Aug 26, 2012

Snow Crashing

What is this Metaverse thing anyway? #SecondLife


Over the past few days I was handed the link to a recent post by Fleep concerning the pros and cons of making a Metaverse. I’m not entirely certain that’s a good way to put it, but I suppose it was more along the lines of:


Second Life is great, but a Metaverse it is not nor ever will be.


After reading her post, I have to admit she makes a compelling case. I really don’t see much in that post which I can debate, and while we would like to hold the flag up and plant it squarely on the “Second Life is the Metaverse” side of the fence, it would be much wiser to take a hard look at what we do actually have today before we start holding our breath.




Snow Crash





I’m just as much (if not more) of an advocate for a Metaverse as anyone. However, we have to keep in mind what an actual Metaverse will be once we get one before we start labeling what there is today inappropriately. That’s not to say that Second Life isn’t a compelling service as it is, far be it. I think it’s great – but I never did recall stating it was “The Metaverse” nor even “A Metaverse”. Quite the opposite really.


The Metaverse, for all intents and purposes, is a decentralized collective of virtual environments operating under the premise of interoperability. There isn’t a single owner of the Metaverse, and to wit, there isn’t a single space. There may exist many gateways into the Metaverse, operated by larger companies or groups, but they are all popular hubs into the greater collective. In the context of the famous cyberpunk book Snow Crash, the popular hub was a world called The Street. Keep this in mind as you continue reading, because this is highly relevant.


In the grand scheme of things, there is likely many spaces in that decentralized collective and many of them may in fact have their own currency. Now, when I speak about “many spaces”, I’m not dictating the idea of sims like we see with OpenSim or OSGrid, or even with the commercial aspect that is Second Life. That is just a single mode of operation, and a method of entertaining that notion. What we have today operates more like a loose collective of Burbclaves as described in Snow Crash – a wholly independent and operated corporate nation with its own declaration of sovereignty. In so much as this analogy holds up, each of the Burbclaves also had their own currency (Kongbucks from Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong, for example), and so too do these little Burbclaves we call “virtual worlds” such as the many grids encompassing say… InWorldz, Avination, SpotOn3D, Second Life, and whatever others are out there.


So a Metaverse wouldn’t necessarily consist of a collective of HyperGrid enabled sims, though through interoperability they could be included in the greater premise.


There is an analogy that I consistently use when describing what the present landscape looks like and what the future Metaverse would be like, and I have yet to sway from it. Essentially it goes like this:






Imagine you are back in the year 1990-ish. A short while ago there were (and probably still are) many Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), but today there are some larger players on the block offering a more compelling user environment. These companies are AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy. Now, this is before the World Wide Web really took off, so these companies enjoyed a majority audience and what can be seen as a collective monopoly over the pre-web days. For those in the know, AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy may as well have been using a customized version of WildCat BBS software (which was a GUI BBS system).





You’ve got mail! *shudders*




Over the next few years, more and more people started to be introduced to this whole “World Wide Web” standard for hyperlinking and HTML pages online, and over time people began to see these “Web Browsers” as more useful than the proprietary software and protocols from AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve. Even local news started asking “What is this Internet thing?”


Of course, the early web browsers sucked royally compared to the proprietary services, so nobody really paid much attention to them. But after each release, those web browsers all began to standardize and get their acts together... except Internet Explorer which to this day apparently hates you. Some of them were open source, while the big players were run by major companies – Microsoft (Internet Explorer) and Netscape (Navigator) being the big two. For those old enough to remember, those were the times when the great browser wars happened between Microsoft and Netscape – both looking for dominance in this new Web playing field. Interestingly, Netscape was a company that believed the browser itself was the key to monetization and offered a “premium” version of the software.


In those still early days, the likes of AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve all believed that this “World Wide Web” thing was a fad and they had no reason to enter into that space while it was young. After all, they enjoyed a commanding audience and were making money hand over fist on subscriptions. So much so that AOL briefly bought Time Warner (which in itself is huge).


But something happened during this time that those companies didn’t apparently expect. The World Wide Web actually did take off and gain traction. Each successive iteration of those web browsers got better (except Internet Explorer), and the content on the Web continued to expand. Everyday people could just make their own homepages for just about anything they wanted – and of course we all remember the horror that was Geocities (though at the time you have to admit it was the thing to do).


With open standards, the web (which only a short time ago was scoffed at) was now greatly accumulating content at a pace that AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve couldn’t keep up with. There wasn’t enough people working for them to aggregate those “keywords” and “rooms”. Offering a proprietary web browser with their own walled gardens didn’t help either, because all it seemed to do was highlight the realization that their subscribers were paying through the nose for content that was essentially free or simply available everywhere else. Local ISPs sprung up and began offering a compelling alternative to paying AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy – because honestly, what was the point of paying for AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve if all of the content they offered was already available on the Web?


This was also during the time when using AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve all were billed by the minute. Purchasing a subscription only bought you X amount of minutes per month and after that you were hit with a surcharge. Not only that, but you were also likely dialing in via a long distance number – so you can imagine how much that added up. Hell, this was still during the days when local calling cost you money by the minute. Clearly it was cheaper to pay a flat rate to a local ISP and dial a local number to access the world wide web.




Fast Forward


The year is 2012, though we could go back as far as the mid to late 1990s (ActiveWorlds, Worlds Player, etc). The mentality remains, and this is what has me scratching my head the most. Despite history saying we should act otherwise, and that the walled garden mentality is a fate worse than Internet obscurity, we still see this happening today.


Linden Lab we can say is the modern America Online. There is this nascent Open Simulator thing which hasn’t quite found traction on the wide scale yet, and Second Life as a flagship product of Linden Lab sees no reason to facilitate it early on. It currently commands a majority (for what it’s worth) of subscriptions and feels quite confident that remaining a walled garden is the right path. Just like AOL, Linden Lab portrays the position that subscriptions are the real money maker and not monetizing the content itself or facilitating an open expansion into the Metaverse with itself as the first major hub of entry.


What we have today is, as Fleep points out eloquently, decidedly not the Metaverse nor even the underlying foundation of the Metaverse as of yet. We couldn’t say that Second Life could or will be the Metaverse (even in our best case scenario) any more than anyone would state America Online was going to be the World Wide Web. At least not with a straight face.


It is no more in the best interest of Linden Lab to facilitate the Metaverse any more than it was seen as in the best interest of AOL to jump onto the World Wide Web bandwagon early and dominate it. The concept simply doesn’t jive for some reason.


So what we have are walled gardens, just like in the early days. Second Life, however large, is still a walled garden and has absolutely no intention of facilitating the Metaverse any more than AOL was going to facilitate the Web. Open Simulator, and flavors thereof are the nascent beginnings of what can be the Metaverse – but not as it stands today.



Nobody is getting free pizza, not if

Uncle Enzo has anything to say about it.










“…white middle-class Type A Burbclave occupants who against all logic had decided that this was the place to take their personal Custerian stand against all that was stale and deadening in their lives: they were going to lie, or delude themselves, about the time of their phone call and get themselves a free pizza; no, they deserved a free pizza along with their life, liberty, and pursuit of whatever, it was fucking inalienable.”

— Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash




When Linden Lab closed off those doors to the Open Source side of things, a lot of people were angry about it. I suppose you have a right to be angry, because your free ride is essentially over. You can no longer depend on Second Life to sustain you, and you are now in a position where you need to start evolving as your own entity. This is something I’ve said a couple of times, and quite recently on the podcast where a number of bleeps can be heard.


So I’ll write it out here for those who missed it:


Cut the apron strings already. Second Life isn’t your bread and butter. The entire purpose of Open Simulator was to cut those strings and do something better without constantly having to ask permission from Linden Lab. Now you have the chance, and after a few years of sitting on the fence about it, you are no longer given a choice. You can either rally together and build a true Metaverse, or you can let the open source end of things stall and rot in obscurity.


Of course you can maintain two viewers. One for Second Life and one for Open Simulator. You can play nice with Linden Lab because they’re popular at the moment. You are well within your right to be an unrepentant suck up for all it matters.


Or you can build a decentralized powerhouse, that is as easy to operate and set up into the whole as setting up a website. You can build a collective marketplace and currency exchange (with an interface and operation like SL Marketplace – because they’re using Open Source for their Marketplace). You can make a viewer that blows the SL viewer out of the water, and is as intuitive to use as a modern web browser. You, as a community, can evolve the Hypergrid system to include a virtual DNS lookup so existing web addresses are as good as HyperGrid teleports. You can make connecting to regions as simple as an IP Address connected to that Virtual DNS Lookup.


You, as a community, are perfectly within your ability and right to get out there and build the Metaverse. To truly and unanimously come together and bring your dreams alive.


Don’t wait for SpotOn3D, InWorldz, etc to do it for you. If you’re waiting to see if Linden Lab changes their mind, you’ll pass out from asphyxiation holding your breath long before they decide to do a 180.




Innovation and Pizza are

the answer to Coffee and Power


The true lesson here is not reminiscing about the good ol’ days of Second Life when Philip Rosedale wasn’t building a game, but instead building a country. It’s not about whether he’s ever coming back, or whether or not Rodvik knows what the hell he’s doing (which he does, but not in a context you’ll like).


This is about continuing the dream that was started in Second Life (even years before that), and evolving it into what it was supposed to be. It’s not what Philip or Corey was going to do, but in the end it was about what you were going to do once they gave you the ball to run with.


That’s more likely the reason that Second Life is past tense with Philip. He was building a country, and the board of directors decided they wanted a game instead. That’s why Rodvik is in charge and Philip refers to Second Life as past tense, but if you notice – his current project (Coffee and Power) is one of those platforms which facilitates community projects and getting work done. Take it as a hint… he still believes the community can come together and run with the ball. You don’t answer to a board of directors, and you as a community don’t answer to the management of Facebook.


You answer to yourselves, and you’re the greatest f*king sword fighters in the world.




Hiro - Sword Fighter




I don’t know if you really grasp just how powerful of a notion that really is. You’ve already fulfilled the motto “Your world, Your imagination” in building an entire virtual world and populating it with an endless sea of content. From that sea of content and creativity you’ve propped up and stabilized a virtual world economy. Second Life exists on the whole only because you were there to see it existed. Except to say it’s not your world, only your imagination such far. Right now it’s Linden Lab’s world and your imagination fuels it. Which is a shame.


Maybe it’s time to start making it your world and your imagination together? To be the greatest virtual sword fighters in the world? You are The Deliverator.


Code Ninjas and Pixel Dreamers together in a shared hallucination.


I’m not advocating an exodus from Second Life, no more than Fleep was. What I’m getting at is that Second Life is a walled garden, and as a service it’s excellent. However, if your goal had anything to do with the wider concept of the Metaverse, devote some time to making that happen. Linden Lab was in a position to be the equivalent of The Street, and be the reserve currency of the entire Metaverse – we’re talking a multi-billion dollar empire. Instead they chose to be Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong.


It’s their loss – but only if you are smart enough and motivated enough to make it your gain.


Chill out at The Black Sun in Second Life and enjoy it, and in your spare time build the real Metaverse with your peers. Because as hard as this seems to grasp – walled gardens come and go, and Second Life is no exception. It’s the standards and interoperable digital constructs that stand the test of time.


That’s why the Web killed AOL. Remember that.




1 comment:

  1. Fascinating post Will, and you picked up on a lot of stuff going on. Fleep's article was food for though but I'm not sure even she believed everything she wrote. I think it had something in it for everyone to chew on though and they sure have - me too.

    Anyway, I have always taken the view we - over the fence in the open grids - should cut the apron strings to aunt Linden and get on with building a Metaverse that truly belongs to the people rather than any one single company. I am highly critical of the Lab I admit but then I have given them a fortune and seen them ruin the dreams of many, not least back at the time of the Open Spaces scam so, well, I find it hard to forgive them and I don't see much that I call a big improvement even now. Been plenty of disruption and endless updates like the main grid is in a perpetual beta state which, given the high prices they charge, would be totally unacceptable in most other industries.

    But, whatever, I crossed the divide years ago in protest originally and a lot of others did too and more continue to follow for many of the same reasons we did. I still have sims in SL believe it or not because I built an RPG there for myself and my friends so I had to keep some part of it open while I reduced the number of sims. Cutting loose entirely, as you urge us to do, is not so easy done as said because of the people that we are having to leave behind. They all know about Opensim but they have invested in large inventories and they have friends who wont be coming over so everyone is in the state of reluctance. Mind you my people do come to OSgrid in the course of our extended role play storylines so you see we have feet on both sides of the fence. This makes it hard to break the lies.

    That all said, the Lab wants to cut us loose anyway. Good!

    Now perhaps we will find out which TPV devs back Opensim and who wants to stick with LL. Why any of them would want to carry on bowing to Linden TPV rules when none of them are paid a bean I don't know but that is their choice. It would be great if the whole lot of them got together and said "up yours!" to LL and put their brilliant heads together to build that knockout viewer that will blow the SL one away - you know, the one you mentioned. But they wont and though I know perhaps a few will work on an Opensim viewer I think it will still have that SL flavor to it. I mean, I have been asking for improvements to the grid list function but, to date, only Armin Weatherwax made any attempt at improvement. It still don't have a search feature or a back end database so we are still way off the mark and I see that as the single most important innovation that would support the open Metaverse.

    Funny how it was not long ago I blogged about this and even said lots of people in Second Life who use these third party viewers see the grid list and it must make them curios. Bet you some Linden read that and choked. Now they want to block Opensim which means the grid list function too.

    Anyway, I do share your view that we need to find our own way and get on with the jobs. Thanks for pointing that out in forceful terms. I like the Snow Crash connection too.