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.
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!
I will return to the content of this tweet later in this post, but it reminded me of a conversation I recently had a with one of my friends regarding why I left FB and G+. When I asked him, how he would react if a large part of his network connections was excluded from one of his networks, he acknowledged this, but also pointed to a difference in our connections; “But because you’re working with SL, you have more friends with unusual names and unknown identities – and you’re used to dealing with that – most people aren’t”. I found this very interesting because it points to two common conceptions regarding the pseudonym/nymwars issue.
First of all, my friend had the impression that mainly avatars (or other fictional characters, sic) need/want to use pseudonyms. This is by far the case, but it is sadly a very common misconception, and so I want to point to a webpage that was created in defense of pseudonyms and shows the many different groups of people, who may need/want to use pseudonyms for various reasons: the my name is me webpage.
This page was created to raise awareness about people who need pseudonyms and clearly shows how closely this need is related to the freedom of expression:
“My Name Is Me” is about having the freedom to be yourself online. We want people to be able to identify themselves as they wish, rather than being forced to choose names by social networking websites and other online service providers.
Websites such as Facebook and Google+ ask you to use a name that conforms to a certain standard. Though their policies vary, what they would like you to use is the name that appears on the ID in your wallet, your employer’s records, or on the letters your bank sends you. They don’t understand that many people go by other names, for a wide variety of reasons.
Take a look at some of these heartfelt and personal stories – it really just isn’t us “strange” avatars that need/want pseudonyms – and even so, I believe we all, avatars included, should have the right to choose! Additionally, The Geek Feminism wiki has another list of “Who’s harmed by “Real names” policy”, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) makes A Case for Pseudonyms.
Looking at these stories, nobody in his/her right mind can dismiss the need for pseudonyms some people have to enable them to interact safely online. Or so I thought, but let us return to the content of Botgirl’s above mentioned tweet. Botgirl links to a post on her blog wherein she quotes NPR‘s Andy Carvin, who met Google’s Executive chairman, Eric E. Schmidt at a recent film festival.
Carvin asked Schmidt how he could justify their policy about “real names” given that real identities could put people at risk:
He replied by saying that G+ was build primarily as an identity service, so fundamentally, it depends on people using their real names if they’re going to build future products that leverage that information.
Regarding people who are concerned about their safety, he said G+ is completely optional. No one is forcing you to use it. It’s obvious for people at risk if they use their real names, they shouldn’t use G+. Regarding countries like Iran and Syria, people there have no expectation of privacy anyway due to their government’s own policies, which implies there’s no point of even trying to have a service that allows pseudonyms.
He also said the internet would be better if we knew you were a real person rather than a dog or a fake person. Some people are just evil and we should be able to ID them and rank them downward. (quoted from Carvin‘s G+ (!) page)
I’m trying my very best to ignore the arrogance and stupidity of Schmidt’s comment and to keep a civil tone here, so I’ll let it be for now.
However, let me just finish by pointing to the second part of the statement from my friend where he implies that acceptance of pseudonyms requires (positive) experience. During this period of nymwars, but also during my research in SL, I’ve struggled to understand the fear some people have towards pseudonyms, or as my colleague, Mark Childs calls it: the obsession people have with “real” identities. Based on my own research experience, I think my friend’s stance is quite plausible, people fear the unknown. And identities that do not conform to “real” or “normal” standards do provoke ontological/existential questions. I have no other particular qualified (read: academic referable) explanations at this point, but it is a topic, I will continue to investigate.