There is something messy about the relationship between users and corporations. (Petersen, 2008:1)
This spring, together with a colleague, I’ll be running a class on “Audio-visual and digital media as communication tools” for our 6th semester communication students. My perspective will be on the changed conditions for marketing, production, and consumption in relation to new media, and as part of this, I’ll be using a paper by Søren Mørk Petersen entitled “Loser Generated Content: From Participation to Exploitation” (2008). In this paper, Petersen offers a critical perspective on the pros and cons of user generated innovation and content creation, and his main point is summarized in the abstract:
For many years the Internet was considered an apt technology for subversion of capitalism by the Italian post–Marxists. What we have witnessed, however, is that the Internet functions as a double–edged sword; the infrastructure does foster democracy, participation, joy, creativity and sometimes creates zones of piracy. But, at the same time, it has become evident how this same infrastructure also enables companies easily to piggyback on user generated content. (Petersen, 2008:1)
What puzzles Petersen is how at the same time new, so-called participatory media enabling user generated content can cause both very positive and very negative user experiences, and Petersen finds some explanation in combining basic principles behind the technologies in question with the logic of capitalism. The paper is good in explaining how we, the users actually pay when using “free” services, technologies, media – something that always seems to surprise the majority of students.
In preparation for this course, I’ve collected case examples from different types of SNSs, external corporate blogging etc. such as Google and Facebook, who – involuntarily – keep feeding into these kinds of discussions. Sometimes I actually appreciate talking about other media than SL, and I had not planned to include it. However, then on February 7th Linden Lab (LL) posted a call for bloggers. The call spurred quite a controversy in the SL related Twitter- and blogsphere, and I think it’ll make a perfect example of the “messy relationship between users and corporations”. So, let’s first have a look on the call:
Basically, LL invites bloggers to submit original posts with “exposure” as only the only payment. This marketing approach isn’t unusual in the Web 2.0 economy, but it soon resulted in some vey negative tweets among some of the SL users I follow, and if you take a look at the comments, people were not impressed by this initiative. Lack of payment was, however not the only reason why some SL users reacted so strongly. The guidelines for submission (depicted below) also caused concerns, and I also think that the history between LL and its users had an important impact on the (negative) reactions.
LL’s guidelines for submission.
Before returning to my own take on this, let me just mention some of the reactions that quickly came about in parts of the SL blogsphere. Besides these authors’ interesting and very different perspectives on this issue, the comments are equally worth reading. One of the first reactions, I noticed was actually a comment made by Crap Mariner on the call – LL decided to delete! the comment, but prior to this, he managed to photo document it. As you can tell, this was a prickly, but satirical comment as was this one posted by Botgirl Questi, which also was deleted! Evidently, any site owner has the prerogative to moderate and even delete comments, but there are better ways of handling the process, and I’ll return to that. Inara Pey’s post “LL calls on bloggers, bloggers call out LL” fits in the more negative category, as does Chestnut Rau’s “ LL says “Calling all bloggers“, and Hamlet Au’s “SL bloggers wonder about blogging for SL on an unpaid basis“. Prokofy Neva’s “What, the Lindens do an open call for bloggers instead of a closed fic thing and you’re bitching?!” was one of the first posts I read in favor of LL’s approach, and Gwyneth Llewelyn’s “Working for free for Linden Lab’s blog” was also quite positive. Though not wanting to contribute herself, Tateru Nino also applauds the initiative in “A good effort“, and even though I don’t agree completely, I agree that the idea was good, but very, very badly executed. As an academic, I’m not used to being payed (at least not directly) for writing, and I do “love to write about Second Life”, but I will not be contributing, and this mainly has to do with the guidelines and LL’s general approach to its users.
In terms of payment, I’m not so dismayed as other SL users. From a strictly economical point of view, I think the “exposure payment” is defensible, given that for some SL users, this could actually be of great interest. When Hamlet Au contacted LL for a comment on the lack of payment, the answer confirmed that LL thought such an arrangement would be “appealing” to some of its users. However, from a PR point of view, I do think LL (again) is out of touch with some of the more critical SL users and that paying even a small sum would have bought LL a priceless amount of good will.
As an academic, I’m used to “submission guidelines”, but when reading LL’s Community Participation Guidelines, there’s a lack of transparence in terms of by whom and based on what criteria, potential submissions would be assessed. Even though this blog mainly is a manifestation of my personal views, I do try to follow general academic practice, and furthermore I try to maintain my academic integrity. Part of being an academic means providing a critical perspective on given phenomena, and I would seriously doubt that LL would accept posts pointing to some of the more critical issues concerning the use of SL. Since, the LL initiative clearly is a marketing effort, and that LL, in my opinion, suffers from a rather severe “fear of critique”, as they so clearly demonstrated by deleting Crap and Botgirl’s comments, my concern would be that LL would only want “Hollywood pretty painting pictures” – just as their marketing material in general. The great irony being that if LL admitted to certain critical issues, new users of SL probably would be better prepared for the SL experience and maybe wouldn’t leave so quickly due to unmet expectations. LL rightfully reserves the right to review and edit, and that is normal procedure when you pay somebody, however since LL doesn’t, a more sympathetic approach would be to do this in collaboration with the author(s), and an additional benefit would be that LL actually could learn something from this experience by connecting with its users.
Sadly, I’m no longer convinced that LL really wants to connect with its users, and what really sickens me is the way LL has handled this affair. Moderating posts is ok, but deleting posts that have already “aired”, and ignoring criticism only gets the opposite effect of what was wanted. It exposes a company afraid of critique and in desperate need of a PR person, and in general it adds to a very unprofessional image. I’ve been in SL for almost five years now, because despite all its shortcomings, I still consider it to be an amazing platform for all sorts of purposes. Nonetheless, I’m still surprised when LL repeatedly fails to communicate and connect with its users. LL really needs to hire someone to come and clean up this “mess” to avoid further feelings of exploitation – someone who’d genuinely appreciate the beauty and potentials of user generated innovation and content creation!
My major issue with LL’s call was both the aspect of exclusivity and payment, coupled with a feeling that LL had gone about things the wrong way – hence my follow-up on the subject (https://modemworld.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/the-three-cs-community-communications-and-chestnuts/) – albeit with a tongue-in-cheek endpiece..
Exclusivity means a good deal of time one is taking away from one’s one efforts for minimal verifiable return – a single link back to one’s blog isn’t going to necessarily be a massive traffic-generator. Furthermore, LL have themselves a track-record of paying for a writer in the past, hence one cannot help but look upon what was put on offer as being *slightly* cynical in its approach.
On a broader note – and as I’m constantly harping on about – corporate communications from LL in general to the community have been in a state of long-term decline which has hit an all-time low over the last 12 months. Hence my further feeling that if LL genuinely want to restore the flow, generate interest and support specifically through the pages of their blog, then there is far more they could be doing – and far better ways of handling this approach, again, vis the follow-up I wrote.
Like you, I’m saddened by how the situation was handled overall, particularly the removal of replies to the forum post. but again, this is, unfortunately, nothing new. Is it a case that LL no longer wishes to connect with its users at the corporate level – I draw a distinction here, as individuals within the company quite clearly *do* connect, far beyond the needs of their role within the organisation – I can’t honestly say. The overall track record from the company would tend to support the contention that perhaps they don’t.
However – and possibly ironically, given the tone of my original piece on the blogging situation – I actually don’t think this is the case. Rather I think the company is struggling to find the means to re-connect with the user community beyond the likes of the SLCC; where the break down occurs is that they do not entirely know *how* to go about making the initial connection (or series of connections). And I actually see two reasons for this.
The first is that, for a long time, corporate / user community communications have been pushed very much to one side – blogs have languished, users have been told to ignore the company’s website and look elsewhere for news and information, executives themselves use just about every other measure available to them to inform the community (Twitter, Facebook – even SL-related forums run by third parties, etc.), and so on – that direct, on-going and open communication “company-a-user” (if I might use such a phrase) has become something of the elephant in the corner at LL. It certainly needs handling – but how?
On the other hand – and I admit to not having helped in this latest matter by my initial response – when the company *has* reached out, it has invariably found itself being whacked upside the head by the very people it is attempting to reach out to. So we, as users, haven’t always helped matters.
Even so, I can’t help but feel that the initial effort to bridge the gap needs to come from LL – and not through hasty schemes or coffee-break ideas; there needs to be an evolved strategy that involves taking better control of how their message is handled – *they* need to be more engaged in their own blogs. We need to see more dirrect blogging from the “company” on forthcoming issues and changes, not comments dropped into third-party forums – or even buried in threads created in their own forums. Yes, they might get hit with upset and annoynace from some – but equally, they are liable to find a lot of sympathetic, eager ears as well, and people willing to take up the rallying-call through positive blog-posts of their own.
So my question is not so much whether or not LL are wanting to connect with their users, so much as to whether they are willing to put constructive effort into the issue of connecting with their users. I’d venture to suggest that they actually have the manpower to do so – and that they even have a potential ambassador to carry the flag; indeed, until last year he had been the unfailing banner-bearer for the Lab.
His name is Torley Linden.
Hi Inara, thx for stopping by!
I think we can agree on the basic issues here. Though I don’t know much about how LL manages its business, I think you’re right in assuming that “the connection problem” is at the corporate level. Whenever I’ve met Lindens in-world or at SLCC they’ve always seemed genuinely interested in learning more about the user experience.
It’s also very possible that LL is struggling to find the means to re-connect, but the then question is; why don’t they ask us, the users? Instead of sending out a fixed proposal for blogging, LL could have sent out an initial idea and ask for input. To me, working with users on a continuous basis would be a natural part of a strategy for at company living off of user generated content and innovation.
Clearly, the negative reaction surprised LL, and the fact that its only reaction, basically was “no reaction” (besides deleting comments and closing further inputs) tells me they have no strategy – and well, I think the most of this mess could have been avoided (as so many times before) if only LL had taken its users seriously.
And yes, LL probably still have good folks like Torley who would be willing and interested in working on establishing a close relationship with the users – and I do believe that it ultimately could create a win-win situation. Furthermore, there are so many talented and creative users, who still are very passionate about SL, and LL could look among them, if the company needed more people …
The whole corporate/user dynamic has been something of a theme with me over the past year – I won’t bore you with links, suffice it to say my core thinking – which echoes yours on the nature of talent on both sides of equation – are posted on my blog under the “Thoughts on Linden Lab” menu heading.
I agree that there should be more openness from LL towards the user community simply because of the broader pool of talent offered by the latter; although seeking input from the community carries risks of it own (the old adage that if you ask 10 people the same question, you’ll get 10 different answers). However, what mitigates the risk to a degree is that when functioning smoothly, the corporate / user relationship could be seen as akin to a marriage – we are, after all united by a common passion (Second Life); as such, while the two sides may well disagree at times, the basic foundation for understanding, consideration and – potentially – development is there.
The problem is, how to effectively harness it – or return to more of the equilibrium that was once far more apparent.
But again – in fairness to LL, we, the users of SL sometimes are (again) difficult bedfellows. Like the elephant in the corner alluded to above, we have an extraodinarily long collective memory, and past slights – real or perceived – are held waiting for account over very long periods of time. As such, we’re pretty unforgiving when LL *do* take the initiative. I hold my hand up as much as anyone for this; I’ve still not “forgiven” Mitch Kapor for his ill-chosen words at SL5B, wherein he politely suggested that those who had been there for the company from the outset, had seen it through the initial growth / early adoption phase, should effectively step aside and make way for the next generation of users (aka (pretty much) big business) as the earlier adopters were (to paraphrase) both hindering the growth of the platform and ill-equipped to handle the changes being planned to make the platform more appealing to business.
It’s a complex juggling act, and over time, I think the issues have become circular. It would be nice to see Linden Research offer the opportunity for a sit-down discussion (or discussions) with a cross-section of the community. Time-consuming, yes, but potentially very worthwhile in helping them better prepare a more robust strategy when it comes to connecting and communications. Obviously, they are under no obligation to take *every* idea on-board, and we should not roast them over a fire should they opt to cherry-pick to a degree. However, once started, there is no reason, as you rightly point out, that this should be a more continuous process that offers significant benefits including a lowering of the fractious collision between – if I might use the phrase without upsetting people – user idealism and corporate practicality.
I suppose what I am saying is that there is a matter of trust required here – on both sides.
he, yes I like the marriage analogy, and maybe I’m just experiencing the 7th year crisis a couple of years too early :D I don’t usually complain much about SL, but it is becoming more and more frustrating to witness good friends leaving SL, because they don’t find LL takes their problems/existence seriously. In the educational community, we mostly work by means of grants, and I see more and more applications targeted at OS because the ROI in SL no longer is justifiable. Like so many others, I’ve stayed in SL because of my network and the diversity, and I’ve been very reluctant to leave. For my regular PD class in SL, I need diversity and I will probably stay in SL, but for other new research projects, I’m now seriously contemplating other grids. Change is not necessarily a bad thing, but it frustrates me, because moving on would be more based on a decision to opt out, rather than opting in ..
I was unaware of the Mitch Kapor statement, but it seems ignorant and very short-sighted. Re-inventing the wheel has never been good business – unless of course LL wants to re-invent its general business case!? Yes, connecting with the users is costly, and can as you say, result in very different and often conflicting results both between LL and the users, and between the users. However, the benefits of asking would be worth the effort, I think. In my experience, users can accept even “undesired” results, as long as they feel they’ve been heard. And as you point out, LL would still (and always) have the final say. Somehow LL also needs to recognize that there is no single, uniform “community”. Precisely because SL is an open-ended world with no fixed purpose, SL users’ needs and concerns naturally differ, but that’s the conditions – deal with them. The collision between “user idealism and corporate practicality” is by no means unique to LL, SL or Virtual worlds. LL should embrace the fact that we speak up – it shows that we, the users (still) care. I’d like to see a business plan targeting the different issues for the different user groups, and even if LL so decided to focus on one specific use case, I’d respect that – at least, I’d know if staying in SL would be worth the effort.
The recent premium-account survey, shows us that LL is in fact trying to connect, and though I personally don’t care about my “free” home (I did complete the survey though), this tells me that LL is trying and that connecting to the users is possible (also in practical terms of collecting data). With all the other grids/platforms becoming more and more stable (and with much more attractive pricing!), the need to do something has never been more present …
Anyways, Inara thx for connecting and pointing to your blog heading, I’ll enjoy another sunday coffee reading your thoughts on this :-)
nice and insightful analysis – Prok is always a huge fanboy (girl, as the case may be) of initiatives like this
i like that one of the rules is that it can’t be self-promotional yet that is it’s only purpose – it is a shame that they don’t want to foster true voices of passionate people. it’s hard to be real love, which sometimes has barbs, but paints a more realistic and compelling story
i used to only post positively about SL – maybe something like 400-500 posts, along with their 8,000 positive flickr images. there are many out there that still have that view (i don’t hate SL but it is not for me anymore, in any form)
thx, Ener – yes, I completely respect and understand why some people move on – I’m not quite there yet, but now that my data collection for my PhD in Sl is done, I will start more actively exploring other possibilites :-)
BTW, Inara made a nice follw-up post on the issue: