Sipping From A Firehose
Filed under: Linden Lab and Second Life, SL Marketplace, The Project to Save Second Life
There is an old and very crude joke that I drag out from time to time. The punchline to the joke is “… the only thing I remember seeing is that poor monkey trying to shove the cork back in.” (If you’d like to know the full joke, just send me an email via the site contact address and I’ll reply with a copy. Just be forewarned it’s definitely NSFW.)
I mention the joke because it is very much in keeping with the situation that Linden Lab could very well face in the short-term future. If LL follows through on their CEO’s comments, if CTL does change their long-standing habit of deafening silence, they can expect to spend a good part of each work day trying to shove the cork back in.
Rodvik Said …
Recent events on the SL Marketplace have been the fuel for a growing bonfire of discontent among the Merchant Community in Second Life. The problems with delivery of products to customers with no corresponding payment to the Merchant combined with the recent fiasco involving double- and triple-charging for PLE’s has resulted in a groundswell of anger that is growing dangerously close to all out revolt against the Marketplace Dev Team and Linden Lab. Not only have various critical functions of the Marketplace continued to malfunction, but newish problems have also resulted in large debits from Merchant’s accounts without any explanation or warning. Then, as if having massive drops in your account balance and the inability to remedy the problem hasn’t been enough to permanently alienate Merchants, Linden Lab has further exacerbated the problem by responding to support tickets with their typical recitation of the ToS .. essentially saying “Sucks to be you, but it’s not our problem.”
Since LL turned off the ability for the massed public viewing of JIRA Issues, the Merchants suffering these problems have turned to posting on the SL Forums with renewed vigor … and anger. Recent posts in the Merchant’s Board have expressed more and more frustration with CTL’s lack of engagement and communication, including several threads that have literally exploded with contributions and angst of unusually high volume. One of those threads, created by ToySoldier Thor, illustrated the level of passion by essentially demanding that LL’s CEO, Rod Humble, meet directly with the Merchant Community and put all the issues on the table for complete discussion. Various contributors suggested that such a head-on approach .. in essence demanding LL take action .. would either push LL further away from engaging or might finally get some measure of action from the Lab. As a result, the thread had several sub-conversations going on within it.
Then something amazing happened .. Rodvik posted in the Thread. It wasn’t a massive post and it didn’t really address any of the myriad issues discussed prior, but it did essentially signal an intended change in CTL’s interaction with Merchants. Here is the full text of Rodvik’s post:
“Hey folks, just dropping a note to let you know I have read the thread. The team reads the boards every day so they asked me to pop in to acknowledge that they read the boards and I have also read this thread. I appreciate the feature requests and bug notifications in particular.
For sure we can up the tempo of communiation in blog posts and notifcations to upcoming changes & fixes. We remain commited to our merchant community and I appreciate you taking the time to write down what you would like to see in the future for SL.”
What Rodvik Really Said
Of course I’m no mind-reader, and I certainly do not have secret access to the internal conversations going on inside the Lab, but as a Merchant and fairly active member of the Forum Community, I can offer my interpretation of what Rodvik said in his post. My interpretation is simply what I “heard” from his words, not what he may have actually meant and certainly not what they really intend to do. But I think what people “hear” from a post is much more important than what the writer was thinking.
The first paragraph is pretty straightforward. It had been stated many times by many people that CTL’s complete ignorance of posts on the Merchant’s board is one of the biggest problems with the ongoing Marketplace malfunctions. Rod’s first paragraph then was simply him reassuring people that they do actually read the various posts .. even if they don’t acknowledge or respond to them. From my perspective, it is nothing more than pure PR and doesn’t really have any weight. Much like a rock star shouting out “I love (fill in the current city name)” at the start of a concert, Rodvik had to say something to this effect. It’s simply something he had to say because of the political requirements and nothing more. The last sentence in particular is a nice “bump” to those posting various suggestions. Again though it really has no weight, it’s simply a political prerequisite.
The Main Course
The second paragraph is where Rodvik really said something of value. In particular he has made a commitment to the Merchant community … kind of. I say “kind of” because he hasn’t actually said they would up the tempo, only that they could. That’s an important distinction to make. If he had said “For sure we will up the tempo…” then it would have been a full-out commitment. However he used the word “can” .. and thus gave himself some wiggle room. Reading that through my lens of skepticism, I have to say I’m rather disappointed that he felt the need to carve out that emergency exit. (And if you are thinking I’m over-analyzing his words, I would hasten to point out that all posts from a corporate CEO are fully analyzed and vetted before the Submit button is clicked.)
The second sentence is more of the same PR fluff. When you stop to think about what he means, the words “remain commited” are rather frightening. The overflowing frustration that led to the various posts on Marketplace problems indicates that the level of service and performance by the Marketplace Dev Team has been well below satisfactory. The concept of “remain” indicates Linden Lab feels their actions have been satisfactory and not in need of change. Needless to say, a large number of Merchants disagree.
All in all, while it is somewhat heartening that Rodvik took the time to post .. not just the once but a couple of others as well .. he has both opened a big can of worms and introduced some thoughts for the future of the Marketplace and LL’s relationship with the Merchant Community. (BTW: I replied to Rodvik’s post on that thread. If you’re interested in reading that reply, you can find it here.)
The can of worms that Rodvik opened has to do with the backlog of pent-up emotions regarding the Marketplace and its various issues. At the core of people’s dissatisfaction is the feeling that no matter what we say or what problems appear, the Marketplace Dev Team completely and purposely disregards our comments. There is a giant laundry list of features that are needed, features that should be removed and features that need serious overhaul. Even though some of the items on that list have roughly even support for and against, the simple fact is that virtually none of them have ever been addressed by CTL. Simple things like sending an email when a Review is posted get the same non-response as more technically difficult features like centralized and standardized accounting and tracking reports. It’s as if the Marketplace that CTL works on is in a different universe than the one we work on and with every day. CTL’s list of tasks, features and enhancements has absolutely zero overlap with those requested since it was first announced. Whenever a new feature is announced, the Merchant Community as a whole sighs, scratches their head and utters a silent “WTF?”
If, as some have come to believe (and I personally fervently hope) from Rodvik’s comment, the CTL begins connecting and cooperating with the Merchants, the initial weeks and months of this new behavior will be absolutely overwhelming. The sheer size of the backlog is enough to make most developers cringe under their desk shaking and twitching from shell shock. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to overhear a comment along the lines of “Screw it! We’ll just delete the Marketplace and start over. It’ll take less time” coming from the cubicles of the Marketplace Dev Team. Certainly that emotion would be completely understandable .. and also just as completely wrong.
It’s been voiced many times by various folks that “even a broken Marketplace is better than no Marketplace at all.” I agree with that sentiment too. But further to the point, the existing list of features and fixes is based on what we have now. The fact that the laundry list is so big is precisely because the Marketplace Dev Team has been operating for so long from a list that has been both invisible to the Merchants and without any consideration of what Merchants really need. In short, they’ve been running full speed in a direction completely tangential to how people actually use the Marketplace that they’ve run themselves right off the edge of the world. To get them back on our world and back in cooperation with the Merchants will require they run just as fast … all the way back … and that’s a long run indeed.
But You Just Don’t Understand
It has been said by various people that the problem is not with the Marketplace Dev Team, but with the Merchants themselves. That because we do not understand what the Dev Team is doing, and in the minds of some, because we actively work against them, that they should instead be allowed to continue working as they have … and we voices of discontent should STFU and just let them get on with their job.
But there’s a problem with that position. A lot of the complaints from us noisy Merchants are based on the fact that we are not allowed to see or understand what the Marketplace Dev Team is doing. Of course some would say that the Dev Team has no responsibility to keep us informed. It’s their job to make the Marketplace work and they have neither the time nor the requirement to explain what they’re doing. Except the purpose of the Marketplace is to enable and maximize sales of virtual goods. Disregarding for a moment the idea that Merchants really are the best ones to understand their business, I’ll focus instead on the simple concept of teamwork.
We Merchants are quite happy to invest many hours of effort and a pretty sizable chunk of money (tokens?) to “get the job done.” But any of our resources that we invest must be invested in a direction and manner that is the most efficient. If we do not know what direction our teammates are going, if we do not understand their goals or intentions then our efforts will be randomly scattered across the entire spectrum of possibilities. If there is anything a Merchant hates, it’s wasting our resources. Thus when faced with the probability that a lot of our investments and efforts will be wasted causes us to not make any investment or take any actions at all. In other words, if we don’t know that a majority of what we contribute will be useful, we won’t contribute at all.
Risks vs. Wastes
It’s important to realize that this is a concept that is decidedly different from taking risks. Risks are those things that all Merchants and business people in general take knowing full well that the outcome is unknown and unknowable. We take risks because our best evaluations tell us it has a fair chance of success, but with the full understanding that it might just be lost if it fails. We take risks knowing beforehand how much it may cost if all goes to crap, but with the hope and reasonable belief that it might succeed as well.
However knowing that what we are doing in every aspect, in every function and at every turn has a high probability of being wasted, that’s a different critter. Risks are things with a specific limited percentage of our entire business function. Risks are things that are adjunct to our main business operation. Risks are things that might add to our overall business success, but won’t (usually) impede or outright destroy our business if they fail. Thus even though Risks have the possibility of failure, we also know that if they do fail, that failure will not also prevent us from carrying on our normal business activities.
So when the Marketplace Dev Team operates 100% as a “Black Op” and shares none of their intentions or goals, they are in essence forcing us to run every aspect of our businesses as Risks. They convert even the most basic of business activities into Risks. Furthermore those Risks are incalculable. Because the Dev Team has plans that they do not and will not share with us, there is always the overwhelming suspicion that we might wake up one day and discover (to our horror) that our entire business model has been completely derailed and prevented. And this is why the Marketplace Dev Team cannot continue to operate completely hidden from the Merchants.
Let’s get back to the topic then of “The First Days” of the new communication habits. Let’s assume that Rodvik actually intends to follow through on the perception that many have taken from his post, and let’s go with the idea that we will actually start seeing members of the Marketplace Dev Team interacting with and listening to the Merchants. What can we expect .. and what can the Dev Team expect?
Certainly those first weeks will be killer. There are so many critical things that need to be done that the tensions will ratchet up to maximum on many occasions. We can also expect that the first meetings will be continually derailed and disrupted by those that just have to make a nuisance and a spectacle of themselves. My suggestion then is that the Marketplace Dev Team come prepared to take decisive and permanent action against such cranksters. In other words, when those first few people show up, insist on shouting over top everyone else, adopt an attitude of disruption and immature behavior .. the LL “Enforcers” simply orbit them and ban them from attending another meeting again.
Such a “Zero Tolerance” policy will be unpopular with some, but frankly .. tough! The whole purpose of those meetings will be to make progress and to remedy the existing communication problems between Merchants and the Marketplace Dev Team. Anyone that refuses to work toward the Common good and instead insists on making the whole thing about themselves .. doesn’t have a place or a purpose at the table. Their exclusion from any further proceedings will not be a loss at all; instead it will be a gain for all involved … and thus I absolutely believe that their privilege of participation should be removed.
I also believe that a portion of those meetings should be spent with the Dev Team laying out and explaining their current list of tasks and efforts, but without engaging in “User Input” or comments from the Peanut Gallery. In other words the time will be spent describing what is currently being done and how it will change and improve the Marketplace. After the Dev Team’s task list is provided and explained, and after the meeting concludes, the Dev Team should go to the Forums and create a separate Blog Post or Forum Thread for each item on their list. That is where the Merchant Community can comment, contribute and discuss the item in full. The meeting time thus will not be spent discussing the task list items during their presentation; that discussion will happen offline in the Forums so that everyone can contribute, not just those that were able to attend the meeting. This provides for a more complete and enriching discussion without excluding anyone.
The other part of those meetings then will be spent with discussion of specific task list items and also user-contributed features. The discussion of task list items is best done just before the feature goes into the live Marketplace. So for example when a feature has been initially developed, tested and given their internal testing, the Dev Team will present it as a feature about to “go live” .. and that is when the attendees can contribute thoughts and suggestions. That is also when we can discuss what impact it will have on daily operations and how best we can prepare for its initial release. If there are any specific impacts it may have, the Dev Team can present those along with tips and pointers as to what to expect and how to handle it.
The other part of this Discussion Time will be spent on user-contributed suggestions and how best they can be implemented in the Marketplace. It will be where the Dev Team can get their specific questions answered and more fully understand what the contributor wants to accomplish. It will be where others can hear more detail of the feature and get their own questions answered … by the original contributor. After this introductory discussion then the Dev Team can take all the input back inside and discuss in their own depth how it might work, where it will fit and what resources it will require. When they’ve fully investigated it and are ready to announce their decision, it will become a bullet point in the Listening Time at the top of a future meeting.
Open-Ended Meeting Times
The one other absolutely critical aspect of these initial meetings will be … they have no time limit. I know a lot of folks will resist this concept totally, insisting that open-ended schedules aren’t really functional and always wind up in a mayhem of “but what ifs”, but especially for the initial meetings while everyone is still working out how the meetings flow and how much time each segment will require, they will not be up against a clock that always cuts things off prematurely.
This flexibility will not become the standard, but will instead only be an introductory feature that will be ended once both sides of the table have come to understand each other and also understand how the meetings work .. to mutual benefit. After all, there has been such a lengthy disconnect between the Marketplace Dev Team and Merchants that neither of us know how the other operates. Thus it will be important that we are all given time to learn each other without the fear that the clock will strike midnight and everyone vanish right at the critical point.
LL Management will need to sign off on this concept and ensure that the Dev Team is given the flexibility in their own schedules to make it happen. Members of the Dev Team will be insulated from needing to attend any of the myriad other meetings that happen at LL, and instead be given a “hall pass” for whatever time they need. Merchants will also need to agree to join the meetings at the start, and not to engage in “Tag Team” attendance where people just keep showing up and dragging the meetings into the wee hours of the night. In other words, once the meetings begin and get rolling, the doors will be “locked” and those not in attendance at the beginning won’t be allowed in. You show up on time or you don’t get to contribute .. period.
Finally, the last point that I must make is that Linden Lab truly commit to this effort. As I stated in my reply to Rodvik’s post, LL needs to demonstrate real commitment to this effort. We have seen in the past how even though best of intentions are there, commitment isn’t. It will take personal and professional regimen to ensure that both parties maintain the process. Especially in the early days when the flood of input is nearly overwhelming and the level of frustration is at its highest, both sides of the table must remain committed to making it happen. Yeah, it will be tough, and at times the temptation to beg off and postpone things because it’s unpleasant will be there. But unless everyone commits to getting through the tough times, none of us will ever find a way to resolve the problems. We’re are all in a tough spot, not just the Marketplace Dev Team and not just the Merchants … we are ALL in dire straits. Thus we will ALL have to overcome those temptations and make a better outcome for ALL.