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Posted 2006-12-07 by Tony Walsh
 
 
     
 
Linden Lab, maker and operator of virtual world Second Life, is responsible for a software platform some see as the future of the World Wide Web. I find the idea of a 3D Web and the experience of the virtual world significant enough that I've devoted many hours of research and writing to Second Life. And I'm not the only one--this year in particular saw a major upswing in business interest from a number of significant sources, including Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM.

Some very powerful and influential people are following Second Life's story, but Linden Lab can't seem to keep its story straight. In my view, the Second Life platform is at a stage where consistent, accurate information about it needs to be made readily available by its maker and maintainer.

How Many People Live a Second Life?
As I've written about a number of times, Linden Lab has historically played a bit fast and loose with the verbiage describing its world's capabilities and attributes. This has worked to its advantage in generating interest in its platform, which saw a massive surge in adoption this year. Today, Linden Lab publishes more specific data about Second Life's population, but words like "accounts," "residents," "users," and "avatars," are still used interchangeably at times. These words are not necessarily interchangeable, but I've made the mistake myself on occasion. Example: Second Life has 1.8M "total residents" at this time, as reported by the official web site, but it is more accurate to say "total accounts created." It is not uncommon for the media to report something like "Over a million people live a Second Life," giving the impression that the place is crawling with avatars. But it isn't. The total number of avatars crawling around at any time has been oscillating between roughly 10k and 15k lately.

How Many Avatars Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?
Matt Mihaly, CEO of developer Iron Realms, spotted an odd statement from Joe Miller, Linden VP of Platform and Technology Development in a BBC interview. Miller said "World of Warcraft touts a six million or larger active user base - but they shard their world off into smaller servers so you never see 16,000 people in the same place... That's unlike Second Life, where tonight you will see 16,000 people enjoying exactly the same world all able to communicate with each other, all attending the same live music event should they wish to." Doubtless Miller is pulling off some agile verbal gymnastics here, because while Second Life does differ from World of Warcraft with its contiguous (non-"sharded") world, only about 50 avatars can exist in a single region (called a "sim," about 1/4 of a server) at a time without causing technical problems. It is not feasible (and probably not possible) to put 16,000 avatars--over 300 times the reasonable limit--into a single space. The two largest events I've ever heard of were the BBC Radio 1 event, which saw a reported 6,000 avatars over a 3-day period, and the NBC "Virtual Christmas" event, which saw a reported 1,000 avatars at a single event--distributed across 19 simulators, each featuring an instance of the event. In my estimation, either Miller isn't well-informed, or he made a huge mistake and wasn't contacted for fact-checking, or he is spreading misleading information about his company's platform.

How Many Servers Run Second Life?
Earlier this week I wondered if Second Life avatars are energy-suckers, given that Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale said in a video interview that the virtual world runs on "4,000 machines" that consume "an enormous amount of electrical power." The number of servers was repeated in a Financial Times interview. In the aforemention BBC interview, Joe Miller said that Second Life runs on "4,100 computers housed in two server farms." But, in a discussion about avatar power-consumption on Nicholas Carr's blog, Linden CTO Cory Ondrejka said that "One server simulates 4 regions, so when we talk about 4000 regions, those are simulated by 1000 servers...there is a lack of precision in the use of 'simulator', 'region', etc, which often leads to confusion, even among Linden Lab employees... We have around 1500 physical machines."

Whose World Is It, Anyway?
I loathe Second Life's official tagline "Your World. Your Imagination." Although you do retain ownership of any content you create there, the data that comprises that content, the world, and your avatar is owned by Linden Lab. The company can take it all away whenever it wants, for any reason or none at all. This policy isn't congruent with Second Life's tagline, and I think it would be surprising to many users of the platform who can't be bothered to read its Terms of Service.

Is Linden Lab for Sale?
No. Yes. Sort of.

Are you confused? I am, and it seems Linden Lab is too. It's great that individuals from the company make public statements and join informal discussions on blogs, but problems can arise when statements disagree, or are made in error, or are not clear. For those making major decisions related to the Second Life platform and its future potential--or even for folks like me researching and writing about it semi-professionally--it is necessary to have useful information to work with. Furthermore, communicating dubious information--however inadvertently--doesn't help Linden Lab's credibility as a company building what some see as the future-generation Web.
 
     
 
   
 
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  12 Comments  
 
   
 
Comment posted by SLHamlet
December 7, 2006 @ 3:45 pm
     
 
> Doubtless Miller is pulling off some agile verbal
> gymnastics here, because while Second Life does
differ from World of Warcraft with its contiguous (non-"sharded") world, only about 50 avatars can
> exist in a single region

But Miller didn't say "sim", Tony, he said "place", and it's clear in context (comparing SL to WoW architecture) that he is referring to the entire grid. And not only can all in-world Residents interact in numerous ways not possible in WoW, large events are indeed possible, via text repeaters, or audio streaming, for example. How can you presume to translate Lindenese when you're not even characterizing what they say fairly?

I think complaints about the "Your world" tagline are a bit of a fudge, too. If you're a customer of a web/e-mail host, it's also true that the company owns the underlying data and infrastructure that makes your website and or e-mail possible, and can remove your data at any time. But it's still meaningful and accurate to say the website or e-mail is "yours" in numerous legal, moral, creative, and practical ways. This is sort of like saying-- like it's some kind startling or meaningful revelation-- "YouTube says you own your movies, but if you look at the fine print, it says they can remove your movies AT ANY TIME."

- Hamlet Au (no longer a Linden)
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
December 7, 2006 @ 4:31 pm
     
 
Do you think the average BBC reader is going to understand that "attending" an event can be done via a text repeater or audio streaming rather than actually sharing the same sim? I don't. I think Miller is giving readers the idea that 16,000 people can attend the same event at once. If that event is a global grid-crash, then he is correct.

Miller didn't specifiy what he meant by "attending"--you offered your own translation because he didn't provide one. In my opinion, text repeaters and audio streams don't count as "attending" an event any more than watching a live shuttle launch on TV counts as having actually been there. Attendance is about presence (and isn't one of the attractions of Second Life about presence?). If you're not present at an event, how can you be said to have attended it?

I appreciate that you think I'm being unfair. I think Miller's statement is ambiguous, and our respective interpretations disagree.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Tom
December 7, 2006 @ 5:35 pm
     
 
This is sort of like saying-- like it's some kind startling or meaningful revelation-- "YouTube says you own your movies, but if you look at the fine print, it says they can remove your movies AT ANY TIME."

The difference being that if your movie is removed from YouTube, you can still access and view it in other ways. Linden Lab does not provide any way of locally backing up the content you create in Second Life for use elsewhere. Additionally, once you create something that you ostensibly own in Second Life, if Linden Lab revokes your access for whatever reason (or lack of reason), they also remove your ability to access the property they claim you own. Therein lies the dichotomy.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Urizenus
December 7, 2006 @ 11:43 pm
     
 
Hamlet says:

"But Miller didn't say "sim", Tony, he said "place", and it's clear in context (comparing SL to WoW architecture) that he is referring to the entire grid. And not only can all in-world Residents interact in numerous ways not possible in WoW, large events are indeed possible, via text repeaters, or audio streaming, for example. How can you presume to translate Lindenese when you're not even characterizing what they say fairly?"

Participate via text repeaters? By parity of reasoning then I guess I "enjoy the same live event" (Miller's phrase) as everyone attending the World Cup when I read a live text feed of what the announcers are saying even though I can't see or hear the game. Or to be more fair, I am enjoying the same live event as long as I am reading the text via a text repeater somewhere on the SL grid.

I guess Lindenese is a notch or two past Orwellian on the dial.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Mambo Milosz
December 8, 2006 @ 3:12 am
     
 
Hamlet, assuming the original reporting is accurate then, in my view, you are straining the english language beyond breaking point to make Joe Miller's statement add up.

He is quoted as saying 16,000 people in SL can be "all attending the same live music event should they wish to".

Let's use a real world example: Late Night with David Letterman. Let us look at the moment when he has a band playing, and the show is a "live musical event". What does it mean to "attend it"?

I think most people would say that the studio audience were "attending the live event" and the several million television viewers were "watching it" on television. I do not think anyone except you would claim that someone in Kansas, idly looking at their tv, was "attending" the Letterman show :)

I also think that everyone else would say that the 50 people in the sim where the action actually was were "attending" the event, and the other 15,950 who were looking at text repeaters or whatever were "watching it".

Attendance implies the possibility of interaction: that your frenzied booing can put me off my stride. In that sense (ie the sense in which english is normally used) Joe Miller is talking nonsense.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
December 8, 2006 @ 8:52 pm
     
 
Joe Miller is doing some fancy footwork here, to be sure. You can't get more than 50 avatars on a sim; if you have a rare four-corner sim arrangement, that might go up to 160, but there will be huge lag and people falling through floors and wierd stuff happening.

If Joe means that everyone could take the URL of something like a concert by Frogg Marlowe and Jaycatt Nino, well, I suppose in theory, yes, 16,000 people spread over the 4000 servers, each of which had that URL pasted into that sim, could all be hearing the same broadcast (shoutcast).

And that's not like reading a text -- it's really hearing. It's very immediate, like a radio. In fact, it's way more immediate than a radio, because you can IM a request to Frogg and he will say "Oh, I'm going to play Prokofy's song now" or "Hi, Prokofy, long time no see". It's like going to your neighbourhood bar.

Of course, the immediacy is more palpable on that very sim where Frogg's avatar is with the webbed feet and the guitar and people dancing. There's more interaction with the text then. But hearing voice in a virtual world is a very impressive experience. It just so happened that the very first live voice I ever heard speak to me in SL was Frogg's, and it made a powerful impression on me I will never forget. You suddenly feel as if your avatar and the world is more real, even though in fact common sense would dictate that you'd feel that they are *less* real. I still remain a big believer of Richard Bartle's famous "Not Yet You Fools" essay against voice. I don't like voice in virtual worlds. The town halls with Philip definitely don't work. But, in some settings, it does seem effective.

The Reuters interview with Edgar Bronfman was one of them, too.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Urizenus
December 9, 2006 @ 6:37 pm
     
 
Pixeleen Mistral just got a good insight into Lindenese when she caught the Linden's editing one of their blog posts:

"The mojo wire - our state-of-the-art Linden blog monitor - had captured an aborted blog entry before the re-titled version made it to the RSS newsfeed. An updated blog entry eventually replaced the nerfed version - but if anyone wants insight into the Linden psyche - consider the almost obsessive need to be positive here.

The nerfed blog entry was titled “Restoration of Missing inventories moved to another database” - which seems clear enough - residents understandably feel that if their objects do not appear in their inventory they are missing.

However this was replaced by an entry titled “Restoration of Inventories moved to another database”. In other words, “missing” is missing from the title. In a week marked with missing searches features, missing group vote tools, missing group notice tools, should we be really be surprised that the word “missing” was banned from the Linden lexicon?"

her story: http://www.secondlifeherald.com/slh/2006/12/missing_invento.html
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by csven
December 9, 2006 @ 9:26 pm
     
 
C'mon. Is this really anything new? It's one of the first things I noticed about LL. Getting them to provide straight answers has, since my involvment in SL, been almost routinely akin to pulling teeth. I've got entire blog entries that are nothing but quotes of their double-talk. So what's new?
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
December 9, 2006 @ 10:43 pm
     
 
Csven, this isn't a news story and wasn't intended or positioned to be, but it does have some topical elements in it. It was Miller's bizzarro statement to the BBC that spurred my commentary.

As you say, Lindenese has been around for some time. I don't think I indicated otherwise. You've posted about it before. So have I, and so have others. My position is the platform's at a stage now where goofy Lindenspeak is becoming a more serious problem. I collected some examples that were in my thoughts at the time of writing. If you'd like your previous blog entries to get attention, feel free to leave the links.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by csven
December 11, 2006 @ 4:07 pm
     
 
Tony, though I wasn't specific (shame on me for not being at all clear; shame on you for the needless poke at the end of your post), I'm disagreeing with this line:
In my view, the Second Life platform is at a stage where consistent, accurate information about it needs to be made readily available by its maker and maintainer.
In my opinion, that stage has long since passed. The minute real world corporations started moving into SL is, in my opinion, the latest point at which they should have gotten serious about providing clearly understood information. And the posts of mine to which I refer are specifically the ones that addressed real world corporations moving into SL (the Hotline "official guidance" posts I quote having since vanished); or what I would say is one of the earliest points at which they should have gotten things in order.

At *this* stage, malformed information has already taken on a life of its own and is pretty firmly entrenched in most of the marketing articles I read now. So good luck to LL in trying to root that out.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
December 11, 2006 @ 4:54 pm
     
 
Thanks for the clarification -- I was serious about the links, I find it useful to have cross-references, and didn't see any reason why you shouldn't have pimped your blog. No offense intended.

I think you're right in saying that the misinformation is already out in the wild, but on the other hand, a few things seem to be going on continually:
1) Linden Lab is deliberately, accidentally, or through negligence spreading misinformation about SL.
2) The media is either failing to fact-check properly, or is getting bad facts from LL (see #1).
3) A few reporters are actually publishing clear and correct information.
I think some of the previous damage can be repaired through better communication, but as you point out, most of the damage has already been done. Moving ahead there are plenty of opportunities to propagate clear and correct facts, I guess that's part up to LL and part up to the media. I try to do my part by complaining about it incessantly ;P
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by csven
December 11, 2006 @ 6:19 pm
     
 
Fair enough on the links. I did take the comment differently.

As for getting back on track, I'm not sure they can recover. It's feeling like the buzz has hit a wall; I'm not reading nearly as much in the media now. So by virtue of potentially decreasing numbers of stories through which corrections and clarifications could be made, their opportunity to get their message clarified and in sync (assuming they really care) has gotten more difficult it seems.
 
     
 
     
   
 
 
     
 
     
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