Digital Citizenship


19
Mar 16

Morning Coffee Reading – 3/19/16

Blogging became too time-consuming.  Formatting, linking, embedding, bad copy pasta that has to be fixed.  But I’ll try again, because my network continues to inspire me so much, I feel I should make the effort as they do.  Bless their hearts, what would I read in the morning if they got lazy like me?

And, I remain forever amazed at how wonderful tripping, linking, chasing, stumbling through others’ thoughts on the internets can be, and how sharing our thoughts can further other people’s trips in (hopefully) meaningful ways.

Here’s my latest trip to go with your morning coffee.

Badges and evidence, the “reputation economy”, and data used to make decisions

Sparked by insomniac reading of Stephen Downing (@oldaily) at 4AM earlier this week, I saw that he gave a keynote address on the AvaCon grid at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education 2016 conference, wherein he speculates, “about the future of virtual worlds in learning when they are mixed with mobile devices and performance support systems.”

Scanning past Stephen’s blurb about the VWBPE keynote, somehow I came across Alan Levine’s (@cogdog) recent post “Seeking Evidence of Badge Evidence“, wherein he explores the usefulness of gamified badging systems if they don’t link to actual evidence that the badge was earned.  Metadata about the evidence isn’t the same as linking to the evidence itself, right?  Right.

This sparked a memory of an older post of mine, Twitter and the Reputation Economy in 2014, wherein I mused about how to measure “reputation” and suggested that Twitter Lists provide a non-obvious measure of something.  Alan subsequently pointed out that a Twitter list wordcloud may be an indicator,  but it is not a measure.  Good point.

My tweet about Alan’s post sparked D’Arcy Norman (@dlnorman) to point to Cory Doctorow’s (@doctorow) recent post about what a terrible currency reputation would be.

I agree that Whuffie would be a terrible currency, so be sure to read that @doctorow post, as well as “Wealth Inequality Is Even Worse in Reputation Economies“.

My tweet also sparked Alan to go down a deep, technically complicated but fascinating rabbit-hole of what my Twitter list wordcloud means, whether it’s useful, and how to generate one using docker, which I still don’t really understand.

But go read his post “Measurement or [indirect] Indicators of Reputation? A Twitter List / Docker / iPython Notebook Journey“.  It’s good stuff.

At the end of all that chain, I summed up my current take-aways about data used for decision-making on a comment to his post:

1) measurements and indicators are not the same thing, important point.

2) reliability is key, whether of a measure or indicator.

3) the use-case (type of decision you’re making) should drive the type of data used to make your measurement or indicator.

4) a measurement or indicator created for one use case may not transfer to a different use case.

Metaverse Vocabulary Words – Metaxis, Liminality, Stygmergy

Somewhere in checking out that tweet stream, I also came across Mark Childs’ (@markchilds) recent post exploring words that describe transitions, edges, limits, and perceptions of spaces, or places, or feelings of being present in a space or multiple spaces even.  

Just go read the post, “Metaxis and Liminality“.  

These concepts seem important for not just educators to understand, but also those of us working to create the Metaverse and places in virtual worlds.

My tweet about Mark’s post then sparked Leon Cych (@eyebeams) to share that they had local drama students acting out roles in Minecraft:

 

..the video of which relates to Midas’ golden touch played out in Minecraft, and that perfectly captures and visualizes the idea of stygmergya word I came to know and love through Sarah Robbins (@intellagirl) years ago when she was exploing using virtual worlds for teaching.  See her “Using a Faceted Classification Scheme to Predict the Future of Virtual Worlds”.  (I should link to her dissertation, but I can’t find a good link.)


Machine Learning, AI, and Science Fiction

After clicking through all that, I went back to Leon’s Twitter page to make sure I was following him (I am), and saw that he referenced the above tweet and forwarded Mark Child’s post on to Martin Robinson (@surrealanarchy), who apparently has changed his main Twitter account to @trivium21c (I followed that account, too).

 

I then ended up reading Martin Robinson’s tweet about machine learning and “When AI rules the world: what SF novels tell us about our future overlords.”

 

There are several books mentioned in there that I surely must read, now.  I might come back and list them, but I might not, so read the article and see for yourself which books you also need to read.

David Foster Wallace, which never gets old.

And in that AI & SF article, there was a link to a David Foster Wallace quote, which takes you to his “This is Water” commencement speech, posted, of all places, in the Wall Street Journal.

The perfect, beautiful hilarity of reading that speech on the WSJ website was so awesome, I thought, this is where I end my trip today.

Enjoy your morning coffee.


19
Jan 14

Part 2: Snowden – Whistleblowing & Its Consequences

Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some thoughts about clemency for Edward Snowden and whether I thought he was a hero.  My main point was that I was grateful to know the information he gave the world, but I felt that fleeing the US was an immoral choice, that whistleblowers who make the decision to “go public” have a responsibility to stand by their decision whatever the consequences.  I said that even if I could understand the choice to run, that that didn’t meet my standard of “hero”.

The post generated a lot of comments, and I’ve been thinking about some of those responses.

First, I have to acknowledge the insensitivity of referring to Chelsea Manning as “he” and by a prior name.  I fully 100% support everyone’s right to define their own identity, and it was thoughtless of me to do otherwise.  I suppose that the name “Bradley Manning” had become somewhat iconic in my own mind and though I was aware of her choice to become known as Chelsea, it was almost as if the whistleblowing icon and the actual person had become separate entities in my brain.

But of course they aren’t separate at all, Chelsea Manning is an actual person, and its exactly these kinds of careless and unthinking errors that expose cisgender privilege and, however unintentionally, perpetuate prejudice and discrimination.  Many thanks to those who pointed this out and I will be more conscious and thoughtful in the future.

Regarding the discussion about whether or not Snowden is a hero, everyone who commented here or on G+ or other places universally disagreed with my position. I have a lot of respect for the people in my network and when my perspective is completely out of step with the majority view, it definitely gives me pause.  Even more so when virtually everyone thinks I’m wrong.  😉

I think it speaks very highly of the folks who read my blog that though they disagreed with me, passionately even, no one was disrespectful or rude, and I appreciate that. For me, blogging is a form of processing, of trying to think through issues and problems, and I’m always ready to acknowledge that I may be wrong.  The whole point of posting publicly is to get feedback and to have good dialogue with people who are also passionate about the issues I care about, and I’m happiest when we’re really digging into an issue but doing it kindly and civilly with each other.  So thanks to everyone for keeping it cool.

I can’t say that I’ve been completely swayed from my position by the arguments everyone made, but it has made me think more about the complexity of Snowden’s particular situation.  My mother and many others asked if I thought Snowden should have paid with his life for his actions, and the answer is no, I don’t think he deserves to die or spend life in prison for trying to expose the wrongdoing of the NSA.  I also agree that both of those scenarios were plausible outcomes if he had chosen to stay instead of leaving the US, and by that logic, then he would be justified in trying to protect himself from that fate.

Despite that, I still feel resistance to the idea that it is a moral choice to blow the whistle and run.

I may be persuaded that Edward Snowden’s, or to some extent, even Chelsea Manning’s, specific circumstances were extraordinary.  That they were not exposing your run-of-the-mill malfeasance or wrong-doing, but rather they were exposing wrongdoing of such a horrific scale and magnitude, and perpetrated not by some low level official or small corporate concern, but by our own government across many branches and departments, and therefore that deserves some leeway.  I think that’s a fair argument and it’s forced me to reconsider my position.

I would still argue, though, that universalizing Snowden’s decision to flee is ultimately NOT the best outcome – for whistleblowers OR for the society a whistleblower is trying to protect.  In the best of worlds, what should happen is that the whistleblower should be safe, should be protected, should be given safe harbor until the disclosures can be digested and the situation investigated.  Edward Snowden shouldn’t have to flee his own country, rather our government and our society should have better measures in place and better systems to protect those who make the brave choice to expose wrongdoing.  We should be demanding better protections for the Mannings and Snowdens (and Swartzs) of the world.

And I guess that’s where it shakes out for me.  If we universalize Snowden’s decision to blow the whistle and flee, and say that’s ok, then we run a two-fold risk:

1) We open the door for anyone claiming whistleblower status to get a pass whether it’s deserved or not.  I maintain that making a public accusation of wrongdoing carries with it a responsibility to stand behind the claim. We all must have the right to face our accusers, and whistleblowers are not and cannot be exempt from that.  Due process matters, it protects us from unfounded accusations and (in an ideal world) acts as a safeguard against vigilante justice, by the state OR other people.

2) We let ourselves off the hook for failing to provide the protections that legitimate whistleblowers deserve.  While I’ll admit that Snowden likely had little rational choice but to leave, don’t we all agree that he shouldn’t have had to?  I think in some way, blessing Snowden’s decision to flee is a form of ignoring our own complicity in a system that we know is terribly unjust.  Instead of arguing about whether or not he was justified in running, we really should be expending that energy on making it so he doesn’t have to – not just for Snowden, but for all the legitimate whistleblowers out there who don’t have international visibility and media scrutiny to protect them.


That’s where my reasoning is at the moment, but I’m sure I’ll keep thinking on this for some time to come.  Thanks again to everyone who commented, and as always, feel free to disagree!  🙂


11
Jan 14

Twitter and the Reputation Economy in 2014

Back in 2009 when Twitter Lists first came out, I had a little epiphany about the reputation economy.  It isn’t just what you say about yourself online, but what others say and post about you in the aggregate, and all the associated metadata of your online life, that can define “who you are” in the Metaverse.  That only seems to be more true as time has gone on, and despite the over-hype of the “reputation economy” buzzword, I still find it interesting and potentially meaningful, but only if the measures of reputation are accurate.  We’re definitely not there yet, and I’m not sure we’re really any further than we were in 2009, either.

It’s hard to do an analysis of accuracy for anyone but myself, but if I had to say which system seems to currently have the best measure of “who I am” based on what others say about me, I’d have to say it’s not Klout, or LinkedIn Endorsements or any of those obvious attempts to measure reputation.  The best measure as far as I can tell is actually Twitter.  What Twitter Lists people have placed me in, which isn’t obvious at all, and isn’t even something Twitter seems to explicitly leverage as a measure of reputation, is actually a pretty good measure!

[A brief aside, I’m sad that Twitter seems to have buried Lists and made them almost non-obvious, since as far as I’m concerned, Lists are a crucial component of making Twitter useful at all.  Many folks who joined Twitter after Lists came out don’t even seem to know they exist!  If you happen to be one of those unfortunate souls, get thee to your Twitter page > Me > Lists > Create List and start categorizing people.  Or click “Member of” to see what lists others have added to you to.  I bet you’ll find some of them very surprising, hopefully in a good way.  And after you’ve made some lists, tools like TweetDeck will suddenly make a LOT more sense to you, and your Twitter stream will become much more meaningful, relevant and less.. ephemeral.]

But back to the topic.  So what does my Twitter network say about me?  Some pretty good stuff, actually:

Twitter Lists Word Cloud for Fleep

When I boiled the List Names down, I got 191 unique terms and, though I modified the frequency to make the word cloud readable (if I hadn’t, all you would see is: Second Life, Virtual Worlds, Education, Immersive, Cincinnati, which were the top 5 list names), I’d say that’s a really accurate representation of my online life.  It accurately reflects my professional and geeky interests, and if you dig in there a bit, it tells you my gender, where I live, what I do for a living, some of the books I’ve read, games I’ve played, conferences I’ve attended, that I’m old enough to be on someone’s BBS list, and if I can say it humbly, that overall people have a pretty positive opinion of me.   

I am of course quite biased, but I think I have a pretty awesome network of super intelligent people who love digging into the future of technology and education, and who like to think about what all this emerging tech will mean for the future of society, so it’s all the more interesting to see what kinds of categories they create for themselves and where they place me within that context.  (I confess to having some warm fuzzies after seeing how the word cloud came out, so thanks Twitter peeps!)

LinkedIn’s Endorsements are another interesting measure, though of a slightly different sort.  I’d say it’s also fairly accurate, but it pretty much captures only my professional interests and misses all the personal, quirky, or other interests I have.

LinkedIn Endorsements for Fleep 2014

Some folks I know have also complained that they get endorsements for skills from people who aren’t even in a position to know whether or not they have any expertise in that topic, and that happens to me, too.  But in general, I’d say LinkedIn Endorsements are less a measure of what you are actually skilled at doing and more a measure of what people think you are skilled at doing.  They aren’t the same thing, but both are interesting and useful measures.

By comparison, I would say Klout is the least representative of the various “reputation economy” or influence measures about me.  I don’t know how they weight stuff, but it looks like the Klout list was probably fairly accurate about 5 years ago, but as my focus, interests, and activities have changed, Klout hasn’t seemed to have kept up.  It captures the same top 5 categories as Twitter Lists, but that’s about it.  None of the nuance, history, and none of the topics I’ve become interested in since.. what, their initial calculations?  I’m not sure.

I should also admit some bias here, I became very aggravated with Klout when they sent me what seemed like an email every few days to tell me my Klout score was going down, when at the time I was helping take care of my grandpa who was dying of cancer.  The insensitivity of it really struck a nerve, like I should really give a hoot about my Klout score at a time like that?  And how meaningful a measure could it possibly be if I’m less influential because I’m offline doing something important?

No matter what Klout says, I know my network values human life and knows what is and isn’t truly important.  In fact, my guess is that my network would probably rank my reputation higher for having been a dedicated caregiver, not lower.

And of course that’s the big problem with all of these reputation or influence measures – the algorithms can’t yet measure what’s REALLY important: trustworthiness, competence, honesty, reliability, compassion, dedication, clarity, ability to synthesize and make meaning from complexity.  These are the measures I really want to know about someone, and as far as I can tell, there’s nothing out there like that yet.

The Twitter List names that people create for themselves, some of which touch on values not just buzzwords, are the closest I’ve seen to anything like those kinds of measures, which for me makes Twitter a potentially overlooked but pretty important tool in the reputation and influence measure toolkit in 2014.


4
Jan 14

Re: Snowden – Whistleblowing & Its Consequences

Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning

I was very surprised to read the New York Times editorial calling for clemency for Edward Snowden, less so to read Slate’s piece about why he won’t and shouldn’t get clemency, since it is difficult for me to imagine any scenario in which full clemency would be granted by this administration or in this geo-political climate. I expect Snowden to be on the run or in exile likely for the rest of his life.

Without knowing all the details of what he leaked, how he leaked them, and the explanations for his actions afterwards that led him to China and then Russia, I can’t in good conscience call for his clemency either. Even if I acknowledge that his leaks have better informed a critically important debate about the surveillance power of the government and the constitutional balance (or lack thereof) of the NSA’s programs, even if his stated motivations as a whistleblower are 100% true, and even if I acknowledge that, like Bradley Manning, there likely were no “legitimate” paths he could take to take to expose the truth to the public, I still can’t go so far as to say that they deserve clemency because I’m not in a position to have enough information to make a good judgement, and my guess is, if you’re reading this blog, neither do you.

My own (very small, insignificant except to those of us who were affected) experience with being a whistleblower was a wholly terrible and unpleasant experience. Exposing misconduct and bringing to light what (some) people in power do not want revealed is a dangerous undertaking, even when the stakes are much less than national security. It is fraught with difficult ethical and moral decisions about how much information and when to disclose and how to proceed, and at least in my experience, I had absolutely no way to fully appreciate all of the unintended consequences of my actions, and how many other (innocent in the scheme of things) people would be hurt by my choices, no matter how well meaning and good my intentions were when I started.

I’m not comparing myself to Snowden or Manning, of course, the situations were completely different and on a completely different scale of importance, but I can only draw from my own experience. I certainly felt that I had an obligation take responsibility for the fall-out, and I guess that is where my own, however insignificant, experience as a whistleblower leads me to feel critical of both Manning and Snowden’s decisions to hide and run from the path they chose.

Yes, it stinks that whistleblowers are often punished for trying to do the right thing, but if you choose to do battle with the powers-that-be, then you have a responsibility to stand up and say, “Yes, I did this, my conscience demanded I take action to right this wrong, and be damned the consequences to myself.” That is what sacrifice is, that is what a “hero” does, and that is not quite what either Manning or Snowden did. Even if their initial motivations were largely for the right reasons, even if there have been many good things to come of their disclosures, they still failed to see it through by trying to hide from or escape from the consequences of their choices.

What makes that a “wrong” is that all the untold number of (innocent in the scheme of things) people who paid a terrible price for their actions had no choice in the matter. The co-worker who gave Snowden a password because of trust or because he thought Snowden’s request was legitimate as a sysadmin who was later fired. The diplomats or soliders or, heck, full on spies whose careers were destroyed or lives were endangered by Manning’s or Snowden’s disclosures. Those people had no choice in the matter. They didn’t have an opportunity to hide or escape from the fall-out of those decisions, so why should Manning or Snowden?

When you set the ball in motion, you have a responsibility to see it through to the end, no matter how bitter that end may be. To do less may be only human, but it doesn’t meet my standard of “hero”.


23
Feb 13

Must Watch – Lessig’s Harvard Law Talk About Aaron’s Law

I found this both moving and inspiring. I’ve come to believe that academics and researchers have a moral imperative to fight closed publishing, and this talk by Lessig only makes me feel that more strongly.


16
Oct 12

An Ada Lovelace Day Essay: Why Didn’t They Tell Me a Technical Career is All About Helping People?


Me blowing bubbles on my grandpa’s back steps, age 3 or 4?

. . .

When I was a little girl, back when most girls my age were dreaming of being ballerinas, princesses, or veterinarians (a popular choice in my rural community), I dreamed of being the President of the United States.  I’m not sure when or why I came up with that idea, I just knew I wanted to help people, and in my little girl mind it seemed like the president got to help all kinds of people.

Then one day, I think maybe in 2nd grade or so, we were assigned a class project to draw a picture of our future selves at work in our dream jobs.  I drew a picture of myself in the White House behind a big desk, probably with some rainbows and pink and purple hearts.  Anyway, as we took turns sharing our pictures with the class, it was finally my turn and I was pretty excited that no one else had wanted to be my dream job yet.  So you can imagine how upset I became when a classmate interrupted me to say that could never happen because only boys could be presidents.  I promptly started crying, but it was an angry kind of (embarrassed) crying.  That kid probably unwittingly planted some of the earliest seeds for my lifelong feminism.  I was sure I’d prove him wrong – some day!

. . .

I never made a conscious choice to work in the field of Information Technology.  What started as a student worker position in my university IT department eventually turned into full time job, but even though I was working full time, I spent many years thinking my day job was just a placeholder until I could graduate and get on with my real career. Eventually I realized that the calling for public service I felt from a very young age has been realized by a career in IT, it just took a different path than I expected, and I didn’t think of it that way for so long in part because the narrative society tells us about what it means to work in technical fields is all wrong.

Working in Engineering and Information Technology is all about helping people.  It isn’t some abstract, impersonal problem solving exercise.

I was fortunate to have had early access to a computer and other kinds of technology even as a pretty young girl.  My grandpa was an engineer, and the day he taught me how to load up games on his Commodore 64 was life altering.  Load “*”, 8, 1 became a passport into whole new exciting worlds and I can directly trace my current job right back to that very first experience.  I also knew one of my uncles was a computer programmer, and as I got older, I certainly understood that his job was high paying, challenging, and high status.  Another uncle was an engineer too, and I knew he also had a good paying job and everyone seemed to respect his work and his career.  All these men in my family, who I loved and respected, who seemed to be judged as some of the most successful career-wise in the family, and yet I had absolutely ZERO interest in doing what they did for a living.  Why?  Because it all sounded so darned boring.

My first game addiction, Ultima III Exodus on the Commodore 64.

When I think back to what that young version of me thought of their jobs, I associate all kinds of very dry, abstract concepts and words to their work.  It seemed to involve a lot of math.  It seemed to be about working with tools and machines and metals.  It seemed to have nothing at all to do with other human beings, other people, or about solving the kinds of social problems that I found interesting and compelling as I got older and more conscious of the wider world.  Somewhere along the line, I got the idea that technical fields like engineering and computer science were not only off limits for girls, but they were about inhuman, mechanical things, which I had no interest in anyway!

What’s funny is that you could excuse this misconception from a young girl growing up in the 80s, but it’s a lot harder to understand how I could still think that way even as an adult actually working in an IT job, and even though my mom worked in IT too!  The difference was, my mom’s work stories were always about the people and relationships, so even though she also worked in a technical field I guess I didn’t associate her job in the same way – I thought of her as a people problem solver, not a technical problem solver, and somehow never made the connection between the two.

Connecting the purpose of our work to the tools we use to do it

I think what happened is that the information I absorbed about what it means to work in a technical field was focused on the tools used to do the work, not the purpose of the work.  And frankly, a hammer just isn’t very interesting.  But if you talk about how using a hammer can help you build houses, and building houses helps families have stable, happy homes, then suddenly that inanimate hammer object is placed in a human context that’s tied to something relatable even to the youngest of children.  Focusing on the tools used in technical fields is obviously appealing to some people, but it certainly wasn’t appealing to me.

Because of these misconceptions about IT work, I spent the early part of my career avoiding the more challenging technical aspects of the job.  Partly it was out of fear that I wouldn’t be smart enough to figure it out (girls can’t be system administrators or programmers!), and partly because I was under the mistaken impression that becoming more technically adept would take me further away from the human interaction that I loved most about my job.  It took me years to discover that I was wrong on both counts.  Perhaps if someone had helped me connect the dots, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to discover how thrilling it is create something new that people find useful or valuable, or how wonderful it is to empower others to use technology for their own goals.

Me explaining the architecture of the University of Cincinnati’s OpenSimulator grid.

I think the way we frame the narrative of technology work has a lot to do with why girls and women choose other career paths.  Even today, I doubt many people would associate working in technology with public service, even though in large part, the purpose of our work is about solving human problems, improving living conditions, and making society better. We just don’t talk about it that way.  And we should, because for all the little girls (and boys) who are drawn to the human elements of a particular career, we want them to know that IT and engineering jobs can be very human centered!  Yes the programming and software and protocols are necessary to do the work, but that’s not why we do the work – we do the work to make the world a better, safer, more interesting and beautiful place, just like doctors and veterinarians and ballerinas – and (hopefully) presidents.

Ada Lovelace Day aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire. This international day of celebration helps people learn about the achievements of women in STEM, inspiring others and creating new role models for young and old alike.

Ada Lovelace is widely held to have been the first computer programmer. Close friends with inventor Charle Babbage, Lovelace was intrigued by his Analytical Engine and in 1842, she translated a description of it by italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea. Babbage asked her to expand the article, “as she understood [it] so well”, and this was when she wrote several early ‘computer programs’. Ada Lovelace died of cancer at 36, her potential tragically unfulfilled.  

Learn more about Ada Lovelace and do your part to support women in science, technology, engineering, and math!


24
Aug 12

Why Anyone Who Cares About the Metaverse Needs to Move Beyond Second Life; Now, Not Later

tl;dr:  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.

Five or six years ago, you could not have found a more enthusiastic and engaged supporter of the Second Life platform than me. Like many, I was inspired by the technology itself and especially by the vision of a company who promised us a new world built from our imaginations. Back then, the leadership of Second Life actually said things like “I’m not building a game. I’m building a new country.” (I love that Gwyn keeps that quote from Philip Rosedale in her sig line.) While I was always skeptical about that “new country” bit, I was completely and passionately in love with the idea that we were creating a new world – a new KIND of world – that exploded with possibilities and opportunities for those who were open to learning how to use them.

I’d read Snow Crash too, of course, and it wasn’t just the idea of Second Life itself that excited me, but rather the idea that Second Life was a seed, a prototype, a very rough but crucially important first step towards the creation of an open metaverse. Even back then, my imagination supplied me with a thrilling vision of what the metaverse could become. I could see it in my mind’s eye, this online incredibly complex 3D universe of people, places, and things, of not just one new world, but many new worlds, connected to one another, traversable with our digital bodies, varied and wonderful and full of commerce, educational opportunities, entertainment, creativity, and all the magical things that we could collectively unleash from our imaginations. The metaverse would be the next iteration of the net and the web, moving from flat, mostly static, two dimensional pages to dynamic, live, and action oriented 3D online places.

Most exciting to me, this digital variation of our physical universe would not be limited by so many things that constrain us in the physical world – lack of capital, limits on consumable resources, the difficulties of physical distance, and the incredibly stale and inflexible institutions and legal structures that are cracking and groaning and failing to adapt even to the exigencies of the real world, forget being able to address the digital world.  It wouldn’t take millions of dollars to build a company headquarters in the metaverse, no need for lumber and concrete either – pixels are limitless. And it wouldn’t matter if your colleagues lived in Dubai or Dublin or Dallas, you could still work together side by side in a virtual space and collaborate on a shared design in real time, in some ways better even than you could in the real world. And maybe, just maybe, all that plasticity and the ability to visualize things in new ways would help us discover new angles to solving intractable old real world problems, too.

I became absolutely convinced that those of us pioneering these new digital worlds would have the opportunity to do better in the virtual worlds we create than has been done in the real world we inherited, and that we could learn from our experiences in virtual worlds to make the real world a better place, too.

And in those early days, forget the technology or the company or the leadership at the helm, the most wonderful thing about Second Life back then is that I kept meeting people who were thinking the same thing. Logging into Second Life was like mainlining a drug, everywhere you teleported, you might just bump into someone brilliant, thoughtful, someone as excited about the possibilities as you were. Everywhere you looked were fascinating projects: scientists playing with visualizing data, artists creating experiences that were just not possible in real life, regular everyday people starting new businesses and finding financial success, professors and educators holding classes in the clouds and building a community of practice that made even the most isolated innovator in some corner of the physical world feel like they had finally found the colleagues and collaborators of their dreams.

Everywhere you looked was innovation.
Everyone you met was experimenting, trying new things, pushing new boundaries.
Anything seemed possible.  Maybe even probable.

I became so inspired, so excited by the possibilities that it quite literally changed my life. Trying to understand this prototype of the metaverse, and figuring out how to achieve those goals became the focus of my career.  I was travelling all over the US speaking about Second Life and the metaverse at conferences and lectures, and I was deeply engaged in my own projects in-world, too. Learning not just how to twist a pile of prims into something beautiful, but how that pile of prims could be used to facilitate a community like Chilbo, a classroom at my university, or bring people together for a conference like SLBPE or SLCC. The more I learned, the more sure I became that great things were possible because this rough little prototype of the metaverse had already enriched and changed my life for the better – I was quite certain it could change other people’s lives for the better, too.

I had a vision of the future and I worked very damned hard to help bring it to life, not in isolation, but with thousands of other people who were working hard to do the same thing. And the most wonderful part was that we had found each other, from all corners of the physical world, we discovered in each other a passion for making the metaverse a reality.

It was an exciting, heady time. I miss those days. And if you were one of those people, I bet you do, too.

That Was Then, This is Now

The road from there to here has been an interesting one. I was incredibly lucky that my personal circumstances and the university where I work gave me the space, time, and resources to dive deep into the topic. I spent the next several years fully engaged in the work, the space, the people, the projects, the platforms. I’ve read hundreds of academic articles, thousands of blog posts and news stories and editorials. I’ve had the opportunity to work on so many fantastically interesting projects, I’ve organized conferences and participated in scores of events to bring people who share this passion together in real life and virtually, and I’ve explored as many worlds and spaces as time has allowed to see what others are doing too.

And while there will always be someone more technically gifted than me, more knowledgeable, more connected.. I think it is fair to say I’ve developed some expertise in this topic, some genuine experience in understanding how and when a virtual world application makes sense and when it doesn’t, what the challenges and opportunities are, and some inklings of what the future may hold now that I’m not just wide-eyed with wonder, but seasoned by the trials and tribulations of not just starting projects in the fledgling metaverse, but leading them, staffing them, maintaining them, supporting them, marketing them, and finishing them. To be sure, some of my youthful naivete has departed, but I’d like to think it’s left some wisdom in its place, and here is what the view looks like to me now.

It would be fair to say that no single company or single platform could ever have lived up to the kinds of expectations that I described in the beginning of this post. Linden Lab and Second Life could never be all things to all people, and I give them credit for even trying to address the needs of so many diverse use cases and such a passionately vocal and creative userbase. And I do believe that they tried. For a very long time, I think they did try, sincerely and genuinely, to help bring the visions of Second Life’s residents to life. I personally worked with many folks from the Lab who were as passionate and committed as I was, and who tried their best to facilitate the projects and events that I worked on.

And while they were of course always working for Linden Lab and had to keep the company’s interests in mind, there were hints that some of the folks at Linden Lab also shared our passion for the metaverse itself, beyond Second Life. For a time, there seemed to be at least the possibility that Linden Lab might grow into a larger role, not just serving as a provider of a world called Second Life, but maybe they could become a steward of that burgeoning metaverse, sharing their technology with others in service of that broader goal in a “rising tide lifts all boats” kind of way. Before so many brilliant engineers and thinkers left the Lab, they took concrete steps in that direction, even – they open sourced the viewer code, they participated in research with IBM to test inter-world teleports, and when Philip spoke to us, the residents, he painted that kind of picture. This was not a game. This was about changing the world, real and virtual.

That was Linden Lab then. That is not Linden Lab now.

The Metaverse Will Not Come From Linden Lab or Second Life

I still see the Second Life platform as that first crucial step towards the metaverse, but anyone with two eyes in her head can see that it’s been many years and many changes in management since there was even a hope that Second Life itself would be anything but one world whose sole purpose is to make one company a profit. Linden Lab isn’t even a publicly traded company, for that matter, so we who have invested countless hours, poured thousands and thousands of dollars, staked our reputations and careers, and devoted our creativity and passions to the Second Life platform – we who made Second Life what it is – we can’t even see into the black box a tiny little bit. In truth, we don’t own even a tiny piece of this thing that we helped create.

It has always been that way, of course, even back in the beginning. But back then I also had some.. let’s call it faith, that the people in charge at Linden Lab shared at least some small part of the same vision that I had. Even if they went about it differently than I would do, or chose to prioritize different things than I would have chosen, I had some faith that both we the residents and Linden Lab the company were in some way working in concert with one another. At times it was discordant, and cacophonous, and certainly chaotic, but what complicated and pioneering endeavor isn’t?

And don’t forget, I was seeing these people, in person, at events and conferences all over the country.  I could look into their eyes and see my own passions reflected in them, and that sustained me even when I disagreed, sometimes vehemently, with their decisions and choices. They were good people making a good faith effort to do something good, and I was willing to endure all manner of inconveniences, indignities, and even embarrassingly horrible failures in the middle of important-to-my-career presentations, all because I felt that good faith effort deserved my patience and my loyalty.

I do not feel that way anymore. You shouldn’t either. It’s not because Linden Lab has become Evil or something silly like that (though I’ve long and often thought the dictionary definition of “mismanagement” should include their company logo), but simply because their priorities are no longer our priorities – not even close. If there was any question, the recent announcement about adding Second Life to Steam should put that doubt to rest. Linden Lab is pivoting, as they like to say in start-up land, and they’re pivoting to gamers. They’re no more interested in expanding or creating the metaverse than EA or Blizzard is, the only world changing thing they are aiming for now is better monetization of the entertainment and virtual goods sector.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with gaming – I am a gamer myself, and unlike Prokofy, I don’t think all gamers are idiots or griefers. I have a Steam account and play lots of games on there, and right this moment, I’m anxiously anticipating this weekend’s release of Guild Wars 2 like I haven’t looked forward to a new game in a long time (I’m going to start a guild if I can’t find one, come join me!). And a bit ironically given my last professional experience with Linden Lab, I actually like what I’ve seen of Rod Humble the person; he seems genuine and thoughtful and deeply knowledgeable about the game industry. I look forward to seeing what the newly re-focused Linden Lab comes up with, and I hope it is entertaining and interesting and successful. I’ll even hope that it continues to push the envelope technologically.

But game worlds are not the metaverse. They don’t want to be the metaverse, or participate in the metaverse, or have anything to do with an online universe where people can travel freely, create freely, start their own companies, or do their own thing. Game worlds are about sucking us into someone else’s world, where they endeavor to create an entertainment experience that is so enthralling that we willingly fork over cash to keep experiencing it. Which is great, sometimes really great, and fun and addicting and all that good stuff. But any game experience, no matter how thrilling, pales in comparison to what we who have lived in the fledgling metaverse know is possible, what we know could be possible if the kinds of resources, talent, technology, and effort that currently gets invested in game worlds were to be invested in the metaverse instead.

The thing is, once you’ve made your own world, you can never go back to being satisfied only playing in other people’s worlds. Or at least that’s the way it is for me.

Now someone out there is going to argue that it’s not like Linden Lab is going to turn Second Life into WoW or something, that they are at least trying to pivot to something of a hybrid between game worlds and virtual worlds. That seems to be what Gwyn thinks, and I’ll agree that there’s truth to that, but it’s important to remember that virtual worlds are not the metaverse either. Virtual worlds are some step before the metaverse, before we figure out how to connect everything up. It’s another intermediary step, and while we’re working on learning how do that, we can’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Whatever hybrid Linden Lab intends to make, they’ve signaled very strongly that they are simply not interested in having their virtual world participate in any of this metaverse stuff at all.

Which means for those of us who want to see the metaverse become a reality in our lifetimes, their goals are not our goals. Their priorities are not our priorities. The metaverse is not going to grow out of Linden Lab or Second Life, it’s that simple.

But I Can’t Leave My Inventory!  And My Friends!  And My Awesome Builds!

Does this mean you have to leave Second Life? No of course not, even I haven’t done that. I still have projects for work in Second Life and though Chilbo has changed to a mostly private landowner model, we’re still there and I still have a strong connection to my friends, colleagues, and communities in Second Life.

But I have tiered down, way down, and I have begun to invest my time and money largely elsewhere – in Opensim, in Unity, in exploring other nascent platforms and technologies that might be a step in the metaverse direction. I think if you care at all about making the metaverse a reality, that’s what you should do, too, and there are several reasons why:

The first reason is that Second Life is not a safe place or a good place to store your work. At some point, maybe not this year, maybe not even next year, but at some point you will have the epiphany that you have poured your creativity into a very, very fragile jar that is held by someone who does not give one hoot that they hold your most precious efforts in their hands. Worse, you will also realize that you have paid a ridiculously high price to have your creativity held in a jar owned by someone else. Worse still, it will break your heart when they drop the jar and all your effort shatters into a million pieces that you can’t easily pick up, if at all. (Ask the educational community, they will tell you.)

Imagine you are writing that novel you’ve always dreamed of writing, the novel that will change the world. And it’s early on in the development of software for writing novels, so there are only one or two platforms that allow you to even do it. One of the downsides of these early platforms is, you can only ever work on your novel on their servers, and the only copy that exists of your novel only exists on their servers. But hey, there aren’t any other good options out there, so you dive in, pouring your heart and soul into writing the best novel you can.

The more you add to your novel, as the years pass, the more attached you become, until one day something terrible happens. You lose your job, or you get sick, or the stock market crashes, whatever the reason, suddenly you can’t afford to pay for access to your novel. And just like that, all that work, all that effort, gone in a blink. Or one day the company changes its mind and decides it doesn’t even want to host novels anymore, novels are not their target market now, who needs these novel writing people! And just like that, all that work, all that effort, gone in a blink.

How many writers would choose to write their novel on a platform like that? None. NO ONE. Only someone insane would choose to do that. Only someone deluded would choose to do that and pay through the nose for the privilege once there were other options available.

Unfortunately, you sometimes pay a really high price for being an early adopter. Back then, Second Life was the only virtual world game in town, and you didn’t have any choices. That is no longer the case.  Linden Lab should allow you to make a copy of your work, but they don’t. And to continue the analogy, they don’t want to give you a copy of your novel because they need you to keep paying the hostage fees to access it.

My advice is: Stop being a hostage. Or at least stop being blind to it. And think about what it means for Linden Lab to decide for you, for us, whether we can have a copy of our own stories.

The second reason you need to shift your focus elsewhere is because other platforms need your passion and your creativity and your help. We all benefit when there are choices, when there are options, and when there is a healthy ecosystem of competition. Five years ago I would have guessed there would be many platform choices by now, but there aren’t, and it’s my fault. And your fault. We’ve remained so focused on one platform that we’ve allowed the virtual world ecosystem to atrophy to the point where you could hardly even say there is an ecosystem at all. And that’s bad – for businesses, for educators, for artists, it’s bad for virtual worlds, and it’s bad for the metaverse to come.

We need there to be a million laboratories and experiments happening, we need to have different options for different use cases, and we need to continue to grow the virtual worlds and metaverse “space” even if it isn’t the hot media darling it once was. In fact, we need to do it especially because it is not the hot media darling it once was. All those VCs and angel investors looking to drop a few million bucks on the hot new thing are so wrapped up in mobile and tablets and whatnot that the metaverse doesn’t stand a chance in hell of getting attention from anyone but the people who passionately believe in it. That’s us.

And what we lack in monetary capital we make up for in intellectual capital and the patience and perseverance to click through fifty bazillion checkboxes if that’s what it takes to figure out how to do something. We are not deterred by horrible user interfaces and inconvenient re-starts, by constant patching and broken viewers. We have put up with more trials and tribulations to make our visions a reality in Second Life than obviously most sane people were willing to do – so what is holding us back from moving beyond Second Life to continue to grow the space? I can’t believe it’s because it’s too hard, SECOND LIFE IS TOO HARD, for god’s sake.  Still!  After all these years, it still takes a ridiculous amount of effort to do anything in Second Life. So I don’t buy the difficulty argument, or the lack of features argument. That’s baloney.

No, other things are holding us back, and mostly I think it is that we’ve forgotten the vision. Well, remember it. Think back, remember what you hoped for, and let that sustain you as you move beyond Second Life to explore and help create new worlds that desperately need people like us to invest our time and talents into growing the virtual worlds and metaverse of tomorrow.

My advice: The single easiest thing for you to do is to begin with Opensim. Forget what you’ve heard or read about Opensim, forget all the frothing over content theft and copybots, and forget whatever experience you had with Opensim a few years ago. Opensim (and by extension OSGrid)  is the closest thing to what Second Life should have become, could have become if the Cory Ondrejka’s of the Lab hadn’t left. The only thing it doesn’t have is the monetary capital that Linden Lab has squandered in bad management and bad decisions, and the intellectual capital required to hit that tipping point of adoption necessary for there to be “enough” people using it to find the collaborators, content, and creativity that you need for your projects.

I’ll save a big treatise on Opensim for another day. It isn’t perfect, and it has its own set of issues, but it is actually more stable and more feature rich than Second Life in many ways, and any excuses that it’s too hard or too confusing fall upon my deaf ears. It isn’t. Stop making excuses. If you care about virtual worlds and the metaverse, you need to be taking at least some portion of your time, money, and efforts from Second Life and investing it in Opensim instead. You’ll be able to put all the years you’ve spent learning Second Life to good use, since it’s not like learning a completely different platform from the ground up, and you’ll be contributing to a community of people who deeply care about the future of the metaverse. Heck, you need to get into Opensim if for no other reason than you will learn more about Second Life than you ever have in all your years on the main grid.

Most importantly, Opensim’s whole raison d’etre is about growing the virtual worlds and metaverse space. Unlike Linden Lab, who have chosen to keep their one world for their profit, Opensim is all about your world, your imagination – quite literally, you can run your own world. (And you should, even as just a learning exercise. I’ll help you personally if you want to try, and if you haven’t, go visit my little personal world FleepGrid.)  I think you might be amazed at what you find, especially in the open hypergrid personal worlds rather than the InWorldz and SpotOn3D closed worlds, who, just like Second Life, want to be one world for their own profit*. Skip those and seek out the smaller grids and open grids and find your passion for the metaverse rekindled.

(* I can already hear Prokofy’s rebuttal ringing in my ears. I am not saying that for-profit projects or motivations are bad, in fact I think they can be good, and they are definitely necessary. I’m merely pointing out that some people are motivated by things other than profit, and I’m primarily addressing the audience of readers who, like me, are in that group. Call us naive do-gooders, or copyleft crazies, but we also contribute many good and meaningful things to the space and have a right to seek out like-minded projects and people.)

The third, and most important reason, you need to move beyond Second Life is because we’re getting old, and the metaverse can’t wait. Some time ago I came across an interview with Philip Rosedale where he said something about how he’d spent his 30’s doing Second Life and it was time to move on. It struck me because, while I’m a little younger than he is, I’ve now spent the majority of my 30’s working in this space, too, and in that time I’ve developed both a better understanding of just how long it can take for a technology to mature and just how intractable some of the technical and social barriers we face are.  Making the Metaverse might not be rocket science, but it isn’t easy either, and we still have a ton of work to do.  We have a lot of technical problems to solve, for sure, but we also have a lot of cultural work to do, and in my opinion, the cultural and social stuff is actually harder.  I can teach anyone how to click through a menu, it’s much more difficult to teach them why they should want to.

It’s going on 20 years since I discovered this thing called the internet, and from those very early days, I’ve always felt my personal talents lie in the ability to bridge gaps between different groups of technology users – to play the role of a translator.  Back in the 90’s when my role was primarily tech-support, I translated programmers’ intentions to end-users, and end-users’ needs to programmers.  Then in the early 2000’s when I was teaching workshops about using technology in education, I translated Gen-X/Y students’ behaviors for Baby Boomer faculty, and vice-versa.  These days, I find myself trying to translate to those living with today’s technology what we who have lived with tomorrow’s technology have learned, and at times it’s an immensely frustrating experience.  But equally frustrating is the stagnation I see even among those I admire and respect, who seem to have lost a little bit of that edge, that desire, to see more, much more, than mesh, and pathfinding, and whatever new shiny thing Linden Lab has bolted onto the same old broken chassis.

When I think back to where I started, I would have predicted we’d be much, much further along the road to the metaverse today than we actually are.  I’d have expected not just incremental improvements in tools, but whole new revolutions in how we translate our visions into pixels.  That hasn’t happened as much as I’d have liked.  I’d have thought that culturally, more people would be able to see and appreciate the benefits that virtual reality provides and would have embraced the opportunity to take advantage of it.  Surprisingly, people’s imaginations are more limited than I’d have guessed (including my own), and while we have seen things like Facebook and Twitter adopted more broadly, those are still flat, largely textual pages, not places to explore and experience together.  They are just iterations of the first webpage I saw back in the early 90s, not the revolution that Second Life once was, not the revolution that the metaverse needs to be.

Which brings me back to the whole game thing.  Back when Philip ran the Lab, Second Life was not a game. Under Rod’s leadership, a game is exactly what he’s trying to turn it into.

My advice is:  If you want to see the metaverse we imagined, then stop playing the perpetual hoping and waiting game that Second Life is.  Because if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that the metaverse won’t spring forth from hoping and waiting.

 

Update:  I had a super busy week at work, so I’m still stewing and thinking about all of the comments.  In the meantime, I wanted to add links to the various responses and side discussions that were posted elsewhere both for myself and for other interested readers.  Many thanks to all for the food for thought!  (Please let me know if I missed any, too!)


13
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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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 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.  🙂


10
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.

 


10
Dec 11

Why This Gmail User Switched to 2-Step Authentication And You Should Too

A few weeks ago, I took the plunge to change to Google’s 2-Factor authentication for increased security and after reading a horrifying article in The Atlantic about a user’s Gmail getting hacked and all of their email deleted, I’m glad that I did.  From the article in The Atlantic:

At Google I asked Byrant Gehring, of Gmail’s consumer-operations team, how often attacks occur. “Probably in the low thousands,” he said. “Per month?,” I asked. “No, per day,” followed by the reassurance that most were short-lived “hijackings,” used to send spam and phishing messages, and caused little or no damage, unlike our full-out attack. My wife and I, having heard from half a dozen friends who’d recently had similar problems, had innocently imagined that we all were part of some general upsurge in Gmail attacks. In our grandiosity, we thought it was perhaps even aimed at journalists. But according to the experts, while there are more e‑mail attacks worldwide than a year ago, it was mere coincidence that people we knew had been hit around the same time. On average, half a dozen accounts are taken over every two or three minutes, round the clock, including now.

I often say that Google owns my online soul because it’s true.  I switched to using Gmail years ago and since that time I’ve eventually adopted a huge number of Google services to manage my online life – Google Docs, Google Checkout, Google has my calendar, Google Analytics for checking my website traffic..  My Google account contains tons of crucial data.  And while I’ve gotten much better about performing automatic backups of my local data, I’ve not been nearly as good about keeping track of my data in the cloud, and despite knowing better, I’ve been somewhat lazy about my passwords, too.

I haven’t had any catastrophic hacks or data loss events recently, but in general, 2011 has been a year of re-thinking my use of the cloud and third party services, and as part of that I’m also trying to improve my overall “data hygeine” by making backups of cloud based services and improving my password security around the web.  It’s a tedious job and I can’t say it’s been easy.  Some friends have suggested password manager sites like KeePass but I’m still wary and haven’t made that jump yet.  Instead I’ve just tried to do some simple but smarter things like not re-using the same password everywhere and making the passwords I do use longer and more complex – with special characters and not just numbers, spaces if a site allows it.

All of these things are helping me feel a little less vulnerable over-all, and I definitely feel that the switch to Google 2-Factor authentication was a good move even if it’s been slightly inconvenient a time or two.  When I think about how much data is tied to my Google account and how reliant I am on that access to do my day-to-day work, a little inconvenience is a small price to pay for the additional security.

If you don’t know what 2-Factor authentication is, check out Google’s explanation and overview, but basically, I can’t log into my Google account from a new computer unless I can enter the verification code they send to my cell phone.  I have some backup phone numbers available in case I’m somewhere without cell phone service, and a list of backup codes written old skool style on paper in case I don’t even have that.  But generally speaking, this means some random dude from Nigeria cannot log into my account unless he’s also got my cell phone.

If you use Gmail or other Google services, you should switch to the 2-Step Authentication asap.

Again from the Hacked article in The Atlantic:

WHAT ABOUT THE rest of us, who are not security professionals? I asked that of every person I interviewed. Many of their recommendations boiled down to the hope that people would think more about their life online. “We’d like people to view their information life the way they view other parts of their life,” Andrew Kovacs of Google said. “It’s a good practice to review your financial situation every so often, and it’s a good practice to review your passwords and online-account information too.” Another official compared “cloud hygiene” to personal hygiene: you feel bad if you don’t brush your teeth or take a shower, and you should learn to feel bad if you’re taking risks online.

I’ve been feeling bad about the risks I’ve taken online and every step I take to get a little more security helps.  Hope you take those steps too because none of us wants to be the woman in that story.