The Virtual Whirl: A brief history of Second Life (2009)

2009: The bull in the china shop

If I had to sum up Linden Lab in 2009 in a single word, it would be 'thoughtless' or perhaps 'careless'. Compared to 2008, that took some doing.

Revolving doors

After Lab CFO John Zdanowski left the Linden Lab, the Lab began to look with increasing favor on user-to-user transactions as a measure of the Second Life economy through the course of this year – an error which would appear to be responsible for the company over-extending itself and then subsequently having to lay off one-third of its staff in 2010.

Kathleen Craig, the Lab's Communications Manager disappeared in mid-conversation with us over an upcoming press-release. We learned later that she had left the company after less than a year, though the circumstances were unclear. The press-release involved the Lab's acquisition of web-based virtual goods markets, OnRez and Xstreet SL. OnRez (the more appealing of the two) was subsequently terminated.

And then came the news that senior vice-president Robin Harper was departing, apparently as a part of the overall restructuring of the Lab's management, which involved a number of high-profile hirings. Also, while we spoke to an upbeat Linden Lab founder Philip Rosedale in April, it became clear that most of his practical involvement with Linden Lab had been terminated by that stage.

Linden Lab and IBM jointly formed an IETF working-group on virtual environment interoperability standards, but it appears that Linden Lab ceased participating in that group before the year was out.

High-profile content developer, Rezzable, took a hike for their very own virtual pastures, and in 2010 would clean out the last and most famous of their properties from Second Life.

Orange closed their island, Telstra did the same with their estate and Linden Lab planned a marketing office in Amsterdam.

Matters of law and policy

The IRS reported to Congress that no new laws or regulations needed to be added to the US Tax Code, as virtual goods, services and currencies were already taxable under existing US Law.

The Herbert Estate cracked down on Dune role-players, and TASER filed a lawsuit against Linden Lab in April (which they dropped again in May) both for intellectual property violations. Which was essentially much the same reason that two high-profile Second Life customers applied for a class-action lawsuit against Linden Lab.

Linden Lab started taking action against bots, traffic-gaming and camping, but apparent progress on this policy remained so slight and erratic through the remainder of the year and into the next that it isn't clear whether anyone at the Lab is working on this at all.

Ironically, while testing the technology to hide broadly offensive content away from users, Linden Lab managed to offend most of them.

Likewise, the Lab made a mess out of even defining their new content ratings by treating their users as adversaries during the process, rather than as partners. At the end of the day, though, the range of content allowable in Second Life was expanded by the new system, rather than reduced.

Come June, the Lab firmed up its content ratings (which essentially wound up being apparently identical to what they had proposed before inviting community-input), released the last of the 1.x series viewers (barring a few emergency security fixes).

In August, Linden Lab published what we'll very generously call a roadmap (in that it fails to provide the basics for a technology or policy roadmap) for content-management and intellectual property, an extremely divisive document, and apparently now a dead one. A few bits made it in one form or another, but there's no sign that the remaining portions are in the works.

The Lab tightened its grip on the Xstreet rules, and changed the way parcel-traffic was calculated to the way most everyone already thought it was calculated.

Amusement or chagrin was had by many when a new avatar surname worked its way through to production, being prison- and underworld-slang for a child-molester. Linden Lab said that it didn't know how the surnames were chosen or approved(!)

In October, after a very long time promoting a Second Life educational wiki, Linden Lab slapped it with a cease-and-desist, forcing it to close down its domain name, and then promoting the defunct domain name to customers for a couple more months. More than one education community distanced themselves from Second Life and Linden Lab before the end of the year. Laying this sort of smack down on prominent users and supporters was becoming an ugly habit.

The Lab changed Xstreet's fee structure and policies, upsetting many in the process and driving them to competitors. After losing a lot of vendors over this in 2009, the Lab would eventually reverse most of these changes in 2010.

Step UP!

During the year Second Life users staged a major campaign called "Step UP! Against Content Theft", in order to seed awareness about content infringement and for "Linden Lab to see the power of the feeling about the problem of content theft – and to discuss urgently strategies for tackling it."

Some time after the campaign, we spoke to Linden Lab about the effectiveness of it. A Lab spokesperson indicated that the Lab had not taken any action whatsoever in response to the campaign, and did not acknowledge that the Lab had any knowledge or awareness of the "Step UP!" campaign.

Technology

January was the month that the reliable inventory service was supposed to have been rolled out, to help improve user-experience and minimize both inventory loss and the appearance of inventory loss. A year later, and that has not yet eventuated.

Instead, the Lab started the year by explaining that various metrics that had suddenly ceased publication without notice were "misleading." Within several weeks, publication of the figures resumed, and we were told instead that it had been a bug. During that patch, Linden Lab dumped about 800,000 inactive accounts which had been created but never used as a part of a long-delayed cleanup.

The Lab announced a series of initiatives to improve performance, which went into place through the year but so far don't seem to have resulted in improved performance.

In July 2009, the Lab cautioned users to avoid one of its new viewer features. This still hasn't been reported as safe-to-use. The Lab also announced that it felt it had licked the group-chat problems. Again, five months on, there seems to be no improvement apparent to the end-user.

In November, Second Life Enterprise, hinted at back in April, was launched into beta, and we understand that it was not long after that the development team began to be laid off.

In December, the work on script-limiting gained significant momentum, and undelivered "Instant Messages" from throughout 2009 suddenly started appearing, not all of which were delivered to the person to whom they were originally sent.

Media

The Daily Mail trumpeted the involvement of Second Life in a tragic, Italian murder case, but apparently made no such similar loud noises when it turned out that Second Life played no part in the incident, and that they had implicated Second Life in error. Nevertheless, new user registrations did increase briefly as a result of the news. Come March, Reuters closed their Second Life island, but continued to set up a new island for a while.

Yoko Ono unveiled the Imagine Peace tower in Second Life, and SL Relay For Life earned oodles of cash for cancer research again this year. More than ever. We also got our first opportunity to talk to new CEO, Mark Kingdon.

And that, plus about a million other things, was 2009 in and around Second Life.