The Height of Arrogance
Filed under: Internet Life and Humanity, Linden Lab and Second Life
As I recently reported, I had an encounter with the “Powers That Be” at Linden Lab regarding my access to the SL Forums. For some unknown reason, it was decided that I’d violated some rule of Forum access, and thus my ability to post and contribute was removed. It must not have been a very big violation though as I was only banned for about a week. But since I was never told what I did or even when I did it, that’s just an estimate.
When I discovered what had happened (by virtue of a rather meager reply to my support ticket), I wrote to the two people that I know at Linden Lab … Brooke Linden and Rodvik Linden. Now when I say that I “know” them, I mean that I’ve actually had email conversations with one of them (Brooke .. in the course of helping them get the ANS feature working at the SL Marketplace). As for Rodvik, I’ve written emails to him on several occasions and tweeted to him a few times. I even got a response to one of my tweets. (That was a long time ago though, and had to do with a very serious issue regarding the Forum Moderators “outting” my IP Address and private info.)
Perception is 99% of Reality
Needless to say, neither one of those two took the time to reply to my emails. Even though it wouldn’t have taken much effort to fire off a quick response, no such was sent. Even if the answer were something as simple as “That’s not my department, sorry.” But not a word was sent in reply. So I took the next step and made a post in the Forum Feedback forum directed at the Moderators. Now it’s a well-known rule that you’re not allowed to question the actions of the Moderators. I even understand the reasoning behind that rule. But what I do not understand is why they could take the time to warn me about that post (which one of the Mods did by way of a PM through the forums), but couldn’t be bothered to notify me when I was banned.
But what really chews the cud for me is that even though my requests to Rodvik, Brooke and the Mod were even-handed and reasonable … no one took the time to reply. Not even a simple “You broke a rule and you got banned … get over it.” That leaves me with a very sour taste in my mouth, but more importantly demonstrates one of the greatest failures of Linden Lab. And it’s a failing that I think drives to the core of their continued struggles to gain a foothold and renew their growth.
No One Ever Got Fired For Incompetence
That’s a saying that I was introduced to many years ago when I first ran headlong into the politics that big companies run on. I was young and had this nasty habit of saying what I truly believed, so I hurt someone’s feelings by stating the obvious. My transgression was that the person I’d hurt was more senior than me, and even though he was in another department in another division, I wound up having to deliver an apology face-to-face. (I didn’t mean it when I said it, but as we all know .. that doesn’t really matter.)
The Truism quoted above was given to me by my manager at the time. As a way of educating me to the pitfalls of the political game, he pointed out that even though the person I’d insulted was truly incompetent and should have been fired or transferred out a long time ago, he managed to keep his job because he knew the right butts to kiss. As a result of his well-aimed puckering, my job was at risk because I’d had the temerity to point out his lack of capability.
So the real net lesson that I learned was that it is never really the FACTS that matter in a company, it’s the PERCEPTION and the POLITICS that matter most. Sad to say, but it’s a truth we all learn one way or another. So why is that Linden Lab has such a hard time learning this lesson?
“You Are Inconsequential To Me”
Many times I’ve read comments by people on the SL Forums, (as well as on the other primary SL-oriented Forum site SL Universe) that have at their heart the lament that they feel they are being dismissed by the management at Linden Lab. It’s no news in fact that the prevalent perception by SL Residents is that the Lab considers them an annoyance or at least an inconvenience. This perception is one of the primary reasons that many long-time Customers of Linden Lab refuse to give positive recommendations to their friends and colleagues. I mean, why would they recommend someone use the site or spend money with a business that treats them with such disdain?
The perception is deeply rooted too, and has for quite some time radiated from the very top of the Management Tree. Back in the days of Mark Kingdon, it was plainly obvious that LL Management had a great measure of disdain for their paying customers. Their words of course often said it plainly, but their actions said it loudest of all. Changes in the platform that were voiced by many were ignored, dismissed or marginalized while features that flew in the face of the Customer’s preferences were pushed through with full steam.
Ping Pong … The King Is Gone
After Kingdon was dismissed and Philip Rosedale came back for a short while, he at least tried to make it seem like LL’s Customers were going to get some “Love”. But then he jumped ship in a hurry and left in his stead the current Commander, Rod Humble (AKA Rodvik Linden). When Rodvik took over, he gave the whole concept of “Customer Respect” some lip-service, but very quickly made it obvious that once again the true intent of Linden Lab is to do as they please.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s the purpose of every business to “do as they please”, but that comes with some very specific requirements. One of those requirements is to keep in touch with their customers to determine what it is they want. After all, a company that does things that won’t please their customers is asking to lose money. But even so, that is exactly the attitude and direction that Linden Lab takes all the time.
“We Hear You, So We’re Doing The Opposite”
Don’t laugh, it’s not funny. I can’t begin to count the number of times that Linden Lab has gone out of their way to do something directly opposite or contrary to what the customers have requested. It’s a common sarcastic joke among folks that “You best not say anything to LL or they’ll do the exact opposite.” Lots of time people will argue that we (the Customers) just don’t understand the full complexity or we aren’t qualified to offer an opinion about things. And it is true that being a sideline quarterback is a lot easier than actually being in the game. But some of the decisions made over the past several years that DO exactly contradict Customer Requests are just too glaringly ludicrous to qualify as “too complicated”.
Take for example the change in Customer Account Names known as “Display Names”. For many years people had requested that there be a way to change their account name. Whether it be because they wanted to have a matching last name, or they’d encountered some other situation, the desire to change their name was fairly prevalent. No one ever requested that the last name be done away with. And while many asked for more choices in the last names available, it was never mentioned by any reasonable number of Customers that account names be reduced to a single word.
But that’s what Linden Lab did. They invented a very complex and destructive method of giving people a bit of flexibility in their names. They invented yet another new type of name, called the “Display Name”, and then eliminated the last name. Of course that meant a massive change in many systems within Second Life. It also meant that new accounts would be forever earmarked as “N00bs”. But because the final effect was to leave the REAL name the same and unchangeable, it didn’t even solve the problem that it was stated it would.
Changing The Perception
So rather than bitch and moan forever on all the times that the Lab has disregarded or disrespected their bread-and-butter PAYING Customers, I’ll offer some ideas of ways in which they can change that perception. Hopefully change it for the better and without sacrificing their ability to chart their own path. (Which is apparently more valuable to them than actually running a profitable company.)
First and foremost is the habit held by many Labbers of ignoring communications from the Customers. I will grant you that the number of times someone “talks” to a Linden can be pretty overwhelming, but not THAT overwhelming. But there is a way they can make it SEEM like they’re listening without having to increase their workload any. All they need to do is set up an Auto-Responder for each of their email addresses. Now some have said that it’s dangerous to do because you open your email addresses up to exploitation by spammers. But get real folks, you don’t have to be a psychic to figure out all the email addresses for the Lindens. You just stick their first name on the suffix “@lindenlab.com” and presto! Valid email address. So adding an Auto-Responder would communicate to the people sending them email that their message was received.
The second step would be to issue a company-wide edict that ALL communications from customers must receive a response. Not just some, not just the “interesting” ones … EVERY one. And that edict has to come from the top man (that’s you Rodvik) and it has to be communicated by his actions. Now I hear you inhaling getting ready to say “you have no idea how many people write to Rodvik!” But, I actually do know, and I do understand. And that’s why I figure the first thing he’ll do is install a macro in his mail reader that sends a “Thanks for your comment. I’ll look into it and if need be, contact you on this later.”
Now was that REALLY that hard? Nah, not really. But what it does do is give people the perception that he’s listening and actually cares. Never mind if he does care or not, that’s not the point. The goal is to promote the perception that he cares. Getting a message back would go a long way toward providing that perception.
Drop The Stupid Secrecy
There are lots of things that a company does that are proprietary. New products, some new features, overall direction … those are decisions in a company’s growth that deserve to be kept close to the vest. But there’s also a lot of things that shouldn’t be kept secret at all. Going back to my earlier point, Display Names. The shape of the final product was changed near the end, but only because of an absolutely manic and deafening response from the customer base about how screwed up it was going to be. The problem really is that by the time they announced what they planned, it was so late in their internal development that it was difficult to make serious changes. If they had opened the doors much earlier on, grabbed a number of “willing ears” and laid out their initial plans for the feature, they would have learned much earlier how wrong their plans were. Then they would have had time to adjust their plans to really meet the needs of their customers. Instead, their last minute two-step around the details left everyone with the perception that we were all full of shiiiii … stuff … and LL just couldn’t be bothered making it right.
Another place where the Lab does themselves a horrible handicap is in their Boilerplate Non-Disclosure agreements. If you’ve never had the opportunity to read one, I just happen to have one handy. (XStreet NDA in PDF format) Put down your soda, make sure you’re sitting down … then open and read it. The scary part is, they expect people to sign it. Not only does it restrict the signer to total secrecy, but it demands that without any recompense and with no parity whatsoever. If you do sign it and LL decides you broke it somehow, they can go so far as to close your account, confiscate all your money … and THEN sue the living daylights out of you. All of this in return for you helping them out. Seriously! WTF? I get the concept behind NDA’s, but one that is so seriously unbalanced and potentially destructive to the signer is just ridiculous.
Lose The Ego
Here is where I think Linden Lab’s primary problems originate. There is a perception given off by everything they do and decide that they alone are the only entity in existence that “gets it” when it comes to Internet Sites and Virtual Worlds. Not only is that demonstrably wrong, but as their competition grows and their profits shrink, it is an attitude that needlessly damages them consistently.
The Customers that take the time to research, study, investigate and then make suggestions are by-and-large a very well educated group. I am constantly in awe of the intellect and skills of many people I encounter in Second Life. I’ve spent a very large part of my life working with and for some of the brightest minds in the world. The people I run into put a lot of them to shame. And yet even the most reasonable, logical and clearly beneficial suggestions are dismissed or ignored outright.
The truth of the matter is that nothing of the size of Second Life is ever improved by following the directions of a single person or entity. Every venture, no matter how big or small, benefits from a wide range of ideas and concepts. It’s the duty of the company, in this case Linden Lab, to winnow those down into a set that fits within their goals, makes good sense and meets with a high degree of acceptance among their Customers. But in all honesty, Linden Lab doesn’t seem to take any time to consider 99% of the input they get. They check from “From:” line .. and if it’s not from LL then it’s in the dumper it goes.
Stop Firing People For Being Nice
I had to include this one because it’s recently become painfully obvious that one of the primary reasons for dismissal at Linden Lab is the showing of kindness to a Customer. More than a handful of people have received the dreaded Skype Call soon after helping out a Customer. I have to say this flabbergasted me the first time I heard it, but then I received more and more evidence that it’s also true. Exactly what is the point behind this? I wish I knew. But I can state without doubt that any LL employee caught spending their precious time helping someone out will also soon be hitting the bricks.
As I said early on, this is really just a rant. If you actually made it this far … congrats … and thank you. I’m afraid my expectations are that not a thing will change at Linden Lab. I’m pretty sure that just like all the valuable advice they receive from their Customers, this too will be ignored and dismissed without even a harrumph. But it also has to be said that not everyone in the Lab’s employ needs to read this treatise either. I have had the pleasure of conversing with a small number of Lindens over the years that truly did try to make the platform better and to help it meet the needs of their Customers. For obvious reasons I won’t be naming any names, but suffice to say there are a few stealth employees that manage to do the right things, and do them routinely. Now if they could just infect the Boss …