I’ve been aware for a long time now that Linden Lab, creators and maintainers of the Second Life grid, are completely unaware of large swathes of what happens here and – perhaps more significantly – what is important to residents to maintain their businesses (and cause them to grow), and what is largely irrelevant or – at best – peripheral.
For me, a classic example of this came when Jack Linden was on the Designing Worlds show and, as we chatted before the show, he mentioned casually that as part of the introduction of mesh, prims would be increasing in size from the standard 10×10 to 64×64.
“I hope you’ll announce that on the show!” I said.
“Why?” he said, and he seemed genuinely puzzled. “Will people here be interested?”
Of course, when he did announce it on the show, the auditorium, packed with designers, exploded with excitement at the possibilities (and the realization that here would be a form of solid megaprims that would be highly unlikely to be deleted by some careless Linden, unaware that s/he was removing a significant proportion of heritage builds across the grid, (to say nothing of the resident homes that would lose a wall or a roof).
I was reminded of this the other day when the messages I routinely send to notify people about treet shows suddenly failed. The reason was rapidly apparent – the Lab had decided – without any warning – to impose a ‘choke’ on the number of messages that could be sent by one avatar from one sim over a limited space of time.
For those of us who run businesses, it’s common to use some messenger service. The most efficient way to message people within Second Life is through the Groups messaging system; using this, messages and items (landmarks, notecards, gifts) are delivered almost instantly. But there are drawbacks. People are only allowed a certain number of groups – currently 42, it was originally 25, which filled very rapidly for active residents between special event groups (like RFL, SL Birthdays), land management groups (in order to set out prims in your home), groups for interests (like roleplay, medical support groups), favourite stores which give lovely gifts and favourite musicians who send notice of concerts. Joining groups could also be a little hit and miss – for stores that had steady locations, setting out a group joiner was relatively straightforward, but not mainly people were likely to visit a magazine HQ just because they like the magazine – you just had to hope they would read the magazine, like it, and check out the group list – not the most efficient of marketing methods.
So an alternative system of gaining members was devised by enterprising residents – the subscriber system. Residents liked it because it set no limit on the number of groups you could join. Stores liked it because it offered a variety of stats about group members (some let you see where and when people subscribed, for example, others were configured so you can see dormant subscribers and periodically remove them). There were – and are – some systems that allow you to subscribe people yourself, but many were designed – like the group system – to be subscriber driven. That means that someone has to touch the kiosk to subscribe (and unsubscribe).
For many people, this was a great way of getting round the group limitations. For Prim Perfect (and Designing Worlds and The Primgraph) it was a huge blessing. Previously, we had had kiosks set out in stores across the grid, which meant that if people were in stores, they could pick up the magazine – but even if they liked it, it would depend on their being in a store that carried a kiosk the following month as to whether they got the next issue, unless they started buying it on the Marketplace or reading it on the web. And in order to set out the kiosks (which were originally non-transferable) someone had to go to the store, join the land group and set it out. It was all rather haphazard – and caused endless problems if a store owner moved locations.
With the new subscribers kiosks, we could hand the kiosks to store owners to place where they wanted, move, delete whatever. They came in a range of styles too. It’s a system that serves us well. The only downside is that when you gain a lot of subscribers, the rate at which messages are sent out slows down. It can take five hours to deliver a message to all the Prim Perfect readers whereas the Linden Lab group system delivers instantly (on a good day!).
There are a range of subscription systems – Subscribe-o-Matic, Hippo Groups, Artizan Mailbox and Fred Allendale’s Subscriber Kiosk are amongst the best known. Artizan Mailbox allows you to compile your own mailing list – I use it to send out Christmas presents and invitations to the annual Prim Perfect birthday. Technically, mailings like this could be seen as spamming – but I suspect many people use them similarly. FRom the magazines and the TV shows, the mailing lists are opt in – people have had to touch a kiosk to subscribe and they are told to touch again if they want out – both in a system message and in a sign on the front of the kiosk.
Nevertheless, once or twice a month I get an angry IM about this. Not a “Help – I want to unsubscribe and I can’t find a kiosk – can you do it for me?” which I’m always very happy to do. No, these are aggressive – “You’re spamming me and I’m reporting you to the Lab for abuse!”
My response to them is to unsubscribe them immediately and to send them a polite note pointing out that they chose to subscribe to us. I give them the data I have of where and when they subscribed, wish them a nice day and there the correspondence usually ends. A couple have decided at this point that they want to re-subscribe; I gently dissuade them. Anyone who doesn’t understand the basics of the subscriber system is more trouble than they’re worth. A few still try to pin the blame on me. “I subscribed there? I haven’t been there for years!” they cry, as though the fact that they palpably were there in 2009 and subscribed to a magazine they’ve been receiving ever since is completely irrelevant.
But they are a small drop in the ocean of people who happily receive the magazine and notices of the TV shows.
However, one of the comments on the Jira by Kelly Linden regarding the throttling of messages (causing the system to silently fail) gave me pause in the same way that Jack Linden’s remark gave me pause:
Unfortunately some mailing list and product updaters may break or need to be updated. To stop a griefing mode that has effects on the entire grid’s back end infrastructure a throttle was added to llGiveInventory. This throttle matches (but is separate from) the existing throttle on llInstantMessage and exists for nearly identical reasons. That throttle is 5k per hour per owner per region; the maximum burst is 2.5k. It is impossible to hit this limit with a single script, but systems designed to spam very large amounts very rapidly may hit it and need to be adjusted. We will be monitoring the effect of this throttle to adjust it as we can if needed.
Eh? Spamming? I can imagine that griefers might use some of these tools – but Kelly was casually referring to all the messages sent as spamming – which displays a profound mis-understanding of the ways in which residents have evolved inworld mailing lists to meet an important business need. She goes on:
Security issues like this, especially of this grid wide severity, require that we act swiftly and without significant prior notice, for which we do apologize.
This suggests either that a system that has been operated very happily for five or five years by a very large number of Second Life businesses has suddenly become the target of griefers (but I haven’t heard of any mailing list spam – have you?) or that Linden Lab have suddenly become aware of the system through abuse reports, such as the ones that have been threatened against me by people who have subscribed and then forgotten all about it. Rather than realising it’s something they did that triggered this, their default response is a complaint to the Lab who have reacted.
It may be that we’re seeing another aspect of this with the Third Party Viewer policy. Even the alterations that seem rather sensible can have the effect of breaking systems – the online/offline status that will break information systems in clubs and estate management offices, for example.
The problem, as I see it, is not that Linden Lab are setting out deliberately to break things – the problem is that they are trying to manage a system of such inordinate complexity that it is impossible for them to keep pace. In correcting or improving one area, they are, frequently inadvertently, breaking something else that might be absolutely key to a whole raft of the grid – because they don’t know.
Again and again, the creativity and ingenuity have taken them by surprise. It might even underlie the Homestead debacle, which was a major turning point in relations between the Lab and the residents. It may be that they seriously under-estimated the capacity of people to build feverishly with the prims they were given. It’s also present in the way that the adaption of mesh is going. “You can use this for building … ” “Clothes don’t fit properly.” “Yes, but we meant you to use it for … ” “Don’t you hear me? Clothes don’t fit properly!!” “But we never thought you’d use it to … ” “Oh for goodness sake. Another half-assed Lab release. Fix It Now.”
And, believe me, creators have barely scratched the surface of the potential for mesh to seriously screw with the Lab. I am cornering the market in virtual popcorn for this one.
Earlier, I commented on the Sand Castle Studio blog about Third Party Viewers and I said this:
But I’m coming to believe that a key problem for the Lab (and for the Second Life users) is simply that the organism is so vast that the people maintaining it don’t understand what is done with it. Like a doctor treating someone for bunions, they don’t realise (without being told) that the patient will be going out on stage that night and performing pirouettes, so some courses of treatment just won’t work. Even worse, this is a doctor who has never seen the ballet and so fails to understand what a pirouette is …
Gianna Borgnine pointed out that if a doctor listens carefully to a patient, then it shouldn’t be necessary to know the ballet in order to understand them problem. But are Linden Lab able to listen? Because, what are they actually listening to? From their side, a cacophony of voices with a hundred different ideas and views on Any. Single. Issue. From our side, a failure to have channels that allow our voices to be heard – and in the resultant silence frustration grows, until it is replaced by the more deadly despair.
Because that was what struck me about the Jira for the mailing lists. There was some anger that a major system in Second Life that hundreds of businesses depended on had suddenly, silently failed – without any prior warning from the Lab. But overall, there was a kind of “Stay Calm and Carry On” Blitz spirit about this. Yes, Jerry has flattened our street, but there’s temporary accommodation in the church hall, and the WVS are providing tea and sandwiches from their little wagon parked on the corner in the midst of the rubble, for all those who are out there clearing up the mess.
But surely we can do better than this? Surely we should be doing better than this?