Friday, June 11, 2010

Observations from the Linden Lab Layoffs

This week another chapter in the evolution of Second Life® unfolded as Linden Lab® (creator and operator of the virtual world) announced and executed a significant organizational restructuring resulting in a 30% staff reduction (approximately 100 people). According to a press release, a blog post by CEO Mark Kingdon (aka M Linden) and an email to Residents, the restructuring was designed to strategically align Linden Lab with longer-term goals.

Quoted from Kingdon via the press release, these longer term goals are:
First, the company aims to create a browser-based virtual world experience, eliminating the need to download software. Secondly, Linden Lab will look to extend the Second Life experience into popular social networks. "Ultimately, we want to make Second Life more accessible and relevant to a wider population," he said.
And from the M Linden blog post, the restructuring plan has three main goals:
  • to improve our focus as a company on the projects that matter most to Residents
  • to simplify our organizational structure and operate more efficiently
  • to achieve cost savings so that we can invest in platform improvements, new products, and new lines of business.
Finally, the restructure was described in more detail in M's email to residents:
Our decision to restructure the company was based on our feeling that we were moving too slowly on important strategic initiatives, so we have decided to consolidate software development in the US and combine our product and technology organizations into one. We have also streamlined customer support so that it can scale economically as we add users. These decisions resulted in significant job eliminations and this tends to be what press and bloggers focus on because of the human dimension. It is indeed difficult for us to see our colleagues leaving.
Kingdon is right, the loss of 100 people is significant and ultimately human. That is my first observation.

We are human, above all.

I've lived through several layoffs in my life and while most people in the technology industry understand the nature of the business, the feeling never changes. It's too often the first time we start to think of ourselves as human on the job.  Suddenly, the person you have been working with for years looks different to you - they have a family, they have needs, they are vulnerable - and so are you.

Soon after the announcement was official, as Mark indicates, a lot of focus was on the loss of so many jobs in an economy that is still largely unforgiving. But that focus was largely not so much about how many but who. Who had gone missing?  

Speculative lists started to emerge and be widely shared via pastebin. Memorial sites were built around the grid and blog posts included the names of those that were let go. Never before have I seen such an outpouring of concern for individual employees of a company in the midst of a restructuring, even in the throes of the current economy. Pleas were made to respect people's privacy and protect them from future hiring discrimination, but were overwhelmed by individual needs or wants to humanize the situation.

Linden Lab and the Human Web

Humanization (as opposed to avatarization) is a powerful cross-over essence of Second Life. In other words, while we can respect the intrinsic value (and attendant privacy) of the avatar as an extension of our identity, we do not deny that behind every avatar there is a human. That's the part of the announcement that resonated with the Second Life Residents. The employees of Linden Lab are people, they are our friends, acquaintances; they are just like us.

The connectedness afforded to us in ever increasing amounts by the Human or Social Web is powerful; we know this as individuals.  We find love, we find friends, we find ourselves, we live lives that we may not otherwise live. This humanization is starting to emerge for businesses as well. Slowly, the brick and mortar fronts of "the business" are getting replaced with the faces of people we feel like we know. The wall over which the Public Relations, Marketing and Communications teams tossed their broadcast messages is coming down. Mark Kingdon knows this and maybe his proposal to extend Second Life and make it more accessible via the Social Web may serve to increase humanization, not decrease it.

Maybe what Kingdon means when he says he wants to "extend the Second Life experience into popular social networks" is a recognition that Second Life is the ultimate social network, as has been since the inception despite the design emanating from what Malaby calls the "technoliberal". Maybe this extension will allow us to extend and explore our virtual and real worlds, empathically, as Jeremy Rifkin explains.

Maybe what Kingdon means is that the Lab itself will start to embrace the practices and principles of the Social Web like other businesses are doing. If so, what will that look like? Does "streamlined customer support" mean we will see accounts like @lindenlabcares, or @secondlifehelp?

There are endless possibilities, and it will likely be something vastly different than this.

It's like a SLURL, but it's a VURL - a Viewable URL. That's my #1 wish

There's a bit of speculation about this quote from the press release "the company aims to create a browser-based virtual world experience, eliminating the need to download software." but I am holding fast to my #1 wish that I expressed in an interview last year about Musimmersion.

You can find the entire Musimmersion interview here, but the part I'm referring to is this:
Q: What things do you most wish you could do in SL that are not yet possible?
A: I have a rather long wish list, but you qualified it with "most" so here's a big one and it's one I've never shared. NOTE: This assumes that all of the poorly performing group, communication and event services within SL are working tip top.
I wish you could "see" any public place on the grid, at any time. I don't mean a map view with green dots, I mean actually see (and hear) what was going on (in 3D) at any given moment, like a little sneak peek portal.
This sneak peek is something you can share, and send everywhere, to everyone, at any time so that they could see a place or an event before deciding to go there. And by anywhere, I mean ANYWHERE. You don't have to have the SL client to view it, it's built on something like a streaming video service that allows you to peek into the world, anytime and anywhere (in world and on the web) and then, go right there.
It's like a SLURL, but it's a VURL - a Viewable URL. That's my #1 wish.
I don't know if my VURL is what Mark Kingdon means by a "browser based virtual world experience" but I sure hope it is.  A VURL can help move Second LIfe from behind the curtain to center stage.  Musicians can extend their fan bases from SL onto the web and back.  The possibilites when combined with Shared Media are profound.

I wish the best for the members of the Lab that have to start a new journey. I hope they will take with them the best lessons they learned, pack up the best wishes expressed by so many Residents, and ignore the rest.

Share Some Grace:

blog comments powered by Disqus