What’s missing in Second Life?

Most of the features of Second Life enumerated in my previous post appear to be implemented adequately, if not brilliantly. However SL has three fairly glaring deficiencies, which are probably related.

  • Lack of external connections
    This one is simple. SL currently has no way to embed live web content or other connections to internet resources.

    The UI challenges could be finessed by starting with script-controlled web embedding. This alone would be enough to enable all kinds of neat uses. Full interactive web support may or may not be really necessary.

    More generally, SL should provide a general way to embed bi-directional external data connections, again via scripting. This would make possible “widgets” that could do all kinds of useful things.

    This change would bring SL much closer to a general platform for online activities.

  • Lack of reflexive abilities
    This requires bigger changes to the current SL model. Right now no one outside of Linden Labs can build higher level tools for creating and modifying prims. Thus a huge range of potential enhancements to the environment are impossible. For SL to become a true platform this is an essential change.

    The existing script-level data structures aren’t a good fit for higher level manipulation. However clean ways of describing and manipulating 3D content are available in open source implementations with friendly licenses. Similarly the existing scripting language is limited but cleaner, more powerful languages are easily available.

    My guess is that the big issue is that being able to create and modify prims opens the door to huge security and gray goo problems. Note that if this is a fundamental limitation, it implies that an SL type environment can never become a general online platform. In any case, these problems are the focus of my third bullet below.

  • Lack of a robust model of behavioral constraints
    Right now, SL has a variety of behavioral constraints, based on ownership, scripting limitations, administrator controls, etc. These make possible property (in some sense), a degree of privacy, tolerable freedom from griefing in most cases, rather porous defenses against gray goo, etc.

    On the other hand, these behavioral constraints seem ad hoc, require continuing and often urgent interventions by Linden staff, and frequently fail in inconvenient or damaging ways.

    If SL is going to become a general platform, this is one thing it needs that can’t be copied from some existing good example: a unified model of behavioral constraint that enables a socially viable world, and that doesn’t require continual tweaks and/or expensive staff support.

Because the need for a good model of behavioral constraints is so central, and so difficult, it deserves some further elaboration.

To enable a socially viable world, such a model has to support something close to the kind of ownership and control we currently expect of private property, and the level of personal security we normally have in our daily lives. Note that neither of these is perfect or seamless, nor are they free — we not only pay taxes for police and military security, we pay for locksmiths, title insurance, car registrations, etc. On the other hand, we don’t have to continually fiddle with security mechanisms or install security upgrades.

I can think of three further design requirements on any such model:

  • Manageable by users and developers
    Typical computer security models are very easy to screw up. Putting the wrong permissions on some file, forgetting to update some configuration information, etc. can open up a world of hurt. Most users and casual developers won’t accept this level of fragility. So any viable model has to be relatively easy to understand and to manage reliably, at least for the things ordinary users want to do.
  • Enforceable by servers alone
    Clients can and will be hacked. The behavior constrained by the security model has to be mediated by the server. This is in tension with the desire to off-load as much to the client as possible, to reduce latency and make the whole system more scalable.
  • (Almost) fully automated
    Human maintenance and enforcement will always be required, but the amount and level of administrative support must be very low relative to the level of user activity. This is essential if we want to create a platform that can move toward the ubiquity and low cost of the web.

Obviously, creating a new behavioral constraint model that meets all these requirements will be very difficult. I do not think it will be impossible, in fact I think we’ll have one within ten years, maybe less.

However I think it behooves us to recognize that the lack of such a model, and the difficulty of creating one, imposes very severe limitations on the potential of virtual worlds for the time being.

What’s special about Second Life?

Second Life is getting worked over by the folks at Terra Nova, and also the folks at Many2Many, and I’m sure in lots of other places. I’m not a Second Lifer myself (and neither are they, as far as I can tell). Also I’m not interested in most of the issues they’re discussing. But Second Life is clearly an interesting phenomenon, at least for the moment, and so I ask myself: What is SL introducing that is new and will survive, either in SL or through imitation in other virtual worlds? And once we roughly understand that, how easy will it be to duplicate or go beyond the success of Second Life, especially in more open systems?

Based on reading various accounts, and talking to people with a little experience of Second Life, below are my lists of what’s new in SL, what’s integrated in an interesting way, what is typical of MMOs in general, and what emerges in SL more than other MMOs. Quite likely I’ve gotten some of these wrong and missed significant points, so I welcome correction and extension.

  • Unusual or unique in Second Life:
    • Internal economy with micro-payments, plus currency exchange
    • In-game crafting of objects, including 3D modeling and scripting
    • Highly customizable avatars, including movement scripting
    • In-game crafting of avatar customizations, scripts and clothes
    • Client-server support for “dynamic” world model, which requires different mechanisms than the more pre-built worlds of most MMOs
  • Newly integrated in Second Life:
    • Streaming audio for performances
    • Imported graphics, streaming video?
    • Users buy hosting for parts of the environment
  • Similar to other MMO environments:
    • 3D experience with landscape, avatars, buildings, objects, etc.
    • Scripted objects (but letting users script is unusual or unique)
    • Large scale geography
    • Property “ownership”, sales, etc.
    • Chat
    • Social activities and social structures
  • Emergent in Second Life more than other MMOs:
    • Complex user-built landscapes
    • Businesses based on user-built objects
    • Complex economics
    • Complex social organization

Several of the things that are currently unique to Second Life are natural extensions of existing technology, including in-game crafting and scripting, customizable avatars, and the dynamic world model. Crafting and scripting can probably be implemented much better than they are in SL, using existing open source languages and 3D modeling techniques.

Other aspects of Second Life, however, depend on a critical mass of motivated users. The economic model, including micro-payments, and the creation of a diverse environment and economy, depend on a fairly large population, investing considerable effort over a reasonable period. This dependence on scale and long term investment will make these aspects of SL hard to duplicate or surpass, especially through relatively fragmented efforts.

Social value, exchange value, and leaving money on the table

Kevin Burton wrote an interesting post which brought this topic into focus for me. I’ll apologize in advance: my post raises some interesting questions, but doesn’t provide much in the way of answers.

Kevin talks about the amount of money CraigsList is leaving on the table, by not running advertising. As it happens, I’ve had a similar conversation with Jimmy Wales, in which he described the issue similarly to his interview here.

Both Wikipedia and CraigList have the potential to generate *hundreds of millions* of dollars in revenue that they have chosen to forgo.

I would guess there are a lot of other organizations like this — their current income is more than enough to support the services they provide, but they generate far more social value than they capture in revenue, and as a result they could easily generate lot more revenue without significantly impairing their service.

This revenue forgone could amount to multiple billions across all the relevant services.

So why does Economics 101 not operate here; why do these organizations have the power to generate so much more revenue than they need to operate? Note that this is probably not temporary in at least some important cases — both Wikipedia and CraigsList are likely to continue to become more entrenched and generate more social value, so they will leave more money on the table.

Of course the answer is that network effects dominate in both of these cases, and probably many others. The unusual thing about these cases is that they have decided to forgo the revenue, making the huge gap visible. A lot of other companies with some form of major entrenchment maximize their revenue and then burn it up in waste of one sort or another, or pass it on to their shareholders as dividends.

Not only that, but the usual Econ 101 justification for making lots of money — it helps increase investment in that type of business — is a non-starter. CraigsList and Wikipedia don’t need more investment to grow, and investment by others is unlikely and anyway probably wouldn’t increase social value. The economic signal generated is useless, possibly harmful.

In many of the businesses mentioned above, the economic signal is also misleading or harmful. More investment in one of these powerful businesses often won’t generate more social value.

Furthermore, if any social value is clearly lost in this situation, it is the value to *users* of being shown highly relevant advertisements. The clearest loss of social value is the absence of ads itself! In this respect, the monetary signal is perhaps accurate.

So one question that arises from these cases is how big a market failure we are looking at, and what sort of institutional changes would fix it, or at least improve the situation? Based on my own experience, my guess is a really huge failure. But I don’t have institutional proposals at this point.

Further questions are raised by Kevin’s suggestion that Craig take the money and give it to charity (or perhaps social reinvestment). Wales told me that a significant group of Wikipedians wants the same thing. I wouldn’t be hostile to this, but it raises interesting questions. Why should the money not be left to its current owners to spend as they wish, perhaps on charity? In this case, since the money would come from advertising, it would presumably be left with companies, not individuals.

Of course this is an argument we hear for reducing taxes. In this case, it seems like a clearly bad idea; the companies will just end up spending it on less efficient advertising, or dissipating in other ways.

So this raises another question: When should a big organization take our money (or someone else’s), because it can make better use of it than we could?

Now of course we feel that taxes are “taken” while the money these organizations would get is “freely given”. Or as a libertarian might argue “The government has no right to take my money by force”. But even that argument is more complicated. Both the government and Wikipedia get our money because they are entrenched and risky to replace. Replacing our current government (not the people, the institution itself) would be messy and would involve a major risk of very costly chaos. That is why governments mostly get the population to go along with them, even if they are not doing a great job.

Wikipedia would be easier to replace than a government, but as Wikipedia gets more entrenched (as an institution and community, not a pile of content) it will be harder and harder to avoid it or replace it, even if it screws up more often than it needs to, or develops some kind of persistent unnecessary bias. And yet, Wikipedia has clearly not gone out of its way to entrench itself. It gives away its code and its data. All of its operating decisions are open. It has no power over contributors or users, except everyone’s knowledge that if they want to use or contribute to an encyclopedia, Wikipedia is the best place to go.

So perhaps governments to some significant extent are the same. Even though they do attempt to assert a monopoly on force, maybe that is a symptom not a cause of their dominance (at least in the better cases). And maybe if Wikipedia or CraigsList gets sufficiently entrenched it will seem imposed on us. After all, if we signed a contract to advertise through CraigsList, then we’d have to pay, on pain (ultimately) of force. And what if we felt we had no choice but to advertise through CraigsList?

So, a final set of questions: What can these organizations teach us about the morality of power? Do we need to worry that they’ll abuse their power? And conversely, how far could we go toward improving our society by better understanding what makes these organizations unusually benign?

Sorry for the hiatus

I’ve had things to say, but no time to figure out how to say them. I hope to be around more at least for a while.