Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Triangle of Fire

One concept I learned about in a writing project is "The Triangle of Fire." A fire needs heat, fuel and oxygen to burn. There are other kinds of combustion, but that is the one we worry about: heat, oxygen fire. Peter Daou who has been called "the foremost student of how media, politics and blogs work together," there is a triangle of power that has to "close" to create real political movement. I am going to take Peter's idea of social triangles and apply it to second life.

In second life the holy triangle that produces growing and living social experience is content, provider and user.

Content people make things, like clothes. They don't spend as much time in world, because they are busy in Blender, Photoshop or Poser. They make your clothes in world, perhaps, but mostly they are in an application, and are in world long enough to test it. They often don't have much time in world. It is amazing how often I have just written to a designer and made a friend, because the designer does not meet many people.

Providers manage the world. They are in world, building malls, clubs, providing escort services and so on. Providers at the top spend less time in world because they are managing websites and staff, but they are still intimately connected with being in world and managing the social intricacies of Second Life. Some content people spend a great deal of time in world, like scripters and builders, but they are often "busy" with their work.

Users are what bring the two together. Even if a club is just run for fun, even if a designer is only working for their own amusement, there have to be users to make the work really worth while. What good is a club, if the floor is always empty.

That triangle coming together is the key to making anything in Second Life, especially money. The provider creates a location, a reason to come someplace in Second Life. Content people rent mall space or come to the conferences and and meetings. Users are drawn to the place, and they buy things there, and provide activity. The content they buy makes their social presence more valuable, by looking good and having more capabilities in world. This is the second life "triangle of fire."

There are two other triangles. One is the corporate triangle of business that wants presence, corporate provider like Millions of US. The third is "audience." This is a less powerful triangle, as the number of large, expensive, flashing, but empty builds shows. Has Playboy knocked any of the big three out of contention? No, because the build is a disaster! It is my contention that many businesses need to realize that going to a corporate website for a build is often waste of their money, because the corporate builder is a content shop, and does not have providers.

The third triangle is the one that is killing Second Life: scammer, spammer and parasite/noob. The scammer provides poor quality content, the spammer provides low quality social interaction and camping, the parasite camps, and the noob is the one fleeced. Go to the Red Light District, look at the amount of pirated content for sale their. The scammer spends his or her money on camping and creating a fake crowd, and therefore does not have the ability to charge for real content. Instead, they rely on people who, trained by the World Wide Web to look at the top few hits on Google and assume the rest are pretty much the same, to get fleeced. I've seen freebie dresses sold for 1000L, freebie cocks for 500L, 1000L clubs on 50K of land offered for sale at 200K. I am not making any of those examples up.

Ultimately, while there are many different levels how the people in the triangle of fire work, and many levels of quality and taste, the prices are actually sensible relative to each other. If you look at Vindi Vindaloo's prices, and Last Call's prices, they work out to being much the same for the relative qualities. The camping farms like "Sexy Land" charge much more for much less. To take my own example. I rent an advertisement at "Ami's Place." I get real business from it, and real clients. Ami Lang is a provider, and her space works. She works hard at making her space work. As an experiment, I rented an advertisement for over twice as much at Sexy Land. I got zero touches for my notecard for the 500L I spent. I get, regularly, about 5K to 10K of business a week from Ami's Place, or regulars I met there. 0L for 500L or 7.5K for 200L. Which makes more sense? Camping farm clubs may charge 200L for an advertisement, but they deliver no business.

This means that ultimately, real providers: whether Twisted Orchid/Bondage Sex Dungeon, Bad Girls, Paris 1900, Arsheba, Phat Cats or the small gay club in Sterling Mall I used to go to relax from work in, are all in the same position. They want to find people with a real devotion to the game. Providers hire other providers: the escorts and dancers who work a club are providers. They want users who are willing to devote real outside world money to playing, or who are successful providers in their own right. As an escort, I am a good customer of good designers.

Very successful content people don't need providers on the surface. Lost and Amby don't need anyone else's mall. But this is a mistake. The provider for much of SL isn't the club. It is land. The land earl who creates a pleasant residential space. People making their home dreams come true. Just as there are good land earls and even some good land barons, much of the business is dominated by people who don't make sims better, but worse. For every Raymond Figtree who is conscientious about how he treats mainland, there are dozens of ad farmers and spam splitters who put a freebie house on a lot, and charge double the price. Why not? It works!

Linden Labs has consistently sided with the scammer triangle, and to a lesser extent with the corporate triangle, and against the user triangle. They have had their reasons. One reason is that the scammer triangle creates pumped up numbers, and the corporate triangle creates headline articles in the business press. These have been, until recently, the two kinds of publicity that Linden Labs has depended upon: "Make money! Lots of people to reach!" The people in this triangle may say We are all in this together but I don't see that from where I live.

However, the third triangle is the real user base, the people from which the money to be made is made, and the people who tell the rest of the world about Second Life. They are also the ambassadors to Second Life, the mentors, the volunteers, the activity. It is users that people go to meet, not botcampers. And these users, while they love VR, and love their role in Second Life, are very angry and disappointed. While fleecing people for $50 or $100 and waiting for the next unshorn sheep is a good business model when people are flooding through the doors, it is less good when the user base has stabilized. The scammer kills the game, because he cashes out the whole value of a real world person, and provides nothing but a story of playdo sex and eerie quiet.

Many important businesses on Second Life are in trouble, or are producing less and less return. LL is sucking up the profits from Second Life into tier, and its recent crash of the land market has made many people who bought land not for speculation but for their work in Second Life down hundreds of dollars before they even started. LL's pursuit of voice was a product both of corporate demand, which wants voice presentations in VR space, and of camping: one fast way for people to find people is voice. The voice design only allows one voice connection per IP, which cuts out multi-camping.

Witness how little an impact voice has made on Second Life to realize how much effort was spent on a feature that the user base, and the future user base, does not really need.

Earlier this year there was an escalating "camping war," as providers, working hard to stay in the top 20 popular places, put in more and more camping. This started a dismal spiral. More camping means a nastier experience, and less room for actual users. Real users stopped coming, camping costs escalated as casinos paid higher and higher camping rates. I knew that it would stop: instead people would provide only enough camping to get to the top of their little world, because you can't compete, in the end, with people who sell 0L goods for 100L, 500L or more. They can pour everything into camping, or allow all the user space to be dominated by newbies pumping on pose balls, because they will make it back on the first noob who doesn't know that those five wedding dresses are everywhere for almost nothing.

LL has started to wake up. One reason was the Casinos were hurting them. A casino may rent a couple of sims, and may dump some money into the economy, but most of the money goes right back out again. Why wouldn't people set these up? They are vending machines in cyberspace. Come around once a week and empty the coins and dollar bills. But LL has allowed other activities, equally illegal, which pour money into LL: namely fake banks and fake stock exchanges. These pay set up costs on sims. A person who rents a sim from LL does not get the option of stopping renting it and keeping the use of the software, even if disconnected from the grid. Imagine the value of having your own sim, even if people had to log in as a new account on an open grid.

LL needs to realize that if Second Life becomes known as the Nigeria of virutal reality, it will never get the consumer base that it craves. Regular people avoid places that they have to fear for their money. While getting the money back from the collapse of Ginko isn't going to happen, the wisest course that LL can take is to look at them as no different than gambling. Sooner or later the people who run these places will cash out and run, leaving behind the wreckage of LL's loyal content, provider and user bases who know have had a year of their lives wiped out.

But the real reason is that the scammer cycle has basically peaked. LL needs to start retaining players, that is people who really want to have fun in world, because they are not getting wave after wave of people who just adopt. They are also facing IBM. IBM, just by announcing that they are working on a platform, has given corporations reason to wait. Why take a chance on very buggy software from an unknown provider, when better software from IBM is coming?

LL's last year of robbing its user base blind, and it has done so by crashing the land market and favoring scammers, has left it with a content, provider and user base that is angry and often depressed. Many people in this base have lost huge amounts of mony in the scambanks. Many of these people have set up clubs or places, in expectation of incoming people, which would overflow the current places, and found, instead, that the current big places are just barely able to hold on to their space. Great builds have risen and fallen in months, because the flow of customers didn't come.

No small part of that is how people like me, who love what we do in Second Life, talk to other people. We warn them that Second Life is like the web before google: great if you love it, but it doesn't really work yet. This "anti-word of mouth" is killing, because while people may hop into Second Life because of a television program or newspaper article, if they are to stay, they need to have friends who will help them sort through the mountains of freebie content, and get to the few dozen that matter. I have 18,000 objects in inventory. Many of these are the freebies that lie around every place. Only a few hundred are worth it.

The other reality is that the scammers are hurting second life in another way. Many of the camper bots are people who actually want to participate in second life. But the camping farms don't give them a good start. On the contrary, camping farms want you to camp, but they then sell you back the freebies for hours of camping rates. I regularly see people who have been in game for months looking like they are fresh off the island, only with the imfamous "One Linden Woodie," you know the one I mean, and a pair of non-flexy unscripted wings. Maybe they have some bought clothes. They could look better just by visiting Yedo or Free Dove in an hour. They don't realize it, but by not using their hair coupons, they have lost about 1400L worth of completely free, high quality content.

They want to be here, but they are trapped in the dismal world of slugly content.

I have finally gotten the idea that will help change things: two new continents.

One would be new mainland, but instead of a Russia-style big bang auction, the land would be for sale by invitation only. Invite all the dozens of best small providers a simple deal: new land on the new continent, in connected parcels at sim corners, in return for releasing the land they have to "Governor Linden." No more than one quarter of every sim would be "commercial." "Buy" would be disabled on the rest of the sim, and it would be offered to large residences, and high value coastal residences by invitation. So you would have a balance of processor chewing commercial and good looking residential.

The second one would be a "user super-continent." Get the large providers, the best clubs and real providers, to move all their islands into a single connected archipeligo. Offer them the move for free, and a discount on tier. Make it worth their while, but also have a bit of a stick. This user super-continent would have every good club, and every good mall on it. The advantage for LL is that these continents would be show places for the best of Second Life, and thus both a publicity draw, and a place where the information needed to really know what content costs and what it is worth, could be in one place. Let current mainland become basically residential. Disallow sales of parcels below a certain size on both continents, so no ad farms.

The deal would be compelling: trade rapidly devaluing mainland in the slugly lands, for land in a new, better, place. In return, LL gets what it really needs, a happy triangle of fire, and a growing city.

LL has tried to outsource this to people like Anshe, and Anshe's continent of Plush is a good example of what Second Life can look like. But it is tiny compared to the volume of SL, and it is very pricey compared to what people will pay. Anshe will still be making money: because an LL that grows will have an even larger market for people willing to pay a super-premium for ready to use aesthetically pleasing builds.

This Russia model has not worked. Not my description, but as soon as what happened in Russia in the 1990's was explained to me, it "clicked" as to what had happened in SL. People selling things, without actually producing anything didn't lead to a better Russia. In fact, the people who I know tell me, Russia is headed back to being a dictatorship based on oil with people living shorter, unhappier lives.

So that is my simple plan: take the cream of Second Life, put them in two places, near each other to be moved around, create a sensible zoning plan, and ban camping while ending "traffic" as the way of sorting anything in "search." By concentrating the good content, and it is possible to find it by having user ratings that really work and by using web links through SURLs, Second Life gets a "best of the metaverse." It needs it to convince people that LL's Second Life is not just one big sprawl of camping farms, scams and orgy rooms.

The triangle of fire needs it, because only if there is a closer contact of real places can real users be grabbed and maintained. There is a reason why every developed nation has zoning and planning, and that is that the incentive to make other people's lives worse for money needs to be taken away, to reward the people who make people's lives better. Even if that is a second life.

Or LL can just keep doing what it is doing, and die under a stream of complaints from users about how Second Life is just too hard to use. LL is relying on users to make content, and even fix bugs in their software. But if the ability to make a living in VR is gone, then there is no flow of content. I asked a techie friend about how open source got so much free software, when SL had proprietary almost everything. He said "D'oh, open source is driven by people who have work to do, they are paid for it, and they release their tool to the public and work with other tools. Until every company has a VR piece, filled with people doing VR as their day job, they will have to charge for their work in Second Life."

Hmmmm. That makes sense to me.

So there it is, it needs shape as a manifesto, or declaration. But it can work, it will not take that much work. For the people who want to run camp and scam places, it isn't much solace. They will have as an audience people who don't want to spend money in game, but want "irc with pictures," and whose idea of foreplay is "hop on the poseball, slut!"

Because right now, LL's time is measured in how long it takes someone to come out with a VR that people can make their own content, or get good free content, and invites them over under some generous set of terms similar to these: "here have a free sim! Just put your SL land for sale to us at 0L, and we will give you better land in a better VR! And look, more stability and better building tools!"


  1. Oh my, delightful reading! Thanks for your article :-)

    I believe that your basic set of assumptions are correct, and it's clear that in some cases Linden Lab is not willing to pursue a route that would benefit the majority of the good content providers and consumers, which might sound strange to whomever is part of that group... which, in fact, is dwindling faster and faster.

    A few thing, however, caught my attention. Why did casinos "hurt" Linden Lab? (I could understand that they did "hurt" SL for several reasons) LL is not "affected" by the fact that people exchange L$ for US$; in fact, they even get a tiny comission out of it. More important, though, is that without casinos, the amount of transactions on the LindeX, who had reached a plateaux (around US$1.5 millions transacted daily), suddenly dropped to a million per day or less, and only after a month is showing some recovery. So, actually, getting rid of the casinos did slow the economy down: in effect, a third of L$ didn't exchange hands, reducing market liquidity and fluidity — although, as said, it's recovering, we just don't know if it'll grow again or "stop" again at US$1.5 millions per day.

    The last part of your article, where you present your solutions, has really caught my attention. For ages human beings have lived in civilized cities, where the "trick" to managing them was through urban planning — zoning areas and give them some order. Civilization is city-building. Cities require planning. In fact, the biggest part of Second Life — 99% of the mainland at least — is unplanned. And the private islands, even if they have "local planning", are not inter-connected, and one wonders the point of having a grid if what we really are is "islands in the grid" (an analogy could be made with the Web, which is not a consistent space under a single, uniform interface, but several hundreds of millions of independent sites, all independently planned and designed). In Second Life, however, this never happened, for basically two inter-related reasons:

    1. Linden Lab wants the residents to self-organise.
    2. The residents have no clue on how to self-organise (and the ones that do, have no way to push for their ideas).

    So the reason we have no zoning in the mainland is because LL wants us to self-enforce zoning, but clearly this doesn't work in an anarchic world, where people, in general, don't see any personal advantage of massively self-zoning themselves, although, on an individual level, they might see the point. In fact, a few are constantly engaged in swapping their land to be in "better" neighbourhoods where some degree of planning has been achieved — the older the mainland sim, the more likely it is pretty much self-zoned, but this is a process that takes years (and after seeing lovely sims like Lanercost suddenly de-zone itself when its major structures there were removed because the owners left for other project, it made my heart cry).

    So your suggestion is simply to enforce zoning. This is naturally the way out.

    The question that remains is who should do that enforcing!

    The "natural candidate" is, of course, Linden Lab, since they're the only ones that can do it technically, and, through their ToS and/or Community Standards, they can also impose those rules.

    However, they're the very first to claim they won't ever do anything of the sort.

    Your suggestion is that people should be moved to a part of the grid "by invitation", and I presume this would be a LL invitation. Even assuming that LL would do that — which they won't — the question remains: who decides what are intangibles like: "large residences" and "high value coastal residences"?

    There are a few possible answers. One is having just one Linden decide it, and that's it. The other is forming a committee who would make a decision — in that case, the "invitation" becomes a bikini contest: the people with more friends will be on the list, and the ones without any contacts at the "committee" will be left out. And the last option is using some metrics measured in-world (traffic, parcel price, etc.). These, of course, will all be easily gamed.

    As you see the same applies to the second group as well, the "user super-continent." Who decides what is a "large providers", what is "the best club", and, truly, what is a "real provider"? In those cases you might not even have the technical option of looking at metrics — the "best club" is naturally something different for each and every one of us, and for some, for instance, a very low-traffic club but with a friendly atmosphere is "better", although they might never make it to the Search pages.

    I believe that the only way things like this were ever solved in real life was through two methods: an authoritarian decision (e.g. one of the Lindens will just do all the job, "because he has the power to do so"), and the second method, of course, is through a representative democracy, that gets a body of residents elected by fair means (and sure, many will be popularity contests), and these in turn will struggle best with the issue.

    Obviously LL will never do the first approach, and an astonishing majority of users would never want the second approach since Second Life is the land of the ones disappointed with democracy.

    So I'm afraid that your ideas are rather good ones, but they're sadly impossible to implement... LL has no will, the residents have no power, and this definitely requires both will and power!

  2. Wow, wonderful thoughts!

    Let me try and answer the who question. In this proposal there are four different kinds of zoning enforcement.

    Current Mainland: nothing beyond current tools, with restricted coming. Not quite anarchy, but close to it beyond a few ToS things.

    New Mainland: Limits on the amount of commercial per sim, no camping, invitation only. Basically, prove yourself on mainland, and get a chance to move up. Zoning is both self-enforced, because there is every reason to want to stay in the better area, and to some extent LL enforced.

    Provider Continent: These are all sim owners. There internal zoning will be the guide. Again, the key being that being in this continent is by invitation. In return for being a showcase, LL showcases.

    Current Premium: for those that want Dreamland or higher tier zoning, there will still be covenant communities, which already have a special place in LL's registration process and special advantages from LL in a number of ways.

    So the answer here is that most of the zoning isn't being enforced by LL, but by a compact between people who see and advantage in building and providing at a higher standard. LL prevents "race to the bottom" conditions, in return the providers push for racing to the top, because they are close to other good providers.

    So the answer is a texture, a tapestry of answers. LL will provide some additional tools, and carrots and sticks. But the main driver will be the means by which people get invited, and that will be driven by users themselves, based on how the system is implemented. Start with currently recognized providers, and use user surveys guided by trusted eyes.

  3. "So I'm afraid that your ideas are rather good ones, but they're sadly impossible to implement... LL has no will, the residents have no power, and this definitely requires both will and power!"

    I think competition will be a spur to both. After all, once there is competition to LL, and it is coming, residents can "vote with their fingers."

  4. I'd have to disagree with much of what you're saying, though I share your concern about the results.

    I find it humorous that you suggest a zoning plan to be run by Lindens, presumably, and you imagine yourself on the committee, I suppose, that will pick "the people with good content".

    Yet when this happens spontaneously in a free market, with Anshe Chung, say, making Plush and making it higher quality and reasonably then higher-priced, you squawk that this is unfair.

    How do you think your vision, which is essentially corporativist (and that tends inevitably toward fascistic system) be implemented without controlling people and the economy?

    Yet the beauty of Second Life is that it is free, it is accessible, and it has a free-market, open economy, more or less -- with LL's control of things like land being a hindrance, not a help.

    You identify the freebie sellers as the culprits; in fact, it's the freebie givers. Creators need to stop putting everything out for free. It clutters inventory, devalues creation, and makes it impossible for newbies entering the system who want to make something simple to sell to others to have any reason to sell to their peers.

    People who give out freebies are fake altruists. They imagine they help newbies by deterring costs, but all they do is deprive them all of incentive to make and sell themselves, and merely offload the cost of marketing and tier to display goods on other people. They need to stop fussing about resale of their objects, which is a normal and natural thing, and put them on "no sale" if they are so disturbed about it.

    The ability to re-sell freebies, however much your moral distaste for it, is what serves as an entry-level job for many people. And when a willing buyer meets a willing seller over a price they are *willing* to pay for getting the object right then, when they see it, you can't stop it. That is the positive thing about a free market, it's ability to supply things readily without long lines and shoddy merchandise as in the Soviet Union.

    The problem in Russia isn't that people distributed and sold; it's that they were able to grab the state's property for free, precisely because the old system banning private property made nobody responsible and everybody could take anything. Once you get rid of people supplying freebies, you will get rid of the phenomenon you don't like of people reselling them, and encourage more entrepreneurial efforts especially in sales of newbies to each other.

    In the same way, you can't merely issue land for $5/m so "people can build their dreams" or it has no value. People don't value what is rolled out endlessly like toilet paper. The land market didn't "crash" -- it returned to what had long been a normal price which inflated merely because the suppliers -- the Lindens -- preferred to sell islands at a higher fixed price with higher tier, rather than put servers they secured out on the mainland auction. Eventually this adjusted itself -- it's not really a "market" when Lindens can roll out land endlessly, constantly devaluing it.

    People go to camp chairs merely because they exist, as entry-level jobs. Campchairs emerged once telehubs were removed because no longer was there any way to get people to stores to view merchandise, or give newcomers a space to become visible in the marketplace. Everyone hated being forced to go to telehubs, as democratic a marketplace as in fact they were, and that led merchants to pay new people, essentially, to come view their vendors or services. This is all natural behaviour, and you will not change, and shouldn't try to change it if you want freedom.

    Camp chairs can only dry up when people stop making items for free distribution in such large quantities, when casinos are finally all gone (there are lots left) and when -- most importantly -- the economy is diverse enough to sustain more entry-level jobs.

    People want jobs. Your closed, country-club plan for a society doesn't give them jobs, it only rewards the top 10 percent content creators and drives the most affluent consumers to them, and leaves everyone else outside behind the gates -- providing an incentive to griefing and scamming.

    Prokofy Neva

  5. BTW, the 'triangles of fire' concept is a popularization of an ancient idea of the Trinity or of triads which one can find in many religious and esoteric traditions. There is the concept of "Holy Affirming" -- the positive force -- "Holy Denying" -- the negative force, which is still essential -- and "Holy Reconciling" -- which reconciles the two.

    What can reconcile the two opposing forces? A good idea for a community, in our context, some kind of movement that finds some innovative way to deal with chronic ills like camping or ad-farming. But it cannot be achieved merely by wiping out the denying force -- the force of more and more people arriving and want a handout either because they are genuinely poor and unskilled or because they simply want a handout.

    Re: "(and after seeing lovely sims like Lanercost suddenly de-zone itself when its major structures there were removed because the owners left for other project, it made my heart cry).

    Gwyn, if you had any influence on these people as part of this project, I wish you had used it. The rest of us on neighbouring sims have had to bear the consequences. Instead of making coherent pieces for sale and putting the land at market-reasonable prices, they first set prices too high, then suddenly dumped, evidently, and chopped up into many pieces which were then seized by ad farmers. That didn't have to happen, if they hadn't gotten too greedy (or clueless?) when they first went to sell it) and had just kept the parcels at reasonable prices and sizes to avoid ad-farming.

  6. *giggles*

    Well chalk up one for "the free market, except when I don't like it!"