Friday, April 16, 2010

The Second Life Tipping Point

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Have you read The Tipping Point:  How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell? If not, I do recommend it if you can tolerate Gladwellianisms, and if so I'd ask that you think about the release of the Second Life® Terms of Service as a tipping point.

Yes, I know it's audacious to predict a tipping point but I think it's safe to assume that we've already toppled over the crest, we just haven't recognized it yet. The world we used to know as  "Your World. Your Imagination." is about to undergo a transition as radical as when Linden Lab announced in a 2003 Press Release:
Linden Lab, creator of online world Second Life , today announced a significant breakthrough in digital property rights for its customers and for users of online worlds. Changes to Second Life's Terms of Service now recognize the ownership of in-world content by the subscribers who make it. The revised TOS allows subscribers to retain full intellectual property protection for the digital content they create, including characters, clothing, scripts, textures, objects and designs. ... "Until now, any content created by users for persistent state worlds, such as EverQuest® or Star Wars Galaxies™, has essentially become the property of the company developing and hosting the world," said Rosedale. "We believe our new policy recognizes the fact that persistent world users are making significant contributions to building these worlds and should be able to both own the content they create and share in the value that is created. The preservation of users' property rights is a necessary step toward the emergence of genuinely real online worlds."
I'm going to leave this as an open-ended post, and share just two points that have helped frame my prediction. I'd appreciate your thoughts and insights.

Please note that I am neither judging nor evaluating these elements as good or bad, they are merely informing my perspective that we are witnessing the "tip". This is also not a "ZOMG the sky is falling" pronouncement; it's just my thoughts out loud and without warranty.

Volunteer's Dilemma and the Policy on Third Party Viewers (TPV)
"Facing Major Major Major Major's rebuke for not wishing to fly any more bombing missions over Italy, Yossarian contends that the bombs he could drop would make little or no difference to his eventual well-being, while the risks involved in dropping them might make an enormous difference to him."  - Russell Hardin commenting on Heller's Catch-22 in his book, Collective Action
I think that there is genuine and shared concern within the development community regarding the potential of theft, violation of social contracts, and security holes that third party viewers may present.

However, the new TPV policy is sufficiently ambiguous to a non-lawyer that there is an overwhelming perception that developers of TPV now assume an unbearable weight of risk.  The intentions of Linden Lab or the policy is immaterial because what has been framed is essentially a Volunteer's Dilemma.  A developer "could" produce a TPV for the "good of everyone", however in doing so there is a non-zero chance that they could face huge personal risk.

The Volunteer's dilemma hinges on an individual's perception of their personal risk; nothing short of removing the risk unequivocally will change that perception. This means that the TPV as conceived cannot meet the intended goal unless someone (in this case several) falls on the grenade - hence, the dilemma.

One might argue that in this case, a policy approach - regardless of intent or language -  cannot succeed.

From Place to Permits
Is this just a special show in a box, or this a real place where people really care about stuff?  - Law Professor Joshua Fairfield speaking to Metanomics April 15, 2010
If you read M Linden's post announcing most of the changes to the Terms of Service, you noticed a large graphic outlining a raft of new "licensing" clauses. 

At first I was confused by the emphasis placed here, but then it struck me between the eyes - Second Life is no longer a "place" with attendant property rights it is a "service" with permits of use, or licenses.  In my "Choices and Viewer 2.0 Assimilation" post I described the changes as "exercising your license of the services afforded to you by the virtual world of Second Life" this was echoed by Joshua Fairfield as he spoke this week to the Metanomics group.  

The discussion with Law Professor Joshua Fairfield is a much watch and I also encourage you to download the text transcript so that you can pour over the wealth of information and insights.

So what's so important about a simple legal change from "property" to "permits"?

Really, it's just one thing: human emotional connection - to our creations, to the content we acquire and to the places that we live.  This bond transgresses the bounds of rational thought.  Technically, we know "it's just a bunch of pixels" but that does not weaken the emotional attachment and investment that Second Life heretofore has provided so many.  Perhaps the licensing change will go unnoticed and we will continue to pursue our passionate connections.

One thing is for certain to me. It's this passionate connection; it's this perceived individual and collective power that fuels the livelihood of the world that was once a place, soon to be a permit, and soon to tip.

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