human.  And the fact remains, even if some other group wanted to do it, they’d be dealing with exactly the same kind of issues that we are facing.  Calling us lazy is so off the mark, I can only lol at that.

Fourth, yes we talked about the “metaverse” concept last year, but nothing has been decided and we’re not secretly planning something behind your backs.  How could we?  If the last couple years have taught us anything it’s that we can’t do this alone.  There’s nothing sneaky or malicious in thinking the community might be better served by ditching the “Second Life” name because of the contractual crap that goes along with having it, and uou’d have to be either crazy or living under a rock not to know that Second Life is no longer the exciting hype machine it used to be.  Things have changed. A lot of the SLCCs you remember were cheaper because there were still corporations and academics and lots of other folks subsidizing the price, but those people are gone. They don’t come anymore, and I don’t think they’d come back even if all the other issues I’ve mentioned went away.

Yes, we asked some folks after the convention last year what they thought about the “metaverse” concept, but that’s because we were already dealing with all of these intractable issues – with the contract and trademark name, with the declining attendance that made the convention math very dicey, and because we genuinely wanted to know what the people who actually come to the convention thought.  Stop trying to portray that as if we were doing something shifty by acknowledging that things are going to have to change to be sustainable if we want to have a convention at all.

So What Happens Now?

The short answer is:  I don’t know.

Despite all the rocky stuff I’ve just discussed, I personally am still as committed to AvaCon’s mission as I ever was, and I still feel there is a need, a desire, and an opportunity for the kind of annual convention that many people would all like to see.

We (AvaCon) also have two years of experience we didn’t have before, and AvaCon now has 501(c)(3) non-profit status, which means donations to us are now tax deductible (that was a major showstopper for lots of corporate donations who thought about sponsoring the event but didn’t because of tax reasons), and that makes us eligible for all kinds of discounts, special programs, and price breaks on services that we were not eligible for before, which means we could probably save some substantial money on some of those “fixed” costs.

When we incorporated, the members of AvaCon had “lived” in Second Life for almost the whole time it existed and we believed as strongly in Second Life as it was possible for anyone to believe.  Some folks still do (though as I said, my personal opinion has changed over time) but the interest is NOT in being anti-Second Life at all, it’s just in trying to figure out what makes sense for an annual convention that is actually affordable, fun, exciting, and interesting for people.

Here’s what I wrote at the end of SLCC 2010:

But more than the logistics, and venue, and schedules, and updating the website and all that .. stuff that goes into making a convention, we were far more worried about something less tangible.  Something invisible that it’s harder to put your finger on, that’s hard to even describe – that amorphous “community spirit” that threads through a diverse group of individual people to weave a sense of belonging together, an identity separate from one’s own that makes you feel a part of something larger.   Was the “community” still out there?  Did they still want to come together in person, and especially after such a difficult roller coaster ride of a year for the platform?

The question I heard so many times over the last few months as we planned the convention is why, if the virtual world is so powerful, do people want to come together in person in the first place?  The answer isn’t so simple, but it has something to do with the fact that those of us living simultaneously in the metaverse and the physical world are living complicated lives.   Life itself has no guidebook, but virtual life has even less of one, and there is something inordinately powerful about being in the presence of hundreds of other pioneers in this space who know on a deep level some of the challenges you yourself have faced.

Second Life is a platform, a technology, a tool.   But it gave us a glimpse of the future, and in one way or another has forced all of us who have immersed ourselves deeply to ask fundamental questions with a new perspective – Who am I?  Who is Fleep?  Who do I want to be if I can be anything?  What is real?   What is virtual?  What do all these technological changes mean for the future – for me, for society?  And where is this all going, anyway, this platform called Second Life, and this concept we call the metaverse?  Is it stalling?  Is the vision we shared breaking apart or are we just hitting some stumbling blocks?

My personal goal for SLCC was to provide a space for that conversation to take place.  Nothing more, nothing less.

At the end of the day is the convention REALLY about Second Life, or is it about the people?  I can’t help it that after all these years, and all these experiences with organizing events and communities (NOT just SLCC, also SLBPE/VWBPE, Chilbo, etc. etc.), I’ve come to think that maybe widening the conversation beyond just “Second Life” would help make a large annual gathering more interesting, more financially feasible, and more self-sustaining for all of us.


So my last question is:  Would it really be so bad to invite other people to that conversation?  To invite the Opensim folks and others who might be interested?  Aren’t we all asking some of the same fundamental questions about what it means to live in our virtual world(s) after all?


 As I said before, this stuff is all my own opinion and perspective.  I’m not sure what’s going to happen, or what the other organizers think, or what you guys think about what should happen next, but I am trying to help answer questions people have and trying to give the straight scoop on what I think went wrong or didn’t make sense so everyone can learn from our experience and not make the same mistakes again.

Thanks to all for your thoughts and comments, and for so many folks I haven’t talked to in a while who commented and reminded me of very happy memories, lots of xoxoxoxo’s to you.  🙂

Jul 12

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.


Mar 12

Fleep’s Notes from Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education 2012

By no means a comprehensive summary since I can only hop in from time to time, but I wanted to jot down notes and interesting information from the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference going on now in multiple VWs including Second Life, Opensim, World of Warcraft, and others.  The full schedule is here and if for some reason you can’t go in-world to view, many of the sessions are being webcast on too.

Epic Win! Epic Fail! – Marianne Malmstrom (SL: Knowclue Kidd)

An inspiring opening keynote address that highlighted some “epic” projects that bring about “epic” learning.  Links to all the topics discussed available at:

One of the projects I was most interested in was 3D Game LabL

Collaborative Learning, Cognitive Processes, Telerobotic Communication and Japan Recovery in Virtual Spaces – Michael Vallance, Stewart Martin


Really fascinating project teLEGOrobotics –  getting students from the UK and Japan to work collaboratively in Opensim to control physical real world robots.  They plan to model a nuclear reactor in a future stage of the project.


The Hypergrid is Ready for You Now – Maria Korolov

Maria talked about the Opensim Hypergrid as the new frontier, provided tons of links and resources, including destinations to visit, hosting providers, and two very easy ways to get started trying Opensim – Kitely and New World Studio.


How Immersion in Virtual and Augmented Worlds Helps Students in the Real World – Chris Dede

Chris talked broadly about using immersive spaces in education and gave examples from his own research (currently the EcoMUVE project), showed video, talked at length about alternative forms of assessment that can be used with immersive learning, suggested participants download and read the learning section of the National Education Technology Plan, and shared his class syllabi which also includes references and citations for further research into these topics.    This was a really great presentation.


Interview with John Lester (Pathfinder)

John Lester (aka Pathfinder Lester), Chief Learning Officer, ReactionGrid Inc. gave a great talk about Jibe as a multiuser 3d virtual world platform accessible via a web browser or standalone client, discussion also covered differences between Unity/Jibe and Opensim, plans for the “ji-way” (unity based hypergrid), keeping in touch with the educational community involved in virtual worlds, and bunches more.  Great talk!  Here are some links I pasted in as the talk was going on:

Unity offering free licenses for Android and ioS thru April 18, 2012:


Collaboration on Virtual Harmony: STEM Research on the Mars Geothermal, Nonlinear Game Design on Atlantis and Unity3D, and the Migration to MOSES – Cynthia Calongne, Andrew Stricker

Virtual Harmony is a custom virtual environment that spans over 32 simulations to promote exploration and compelling learning experiences for education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) as well as the study of history, leadership, innovation and military tactics. This paper introduces the current game design activities on Virtual Harmony and in Unity3D, the collaborative activities on the Military Open Simulator Enterprise Strategy (MOSES) project and a research study that evaluated the use of model-based reasoning and somatic computing for evaluating alternatives in avatar morphology to enhance STEM learning experiences within a Mars Geothermal game simulation.  Also discussed Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory.

They also showed a video:

Sep 11

How an Online Conference 5 Years Ago Led Me to Share #CookieLove with my Grandma

The opening keynote at SLBPE 2007 – Look at all that bad system hair!!  
Image courtesy: Rosefirerising

Back in 2007 when Second Life was still at the peak of its hype cycle, I and a few others who had been working to explore how virtual worlds could be used for education decided to hold a conference in Second Life to discuss it with other educators.  I know, it doesn’t sound very novel now, but it was the first time it had been done and the Second Life Best Practices in Education Conference was born, with over 1400 unique avatars in one 24 hour period talking about the cutting edge of education.

One of the people I met through that conference had the cutest dog avatar I’d ever seen and on a day when I was so stressed out I hadn’t slept literally in three days and was panic stricken that horrible things would go wrong and the whole conference would be a disaster, this cute canine avatar named CDB Barkley was cheering us up a storm and helping us go with the flow.  At the end of the conference when it was all over and I felt like passing out from fatigue, there was this magical moment where all of the organizers and the real trooper attendees who had stuck it out to the very last session all congregated, and I very clearly remember CDB telling us what a great job we had done and I cried right there on the spot in gratitude.

Five years later, it’s still going strong (though now called Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education to account for other platforms), and many of the connections I made at that first virtual conference have become the kind of net friends every gal should hope to have – great professional colleagues, many of whom I’ve since met in person, and great life friends, sharing stories about their experiences not just with technology but also life in general.

Fleep hanging out with Alan and Joanna at NMC Summer Conference 2007.
Image courtesy: J0 anna 

CDB Barkley, otherwise known as CogDog (or Alan Levine if you’re Google+ and demand to know his real name), was one of those people.  He worked at the New Media Consortium and was one of the early and tireless supporters for those of us trying to start our own campus projects in virtual worlds, and over the years became one of the bright stars in my online universe – tons of great links, resources, thoughtful blog posts – but also plenty of humorous tidbits, loveable crankiness about this or that, and just plain good stories about living life in this crazy digital age.

When I heard last week that his mother had passed away unexpectedly, it brought back all-too-fresh memories of Dad’s passing, and reminded me again how tenuous life can be – and how very real our relationships developed online can be, too.  I remember how painful Dad’s death was and how comforted I felt that my online friends were thinking of him by thinking of me during that rough time, that his life was being honored by so many people from all over the world really meant a lot to me then and now.

CogDog’s mom, Alyce.  Image courtesy: cogdogblog

I never met CogDog’s mom, but through the ether of the net, my sympathy for his loss is no less real for having met him online, and his beautiful tributes to her on his blog are moving to anyone who has experienced the deep grief of losing a loved one.  More than that, when I think of all of the thousands of people’s lives who have been enriched by knowing Alan, I think all of us in his network, through him, have a deep appreciation for the lady who raised him to be such a generous, caring, good person, too.

Clearly I’m not the only one who felt that way, as some other folks came up with an idea to share his mom’s awesome generosity with #cookielove:

In tribute to Alan Levine’s mom, who passed away unexpectedly last weekend, we’d like to invite you to participate in Cookies for Cogdog. One of the wonderful things that Alan’s mom did was bake chocolate chip cookies every Sunday and then give them away to strangers. This Sunday, September 4th, we’re hoping to get people to follow in her footsteps. Bake some cookies and then brighten a stranger’s day by giving them away.

So I’m heading out to visit my grandmother today to share the #cookielove in honor of CogDog’s mom, in honor of my grandmother who I’m lucky to still be able to visit, and in honor of the power of online friendships and support networks that endure through all of life’s challenges, whether it’s a stressful conference, joyful celebrations, or helping each other through the most painful of times.

Three generations, my mom, my grandma, and me.

Cheers to CogDog and Alyce and to all those sharing the #cookielove today.

Update:  Just got home a bit ago, here are some pix from the day spent with my grandma (we call her Momo) enjoying cookies..

Aug 10

SLCC10: Thoughts on the Other Side

“Are you crazy?”  That was pretty much the sentiment when I told friends in April that I’d decided to help try to pull something, anything, together for this year’s Second Life Community Convention.  The timing, the workload, the politics – for all sorts of reasons it felt like a terrifying commitment.  I’d not attended SLCC in 2009, my grandpa had passed away a few months prior and I didn’t have the heart for it, and my experience as part of the organizing team in Tampa 2008 hadn’t been exactly positive.  But when the phone call came…

Stuffing bags and folding tshirts on Thursday…
Image courtsey Sitearm

The hardest part of organizing something in such a short time frame wasn’t the sleepless nights or ignoring the house cleaning (and friends and family) for weeks on end,  it was the fear that it would all be for nothing.  That no one would show up, that no one would come, or worse that the people who had paid to come would ultimately feel it had been a waste of their time and money.  We stressed about the budget, the program, the venue, the logistics, and all the things that every event planner worries about going wrong, and perhaps even moreso given the shortened time line to nail down all the details.

Conversation the night before the convention over drinks.
What’s Wiz Nordberg saying?  Image courtesy DirkMcKeenan

But more than the logistics, and venue, and schedules, and updating the website and all that .. stuff that goes into making a convention, we were far more worried about something less tangible.  Something invisible that it’s harder to put your finger on, that’s hard to even describe – that amorphous “community spirit” that threads through a diverse group of individual people to weave a sense of belonging together, an identity separate from one’s own that makes you feel a part of something larger.   Was the “community” still out there?  Did they still want to come together in person, and especially after such a difficult roller coaster ride of a year for the platform?

Hanging out with Tomkin Euler, fellow Chilbo resident, and Amulius Lioncourt,
one of the 11th hour in-world builders who did an amazing job.

I can only speak for myself, but I am so thankful that the answer to both questions was “yes” – a resounding, boisterous, defiance in the face of all challenges yes.  Yes, the people who discovered something new about themselves and found each other through this platform called Second Life are still out there, and though many could not come due to timing, cost, or circumstance, enough of us made our way to Boston and engaged in the annual ritual of baring our real life avatars for a weekend of fun, laughter, hopefully some learning, and lots of passionate discussion and debate about the future of the metaverse.  I was too busy to engage in much of it myself, but watching it unfold was a beautiful thing to see..

Stopping by to chat with Olivia Hotshot and AJ Brooks at lunch.
Image courtesy OliviaHotshot

The question I heard so many times over the last few months as we planned the convention is why, if the virtual world is so powerful, do people want to come together in person in the first place?  The answer isn’t so simple, but it has something to do with the fact that those of us living simultaneously in the metaverse and the physical world are living complicated lives.   Life itself has no guidebook, but virtual life has even less of one, and there is something inordinately powerful about being in the presence of hundreds of other pioneers in this space who know on a deep level some of the challenges you yourself have faced.

Laughing hysterically with Beyers Sellers..
Image courtesy Imjsthere4fun

Second Life is a platform, a technology, a tool.   But it gave us a glimpse of the future, and in one way or another has forced all of us who have immersed ourselves deeply to ask fundamental questions with a new perspective – Who am I?  Who is Fleep?  Who do I want to be if I can be anything?  What is real?   What is virtual?  What do all these technological changes mean for the future – for me, for society?  And where is this all going, anyway, this platform called Second Life, and this concept we call the metaverse?  Is it stalling?  Is the vision we shared breaking apart or are we just hitting some stumbling blocks?

AvaCon board meeting at PF Chang’s on Thursday…
Fleep Tuque, Misty Rhodes, Peter Imari, Rhiannon Chatnoir

My personal goal for SLCC was to provide a space for that conversation to take place.  Nothing more, nothing less.  All we needed was a place to sleep, a place to eat, and a place to talk.  It didn’t have to be fancy or out of the box, indeed there wasn’t time for that, and the end result was a very conventional convention with some very unconventionally wonderful people.  I think for this year, that was enough, for us to see each other in the flesh, to know that these deeper questions that drive us to put up with the lag and the deficiencies of the platform are not the result of some madness unique to ourselves, but a madness shared by many to understand what the future holds and hopefully to help shape it.

Hugs from Dirk McKeenan at the Avatar Ball.
Image courtesy Debi Latte

And for all those who helped make the conversation possible this year, in world or in Boston, on the web and in Twitter, I hope you feel as I do on the other side of SLCC10:

The community is as strong as ever.  Second Life, and the people who make it meaningful, aren’t dead by a long shot.

The vagaries of a particular platform are like the vagaries of the weather, something we must deal with but that doesn’t control our destiny unless we let it.

The future of the metaverse is as exciting today as it was five, ten years ago.

I can’t even think too much of next year right now, I’m too tired.  🙂   But I hope we can do an even better job facilitating that conversation in 2011.  Thank you to everyone who made it possible and I hope you’ll join us next time around.

Mar 10

Governance in Virtual Worlds

On Friday, March 26th, I participated in the Governance in Virtual Worlds 2010 conference sponsored by the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and World2Worlds.  The conference description:

Virtual worlds and online games are used by millions of people around the world for recreation, corporate and academic conferencing, formal education, research, training and charitable work. These worlds have given rise to public-policy issues, both ancient and cutting edge. Governance in Virtual Worlds will provide an exploration of these issues by professors, journalists, corporate managers and community activists. Learn what it means to be an active citizen, a creative producer, and a savvy customer, and meet the people shaping policy for the worlds of the future.

Now, I’ve attended a LOT of conferences, conversations, symposia, discussions, and other such things revolving around virtual worlds, but I must commend John Carter McKnight, Adjunct Professor of Law at  Arizona State University for putting together a truly excellent group of panels.  (And I’m not just saying that because I was on two of them!)   Though the conference was plagued with technical issues at the beginning, which happens sometimes, the panels sparked good conversations (and sometimes heated debate)  and it was the first time in a while I heard some new ideas that made me stop in my tracks and think, “Oh, yeah.  Why aren’t we talking about that?”

John Lester (formerly Pathfinder Linden) Gives Keynote Opening Address

For long time SL peeps, one of the highlights of the conference was John Lester‘s keynote opening address.  Formerly known as Pathfinder Linden, who did much to promote the education and health care communities in world, John appeared as his original avatar from the SL beta (the first one!) days, Count Zeeman.  John’s keynote was unfortunately one of the ones marred by the technical challenges, but he talked about the biological responses that humans have to our virtual experiences.  He gave an example of a teacher who brings her students in world and right off the bat has them jump off a mountain.  The students feel fear, vertigo, and all these physical reactions, they don’t know if they’re (their avatar) is going to die, they don’t know what to expect.  The physical reactions we experience in virtual spaces are due to our brains having evolved to think in, navigate in, and respond to 3D data, we have entirely natural responses to 3D cues, it activates our lymbic system just as if we were standing on a physical mountain.  Ok maybe to a lesser degree, still.  🙂

Of course, we’re missing key components of physicality in virtual worlds, particularly the non-verbal cues of body language, posture, etc.  John reminded us Snow Crash fans that in Stephenson’s novel, the thing that made the metaverse take off was when it incorporated the natural body language of those who were jacked in, so we’re not yet at a point where I yawn in real life and my avatar yawns as well, but that’s where we’re headed.

I’m not sure if this was just my take or John’s, but there was some conversation that augmented reality is likely to top into the mainstream before virtual worlds, since handheld devices are already ubiquitous and the super-smart-phone genre like Droids and iPhones are becoming more commonplace and affordable.  John mentioned the augmented reality windshield GM prototyped that I tweeted about the other day (woe the day our windshields get hacked!) and we talked about a future where our HUDs were not just on the screen but in our contact lenses.  Good stuff!

In terms of governance of virtual spaces, the issue is that our current system of laws and courts are processes that move so exquisitely slowly, and yet the pace of technological change is accelerating at an ever faster pace.  How are we to govern spaces that our current systems are not even remotely equipped to understand, let alone arbitrate?  And that, of course, was the key question of the conference.  It was great to see John and despite the audio glitches, it was great to see him in world again.

Keynote Panel:  The Politics of Virtual Engagement

Next up was the keynote panel, which also had a rocky start on the technical end (again, not the fault of the conference organizers!) and I didn’t get to show my slides so I’ll embed them here:

I’d hoped to talk about how we can look at the small scale governance issues already cropping up at the institutional level, like in higher education, and then extrapolate how those issues will affect the larger ecosystem of institutions participating in virtual world spaces, but the tech issues got our timing and things off to a rocky start, so I’m not sure how much came through.   In any case, the “Politics of Virtual Engagement” at my university are just one example of many, but I think there are lessons to be learned.  For example, virtual world evangelists and people like me trying to introduce the concept of virtual worlds to academia have to have a deep knowledge of our institutional culture.  The needs of our student population are different than the needs of faculty, which are again different from the needs of administrators and staff.   The trick is trying to weave those needs together into virtual spaces and experiences that tap into what can only be done in virtual worlds or that virtual worlds do better than other platforms. People have to see how this technology meets their needs before it can scale up.  This is as much true for every other domain – business, non-profits, online communities – as it is for higher education.

And the questions and issues raised by the students, faculty, and staff at the University of Cincinnati are likely to be echoed across the spectrum of institutions who move into virtual worlds.    This technology forces us to renegotiate long standing and entrenched boundaries that DO exist in the physical world, but are highly permeable in the virtual world.   What can we learn from early adopters who are already negotiating these shifting boundaries to make it easier for the early majority?

I also think virtual worlds expose the limits of our creativity and imagination in ways that are.. somehow less obvious in the physical world.  Give a teacher the freedom to work in any kind of learning environment they can imagine rather than a traditional classroom, and you’re bound to get some blank stares.   And who can blame them!  They aren’t accustomed to having that kind of freedom and flexibility, and conceptualizing the actual SPACE in which learning takes place is not in their knowledge domain because in the physical world, someone else designs the classrooms.  And it isn’t just teachers, students, staff – it’s also me!  The plasticity of virtual worlds gives us tremendous freedom to create settings and experiences that can’t be replicated in the real world, but our imaginations are not yet caught up to the possibilities this technology makes possible.

I feel that way even after participating in virtual environments for over 15 years at this point.  Every day something new shakes my world and hints at possibilities I hadn’t even considered.  It’s fascinating stuff.   And I think in the long term, all the other issues – who owns your data, privacy issues, conflicts over copyright and IP – these issues don’t have simple black and white answers, the inter-relationships forming between individuals and individuals, and individuals with institutions, and institutions with institutions, and scaling all the way up to encompass the global digital community and ecosystem, these things are so complex, and emerging and evolving so quickly, I just can’t imagine that our existing institutions will survive in anything resembling their current forms.   I guess we’ll see!

Real Laws in Virtual Space

There were two speakers in the next panel who made a lasting impression on my overwhelmed brain.  Joshua Fairfield, Associate Prof of Law at Washington and Lee School of Law, and Gregory Lastowka, Professor at Rutgers School of Law.   This post is already getting long, so I’ll sum up quickly.  Joshua’s main point was that we are spending an awful lot of brain cycles worrying about how RL law is going to impact virtual worlds, and not enough time thinking about how the rules of virtual worlds would be horrific if implemented in RL. Good point!  From my quickly jotted notes as he was speaking:

Imagine IP licenses embedded in our toaster, our clothing, our cars, as we do have constraints on our use of virtual property. What then?   On privacy, we all know from the Bragg case sued Linden Lab, LL has ALL communications from people in world, all IMs, they were able to pull up IMs from years before.. All of those convos can be sometimes must be made available without a search warrant, no probably cause required. The essential irony – we go to escape and are under constant surveillance. Cell phoen tracks you through GPS whereever you go.  So the question is, are we losing our personhood?  Personhood, once property and privacy are in trouble, personhood will follow. We are a social network in our selves, the social networks we use are coming to OWN that tangle of connections that we are. We will hand over our personhood when all aspects of our behavior, posessions, creations, and communications are owned by .. someone else.

Gregory Lastowska’s talk was also good, again my raw notes:

Virtual Worlds as a separate jurisdiction.. virtual law as separate rules of physical jurisdiction. Play spaces are governed by a separate set of rules, we can look at different human societies, say the rules pertaining to education, religion, or family, they are sort of “special spheres” of human interaction, so there may be some precedent for game worlds, but that isn’t the trend we’re seeing, the courts are treating them just like web sites, so not seen as separate sites of jurisdiction which may not always be the right way. David Post, Jefferson’s Moose, hypothesize different laws for cyberspace. If we were to look at the internet and copyright law, we never would have developed our copyright law as we did because much of it doesn’t WORK as applied to the internet, the net is constant copying, every microsecond there are violations, and when it comes to financial importance, lawsuits, Napster etc. you see the general trend is to limit the growth of the technology in order to serve the copyright law, and that seems ,.. not good.

SO – if this were a separate space, what kind of law would we have?

Second the point on augmented reality, separate from VW issues? We will see some issues from VW will also be issues with augmented reality, primarily the difference between the customer/client and the owner/server operators, as we move towards cloud computing, balance between tech and law, Lessig’s Code..

Got interrupted, work phone call.  Then a meeting and I missed some of the next panels.  Bummer.  🙁

Virtual Self Governance

The last panel was about how communities existing in virtual worlds govern themselves, and I was really excited to talk about my own virtual community, Chilbo, in this setting.   Here are my slides from that presentation:

Now strangely, it seemed that one of the other panelists was upset that I had slides, that I talked specifically about how the Chilbo Community formed and was governed, and especially that my last slide invited people to visit and explore our town.  Frankly, I thought that’s what everyone on the panel was going to do, per the instructions I received from the conference organizers, so I’m not sure exactly where the miscommunication occurred.   If I wasn’t supposed to talk specifically about Chilbo, then I’m not sure what the point of the panel was!  Further, the other panelist also seemed to disbelieve my statements about our experience.  I didn’t expect any of the content I presented to be .. inflammatory or controversial, rather I thought the point of the discussion was to talk about some of the specifics of how different in world communities form, govern themselves, and use the tools and platforms to self-organize.

Perhaps I misread the tone of the other panelist, but I felt distinctly defensive after a bit.  As hard as it may be to believe, yes, we do actually mostly govern by consensus and no, acrimony, arguments, and strife are not very common – in fact, it’s quite rare.  That isn’t to say there are never any disagreements, just that differences of opinion or conflicting interests seem to be resolved with little fanfare and few fireworks.  I confess, I know very little about the inner-workings of CDS.  I’ve very pointedly made an effort to let the structure and processes of governing Chilbo evolve out of our specific culture, community, and needs, rather than trying to emulate or model it after something else – because in some sense, though human communities are obviously not new, the thing that IS new is the who’s, why’s, and how’s of how we have all come to be together in this particular virtual world, in this particular region, at this particular time.   Though as Rose Springvale said, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel (a good point!), I think we also have to give ourselves the freedom to imagine new ways of self-governing to break out of systems of governance that were developed in a pre-digital age.

In any case, I’m not suggesting that the Chilbo model is perfect for everyone and maybe wouldn’t work for any community but our own, and it isn’t even as if I understand exactly how or why it seems to be as successful as it is at constraining the discord that often appears in online communities, but for whatever reason, it seems to be working for us on a lot of levels, and so my goal was to share about our experience.  That really shouldn’t have offended anyone’s sensibilities, I don’t think.

Overall, I felt it was a great conference and I was sorry to have missed a couple of the panels, but I hope everyone else enjoyed it as much as I did and many thanks to all the folks who organized, attended, and participated.

Feb 10

Video from OETC2010 + Link to Second Life Streaming Schedule

Check the conference info at the Ohio Educational Technology Conference 2010 page, or see the schedule to be streamed into Second Life starting today at the University of Cincinnati Second Life Project website.  I’ll be heading down shortly!