-- A commentary by Wayfinder
If there is one purpose served by history it is to offer experience, to reveal problems to avoid in the future. We've all read the saying: "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes."
As Inworldz gets larger we know policies will have to change. It was all well and good for Founders to hang around IDI and welcome newcomers when the grid had 50 regions and 1000 members. It will be a totally different situation when the grid has 10,000 regions and 100,000 members. How will policies handle that increased growth and customer demand? We all understand policies are going to have to change. Customers should be ready for that; it's a given.
Perhaps one of the best ways to examine future need is to understand what went wrong with Second Life in the past, and avoid such mistakes. I think most of the SL problems can be dropped into one major category that some time ago I gave the label of "IRON CURTAIN GRID" (a label that has been oft repeated since then). This is a concept of a grid with policies so oppressive to its customers that like Germany of yesteryear, it prevents growth and welfare of its population. (Thank goodness that country came to its senses and tore the iron curtain down. How nice it would be to see similar policy changes in SL!).
If we examine the history of SL we find several consistent attitudes and policy trends. These traits are found not only in Second Life but in other companies as well; Linden Lab is surely not alone in "corporate attitude"... policies that are self-serving and even abusive to customers. Examining such enables us to know what to avoid with all diligence.
Please note this is not intended as a diatribe against Linden Lab or Second Life. This is an examination of the history of virtual reality... which of course exists primarily on the SL platform. It's not Linden Lab or Second Life we're examining here; it is the historical consequences of their decisions that are under scrutiny in this article, in order that such may be avoided by Inworldz and other VR grids.
THE TRAITS OF IRON CURTAIN POLICIES
* "It's our grid and we make the decisions." It is true the grid belongs to the company... but the customers are paying the bills and the creations are ours. So customers really should have some part in the decision-making process. It's not that we're actually going to make the decisions... but our opinions, wants, needs and feedback should figure prominently in the decision process. Why? Because we're paying the bills, and we are creating the environment and society.
This is a joint process wherein the company provides the foundation but we provide everything else. We're doing most of the work by far, for no matter how many employees, coders, devs, techs and managers a company may have, they are far outnumbered by builders, scripters and landowners. Our opinions should count a great deal. That is something Linden Lab failed to understand... which is why they wound up alienating literally millions of people.
* "It's not really your property." Second Life was originally advertised as "your world". Linden Lab eventually came to realize that such claim could land them in legal hot water... and realized that they had no intent of it being "our" world. So they removed that by-line, told us our property really wasn't ours, did everything they could to close off exporting without being sued to the gills and literally denied us open access to our own copyrighted creations. They changed their TOS to try to claim that while our creative designs were indeed our work, the tools and platform were theirs and they had no responsibility whatsoever to protect our work, allow us to back it up, or allow us to take our designs elsewhere.
This resulted in a lot of people leaving Second Life for grids that do allow backup of our own work and that recognize the copyrights to such are ours, not theirs. The platform may belong to the grid, but the world is our creation. This is a joint project, a partnership of sort between the grid company and its customers. To deny the reality of that partnership is to damage the future of that partnership.
* "We say so. What we say is how it is." Second Life has long been ruled in an arbitrary "we-say-so" manner that many have termed "totalitarian" or "dictatorial". Linden Lab's decisions have historically been made in a manner that virtually ignores customer feedback, comments, or even outrage. I'm not going to waste time here discussing all the bad decisions made by LL over the past few years that resulted in people mass-exiting the grid; such matters are widely-known and of historical record. Suffice to say that "we say so" is not a way to create loyal customers or increase popularity. The zero (or even negative) growth of SL since 2008 is testimony to that reality.
* Lack of concern for user creations. Here we can point out not only Second Life but other grids as well. We've all heard the horror stories of regions that were shut down without making permanent backups of the creations thereon (seriously... how much hard drive space does a region require anyway?). We've heard of entire grids shutting down without giving their customers any way to back up their extensive work. We've heard the horror stories of avatars that were banned from a grid (which sometimes is necessary), but more than banned, virtually murdered... their groups wiped, their inventory destroyed, their online currency dropped to zero, their lands wiped out (again without making archival backups)... virtually all trace of the avatar removed from the system. We've heard of users being banned but their creations retained and distributed by the grid owners. These are facts of record that if they occurred in real life, would result in company owners being sued or even jailed. But because it's "virtual reality", the owners claim the property isn't "real" or that the users have no rights.
We can all be assured, the day will come when courts will establish the rights of virtual customers. No grid wants to be on the defending end of that lawsuit.
Permanent destruction of user properties is wrong. This is a reality that must be established and recognized by all grids. Just because it is "virtual" property does not mean it isn't "real". That property has real value and is owned by real people. If grids don't realize that fact, sooner or later the courts will.
Some consider destruction of virtual property to be "virtual vandalism", the removal from existence of properties, creations and lands. These items are owned by a real life person. This happened with 5,000+ sims in the Open Space Sim fiasco, in which Linden Lab not only shut down the sims because users failed to accept extortionist pricing... but actually wiped those sims from their system, refusing to make archival backups. Later when Linden Lab realized the decision they'd made was a bad one and offered to semi-grandfather those sims, they could not restore them because they'd been permanently destroyed, with no archives.
Such policy is a bad idea. User creations should never be permanently destroyed by the company. Even in cases of property dispute (DMCA), land dispute (parcels or sims), avatar banishment, etc... an archival copy of the properties in discussion should be kept. In the case of avatars, the avatar and all relevant information (groups, inventory etc) should be retained in archival form. Why? Because no matter what TOS states there are already-existing state and federal laws regarding the ownership of property, intellectual design and vandalism that can and eventually will be applied to virtual reality... and heaven help the company that's on the receiving end of a major criminal negligence or vandalism lawsuit.
No company should ever knowingly destroy customer property without due warning and due process of law. TOS goes only so far in protecting a company against a civil or criminal lawsuit. Linden Lab has had class-action lawsuits filed against it for breach of existing case law. Other grids do well to heed that historical precedence.
TREAT OTHERS AS YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE TREATED
This is a very old and very true rule-of-thumb. Whenever grids make a policy decision, the very first question they should ask is, "If I were a customer, how would I feel about this?"
If a decision is not good for both the company and customer... find an alternative.
If a decision goes against the best interests of customers, find an alternative.
If a decision is abusive to a customer, find an alternative. This doesn't mean the customer is always right. It means there are ways to handle problems that avoid the appearance of adversarial policy or personal attack.
If a decision does permanent damage, re-think, re-examine and call for a second and third opinion before pushing the red button. Permanent means it can't be undone. This is why making permanent archival copies is so important: they allow a decision to be reversed if such later proves warranted.
CUSTOMERS: CUT THE COMPANY SOME SLACK
Until one has run a large organization or group, it's impossible to understand how much stress is involved in doing so. It's difficult to imagine the sheer number of problems that occur on a daily basis. There is no way a company can retain the same policies throughout its growth. Change is inevitable.
Therefore it is of mutual benefit for customers to realize that as Inworldz grows, there are going to be changes in policy and operation to handle that growth. It also helps to realize things aren't always going to be smooth. There will be mistakes made. There will be problems. Hopefully Inworldz will be able to minimize those... and hopefully we'll cut them enough slack to give them room to bow out of their mistakes gracefully and make reparations.
At the same time we want to be supportive. This means minimal complaints, maximum positive feedback. It's from positive, constructive feedback, suggestions and opinions that the company can determine the best direction in which to move. When something goes wrong, let them know in a kind manner. If we disagree with something, let them know we disagree respectfully-- at the same time letting them know what we'd like to see. We can assist in the Mantis, following bug reports and letting them know our experience and/or suggestions. We can help test and debug, which is of significant assistance.
When they do something right, don't hesitate to give them a public pat on the back in the forums, or send them a kind note letting them know. We don't want to flood them with support tickets, but it doesn't hurt every once in a while to say, "I like this. Well done!"
The overall idea is to help Inworldz grow in a mutually beneficial manner.
By learning from mistakes of the past we form a more solid foundation and a better future for VR. No grid wants to alienate existing customers (or potential customers). By taking steps to ensure that customers are considered part of the company experience and welfare, by listening to customer needs and wants, companies create loyal customers that in turn help the company grow by bringing in their friends. That's better for everyone all the way around.